Monday, January 26, 2009

"Milk," starring Sean Penn: rated C, for Catch-22

Yesterday, Rosie and I decided we wanted to go see Milk at the local Vue cinema right here in Islington (Anne was interested in seeing it also, but she was a good mother and took Lena to the Natural History Museum instead). We looked on-line and saw that it was rated "15," which according to the British Board of Film Classification (the Brit's version of the MPAA), means that it is:
"Suitable only for 15 years and over. No-one younger than 15 may see a ‘15’ film in a cinema. No-one younger than 15 may rent or buy a ‘15’ rated video or DVD."

This is in comparison to the R rating in the States, which means no on under 17 can be admitted without a parent or guardian. Evidently the British Board decides it needs to usurp parental responsibility in deciding which movies teenagers can see (it appears that most R-rated movies in the U.S. are rated 15 here). Rose assured me, however, that all of her friends at school go to 15 movies all the time.

Being the dutiful parent that I am, I went on-line to see what the parental advisories were for the movie. I found out that the main concerns were things like:

  • multiple uses of the F-word and S-word -- nothing that Rosie hasn't heard in Avenue Q, [title of show], Rent, or any other of a number of musicals she's attended
  • sexual situations among men -- as best as I could find out ahead of time, which was confirmed in the film, was largely dark, shaded scenes of men kissing. Well, we (and she, for that matter) have enough gay friends that she's used to seeing men kiss before. Hell, she's seen me kiss a man before. But you know, just in that European kiss-on-both-cheeks kind of way.
  • partial male nudity -- she's seen me getting in and out of the hot tub enough times that this doesn't bother me
  • frequent depiction of alcohol and drugs -- hellooooooo, she watches TV
  • violence, shootings and rioting -- hellooooooo, she watches TV
So given this homework, I decided it was fine for her to see it. So we walk to the cinema, which was very crowded on the Sunday afternoon. I ask for one adult and one student ticket. The clerk doesn't ask Rosie's age, but she does ask to see her student ID. I truthfully say she doesn't have it with her, which means she doesn't qualify for a student price. But if she did have it, she wouldn't have been admitted because it would say she's only 14. So I have to buy two adult tickets (£17.70, after a £1.50 off coupon), and we see the movie.

Which, by the way, was very good. It was interesting listening to the British audience (the cinema was almost full, it had just opened on Friday) reacting or not to many of the American cultural references. But they seemed to enjoy the film also.
One thing I noticed walking around the streets of London is you see very few people in baseball caps in comparison to the states. If you do, about 90% of the time they are New York Yankees caps, and judging from the accents of the wearers, they're not Americans. So going into the Angel Tube station with Anne this morning, we were heading down the extemely long escalator (think something like Dupont Circle in Washington), when she spots a guy coming up the other escalator in a Red Sox hat and wearing a Tufts sweatshirt. Certainly both are an unusual sight, at least based on our experience so far. As he gets up about parallel to us, I say, "Go Jumbos." He looks a bit shocked and at a loss for words, and just replies, "Yeah."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Haute cuisine

Up until the last couple of days, I had somehow managed to avoid traditional British food. We'd been out to a number of restaurants, but none of them served British food, and we had yet to make a foray to a pub. Yesterday, however, I stopped for lunch in one of the cafes of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which is just around the corner from Birkbeck and has a reputation as being one of the better college cafes around. One nice feature about Birkbeck's location is that many of the other constituent campuses of the University of London - including the Institute of Education, School of Oriental and African Studies, University College, and Royal Academy - are right nearby.

One of the featured items on the menu at the RADA cafe was higgidy pie, which I of course had never heard of. My colleague Claire assured me it was a traditional British cuisine, so I ordered it, figuring it was time to jump in and eat like a native. They can best be described as round mounds of meat loaf, about the size of a large scoop of ice cream. They served two of them with mashed potatoes, gravy, and smashed peas. If you like meat loaf, then you would like the higgidy pie; if you're the kind of person who doesn't like lots of things mixed together into a dark brownish mass, without knowing the ingredients, then you should probably pass. I fall into the former category, and quite enjoyed them.

Today at lunch, Anne and I decided that it was time for our first trip to a pub. We opted for the Island Queen, which as Anne earlier posted about, is a mere 100 steps from our house. I approached it with a bit of trepidation, because pub fare doesn't have the best reputation for fine dining. I ordered the bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes over gravy, with sauteed cabbage on the side), and Anne ordered a beef bourguignon pie. This was a beef bourguignon served in a pastry casserole, also served with mash and sauteed cabbage (you see a pattern here?). Both were delicious, and certainly put to rest for us the bad reputation that pub food has. Just another block away is a gastropub, the Duke of Cambridge, which we're also going to try.*

After lunch, we made our daily (or sometimes every other day) food shopping trip. As some of you know, pretzels are one of Anne's favorite snack foods, though we had been warned that they are nearly impossible to find in England. Yet right there in the crisps aisle of Sainsbury's, we found not just pretzels, but Penn State pretzels!

* Contrary to what Anne posted, I don't think the Island Queen really qualifies as a gastropub

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The not-so-tourist syndrome

Going on 16 days that we've been here now, and I've realized that I've moved beyond the tourist phase. The trips on the Tube, at least for regular trips, are become much more routine - I automatically know which direction I'm going on the Northern Line without thinking about it, and know on which side the doors on the train open at stations I'm at regularly. I've also learned not to take the stairs at Russell Square, but to wait for the lift; they're not kidding when they say there are 172 steps. I did take them once, just to see what it was like, and trust me - you don't want to do it twice. I'm automatically looking right when crossing a street (warning: watch out for one way streets), and am no longer always increasing the price of everything by 50% to figure its price in dollars.

We're also getting to know the differences between shopping for food at Sainsbury's, Marks & Sparks, and Tesco Express. And also which restaurants in our neighborhood are the best values, though we're trying not to eat out very often. Even the best values are fairly expensive, so we're dinung in as much as possible, especially for dinner. Fortunately, our kitchen is very well stocked, and even though much smaller than our kitchen at home, very usable.

