An alien in England: of pink cards, ninety-page forms and thousands of pounds.

This article, and issue, is getting a lot of comment, as well it should. However, the rather breathless naivety with which a fair number of my British friends have responded to this has made me realise some things that British people may not know about life as a foreigner in this country.

I am a resident alien. I have “indefinite leave to remain” (a phrase designed to weed out non-native speakers of British English at the first hurdle – try parsing that for your average eight year old). I have been here since 2008. A few notes about the experience (and bear in mind, that I am a highly educated white person from a first world country, who speaks English pretty much perfectly, who came here at the invitation of a university to take up a job – I am by far the most desirable of immigrants (by the standards of those who measure such things) and the most privileged, and my treatment was almost certainly the best of all possible treatments in the system).

1. I was deported on arrival. This is not uncommon. There was an error in the application for my work permit (not my error) and as a result, one Janet, working the border at Manchester International Airport, determined I was not legally entitled to enter the country. I spent a few hours sitting in the “immigration penalty box”, the glass-walled area to one side of the border for people to gawk at, before being escorted to collect my luggage, fingerprinted, and left alone in a locked room. I was not allowed to speak to Martin (his parents are British, and he has a British passport), and was told I would be flown back to Qatar. After a few hours, Janet went off shift, and I managed to persuade Hardeep, who replaced her, that I could be allowed to enter the country for twenty-four hours to arrange a flight to Canada, rather than Qatar, which would simply deny me entry. They confiscated my passport, and I was allowed to go to Preston, find Martin, book a flight to Canada and have a delightful conversation with my new boss and HR department to explain what had gone wrong. I called the immigration office at Manchester and gave them the details of my flight, two days hence (this was Friday, and the first flight I could get was on Monday), as I had been instructed to.

The next morning, at six am, the police arrived at the guest house we were staying at, and demanded to see me: according to them I had now been in the country more than my allowed twenty-four hours and was to be arrested. I showed them the details of my flight, and was allowed to call the Manchester Airport immigration centre, where, miracle of miracles, I was able to speak to Hardeep, and she managed to persuade the police that all was well, and after several conversations and tense waiting, they stood down. The guest house (where Martin ended up staying for another week on his own) were politely, and Britishly furious and resentful, and never forgave us. Breakfast was served with a side of spite and bile thenceforth.

On Monday I went to Manchester Airport for my flight (via the USA, because it was the first affordable flight I could get). I had no passport, and did as instructed, tried to check in and told the official that my passport was being held for me. Unfortunately, before checking in, I had to pass an American screening process, which I couldn’t do without a passport, and the American official was not interested in any explanation, and was loudly vocal in expressing this. I had to go to customer service, who called security, who showed up with guns, uniforms and my passport. Two of them escorted me to the American screening desk, where my recent UAE residence permit and assorted regional stamps caused a massive amount of interest and shouting and demands to know how long I had been in Saudi and what I had been doing there (I had not been to Saudi) – I am reasonably sure none of the Americans read Arabic, and they resisted all efforts on the part of anyone, me included, to explain. Finally, the Americans agreed that I could be allowed to proceed. Throughout this process, I was not allowed to touch my passport, I was made to stand to one side while an armed security guard dealt with the paperwork. Security stayed with me throughout the wait in the departure lounge, and only gave me my passport back at the door of the plane, my having been sufficiently publicly humiliated for now that they could let me go to the relatively humane treatment of USAir (insert hollow laugh here).

Once in Canada (after having to go through US border control, something which I will never do again, if I have any say in the matter), I had to spend ten days waiting for a new entry clearance (which went fairly smoothly – and thanks so much to the lovely invisible friends who let me squat in their basement), and then flew back to Manchester. Janet was not working the border when I arrived (I looked for her every time I came home through Manchester, and once had her as my official, but she betrayed no acknowledgement of me, or of what had happened), and after a tense few minutes my explanation was accepted, and I was allowed in, this time WITH my passport. Until that passport expired, I had to explain in great detail every single time I came in to the country why I had been denied entry, and was eyed suspiciously by all and sundry.

