Crisis at Christmas

homelessness, personal

A few days ago I have volunteered for the first time in a day centre for homeless people - a site where everyone can have a lunch, a nap, take a shower, change their clothes, see a doctor and in general relax.

While I fully understand that coming up with a lot of conclusions after only doing something once is unhelpful and almost unavoidably naive (let alone that there are many better write-ups of the same experience) I have still been thinking about what I have learned for longer than it could go without getting written down. After all, first impressions, despite often not being accurate enough, have their own merit simply because they are first. Let this post be an attempt to explain what I feel like I need to tell to myself in the first place.

It goes without saying that by taking part in an event like this you help other people a little bit simply because there is a great demand of it, and you provide the supply. This is the main purpose of turning up and doing your shift, and this alone is a reason good enough for doing so.


Yet what else can be the reason for you to do that - or rather what else could you expect? I'd say the main one is that it is a good exercise in humility. Consciously or not, every new joiner imagines themselves doing 'noble' things - at very least having some 'deep' conversations about how our society is broken. No, you'll be picking up rubbish in toilet stalls or mopping up the floors if someone has spilled their meal or even vomited.

Yet the feeling that strikes after the initial confusion is a good one. It is life and it is real work, and it is essential, so you're doing it, and you try to do it well, regardless of what you do outside of this shift. Believe me, after you realise what it is and why were you first confused, it feels good.

The next best thing is that you will meet a large number of very different people. It depends on how social you are in day to day life, but chances are it is going to peak your 'number of people spoken to a day' ratio for the year.

New joiners are usually assigned to tasks in pairs, and you'll have plenty of opportunities to talk to your random partner (and then to the next person at the next task, of which there are going to be many).

In my more than brief experience, volunteers tend to be on a younger side, but there are enough of middle aged and retired people there as well. Occupations also vary (what I have personally heard people mentioning was 'City finance', 'music', 'retail', 'software', 'law', 'charity'), and everyone would be open to having a chat because there is that instant feeling of camaraderie and alignment, even if just for while the shift lasts.

That is going to pierce your social bubble regardless of where on the social spectrum it was centred before.

Another unexpected side effect would be spending a day without touching your phone. The novelty of it, of course, again depends on what is your day to day job, but I believe it's safe to assume drowning in notifications is fairly common. This is because phone use at the centre is restricted for many reasons: there is obviously a ban on taking pictures, then you don't want provoking people into asking to use your personal device, and in general you should be there for guests first and foremost and not scrolling through your timeline.

That, along with with being busy in general, leads to spending a day almost exclusively offline - which feels pleasantly different.

That alone makes it worth coming, even if you don't factor in the actual social good which might be difficult to quantify. A step out of the comfort zone, which is also a benefit to other people is something to be treasured.


There are, however, a few things which would probably make your shift difficult - not physically, but emotionally. Just like before, it goes without saying that it is not easy to see the effects of homelessness that close and realise what other people are going through - but this, while being emotionally taxing, is something that you would probably expect to see. What I want to stop at specifically are the bits that I didn't expect to discover.

The first one is that... there is a limit to which we are all ready to go. Volunteers pep talk predictably puts a strong emphasis on how we are ready and capable of making a difference - intentionally so, because it works and this is how you motivate a large group of people. Yet you will probably soon find out that while you might indeed be ready to do a lot, you aren't ready to do everything, and you will have to reflect on that.

'You don't understand me. You really don't. If you really want to help me, take me home - to YOUR home. See?' - this is something that you might hear, as I did, or, if you don't, you might get a hint of that being strongly implied. Or it might be never be mentioned at all, but it would still be a looming elephant in the room which both sides decide to ignore because otherwise it would make them equally uncomfortable.

So despite all the good intentions it is an unescapable fact that at the end of the day some of us return home and some go back to sleeping in the doorway. And that if we really wanted, we could change that, at some personal cost, but we choose not to.

This problem has no good solution, of course, and it is easy to argue with facts and numbers that doing otherwise is unsustainable - which is true. Yet what would be different this time is that you will have to think about that as it would no longer be possible to brush off easily as something irrelevant.

And this is not a pleasant thought to have.

Next unpleasant discovery was seeing like numbers become people, and then become numbers again. I think it is typical for a fresh joiner to suddenly being exposed to what was invisible before, and so to 'zoom in' and start seeing individuals in people who were previously no more than faceless social group, even if you were sympathetic. This is normal when there was next to no previous interaction, and so this is why the transformation is so insightful.

Yet you might be able to pick up a somewhat different attitude from the most experienced volunteers - people who are coming there often and have built up a lot of field experience. Or it could be just me, but sometimes when they were talking to guests I was registering the same undertones in what they were saying I know very well from teachers in my son's special school (which could be why I noticed that in the first place, but nevertheless).

