Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘values’

Knitting Needles dont Knit, People Do

In empirical, research on December 21, 2012 at 2:22 pm

I keep hearing this line about guns. Guns don’t kill people, people do. So I thought it would be interesting to explore the argument via knitting needles.

I knit, I create knitted artifacts. But, the knitting needles I use are pretty crucial to the experience. It’s not impossible to knit without knitting needles, I’ve tried with chopsticks, it’s possible but not as satisfying. You can also use the knitting needles for other, non-knitting things, I’ve used mine to tie my hair up. But they are better for knitting than as hair decorations.

Knitting needles shape the experience by being very intentionally designed for that experience (e.g., the different thicknesses suitable for different thicknesses of yarn, circular for working knitted objects in a round, double-pointed for socks, as well as the traditional straight needles). Knitting needles are designed to help people who knit knit. Without them people could knit, but the experience of knitting with knitting needles is the most common one and it’s not surprising, they were designed for it.

Beyond the design/function argument there is something else about knitting needles and knitting. When I have knitting needles in my hands, I am visibly a knitter. I’ve written before about the types of conversation that that starts up, about how to knit, what I am knitting, recollections of family members who knitted. It makes me a part of a world in which I am seen as a knitter, and in which others are a canvas of potential knitters or people who are curious. Just the other day I was knitting at my Godson’s school play, and so was the person sat next to me. Not only did we have conversations about our favourite local yarn stores, but we also received joking commentary from others about “keeping the knitters together.” I still don’t know her name, although I do know the name of her granddaughter who was also in the play (and about the same age as the children in the shooting that has triggered this reflections on knitting). Sometimes the associations are less amusing, I fly with knitting needles, its allowed, but it doesn’t mean that others on the plane don’t look at me, and the needles as if they are weapons and I am potentially a risk. Context matters, its uncomfortable for me to be seen as a terrorist risk when I knit on a plane, but it’s a space where contexts transform the meaning of the technology.

When I knit the technology that helps me do that is knitting needles. It changes what I can do, as well as supporting me in that, but it also changes my relationship to the world itself. I become associated with my needles. So, I don’t think you can separate guns from people, because you can’t separate the needles from the knitting.

HCI4D or HCID? Values

In discipline, empirical, HCI, ICT4D, research on June 27, 2011 at 8:38 am

In some of the Information and Communications Technologies for/and Development (ICT4D, ICTD) an important distinction is drawn between whether it is for or and. To paraphrase Tim Unwin, ICTD (i.e., and) has foci of what is, and what can be done. ICT4D asks critically, what should be done and how should we do it? While both entail a degree of social change (asking what can be done), ICT4D has a much stronger moral agenda of making change.

As HCI becomes increasingly interested in the “Global South” so we’ll be asking whether we’re going to do HCID or HCI4D. I think we’ve adopted the label HCI4D, but for some within the community that means as it does in ICT4D. See for example, Ho et al. in the special issue of ITID focused on HCI4D. I wonder whether the community at large has internalized the distinction, do we use HCI4D because it is the most popular term or does it reflect our stance?

There has long been a recognition that values matter in design. But recently, I am under the impression that there’s more attention to this, and to questioning whose values. It comes in a variety of forms. First there are efforts like HCI4D that for some are very intentional moral as well as scientific positions on the role of design. Second, there are critics of persuasive computing. For example, Purpura et al.’s Fit4Life paper that examines the principles of persuasive design applied to their logical conclusion on a technology for individual weight management. (link to the paper http://www.victoria.schwanda.org/docs/p423-purpura.pdf). One of the things I very much like about this paper, and another piece by Maitland et. al. is that they both get at the important point that persuasive computing is taking a moral position (positing what change is right) and they both want to have a discussion about the consequences of that. And third, I just finished reading Shaowen and Jeff Bardzell’s CHI paper (well one of them, I think they could have had their own session) on Feminist design. One contribution of a feminist approach is to navigate a path between the distanced “truth” of science and an active agenda of social change.

As I write I think that values may not be the right term here, although I am at a loss for something better. I am struck I suppose in all of these by a tension between traditional notions of science, pursuit of knowledge, and the far more morally complex terrain that opens up when we come to design. HCID or HCI4D? Scholars in this area are asking us to take a position, but I walked away from CHI this year thinking that there are more voices in this arena than just those associated with the Global South.

Local Health Systems

In C@tM, empirical, ICT4D, research, wellness informatics on April 26, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Browsing Ghana’s Ashesi University College website I found the following course.

