Archive for the ‘Diary’ Category

How I missed out on my PhD. OK, you can smile

October 15, 2012

Today I read that research presented at the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans shows people smile at people they feel either superior or inferior too. But (says Evan Carr of the University of San Diego) they don’t smile at people they feel equal with and want to compete with.

I have to reveal that I came to exactly that conclusion 10 years ago while I lay in my bath. Now I realise to my chagrin I could have got a PhD out of this. I could be touring lecture circuits attracting smiles from countless admirers who feel inferior to me.

As it is, I am getting by on the superior kind of smiles. But just don’t try to compete with my deep insights. I can be very hatchet-faced.

Swiss economy grows – with no budget-cuts, no stimulation package and lots of foreigners

May 31, 2012

Switzerland’s economy grew by 0.7% in the first quarter of 2012, after 0.5% and 0.3% in the last two quarters of 2011. The Swiss did this without having first to rein in excessive government spending. Nor is the government running a big economic stimulation programme.

Switzerland’s direct democracy, which provides for citizens to vote on practically any issue affecting their lives, may be a factor. Voters know that if they take the easy way in spending, they will have to take painful decisions later. There is no escape from the consequences and nobody else to blame. This could be why budgets do not get out of control.

Unlike truculent Britain, Switzerland is pragmatic in its relations with European neighbours. It does not belong to the European Union, but has bilateral agreements aligning it with most of EU legislation.

Switzerland belongs to the Schengen agreement, so its frontiers are open to EU citizens. With a few temporary exceptions, Europeans can freely immigrate to work in Switzerland. As a result, there is a plentiful supply of highly-qualified workers. Local analysts consider this is one important reason why Swiss companies succeed well in export markets.

As if to underline the point, the latest report from the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) ranked Switzerland third behind Hong Kong and the United States in economic competitiveness. Germany is ninth and the rest of Europe nowhere.

Responsible, steady and open to the world – perhaps this tiny country has lessons for all of us.

The euro? Greece may be on the way out but Turkey has already embraced it

May 16, 2012

If you are one of the millions who visit Istanbul nowadays, you can pay for most things with the euro. Greeks may be about to vote in a government which will take their country out of the common European currency. But Turkey, which does not even belong to the European Union, is already unofficially using it.

Even in the teeming tunnels of the Grand Bazaar, dating back to the 18th century, cash machines offer the euro and dollars besides the Turkish lira. Try getting a euro out of a cash machine in Britain. No chance.

Turkish cars carry number plates with the blue flash on the side used by member countries of the European Union. The plates carry the letters TK, as if it were a member country. Only the yellow stars of the European Union are missing.

The concept of a united Europe may seem tattered to some. But to outsiders such as the Turks, it is still an alluring prospect.

Library once condemned for closure flourishes after modernisation

February 20, 2012

Oxford’s Summertown Public Library, condemned to disappear only a year ago, is not only reprieved but is looking smarter than ever. It’s been given a makeover which has made it brighter and more convivial. There are self-service check-in machines and bright new bookshelves which can be moved aside to create a meeting space.

Oxfordshire County Council, which just over a year ago announced it would close the Library, not only reversed its decision but found modest funds to modernise.

The Friends of Summertown Library, who a year ago were staging noisy demonstrations by mothers and children outside County Hall, contributed campaign funds to finance furniture for a popular new Readers’ Corner.

Not only did the community triumph over cultural vandalism, but cooperation replaced confrontation. Or, as they put it in one of those library books, swords were turned into ploughshares.


Rude Britain: I’m on the side of the 26

December 19, 2011

I’m appalled at Britain’s veto of a new European Union treaty supported by 26 other states. It’s boorish and selfish. Like Britain, the 26 other members have their national interests to protect. But they chose solidarity at time of crisis, while Britain showed none.

The treaty’s declared purpose is to reinforce fiscal responsibility. Is that really something we should prevent? Protect the City of London? Maybe that’s worthwhile, but possibly also not. Remember 2008.

Doubtless this could also be achieved by normal diplomacy. Instead, Britain offers only the sharp elbows of the cocksure bully.

Having lived on various countries on the continent, I have become used to moving easily among peoples of different nationalities, languages and histories, finding common ground and common values with no great difficulty. In Britain, I regret that emotional xenophobes with fringe-island opinions are to the fore.

I’m proud to be British, but I don’t subscribe to the assumption that only Britons can be right. I’m British, but ashamed of the rude arrogance of those who represent me. I’m British, and very much European too.

