Thoughts on 23K miles

A correspondent reminded me that I hadn’t yet posted my final thoughts about my big trip, as I’d promised. So here goes.

  • First and foremost, everything went exactly according to plan: the travel; my meetings in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, and Prague; the TAC meeting in Louisville, and the colloquium at SeeBeyond’s facility in Monrovia. Thanks to lots of people for all their support, especially Susan, Pam, Pavel, Ruchi, Vijay, and Greg.
  • With respect to Sun’s global engineering facilities, it’s ever so easy for a senior person to fly in for a quick visit, give a talk, shake a few hands, and disappear on the next flight out. The first time you show up, people are understandably cautious: is it going to be worthwhile taking the time to work with this visitor, or is he or she just another tourist? (Cf. Dilbert’s “bungee boss”.) On your second visit, people tend to open up, and you can accomplish a lot more.
  • Oddity #1: I visited a reasonably large bookshop in Bangalore, and two things struck me. First, there were as many business books as works of fiction. Second, many kinds of fiction and non-fiction works were shelved together. For example, science-fiction and science were shelved as a single subject; likewise whodunits and true crime. (And based on the computer books and magazines, it would appear that there are no Mac users in India… 🙁 )
  • Oddity #2: To get to the United Airlines Red Carpet Club lounge at Frankfurt airport, you have to go through an extra security check. Apparently the regular airport security is viewed as insufficient.
  • The new airport terminal at Prague is probably the most elegant (and functional) that I’ve ever seen.
  • Los Angeles is easy to navigate around, as long as you get precise directions. I downloaded turn-by-turn directions from LAX to my hotel in Arcadia into my Treo, and everything worked out fine. However instead of getting return directions, I relied on reading the original directions in reverse. Bad idea: within a few miles I found myself inadvertantly exiting the freeway into a maze of residential streets. Fortunately I had time to recover, but the lesson was clear.
  • Seamless voice and data connectivity worldwide is a reality. It’s not cheap – my voice and data roaming charges in India, the Czech Republic, and Germany totalled $400 – but performance was flawless. However with airborne WiFi becoming a reality, I think I’m going to have to investigate Skype.

"Watching the English"

During my recent travels, I picked up a copy of Kate Fox’s Watching the English. I’ve just finished it, and I can heartily and enthusiastically recommend it. On second thoughts, since I’m English, I should probably moderate my language:

The understatement rule means that a debilitating and painful chronic illness must be described as “a bit of a nuisance”; a truly horrific experience is “well, not exactly what I would have chosen”; an outstanding performance or achievement is “not bad”; an act of abominable cruelty is “not very friendly”, and an unforgivably stupid misjudgement is “not very clever”

On this scale, Watching the English is not bad. Not bad at all. And by now you may have guessed that Kate Fox is an anthropologist, and her book is an attempt to understand what it means to be English; what’s different about the English.
I was thinking of trying to summarize Fox’s conclusions – her “definition of Englishness” – but on reflection the summary wouldn’t be very useful on its own. She covers so many areas of life: language, dress, food, drinking, the weather, queuing, cars, pets, houses, sex, sports, work, and rites of passage. Class is a factor of course, but humour emerges as much more important.
Coincidentally there was a piece in today’s Boston Globe entitled A struggle to redefine ‘Britishness’, which included the following paragraph:

Britons are famously ambivalent about patriotism, according to anthropologist Kate Fox, who wrote a book on English behavior and who says patriotism violates the values of moderation and modesty that are part of being British. ”The English have a horror of earnestness, especially the sort of heart-on-sleeve sentimentality and solemnity indulged in by other nations expressing patriotic pride,” she said, citing Americans as an example.

Exactly. I moved to the US in 1981, and I remember the first time I found myself at some event (probably at my children’s school) where everybody was expected to put their hand on their heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I remember thinking, “Come off it! Don’t take yourselves so seriously!”, but of course I said nothing. In the chapter on Rites of passage, Fox observes:

At funerals, we are deprived of our primary social coping mechanism – our usual levels of humour and laughter being deemed inappropriate on such an officially sad occasion. […] This is fascinating but painful to watch, like some cruel vivisectionist’s animal behaviour experiment: observing the English at funerals feels like watching turtles deprived of their shells.

