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Californian taxis, gun ownership and democracy

A couple of days ago, Wendy and I took a taxi from our hotel in San Diego to the airport, very kindly paid for by our hotel. The taxi driver was a chatty fellow and struck up the traditional “going to the airport” conversation beloved of taxi driver across the world.

Wendy mentioned that she was from Northern Ireland, which led to all the usual questions: Is that part of the UK? Is all of Ireland in the UK? Don’t the Northern Irish fight with the UK? Is Northern Ireland part of Brexit?


But then: What do people in the UK make of Trump?

Now, I thought we were on safe territory here. We were in California. Even I, as an uninformed Brit, knew California to be a true blue Democratic state. No Republican presidential candidate has won California this century.

Nevertheless, I played it safe with a politely non-committal response, suggesting that while Trump wasn’t personally very popular in the UK, Brits respected the outcome of the election, and the country is so interested in his impact that he’s rarely out of the British newspapers.

The taxi driver’s equal non-committal, “he’s surely shaking things up,” didn’t give any immediate indication of the transgression I’d made.


It was harder to remain neutral on his follow-up: “So what have you thought about guns while you’ve been here?”

Wendy’s eyes widened slightly as I admitted that I’d been slightly uncomfortable to see so many people with guns, from policemen on the streets to the border control officer who’d stamped our passport. This, I explained, was very different to the situation in the UK.

“But police are armed in the UK, right?”

I explained that a small number of officers carry weapons, and that there are armed rapid response units, but that the average police officer on the street carries nothing more threatening than a truncheon.


I’m afraid, dear reader, that this provoked a rant from our driver.

Firstly: “So that’s why you have so many terrorist attacks!”

Secondly, he asked whether I have heard of the campaigns in the UK for wider gun ownership. When I admitted ignorance, he blamed “the liberals that control your media”.

Thirdly, returning to California, he described his incredulity at the fact that he, both in his capacity as a private citizen and as a professional taxi driver, was not permitted to carry a concealed weapon. He told us how he was once, some years ago, robbed when getting out of his taxi. This would not, he suggested, have happened had he been carrying a concealed weapon.

Fourthly, he told us how Trump wants to allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon, and that this made him a great President. Our driver wasn’t sure that unrestricted concealed carrying of weapons would be allowed any time soon in California, because that state had “crazy laws” and a “corrupt Democratic governor”. He claimed that the Governor “hates guns and doesn’t want anyone to have them”.

Fifthly, he asks if we in the UK had ever heard of Crooked Hillary? “They call her that for a reason,” and one of the reasons is that she wanted to take away all the guns. Which would only lead to endless terrorist shootings like in the UK. He didn’t say that she should be locked up, but he might as well have done.

When I could get a word in edgeways, I pointed out that we had had no recent terrorist shootings in the UK. The driver said I was lying, that there was that arena attack in Manchester when all the kids were shot. I had no chance to point out that guns weren’t involved.

Sixthly, our driver told us that the many school shootings “around the world” were only being effectively tackled in the US, where upstanding citizens with guns shoot dead the shooters.

At this point, we pulled up outside Terminal 2 of Lindbergh Field and Wendy and I barrelled out of the taxi while thanking the driver excessively in a very British manner.

As he drove away, Wendy and I looked at one another and breathed. I think we were both in a sort of mild shock. The conversation made us reflect on how one can’t really have a sensible political conversation with someone whose factual frame of reference is so divorced from reality.

It made me reflect on the threat of “fake news” – a problem long before social media came along, but perhaps amplified by it. Continual exposure to counterfactual stories shifts one’s frame of reference, and make seemingly illogical conclusions entirely rational.

It made me reflect on how much more difficult political life must be these days: how can a politician ever thrive if their views are misrepresented even by their supporters and to their supporters? A politician cannot deliver on a promise they have never made, and cannot defend themselves against false accusations when every correction is percieved as a “cover-up”.