I’m with the 26.

The euro will stay

November 18, 2011

My local butcher in Oxford, England, has a sign in his window “No euro: keep our pound.” That is about the level of debate on the euro’s travails on this offshore island of Europe.  Of course, if the butcher had taken euros three years ago and kept them, he would be sitting on a 25% gain against the pound.

The euro clearly is in trouble, and efforts of European leaders to manage the crisis are not impressive. British media pour scorn on them and it is taken for granted Britain is better out of it. Maybe, but only maybe. Britain has rising unemployment, 5% inflation, no economic growth, faltering exports, a very weak currency and persistently huge budget deficits. So misgovernment rules on the island too, perhaps even a little more.

The European Union was built on slow consensus-building from the start. That is what made it successful. Disparate peoples were not forced to accept more than they were comfortable with. So the European Union finds it difficult to reach decisions all subscribe to. Democracy prevails, not the smack of firm government, but that is not necessarily bad.

Rather than longing for a quick and final solution, I prefer to watch the process as an experiment which is charting new waters. I am fascinated by the debates over austerity v. pump-priming, price stability v. printing money,  supranational v. local fiscal discipline, and who eventually calls the tune. Unable to know infallibly which way to jump on most of these issues, I sit and learn by watching what goes on.

Eventually, I see Germany’s qualities of hard work, thrift and efficiency coming to the fore. He who pays the piper calls the tune. An impeccably pacifist Germany holding more sway over the way we run our economies seems not a bad prospect.

I forecast the euro will stay, and in 10 years time will be used by more states than now. You read it here first.

By the way, the best internet coverage of the euro crisis is by the Neue Zuercher Zeitung The Swiss can take their distance, not belonging to the EU, but they are sitting right there in the middle and keep their ears close to the ground.  OK, it’s in German …

Put your hand on your medals

November 14, 2011

My father, 96, who fought in World War II, usually spends his mornings in his Oxford nursing home room in bed watching TV and reading. On Remembrance Day, Sunday 13th November 2011, a carer brought him down to sit with the other residents in his wheelchair to watch the Cenotaph ceremony in London on television together.

She brought his campaign medals down with him, and told him:

“When they stand for the two minutes silence, you don’t have to get up. You can just place your hand on your medals.”

Which he did.

He had tears in his eyes when he told me later.

Why the English are quiet just now

October 1, 2011

Not heard a word out of England recently? That’s because the most brilliant of continent summers has descended on this blessed isle. Nothing to grumble about. Everyone out picnicking, barbecuing, strolling in light dresses and shirtsleeves, and bus drivers are singing. 27 c for most of this week and I write this on 1st October. Plus, it’s a bumper year for apples, pears and everything. There they are in huge bunches, red and chubby against the deep blue sky.  Time for drinks on the lawn.

Make winter tyres mandatory

December 20, 2010

Having moved recently to Britain, I realise winter tyres are not on anybody’s radar screen here. Perhaps that is one reason why things get so snarled up here when it snows.

In Switzerland, the law says your vehicle must be “adapted to the conditions”, which in practice means winter tyres are mandatory once it snows. If you don’t have them, you can be fined. If you cause an accident still on summer tyres, the insurance won’t pay.

Winter tyres are no big deal. You wear your summer ones down less while you are running on the winter set. You don’t need an extra set of wheels. Garages change the tyres over in half an hour while you wait. Cost: about £50 a time.

Today I pushed a Royal Mail van stuck in the snow. It had summer tyres. Tonight, all post-boxes where I live were crammed full. They had not been emptied since Friday.

I suggest Britain too legislates that drives must ensure their vehicles are “adapted to the conditions.” That by itself would do much to keep things moving.

Wheelchair access – not so useless

November 8, 2010

Often I have travelled on public transport and wondered why they bother with wheelchair spaces. Nobody ever seems to use them. Today, when I visited my elderly father at his Oxford nursing home, he said he wanted to visit the Ashmolean Museum, so it was time to test this supposition. Off we wheeled to the bus stop, in some trepidation on my part, if not on his.

It was a piece of cake. The driver lowered the sill of the bus to the kerb level to let him on in his wheelchair. It was easy to manoeuvre and fix it in the special space. At the museum, splendidly refurbished, we could roll all over the place with no problem.

When he got back for his supper, he was delighted with his outing. The carers were happy that one of their charges had undertaken something mildly enterprising and carried it off.

My father wants to go again. He is 95. Thank you bus service and museum for making this possible. I can’t refuse.

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