Saturday, February 28, 2009

Orange County comes to North London

Life on sabbatical can't all be about student protests, seminars at Parliament, and lizard dung. There has to be a little fun in there also. So last night I dragged Rosie (the beneficiary of a 14-and-older show) along to see my favorite band, Reel Big Fish, at the HMV Forum in Kentish Town, a hop, skip, and a jump from here on the Northern Line. Above is a crappy image of Scott Klopfenstein, trumpeter, taken by Rosie's phone.

I saw RBF a couple of years ago at the House of Blues in Anaheim, a much smaller venue. The HMV Forum looks to be a former legitimate theatre converted to a club setting. The downstairs looks like a theatre with the orchestra seats removed, and a large balcony above the rear third. The orchestra is divided roughly in half, with the front portion a large dance floor, and the rear portion raised up about 5 steps divided by a railing (with a series of bars in the rear). We had tickets for the downstairs, and as we entered (after queueing up for about 20 minutes), one of the security people took one look at Rosie and asked her how old she was. After she replied "14," he turned to me and said, "I recommend that you stay away from the front part of the floor area. It's not very safe for little people." Rosie was very good, and resisted the temptation to jump all over the guy for calling her a "little person." We simply nodded and said, "Thank you."

We got in around the middle of the set by the first band, Random Hand, who were utterly forgettable. After a short break, the second warm-up band, Suburban Legends, came on. They had also been one of the opening acts when I saw RBF in Anaheim (also hailing from Orange County, California), and they put on a great show. They're primarily a pop group, though when opening for RBF they tend to up their ska quotient. They're backed by some great horns, and do a great take-off on boy band dance moves. They played a 30-minute set that got the audience, which by this time had filled the dance floor to the point that it was hard to move, dancing around. Rosie and I had a great location, standing right on the railing separating the dance floor from the raised section, about where row K would be if there were still seats in the orchestra.

After another short break, RBF came on to the cheers of the crowd. They opened, as they have been on many of their live shows, with "Trendy," to the cheers of the crowd. Frontman Aaron Barrett was his usual self, mugging to the audience and dancing around the stage with and without his guitar. As usual with RBF, the horns (Scott Klopfenstein and John Christianson on trumpet, and Dan Regan on trombone) carried their weight through the entire concert. These four musicians have formed the core of the group since it was founded in the mid-1990s, and they've kept the energy and spirit of ska going all these years. Bassist Matt Wong wasn't on stage, however; I don't know if he's out of the band or just not on this tour of Europe.

They played mostly many of their old favorites, from "She's Famous Now" through "Your Guts (I Hate 'em)" to "Beer." On one of the all-time crowd-pleasers, "She's Got a Girlfriend Now," Barrett stopped at one point and good-naturedly ripped Katy Perry (of "I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It" fame) for singing about girls kissing a decade after RBF first did, and the crowd ate it up. One wonders if there wasn't just a little professional jealousy of Perry's commercial success from a band that's been toiling away since little Katy was probably in middle school.

The crowd, which I would guess numbered somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 downstairs, with an untold number up in the balcony, was made up primarily of those in the 18-to-mid 20s group. There were a handful of oldsters like I, and yes, even a smaller handful who looked older. And I'd say a small group of under 18s (who were supposed to be accompanied by someone over 18). The crowd was relatively well behaved, though every now and then a plastic cup full of some liquid was thrown across the dance floor, dousing those in its flight path. There was a lot of dancing, as there should be at a rousing ska concert, along with a bunch of kids crowd surfing. The security personnel were pretty aggressive about wading out into the crowd and grabbing the surfers and dragging them back to the ground. After watching the crowd I understood better why the security guard who greeted us at the entry suggested I keep the "little person" with me off the dance floor.

RBF finished up their 90-minute set with an encore that included their biggest hit from the 90s, "Sell Out" (with the audience singing along to every word) as well as their cover of "Take on Me," by 80s legends Ah-Ha. I think that Rosie was suitably impressed, having listened along to RBF with me in the car back in State College many times. If you ever get a chance to catch one of their shows, I highly recommend it. Even if you're not a huge fan of ska punk, it's a fun evening out. Their music is very accessible and they're an entertaining act who knows how to play to their audience.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

UK students protest over tuiton fees

Yesterday a coalition of student groups from campuses across Britain, including the Socialist Students Organisation and the Communist Students Organisation, held a protest over rising tuition fees in British universities. The protest was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, like Birkbeck part of the University of London and located right next to Birkbeck.