2. ID cards (residence permits) were introduced for all foreign residents in 2008. Before that, your residence was an insert into your passport, now it is a pink biometric ID card. In 2010, my passport expired, and I had to get an ID card to replace the entry clearance in my old passport. This cost several hundred pounds, and required me to go to the visa office in Liverpool for a day. I filled in my forms, made my appointment, paid my fee, paid the additional fee for faster service (see next part), and headed to Liverpool. About the fees, every single engagement with the home office comes at a cost, and there are always three tiers of cost. First is the basic service, usually postal, which requires you to send off all of your identifying documents to the abyss of a sorting centre somewhere in the UK, and wait for up to six weeks (sometimes forever) for your papers to be returned to you, duly stamped and processed, and one hopes, not denied (if they are, there is no appeal, no refunds and no explanation). Next is the premium service, which requires you to go to a centre somewhere and show your documents to an official, who checks them and returns them to you. You get your response within five days and get to keep your ID. Finally there is the super-premium (oligarchs and sheikhs) service, which is 24 hours, at your convenience, and probably involves gold-rimmed tea sets and sexual favours (at least, it should, for that price).

Appointment is a vague term. In this case it means come at that time and we’ll allow you to join the queue around then, if there’s space in the holding area. The place was packed, everyone clutching their papers, no food or drink is permitted, and the chairs are bolted to the floor. There is a ticketing system, and numbers are called, for various things. You get called to pay, then to confirm payment, then to have your papers looked at, then to be fingerprinted, then to have your iris scanned, then to be photographed, and then, finally, to be told you are done.It took most of a day, and there were people still there who had been there when I came, and seemed to have made no progress in those hours. My pink ID card arrived a week later.

3. Indefinite leave to remain. My work permit was valid for five years. At the end of that time, I could leave the country, have my employer apply for a new work permit (now called a tier 2 visa) or apply for indefinite leave to remain. Work permits are limited to one employer (ie, I couldn’t quit my job and go elsewhere in the UK – the work permit was effectively UCLan’s, not mine), and are tentative, so I opted for indefinite leave to remain. This is not simple. First, you have to pass the “Life in the UK” test. This costs money (of course) and you have to pay for the books (there is a good second hand trade in these), and is not a simple test. The test was interesting, and I learned a lot about the UK while studying for it. It has changed since, but when I took it, it included a lot of information about legal rights and responsibilities and how civil society works, and I doubt I have a British friend who could pass it. The test itself happens in a testing centre in a city (in my case Manchester), and you have to wait, then do the test on an ancient computer. You then have to sit until EVERYONE is done the test, then you have to wait again while each person is called in to hear their results, and escorted out through a separate door. It takes hours, mostly pointless, the kind of process that seems to have been designed primarily to remind the participants that they are at the mercy of mindless authority. I passed the test, and got a piece of A4 printer paper confirming that.

Then I had to prove I speak English. Yes. Really. My university degrees were from Canada and South Africa, both officially multi-lingual countries, so a degree from one of them does not count as evidence of English. No amount of discussion was allowed: according to them, I could have written my masters in Afrikaans (or Xhosa, or Zulu, or Sesotho, or…) at Rhodes University (bastion of South African Englishness that it still is, notwithstanding), or done my Bachelors in French (in far western Canada, where Mandarin and Punjabi are more widely spoken than French). The fact that I work and teach at a British university was irrelevant. Finally, they accepted my PGCertHE from Middlesex, as evidence of my speaking good enough English to stay. I was slightly disappointed, I’d kind of like to do the IELTS test, but it was expensive, and couldn’t be booked in time.

Yes, time. You have ninety days to apply for and receive indefinite leave to remain. You can only apply ninety days or fewer before the expiry of your work permit, and must have received indefinite leave to remain before your permit expires, or be deported.

The form is ninety four pages long. The guidance on completing the form is the same length, and has multiple references to things on websites. It took a week, at least, to complete. Among the things I needed were a detailed list of every single time I had left the country in time since I arrived, and formal confirmation from my employer that I was either on university business or had booked annual leave, for every visit. I also had to have the university write something confirming that they would continue to employ me after I had received indefinite leave to remain. The university’s HR department pretty much refused to do this, despite my having evidence of leave and and university-booked trips for every single one. I had to remind my dean that if they didn’t do the letters I would have to leave the country, and someone else would have to do my marking, which finally unstuck something and I got my letters. I had to have rent receipts for the full time I was in the UK, bank and tax statements, police clearances, vaccinations (not really, but I did need the NHS to confirm I don’t have TB) and probably dental records as well. It was a pile fourteen centimetres high of every single document I had ever received.

Exactly ninety days before my permit expired, I went online to make the appointment. No availability for six months.

Cue quiet hysterical screaming.

Call the call centre.

Keep trying, we release new appointments all the time.

A week of trying. Nothing.

Go online to the many many UKVI help forums, where I find out that new appointments are released on the system at midnight on Thursdays.

Finally, success, I have an appointment in Belfast two days before my permit expires. Belfast.