At dinner tonight while discussing how school was for the girls today, I was struck by the fact that Lena automatically talked about her "maths" class, rather than first calling it "math" and then correcting herself. And I'm not even surprised anymore to see she and Rosie in their uniforms as they commute to school - which, by the way, they now navigate on their own on the Tube without parental supervision.

We took in the inaugural festivities from home yesterday. BBC News had coverage from 2:00p to 10:00p GMT. I also streamed some of the CNN coverage over the Internet, which was an interesting comparison. During the ceremonies at the Capitol, both were showing the same video, so either it was pool or the BBC was broadcasting CNN's video. But of course the commentary was quite different. Much of the BBC commentary, not surprisingly, focused on what Obama would likely do in foreign affairs. They also spent time explaining things that Americans know and take for granted, such as who Dan Quayle is (well, at least most of us know who he is). In the end, I turned off CNN and concentrated on the BBC.

I broke down and purchased an Evening Standard (subtitled, "London's Quality Newspaper") for the first time coming back from work today. Normally I just grab one of the free papers they give out as you walk in the Tube stations in the morning (The Metro) and evening (The London Paper). But the same Evening Standard signboards that a couple of weeks ago were advertising record cold temperatures ("London Freeze as Temps Plummet Below Zero" - that's zero celsius, of course) were advertising a special pull out section for the inauguration. So I plunked down my 50p and bought one. The coverage included the activites here in London, including an "inaugural ball." It was interesting that Brits who didn't know me well enough to know my politics assumed that we were celebrating the inauguration, a sentiment that seems pervasive here. It's hard to find anybody who has a good word for the departing President Bush or a negative word for President Obama.

Today Anne came with me to Russell Square, as she was meeting a new friend there for a stroll and tea. So she decided she should pay a visit to my office, memorializing the visit with a picture of, as we've come to call it, my location in the Bowels of Birkbeck. Notice the safety feature of the fire extinguisher directly behind me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reflections on a life well lived

WARNING: Contains indulgent self-reflection, may not be suitable for children and the infirm.

I'm still waiting for the, "Oh crap, I'm 50 years old!" thing to kick in, but not yet. For so long I thought of 50 as being old, but of course the more I approached this milestone the less it felt that way. As the first among my high school and college friends to reach 50, I thought I'd try to reflect on it a bit. It is natural to be self-reflective at a point like this, isn't it?

One of my goals for some time has been to reach this milestone without ever having been admitted to or treated in a hospital. Yes, it may seem like somewhat of a silly aspiration, given that I could get hit by a truck (or lorry, as we say here) and die on the spot without ever being in a hospital ("straight to the morgue for you, mate"). But as I have aged, and never did have to be treated in a hospital, I liked the idea of achieving this goal. Sort of like when my father used to brag that he had 25 years of perfect attendance at Rotary meetings, meaning that he attended a meeting every week - no matter where he was in the world - for 25 years. It wasn't that he was such a dedicated Rotarian, but it was more a sign that he was able to maintain his health all those years.

And I too have been able to maintain my health for 50 years well enough that I have not needed hospitalization. Except, of course, when I was born 50 years ago yesterday in Mt. Sinai Hospital in Hartford, CT. Since leaving the hospital for our home in Madison, I have not returned. Not to an ER or even to an outpatient facility at a hospital. I will admit to occasionally visiting the lab at a hospital for a blood draw, and to some minor procedures in my doctor's office. But no "ER," "Chicago Hope," or "General Hospital" for me.

I ponder this a lot when I think about what some close friends, who are around my age or even younger, have endured. My best friend, who had an appendectomy in a French hospital while studying in Paris during college (just like in the original Madeline book - "appendicite!"). And then some 20 or so years later donated a kidney to his mother. Or four friends, including one barely more than half my age, who have endured breast cancer and the resulting surgeries and treatment, in the last few years. Or. . . . . .well, you get the idea.

Having achieved this goal, I realize, is a function of both nature and nurture. I have been extremely fortunate to have not suffered any of the odds-beating events that lead one to incur a disease or suffer an injury through no fault of one's own. I must come with pretty good genes also, with a grandmother who, although born in the old country, lived to the ripe old age of 99. And parents who are both well into their 80s and chugging along, albeit one a bit slower getting around than the other.

I do take some steps to try to head off anything that would cause me to have to visit a hospital for my own treatment. I won't pretend to be the best (read: healthiest) eater out there, but I am fairly prudent about things like an annual check-up with my doctor, regular visits to the dentist, and other preventive measures. And most of my leisure activities certainly don't fall into the high-risk category. I've never been sky diving, bungee jumping, mountain climbing, downhill skiing, or swum the English Channel. Though those well versed in probability theory will tell me that I have a much better chance of causing a trip to a hospital (or "a trip to hospital" in Brit speak) by crossing Upper Street near the Angel Tube station during rush hour.

So having obtained some satisfaction from achieving this goal, what does this tell me about my life? Upon reflection, I'd say I've lived a damned good life. I've been fortunate enough to have had supportive family and friends throughout, people who were there for me throughout my endeavors (even though some choices I made were proven to be mistakes, but people supported me nevertheless). I've been able to learn from my mistakes, an ability that I will fully admit has gotten me out of some pretty tight spots in life. I've managed to have a lot of fun, in many different ways, something that Anne and I have managed to have as a priority in our lives. We've created and helped nurture two wonderful daughters, who I am confident will go on to live fulfilling lives of their own. And I'd like to think that, at least every now and then, I've helped some other people along the way, so that I haven't been entirely self-indulgent.

Reaching my 50th birthday? It feels damn good right now. And as is too often said, it sure as hell beats the alternative.


Next time, the work stuff: How has higher education changed during my lifetime?

The College Board Says "Take a Mulligan"

This is a comment I posted to an article on The Huffington Post:

I don't know whether Lorin is an employee of the College Board, ETS, or ACT for that matter. But he/she is a bit disingenuous in stating that, "As for whether it's a good indicator of college success, well, after controlling for school selectivity (restriction of range), the SAT and high school grades do about as good of a job as you could expect." The overwhelming research evidence (conducted by independent researchers) is that SAT scores add very little to the predictive ability of high school grades and the other information available in a holistic admissions review. And the predictive ability is of first-year grades only, not overall college success, as measured by the probability of graduation or later grades.