Unlike you, they can also 'zoom back out'. If I were to come up with a metaphor, it would be 'padded wall' - while polite and understanding, and having their guest's/student's wellbeing as their top priority you can see when the experienced specialist stops engaging deeply and starts 'following the script', and after that there is very little you can do to change the situation.

This usually happens in heated conversations, possibly with shouting or crying involved, and is completely understandable. If a guest is asking for something that cannot be done, it's best to cut it short quickly before it gets personal instead of spending a lot of time trying to understand their reasons and to change their mind through a lengthy argument. I suspect this is especially dramatic to observe for someone who is new, because when they see such interaction, it is their first time, and they expect such an emotional moment it to unfold into a caring debate, and instead what you hear is a polite rephrasing of 'I WON'T BUDGE'. Thing is, that unlike you, experienced people know that scenario well and have dealt with dozens if not hundreds of them, so they know it when the conversation goes nowhere.

Same is true for experienced guests - they also have tried it before and they are picking up the same undertones very well, so they can stop after probing even though they didn't sound like it before. Both sides win, but having to choose where is not productive to engage is another inconvenient truth, and if you are to become an experienced volunteer (and so be much more useful in your role), you'll have to learn the same social scripts and stop treating everything as a unique journey - even though you'll say a different thing to new joiners at the briefing.


Since you cannot do everything, but you want to something, you will have to choose what is that something that you want to do. This is, probably, was the most important lesson.

If you found it interesting, consider donating to Crisis or taking part next Christmas. Thank you.

Guest L.


Even greyer day

politics, art, history

Grey Day by George Grosz - while I have seen the reproductions of it before, it's only a couple of weeks ago when I saw it at the exhibition.

George Grosz - Grey Day (1921)

This is not exactly what the white museum label next to it read, but like pretty much any other essay you can google, the explanation was the juxtaposition of the 'well off bureaucrat' against the gaunt figure of a war veteran. Some articles also mention other characters: the faceless worker and the bespectacled men peeking around the corner, but that's usually about it.

What attracted my attention though were the distinctive scars on the bureaucrat's face. My first thought was that it could be a hint that the man is a veteran himself, and so instead of a blatant conflict between the well off and the forgotten we are looking at how different the life can still be for people who once could be freezing in the same trench. Yet the fact that there are multiple similar scars, all at the lower part of his cheek, makes it almost certain he got them on a fraternity duel.

That tradition, once popular enough among male students in German speaking parts of Europe to become a memorable cultural trope, was basically  young men striking each other's faces with blades while wearing only essential protection to cover their eyes and noses. Getting a few nasty looking but not life threatening scars in the process was not a concern, but rather a desirable goal - the opponents weren't supposed to move around much dodging the attacks.

Similar scars can be seen on the faces of other Grosz's characters, but unlike with Grey Day, those people are mostly unambiguous Nazi warmongers. Their scars are there for the same reason as the swastika badges (which are, of course, also helpfully in place) and along with other unmistakable visual attributes they leave no room for other interpretations:

George Grosz - The Pillars of Society (1926)
George Grosz - This Is Orgesch Who Our Stinnes Loves! (1919-1920)

Compare that to the goofy cross eyed figure of the bureaucrat from Grey Day. If it wasn't for the scars, he is no way threatening - just ignorant, perhaps, of what's going on behind the unfinished wall.

Yet it is not just the scars. He is also wearing a black, white and red ribbon - the colours of the monarchy and not the Weimar Republic which replaced it. It is more prominent and visible for us today, yet I believe that it's together with the scars that its meaning is amplified, eliminating the possibility that it might not be carrying a message.

It also seems unlikely that the ribbon is here to tell that the bureaucrat has simply been decorated for his war service, as there doesn't seem to be a ribbon in the same colours and stripe proportions among the German awards of that era.

Copyright Wehrmacht-Awards.com LLC
Copyright Wehrmacht-Awards.com LLC

It is a political message then, right in our faces. Around that time (early 1920s) DNVP (which flag and colours were identical to that of the German Empire) was a political home for different kinds of right wing opposition, including the future Nazi party supporters. It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that someone who once enjoyed fraternity duels (it takes a certain type of people to find pleasure in such exercises) was also later in life not in favour of the 'decadent' Weimar state and then was likely an enthusiastic member of Nazi institutions or SS military.

***
Among the numerous Grosz's drawings and sketches from the same period there is one also finished in 1921, which very much resembles more famous Grey Day. While most of the figures are recognisable, the 'bureaucrat' is not. The face scars are still here (although they are less prominent and can be mistaken for the skin folds), but the facial features are exaggerated in a different way, radiating aggression instead of the goofiness.

