I’ve written before about how the “eat local” movement just doesn’t attract me too much while I live in London. Unless I want my family to subsist on parsnips, cabbage and tasteless strawberries, we absolutely must eat things that are not grown not only locally, but also not in the UK. The whole volcano vs. the modern world phenomenon might be putting an end to that though. A large percent of the produce and other food items sold in the UK arrive here on airplanes. And of course, there are no airplanes arriving to the UK at the moment (except, this morning, to a select part of the northern most Scottish islands).

As an illustrative anecdote, yesterday all of the green beans normally available from my on-line grocers were “temporarily out of stock.” That’s because almost all the “fine” and “extra fine” green beans sold in the UK are imported from just two countries: Kenya and Zimbabwe. And of course getting those beans to the UK takes an airplane (or two). I’m starting to wonder if the three browning bananas I have on my kitchen counter will soon have an exorbitant value on the black market (seeing as most bananas come from Ecuador, Costa Rica and several other Latin American countries, and I suspect are air freighted rather than shipped the old fashion way – i.e. on a ship). Perhaps my aging bananas will have as exorbitant a value as a colleague’s Eurostar ticket to Brussels (which he purchased pre-volcano):  this morning he was considering selling it to some desperate “volcano exile” sitting in London St Pancras station at a mark up of 900%…

The Localised Olympic Games

February 16, 2010

The Vancouver Olympics were on last night at our house, I was watching the highlights of men mogul skiing where Canada took its first gold on home soil.  M. walked into the room and said “What sport is this?! I’ve never seen this before!” which I thought was odd as mogul skiing is pretty routine fare for the winter Olympics. But then I remembered an insight I had during the Beijing 2008 games, which we watched while in Italy that August: there is no such thing as “the Olympics,” unless you’re physically at the games watching a random distribution of events. The Olympics you see on TV are highly dependent on what country you’re watching from and the broadcasting network that has rights to them.

I realised this when the Italian coverage of the 2008 Olympics was light on gymnastics (something Italians are not very competitive in) and heavy on fencing (in which the Italians won 2 gold and 5 bronze medals). I realised that M. had probably never watched moguls because the Italians aren’t good at it. In fact, I checked it out and not a single Italian man qualified for the moguls, and just one Italian woman made it through the qualification round.

Least you think this is solely an Italian phenomenon, I remember as a kid thinking that the US won a medal in every single event. In retrospect, while it is true that Americans win a lot of medals, I’m sure that the coverage was particularly oriented to the sports Americans are most competitive in (which reminds me of an episode of 30 Rock where Kenneth the Page realises that NBC has created fake Olympic sports – like teatherball and octuplets tennis -  to boost perception of American medal standing). And last night, BBC Three was featuring the 34th ranked British downhill skier rather than broadcasting figure skating. Could it be because just one British pair featured in the programme?

So the Olympics are politicised and nationalistic, no news there. They have been so since the US and other Western nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow games, the Soviets / Eastern Bloc boycotted Los Angeles, and before. What’s interesting is that despite the world shrinking through the process of globalisation, where you’re watching still matters in determining the Olympics that you see. And that seems to me to be a nice anachronism: all Olympics are local.

Isn’t it romantic?

February 11, 2010

Advertising on the London underground seems to follow distinct trends. Several months ago, a huge amount of advertising space was being dedicated to products that could rid your hands of germs, a nice marketing technique when the entire city was paralised with fear over swine flu. In the past month or so, the same advertising spaces have been replaced with a product that’s hoping you want to  get closer to your fellow human beings, not further away: online dating. The diversity in the ads is fantastic: my favourite was a dating site marketed exclusively for South Asians. But the one that caught my eye, and inspired me to write a Valentine’s Day post in its honour, was one for the American website eharmony.

Why did it catch my eye? Because it had an outrageous statistical claim (I am a social scientist, remember): 236  eharmony members get married a day in the US alone. According to company, that comprises 2% of American marriages. That seemed to me incredible. How could one single online dating site possibly account for such a large percentage of total marriages?

So, being the dork that I am, I checked the facts. According to the National Vital Statistics System (run by the Department of Health and Human Services), there were 2,162,000 marriages in the US in 2008. Assuming that eharmony’s stat means, as it seems to apply, 236 eharmony members get married every day, that does indeed work out to 2% of US marriages.

But as I started to do the math, the fact that the statistic was given in terms of the number of people (i.e. members) rather than the number of couples made me realise why the statistic was dodgy.  The statistic actually tells you nothing about what it is you really want to know, which is how many people find true love  using eharmony. All it tells you is that lots of people who are members of eharmony get married. Nothing about whether they marry other eharmony members, or instead whether they signed up to eharmony at 3am on a Saturday night as a drunken dare with their friends and never looked at the site again, and sometime later met the man / woman of their dreams while riding the tube and married them. In fact, given that the first step in the eharmony process (filing in a profile and becoming a member) is free, it’s easy to understand why this number might be exceptionally inflated.

What the statistic does tell you that at some point in their lives, lots of adult Americans are signed up to eharmony (about 2% of the actively marrying population). But whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends a bit on whether you think that finding Mrs Right is like finding a needle in the haystack, or a different challenge entirely.