And Isabel - not even ETS or the College Board would claim that, "The SAT is a test that, theoretically, is meant to test intelligence."
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Low-Down, Dirt-Poor, Hands-to-Heaven College Application Parental Blues

This is a comment I posted to an article on The Huffington Post:

Peter (and others -- parents and prospective students -- like him): Let me give you a little advice from someone who knows about admissions issues from a professional perspective (but does not work in admissions). You said:

"Ironically, I knew (although no one else possibly could) that Daniel would be more at risk at the less competitive colleges than at the most competitive colleges because he would inevitably float in the middle - contributing in many small and significant ways to the well-being of the school, but only challenging himself to achieve in the classroom in ways that made sense to him."

This is a mistaken assumption on your part. You equate a school's "competitiveness" with whether Daniel would be challenged there academically. The truth is that even the brightest student may find himself more challenged at a less competitive school. The trick is to find the best match between Daniel's interests and the school's offerings. Daniel may actually find himself more engaged, and therefore apply himself more, in a school that I'm guessing was outside of your radar screen. The assumption that academic challenge is inversely correlated with a school's admittance rate is a mistaken one.

You may also want to check out The Education Conservancy ( It has lots of materials about helping students find the best college match for them.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

A birthday weekend

Monday is my birthday, and I'll out myself by declaring here proudly that it is my 50th birthday. If we had been at home in State College, we probably would have had some kind of party to celebrate with friends, but obviously here things are a bit different. So we've had and will have a variety of activities this weekend.

On Saturday morning we met Vaneeta D'Andrea, a friend of Roger Brown's and an administrator at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, for a tour of Hampstead Heath. Vaneeta, who lives in Hampstead near the Heath, is an American who's lived in London for 20 years. The Heath is a huge park located on the outskirts of London, with lots of forests, rolling hills, and recreational areas, and is very close to the girls' school. (If you'd like to see some good vistas of the Heath, you should rent the movie "Scenes of a Sexual Nature," which was filmed entirely there). We walked for about an hour, with a stop at a cafe in the middle for a spot of lunch. It was actually sunny out, which was the first time we'd seen the sun in about a week, so it was a wonderful way to spend the morning and early afternoon. We climbed (okay, "walked," but Rosie complained it was like the Bataan Death March -- but note there was a woman in a motorized wheelchair on the path ahead of us) up to Parliament Hill, where Vaneeta took a picture of the four of us with London as the backdrop.

Last night, Anne and I went to the Almeida Theatre, which is just up the street from us, to see a production of the European premeire of Neil LaBute's new play, "In a Dark Dark House." It was an intense play, with many twists and turns, and it was an excellent production. It takes place in the U.S., and two of the three actors were British; it was interesting hearing them put on an American accent. Unfortunately, it was closing night, so we can't recommend it to any of our local colleagues and friends. But if it comes to your area, it's definitely worth seeing -- just be prepared for an intense evening of theater involving themes of physical and sexual abuse. Definitely was not appropriate for the girls.

Tomorrow night Anne and I are going to see "Billy Elliott" in the West End, our first foray there on this trip. Rosie and Lena are going to see it on Broadway with their camp this summer, so it will be just the two of us. And the four of us will go out to dinner tonight to celebrate my birthday.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The overground economy

Just a short post about exchange rates. As any of you who have traveled overseas know, generally the worst place to change money is a currency trading post at an airport, with perhaps the second worst being a currency trading post in a city (this, of course, excludes those countries with government-pegged currency rates, where the government set rate is often the worst). In my experience, you'll often get the best exchange rate taking cash out of an ATM, or via a credit card purchase.

I get a daily exchange rate e-mail from, and this morning's quoted the pound at $1.456. The current rate, as of 11:07AM EST on the Wall Street Journal website, is $1.455. I stopped at an ATM this morning on the way to Birkbeck to take out £100. It gave me two options: It offered me the withdrawal, with the exchange happening at that point, with a quoted price of $153.20. Or I could accept the withdrawal, with the exchange to occur some point further downstream. I opted for the latter, and by the time I arrived at my desk, my bank account back in the States had been debited $146.42. That's almost a 5% difference between the two rates. So the lesson to be learned is to be weary of ATMs that offer to send the transaction through the international EFT system denominated in dollars. You also want to be sure to have a U.S. bank account that does not charge for ATM withdrawals, and in addition, will rebate you any charges imposed by a third party bank. We found that Graystone Bank does this, so we opened up an account there before we left specifically for ATM use.

I've found that the exchange rate on credit card charges is generally within a percentage point of the XE or WSJ quoted rates. But be cautious about transaction fees; many credit cards charge a transaction fee for every charge incurred outside of the U.S. We found that Capital One does not, so we obtained a credit card from them before we left (and their exchange rates have been very competitive).

A British Academic Seminar

. . . . .is not unlike an American academic seminar, except they speak with an accent (at least to this American). Yesterday I attended a seminar on "The Operation of the Market in Higher Education: Opportunities and Constraints, Experience and Ideology," sponsored by the Higher Education Policy Institute, and held at the British Academy, which is an organization similar to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the U.S. The seminar was co-sponsored by Times Higher Education, the British equivalent of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and moderated by the editor of THE.

The seminar was designed as a debate between Roger Brown, former vice chancellor of Southampton Solent University, and Nick Barr, professor of public economics at LSE. Brown (who was a visiting scholar at CSHE last spring) argued for more of a regulated model of financing higher education in the UK, based in part on his experiences studying the US system last year. Barr, who is widely acknowledged as the leading economist of higher education in the UK, argued for more of a free market model, though one still regulated at least in part by the government.

As with many of these debates, the two were not that far apart in their views, though through the discussion you could certainly hear where they had sharp differences. They both articulated similar goals for higher education: expansion of access (the UK participation rate currently hovers around 50%, I believe, in comparison to the US rate of approximately two-thirds); elimination of inequities in participation among social classes; and enhancing quality. Viewers from the US will note that these are very similar goals to those articulated in our country.

