That is all.
Lots of interesting thoughts on the previous post — thanks to all who commented. I’ll comment in that thread on the various clarifications of American culture. Here, I want to discuss some of the proposed oddities that have been suggested for Britain. (I won’t be addressing trivia like the lengths of TV series or the size of mains plugs, interesting though they are, because I want to focus on fundamentals.)
There are things that we Brits find incomprehensible about the USA. And no, I am not talking about trivia like the popularity of bad beer, the funny accents in the South, or the the comical use of the word “pants” to mean trousers. I mean deep-seated cultural differences that make USA sometimes feel utterly alien to me. Here are three:
Americans live in a civilised and technologically advanced country, one of the richest in the world. Yet people die because of not having health insurance. To British eyes, that is utterly inexplicable. Barbaric. Inexcusable.
I just saw this tweet from National Rifle Association (NRA):
Why is the idea of a gun good when it’s used to protect the Pres … but bad when it’s used to protect our children in our schools #NRA
— NRA (@NRA) December 21, 2012
On the assumption that this is a genuine query, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about some simple statistics and probabilities.
First, Wikipedia notes that four presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy) have been shot by assassins. For simplicity, we will leave aside the failed assassination attempts on thirteen other presidents (and the failed attempts on the lives of Lincoln and Kennedy before the successful ones). Let’s consider the time from Lincoln’s death to now (147 years from 1865 to 2012), and say that the chance of a president being shot dead in any given year is 4 in 147, or about one in 40. (The real chance is surely much higher than that — note that there have been attempts on the lives of all the last eight presidents.)
The population of the US is 315 million, of which 27.3% are under 20 years of age. Let’s assume that about half of those are school age (between 5 and 15), which is 43 million schoolchildren. In 2012, there have been seven notable school shootings, but “only” 29 children murdered as a result. So let’s say that the chance of schoolchild being shot dead in any given year is 29 in 43 million, or about one in 1,500,000.
There were 600 accidental deaths by gunshot in the USA in 2010. Somewhere in the range of 30-34% of adults own a gun. Given that there are 230 million adults in the USA (and assuming that the number of children owning guns is negligible), that means there are about 74 million gun owners in the USA. So the chance of any gun owner accidentally killing someone in a given year is 600 in 74 million, or about one in 123,000.
In reality, of course the armed guards who protect the president are the best of the best: very highly trained, and much less like to have accidents than the general gun-owning population. But even assuming they are no more competent than hypothetical armed school guards, here’s how it works out.
These numbers are all approximate. I could easily be wrong by a factor of two or more. Even if I’m wrong by a factor of six, it still means that the president is much, much, much better off with an armed guard where as a schoolchild would be twenty times as likely to be shot.
I hope that clears things up.
As good computer scientists, we know that there are two kinds of OR.
An inclusive OR, which is what we nearly always need in programming, is true if either of its branches is true: “exit this loop if we’ve processed 50 items OR there are none left to process.”
An exclusive OR is true if exactly one if its branches is true, but not if both are. “If player 1 is attacking player 2 OR player 2 is attacking player 1 (but not both) then inflict damage.” [This is a contrived example: that's because it's hard to think of non-contrived examples -- they hardly ever come up in real programs.]
When we use “or” in informal speech, we nearly always mean exclusive or. If I tell you I’m going to the cinema to see Skyfall on Wednesday or Thursday, you understand that I will go on one day or the other, but not both. If I ask you what you want to drink and you say Abbot Ale or Ruddles County, you’d be surprised (but maybe not disappointed) if I brought you two pints.
My eldest son has a mobile phone, which he uses only for contacting us in emergencies. Happily, he hasn’t needed to use it for for more than six months. Then yesterday he was delayed getting home from school and tried to call us. His phone didn’t work.
At the same time, we were trying to call him. The call didn’t go through, and we were told that the number was invalid.
(He got home safely not long after this, so that’s all right. That’s not the point of the story.)
My wife called Vodafone, the service provider, to ask what had happened. The rep explained that when a Vodafone mobile phone is unused for six months they shut down the account, effectively bricking it, and reassign the number to someone else. (That last bit is evidently untrue, since the number is now invalid rather than going to a different phone.) Shortly before the six months expired, they apparently warned us that this was going to happen: by a text sent to the very phone that wasn’t being used, rather then for example an email or a call to our land line or a letter or frankly any method of communication that didn’t involve the very phone whose lack of use was the reason for the message.
This was a pay-as-you-go phone. I am sure no-one will be too surprised when I tell you that when they closed down the phone they kept the balance in the account.
So what can we do from here? Apparently if our son wants to start using the phone again, he has to get a new SIM card, which of course means that he loses his address book (and anyone who had his number will no longer be able to use it).
So my feeling is that Vodafone should have (A) not bricked the phone at all; or failing that, (B) informed us by some sane method that they were going to do that; or both (C1) not stolen our money, and (C2) not junked the old SIM. In short, is it really too much to ask that they not behave like turds?
You know, the market for service companies that simply aren’t horrible is wide open. It’s not going to hard to win customers’ loyalty when this sort of craptacular behaviour is routine among their competitors.
Let’s go through this slowly and carefully, shall we?
After a long, tedious process in which you did not allow me to cancel my domains online, I finally received your email requesting me to confirm what I had told you by phone:
And here is the reply that I sent, 22 minutes later, confirming that yes, I do wish to delete both of the named domains:
This you then confirmed to me, three hours later:
Let me just quote that back to you, in case you didn’t actually read what you said: The domain names PROPERTYTRIANGLE.CO.UK and PROPERTYTRIANGLE.COM have been deleted.
Imagine my surprise, then at finding this notification in my inbox this morning, six weeks later:
So you have stolen $35.98 from me to renew a domain that I cancelled, and whose cancellation you acknowledged six weeks ago.
So I have three questions for you:
Needless to say, I will not be “continuing to give you the opportunity to help me meet my online needs.
Here they are, all together in a single post for ease of linking.
Kent Police force has posted this press release:
Man due to be interviewed in connection with Facebook posting
A man is due to be interviewed by police this morning following reports that a picture of a burning poppy had been posted on a social media website.
Officers were contacted at around 4pm yesterday, Sunday, 11 November 2012 and alerted to the picture, which was reportedly accompanied by an offensive comment.
Following an investigation by Kent Police a 19-year-old, Canterbury man was arrested on suspicion of an offence under the malicious communications act. He is currently in custody.
Posted on: 11 November 2012
More than a million Bristish soliders gave their lives in World Wars I and II to preserve a free nation.
I do not believe the free nation they had in mind was one in which you can be arrested for posting a picture of a burning poppy.