I pay the fees, this time it is thousands of pounds, and the additional fee for one-week premium service.

I keep checking the site, and eventually manage to switch to an appointment in Sheffield, which is cheaper and easier to get to. All appointments are at 9am, so we have to spend the night in Sheffield.

At 8:45am I arrive at the place in Sheffield, a non-descript government office, my towering pile of papers clutched in my hands (actually in a document box) and join dozens of other people waiting outside in Sheffield, in February. At 9am we are allowed in, through security, and we sit and silently judge each other’s piles of documents, and wait.

Three rounds of take a number here and wait to be called to check your payment receipts, check your appointment details, and I get to sit down in front of an official who picks up my ninety four page form, reads the first page, flicks to the end, reads the last page, glances at my box of papers, picks up my passport and looks at the picture, stamps my form and says “alright”.

Umm, what?

Do I take another number?

“No, that’s fine, we’ll send your confirmation in the post”

Really? I don’t need to do anything else?

Visibly annoyed now: “no, that’s fine, it’s all sorted, you’ll get your confirmation of indefinite leave to remain in the post”.

And that was it. Thousands of pounds, weeks of form filling and document collecting, nights of staying up to get an appointment, and she doesn’t even READ THE FRIGGING FORM, much less look at anything else.

I got my replacement pink ID card in the post, as she promised. I’m supposed to carry it with me at all times. I don’t.

On making a book

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I’ve been boasting all over the intarwebs about this, but I have (had) six copies of an actual printed bound book, with my name on it and all! It’s both an amazing thing, and something of a let down. The whole process has taken so long, and is so incremental, that having it finally done doesn’t feel like the massive accomplishment it should.

Just to give a sense of the time frame for this: in March 2010, Clare and I met with Mila Steele from Sage and discussed the possibility of doing a book. We wrote the first draft of the proposal in April,got some feedback after a few months, rewrote, and resubmitted. More feedback, back and forth, and in November we submitted a “final” draft proposal. We heard nothing and assumed that they weren’t interested. In June 2011, we were told the proposal was accepted, and that they wanted the book in twelve months. We wrote all that summer, and during the following year, submitted the first seven chapters in December (nothing), and the final manuscript in July 2012. Twenty-eight months after the initial proposal. On deadline, might I add, which was apparently completely unexpected, since everyone at Sage was on leave, and we didn’t even get an acknowledgement for a few weeks. In August we got feedback on the manuscript, rewrote, resubmitted, more feedback, rewrote, resubmitted. This went on for months, until March, when we finally signed off and got page proofs in April. The book arrived on Clare’s desk May 25th.

From the initial meeting to final book: three years and three months. Clare’s daughter, with whom she was pregnant when we first met with Mila, starts preschool in September. An entire cohort of students who were preparing for A levels when we started, have completed their degrees (and congratulations to all of them!) and are planning the  next phase of their lives.

This is not a critique of anyone, this is apparently how long it takes. We spend a solid twelve months writing the book, but that is less than one third of its gestation period – most of the time elapsed in reading and resubmitting proposals, peer review, and copy editing.
Anyway, it is done, and so help me, I’m actually considering doing another one. I’d say that it’s like childbirth – you forget the pain when considering having one more (not that I know, of course, but this is what people say).

Not that this process was painful. On the contrary, it wasn’t. Clare and I are still friends, and aside from two fights (actually one, spread out over two weeks), at a point when we were both unbelievably stressed, we worked very well together. Working with Clare was an excellent experience: I know she pushed me to meet deadlines and to focus on getting things done. We planned a lot, and used a lot of tools such as Zotero and Comapping, and that really helped with the process, and with knowing what we needed to do when. When I look at the book, it doesn’t feel like it was that much work, although it really was. It’s120 000 words, of which I wrote 55 000, and 10 000 we wrote together. But those 55 000 words are six chapters, each chapter planned into sections, case studies, examples, theory explanations, glossary elements and tips and tools. We planned all of this in advance, and we planned the content of each chapter carefully, so that when I sat down to write, it seemed as though I already knew what I was doing. Still, it ate up a whole year of my life, and a year before and after, in planning, preparing, and then finalising and now, lastly, the boasting.

See, I wrote half a book!

The Newsroom

So, I’ve seen the first episode of The Newsroom – Aaron Sorkin’s reboot of the West Wing, essentially.I really want to like it. I do. I loved the West Wing, loved the fantasy of smart people who actually get to run the world (or part of it), of serious conversations, and fast-paced lives. The Newsroom is more of the same, but in an environment I know much better – a newsroom.