The differences between Brown and Barr came down to distinctions in how those goals can be achieved. Barr argued, as I noted earlier, for more of a market approach to student financing, allowing tuition fees at some institutions to rise, with a system of need-based grants (or what they refer to as "bursaries" here) and income-contingent loans available to students in order to overcome credit constraints. Brown felt that the existing levels of fees were already causing problems with participation and equity, and increasing them even further would exacerbate these problems.

There were approximately 50-60 people in the audience, a mix of academics and policy types. I had the pleasure of talking with my first peer, Baroness Margaret Sharp of Guildford, who is the spokesperson for education for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. A very charming woman, she was quite friendly and conversant. There was also a MP, Phil Willis, who is the shadow minister for education for the Liberal Democrats. The audience was quite engaged, with an active Q&A session following the presentations by Brown and Barr. As with any academic seminar, some participants were more interested in making statements than engaging the speakers.

A couple of other notes: Anne and I last night attended the meeting of Trident, which is the parent-teacher organization at The Royal School Hampstead. We left there chuckling, as it was just like any PTO meeting in the U.S. A handful of parents who participate, the same debates about events (they're planning a multi-cultural festival and senior school dance for the girls), and they served tea and cookies. We felt very much at home.

After the meeting, we decided to explore more restaurants in Islington. We were amazed how packed the restaurants were; even though we know Europeans tend to eat later than Americans, it was after 8:00 by the time we started looking and it was a Wednesday night; even so the first few had quite a wait. We ended up at a Cuban tapas restaurant called Cuba Libre on Upper Street, which turned out to be very nice.

N.B. -- Apologies in advance for typos. I'm often working now on my computer at Birkbeck, which has a British keyboard. For the uninitiated, this means that the quotation mark is where the ampersand sign is on American keyboards, and vice-versa. The number sign is also in a different location, in order to accommodate both the pound and dollar symbols.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Underground economy

So far, our experience with the Underground (the subway in London, for the uninitiated) has been generally positive. Very reliable, clean, generally not packed, and incredibly helpful and friendly staff. We had the problem of looking everywhere for a trash can one of the first times we rode, and after coming up empty in two different stations, asking a staffer. He explained that they removed them all after the bombings two years ago. Duh!

Edit 1/14/09, 5:30pm: I take back what I said about the Tube not being packed. After taking the girls to Hampstead this morning, I experienced the inbound Northern Line during rush hour. It was like sardines. End edit

The economics of the Underground are interesting. As I posted earlier, the best bet for getting around is the Oyster card, which works like a debit card which you top up. The Underground fares work on a zoned system, with Central London (including Islington, where we live) in zone 1, moving outward through zone 9. Hampstead station, for example, where the girls go to school is on the boarder of zones 2 and 3, so to take them to school we travel in zones 1 and 2.

The Oyster fare to travel in zones 1 and 2 is £1.60 off-peak and £2.20 during peak times (6:30a - 9:30a and 4:00p - 7:00p). Without an Oyster card, you purchase a paper ticket which costs £4.00 anytime, and is good for zones 1 through 6. So using the Oyster card for our commute to school reduces the fare by almost half during peak periods, and over half off-peak times. Even so, for one of us to take the girls to school and then return costs £4.40, or about $6.60 at current exchange rates.

In addition, the Oyster imposes a daily cap, so that you can take as many trips as you want in the course of a day in zones 1 and 2, and not pay more than £6.70, even with travel during peak times. This is still a hefty amount, but does provide quite a savings. So instead of our two return trips to take the girls to school and then pick them up costing £8.80 (£2.20 X 4), it gets capped at £6.70, or about $10.00. Tomorrow, for example, I will take the girls to school at Hampstead, then get back on the Tube to go to Birkbeck, then take the Tube to a seminar at the British Academy, then take the Tube back home. If I had paid cash fares, the trips would total £16.00, but the daily capping on Oyster will put it at £6.70.

You can also add monthly and yearly passes to your Oyster card. A monthly pass allowing travel in zones 1 and 2 of the Underground costs £99.10, or a little less than half of the daily capping. I'll likely purchase a monthly pass for myself, since the cost ends up being less than two trips daily during peak times.

Buses are cheaper; bus and tram fares are £1.00 on the Oyster and £2.00 cash.

There are substantial discounts for children; Lena as a 10-and-under, rides for free on the Tube. Or at least she will until her birthday in April. Rosie pays £0.55, or one-fourth the adult Oyster card fare, for any trip within zones 1 through 6.

These fares are higher than fares on subways in the cities in which I've lived or travel frequently, including Boston, New York, and Washington, depending upon the nature of your travel. For example, with a CharlieCard in Boston, you can ride the subway anywhere for $1.70/trip, or $59 for a monthly pass.

In New York, the subways cost $2 per ride (with small discounts for multiple purchases on Metro Card), or $81 for a monthly pass. In Washington, which imposes a station-to-station pricing scheme, the fares range from $1.65 to $4.50 during peak times. A 7-day Metro pass costs $39. So transportation here is significantly more expensive -- as are many other things -- than major cities in the U.S.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Finally, some higher education policy (but not just)

This is for all of my smart-ass friends who've been messaging me saying, "So, when are we going to hear about some work?" I did actually go into my office at Birkbeck today for the first time, where I've been endowed with the title of Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Lifelong Learning. Birkbeck is a very interesting uni (as they call them here), with 19,000 students focusing primarily on evening and part-time programs (baccalaureate and post-graduate), but it is also fairly research intensive. It's in a great location, right on Russell Square, near the British Museum and the London Institute of Education. One stop on the Northern Line, then one stop on the Piccadilly Line, from our house (more about "house" later). I've been provided with a small desk, phone, and computer to call my own.