The dog ate my homework

November 19, 2009

There is only one thing that Londoners like to complain about more than the weather: the tube.  London has the most extensive public transport system in the Europe, and therefore probably in the world. It reaches everywhere. If you’ve got three and a half hours to kill on a Saturday afternoon, you can go from London’s further northwest corner to its furthest southeast corner all by public transport (I know because we’ve ventured to London’s southern netherlands by public transport from our West London home to see friends many times, and spent nearly as much time getting there as it would take to fly to Rome for lunch). But its expansiveness does not stop Londoners from complaining – often and bitterly – about the tube’s flaws: it’s hot, poorly ventilated, germy, ridiculously crowded at peak times,  bloody expensive (a day pass for London’s two most central zones costs £5.20) and frequently delayed.

Tube delays are particularly vexing for people who have their commute to work timed to arrive during the same half minute every morning, but on the flip side, tube delays (real or imagined) make a convenient excuse if your late to work (my nanny’s favourite excuse is that the Piccadilly Line was running slow). The reasons for tube delays are numerous, but the top one based on my unscientific recollections of 7 years riding the tube are “signal failures.” The second most likely reason seems to be “a person under a train.” Today, the Piccadilly line was running with severe delays because of “a person under the train at Earl’s Court.” The sad thing about this is that no one stops and gasps to process the horror of the announcement made over the loud-speaker, everyone just carries on with their journey with their neutral commuter face on.

For the past few days I’ve been listening to a series of convoluted excuses from MSc students about why they can’t get their essays turned in on time and need extensions, which got the cynic in me thinking that maybe the person under the train was like the proverbial homework-eating dog. Seeing as everyone complains about the train delay, and it’s simply inhumane to complain about a delay caused by a person’s death or near-death experience, perhaps London Underground uses the “person under a train” excuse as a cover for generally slow service, exaggerating the number of incidents (though this too would of course be inhumane, and a movie with this general premise caused protest in the UK last year).

So I decided to do some reasearch: how many people a year fall under an underground train, and therefore, how often is this likely to disrupt the average commuters tube journey? Statistics on this topic are harder to find that you might expect: the Transport for London website seems unwilling to give such information away, perhaps because they don’t want to give people any ideas. But I did some digging, and I came up with the following. 50 people commit suicide every year on the London Underground (a number that is quoted widely in a number of places) and a further 4 died accidentally (all 2004 statistics). Not accounting for people that attempt to kill themselves and fail, or fall and live, this averages out to one a week. And that is a lot.

So discounting the seasonal cycle of suicides and accidents, the average London Underground passenger should expect to have some tube delay occur once a week because of a person under the train, which is indeed very sad. Which made me wonder something slightly different: why does London Underground tell us this in such a matter a fact way when it happens? Maybe it would be better to under-emphasise the incidents, so commuters don’t become so desensitized. The reason must be to placate customer complaints about tube delays. And that’s almost as bad as exaggerating the number of incidents. Almost.

Mr Davies’ Penguins

November 6, 2009

As a child, my favourite animal was the penguin. I don’t recall how or why I came to love them so much, but it was the kind of quirky child preference that quickly becomes a focal point to adults, particularly those selecting presents. I had lots of penguins (toy ones that is) and penguin paraphernalia: clothing, pins, stationary and even books (including my favourite book at some point in my childhood, Mr Popper’s Penguins, whose penguin lives in the freezer, eats the family goldfish and is the inspiration for the title of this post). I think at one point I had amassed around 20 stuffed penguins, which took pride of place in my bedroom (and to this day are in a bedroom closet at my parents’ house, a closet I promise to clean out every time I visit and never really get around to).

Imagine then, my pleasure in the recent return of LSE’s very own penguin to campus. This sentence probably requires a bit of additional explanation. In 2005, a large sculpture of an Emperor Penguin created by an artist named Yolanda vanderGaast was given to the LSE as a present from a Canadian alumnus (above is a picture of the penguin in his natural LSE habitat). It sat there quite happily (near a neighbouring baby elephant sculpture – LSE has eclectic taste in public art) until earlier this year, when students from a rival university are thought to have stolen our penguin in some sort of drunken escapade. And despite LSE students organising a Facebook support group for the poor penguin, it was never recovered or returned. This week, a replacement penguin was unveiled, to the delight of LSE students (click here for an interview with the penguin).

There is something about penguins, and stealing them. In 2005, a penguin chick was stolen from a zoo in Southern England. A book published in 2003 about an infamous armed robber has a section where he describes childhood exploits, including stealing penguin eggs. Here’s a passage: “On another unofficial excursion we decided to invade London Zoo at Regent’s Park and try to steal penguins’ eggs from the architecturally acclaimed penguin enclosure. We would jump over the wall and calmly walk down the slopes to the wooden nesting boxes and nick their eggs in full view of amazed onlookers.” I’ve been told by a friend (who shall remain nameless) that he and his cousins once stole a penguin from the same zoo in the middle of the night: they put it in the bathtub of his Camden flat for a while, until they sobered up and realised they had a hungry, distressed penguin in their bathtub, at which point they snuck back into the zoo and returned it.

There is also, oddly enough, an international crime phenomena of stealing penguin sculptures. In fact, in 2001, another penguin sculpture by vanderGaast was stolen in Canada (the local police force doesn’t seem to have much to keep them busy as they organised a massive search for the penguin). The artist notes that they are particularly cute, and much lighter then they look, which might be why they get stolen frequently. Another potential explanation: they just fly away.

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