In the UK, the government has placed a cap of £3,145 on tuition fees that universities can charge. Nearly all the universities charge very close to this maximum. In the words of one of the protest's sponsors, "Education Not for Sale was founded in September 2005 as a network of anti-capitalist students fighting for free education." Here's a preview article from yesterday's Guardian.

Like many protests, this one appeared to have more onlookers than active protestors. I would estimate that there were maybe 75 or 100 students actively chanting and carrying signs, and many others taking pictures and just watching. There was also a strong contingent of security personnel, including both the London Met police and private security forces. The protest was mostly a bunch of chanting, primarily calling for the removal of tuition fees and returning to free education. It apparently didn't receive much media attention, as I didn't find any articles in the London papers today.

While student protests over tuition are not unknown in the U.S., what was different about this is how the students from across a number of universities came together to organize.

I've posted below some of the signs held by students at the protest. You can find more pictures on my Facebook page.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

And here's the story of Camilla's visit

Camilla on Royal Visit at Hampstead School

You can see Lena at the left in this picture, gazing at the Duchess of Cornwall. She got to have a short conversation with her, Camilla asking her if there were many Americans in the school (she pegged Lena's accent immediately, evidently). Later in the day, when she saw Lena again, she said "Here's my American friend."

They royal is coming, the royal is coming

Today is a big day at The Royal School Hampstead. The school's Royal Patron, the Duchess of Cornwall, is coming to visit the school. For those of you not up on your royal family history, the Duchess is also known as Camilla, wife of Prince Charles. The Duchess is coming to the school to help promote The Big Bone Walk, a fund raiser for the National Osteoporosis Society, which is her favorite charity. The girls at The Royal School have been raising funds for the walk, which takes place today in Hampstead Heath. So everyone at the school is all atwitter about Camilla's visit, and we promise to provide a full report from the girls.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A visit to Parliament, and a discussion of higher education access (part 1)

As I described last month, I've been attending a monthly seminar series sponsored by the Higher Education Policy Institute. The seminars are held in Parliament, and each one is hosted by an MP. This month's seminar was on "Fair Access Revisited" and was hosted by Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat representing Oxford.

One of the best parts about the seminar series is that they start at 8:20 in the morning (with tea, of course), so that we're allowed into Parliament before the general public. After going through security, including metal detectors, you can actually wander around the vast building fairly unfettered, as long as you wear your visitor ID.

After going through security, you enter Westminster Hall, originally built by King William II between 1097 and 1099 and the oldest surviving part of Parliament. This is also where visitors queue up to sit in the gallery of the House of Commons and House of Lords during debates.
There's obviously quite a bit of history to take in as you walk around, with plaques noting historical events that had taken place at certain points. Early in the morning the building is almost eerily quiet; when you walk in Westminster Hall by yourself, your footsteps seem to echo all the way up to the ceiling.

The seminar itself takes place in a room on the river side of Parliament, almost across from the London Eye, aka "The Gigundous Ferris Wheel." The seminar room is just to the left in this shot, and it is admittedly easy to get distracted by the vista. I was reminded of London's history of terror attacks, as on a regular basis a member of the London Met (the police force) walked up and down this patio, just outside the windows of our room, with a machine gun in hand. I had thoughts of taking his picture, but decided that would probably not be to his liking so opted to pass on that idea.

The seminar itself was very interesting. England has been putting a lot of emphasis in recent years on broadening participation in higher education (which historically has been below that of the U.S., and other European countries), and in promoting educational equity to students from all social classes.* There were three speakers:
  • Sir Martin Harris, Director of the Office for Fair Access, which "is an independent, non departmental public body which aims to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for under-represented groups in light of the introduction of variable tuition fees in 2006-07."
  • Malcolm Grant, President of University College London, and Chairman of the Russell Group, a collection of 20 research-intensive and largely elite universities in the UK, including the likes of Oxbridge, LSE, and the University of Edinburgh
  • Michael Driscoll, Vice Chancellor (head) of Middlesex University, a former polytechnic institution that is far down the pecking order from the Russell Group institutions (it is ranked 105 out of 113 institutions in the Times of London League Tables, the British equivalent of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings)

Next: What they had to say

* The Chronicle of Higher Education covered a speech today by John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities, and Skills (the government department responsible for higher education), in which he talked about the government's goal of increasing participation among traditional-aged students to 50%. The equivalent rate in the U.S. is approximately 65%. Here's a link to an article in The Guardian about Denham's speech.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Attention students and professors: The importance of backing up your work

To anyone engaged in research, here's a reminder from the Times Higher Education of why it's critical to back up all your work:

Oh crap - there goes my work

05 February 2009

A PhD candidate is threatening to take his university to court after it destroyed 35kg* of lizard excrement - the material for his research project.