George Grosz - Unemployed (1921)

If the assumption that the sketch was completed before the painting (which how it usually happens) is correct, the transformation of the bureaucrat was intentional as well, and artist's first thought was indeed to make it more straightforward, with a menacing looking man naturally being a more obvious reference.

So this change is also a part of the message Grey Day sends.

We are now suddenly looking at a very different artwork. It doesn't simply expose inequality and the harsh realities of post-war life in Germany (the faceless worker / the forgotten veteran / the indifferent civil servant). More than just that, it also makes a prediction: we are watching a new war in the making, as the person confident and consistent in his beliefs, with the grim reality readily confirming them for him, marches into the future. A middle class educated office worker, he seems harmless now with his briefcase and the ruler, but it's him who is the architect of the new reality, even if he isn't yet recognised as such. One of the many who are going to ruin it for everyone.

Quite a prediction, as for 1921.

Thoughts on EUref

immigration, politics

Funny that it comes straight after the post on becoming a UK national, but that serves me right for not posting frequently enough. After a lot of panic-induced tweets and retweets today, here are some of a bit more detailed thoughts on the EU membership referendum that I think would be interesting for myself to re-read later:

  1. I predict we are going to see the unlikely alliance of economically disadvantaged people and free market capitalism adepts crumbling. The former served as a vehicle for the latter thanks to the fact they both happened to dislike the EU at the same time. Voters hit by globalisation (and by immigration from the 'new EU' as by one of the most visible aspects of it) on many occasions have clearly expressed the feel of being neglected and not looked after. This doesn’t have much in common with ‘negotiating bold trade deals at the free market while not restricted by silly regulations’ argument – in fact, they are fairly opposite. It is not going to take long for these two views to collide, and it is going to be spectacular. Although it is not going to happen immediately – for some time it may run on nationalism and on ‘putting England back on the globe’ spirit only, but inevitably the economy will speak again.

  2. Old magic no longer works. It is not only because of the overuse of the word ‘racism’ which is difficult to deny (although not every time it was used it was an ‘overuse’), but it is officially no longer a cultural taboo. Accusations in bigotry no longer stick and mean little to people that don’t already agree with you on the subject in question. It is true and impossible to argue that pretty much all of the far rights and neo-nazis were in the Leave camp, but it is no longer recognised as a problem big enough to vote otherwise by people who in theory could have voted otherwise (as it is also true far rights are still a minority of those who voted Leave). Which brings us to the next point:

  3. A decent number of naturalised white immigrants and native-born or naturalised non-whites have voted to leave the EU. While this seems to strengthen the point promoted by the free market capitalists from p.1 (it’s all about foreign control, and we are not against the foreigners themselves!), these votes – as far as I can judge – are also fuelled by the desire to halt the immigration. In the circles of naturalised ex-USSR citizens (the community I obviously am the most familiar with) this reason is quoted in at about 90% of cases, both in personal conversations and on online forums. I am confident this is going to backfire on all those people badly as they will soon find out a non-white person is still an immigrant and a naturalised white still sounds foreign to some people possibly including their neighbours and their kids’ classmates (who are now ‘red pilled’ and know that being called a racist no longer means an argument lost by the accused). Nor does the above mean that only the ‘uncontrolled’ immigration is disliked – try having a similar referendum on the controlled one. This, of course, doesn't mean the whole idea is now invalid - as I said, it no longer works like that. It's just that actions have consequences.

  4. I hope that the gone fear of being called a racist is not the only way in which everyday culture is going to change from now on. What certainly needs to die is that old trope about the establishment having control on everything and feeding the public convenient lies from the controlled media which are in an alliance with intelligentsia. Of course the establishment by definition enjoys an enormous control over our lives as well as there is plenty of lies in the press, but they are not monolithic, they fight each other and seek for public support which they not always receive. Almost all of the supposedly almighty university elite was against what just happened, yet it did. If I were a progressive journalist, I would do everything for this drum to no longer get banged on without making the person doing it look like a shameless populist even by today’s standards.

  5. Since the political balance in this country is visibly shifting to the right (and possibly staying there for ages if Scotland leaves), the opposition to Tories needs to return to the centre. It might not be a reason to let the Blairites back in, but it is crystal clear that Corbyn and similar die-hard figures are not going to deliver a feasible alternative, unless a guaranteed support (which seems to be like 15%, right?) from the safe core voters is considered enough (hint: it isn’t). In other words, Labour party needs to go back to being less marginalised social democrats in order to maintain a chance of winning. I think it would be better even for those supporters of it who are happy with the current leader. Another problem is that their safe core voters seem to be divided on the EU membership, which might mean they might shrink even further. I am considering signing up in case there will be a chance for a public vote on the party leadership again.

