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Feb. 5th, 2017

Afternoon religion.

Today is national Visit My Mosque day. There isn't one especially local to where I live, but after brunch with some friends I went to visit the Edinburgh Central Mosque. They were set up for curious visitors; they had chairs at the back of the hall so that we could observe afternoon prayers, and then gave us a short tour while answering peoples' questions about the mosque and about Islam.

Let's face it, I'm not the target audience of this initiative; I certainly don't claim to be knowledgable about Islam, but I probably understand more about it than most non-Muslims in Britain[1]. I don't think I learnt much, and TBH I was mostly there to have a look around the building. But I was impressed at the number of Edinburghers (is that the right term?) who had turned out, many of whom did seem to be learning a lot - they were asking questions about things they had heard in the news about Muslim practice, and getting most of those things politely debunked by a friendly-yet-earnest student guide. In the library downstairs people were trying out Arabic calligraphy and women were being offered the chance to try a hijab. I got the impression that some of the visitors were surprised to realise how much of what goes on there is just the same as what goes on in their own church hall.

I did notice a couple of large gentlemen with earpieces, and I wondered whether most major mosques in the UK have to have designated security staff these days. They were friendly enough, and in fact their main job seemed to be spotting worshippers who might not be able to kneel and materialising a chair next to them with impressive speed :-)

Incidentally, I am already loving the walking that comes with living in a city again. Living in Stromness, everything was less than ten minutes walk or more than 15 miles away... but here, I walked for half an hour to brunch, then for 20 minutes to the mosque, then about another 40 minutes home... it's a good feeling, and something that I had missed.


[1] I attribute this largely to my school's particular Religious Studies curriculum, which is perhaps a separate topic, but which I wish was mandatory nationwide.

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Moving on. (from Orkney)

So, the last few weeks have been a little hectic. Let's catch up.

The Monday before last was my last day in the office in Orkney. I got some really touching cards from colleagues of all levels there[1]. They bought me a fidget cube; somebody knows me well ;-) My house was mostly packed up, and that afternoon I took a walk through Stromness, down to the harbour and along the waterfront. I'd said lots of goodbyes to people (although not as many as I'd have liked, due to the abruptness of my departure), but I felt that I needed to say goodbye to the place. I realised while wandering that Orkney is the place that I have lived for the longest since leaving my parents' home. In some respects it has felt that my life has been "on hold" while I was there, but in others it's been profoundly important. I got a bit tearful about the town that's been home for me for nearly five years, and wished that I had time to get out into the countryside and visit some of my favourite places around the island again.

I packed up my car with a first load of "essentials", and at 0545 on Tuesday morning I drove it to the ferry terminal. I sailed away on the ferry before dawn... this wasn't a final departure, but it was the one that mirrored how I'd first arrived in Stromness in 2010. It's a shame it wasn't possible to do it in daylight, but the ferry simple doesn't sail in daylight at this time of year. The drive south was much as it always is, although this time the new Forth crossing was clearly very close to completion, and at 4pm I was outside my new home to sign a tenancy agreement and collect keys. I had packed a sheet and a duvet in the first load, but it turned out to be a single fitted sheet for a double bed, so I slept in a sleeping bag.

The next morning I was up at 0530 to catch a train to Aberdeen for an all-day meeting there. That was unremarkable; I got back to Edinburgh the same day and spent another night in the sleeping bag.

On the Thursday I arose slightly later, caught a bus across town, and collected a hire van to take North again. I'd paid for a small van, and they gave me a large van, which made packing really easy but manoeuvring around Stromness less so... fortunately it had front and rear parking sensors, which are REALLY HELPFUL on something that's nearly 6m long. I drove all the way north, slept for a final time in my house of the last three years, then with the aid of a friend I packed all of my remaining belongings, cleaned the house, and ate dinner. The last one probably didn't actually require help, but the company was nice :-) Away to Kirkwall I went, and on to the overnight ferry to Aberdeen.

Saturday morning I drove the ~3 hrs to Edinburgh and unloaded, with the help of some helpful Edinburgh friends. They left me with welcoming noises, and a house full of boxes. I was shattered.