Working in the faculty of biological sciences at the University of Leeds, Daniel Bennett's PhD was based on analysing samples from the rare butaan lizard, collected through painstaking fieldwork in the Philippines.

But he said that at the beginning of his third year he returned from fieldwork to find his desk occupied by another student. His samples had been removed and incinerated.

"The department's reaction to my plight was, to say the least, muted. In fact, it took 16 months before I received an official response to my complaint, which offered me £500 compensation and announced that new protocols had been established," he writes in this issue of Times Higher Education.

He has submitted his thesis, but has refused to accept the money. He says the incident has contributed to his "deep depression", and he now plans to take the university to court.

Leeds called the loss an "unfortunate mistake" and said "lessons had been learnt". It said it was unaware of Mr Bennett's plans to take legal action. "The issue is being dealt with under the university's student complaints procedure, though the completion of Mr Bennett's PhD thesis has been unaffected."

*To those in the States, that's about 77 pounds of lizard dung.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Boy, do I love that guy's books

One of the downsides of being abroad is that unless you make the effort, it's easy to lose track of what's going on in the States. For example, it's snuck up on me that spring training starts in less than two weeks; if I had been back home, I would have been much more aware of this. It was only today that I discovered with great sadness that John Updike died a couple of weeks ago. I felt the same way I did upon hearing of Paul Newman's death last year, like a blow to the chest.

I've been reading John Updike's books since I was a teenager. I think the first one I read was Couples, which I would sneak out of my parents bookshelf when I was probably about 13. I snuck the book because it was considered quite risqué in its time, a novel that The New York Times said "was for its time remarkably frank about sex and became well known for its lengthy detail and often lyrical descriptions of sexual acts."

I read the four volumes in the Rabbit series in sequence over about a 25 year span, living roughly a generation or so behind Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. I read a number of his other novels -- not all of them, of course, as he was a prodigious writer -- as well as having enjoyed his essays and short stories in The New Yorker.

When I finished my doctorate in 1997, I bought myself a two-part present. The first part of the gift was a recently-published collection of all four Rabbit books in one volume, Rabbit Angstrom, The Four Novels. The second part of the gift was to take the summer between finishing grad school and starting work at Michigan to reread the four novels in sequence again, all 1,568 pages and 2.4 pounds of it.

My friend Michael Olivas, who wrote a book about Updike and is the former editor of the Updike Newsletter, penned a wonderful remembrance about him on the New Yorker website. I've taken the liberties of reprinting it here, as I was unable to link directly to it.

Rabbit Fan Bids Updike Adieu: John Updike (1932-2009), RIP

Early this morning, I learned of John Updike's passing, and those who know this side of me have been calling and emailing me all day, as if I lost a family member. In a way, I did. When I was a boy, I loved mythology, and carried around a copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology. In those days, I could tell you Hank Aaron's batting average, and how well he and the Milwaukee Braves had done the night before, and how he had beaten Rocky Calavito in the tv show, Home Run Derby. And I could tell you all the Greek and Roman gods and other mythological figures, courtesy of Edith Hamilton.

My Cousin Margaret Valdez took note, and as an eighth grade graduation present to me in 1964, she bought me John Updike's novel The Centaur, a book I have read regularly since then and have always loved. It is about a boy with psoraisis (a skin disease I have had since I was a boy) and his schoolteacher father. When she discovered further how much I loved Updike and the gift, she got me a subscription to The New Yorker, where Updike was a staff writer. This exposure to such a wonderful writer and magazine encouraged me in a way that no other gift has ever done since then. Today, I give magazine subscriptions and books as gifts, in memory of the profound effect these two gifts had on me.

In graduate school at Ohio State, I wrote my American Literature MA thesis on Updike, published my first book on him (NY: Garland, 1974), and became the Editor of the Updike Newsletter for almost a decade. When I became a law professor, I gave it up and passed it to another scholar. But I never lost my love for Updike's work or the New Yorker, where he regularly published fiction and book reviews.