I am of course an edge case both culturally and economically being both of a foreign background as well as someone who has bought property in London at the peak prices and rock bottom rates (both of which are now guaranteed to change), so I am undoubtedly biased towards the status quo. But I honestly consider this decision was a mistake that is both going to fail the promises made to those who voted for it and prove the fears of those who voted against.

Yet this country remains strong and has definitely been through challenges far worse than that, so I also believe it is still going to be not that bad. And frankly, EU is a mess. I also suspect that some of the things that I now consider to be wrong may turn out for the best, because I am not an expert and my personal experience is quite limited. It’s probably not going to be that bad, and London will be London, England will be England, and maybe even the UK will remain no less United than it currently is.

It’s just that I genuinely believe it could have been much better, and this is why I am sad today.

On becoming a citizen

immigration

So after almost 7 years, this finally happened:

Achievement unlocked

Strangely enough, it doesn't really feel huge because it's so stretched in time. Look, first you become a permanent resident, and there isn't much to celebrate because for everyone concerned you are still a foreign citizen. Same queue at the airport arrivals, no voting even in local elections, no ID that doesn't scream 'immigrant'. Well, it grants you right to be employed without any formal restrictions on the hiring process, but my previous visa allowed me into the same labour market position as well. As a permanent resident, you can also apply for various state benefits such as tax credits (apparently) or council housing, but again I was lucky to have never needed that, and neither do I now.

This status does offer security though so you stop worrying about your visa not getting extended next time (not very likely provided you comply with the rules) or paying ever-growing fees (this is big actually), but that's about it. Something you can certainly feel, but still nothing to write home about really. This is where you start hesitating whether to celebrate now or to wait for the next, more prominent milestone. And indeed there is one coming, the problem is it is not the last in the line either.

A year after becoming a permanent resident you can apply for citizenship, but then again you don't have a single 'this is it' day where you can draw a line and throw a party. First you get informed that your application has been successful. Hurray, but technically that doesn't mean anything yet because you have to attend a ceremony and receive your certificate. Which doesn't happen too soon. In my case, for example, it took about a month because there are only so many days a month the council does ceremonies, and I had travelling plans as well (as after you become a citizen, you can no longer go abroad with your old documents).

When you finally attend said ceremony, it still isn't the end of it, because you don't have a passport. You only need it to travel abroad, but doing so effortlessly is one of the great formal benefits of naturalisation, so you usually apply straight away... and wait again because in Britain you have to be interviewed in order to get your first passport, and you got it right, that usually cannot be booked too soon. The point of the interview is to prevent identity theft, which in case of a naturalised non-EU immigrant like myself seems redundant as all the data including biometrics has already been submitted many times before that, but the rules are still the same.

Finally, a day comes when you receive your passport - yay! - but at this point that is something you, in a way, take for granted and there is no that feel of genuine excitement (still feels incredible of course, but you kind of have crossed the finish line earlier, right?)

Another predictable, yet still funny thing is that everyday life-wise it doesn't really change much. People who don't like you because you are a foreigner (not that I can personally complain too much about that though, but nevertheless) couldn't care less about whether you have a passport or don't, as a rule. Similarly, people who used to like you before aren't going to like you even more because of that either. And more importantly, you are still the same person. You still get into awkward situations a bit more often than you'd honestly prefer. Your accent is still a dead giveaway. You still have had a very different childhood comparing to any of your British peers, and that's even regardless of the social class. I can go on and on.

Yet I've still been feeling an urge to write this, mostly because I realise this has been one of the biggest projects I attempted in my life so far, and it has been successful. I am also now holding a far less idealistic view about the UK comparing to what I imagined it to be when I fist got an idea about moving here, but at the same time I am feeling a lot more involved and accepted that I dared to hope for which amazes me more than ever, and for that, I am grateful. My admiration for Britain is still there, but is now backed by different, less naive and postcard-worthy matters - which, unlike the latter ones, are less prone to being shattered by brutal reality I am much more aware of as well.

10/10, would do again.

Books I read in 2015 - an update

books

It's been about 8 months since I last posted, and also 2015 is now over, so it feels like a logical thing to finish with the list of books I have read last year. This update is going to be embarrassingly short, so I will compensate by elaborating a little more than usually:

  • Not Much of an Engineer by Stanley Hooker (clippings) - an autobiography of one of the Britain's top engineers and one of the few responsible for the success of the famous Merlin piston engine of war period and later jet engines.