This conversation was something of an epiphany for me, helping me to see how broken this part of our society has become. In decades past, we lived in a world where the means of publication were (to all intents and purposes) controlled, and we could (by and large) distinguish fact from fiction. Today, anyone can publish anything, and few people have the will or means to verify any of it. We’ve moved from a world of limited reliable information to a world where every scrap of information is at our fingertips, but we can’t tell which morsels are fact and which are fiction. And yet, in a democracy, we rely on the population making that distinction accurately in order to make the right decisions for society.

I have no solutions to offer for any of this. In his book, Ryan Holiday suggests that subscription-based news is the answer, as it places value on truth over page views. The BBC likes to present itself as part of the answer. Tech companies sometimes suggest that the algorithmic triangulation of stories can play a role. People with minds more radical than mine might suggest that this is the time to find some other form of democracy than directly voting for a legislative representative.

I’ve no idea who is right. But in the course of one taxi journey, I’ve been convinced more than ever that an answer is urgently needed.


The taxi image at the top of this post is by Ad Meskens. It gives the slightly misleading impression that Wendy and I were travelling in a yellow cab, when in fact we were in more of van. The gun hoslter image in the middle of the post is by Takeshi Mano. Both images are used here under their Creative Commons licences.

This 2,448th post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

The assassination of JFK

The assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy occurred 22 years before I was born. Nevertheless, his presidency and untimely death are such important moments US history that I think most people feel a connection to them, even those of us who didn’t live through them. Myriad cultural references and endless conspiracy theories have kept the assassination in the collective conscious, while the presidency is still very frequently discussed in the context of the Bay of Pigs disaster, the announcement of the goal to land men on the moon, and members of the wider dynasty demonstrating political ambition.

The events at Delaney Plaza in Dallas on Friday 22 November 1963 have been examined and re-examined countless times. Over the years, despite making no special effort, I’ve must have read a huge number of articles about them and have seen countless documentaries, from sober retellings to explorations of outlandish conspiracy theories. I imagine most people are in the same boat.

And so earlier this week, I was intrigued to have the opportunity to visit Delaney Plaza for myself. It wasn’t quite as I had expected.

The former Texas School Book Depository is still there and looks much as it does in the assassination footage. The Sixth Floor has been turned into a museum to the assassination, which I didn’t have chance to visit.

As you can see in the bottom-right of the above photo, the building is marked by a large plaque. This sets out the long history of the site, dealing with the assassination only in the final paragraph, with seemingly permanent scratching acknowledging the conspiracy theories surrounding the “official” version of events.

On the road below, a crudely drawn “X” marks the spot the motorcade was passing as the fatal shot was taken, with part of the much-discussed grassy knoll immediately behind it. The road remains a rather busy traffic thoroughfare, albeit one with random strangers standing and gawping from the pavement (including me).

My over-riding impression was that the whole site was far smaller than I had imagined it to be. Delaney Plaza itself wasn’t very big, and the key locations are within a roughly 50m square. I always had in mind that the shots fired had to travel quite a long way to meet their mark, much like the Hollywood trope of the long-range sniper. In fact, everything was really rather close together. Despite thinking that I had a good idea of what had happened, my mental image was completely wrong.

Until I visited, I had no idea there was a memorial plaza to Kennedy a short distance away. The actual memorial takes the form of a sort of concrete screen, intended to be suggestive of a sort of open tomb.

In the centre is an empty plinth.

This caught me a bit off guard. Despite (or perhaps because of) the simplicity of the design, standing alone in an almost silent enclave in the centre of a very busy city with nothing to look at but the absence of a revered man is really quite a moving experience. The memorial was funded through contributions from thousands of individual citizens of Dallas, in a manner that seems both poignant and somehow dated: erecting a monument by public subscription feels like something that happened in the Victorian era more than the 1970s. Perhaps it’s due for a come-back.

I’m glad I visited, and feel like the visit has given me a new perspective on an important event of the 20th century. But at the same time, I have to confess that it all feels a little bit wrong to me. This is the scene of one of the most notorious murders of our time, and it feels a little bit like it has been turned into a tourist attraction. There is a even a café and gift shop. I’m one of the tourists, and appreciate the hypocrisy of this stance, but I can’t help but feel that this isn’t how anyone would want to be remembered. Would anybody really want such a focus on their death as opposed to their life? Why would anyone want to be remembered as the victim of their own murder, as opposed to being remembered for their lifetime of achievements?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what the subject would have wanted. Perhaps it is important to use the attraction of the historical site to make sure that people are educated about the historical event—and if someone makes a profit as a result, then that’s just the American way. But I have to confess that my feelings of interest and intrigued as I wandered round were mixed with a slight feeling of ickiness. Still, I’m glad I visited.