But still…

First of all, there are the women (and so far only the women) who veer erratically from brilliant and in control to incompetent mess (always predicated by emotional stuff) in a matter of seconds. It’s belittling and infuriating, and in the second episode we got to see both women on the show doing exactly that. Plus, there’s a woman with a PhD in economics and the only thing she’s interested in is whether Will cheated on Mackenzie. Sure. So far, I don’t believe the show actually passes the Bechdel test, since I can’t recall Maggie and Mackenzie actually ever talking about anything other than her relationship, and Sloane and Mackenzie moved very quickly from work to relationships. Oh, and can I talk about names? Three women on the show: two ballbreakers with men’s names, and one little girl who tries to dump her diminutive nickname for a serious one, and fails. Blech again.
And the Indian guy’s the IT specialist/blogger. How rare and original.

Hate hate hate the Charlie Skinner as alcoholic thing (I can’t call it a plot point, because it’s not, yet). Alcoholism is the journalists’ disease and lots of them succumb, but very very few ever make it to the head of news of a major network, not while drinking. It doesn’t work that way now, and I doubt it ever did. I’ve worked with, and for, a number of drunks, and the only one in a senior position was part of a political triumvirate placed at the SABC by the ANC who remained there for reasons which have NOTHING to do with the job (and he’s now on “special leave”). Alcoholics don’t rise to senior positions and stay there because drinking is incompatible with doing the job. Charlie is shown drinking, but never drunk, and that is telling. It’s simply not possible to have one character portray alcoholism and doing a senior management job realistically. As it is, Sorkin’s opted for telling us he’s a drunk rather than showing us, and it’s just a cheap nod to prejudice about journalists (oooh, a show about a newsroom, one of them must be an alcoholic, we need at least two black people, an Indian and a few women – call central casting).

But now we come to the hollow hollow heart of the show. The idea that Mackenzie and Will want to create the kind of news they (or Aaron Sorkin) imagine Edward R Murrow made. This is breathtakingly dishonest. In the USA, the news has always been commercial, always been ratings-driven, and the idea that any channel would allow the kinds of changes they are proposing is so far-fetched that the whole show becomes as fantastical as Game of Thrones.
There is no way Mackenzie (and possibly Will, depending on whether he has producer status as well as anchor) would NOT be dragged into ratings meetings at least once a week, and the data would be sent out to them in any case. The whole fantasy of if you build it, they will come, is lovely, but completely misguided. The West Wing worked because Bartlett was President, and could do what he wanted, within the bounds of the political structure. I suspect the Newsroom won’t work because Will and Mackenzie are much much smaller cogs in a massive mechanism, and can’t act like free agents.

The whole myth that if you make smart news, people will watch is rubbish, and although the critique of the current state of American broadcast news is pithy, the solution is not going to be simply “hire an American who sounds British and let her run things”, believe me. It’s not even whether people will watch, it’s whether advertisers believe they will, and in a climate where more and more channels and media are scrambling for fewer and fewer advertising clients, the station managers would never wait to find out. After the first show, advertisers would be leaving in droves, and that would be it.

The corporate nature of news, the reliance on advertising revenue, the fact that the whole medium’s raison d’etre is the making of profit for the shareholders, none of this can be ignored, or glossed over. The fact that Mackenzie speaks with a British accent, despite being American (and how American – Sorkin makes sure we know she’s as American as Apple Pie and twice as patriotic),  is telling: she represents both the BBC and its publicly-funded, intelligent news that is not beholden to financial interests (or the fantasy thereof), although Sorkin can’t say as much, because to imply to an American audience that other people do news better than they Americans would ensure that he never ate lunch in Hollywood again. So, she sounds British (although WTF? I have NEVER met an embassy brat who didn’t sound like their parents, and in any case, her father would never have been Ambassador for her entire childhood – that’s not how ambassadorships work), and she’s been in Afghanistan, which explains why she appears to not know how to work technology (again, WTF? there is nobody more reliant on technology than a foreign correspondent, and therefore nobody who knows more about technology), and so she gets to be the foreigner who explains to the natives how it’s really done (see approximately one third of the movies ever made). Except, she wouldn’t. Because, see above re: corporate nature of news.