My colleague Claire Callender is Deputy Director of the Birkbeck Institute for Lifelong Learning, and it is her I have to thank for arranging my visit. Claire spent a month with us as a visiting scholar at CSHE in the fall of 2006, and we began some work together at that time. Here are some of the questions that some combination of she, I, and the two of us together are hoping to pursue:
  • How have British policies toward student financing of higher education changed in recent years, specifically with respect to the shift from public (government) financing to funding from students and families?
  • What has motivated the changes in these policies, i.e., what political, economic, and social forces have helped to promote these changes?
  • What has been the impact of these changes on college access in Britain?
  • How do these policy changes compare to recent changes in student financing in the United States, and what lessons that we have learned from the U.S. are likely
    to predict what may happen in Britain in the future?
Notice I said, "pursue," not "answer." These are big, complicated questions, more than I/we can tackle in the time I am here, but I hope to get a good jumpstart on some of these.

One of the fun things about being here is the chance to participate in activities that I normally wouldn't be able to while back home. For example, this Wednesday I'll be attending a seminar sponsored by the Higher Education Policy Institute* on "The Operation of the Market in Higher Education," to be presented by Roger Brown of Liverpool Hope University and Nicholas Barr of LSE. I'll also be attending a series of seminars on higher education sponsored by HEPI and held each month at the House of Commons.

In addition, I'll have the chance to present seminars while I'm here. I have already scheduled one at Birkbeck, and one at the Staffordshire University Institute for Access Studies, and have others in the works.

So now will people believe I'll actually be doing some work while I'm here?

* Not to be confused with the Institute for Higher Education Policy, in Washington.


A few more observations over the last few days:

Poop, no scoop: Everywhere we walk, at least around our neighborhood in Islington, you see signs on the lampposts reminding residents that they are to clean up after their dog, with the threat of a fairly hefty fine (something in the ballpark of £35, if I remember correctly). And evidently, nobody does, based on the volume of evidence left on sidewalks. And when I say sidewalks, I mean right in the middle of them. We constantly have to remind the girls to watch where they're walking. Seeing this evidence has helped provide an alternative explanation to what I thought were just rather unfriendly people who would walk by you on the sidewalk, looking down, not making eye contact and returning the hearty "Good morning" I would often impart. Turns out they're not being rude, they're just making sure they don't get dog crap on their incredibly stylish London footwear. Edited 1/15/09 3:40p: Found out it's actually an £80 fine. end edit

House, not flat: We enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Claire Callender last night. She lives less than a couple of miles from here, which we did not even realize when we rented this house. She had gone and checked it out for us before we committed to it (recall that we booked it over the Internet). She gently explained to us that we are incorrect in referring to it as a "flat," but rather, it should be called a "house" or "home." We stand corrected, and are continuing to enjoy it no matter what its title. She also told us that these houses were likely built during the Victorian era, after the canals were put in.

3-4-4? 4-3-4?: One of the little quirky things here, as best as I can tell, is that there's no uniform method for delineating phone numbers. Unlike the US, where the standard 3-3-4 pattern is used (i.e., 555-555-1212), in the UK different people delineate the 11 digits that make up a phone number in different ways. Some would write it as 020 5555 5555 (never using dashes or parentheses), while others would write 0205 555 5555. I've even seen a truck go by with a number in the pattern of 0205 5555 555. Nothing earth shattering, but interesting. Edit 01/26/09: See the comment to this post by Ade (surprisetruck), which provides an explanation for the numbering scheme. End edit.

Slippery steps: Some of you may remember not-so-fondly (as do I) that a couple of summers ago Anne missed a step while walking down the stairs at home, resulting in a torn ligament and chipped bone in her ankle. For those of you who don't remember, here's a reminder.

Within the first few days we were here, she slipped a couple of times on the steps, which are all carpeted (remember, there are four stories of them). The second time she fell, resulting in thankfully no damage to her ankle, but a nice looking bruise on her back where she landed on a step. So she's had to make an adjustment to the slippers she had been wearing around the house, in order to avoid further damage. She's switched to clogs that have a good rubber sole, so hopefully we will avoid any future disasters.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Obama effect in England

It's bloody cold here, only 28F. So cold that at London Bridge station there was a hand-written whiteboard sign saying that one of the football matches for today had been cancelled. I thought I was lying when I posted yesterday that the forecast was for warmer temps today for our return visit to the Tate Modern. But when I checked, sure enough, was supposed to be 39 here but I bet it didn't even get within 10 degrees of that. We persevered anyway on our return visit to the Tate so the girls could see the Cildo Meireles exhibit.

But before the Tate, we had to stop by Chapel Market in order to do some shopping for Rosie. Chapel Market is a street/flea/produce/meat/fish/tchoske market in Islington, just off Upper Street near the Angel Tube. The kind of place where you can pick up a few apples, some cosmetics, a suitcase, and get a key cut all in one stop. We went because Rosie decided she needed a new bag for school. Evidently, the British fee-school girls don't carry backpacks to school, but instead, they use big roomy purse-type bags to carry their belongings back and forth to school. So Rosie wanted to try to find one so she'd look just like all the other girls (even though she talks funny).

While she was perusing the options, an elderly British guy sat down at a table nearby, with a sandwich from another one of the stands. He heard me talking to Rosie, and started a conversation with me. You'll have to imagine a slightly Cockney accent (on him, not me)

EBG: "Americans, 'uh?"
Me: "Yup."
EBG: "Whatcha doin' 'ere?"
Me: "We're living here for a while."
EBG: "I 'ate Americans, ya know."
Me: "Oh really? Why?"
EBG: "They're all bloody imperialists, that's why."
Me [appreciating just a bit he said "They're" rather than "You're"]: "True, under our last government, it was pretty imperialistic. But don't you think it will get better under the new president?"
EBG: "Nawwww. 'e'll be just as bloody awful."
Me: "You think so? Why?"
EBG: "Because of who's backin' 'im -- they're all bloody imperialists."
Me: "Who's backing him?"
EB: "Those groups!" [said like every idiot knows who he was talking about]
Me [feigning ignorance, which I was]: "Which groups?"
EBG: "There are three of 'em - the Masons, the Mafia, and the Jews!"
Me [somewhat speechless]: "Well, nice chatting with you."

Luckily, Rosie had completed her commercial transaction at this point, so I had an excuse to bid a fond adieu to the gentleman.

After the Tate, we stopped for an early dinner at a Japanese noodle shop, Wagamama, which is a chain here. Or, as we all called it, "Whack-a-Mama," in honor of Anne's favorite carnival game, Whack-a-Mole. Had delicious noodles, which warmed us all up and got us prepared for the rest of the journey home in the cold.