The picture of JFK at the top of this post is in the public domain. The others are all my own.

This 2,447th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

Crossing the US-Mexico border

Yesterday, while Wendy was busy presenting at an international conference, I crossed the border from California to Tijuana to go exploring.

From San Diego, this was very straightforward. The Blue Line on the San Diego Trolley took me directly to San Ysidro, the district on the US side of the US-Mexico border. The Trolley stop is maybe 200 metres from the border crossing point, and there are helpful signs to put the way. There are also lots of slightly threatening signs from the US Government about covert monitoring.

There are, in fact, two pedestrian border crossings: one near the Trolley station, and one a short walk away by the Border Outlet Shopping Centre. I took the former (better sign-posted) option, walking up what felt a lot like a back alley behind a coach station to the border crossing point.

On entering through the slightly threatening no-return gates, I entered a border crossing, reminiscent of a typical airport border point. There was a very long queue for people with Mexican passports, but nobody in the queue for people who, like me, had foreign passports. This phased me a bit: I knew from my prior research that I needed to fill in an immigration card, but could see neither a card nor anywhere to fill it in. In the end, I just approached one of the border agents’ desks, where a friendly officer told me not to worry, it was quiet, and I may as well fill it out at her desk, which I did while she checked my passport.

We made small talk about this being my first time in Mexico (she was amazed), her previous experiences of visiting London and the sights of San Diego I’d seen so far. Before long, she’d stamped my paperwork and sent me on my way. After this point, customs x-ray searched any large luggage, but as I had none I was straight back outside and in a new country.

From here, it’s typically a 20-minute walk to the touristy area around Avenida Revolución, but I went a bit wrong, crossing over a highway on the footpath of a road bridge rather than the more direct pedestrian bridge, so it took me about half an hour. This walk is not through a particularly attractive area. I was pestered frequently by disabled and often elderly beggars, street sellers, and taxis pulling up alongside me to offer me lifts. Looking down on the vehicular border crossing, I could see stall upon stall with sellers plying their trade to people waiting in the long, seemingly stationary queue for the US border.

I walked through expanses of largely deserted civic architecture with broken fountains and such surrounded by closed up shop units. It was a bit eerie. I’m not sure whether this is attributable to me visiting on a Sunday or to the significant downturn in the Mexican economy in the decades since Tijuana was a real draw for tourists.

Here and there along the way, there were small stores and restaurants whose seemingly desperate owners practically begged me to come in and look at their wares, often offering free alcohol as an enticement. I’m afraid I declined.

My own idiocy in taking the wrong bridge notwithstanding, it was actually quite easy to navigate to Avenida Revolución thanks to the visible-from-everywhere Tijuana arch, which stands right in the centre. Rather disappointingly, the sign in the middle seems to have changed from the famous ‘Bienvenidos a Tijuana’ on a Mexican flag background to something “modern” sponsored by Samsung.

The area around Avenida Revolución was lively in every sense, with performers drawing large crowds, street vendors enthusiastically shouting about their products, and bars and restaurants making keen efforts to attract the passing traffic. The famed decorations around Santiago Argüello lent a party atmosphere to the whole area.

And yet, I found it hard to forget the scenes of deprivation and desperation I’d walked through to get to this point, not least as I knew I was going to have to walk back the same way before too long. This left me feeling a little melancholic. Nevertheless, I had a good wander around, aimlessly soaking in the atmosphere rather than rushing into any of the frequently advertised tourist attractions.

I got far less lost on the way back thanks to very frequent signage to the US border. I crossed back over at the other of the two border crossings I mentioned.