My late father once made fun of my reading habits, saying that my reading Updike was "nothing like my real life," a point that was accurate enough but that missed the point. I always have loved good writing, and Updike's suburban New England world was no less a part of my imagination than were Neruda's or Garcia Marquez' or Shakespeare's worlds. In fact, that was the point, at least to a young boy growing up in a large family in New Mexico.

When I was editor of the Newsletter, I corresponded with him and with his Knopf editor, Judith Jones, about editorial matters--foreign editions of his work, limited editions, that kind of thing. He spoke twice at the University of Houston, but we never actually met. Once, I was scheduled to introduce him to the Honors College, but a baby niece died and I had to be away, and about two years ago, he returned, and I simply lurked and did not stand in line to meet him, either at UH or at the Alley Theater, where he spoke that night.

In his wonderful essay, On Meeting Authors, he wrote about having once met his idol and New Yorker fellow writer/cartoonist James Thurber (an Ohio State grad--his papers and cartoon originals are in OSU's Thurber Rare Book Room) and E. B. White, also a New Yorker alum. In the essay, he notes that neither of the great literary men were very nice, in contrast to his high expectations formed by having read their work. Characteristically, he wrote: "Meeting authors is like seeing light from a star that has moved on." Now that his star and light have moved on, we still have his work. Through our writing we are all so well met, even if we have never met.

That was what I have been thinking about all day, so I pass it to you. If you want to read a splendid US writer, pick up The Centaur or drink deeply in his Rabbit quartet. I hope that he and my Cousin Margaret, who passed about 8 years ago in her native Santa Fe, meet each other and know the combined effect they both had on this young boy.

Michael A. Olivas
January 27, 2009, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Friday, February 6, 2009

Talk about adding insult to injury

This brief article was on The Chronicle of Higher Education website today:

Arizona State Furloughs Some Laid-Off Workers

Some Arizona State University employees who are being laid off will also be subjected to a 15-day furloug, reports The Arizona Republic.

The university, which is eliminating up to 550 positions through attrition and layoffs in response to a state budget crisis, has ordered all of its 12,000 employees to take up to 15 days of unpaid leave by June 30.

“Anyone still getting a paycheck between February 2 and June 30 is affected,” Terri Shafer, an Arizona State spokeswoman, told the newspaper. “It’s across the board because the cuts at the Legislature are so deep.”

State lawmakers recently cut $141.5-million from the appropriations for the three state universities, which also include the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. —Eric Kelderman

That's really, really nasty. You get a notice telling you you're laid off as of some future date, and then subsequently told you'll be furloughed between now and then. I liked the suggestion of one commenter who said, "I think everyone should take off the last two weeks of the semester, including final exam week."

Presumably President Michael Crow will be furloughed from his $728,750 job also.

An organic pub and Rudolf Steiner

No, it's not some kind of strange British oxymoron and juxtapositioning. Yesterday Anne and I had lunch at the Duke of Cambridge, just a block from our house (note that the picture above was clearly taken in much nicer weather than we've been experiencing lately - anybody bicycling there would be taking their lives in their hands this week). The Duke is Britain's "first and only certified organic pub," and trust me when I say that you can't get bangers and mash there.

From the outside and in, it looks like any other British pub (ignore the quote from Zagat on the pub's website that calls it "homely but spacious" - that seems an unfair criticism, it was quite cozy inside). [Edited 2/11/09: See the fourth comment after this post about the word "homely"] But everything - and I mean everything (more about this later) - served and used is certified organic or adheres to established standards for sustainability and the like. Tent cards on the tables list all of their efforts and certifications and the year they were established (the Duke just celebrated its tenth anniversary). This includes things like certified organic meats and produce, all procured as locally as possible. All fish served are from sustainable stocks. The Duke serves no foods or uses other goods that have to be air freighted in, in order to reduce its carbon footprint, and they recycle far more than the typical restaurant or household. We did our part by walking there, of course.

The menu changes daily depending upon what foods they are able to obtain from their suppliers and at local markets. The wine list also changes regularly, and yesterday's introduction said that many of their wines come from vineyards "operated under the philosophy of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner." There was more about this but Anne and I were laughing so hard that I don't remember exactly what a Steineresque vineyard was claimed to be. Who knew that his principles were being applied in more than just progressive education schools? The clincher for us was when we noticed that the Duke had supplied "organic tampons" in its loo (presumably just the women's) since 1999.