Fast forward another week and I have,
  • Mostly unpacked. There are no boxes left, although moving from a larger to a smaller home means there is a lot of clutter. I need to do some clearing out.
  • Bought a new battery for my car, after it refused to take me to Ikea.
  • Explored the local area a little, and sampled some local restaurants and pizza takeaways (foolishly I didn't think to put any kitchen equipment into the first load that I bought south...)
  • Started my new job, although after three days I don't yet have a computer on my desk.
My flat is in a tenement in Morningside, which is an area with a frightfully posh reputation. To my untrained eye one tenement building is much like another, but a street back from the main road and it's Victorian villas in leafy surrounds... for Londoners, it feels a little like what you'd get if Blackheath grew up and became a town rather than a village; lots of cafes, lots of bizzare minimalist furniture shops and other upmarket places that only need to sell one or two items a day, an "artisan cheesecake" shop... no affordable supermarkets (there's a Waitrose, an M&S Food Hall, and a Sainsburys Local that matches its prices to those), but a plethora of good-but-affordable restaurants. There are the remains of an old station, closed decades ago but with its platforms still visible, which tickles my love of industrial archaeology... and most importantly it's a 30 minute yomp from the city centre, a similar distance on foot to my work, and on a load of bus routes. I think I'm going to like it here.

[1] One of the special things about that campus is that I think of everybody from the other PhD students through to professor level as a "colleague".

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Jan. 31st, 2017

US politics - followup

After I wrote my post two days ago, I came across two interesting reads:

One was this article suggesting that what we've seen so far was the trial run for a coup - or at least pushing the boundaries to see what could be got away with. It's paranoid, but in current circumstances it's worth remembering that paranoids are not always wrong.

The other was this article, pointing out that everything we've seen so far can also be explained as a group of inexperienced and insecure people flailing around... it ties in with what a friend pointed out, that the purge at the State Dept feels a lot like somebody taking over a company that he knows dislikes him and trying to remove the institutional memory. Especially true if that somebody is paranoid and insecure and believes that the existing employees will work against him.

This all fits with the intent of my original post, which was to say that this is not necessarily a Grand Organised Masterplan, but that we should acknolwedge the possibility that it might be.

I don't think it actually makes much practical difference for everyday people. Whether they are disconnected incidents or part of a Grand Plan, the individual awfulnessess still need to be opposed - because if they are allowed go to through, then with or without a hidden agenda they win by default. We, and journalists in particular, do need to pay special attention to what happens with little fanfare while everybody is distracted by a shinier thing - but this form of media management is simply a part of modern politics and will happen in either case. We need to make sure that we keep saying no, and try to avoid "protest fatigue"[1].

For those of us outside the US, in particular, as well as general solidarity with Americans I think the best message that we can send is one to Congress of "the world is watching". I attended the demo in Edinburgh last night and was really pleased to see that, while much of the media reported a "protest about the travel ban", it was really a more general demonstration of feeling about Trump, about human rights, and against neo-Nazis and facism in the US, with individuals holding signs on a variety of different issues. The best sign, in my view, was a very simple one that simply read "Nae Nazis"[2].

Tweet from Liam Kirkaldy with a photo of the march on Market St, Edinburgh, taken from above on North Bridge. It shows lots of people!

[1] My personal level of clicktivism will be taking a dramatic downturn soon as I start my new job. But I don't think that will concern anybody ;-)
[2] The second and third best signs would probably be "Now you've got Grandma angry" and "I make the best signs. Everybody says so. They're tremendous".

Handwritten sign reading "I make the best signs. Everybody says so. They're tremendous."


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Jan. 29th, 2017

Poltics, and plans

This post is about US politics. I don't know a lot about US politics, and I'd like to apologise in advance to any American readers for whom this is either wrong, or obvious-and-patronising. In either case, I would be grateful to be told of it.

There's an old saying that one should never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence. In politics, I like to add a second line to say that one should never ascribe to Grand Secret Masterplans what can be explained by shortsighted opportunism. In general, these razors have served me well. They explain most of British politics most of the time[1], including Brexit.

I'm not entirely sure that these rules apply to what's happening in the US at the moment. There may well be malice in much of what Trump does, but more importantly I'm not sure that there isn't an undisclosed agenda in play. I don't think that Trump himself has much intent beyond the obvious (that is, Winning, as he sees it, and perhaps doing what he sees as a good job of running things). But many of his team are much bigger sharks than him, and in Bannon and perhaps others, there may be something more sinister. Trump's a delegator - he's said so himself[2] - so his lieutenants matter.

I'd been half-expecting the moral panic over "fake news" to morph into Something Must Be Done, leading to the administration gaining influence over the press. But the time for that has passed, for now, and at the moment it's probably still far enough from the Overton window of constitutional acceptability to be contemplated.