And also, because she was a correspondent, not an EP, and they are completely different jobs.(Now starts the technical nitpicking) Sure, people go from one to the other, but not that fast (and not to a panel show), and after years in the field she would have had no idea what she was doing in the gallery, who all those people are, or even much of the jargon. The  point at which I realised that a) she knows how to use a Blackberry (a device that outside of the US is only used by teenagers, and never in war zones, since RIM hasn’t bothered to make them work in places without sufficient population density), but can’t avoid sending an email to all staff, twice, in one episode; and b) she knows how to run a panel news show (at least I think it’s a panel discussion, it’s not at all clear what the show is, exactly), and how to run the gallery, what an SOT is, how to create and manage a rundown, during one, despite apparently never having done it before, that I realised she really is the equivalent of Dorothy flying in on a tornado to teach the munchkins how to overthrow the wizard.

On the other hand, she is pretty kickass, and despite talking about taking Maggie shopping and girl bonding over bad boyfriends, I don’t think the show is going to have her weeping into tubs of Haagen-Dasz over Will, and for that, one must be grateful. So, I’ll keep watching and recording, and will probably use chunks in lectures next year. It’s still good, just not perfect.

There’s something about trains that makes me feel like an adult. Combine a commuter train with a paper cup of coffee and I’m overwhelmed with a sense of being an important and accomplished person, on my way to do something meaningful and significant.

It’s always winter in these kinds of situations, it seems. One of my first memories of really feeling like a grown-up is a purely evocative sense memory of getting off the Skytrain in Vancouver at Granville street, wearing a long navy blue blue wool coat (second-hand, naturally), carrying a shoulder bag and a cup of coffee, and being swept along with all the business people on their way to work. I’m not sure when this memory dates from, but it is pretty powerful.

I don’t take trains very often, and I’ve only ever for one brief period of my life used a train as my daily commute. I wish I could take trains every day, actually (we are considering moving, so this may come true), but I always seem to end up living in other circumstances.

In South Africa and the Middle East, it was pretty much impossible to cope with daily life without a car. Obviously, lots of people do cope, using taxis, busses and informal public transport, as well as walking and bicycles. For someone with a white-collar job, though, it can be hard, and in Dubai, living in university-issue accommodation in a neighbourhood without busses, it was hard and expensive to not have a car. My colleagues without cars relied heavily on those of us with cars, which creates its own set of issues.

Since we’ve been in the UK, we haven’t had a car, and in fact, neither of us is now legally allowed to drive. We only miss it sometimes. Getting across the country by train is a pain (up and down is a lot easier), and it would be nice to be able to rent a car and go camping somewhere. We are working on it (or Martin is), but we really don’t want to own one. I look at cars now, and think, weird objects, why would you want one?

But I still want to ride a train.

I’m not sure how I feel about the #IamSpartacus campaign on Twitter.

On the one hand, freedom of speech is important, but on the other hand, threatening to blow up an airport – how stupid can you be? I don’t actually think it’s about Twitter, really, either. I know the campaigners believe that Twitter is being singled out, and this is some kind of blow for free speech on the Internet, but I’m sorry, I don’t. If anything, this shows that Twitter is just like any other kind of speech, and there are some things you should think twice about saying.

Like threatening to blow up an airport.

Or asking to have someone murdered.

In his defense, Gareth Compton has called Twitter a “a forum for glib comment” and asked “Who could possibly think it was serious?” Except that plenty of the stuff on Twitter is serious, and should be taken seriously. The irony of a campaign on Twitter to defend the frivolity of tweeting cannot be lost on everyone, surely.

Going back to the original tweet, from Paul Chambers, I find it hard to be sympathetic. I mean, come on. Yes, we know security is ridiculous, yes we know the police overreact, so why the hell would you provoke them by posting something like that? And really, if you want to campaign to protest the expansion of police powers and the erosion of civil liberty in the name of the “war on terror” (and I sure as hell do) you could do far better than defending some tosser who was pissed at an airport for being closed by weather.

How about campaigning for the rights of the more than 100 000 people stopped by the police under stop and search laws last year? Of whom only 504 were arrested, and none of them for terrorism-related offences, which is what the stop and search law was created to prevent. How about walking into every police station inteh country, ringing the little bell, and saying “I am Spartacus”. If nothing else, it would be a lot more interesting to see than thousands of tweets threatening to blow up airports.

This morning, well before 9am, I was on my way to the shops to buy essential breakfast supplies when I passed a guy, in his twenties or so, swigging from a can of lager. This is not at all a remarkable event in this neighbourhood. I routinely see guys (and it is always men) drinking beer at the bus stop in the mornings. It’s always one of the extra-strength lagers, in the dark blue can, or the one in the black can. They’re don’t seem to be particularly drunk, any of them, or worried that anyone can see what they’re drinking so early in the morning. I really have to think that this is routine, that there are men in my neighbourhood for whom the morning can of Tennant’s is as routine as my morning cup of tea is for me.

