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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, , , , , .

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, , , , , , .

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