There could hardly have been a more marked difference between the manner of the crossing in the two directions. As soon as one stepped through the gates to the US border crossing complex, frequent stern signs forbade the use of mobile phones and cameras. Crossing back into the USA involved a walk through a labyrinthine concrete corridor ending with an almost whimsical spiral concrete ramp to even reach the border crossing point. I had to queue for a little over an hour to meet the US border agent, who questioned my intentions in crossing the border in some detail. He also seemed a little confused by the fact that my passport was for both the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, which hardly inspired confidence, but he did eventually let me through.

The fact that the US-Mexico border is the first controlled land border I’ve ever crossed probably says more about the remarkably peaceful times in which I’ve lived that it does about me personally. At the time I crossed the Denmark-Sweden border it was technically manned, but this just involved someone passing through my train cursorily glancing at passports. Some pundits currently predict something similar will be in existence between Northern Ireland and the Republic by the time this is published: I think that’s nonsense, but that’s perhaps a post for another time.

At the moment, I’m part-way through Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists. In this book, which argues for a borderless world, the US-Mexico border is cited specifically as one which inflicts economic harm on people on both sides. I found the apparent difference in living standards quite shocking: it seems mildly crazy that people living in two developed countries and so physically close to one another can have such different life experiences and prospects.

There has been much written over the last few months about the level of poverty in California, despite its reputation as a liberal state. Wendy and I have both been quite surprised to see the seemingly high number of homeless people in San Diego. Crossing the border, I felt as though there was a far greater degree of profound poverty in Tijuana, but perhaps California’s poverty is just better hidden than Tijuana’s. Appearances can, after all, be deceiving.

I’m glad I took the time to visit Tijuana while I’m over here in California. The experience wasn’t at all what I had expected: rather than a tacky pastiche Mexico “mini theme park” which I had thought would exist on the other side, the reality has left me more pensive and reflective than I would have expected. And that’s no bad thing.


Fairly obviously, all of the photos in this post are my own.

This 2,446th post was filed under: News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , , .

The day I met a Giant Panda called Bai Yun

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of visiting Bai Yun, a 26-year-old Giant Panda, at San Diego Zoo. I’ve never seen a panda in the flesh before, though didn’t need to come as far as San Diego to do so: Yáng Guāng and Tián Tián at Edinburgh Zoo are a good 5,200 miles closer to home.

The visit was a relatively hurried one: even on a Wednesday afternoon, there was quite the queue to see the panda enclosure and the zoo staff members were keen to keep people moving. (As an aside: I suspect the employees would also object to me describing them here as “zoo staff members”, as they kept correcting visitors with a note of mild irritation that this wasn’t “part of the zoo” but rather a “dedicated panda research facility”.) Nevertheless, it was certainly a memorable experience. I was particularly struck by how cute the pandas were in real life: just as cute as in the cutest pictures.

As a general rule, I’m not much of an “animal person”. However, I make an exception for panda bears. Wendy asked me this afternoon what it was about pandas that overcame my general disinterest in animals, and I think it comes down to three things.

Firstly, pandas are ridiculous creatures. They have the gastrointestinal tract of a carnivore, yet insist on a diet of pure bamboo, which they can’t properly digest. This means that they need to eat some 20kgs per day to survive, taking up around 14 of their 20 waking hours per day, and resulting in a need to defaecate about every half hour. If ever there were a creature that should be extinct, the panda is it.

Secondly, panda diplomacy is fascinating. For thousands of years, China has been using gifts (and latterly loans) of pandas to further its political aims. No other country has managed to replicate this with such success with any other animal—and it’s not that easy to think of many diplomatic practices with quite such a long and lustrous history. The zoo staff members regularly reminded vistors that the bears and any offspring were owned by China and that the results of their panda research were regularly reported back to the Chinese. Panda diplomacy even turns up as a C-plot in The West Wing.

Thirdly, and most importantly, pandas are really really cute. I mean, just look at that picture. There’s a lot written in the scientific literature about why pandas are so cute: most sources seem to suggest that it is because their faces appear proportionally similar to those of babies. I don’t know whether that’s accurate or not, but I certainly like them!


The picture at the top was, fairly obviously, taken by me earlier today.