Sociology: Traditional Medicine
The course is intended to throw light on the structure, function and practice of Africa traditional medicine and its relationship with modern (scientific/western) medicine. By the end of this course, students will be conversant with African traditional medicine and attempts made to incorporate it in primary health care. The course will:

  • Give an insight into African Traditional Medicine
  • Elucidate the pattern of articulation between different persuasions/types of traditional medicinal practice.
  • Determine the nature of interrelationships between traditional and modern medicine.

This caused me to reflect on a question I asked at the CHI WISH workshop in the session on addressing disparities health systems for low income contexts. The panel was composed of a number of speakers who work in African contexts and so I asked them how they integrated indigenous systems of medicine/health and wellness practice into their research.

I asked the question, because I think it’s one that has not received enough attention. And yet, it’s going to turn out to be crucial. It shows itself to be crucial in the United States, because not everyone responds to the medical establishment in the same way. Public Health researchers argue that culturally focused interventions and information are crucial to having people take up and apply the knowledge in their daily lives. It’s even as simple as making nutrition advice relevant to the food consumption practices and traditions of a particular community.

The answers I got were interesting. One that most interested me was that I learnt that South Africa is integrating indigenous medicine into the offerings of the health service. I can’t find a good reference for this, but I did learn that part of it is to also prevent illegal and harmful medications being sold. The others focused on seeing is as part of the context of health and wellness, part of the overall picture of what it means to be in good health. And as yet, I do not hear any conversation about integrating these types of practices into Health ICTs. And it’s not just the practices themselves, it’s the people, organizations, and institutions that indigenous medicine has that also need to be integrated in to be holistic and representative.

I can’t help thinking that this will be an area which presses very hard on the definition of health. And it may challenge us to design systems that we don’t entirely agree with because that’s what the end-user wants. And of course it’ll counter generalisable solutions. Health is cultural and local, and indigenous medical systems and all that they imply highlight this property of health.

Professionalization of Academia

In academia, academic management, discipline on January 14, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Louis Menand has a new book out about academia. A short excerpt was published in Harvard Magazine, which I found fascinating.

For the relatively new reader, let me begin by saying that I have a “one-woman” interest in disciplinary business and academic organization. I can’t yet say that my thoughts are coherent, but I know that the more I experience academia, the more I find it very intriguing in many different ways.

First, I still find the calls for transparency in decision-making, at times, curious. I think that the ways organizations make decisions can not always be made transparent, the processes are too distributed, so it’s hard to trace results back to root causes. There’s also temporal lag in processes. These and a myriad of other things make organizational sense locally, but make transparency difficult to achieve. I have referred to this in the past as the fallacy of transparency. I also wonder about how the tools we use to organize academia work, since they were designed to work in corporate and commercial contexts… and academia is different, (do I have bosses, why do you increase the reporting lines rather than replace them when you take on administrative assignments).

I also find the changes in the discipline of Computer Science fascinating. Not just the rise of the iSchools, but also how CS is separating organizationally and what that might mean for the discipline as well as what new fields, like ICT4D, can teach us about Computing’s disciplinary business.

So that brings me back to Menand, who clearly has thought a lot more about academia than I have…

“Since it is the system that ratifies the product—ipso facto, no one outside the community of experts is qualified to rate the value of the work produced within it—the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system. To put it another way, the most important function of the system, both for purposes of its continued survival and for purposes of controlling the market for its products, is the production of the producers.”

In this quote he argues that the mechanism of peer review basically leads from a community that values products, to a community that values the reproduction of the community itself. I am still thinking about whether I agree with that statement. I don’t want to agree in all honesty, and I believe that the work that I see done is done by people who are passionate about the products, the results. It’s hard to work up the energy needed to do research if you’re not worried about the products. It does also seem like an argument for interdisciplinarity, reaching across communities to have a broader judgement. I think that’s a good thing.

What I do wonder is whether Computing is headed towards a time when at least at the Ph.D. level the market might be shrinking, or at least stabilizing. One reason this is certainly happening in the short-term is the economy. And last year, in CS we saw an NSF funded post-doc program. While there have always been post-docs in Computing, I am pretty sure there are more. The program had the goal of helping to alleviate the consequences of the economic recession after all.

So if there is a shift, and particularly if the shift is long-term, and if Menand is right, then there must be some effect on the system somewhere. If Menand is right then the production of producers must change if labor patterns are changing. Only his subsequent focus on the humanities suggest changes that at least I don’t find satisfying… he suggests that the economic downturn led to increased times to graduation and increased difficulty in finding employment. And so Menand has caused me to reflect… whether or not I agree with his arguments, I think that they are very worthy of thought, and also on what happens in a time of economic recession and what my responsibility is as a member of a professional academic community.