It is probably this that is the most alien experience of England for me (well, that and the inexplicable popularity of mushy peas). I don’t have much of a relationship with alcohol myself, neither a good one nor a bad one. I tell people I don’t drink, but that’s not really true. I do occasionally drink, but I seldom think to. My first thought in a restaurant when asked what I want to drink is usually water, or maybe lemonade. It hardly ever occurs to me to order alcohol, and I tend only to drink it when it is very visible, and everyone else clearly is (which means I have drunk more alcohol in the last two years in the UK than I did in the previous ten in South Africa and the UAE). I only ever buy alcohol for cooking purposes.

This is a university town, and one kind of expects that there will be a lot of drinking, and the area around campus definitely shows the evidence of that, but I live far enough away from campus that there are few students around. Despite that, of the little two block strip of shops near me, there is a pub, and two small grocery shops, of which at least one third of their shelf space is taken up by alcohol, and four takeaways.

Alcohol consumption is high in the UK, and it carries a heavy social cost. It’s a point of some contention, carrying with it aspects of class discrimination and snobbery, as well as social opprobrium. The problem is, it’s hard to not sound like a moralising harpy when criticising people for their drinking habits; no matter how much you try to make the conversation about health, or social disorder, it always seems to come back to a kind of puritanical list of ” shoulds and shouldn’ts”. On the other hand, it would be hard to really defend the level of alcohol consumption that is prevalent here. Seeing the guys at the bus stop in the mornings, and knowing that there is no local industry that runs a night shift (ie, there is no reasonable possibility that this is the end of their day, and they are heading home to bed), I can’t help concluding that these are people showing up for work in the morning already slightly drunk. At the risk of sounding flippant: this can’t be good.

Of course, as someone who doesn’t drink, and never really has (I’ve been drunk three times in my life, all in my late twenties, and all because I decided I needed to get drunk to see what all the fuss is about), I feel as though I shouldn’t really comment. I don’t know why I don’t drink, honestly. Alcohol was neither prevalent nor taboo in the house – I saw my parents drink on special occasions, we were allowed wine or sherry from a pretty young age. I grew up in a pretty typical Canadian way, friends got drunk at parties from around 16 or so, although I never did, I know a few kids who died as a result of drunkenness, but nobody really close to me was affected. I did spend a fair chunk of my university life being the only sober one in any given [likely vomit and blood-spattered] room, which is never fun, but I also avoided the most drunken environments after a while. The fact is, I don’t like the sensation of being drunk, and it doesn’t make me enjoy social occasions more: the contrary, in fact – alcohol makes me sleepy and weepy. In fact, the only time I ever seek out alcohol is when I’m wound up with insomnia and desperately need to sleep, and have nothing else available (don’t get me started on my relationship with zolpidem – now that’s a drug I would probably buy on street corners if I had to).

Which is why I found this research interesting. I know it’s not new, I know it’s not really an “alcoholism gene”, but the idea that I metabolise alcohol differently from the guy at the bus stop this morning is extremely seductive, if for no other reason than it doesn’t leave me with nothing but moral s fall back on. I don’t like smugness, especially not in myself.

I miss the nerds.