This 2,445th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , , , , .

Flying and thinking

As I type, I’m 34,000 feet above Greenland on my way to San Diego aboard a British Airways Boeing 777-200. Wendy is snoozing next to me, fully reclined with eye mask in situ.

Apart from the miracle of travelling at 550mph across the globe in a pressurised metal tube, things aren’t going so well. The in-flight entertainment system broke after the first hour of the flight—perhaps I’ll never know what happens in the second half of The Greatest Showman—and for the last three hours we’ve had too much turbulence for me to be able to comfortably read. The combination of free alcohol, no entertainment and people strapped to seats is leading to a somewhat tense atmosphere with complaints being fired at the harried crew from all angles. Worse, they’ve now completely run out of gin on board.

We’re on a last-minute replacement plane whose interior has seen better days, and the resulting re-allocation of seats means that Wendy and I are sat immediately next to the toilet. I realise someone has to sit here, but I paid to select our seats so that it wouldn’t be me. Like most people, my sense of egalitarianism seems to have evaporated as soon as I felt that I’d got the raw end of the deal.

And yet, there’s rather lovely about being in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Fortunately, this plane doesn’t have wifi. So with nothing to watch, an inability to read, and a sleeping wife, I’m just sitting here and thinking. How often does anyone get the chance to do that?

I have a natural inclination towards spending time with my own thoughts. As I walk to work in the morning, I typically listen to music or a podcast, but my journey home is usually spent just thinking things over. I think it helps to keep me sane. Rarely, though, do I get the chance for a more prolonged period of thought.

I realise the irony that I’m now writing this thought down, laptop balanced on knee, with lots of turbulence-induced typos being corrected as best I can. If you’re wondering: I’m saving this in the Evernote app on my Chromebook to post later.

And that’s really all there is to say. I’m going to put my laptop away again now and return to quiet contemplation. Over and out.


The photo at the top was taken by me earlier today.

This 2,444th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , , .

The next calling point for this service will be…

I usually try to avoid ‘grumpy’ columns in magazines. As a general rule, they are not very interesting and are not nearly as funny as the author intends. Turning a ‘moan’ into interesting writing is a tricky skill to pull off.

All of that aside: In 1843 magazine, Adrian Wooldridge recently wrote about irritating announcements on public transport:

Some companies seem to revel in redundancy. In the railway world Amtrak is the champion of verbosity. Recorded announce­ments on its trains proclaim the arrival of each station with a peroration ending in a request to “please take this time to look about you and collect your bags”, as though the majority of passengers were otherwise likely to canter off the train in a spiritual ecstasy, leaving their material possessions in their wake.

This complaint touched a nerve. When I was commuting to London on a weekly basis a few years ago, there was one particular train guard whose name became lodged in my memory, so annoying were his announcements. His tone tended to convey a weary sense of superiority: it was with some mild irritation that he reminded passengers to check that their tickets were valid for this particular service, as though only a moron could be confused. He spoke extremely slowly, as though he had been told in training not to speak too fast and had overcorrected. And, most irritatingly of all, he seeemed intent on lengthening every announcement to the greatest possible extent by including superfluous words.

Peterborough would never be the ‘next stop’; it would inevitably be ‘the next station stop at which our service will be calling this morning’. Passengers should not merely content themselves with ‘reading the displayed safety instructions’; rather they should ‘be sure to fully familiarise themselves with the safety information cards displayed on the walls of the vestibules at the end of every carriage on board this service’. Customers should not simply ‘have tickets ready for inspection’; they should ‘be aware that a full ticket check will now take place in all coaches, starting from Coach B at the front of the train, and ensure that they have all tickets, travel documents and railcards to hand both at their seat and when moving around the train.’

The verbosity was almost too much to bear. So while I disagree with Adrian’s preference for not knowing the names of service workers and wearing headphones through safety demonstrations on aircraft, I find it hard not to have a little sympathy with his complaints about excessively loquacious train guards.


As an aside, on a recent train journey, the guard issued the typical reminder that passengers should “take all of their personal belongings with them”. Somebody loudly responded that this wasn’t practical, as most of their personal belongings were at home rather than on a train. I’ll laughed quite loudly, despite myself.