Whatever I conclude, he concludes with an argument that I hear more often from a variety of people who I know have given the future of the academic enterprise considerable thought. And what I hear over and over again is that change is coming. And I hear it from very different types of people. When different people with very different perspectives say the same thing, it makes the point stand out in my mind because I find myself thinking how did they all get to the same conclusion. Of course, I also believe, see above, that that change will be slowed down by the institution itself but I find myself disposed to the argument about change. Indeed, one glimmer is already a reality, that there are Universities out there that can and do graduate people but do not look like traditional Universities.

I’ll leave you with his parting thought…

“My aim has been to throw some light from history on a few problems in contemporary higher education. If there is a conclusion to be drawn from this exercise, it might be that the academic system is a deeply internalized one. The key to reform of almost any kind in higher education lies not in the way that knowledge is produced. It lies in the way that the producers of knowledge are produced. Despite transformational changes in the scale, missions, and constituencies of American higher education, professional reproduction remains almost exactly as it was a hundred years ago.”

What I do look forward to is a conversation about production and reproduction of the academic profession. What does that mean for Computing, what does it mean for HCI (which is my speciality). And how might this change, in what ways….

Update: Slate reviews the book.

When Global Networks met Nation States: France’s approach to Digital Living

In empirical, European Union, France, research, social media on January 9, 2010 at 4:11 pm

BBC news ran a piece on France’s approach to digital life.

The following seem like take aways to me.

First, that different countries approach the same technologies differently. Frequently, when we read about the power of the Internet and so forth it is as if it is a technology that spans national boundaries, a truly global phenomenon. And of course it is. But simultaneously it is also a technology that is worked into the laws and rules of each land it touches. China and Singapore’s filtering and barring of certain content are two well-known examples. And while we can spend some time arguing whether that is “right” or “wrong” (or perhaps good vs. bad), many of those arguments turn on our own values about things like, for example, the freedom of information, the right to free speech and so forth.

France is deciding whether internet firms such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook should pay a tax on their online ad revenues. What they make, in the sale of their online space, France views as taxable revenue and tax law is as idiosyncratic as the country from which it comes (I think wikipedia does a nice job of pointing out some of the more bizarre features of U.S. tax law). Interestingly Google’s response is one that turns on innovation. Google might be right, but I can’t help thinking that innovation, particularly the importance of technological innovation is a very American response. I’ve been here 20 years and I’ve never lived in a society that values technology, seems so culturally aligned with technology, as much as the United States. I think David Nye would agree, although he puts it so much better than I, perhaps especially in American Technological Sublime.

The fact that France has decided, as a State, to go head to head with Google to digitize books also seems very French. When I think of large state projects I think of France’s nuclear power program, of its high speed trains, of the launch and rapid uptake of the Minitel. So, apparently many people think that the Internet was the first network that connected a “network nation” together. Actually it was Minitel, and it connected France together by the mid 1980s, when the French were already doing online banking, stock purchases, and making reservations. Yes, the WWW, which made its appearance in the early 1990s, despite allowing a lot of people to conduct business online was not the first… So, instead the French are going to create their own digital library, and pay £700m to do it.

And finally, I found the law which would allow net users to have old data about themselves deleted fascinating. Recently I blogged about the ongoing tensions between the personal and professional. But they do not just play out in the now, in the real-time, but also over the course of a history of network use. For example, if you type my name into Google along with the words hot tub, you used to land on a picture and explanation of an event at a conference. Initially, I was not too excited about the picture, particularly when I was recruiting for jobs (which I have done rather more often than some of my colleagues…) but then I think I decided that taking the picture away was some how worse, since it wasn’t entirely clear that I was not in the hot tub (some who were were naked if I recall correctly). ANyway, so it goes on. There’s also the brief experiment I had with feminism, which I am not personally embarrassed by (not really sure I’m embarrassed by the hot tub either, just wouldn’t be my first choice)… but I am convinced that some of the ideas I left on the net would be better refined with my increased readings. Perhaps not, but we can hope. But, there are digital traces of me, a digital legacy, which is now something that others can explore and potentially make decisions about (not just the content but also me), but I don’t have a way to remove it. If I was French I might though. ANd can you imagine what this is going to mean, if a French person can ask, under the auspices of this law, to have something removed. The web has always struck me as a place where people create but far less frequently remove. The web is not tidy like that.