And the food? Quite nice; I had a lamb, chili, and carmelized onion sandwich, and Anne had salmon with spicy beet root vegetables (which, great surprise, I ate for her) and Bombay potatoes. My sandwich, like many of the dishes served on the board was served with "leaves," which is their term for a salad made up of foofy greens. I commented that the salad should perhaps have been more accurately titled "weeds."

I'm not sure we could appreciate or taste the true organic nature of everything we were served. But we sure did feel good about what we were eating. And in a bit of a note of irony, we kept seeing the kitchen staff pop outdoors for a few minutes. Yup -- they were out there for a quick smoke of what we were sure was organic cigarettes.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Parallel universes

An article in The Guardian today, "White, middle-class families dominate top university places," demonstrates that the U.K. is dealing with some of the same issues involving gaps in college participation that we're dealing with in the U.S. For a similar analysis in the U.S., see this piece from a few years ago by Tony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, "Socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, and selective college admissions."

Monday, February 2, 2009

Snow Daze

Well, we certainly didn't expect to have a snow day here in London. But sure enough, it started snowing last night, flurries at first, and we said, "Oh look, it's starting to stick." Anne and I stayed up to watch the Super Bowl, which started at 11:20p or so here. She made it until the middle of the second quarter, I lasted to the bitter end at 3:30a. By the end of The Boss's great set, there was probably about 2" or so on the ground.

We awoke this morning (everyone else in the house much earlier than I, of course) to find it still snowing. Lena checked The Royal School's website to find much to no one's surprise that school was canceled. (Update 5:00p: school has already been canceled for tomorrow, also). There was perhaps 4" on the ground, a fairly unusual occurrence in London from what we understand. What was most striking, however, was the eerie quiet -- unlike every other day here, we rarely heard a car go by, no sound of buses or horns, no planes flying overhead (the airports were closed). Only the occasional sound of kids out playing in the snow. Evidently, the city is pretty much shutdown; the headline on today's Evening Standard was "Snow shuts down London - and there's more to come," saying the 6" by this afternoon was the most snow in London in 18 years. Some of the Tube lines weren't operating at all, and the rest with "severe delays." Many universities were closed. Here's the view this morning out our patio.

The girls will most likely not have school again tomorrow, so we headed out for a walk in the snow and to see if there's anything left at Sainsbury's. We walked along the canal for a block. There were few cars on the side streets, and apparently not an abundance of (any?) snow shovels for the sidewalks. On the main roads in Islington by the Tube, though, the cars and buses were out. One can only wonder if we visitors from the snow belt brought this to the Londoners?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Anglo Files

Sorry, I can't take credit for this pun. It's the title of a book by Sarah Lyall, a reporter for The New York Times who was posted to London in the early 90s (she was interviewed on NPR about the book last fall). Lyall approaches her subject, the British, from what I would describe as a faux-anthropological approach. Anne picked the book up after hearing the NPR interview, deciding it would be good background reading for our stay here.

I read the book after we had been here for a few weeks already. Parts of the book are very humorous, and I found myself laughing out loud. But the more I read, the more I discovered that what she had written was not an accurate portrayal of the British people and life here, but really a caricature of those subjects. The chapters exaggerate all the stereotypes of Brits - the fascination with hedgehogs (a chapter that Lena particularly liked), the propensity for bad teeth, the "stiff upper lip." She apparently bases the book on much of the reporting she's done for the Times while based in London (she married an upper-class British writer, which is in part why she had moved here), along with her own general observations.

My problem with the book is that she presents everything monolithically. Our experience is that the British people and society - at least as represented here in London, and we recognize London is not representative of the whole country - are incredibly diverse. The caricatures she paints do a disservice. I recognize I'm basing this on only one month here, but I can see already that her brush is very broad.

If you're looking for some good laughs, then read the book. If you're looking, however, for a book that is just as funny and I think a more accurate portrayal of a foreigner's perspective on a different land, then get one of Sean Condon's books. My 'Dam Life is a hilarious portrayal of the time Condon - who is Australian - spent living in Amsterdam with his girlfriend. And his book Drive Thru America describes a road trip he and an Aussie buddy took across the States. Think Borat, only more realistic.