I'd be interested to know how the bans on certain nationalities entering the US has played with the US public in general. Obviously my bubble is overwhelmingly opposed to it, but that doesn't tell me anything. Equally obviously there will be vocal people on the internet who are just as strongly in favour, but without some numbers on this - on what proportion of the populace are for or against - there isn't much actual information. I'm curious as to whether this move backfired, or whether it's seen as a success by a majority of the Trump fan-base. Either way, two things have come out of it:

Firstly, this article. Twitter has mostly been focussing on "the border authority said that those with green cards wouldn't be affected, then Bannon and Miller overruled them", but the broader story here appears to be the administration refusing to consult affected experts. In other words, a group of rulers with no experience in politics or government is refusing advice from those whose job it will be to carry out the orders. This causes chaos and confusion, but also means that they will cause horrible side-effects unintentionally.

Secondly, the changes to the composition of the National Security Council. This hasn't had a huge amount of attention, since it was announced when everybody was looking at the airports, but from my position of ignorance regarding how US government works, it feels significant - the career military and intelligence experts have lost their permanent seats at the table, and Steve Bannon has gained one. This feels like it's a consolidation of power by Bannon, and strikes me as one of those moves that could turn out to be unimportant or could feature in a "one of the early moves was..." sentence in the history classes of the future.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember, in a big-picture sense, is that the new administration are not playing by the rules. US politics was dirty before, in that those involved would exploit the letter of the rules in unintended ways... but most of the politicians were lawyers, and rather like the kind of board gamers who are no fun to play with they would exploit the hell out of loopholes, and try to change laws to suit, but regard the laws themselves as sacrosanct. Trump and his boys are not lawyers, and are quite happy to do whatever they can get away with.

Here are three stories that I don't feel well-placed to judge the importance of, either because I don't understand America enough or which I think the (un)importance of will only become clear in hindsight:

- A theory as to why Trump registered as a candidate for the next election on the day of his inauguration, which is not usual behavior (the whole thread up to this tweet)
- The Department for Homeland Security appears to be ignoring an order from a federal judge, which had granted an emergency stay against some aspects of Trump's order
-
States openly using their own (legal) resources to oppose the federal government

hope that this is all down to the inexperienced flailings of some horrible people. I hope that there is no higher-level strategy with obvious analogies from history. I'm not yet ready to conclude that we're watching the early stages of an authoritarian takeover, but neither am I prepared to dismiss the possibility.

[1] if one accepts that Tories are not necessarily panto evil - that's the topic of another post, one that I've been trying to work out how to write for a few years
[2] My instinct is that he's actually a delegator until he decides to micromanage something. This probably makes him a nightmare to work for as a businessman, but is less relevant in the current context.

EDIT: This article pulls together the things that I had spotted and a few others, and concludes that this could be a trial run for a coup. It's paranoid, of course - it adds approximately 2, and approximately 2, and approximately 2, and gets exactly 6 for the worst possible interpretation - but it's worth remembering that paranoid people are not necessarily wrong.

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Jan. 28th, 2017

Credit where credit's due

Two things: 

1. Whatever else one may say about Theresa May (and I say plenty), she did appear to get Trump to commit to NATO yesterday. Or, that's what's being reported. It sounded to me more like she said that Trump was committed to NATO, and Trump didn't contradict her. Time will tell on how meaningful that is. But it's an improvement over the previous situation. He also seems to have backtracked somewhat re torture, which may or may not be anything to do with the PM.

2. The Homelessness Reduction Bill has made it through the Commons. I don't know much about this, but Crisis seem very pleased, and I tend to trust them on matters like this. It's something positive that's come from a Tory (albeit not from the Government), and also the first time in ages that a private members' bill seems to have been taken seriously.


Meanwhile.... ach, well the rest of the fascist clown car parade needs its own post - or possibly very much doesn't, given how much others have said - but I will note one thing about this morning's ban on immigration from specific countries, which isn't being picked up much in the media: it's not just "if you're from this place you can't get a US visa". It's apparently being applied to people who already hold green cards (i.e. have permanent residence in the US). Imagine a family with (say) Iranian citizenships living in the US. Two weeks ago, Little Johnny went on a holiday to Canada with his mates, and was on a plane on the way home at the time that Trump made his announcement... according to an interview I saw with an immigration official, Little Johnny would be turned around on landing and sent away, not allowed to return home to his family.
(I'm not specifically sure if this would be applied to unaccompanied kids. Little Johnny might need to be 18 for this to apply)

The implications for refugees that people are concentrating on are of course terrible, but in some regards this feels worse.