My bigger point here was that this news item reminded me that the network is not a global phenomenon, it is actually a more complicated experiment in marrying a technology that does not readily or always recognise international boundaries, with nation states that can and do recognise their own sovereignty and their ability to enact laws that reflect their own values and beliefs about digital life.

Revisiting Personal and Professional

In academia, academic management, empirical, research, social media on January 3, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Andrea Forte recently posted a note on Facebook about Facebook’s new privacy settings and how she hoped that they would help her to manage the content she posts there. In particular, (well what I took away) was that she had multiple constituencies of readers, friends, family and professional networks. So, when posting personal content that her family and friends would enjoy and desire, she was also—prior to the new settings—posting it to professional colleagues and wondering whether they wanted to see it in their news feed streams. The new privacy settings allow her to create different groups, reflecting her social networks, and she’s hopeful that this will help her manage the flow of content.

Her note reminded me of something I had written, initially in an email message to my advisor—Jonathan Grudin—about the WWW in the mid 90s (although, from the outset I want to say that what Andrea wrote was not identical, but it recalled memories).

The story begins in the early 90s. Irvine was a good place to be since a number of graduate students were busy not just using the WWW but inventing it. So, not to be completely left behind, I decided that I would create a web page, and it was live by 1994. And it was, in addition to being rather rudimentary in terms of format, a personal webpage in every sense of the word. So, a bit like my blog, it was a mixture of personal and professional items, including what I thought were some fairly strong political statements.

Then I went on the job market, and that’s what I wrote to Jonathan about. I wrote about how I had changed my webpage because suddenly I felt that it needed to be strictly professional because potential employers would view it. I was pretty convinced I did not want them to know my political views, or to potentially have those be in conflict with the people that would hire me. So I removed it and it ceased to be, for a time, a page where I could express my views. (A brief snippet of this discussion was then quoted by Tom Erickson in his Communications of the ACM article).

Andrea’s post, recalled to me a similar situation on facebook. And of course, it has been noted outside of academic communities, particularly with respect to recruiting. In fact you can attend a webinar, if your a recruiter, to figure out how to maximise facebook (and join the facebook group).

She mentioned the job search specifically, and I mean to ask her what has changed since it ended (successfully), but she was largely focused on the longer term use of facebook. She’s already written about the challenges of having multiple networks of friends, family, and colleagues. And so reading her piece and reflecting back I wonder how many technologies present this type of dilemma. I’m also reminded of another phenomena which seems to be related, about how technologies can morph from being very informal in use to quite formal in use. Email, not even originally a part of the Internet design, was a medium that was very informal when I first started using it in the late 1980’s. It was to connect family and friends, mainly those with other email accounts, mainly those in academia (of course it was in use in military networks, maybe it was different there). There was a spate of books, on email etiquette, helping people use emoticons and other things to make humourous comments, to avoid FLAMING, and so forth. I took this as a clue to the types of conversations that people were attempting to have via email, as well as a sign of the help needed to pull those conversations off.

And now I think about how email is used as a medium for people to apply to University, to have conversations with faculty that they might want to work with in graduate school. I look at my own inbox and I can tell you that the balance of informal, chatty conversational emails, is way down in comparison with the number of professional requests (serve on program committees, attend meetings and present, interview etc…). Instant Messaging may also have this feel… it’s not, I should add that all email or all IM’s have become formal, just that its use has expanded to include more formal types of exchanges (recognising that formal is also a little tricky in definition, but thinking of the exchanges I’ll be having with my financial institutions to prepare my tax returns as another type of example).

One more thought on Andrea’s post. She hopes that the new privacy settings and the ability to create groups will help her break apart her single monolithic facebook network into the multiple social networks that it actually represents. But, if usable security teaches me one thing (there are more, but for now…) it is that too many options (particularly if they are written in security ease) doesn’t really seem to solve the problem either. People won’t spend the time to configure the system. The key is to find the sweet spot I suppose, of options and incentives… I wonder whether facebook has found them.

Notes from a Larger Country: A goodbye to France, for now

In European Union, France on November 18, 2009 at 7:42 am

This is likely one of my last posts from France. I prepare now for an imminent return to the United States, to my home and life in Atlanta Georgia. There are things I am looking forward too, my house, my colleagues, some of my stuff, etc… but I am going to miss France. Here in no particular order are some things.

International Travel: Highly Recommended.