    Apart from a lot of technical details, the book also includes some of the author's personal views on various social issues, which are somewhat brutal by today's standards. While almost any stance from 30-50ss would look quite right-wing today, in this case it is also amplified by the natural bias of Sir Stanley as an extremely talented and hard-working individual, who naturally assumes that if it was easy for him to escape some life traps, many should be just as able to do the same.

    The above is a minor topic in the book of course, so whether you can get behind that or not, about 90% of it is still about engines and the organisational structure of British aircraft engine manufacturers, so if you are into that, you certainly won't regret reading it.

  • The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark (clippings) - a little bit too long, but a detailed explanation of the events that, directly and indirectly, led Europe to the First World War. While offering a bigger picture (economic tendencies in the major states, their trade balances, treaties and loans), it also drills down to the biographies and personalities of some actors (kings, presidents and Saraevo conspirators).

    All of that was especially interesting to me as to someone who went to school in early post-Soviet Russia, where very little attention was paid to WWI which was always overshadowed in textbooks by the revolution of 1917.

    You might find it enjoyable as well if you don't mind long books and if you are not too disturbed by the unavoidable thoughts of how similar are the explained events to what is unfolding in Europe right now.

  • Vulcan Test Pilot: My Experiences in the Cockpit of a Cold War Icon by Tony Blackman (clippings) - since the last flying Avro Vulcan, an iconic Cold War era bomber, was retired in 2015, I decided to read a bit more about it. This book is written by one of its test pilots and would be interesting, I suspect, to aviation geeks only. What I was impressed with most was the technical impossibility for some crew memebers to bail out in too many dangerous situations (imagine their feeling when the pilots have already ejected! - and that actually happened), and also by the habit of one of the top test pilots to fly in his pinstripe suit instead of the pilot overalls.

  • Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden (clippings) - one of the best, if not the best of pop biology books I've read, it explains how quantum effects are necessary to understand the core biological processes such as photosynthesis. Of course in one way or another quantum effects are behind every observable effect, but in most cases you can safely get away without ever involving that in your calculations, so it is extremely exciting that in order to understand something very basic and essential to life on Earth, this needs to be considered.

    Not every connection explained there is currently 100% confirmed (e.g. the role in the sense of smell remains a strong theory), and at some point the authors get carried away and deviate from the topic into some shaky philosophy, but the most of the book is eye-opening and quite well written.

  • Britain for the British by Robert Blatchford (clippings) - an early Socialist manifesto by a prominent campaigner from the days when it was a fresh idea, written in a very simple language as it was intended for the masses. In particular, I enjoyed applying provided examples to the current situation to see what has changed beyond recognition and can no longer be evaluated following the same approach, and what remains exactly the same.

    It was also another reminder for me about how far away was Russian Bolshevism from the Western socialism. It is a pity too many modern left-wing politicians find inspiration in Chinese, Soviet or Venezuela atrocious regimes instead of in their own past, certainly not ideal but excellent in comparison.

  • Submission by Michel Houellebecq (clippings) - I found that scandalous novel much less Islamophobic than I expected from random reviews. Actually, there are very few negative statements, if any, it makes about Islamic society - it is rather pictured as a blind 'force of nature' filling out the volume made empty by 'degenerative West'. The protagonist is a typical anti-Western propaganda figure: a middle-aged single male working in a useless industry, incapable of a long-term relationship and at the same time obsessed with sex which he mostly gets through exploiting his position of power.

    I disagree with this message and Houellebecq's view of the modern European and Islamic societies, but he is a good writer and even though I was reading the translation, the language was good and the plot development was okay. What's more to expect from fiction.

  • How Meteors Hit the Ground by Geoffrey Higges (clippings) - another book only interesting to aviation geeks, this time a very short one. It is basically a list of the design flaws of Gloster Meteor aircraft, the first fighter jet that entered mass production (no, it wasn't a German one). It stayed in use after WW2 as well (not only in Britain), but even after a number of improvements Meteor remained a demanding machine to maintain and to control. E.g. in 1952 (the year the author served in his Meteor squadron) a Meteor pilot was killed every four days.

  • The Arrows of Time by Greg Egan - including this book in the list is cheating because I only started reading it in 2015 and am still only 25% through it. The last book in Orthogonal trilogy, it is to the first two books what they all together are to the rest of Greg Egan's books, and also what Greg Egan's books are to the rest of sci-fi. In other words, it is Greg Egan on steroids with even more science of his world involved which makes it quite difficult to understand. So far there has been very little literature but a plenty of alternative physics, and I suspect it is going to stay like this.

    I wrote about the previous (second) volume in my last post, so you can read it if you are interested.

This seems to be it for 2015. Have a good year, everyone.