If you're interested, we recorded a brief video greeting at the Tate. Just got rung up by my colleague, Claire, who's invited us all to dinner tomorrow night. Will be our first invite to somebody's house since we've been here, which should be fun.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The city beyond Islington

Anne and I finally had the opportunity to see some part of London besides Islington (where we live), Hampstead (where the girls are going to school), and Golders Green (where we went to procure their uniforms). She hadn't been feeling well the last couple of days, but was better today, so we made a trip to the Tate Modern, Britain's national gallery of contemporary art. It was created in 2000 from an abandoned power station right on the south bank of the Thames, just west of the recreated Globe Theatre.

The building itself is interesting; as a fan of architecture, that was the first thing I noticed. There is a large gallery that spans the entire length of the building, about half its width, and is open from the first floor up to (I believe) the top. If you have visited MassMOCA, in North Adams, MA, this gallery is similar to the large, football field-lengthed gallery there, only wider and taller. The other half of the length of the building contains seven floors of galleries, offices, restaurants, shops, etc.

In this large gallery, which you see when you enter, is an interesting exhibition by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster titled TH.2058. It is an allegorical representation of London in the year 2058, when as the exhbition description puts it, "It rains incessantly in London – not a day, not an hour without rain, a deluge that has now lasted for years and changed the way people travel, their clothes, leisure activities, imagination and desires. They dream about infinitely dry deserts."

As one would expect, the installation is -- how should I put this? -- mammoth. It's hard to get a picture of the whole thing, but this picture gives you some idea of part of the exhibit. And here's a shot I took that gives you a closer view of part of the exhibit. It was one of those interesting experiences where you had no idea what to expect walking in, and yet it was intriguing.

Anne saw a retrospective of Mark Rothko's work, which I passed on. We both saw the other special exhibit, by the contemporary Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles. We knew nothing about him, and both loved the exhibit. It was very interactive, and involved many different media. We thought it was something the kids would love, so we're actually going to take them back there this weekend, as it closes on Sunday.

The day ended with both of us picking up the girls at school. They had quite a nice first three days of school, and seem to be very well settled in. We ended the day with a stop at a little creparie stand in Hampstead on the walk from school back to the Hampstead Tube. They each enjoyed a milk chocolate and banana crepe, which we all agreed was absolutely delicious. We hope to have some time this weekend to do more exploring, and the weather's supposed to warm up some also.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I'll take Potpourri for £200, Alex

Some random observations that have been rattling around in my empty head the last few days:

The credit card conundrum: There are lots of things you can "top-up" here in the UK. Your Oyster card, for example. The Oyster card is the transit pass and uses RIF, similar to a credit card that you swipe in front of a gas pump or cash register to pay. You press your pass against the receiver on the turnstile when you enter and exit the Tube or get on a bus.

Another example is your mobile phone. If you don't have a bank account in Britain (which you can't obtain on a visitor's visa), then your only option to get a mobile phone is apparently a pay-as-you-go plan, or as Vodafone calls it, "Pay as you talk" (PAYT). Evidently, there are some exceptions to the rule, but you need dispensation from the Queen or Prince Charles for the override (at least I think this is what the Vodafone salesperson told me). But PAYT works just fine for what we need.

All these top-up systems work well, and you can maintain your accounts on-line. But there's one hitch. For all these systems, you need to set up your on-line account using a British postal address. But your credit card, which you can use for automatic top-up when you balance gets low, has to be entered with the billing address. You got it: if the postal address you enter does not match the credit card billing address, no go. So you can't use auto top-up, which means you have to watch your balance and manually top it up (not on-line) when it gets low. Not a major issue, but a minor inconvenience, and one in this day and age you would think could be overcome.

Address numbers: Unlike most of the U.S., the address numbers on streets, at least in our neighborhood, are not necessarily divided between odd and even sides of the street. Trying to find a Ryman stationer by its address number with the girls this afternoon, I think we crossed Upper Street five times.

Been a long, been a long, been a long day: Our girls are going to have a lot of adjustments to make to their new schedule (as will their parents). The school day is longer, and as mentioned earlier they have a 30-45 walking-and-Tube commute each way; the time depends upon how the trains are running and whether we stop for a snack on the way home. Throw in some errands on the way home, and they're away from home from 7:45 to after 5:00, as compared to about 7:30 to 3:30 (Rosie) or 8:15 to 3:05 (Lena) in State College. In addition, they're doing a lot more walking than they do at home, where our faux-suburban life involves little walking on a daily basis. They were both exhausted and starved by the time they got home from school the last couple of days, but I think we'll all adjust to the schedule.

The great Sainsbury's dash: Today Anne and I made our first pilgrimage to the Islington Sainsbury's, which is a major supermarket chain. The store probably wasn't any bigger than a supermarket at home, but we had that challenge of being in it for the first time and having no clue where anything was. In addition, the supermarket layout scheme in Britain appears to be quite different from the U.S., so that items you would expect to be near each other are not necessarily placed that way. In addition, the place was packed, at least when we first walked in -- there must have been a queue 20 people long at the self checkout. But by the time we found our way through the whole market, and filled up our little-old-lady-in-the-city wheeled cart we brought from home (I'm not kidding -- we were the only ones under the age of 65 with one of these things), the queues were not nearly as bad. We surmised that the lines were at least in part due to the fact that the market is closing in a couple of days for a week, in order to bring us a new and improved Sainsbury's.

Today's lessons, class, are geography and meteorology

Rosie and Lena both posted about their first day at school yesterday, so I'll let you read their impressions. My favorite part was Lena saying, "So far, this is the best school I've ever been to." Not bad after one day I guess. The one thing I'll add is that when I picked them up yesterday, I saw that the junior school girls (up to 6th year, or 5th grade in the States) line up, shake their teachers' hand, and say "Good afternoon" as they leave. It was the cutest thing to watch.