And for me, standing stiffly while those Americans around me are pledging allegiance feels remarkably like attending a funeral. Sorry, it always has done.
Oh, well, mustn’t grumble. How about a nice cup of tea?

Random 10

I’ve encountered the “Random 10” meme* on various blogs that I read, and I think I’m going to join in. This is what iTunes pulled out of my collection:
“Mass Destruction” by Faithless
“Little By Little” by Groove Armada
“Catch A Match” by The Legendary Pink Dots
“Scene Through The Eye Of A Lens” by Family
“Hour Of Need” by Faithless
“Nostradamus” by Al Stewart
“Absolutely Fabulous (Rollo Our Tribe Tongue In Cheek Mix) by the Pet Shop Boys with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley
“Space Manoeuvres” by Stage One (from John Digweed’s Northern Exposure III)
“The White Room” by The KLF
“Looking At You (Jimmy Gomez 6 A.M. Dub) by Sunscreem

* And similar things, like Suburban Guerilla’s Sunday Morning Shuffle.

Hyderabad too

Remember this picture from my tour of Hyderabad last year?
Charminar thumbnail.
The tower is front of us is the Charminar, in the heart of the old walled city. Just a few hours ago, according to The Times of India:

The city had another Friday convulsion as rioting erupted in the Old City over the Denmark cartoon controversy, with Islamic protesters burning and damaging vehicles and stoning shops in the area around Charminar.
This time, the walled city teetered on the edge of a communal riot as the rioters lobbed stones at shops at Gulzar Houz

Of course most of the property that was destroyed will have belonged to Muslims…

Where are the moderate Muslims?

Andrew Sullivan reports that the planned Gay Pride march in Moscow has been cancelled after threats from the Russian Muslim community:

Earlier this week Chief Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin warned that Russia’s Muslims would stage violent protests if the march went ahead. “If they come out on to the streets anyway they should be flogged. Any normal person would do that – Muslims and Orthodox Christians alike” … The cleric said the Koran taught that homosexuals should be killed because their lifestyle spells the extinction of the human race and said that gays had no human rights.

If this represents mainstream Muslim thinking, then a “clash of civilizations” is inevitable. If not, it is the responsibility of moderate Muslims to take back their faith from the extremists. I really don’t see any alternative. But the most depressing thing about this choice is that the Chief Mufti claims to speak for the Russian Muslim community as a whole. He, like Sistani, is supposed to be a moderate.
UPDATE: In today’s L.A.Times, Mansoor Ijaz tries to have it both ways: to argue that on the one hand the extremists do not represent Islam, while asserting that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”:

You either believe in the oneness of God or you don’t. You either believe in the teachings of his prophet or you don’t. You either learn those teachings and apply them to the circumstances of life in the country you have chosen to live in, or you shouldn’t live there.

But this is simply disingenuous: it assumes that there is only one possible interpretation of those “teachings”, and that there is only one way to “apply them to the circumstances of life”. Admit that neither is true, and his entire thesis falls apart.

Power and wind

I’ve been working at home yesterday and today, because we’ve had our electrical contractors in to replace our circuit breaker system. (If you remember, we had a circuit failure back in December.) For most of both days the power was off, but I had a spare fully-charged battery for my laptop, and I could still get to my email using my Treo.
Yesterday the weather here was almost perfect – sunny, 60F, light breeze. Today was dramatically different. This morning, the temperature zoomed into the 50s, and a band of heavy showers whipped across the area. As the cold front crossed Boston, the winds picked up to 45MPH, gusting to 60MPH. I retrieved the dustbins which had blown down the street; a few minutes later one of the electricians reported that a large branch was down in the driveway, blocking their truck. (Fortunately it didn’t hit anything.) We dragged it out of the way.
The electricians have now completed the bulk of the work (there’s one small sub-project to finish next week), and the house is starting to warm up. I’m relieved that everything worked out: by Saturday night the temperature will probably be down to 12F, and I’d prefer not to be without heat….