I’ve done quite a bit of international travel, and lived abroad for the majority of my life. International travel, and especially time living abroad I would be the first to claim is mind-opening, and also a test of one’s character. It takes a type of courage, an ability to feel OK with failure (not an academic’s natural skill set I sometimes think 🙂 But, I already thought I knew those lessons, I’d done them both at least once, going to the United States. But France is another new place, and each one teaches me more… I know, for example, that my French is not good enough to live here without the considerable scaffolding that Georgia Tech provides here. At the same time I’ve learnt that my French is functional enough for me to manage in shops, restaurants, and other settings. I also know that over time it has improved.

And then there’s France itself.

The French care about food and regionality. I understand that De Gaulle once asked “how you manage a nation of 264 cheeses” (people think the number of different types cheeses made in France is higher than that: current favourite Tomme Brebis, although Rocamadour is hard to beat, and then there’s Camembert). And I now understand why a person credited with the establishment of the 5th Republic said that. Probably not in entirety, but food is a window into how much the French care about the regions of France. France, I now think, is a delicate balance of centralized nation state, and highly individualistic regional cultures. And how they pull that balance off is something I can imagine a foreigner spending a life time finding out. Food is also a great lens for understanding French agricultural business, as a family business and not always agro-business. I like that supermarkets have two Bread sections, Pain (i.e., Bread) and then Pain Industriel (Industrial Bread). There’s local made and then their’s argo-business bread (which as best we can tell is used for Croque Monsieurs). Food not only tastes good, it’s a wonderful lens through which to explore France.

As a Brit.

It’s easy to see the history of France and Britain as one of conflict over considerable periods of time. And that is one very reasonable take. But, it took me living here to also see that same history as one that makes perhaps us more similar than I had really thought about before. I’m not sure I can point to particular examples (shared affinity for cheese perhaps 😉 but it’s not as different as I expected.

And France is beautiful.

The American West is beautiful. I’ve been lucky to see much of it, and wow, it’s an amazing natural landscape. France is also a stunningly beautiful country. Not perhaps in quite the diversity of geological beauty, although it’s hard to argue that the sight of the Pyrennes from the A61 around Carcassonne, while looking out over a deep flat valley (with the Mastif Central to the other side) is not spectacular. France has a lot of beauty. And its villages frequently add to that beauty, rather than being located within it. We travelled during the Fall break, so we also got to see a country whose countryside was turning a myriad of shades of yellow and red. So, I understand why so many French families vacation here, we’ve just scratched the surface and it’s a country that screams come back and visit me again. France has endless beauty it feels, from the winding rivers and streams of the Dordogne, to the flat river shores of the Loire, dotted with Chateaux, the rolling fields of the East, the mountains of the Southeast, and the valley of the Rhone.

And then there’s France within Europe.

Metz is a unique place from which to begin to think about Europe as a vision and now a reality. It is just across the river that one of the architects of the European Union, Robert Schuman, lived and is now buried. It’s easy to drive in 4 countries within a couple hours from Metz. Now passing deserted checkpoints and customs stops because they’re all members of the Schengen countries.

We were here for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It happened on Nov 9 1989, and interestingly France commemorates Armistice Day on Nov 11, remembering the huge loss of life that was the result of a war often on French soil between Germany and France (and others of course), World War 1. Two countries share a boundary near here, and a history of warfare. Metz itself has switched hands 3 times since 1870. Here then on a contested edge, it seems clearer what a stable peaceful Europe means. It means that Metz, a place where German language, food culture, and names (many people here have French-German name combinations) are a part of what makes the city and people French, and proud to be so. France and Germany had such a history and out of this they have crafted and frequently lead the architecture of a stable Europe. And here that makes so much sense.

And then there’s France for the French.

I can’t claim to understand the French. But, I’ve enjoyed living among them and learning from them. The French make me want to know more French, so that I can learn more. When I encounter French people who don’t switch to English even when my French gets pretty rough, I know it’s not because they’re trying to be difficult (I’m not sure I ever thought that, although I understand it’s a common interpretation, I was just perplexed) it’s because they want to encourage people to try their language. They’re proud of it, and it’s a nice language, and it sounds great when spoken by the natives (and rougher when someone with a mid-atlantic accent, and a lack of command of the genders and tenses speaks it). So give it a whirl! There’s very little to lose except that feeling that it ought to be better, and maybe that’s quite a reasonable feeling to have.

For me then.

I’m European. And very proud to be so. But, I knew my Europeanness as a political reaction to England’s lack of interest. I now understand it as something that’s not a reaction, but as a place, a people, an entity in its own right. I learnt that in Metz.