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Jan. 26th, 2017

Email to my MP

Sent this evening,

Dear Mr. Murray,

This is my first time writing to you, as a new constituent as of a week ago!
I am sure you have given the matters surrounding brexit far more thought than I have, but I would like to briefly outline my own views:

* I recognise that a majority of those who voted in the referendum wished to leave the EU
* However, among various other things that they said, the two Leave campaigns explicitly stated that the UK would remain in the single market. What was voted for was therefore not what is now being proposed by the government. The current government, and the PM in particular, were not elected as such. Hence, it could reasonably be argued that neither the PM's proposed "hard brexit" nor the current prime minister herself have any democratic mandate.
* I view the amendments to the A50 notification bill that have been proposed by Labour as sensible.
* In the event that a sufficient number of these, or equivalent, amendments, are not adopted, I think it is entirely reasonable and democratic for Labour MPs - especially those whose constituents voted strongly to Remain - to vote against this bill. I would like you to know that you would have my full support in doing so, and that I would regard this as a positive thing at the time of the next general election.

Thank you for your consideration.


Yours sincerely,
Simon Waldman
[address]

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Jan. 15th, 2017

Life update

Most readers probably know most of this, but to aid the confused, this is what's going on:
  • I'm still in the final year of my PhD. In theory that finishes at the end of March, but because of some time spent writing papers this year instead of working on my thesis, I won't be ready.
  • An opportunity arose to do a few months of "postdoc" work on the same project that my other work is loosely associated with, but with a different university.
  • Due to bureacracies grinding at their usual pace - especially with Christmas / New Year inserted - I only got written confirmation that I actually had the job about three weeks before I'm meant to start it. This has led to a lot of stress.
Anyway, the upshot is that I'll be moving to Edinburgh in the next couple of weeks. I'll be working for University of Edinburgh 4 days/week, and spending the remaining time finishing off my thesis. And, y'know, hopefully finding time and energy to make a life for myself there. I miss cities,and I hope I'm able to take advantage of being in one again. At the same time, I'll miss Orkney. Desperately. I always knew that was going to be the case, and I was reminded of it today as I got off a plane at Kirkwall, looked out to sea from the tarmac, exhaled and relaxed.

This weekend I've been in Edinburgh looking for a flat. This is a nightmare, because the letting market in Edinburgh is really awful. It's unbelievably expensive: I'm probably going to end up paying £600pcm + bills for a rather small one-bed flat, and that puts me at the low end of the market, where out of five that I saw, two were sufficiently grotty that I dismissed them out of hand. And yet, these places are taken within a day or two of going on the market. Sometimes less. I worked out this evening that when bills are included, I'm going to be paying more to live in Edinburgh than I was paying to live in a "weekly hotel" in Japan - and that included a maid to do the cleaning!
I like Edinburgh otherwise, and I think I'm going to enjoy living there, but the sheer cost has put a mental dampner on things. Both in cost and in difficulty in finding a place, it's worse than London (admittedly the London of 5-6 years ago. London is probably worse now than it was then).

I think that's most of what's going on at present, but if there's something that has mystified you recently then I probably forgot to mention it - so ask me below.


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Jan. 13th, 2017

BT strike again

I called BT a couple of days ago and asked them to cancel my phone and broadband service from the end of January.

Today I got a cheery email thanking me for my call and saying that my service would indeed be cut off on the 20th.

I called them to point out that the 20th Jan is not the end of January. The man on the phone agreed, but has no way to change the date. He has cancelled the cancellation, but that will take 24 hours to process, and until it has they can't do anything else on the account. And then it will be the weekend, when they're shut. So I must call then back again on Monday to start again with requesting the cancellation. And hope they get it right this time.

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Jan. 12th, 2017

Fucking letting agents.

They texted me last night to change the time of a viewing tomorrow (so about 36 hrs notice). In the text, they asked if I could make it. I couldn't make the new time, so I texted back offering alternatives. They didn't reply. I phoned them this afternoon to find out what's going on. They basically told me "that's the new time. Sorry you can't make it".

Another one cancelled on me yesterday, so I'm now spending three days in Edinburgh, and considerable expense, to see a grand total of five properties. And I bet at least one more will cancel before I actually see it.

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Jan. 11th, 2017

Example of Edinburgh letting agent

I called them two days ago asking for a viewing, and explaining that I would only be in Edinburgh on Friday or Saturday.
I was told that their viewings coordinator would call me back.

Today, two days later, I got an email as follows (bold text is theirs):

Thank you for your interest in our property at $street

 I am happy to let you know that we have arranged a viewing for Tuesday 17th January 2017  in the late afternoon.

 Could you please reply to my e-mail if you wish to attend the viewing and I will confirm the exact timing, full property address and send you the confirmation.

 Due to high demand and a limited amount of spaces only the first people to confirm can be guaranteed a viewing slot.


They didn't note down my requirements, waited two days without calling me back, and now are asking viewers to race each other to get a chance to look.

But why should they care? They know they'll let it. I feel like a supplicant, bowing to arrogant agents to be allowed to compete for the privilege of spending an unbelievable amount of money on a small and possibly-grotty flat.

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