Thursday, April 11, 2013

Thatcher’s legacy

thatcherI took the train into London for meetings today: the rail ran late as usual, the carriages were dotted with trash, and the ride cost £20 (with an off-peak discount railcard).  Blame Thatcher, locals shrug: ever since the trains were privatized, the service has been crap.

Baroness Thatcher passed away this week, her funeral is next, and all of the strong feelings that people have about her are filling the papers and conversations in Britain.  The FT and Economist are uncritically rapturous about her tenure and accomplishments; the Guardian laments the divided and impoverished society she left behind. 

At a distance, I only knew her as a flinty version of Ronald Reagan, each feeding off the other in their desire to shrink government and free markets.

Reagan is practically sainted in the United States: his life was, and is remembered uncritically at his death.  Conservatives revere his policies and principles; liberals envy his common touch and communication skills.  I remember the initial negative impact on environmental policies (Trees cause pollution), then on labor unions (PATCO), then welfare (These people are losers, not victims), finally markets.  reagan_thatcherHe suffused our political discourse with know-nothingism branded as common sense; divided our viewpoints more than he united people.

Thatcher had similarly common roots, firm views, and thoughtless pronouncements (There is no such thing as society).  But partly because of the parliamentary system she worked in, partly due to the length of her tenure, partly due to her ambition (bolder than Reagan’s), she had a much greater impact on British life and society.  Yet she also had less symbolic stature than the Great Communicator after leaving office.

Both leaders left a philosophical legacy that replaced notions of social responsibility and the commons with Darwinian individualism and market forces.  Social protectionism and resource depletion are the result: markets to not rush to fill gaps left by the withdrawal of the state and companies prosper by monopolistic growth, not innovation.

Arguably, life has gotten harder for the majority of people since Thatcher / Reagan policies emerged; social division and political polarization have deepened.  But the majority don’t seem to understand that these policies work against them. 

How, for example, calls for smaller government and lighter regulation are thinly disguised appeals to protect extreme wealth and comfortable lifestyles (Summers).  How the promise of social mobility through entrepreneurship is frustrated by market-driven challenges of finding financing and engaging labor.

In the Underground, I looked across the faces of my fellow travelers.  So many people from different lands, different talents, different means.   How many of these ordinary people, here and in the US, are Thatcher’s people, or Reagan’s?  Do their political and economic policies really help these faces to lead better lives? 

Or, as I suspect, do they largely benefit those who never ride the Tube?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Midweek miscellany

Hi, Dave, You wouldn’t happen to be sat in a blue Ford waiting for the boat in Dunkirk?  Ken

We hadn’t seen one another in eight years, and the only reason I was on that ferry was because I missed the 2pm by 2 minutes (mis-underestimated the queues at Auchen and the ferry terminal).  We had a really good talk on the crossing, catching up with people we’d both known and the way or lives have changed since we worked together.

It’s both comfortable and jarring when the past jumps up like this.  I’ve got lots of good memories of Physio and the work we all did together.  It’s nice to see how little people change and to be able to pick up a conversation where we last left of.  At the same time, so much has changed, and there are so many things that I might have done differently in hindsight.

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This was the birthday that I as supposed to get a better bicycle, I’ve been clattering around on my rusty Locomotief for far too long.  But the circumstances don’t allow for the budget this April. So I linked up with an AeroPress instead.

In Europe, I make (lots of) press coffee.  The AeroPress is an individual version: insert a filter, put a scoop in the tube, add hot water, stir, press the shot, (dilute), drink.  It takes a minute and make a very good cup of coffee.

It consumes a lot of coffee when used according to the directions, so I’m varying the recipe (amount of coffee, amount of water, time to stir) and getting closer.  The quality seem better, the filter strains more out of the grounds than with a press jar.  But the one-use/one-cup makes getting a coffee into a deliberate act rather than a thoughtless pour: I’m not sure I like the distraction.

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And while I’m on the subject of the kitchen…

Positive:  If you cook, you should try Saveur: I’ve been grabbing vegetable and cookie recipes out of it the past few weeks and they have really been good.

Negative: Why do people like linked oven mitts instead of separated hotpads?  I really struggle with the mitts – they are clumsy and tie my hands, where I just want to reach in and grab something.

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EB1And on immigration and expatriation, the foolishness is not limited to the UK Tier 1.  The process is similarly difficult for talented people trying to obtain US EB-1A visas.

As with the UK, only a few thousand permits are issued each year, allowing highly qualified people to immigrate without sponsorship by an employer.  So the few open slots become highly coveted and competitive: people need to extraordinarily extraordinary do people to qualify.

Why raise the bar so high for letting talent enter, holding the best applicants to only a few percent of the total inward migration?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Vieren 59

The day started with a chill.

Not just the 3 degree chill of a drippy grey morning over the Maas, but a cold-metal and icy shower chill of a broken hot water heater.

Gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag!

Hot water is produced by an in-line boiler that warms the flow on demand.  The system had gone off-line while I was in Berlin and the reset only produced gurgles in the unit. We have forced-air heatand a big gas hot-water tank in Seattle (strapped to the wall to satisfy the earthquake insurance): gurgling  immersion heaters are not in-scope.

I called Volta Limburg.

Unlike most Dutch utilities, they were cheerful, polite, and had someone out within two hours.  He recharged the liquids, did the inspection, and fixed the pressure in the shower (a small filter in the line had clogged).    ‘back in business.

The day filled quickly, though.  To my PT to flex the ankle and advise on a creaky shoulder.  A Dutch conversation session for an hour.  A trip to Jos Bogman to try to replace a hubcap that fell off in Berlin.  Many, many calls to try to sort out the businesses (“We’re looking for a way forward, not a way out!”).

By 5:30 I was done, and done-in.  I made my traditional 8:28 am call to my parents (always scary for us both that I’m getting older), then dropped in with friends for a private celebration: cake, biertje, good conversation, distilled spirits.  We shamelessly objectified the salt an pepper shakers.

 

I made a last stop at my ‘local’, under the apartment on Kesselskade, for a Wisseltap and called it a night.

I do remember yesterday when I was 20, when all we wanted was the bleach-blonde, deep tanned look.  Now the bleaching comes naturally, and the sun puts lines in my face.  Worse, I can’t wear the long hair without looking like an aging hippie.

So one last gift: a haircut the next day.

Gelukkige verjaardag!

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Monday, April 8, 2013

The Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

The group had plans to tour more historical sights in Berlin on Sunday, but I really needed to see color, creativity, and warmth to counterbalance our previous excursions to the memorial and war sites.  A few of us settled on the Neue Nationalgalerie, a collection of modern works by artists from both East and West Berlin.

  It was wonderful.

     

The paintings and sculptures put the history and experience of Berlin into perspective. Here were works y thinking people who had lived alongside the terrible times, taken it in and put their feelings into expressive form.  The sculptures and drawings, in particular, were evocative, and the museum allows (non-flash) pictures which encourages later thought and comparison of the  works.  In contrast to both the media-inspired public memorials and the dead museum exhibits, these had life and feeling that bore witness to the events and the people.

It re-affirms the human spirit that the occupation years never crushed, and the value of art in communicating the people’s experiences.

Or, as posted at the UNESCO building:

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The modern collection is also quite good,  with provocative works, well described and grouped around themes that help with the explorations of movements and the connections among works.