I learnt that should keep practicing my French, despite all its flaws, I need to keep just trying. And I wish I had longer because I’m just beginning to see signs of improvement. And I shan’t forget the feeling that it ought to be better, that’s accurate, and that’s a part of understanding the limitations of my Anglophone world. (I leave with a lucky surprise, that learning German young I have a working knowledge that I can’t explain but doesn’t seem to let me down in quite the ways that my French does).

And I’ve learnt that France is a country I want to explore in more detail. I want to understand the regions better, I would like to better understand the whole made from these proudly different parts, and continue to learn about how this country leads in Europe. How for example, did the French decide to leave their Franc (a very old currency) for the Euro?

I suppose that what I’ve really learned is how much more there is to learn. But I have better questions, thank you France.

Strikes

In European Union, France on October 16, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Today I decided to go to Metz city centre, well I needed a baguette for dinner and after two months here I’m feeling more comfortable cycling through the city with sticks of bread. In fact I feel like a local when I do this.

But today was the day when the cereal and meat farmers joined the milk farmers to complain about an EU Agricultural policies. The complaint took the form of a nation wide strike in which people drove their tractors to places and set things on fire, or in the case of Metz drove their tractors around the city in a very effective attempt to prevent all car drivers from entering the city. And the city centre was very quiet.

I encountered the strike on my cycle route into the city. I was glad to be cycling. I stopped to watch. I took pictures. A kind French man told me that today in Metz there were 1003 tractors who had formed a long line and they would drive around Metz. And I watched at least 200 of them drive by.

Several things struck me. France is not a place of agri-business, it can’t be. I wonder if the same strike was to take place in Georgia, USA or Norfolk UK, whether they could find 1003 tractors in the local area. I don’t think so, because I think there’s been a move towards agri-business. By contrast France is a nation of agricultural families and small, local, businesses. They care about their food. Food is more expensive in France, but it’s better tasting. Even Cora, which is like Walmart has food that tastes like food, food that has appellations (i.e. is regional specific and has to work hard to be given a certification — this came from wine regions, but it is applied to food). This orientation to food requires a style of farming that agribusiness does not readily support.

France is also a nation of young farmers. In the protest I noticed signs from the Jeunes Farmers union, (between you and I have trouble with young and yellow–jeunes and jaune–but I figured that it would be odd to have a yellow farmers union). And looking at the people driving the tractors I saw so many young people. And this struck me as odd. I don’t think of farming as a career for the young.

What I think is at stake is a way of life that still exists here, not exactly because of the marketplace, I suspect that there are subsidies involved. But a change in whether those subsidies occur, whether farming practices are local farmer friendly has huge consequences for France, and for the region I’m in if the number of tractors, the number of people who are young enough that they would be out of a job and have to retrain, implies.

On the other hand, I wonder whether some consolidation may have to occur. I’m not quite sure why, but again I was reflecting on how such a small place could find 1003 tractors worth of people to protest. That’s a lot of people.

The other thing that struck me while I stood there watching the tractors go past (well in addition to marvelling at the sheer variety of makes and models, I thought John Deere was a virtual monopoly, today I was reeducated about the state of tractor machinery) was that they care. What has happened to the strike culture? In a way, it doesn’t matter to me whose right and whose wrong, the point is that they care about what they do and are willing to tell people that they care. Perhaps you can have to much of a strike culture, but I’ve lived in the U.S.A for 20 years, and I’ve yet to see a reasonable strike. Do we not care about the work we do? Faced with change do we just go, oh well, never mind. I can’t help feeling that a strike is a way of saying, no this is not acceptable and I want you to know that. And, today I saw a lot of young farmers, and some older ones, who all told me quite clearly that these policies are a threat to their livelihoods, and they may have to deal with that, but they are not happy. And most importantly they care enough to fight.

Commuting and Every Day life at the half way point

In European Union, France on September 30, 2009 at 9:22 am

Apparently we’re almost at the half way point. Wow, hard to believe it’s half way over.

So, I’m trying to reflect on things. Not unsurprisingly, I’ve lost some of the newness that made me aware of the mundane.