The image at the top is of a Virgin train at Brighton station. The full version was posted on Flickr by Matt Davis, and I’ve reproduced a cropped version here under its Creative Commons Licence.

This 2,436th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

Cruise ships and me

Last week, I read this remarkable story about a new cruise ship by Oli Franklin-Wallis in Wired, and have been thinking about it ever since:

Symphony of the Seas – which, on its maiden voyage from Barcelona in March 2018 became the largest passenger ship ever built – is about five times the size of the Titanic. At 362 metres long, you could balance it on its stern and its bow would tower over all but two of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers. Owned and operated by Miami-based cruise line Royal Caribbean, it can carry nearly 9,000 people and contains more than 40 restaurants and bars; 23 pools, jacuzzis and water slides; two West End-sized theatres; an ice rink; a surf simulator; two climbing walls; a zip line; a fairground carousel; a mini-golf course; a ten-storey fun slide; laser tag; a spa; a gym; a casino; plus dozens more shopping and entertainment opportunities.

Cruise ships mean two things to me.

Earlier this year, I went on a ‘mini-cruise’ from Newcastle to Amsterdam aboard a DFDS ship. The journey was an overnight 15 hour or so thing, so certainly not equivalent in any way to spending weeks at sea on the world’s biggest cruise ship. The rationale for this was that I fancied a last-minute break and couldn’t find a cheap flight from Newcastle, so went on a cheap boat instead, spent a day in Amsterdam, and took a cheap flight from there. This worked remarkably well, and I’d do it again.

This was the first time I’d been on an overnight boat since our annual family camping trips to France when I was a child. Prior to going, I’d sort of thought in the back of my mind that I might be the sort of person who might one day enjoy a proper cruise. This experience put me off.

The ship was lovely, and I was particularly impressed by the cabin. I had expected a pokey bunk-bedded hovel but was actually rewarded with a fairly large space which looked not unlike a Travelodge room, with an en-suite bathroom. The food on board was also much higher quality than I would have expected. But I am somebody who likes to wander—and even with only 15 hours on the ship, I was itching to get off and explore. Exploring the ship felt a bit constrained.

It was silly of me not to realise this in the first place. Wendy and I ruled out going to an idyllic holiday resort last summer for the sole reason that it was located on a main road along which walking was not advised, so we couldn’t ‘go for a wander’ without catching a bus or taxi somewhere first. I hadn’t really clocked that ‘going for a wander’ wasn’t really a go-er on a ship.

While the Symphony of the Seas is ridiculously bigger than the ship I was on (it’s more than twice as long and can take four times as many passengers across twice as many decks), I still think I’d feel ‘cooped up’ pretty quickly. So I don’t think I’ll be going cruising anytime soon.

My other relationship with ships is professional. One of the more esoteric parts of my role as a Consultant in Health Protection is that I am the designated Medical Officer for a number of ports. This gives me certain legal responsibilities relating to ships and the health of their crew—most of which are thankfully delegated to people much more expert than me. But just imagine how complex an outbreak of norovirus or Legionnaire’s disease could get on a ship as huge as Symphony of the Seas. I was fascinated to read in Oli’s article about some of the steps taken to mitigate the risks:

“The level of hygiene is extreme,” Yrjovuori announced, as we passed a hand-washing station. Though ship-wide outbreaks of sickness make the news at least once a year, the total number of passengers who fall ill is a fraction of one per cent. But close quarters enable outbreaks, so sanitation regulations at sea are stringent. Every part of the ship, from lift buttons to the casino’s chips, are sanitised daily; interior materials have to stand up to the high level of chlorination from the constant cleaning. Rubbish is frozen in vast storage containers to slow bacteria growth and is only removed in port.

Fascinating stuff… perhaps we could even try and replicate some of it on land!


The pictures in this post are my own from the above-described ‘mini-cruise’ adventure. The pictures in the Wired article are a great advert for the power of print, looking far more arresting as double-page spreads than as on-screen images.

This 2,430th post was filed under: Health, Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , , , , .

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