As I mentioned yesterday, I was struck by the fact that we were commuting to and from school in the dark, even though the day is not that long (school starts at 8:30 and ends at 4:00). We tend to forget how much further north we are here as compared to Pennsylvania, or even Boston where we used to live. Thanks to the Weather Underground, I can see that London is at a latitude of 51.5 degrees north, much further north than either State College (41.8) or Boston (42.4), where we used to live.* The difference can also be seen visually on this projection map.

In fact, London is at a latitude equivalent to approximately Calgary, Alberta in North America.

Because the weather tends to be more temperate in the winters -- or normally is, not withstanding the burst of cold air we've enjoyed since we arrived -- you think of it as being further south. But the lack of daylight reminds us of how far north we are. The Weather Underground reports that sunrise here today was at 8:05, and sunset will be at 4:12.

The difference in the seasonal temperatures can be seen in these averages for London and State College, taken from the Weather Underground and Accuweather, respectively:

The forecast is for it to stay unseasonably cold here for the next few days, but by next week to start to return to more normal temperatures. While packing last week I was relying on the average temperatures to guide me, and I had given some thought to leaving the heavy inner part of my winter coat ensemble (one of those Columbia get ups with the lighter, rain-proof outer shell and fiberfill inner coat) at home, and just wear a sweater underneath the outer coat. But I am very happy that I let Anne talk me into bringing both parts.

* My apologies to all my friends at Accuweather, headquartered in State College, for the reference to the Weather Underground. But the Weather Underground displays the latitude and longitude of a location when you display the weather there, while the Accuweather site apparently does not.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

School Daze

A quick post to show the girls' school uniforms. Was a bit hectic and crazy getting everyone out the door this morning for the commute to school. We're spoiled at home, where we throw a little breakfast at the girls and then shove them out the door to catch the bus. At least for a while we're going to commute with them to school on the Tube until we're confident they know the route.

It was still pretty dark when we left the flat. It's about a 5-7 minute walk to Angel station from our flat, then about 15 minutes to Hampstead Station (if the trains are running reasonably well, which so far they have been), then a 5 minute walk to the school. It was quite a sight watching all the big and little girls running into the school in their uniforms. They all seemed very excited as it is the first day back of the spring term, though there's still nothing spring-like about the weather. Rose noted that one of her new classmates had messaged her at 2:00AM to say she was still working on her assignments that were given over the break and due today!

After dropping them off, Anne and I enjoyed a nice breakfast in a patisserie in Hampstead. We're doing our best to try lots of coffee and tea places, and this one had delicious pastries. We shared a table with an older man who was speaking, we think, French, who smiled at us. I coughed a few times, and he leaned forward and ran his thumb up and down my forehead three times. It said something, which we couldn't understand, but he seemed to imply that it would help get rid of my cough. Either that or he had some weird male forehead-touching fetish.

As for my fear of not being able to find good coffee in England: no worry at all. Five minutes from our flat there are a bunch of places to get good coffee. My favorite (or "favourite," as they write here) is a guy who pulls his little mini-truck up near the Angel station each morning, and has a cappucino/espresso/coffee stand in the back of it. Great conversationalist and good coffee.

After-school update: Also dark by the time we returned. Long day, but also a feature of the latitude (more about that later). I know the girls will blog their first-day-of-school experiences.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Our not-so-flat flat, part 2

As promised, I managed to take some pictures in the daylight of our flat (you can click on a picture to get a larger image). We headed out today to do some more exploring of the neighborhood. We started off by walking around to the back of our building to join the tow path next to Regent's Canal. The tow path was used originally by draft horses, who pulled the barges along the canal. The canal system, which connects to the River Thames, was originally built in London in the early 19th century to haul goods and materials into and out of the city. But railways were soon developed, so the canals never were used heavily for hauling goods as they were originally intended.

From the tow path, we walked back to the main shopping area of Islington, exploring the shops, and took care of our one tasks for the day which was to get mobile phones. We managed that, had a bite to eat, did some grocery shopping, and headed home. With a small kitchen and refrigerator, and walking everywhere, we realized we're going to be doing food shopping on a regular basis.

As I posted earlier, it's amazing how green some of the plants have stayed given the weather we've enjoyed here, which as the Evening Standard front page blared yesterday "-10c freeze!" and the headlines today said "Colder than Antartica!" Somebody obviously spends some time tending to the plants, and we're looking forward to doing some of the gardening when the weather warms up.

One last photo for today; this one is a picture of the second, or entry floor, looking from the parlor toward the living room and street. It's quite comfortable and cozy here, and also gets the great morning to noon light in the parlor.

Big day tomorrow, as it is the girls' first day at the Royal School. We visited there yesterday, and picked up their uniforms at a shop in Golders Green. Quite a sight to see them in the uniforms, nothing like they've ever worn to school before. We'll be sure to take some pictures tomorrow, and I'm sure they'll both be posting after their first day.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Our not-so-flat flat, part 1

Spending such a long stretch in London required some detailed research on where to live, and Anne gets all the credit for a job well done. Our first step was to determine where the girls are going to school, and they'll be attending (starting Wednesday) the Royal School Hampstead. How we found the school is a story for another post. But once we knew where they were going to school, we could then concentrate our house-hunting search a bit more, as we wanted to be fairly near the girls' school. Working primarily on-line, Anne found our flat in Islington (our neighborhood will also be the subject of a later post). We are about a five minute walk from the Angel Tube station, and the girls will have approximately a 30 minute commute, door-to-door, via the Underground.

Our flat is a canal house, meaning it backs on to Regent's Canal. It's best described as an attached townhouse, and as both Anne and Rosie have described, is rather tall and narrow. It is four separate levels, with one half level (think Being John Malkovich, without the lift). Here's a description of it (we promise to post pictures as soon as we're here for a long enough stretch during the daylight):
  • level 1: What people in the States would call the "garden level," it contains the kitchen, small sitting area, dining room, and a den, which we're using as a bedroom for Rosie. The dining room/sitting area opens out on a lovely brick patio - it's amazing how the plants are so green, even though it's freezing here and it snowed today - that backs onto the canal.
  • level 2: This is the entry level, with a living room and attached parlor, and a bathroom.
  • level 3: an office, where I'll hopefully get a lot of my work done, and a bedroom with bunk beds and a sleep sofa, currently occupied by Lena
  • level 4: the master bedroom
There are three baths: one in Rosie's room (yes, the teenager gets her own bathroom, which is probably best for everyone), one on level 1, and one on level 2.5. When we have guests, Rosie's room becomes the guest room, and she'll share the other bedroom with her sister.