The flyers continue to show up at the house, and it no longer seems odd to me that they advertise uncooked meat. The continued desire to furnish your home with products that have the Union Jack on them does seem bizarre to me. Actually it caused me to notice that France like Italy flies a considerable number of flags. (Also like the United States). What’s nice to see in France and Italy is the national and the European Union flags together. It goes a long way to making me feel like I’m at home to see the EU flag. When we visited Veuve Cliqout, they flew their flag, and the flag of France and the EU. I feel very grateful to France that they’ve invited me to join in their Champagne heritage. The flags you fly say a lot about what you identify with, so perhaps it’s now more noticable to me how little a) Britain seems to fly the flag by comparison, and b) how you never see the EU flag when a flag is flown. While I actually like the relatively limited flag flying, I wish that the UK would embrace the EU. But I’ve spent my entire life wishing that, and I suspect that I will continue to spend the rest of my life wishing that.

Back to mail. We share our house with three other families. But our apartment is not numbered. Surnames and mail boxes outside with surnames on them, do the sort. Apartment numbers are irrelevant.

Surnames are capitalised here. I am not Beki Grinter, but Beki GRINTER. Mail is addressed to the sender on the front and the from address is on the back of the envelope rather than at the top left corner. I still do it the U.S. way, and no one’s told me off. By contrast I always wrote my seven’s the continental way, complete with the line through them, and so here I’m finally in the right script society. (The stroke through the seven is to distinguish it from the one, which if you see the continental way of writing it makes more sense).

I am also Madame here. The use of a prefix is far more prevelant here. It’s impossible to purchase tickets with my name, I need a form of address too. And it’s used. In those greeting cycles, it’s always with an address as well as my name, when the latter is known. Hello or Hi is not enough, it’s accompanied by my form of address.

I’ve always been used to au revoir for goodbye. I have heard far more use of bon voyage since being here. Particularly when I am potentially leaving and the other person is not. Cora is a good example, it’s always bon voyage. Which used to stump me, it’s silly to say bon voyage to someone who is sat behind a check out counter, but now I feel comfortable saying au revoir and merci.

I’m used to the routine of seeing signage and for K&I to start deciphering what it means. At first, it was a combination of survival and novelty. Now it’s almost a form of French practice. What are they trying to tell you? Yesterday, again at Cora, we learnt that “Now at prices you’ve never seen before”.

Now that I live in Europe I have an actual car commute, and for the first time I can really complain about traffic. (ha ha ha, sorry, just think it’s funny I had to come to Europe to experience wretched commutes, at least some of the time). Metz is under construction, so commuting can be exceedingly tedious. Some days I commute in while K works from home, and when I drive alone I enjoy turning on the radio and singing along. Well I think I’m just turning on the radio, but it turns out that in fact also usually sing. It just happens. Here though it’s caused some amusement. Just today for example, I was listening to Virgin radio which plays a good mix of French and English language music. Lilly Allen’s Fuck You (yes, really) is huge here — and it’s frankly very weird to hear it being played in some places, like in the local sommalier’s shop while selecting wine . Anyway, this was an 80s tune, I can’t remember who and I was singing along (I am no great singer, but it turns out that singing along to an English language song, in English, with the windows open, really gets the attention of the person in the car next to you at the intersection. I got a compliment. I don’t sing along to the French songs.

I also don’t sing when I am being followed by a van full of Gendarmarie. I’ve noticed that the French police seem to hunt in bigger packs. I’ve seen van fulls of gendarmarie several times now. Then there’s the local Metz police (I actually don’t understand the categories of French police, but there are categories, like in the U.S. where every entity appears to have its own force, I still don’t understand that). So the local plod tends to hunt in packs of three. They drive peugeots and renaults with two in the front and one on the back seat. In the US this would not be possible because the backseat is where the felons travel. It makes you wonder where the French put their felons. In the boot (trunk)?

I also don’t sing on roundabouts. Roundabouts have a very unique place in my driving history. I learnt to drive in the UK. I probably drove about 200 miles in total in the UK. Then I moved to the United States. I’ve driven across the country once (3500 miles), around the West multiple times (10000) and so forth. The net result is that I have order of magnitudes of practice of driving on the right. Except for roundabouts. The US doesn’t have them (well there are a few, but you have to work to find them). So, now in France, the one thing that really has taken some practice is the French roundabout. I’m used to getting on from the left and proceeding in a clockwise direction, and instead I enter from the right and go counterclockwise. And then there’s the use of the two lanes, inner and outer, along side with understanding the entry and exit protocols. Some of the lane usage and the protocols are once learnt never forgotten, but flipping them around to cope with the different directionality is novel. And critically it comes for me at a time when I don’t think of driving on the right, or switching from a EU to a US system as being novel. So it’s like this blip, I notice that the degree of attention I have to pay at roundabouts is much higher than anywhere else.