Books I read in 2015

books

Apparently I have read 14 books so far this year. Below is very briefly what I think of each of them (in chronological order) along with a link to excerpts I highlighted during reading:

  • Homage To Catalonia by George Orwell (clippings) - superb, easily on the top of my list. Brilliantly written, genuinely exciting and educating, and feels very relevant to many modern conflicts in different parts of the world.

  • Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler (clippings) - very similar to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande I wrote about before, but with less of medical details and more emotional, probably because it is written by a professional writer as opposed to a doctor. While the idea is the same, both books are worth a read in my opinion as they provide views from different angles.

  • The Roman Guide to Slave Management: A Treatise by Nobleman Marcus Sidonius Falx translated by Jerry Toner (clippings) - the title says it all. Interesting both from the cultural and historical perspectives. For instance, I wasn't aware of that major diffrences existed in the attitude to slaves and slavery between Ancient Rome and Greece, the former being way more progressive - if asked before reading this, I'd say the differences were minimal or that Rome was more oppressive.

  • On the Warrior's Path, Second Edition: Philosophy, Fighting, and Martial Arts Mythology by Daniele Bolelli (clippings) - a couple of interesting thoughts you can see in my clippings, but I doubt it was worth reading the whole book because of them.

  • Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud by Martin Gayford (clippings) - too much of Martin Gayford in this book, but still enough of Freud to be interesting to anyone who likes his art and wants to learn more about his personality as well.

  • Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (clippings) - someone on the Tube train was reading it and I decided to give it a go as well. Meh.

  • The Eternal Flame: Orthogonal Book Two by Greg Egan (clippings) - The Orthogonal series is probably the most Eganish of all Egan's books, which means I really struggle to name anything that comes close in science fiction. The closest is probably Flatland from 1884, I mean in terms of inventing your own consistent world and the society suited to live in it, but of course it is on a different scale. You will either hate or love The Orthogonal, but you can be pretty sure you haven't read anything like it before.

  • Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X Pham (clippings) - not bad, especially when you are an immigrant yourself so sometimes it hits too close to home, but there is a review implying that the author was exaggerating and making things up there.

  • Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (clippings) - the first half of the book is better than the last when it switches more to organs' perception in culture (not that it was unexpected considering the title, but still).

  • Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic by Jill Leovy (clippings) - too belletristic with fewer facts and more spoon-fed opinions than I anticipated, but can be probably called eye-opening nevertheless.

  • England and Other Stories by Graham Swift - meh. A couple of good stories and then too many of mediocre and bad ones which are seemingly different only in characters' names employing the same twist again and again.

  • Works of Jeremy Bentham by Jeremy Bentham (clippings) - not a real book, more like letters and articles by Bentham which are very long and explain the same thing paragraph after paragraph. But reading through a plan of a prison (out of all things) written by a celebrated liberal thinker might be interesting.

  • The Gilded Gutter Life Of Francis Bacon: The Authorized Biography by Daniel Farson (clippings) - great reading and probably the best of 'authorised biographies' I have read. Definitely better than the book on sitting for Freud's portrait above, but I recomend to read them both as Freud and Bacon used to spend a lot of time together.

  • Internal Medicine: A Doctor's Stories by Terrence Holt (clippings) - another meh. Expected more after Gawande and Butler, but this is just House M.D. type of stuff with no particular idea to express. Not without some good passages (see in clippings), but overall not worth your time.

One small step

immigration

Just making another note that we have got our first British passport in the family last week. Here's the holder unhappy with the fact he is not allowed to tear it:

Anthony's first UK passport

That marks almost 6 years and £9.5K in visa fees after we came here (the latter will be well over the round figure of 10K when we two adults naturalise next year).

This is the earlier picture of us in the UK taken on our fourth day here:

Back in 2009, many things, good and bad, were only yet to happen.

Programmer's resolutions - 2014 report

links, 2014, lists

As Matthew Might posted a traditional link to his 12 resolutions for programmers again today, I remembered I retweeted it a year ago as well, so naturally I got curious about how many of them did I actually fulfil in 2014. Here is what I could recall:

1 - Go Analog

The first point is also the easiest: 2014 was my first year as a parent which I think alone is enough to safely tick it off.

I still want to mention though that in 2014 my third year of boxing training has begun - and while I hit the gym less often than before Anthony was born (something to correct in the next 365 days), I didn't drop out.

Now the next 11 points are going to be tougher.

2 - Stay Healthy

Well, despite exercising less often than in 2013 and being less careful with my diet, I didn't put on much weight.

I did suffer recurring back pain (which was probably a consequence of the light injury) though. It was also the first time in the UK when I decided to make use of my private health insurance, and to be honest my experience was just awful. Not sure about other providers, but sorting out a claim with PruHealth easily takes just as long as the NHS queue plus you get a lot of headache in the process.