Way back in the mists of time, when I was young, nerds were a subculture. They (note, much as I would love to call myself a nerd, I’m really not) hung out in labs, in front of glowing green screens and mainframe computers, they played Dungeons and Dragons on Fridays nights in their parents’ basements, with twenty-sided dice and lots of friends. They were mostly guys, but there were girls, too, nothing like the girls from my suburban high school – all feathered hair and handbags. These girls were smart, and funny and not afraid to show it. They wore interesting and sensible clothes, or fancy sexy clothes, or old ragged clothes because they couldn’t be bothered. They wore their hair however they liked, and whatever shoes they wanted. They had backpacks full of books and ideas, not handbags full of combs and make-up.
They were smart, too. Not all of them, but some of them were really smart, and the conversation flew, puns and jokes and philosophy and computers and movies and books. Real conversation. Not what I now know is the kind of conversation designed to create and destroy social cohesion, conversation full of traps and pitfalls and inside comments designed to show where the boundaries are and who is inside and outside of them. This was conversation for the sake of finding out stuff, and it was next to impossible to say the wrong thing and be shunned (as far as I could tell, that is).
Nerds were my people.
Over the last 25 years or so, I have hung out on the fringes of the nerd subculture to various degrees. I wasn’t a science or engineering student, but I did use the university’s mainframe to write essays and participate in the discussion fora. I was a journalist, but I knew about computers, so I gravitated to other computer-geeky-journalists. Then I was a science and technology journalist, in the early nineties, so I got to hang out with and interview hackers and nerds and geeks (and corporate PR types in branded golf shirts, too, some of whom were secretly nerds under the plastic coated logos).
When I joined the university, I met more nerds, graduate students in computing science, my own students with nerdy leanings, colleagues with secret stashes of comic books and games. We formed a kind of subgroup within the university – my colleagues in journalism were baffled by my having coffee with PhD students in computing science, with me talking to people about the VAX in the basement – the one that brought the Internet to South Africa, right under the nose of Vorster, who would not have approved.
In the last decade, though, I’ve been wondering: where have the nerds gone?
One of the side effects of the mainstreaming of computer technology is that the subculture has all but vanished. Now everyone is on the internet, everyone knows about lolcats and xkcd, most people have heard of Warcraft (although not played it). That flash of recognition, when nerd meets nerd, is all but gone. Students who want to write about gaming are crawling out of the walls, there is no sense of secret and private knowledge, of access to things other people don’t know, or care about at all.
Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is fabulous – an amazing invention, and the fact that there are two billion people online is truly incredible. I’m glad that there are millions who communicate every day, that Twitter lets me and everyone else know the latest celebrity death hoax almost instantaneously, that Google’s dispute with the Chinese government is the lead on the evening news (even if they do get it wrong). I just miss that sense of belonging, that sense that there are only a handful of us, and we know each other by secret means. I miss my fellow travellers, now that we’ve been overtaken by the corporate behemoths, intent on advertising and market share and revenue streams.
I miss the nerds.

This is chiming in with the chorus way too late, but I’ve been chewing on this for a while. Why Rod Liddle should not become editor of the Independent.

Apparently Lebedev has said that if he buys the Indy, he will make Rod Liddle editor. There’s a campaign to boycott the Indy if this happens. I support this wholeheartedly, although, to be honest, I seldom buy the Indy, since it shows up at the office, and when I do buy it, it’s at a discount on the campus shop. I can’t say I’ll refuse to read it, since I read a lot of newspapers, but if it changes it will no longer be my favourite newspaper to read for non-research purposes. Take that as a threat, you Russian, you!
I don’t read much of Liddle. A while back when we accidentally subscribed to the Spectator (long story), I used to read him and Toby Young sometimes. I freely admit that I have read more comment about him in the last three weeks than I have of his actual output. However, this is a blog, so lack of research should not prevent me from having an opinion, so here’s my opinion: Rod Liddle should not be appointed editor for the following reasons:
1) He’s too famous. I realise that Britain does have something of a tendency to make celebrities of their journalists, but I don’t believe this is a good thing for the newspaper. Editing a paper, especially a serious and intellectual one like the Indy is (or should be), requires someone who cares more about the news than about themselves as editor. Editing a paper in difficulties, as the Indy is, needs someone who will make it their first and only priority, who will be there every day, who will read it and nurture it and their staff, who cannot be anything other than demoralised at this point. Maybe Liddle would abandon all his other ventures, give up his columns and his other activities and be in the office every day. I hope so, but I suspect not. It’s clear that Lebedev thinks that one way to make people notice the Indy is to appoint someone famous as its editor, generate a bit of PR. I can see that argument, in the short term, but in the longer term, I don’t think this would work, especially not for a paper like the Independent.
2) He’s either a twit or a racist (or both). Either, as he claims, he is too stupid to pick a decent password for his membership in an online community, and too thick to work out how to delete posts or change his password once he figured out that someone was impersonating him, or those posts are genuinely his. If it is the former, then anyone hiring him needs to take a close look at his supposed skills and qualifications – he is clearly not fit for employment in the modern world, and especially not at a media company that has a substantial online presence. What’s he going to do, pick ‘liddle’ as his staff password and allow his email address to be hacked by disgruntled staff who then proceed to send rude messages to all the advertisers under his name? If he did make those posts, then he clearly holds some repugnant opinions. He may claim that the racist content of his columns is intended as a wind-up, that he’s playing devil’s advocate for the sake of argument and debate (more on that below), but that argument is pretty weak when it comes to posts made on a discussion board using a pseudonym. There is no way he can claim his participation on the Milwall supporters’ board is anything other than a leisure activity for him: he’s an ardent fan of the club, so if he were playing a game and spreading vile comments around for the sake of some social experiment, why is he shitting in his own back yard, as it were? In any case, his bylined columns display much of the same opinions – the point about the Milwall posts is not that they are offensive (after all, they are anonymous, and he is entitled to hold all sorts of opinions repulsive or not), but that they put the lie to any claim that his columns in a similar vein are only ‘for show’, or playing some kind of postmodernist relativistic game of devil’s advocate, since he evinces the same opinions behind closed doors, for free.
3) He’s one of the ‘wanker boys’. We don’t need more ‘wanker boys’ in position to influence opinion and policy in this country. Wanker boys are grown men who behave like fourteen-year-old boys and are proud of it. Ross and Brand are wanker boys – phoning up an old man and saying “ha ha, I saw your granddaughter’s tits” is classic wanker boy behaviour. So is opining that a highly-accomplished female athlete must be willing to perform all sorts of perverted acts in order to get a boyfriend because she isn’t the right kind of attractive. Comedians are often wanker boys, and while I find it offensive and unfunny, it’s kind of par for the industry. The issue is when this kind of attitude is permitted and aggrandised in other areas. Rod Liddle is not a comedian, he’s supposedly a journalist, but he seems to think that it is relevant or meaningful to judge the performance of a senior government minister on whether or not he would sleep with her. That’s the level of his engagement with serious issues: how drunk would you have to be to fuck her? Aside from the offensiveness of the whole concept (and I am seriously tempted to make a comment here about how physically repulsive Liddle himself appears to be – even in his byline pic – and how likely it is that any woman with a brain would even consider getting within ten feet of the man, but that would be validating the tack of his argument – that appearance is at all relevant when discussing politics, or journalism, or anything important), is this the best he can do? He can’t think of anything else to say, or write about, than his own dick? That is essentially the problem with wanker boys – they are incapable of engaging with anything beyond themselves or their desires, and that makes them useless as participants in civil society.
Leave Rod Liddle to his column, and his girlfriends, and his fan club of born-again suburbanites, and hire a real journalist to run the Indy. Someone with a brain who is not afraid to show it. There must be one or two intelligent, articulate and thoughtful British journalists left, surely?