Well this is already quite long so I’ll save how I confused the archeological dig outside the Maison d’arrete (the stopping house, aka prison) for large moles or possibly graves. And perhaps eventually I will do the appropriate length post on cheese. De Gaulle is famous for saying “how is it possible to run a nation that has 264 different types of cheese” to make the point about the challenge of being a nation when the local/regional is so well established in the cultural psyche, and he was right about everything but one thing, there are far more types of cheese than that. Over 300 I believe, perhaps as many as 350. France a nation of cheese.

The Mid Atlantic, where I really live

In European Union, France on September 25, 2009 at 10:30 am

This is the last of my geo-political posts. Well probably not, I think I mentioned a renewed political voice.

So, I am an EU citizen but I have lived in the U.S. for 18 years. This gives my experience here in France a touch of surreal. Let me explain.

I enter and exit France on my UK/EU passport. This is good stuff. The British in particular really like to know what people are doing in their country so they always give non-EU citizens a good questioning. One time, and this feels so British to me, I was traveling with my non-EU companion and we went through the EU lanes together, and we were told that this was “OK” but the immigration official advised us that sometimes they don’t have enough stamps to stamp passports of non-EU nationals coming through the EU lanes, which would require being resent to the non-EU lanes. I was tempted to make a donation, perhaps I should start a facebook group “donate stamps to British immigration officials.”

Anyway, that’s the easy case, because I don’t have choice. Driving is far more confusing. I drive with both my US and UK licences. While my US license is valid until 2012 in Georgia, it is only valid to use for a year in France and then I have to get a French one. So I use my UK license which is valid until my 70th birthday. I also got the original, no picture, EU model. So I have a license valid for decades that’s A3 in size and has no picture. The British driving licenses have been updated and my countrymen have acquired the credit card size plastic model complete with picture (I think as a result of moving). But my UK address remains unchanged, and now I have a collectible but active driving licence I suspect. I wonder what would happen if I showed it to a French policeman. And I also wonder what would happen if I showed my EU passport to a policeman and then showed my US drivers license. I’m actually not sure which would be more confusing.

Lets just hope I don’t get stopped by the police (which the other day was foremost on my mind as I was followed by a van full of plod for almost the entire drive to work).

Do you see where this is going.

Health insurance is a good example. I travelled here from the US with my US insurance information. But I also came with the documentation that pertains to the National Health Service. I don’t actually know what would happen if I experimented with the system. So like my driving licence, I hope it just doesn’t happen.

And long before Metz, when I married, I thought about some of this too. When I married first there was the potential question of name change. And then there was the thought of changing it with three Federal Governments, two State governments, and well… then there was the question of who would even recongise it, at least one place I think only recognises marriages if they take place within the country itself. Thankfully we didn’t even do the whole church thing otherwise there would have been a myriad of confusion about whether that particular church counted (especially given that in California the possibilities for “church” are so very broad).

I think this is a glimpse of what it means to live transnationally. I say a glimpse because frankly i’m in about the best situation with the amount of permissions I have (being a permanent resident of the United States being an EU citizen, and I am thankful), but I’m also confused about which of my credentials I should use and how all these things interact with each other (acquiring citizenship for example, this is an exercise in National law interactions). And banking, when you throw in accounts and money you get another transnational experience, the one that corporations have been excited about for a long time, the one that thinks that just because you have an “offshore” bank account, you are the person who wants to bank “offshore.” To all the banks that have approached me, I will use my blog (that you don’t read) to tell you I am not, nor have ever been interested in or qualifying for some of the materials you send me about what I could do with my account in Guernsey or the Cayman Islands. I know where they those places are, but I don’t want to bank there. I want to bank in the UK and in the US, and possibly in France.

So, if you know me, I’ve likely told you or you just already can tell that I have a very confusing accent. To the Americans I am English, to the English I am not English but they are not yet willing to say that I sound American especially if they know me, and now recently I discover that to the French I am German, English or possibly American.

I went through the classic steps. First I denied it was happening, that my accent was somehow shifting to the mid-Atlantic. Then, second, I experienced regret, I had a terrible problem with my voice, one that I could likely not correct, so fail. Now, third and finally, I realise that my voice has been telling me what I should have known all along…. despite what the U.S. immigration system thinks of me I am the country’s creature too. They have shaped me, but they do not and can not ever completely own me for I am destined to live my life in the mid-Atlantic. It may be a vocal abomination, but it’s also a place, a place between two continents… it’s a place where a sea of useful paper and plastic and multiple sets of rights and responsibilities collide in intriguing ways…