I also got cold at least 2 or 3 times, last time sneezing through my Christmas holidays. This is something I need to tackle in 2015 as well by getting a flu jab, taking vitamins or doing other stuff a responsible adult is supposed to do.

3 - Embrace the uncomfortable

Not sure if that counts, but I experimented with working and leasuring on the same PC by carrying my laptop to work for almost a year (something I have never done before). At first it seemed like a very good idea, but then I decided that benefits do not outweight the extra weight (no pun intended) in the bag.

I am back to a separate workstation, but now I can choose from experience. Another change was switching from a development VM to local setup (in Windows, while our production is running Linux). I still test everything in the VM, but an additional testing step was there anyway, and the development itself just seems more natural that way now (plus it's an extra diffrent environment to test the application in).

I also started wearing watches which I haven't done since I got my first mobile phone. It started with me fishing for a specific model on eBay (and succeeding) for a present, then I decided to try wearing one of those obsolete single-function devices, and now I have 4 watches, one of which I have customized myself (rendering it hardly usable in the process, but nevertheless), another being my grandfather's watch which old ruined movement I finally got replaced, and another being an automatic (earlier, the last thing I could imagine buying).

4 - Learn a new programming language

Not really. I took a Scala course online, but as it didn't result in any finished code apart from course test tasks, that probably doesn't count.

5 - Automate

Err, programming-wise - probably not beyond what was directly required by the nature of the project I worked on (some of its implemented features actually were automated versions of the legacy processes requiring manual intervention, but that was not my own initiative).

Everything else - well, a remotely controlled sound system is here since it's mentioned, but that's solely thanks to Spotify new update.

And since 'syncing' is on the list as well, my phone now syncs with my laptop automatically through BitTorrent (camera content, sketches, scanned PDFs and everything else go to neatly nested folders or to OneDrive.

6 - Learn more mathematics

Zero here which is a real shame. Especially considering that it's for the second time in my life (and for the first time in the last 10 years) when I feel that the lack of the maths knowledge really holds me back at work. Definitely something to pay attention to (even returning to a fraction of my uni level would be an great improvement).

I did somewhat advance in other sciences though, but that didn't have any direct implications on my work and life.

7 - Focus on security

Wasn't an achievement of 2014, but through the last year I continued sticking to 'every login gets its own unique random password' practice which I now find very comfortable.

I have set up 2-step verification for my every account that allows that, got a hardware USB token for Google and printed out reserve codes for others. I also advocate for 2-step verification at work, and maybe our product will finally get it in 2015.

If that's worth mentioning, in 2014 I have also got a personal VPN.

I didn't encrypt my Android phone though and my Kindle isn't password-protected.

8 - Backup your data

My documents still go to OneDrive and photos to Flickr, and everything to my external HDD, but that it what everyone does now.

One well put thought I came across in 2014 was that "There is no cloud. Just other people's computers." Not sure if I'm getting a proper NAS this year, but this is something on my ToDo list.

9 - Learn more theory

Another point that makes me sad, but still I got deeper into functional programming in 2014 than ever before (although still splashing in shallow water) and read a couple of CS papers.

10 - Engage the art and humanities

I almost stopped going to organised sketchcrawls and drawing meetups (the same lack of time plus the novelty wearing off), but I got a Samsung Note phone with precision stylus support and started sketching more often on the Tube since unlike a notepad and pencils it is always with me. While even that technology doesn't offer as much precision as a cheap pencil, I quickly got used to features like layers and undo (both helped me greatly with quick portraits which is now my favourite genre).

According to clippings.io, I have finished about 15 books in 2014, mostly non-fiction (history, memoirs, popular science). Four of them that I liked most:

11 - Learn new software

Almost nothing to write here, my daily used set of applications remained the same through just another year. I even keep using Total Commander!

12 - Complete a personal project

The only thing which vague resembled a personal project was a quick hack I put up at NHS Hack Day in Leeds which was about grabbing a screen from a third party application and annotating it with some meta data from a bar code scanner. The code was built in such a rush and was so hideous though that won't even link to it.


Now looking at all these points again it is easy to tell I can do better. Here is to 2015!

St Paul's and Barbican

sketching

A quick sketch I made at the balcony of Tate Modern today:

St Paul's and Barbican

Raising a bilingual child - first decisions

language, parenting, books

Maria and I both share the same first language, so we have been considering the same strategy many immigrant couples adopt in our less than extraordinary situation. To speak our native Russian at home and then at some point to start teaching English to our son... but while appearing simple and logical, the latter part was never clear enough.

At which point are we supposed to start introducing the majority language? How to keep the balance between them two so that the child would still be able (and willing) to communicate in their heritage language, and at the same time not feeling held back by it?