So, Google says it’s going to stop filtering search results for their Chinese search engine ( If that means they become required to leave China, so be it. The exact wording is: “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.”

Interestingly, this is being reported largely that Google has said it will pull out of China, which is not correct. They may well have to pull out of China, and shut down, but they haven’t said they will. They are very clearly leaving the ball in the government’s court, and I suspect that if they are told to leave, they will attempt to make very clear that they are being evicted, not that they have chosen to go. Unfortunately, the meme may already have spoken: Google is taking its marbles and going home.

The general take on this side of the Firewall is that this is a bad business move. This approach really frustrates me, and is indicative of the extent to which we ascribe only business motives to business entities. The assumption seems to be that a) Google must want to be the largest and wealthiest [technology] company in the world; and b) that in order to ‘win’, they must have China as a market. There is also an assumption that they owe it to the shareholders to do so. This, of course, ignores Google’s mission statement [Don’t be evil], something which is usually only reported as a kind of joke. Few people seem to believe that it may be entirely serious. It also assumes (in line with conventional wisdom) that China is the single most important market in the world, for almost any product. This is probably not true. In any case, Google only ever had a small part of the search market in China, and didn’t seem to be in much of a position to increase that. (Baidu is the main search engine in China. Look familiar? Although, Baidu has its own problems right now. ) What is not often reported is the reason why Google is doing this.

Behind the Firewall, reactions are mixed. (Disclaimer: I don’t read or speak Chinese. Everything I know I learnt from Chinahush, Chinasmack, Chinageeks, Danwei, Digital Times, China Media Project and other such sites). There is the usual cry of ‘China is better at everything, who needs Google?’ jingoism, mixed in with more serious discussions of what this may mean for the average user in China. People are testing the search engines and not seeing any major changes in results so far. People are also worried about what will happen to services like Gmail, especially. [Heck, I’m worried that the next time I’m in China I won’t be able to access my email myself.]

What I’m interested in is something which is not often discussed: what sector of the Chinese public would be most inconvenienced by the loss of Google? I have absolutely no way of knowing this, but my instinct is that it would be the better-educated and more outward-looking ‘netizens’ [not my favourite word, but pretty much unavoidable now] who are most likely to use their services, as opposed to sina, or baidu, or any one of the many other homegrown sites. I know I have my students create Google accounts for assignments/blogs/etc while they are here, and I know several who continued to use them when they returned. I can’t help thinking that it will just make China more insular if/when Google goes.