What this all means is that we are getting a ton of exercise going up and down the stairs, even before we've left the house and done all the walking we'll be doing around the city. For colleagues of mine at Penn State, the trip from our bedroom to the kitchen is like walking up or down the Rackley stairs from our offices to the ground level. We know we have to be more organized about remembering to bring things up and down to reduce the number of trips, and I know we'll get there, but for now we feel like we're on a continuous, as Anne put it, "Stairmaster." The other thing this means is that it's a flight and a half from our bedroom to the closest bathroom. Anne's also commented that she'll be drinking a lot less tea at night, which is certainly in my plans also.

Having said this, the house is quite charming. The owners, who I mentioned in an earlier post are from New York, have furnished the house with what must be literally hundreds of antique games, pictures, and food-related advertisements - both from the UK and US. Anne immediately fell in love with it, as it reminds her so much of her parents' house (her mom was an antiques dealer, for those of you who didn't have the pleasure of meeting her before she passed away five years ago). It's quite comfortable and very well appointed for what is primarily used as a rental. But the owners do use it a fair amount, and it certainly does have a "very lived-in" feel to it. It also has plenty of amenities to make our stay that much more convenient and enjoyable, including broadband access and wireless, a dishwasher, washer/dryer, etc. It's also quite clear that the owners enjoy cooking, because even though the kitchen is smallish - a bit bigger than a NYC galley-type kitchen, - it is well stocked and very comfortable and easy to use.

As I mentioned earlier, I'll describe our neighborhood more in a post within the next few days. We're still exploring, and I want to get to know it a bit before describing it here.

N.B. -- for those of you waiting with bated breath for a post about higher education policy issues (both here and back at home), hang in there. It will be a bit until we get ourselves settled in before I can turn my attention to that subject. But I promise I will get there, so please be patient.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Welcome to England. Papers, please.

For those of you who were under the impression that the US and UK were allies and good friends, we can report that this is no longer true. After an uneventful 3+ hour drive to Philly airport (thanks Misha and Stefan), we endured the overnight British Airways flight to Heathrow. No major problems there either, other than BA's meal service seems to be in need of some efficiency expertise. We arrived at Heathrow on time, got ourselves to immigration, and were happy to see just a very short line. We had visions of sailing through, grabbing our bags, meeting our car service, and being at our rented flat in Islington in no time flat. This is when things started to go awry.

Our immigration officer (from the Home Office) seemed to be somewhat bewildered by the fact that we were staying for so long in her fine country. I explained that I was a uni professor on sabbatical, and would be conducting research while in the UK.

Her: "Have you been to a British embassy and secured visas?"
Me: I reported to her confidently that, "according to the Home Office website, as visitors under six months we did not need one."
Her: "Did you know that the regulations changed recently?"
Me: "Um, no - last I looked on the website, that was the requirement"
Her: "Well, I'll need to ask some questions. We need to make sure that you and your family don't end up on the dole here."

I'm a bit stunned at this point, to think that she's afraid the four of us have come all this way so that we can take advantage of the British welfare state. But I decided not to act overly incredulous, and try to calmly answer her questions. To make a very long discussion short, we had to demonstrate that we:

1. Had the financial resources necessary to sustain ourselves in London for the duration (she asked for the amount of money we had in the bank to tap for our stay)
2. That we had enrolled our children in a fee school, so that we wouldn't be taking advantage of state-provided schooling for our children
3. That we had already secured housing
4. That we had health insurance that would cover us while in the UK
5. That I would be employed by Penn State during my stay and would not be paid by a British uni.

After providing written documentation for numbers 2 and 3 (luckily I had this with me), she went off to talk to a supervisor about our situation, while we were asked to sit and wait as every other visitor - as nefarious looking as us, to my eyes - filed calmly through the immigration checkpoint.

After 30 minutes of waiting, and reassuring our children that they were not going to put us on the next BA flight back to Philly, she returned and asked Anne and me to speak with her. She informed me that in fact I was right, that we did not require visas for our stay. And she also told me that if we had gone to the British embassy, they would have given us the same answer (no visas required). So after another 10 minutes of waiting while she stamped our passports with some very special stamps (including one that designated me as an "Academic Visitor"), we were granted entry. She suggested that if we leave the UK temporarily to travel elsewhere, that we bring all of our documentation with us as we would likely get the same type of questioning upon our reentry. I have to say that through the whole ordeal she was very polite and respectful, but she clearly had a job to do.

So after approximately a 40 minute delay, we retrieved our eight checked bags which were circling by themselves on the BA carousel, and headed to the exit to try and find our car service - thanks to Claire for arranging it. Luckily, the drivers had persevered and not given up on us (though the 40 minute delay ended up costing us 24 pounds in waiting fees), and after loading us all up into the two cars necessary to ferry us and our bags, drove us to our flat in Islington. We were greeted by the flat's owner, who happens to be a New Yorker. The flat is just wonderful, but I'm going to save its description for another post, complete with pictures when the sun comes up again.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A beginning

We leave in an hour on a semester-long sabbatical in London - quite a change from Happy Valley (home of Penn State University), where we've spent the last seven years. I'll be working with my colleague Claire Callender at Birkbeck University of London, and will post more later about my research there. For now my wife Anne Simon, our daughters Rosie and Lena, and I are focused on making sure we haven't missed anything in our approximately 15 pieces of luggage we're taking along with us.

Next stop - Islington, London where we've rented a flat for our stay. More from the other side of the pond after we arrive. I'll be posting about my work (higher education public policy issues, particularly access to postsecondary education), our lives as ex-pats living in London, and our travels and adventures during the sabbatical. And perhaps even beyond.

A note regarding the blog title: The "itinerant" refers not just to the sabbatical, but to other journeys on which I embark. I travel quite a bit, for work as well as for pleasure, so my future postings will be informed by a variety of travel experiences.