A search on Amazon predictably revealed more than one title, but it was easy to decide between the top ones: it wasn't the first time a negative review helped me to make up my mind with less hesitation as 'too scientific' and 'too many facts' actually sounded like a positive feedback to me.

So today I have finished reading Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson (my clippings, if you fancy just a quick digest, are here), and since it has provoked some thoughts I feel like I need to write them down.

My main discovery, of course, was that the 'natural' strategy I mentioned above isn’t the only solution we have to follow for the lack of any sensible alternatives. Minority language at home or simply mL@H, as it is called, is easy for parents given they both speak the same language, but poses some hurdles for the child.

The first one is what I was worrying about before, a shock caused by a sudden introduction of another language. While according to referred studies kids do well even if they first start in a relatively late age of seven, it is still an opportunity for an unwanted isolation of the child, if not for bullying. Less likely in a such a multicultural city as London, I guess, with about a third of its population born abroad, but still somewhat concerning.

The second potential problem is that once a child copes with the initial shock successfully, the second language tends to overshadow the first one, often to the point of it perceived as truly secondary in every aspect affecting relationships in the family, especially with members only proficient in the minority language (grandparents).

It isn't that we weren't aware of these risks - we even know the families experiencing the above problems in exactly the same way as predicted, but we used to consider that an unavoidable evil.

Turns out, it isn't the only possible way of the bilingual upbringing. mL@H's strategy closest competition is one parent, one language or OPOL which implies that parents speak to their child in different languages each providing a less steep learning curve and showing that two languages can co-exist from the very beginning, thus relieving the child from the problems typical for mL@H.

I used to think this is only suitable for mixed couples where parents speak different first languages - naturally, OPOL looks just as logical for them as mL@H does for immigrants of the same origin. That being true, apparently it is not the limit. Some of the numerous case studies the book is based on show that with enough dedication OPOL is quite possible even when language chosen by a parent isn't their first one, and even if it isn't perfect. Provided there is a majority language environment, kids do not pick up parent's mistakes and accent, and there are also various ways to get over the gaps in vocabulary:

Saunders’s books have practical advice on some problems that might be unique to the second-language speaker parent. For example, when Saunders and his children did not know a word they needed, they would agree on a paraphrase to use until they could check it out in a dictionary or with a native speaker. Then, if necessary, Saunders would use a conscious teaching strategy to correct the wrong word.

Another advantage of this method is that it boosts parent's own level by extending the number of possible contexts she or he is familiar with.

It is hard to tell for sure which out of these two approaches is more effective - in the long run, they're roughly the same:

The “batting average” for OPOL appears to be about 78%; 58 out of the 75 children were reported to be actively bilingual, if not trilingual. However, because more than half of those are zero to three years old, it’s too early to grant them “success.” Without the children under age four, the percentage drops to 63%.

Using the same logic, taking away the one child under four in the mL@H group, there appear to have been around five children who became at least bilingual of the eight mL@H families, or 62.5%.

The figures might not seem very representative (being used to big datasets at work, 'eight families' doesn't exactly work for me), but I probably trust them because of the a whole chapter the author has dedicated to problems of measuring bilingual kids' achievements against monolinguals (in brief, there are very few properly conducted researches, and the ones listed were picked out more or less carefully).

I personally don't feel comfortable with OPOL - I tried to talk to Anthony in English, but didn't succeed much so far. Since I have never done that before, I struggle to form parentese versions of words (which - something I also learned from this book - some researchers consider an evolutionary mechanism important for baby's development), but that is something I can clearly overcome with enough efforts put in. What is more important, it simply doesn't seem natural and distances me from the child. I understand this simply means my English needs to be improved and that is exactly what OPOL can help me with, but nevertheless it remains a major blocker of emotional nature for me.

Another sign OPOL should not be pursued by all means is that people who have experience with both strategies (say OPOL in childhood and then mL@H with their own kids) favour the latter more. Overall, it looks like we will end up with the same thing as if without any research, but it's good to know it is going to be an informed decision.

As to the 'scientific background' of the book that reviewer was unhappy about, I am not an expert, but I thought that LAD and Chomsky references in general appear a bit outdated for 2008 when the book was published. That doesn't undermine, however, an whopping number of relevant facts, real life case studies and explanations it provides.

Despite its Amazon description, this book won't really give you a clear step-by-step guide to raising a child fluent in at least two languages, but it will definitely supply you with enough of verified information to make your own decision or to understand what else exactly do you need to clarify before making up your mind. That's a time well spent.


P.S. It's a long shot, but if anyone who was facing the same question, made a decision and now regrets or is happy with it comes across this post, I'll appreciate a couple of words in support (or otherwise) of the chosen strategy. Thanks!