Category Archives: Advice

My son’s name (2)

As promised, here is a list of arguments people gave against our not passing on either of our surnames to our son, along with my responses. They either come from friends and acquaintances, or from responses to my Yahoo! Answers question. I hope they will be helpful to people who are thinking of doing something similar.

How will he know he’s part of your family?

(Yes, someone genuinely said this!) If you have to rely on your last name to know who your family is, then your family has done something very wrong indeed. Or you’re adopted… in which case you’ll probably have your adoptive parents’ last name anyway. Or there’s been some other dramatic event severing ties with your family. In which case your last name is the last of your worries.

It’ll make things really hard for future genealogists.

Fine. I like to give them a challenge. Not that I think, given how good record keeping is now, that this will be much of a challenge. But it may at least be sort of interesting for them.

It’s not traditional.

Fine. I don’t see any point in being traditional for the sake of it. Besides, it sort of is traditional in Wales, as it happens. Since there are so few Welsh surnames (and they’re seen by some as something of an English imposition), lots of Welsh kids use given last names. I find it very intriguing that people seem happier with the idea when I tell them this. As if anything is justified by being traditional somewhere.

If you’re worried about him only sharing a name with one of you, then isn’t it worse that he’ll share his name with neither of you?

This sort of misses the point, which is that we don’t want his relationship with one of us to be emphasised more than his relationship with the other. In any case, I rather like the idea that, instead of his simply inheriting one of our names automatically, he’ll get a name that we worked together to choose specially for him

It’ll cause him no end of trouble filling in forms.

No it won’t. He has a first name and a last name, and a birth certificate to prove it. He’ll be in no worse a position than anyone else. In fact, it’ll be easier for him than for me, since I’ve always used my second name instead of my first (my parents’ choice, not mine). And that can get annoying.

He’ll be bullied.

If I genuinely thought this would make him much more likely to be bullied, I wouldn’t have done it. But I’m simply not convinced that it will, particularly given how many kids there already are who have a different name from at least one of their parents.

You’ll have to take his birth certificate along with you on flights and things.

This may be a little annoying, but it’ll be annoying for us than for him. And I don’t think it’s a very big issue.

So what do you gain?

No one actually asked us this, but I think it’s worth answering. What we gain is that we’ve given him what I think is a nice name, which is a little unusual, but which doesn’t sound too weird, and which we thought very carefully about before choosing. My wife doesn’t feel that her family’s been ignored at the expense of mine, and I don’t feel that mine has been at the expense of hers.

And if it turns out he grows up and doesn’t like it for some reason, he’s free to change it if he wants!

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My son’s name

When we married, my wife didn’t take my last name. This didn’t bother me in the slightest; nor does it appear to have bothered anyone else. We did, however, think for quite a while about our children’s names, and when our son was born the question stopped being hypothetical.

We had a number of options. Some people in the same circumstances give the child one of the parents’ two surnames. We didn’t want to do that because neither of us has a particularly interesting surname that we were keen to pass on, and because we didn’t like the idea of emphasising our son’s relationship with one of us, but not the other.

Another option is to combine the parents’ surnames. But we don’t especially like double-barrelled names, and, what’s more, they don’t really solve the problem: You have to make equally difficult decisions about which name comes first, and they get unsustainable after a generation or two. There was also no obvious way of merging our names more creatively to come up with something we liked.

Then we considered the Welsh option of calling our sons X ap Gareth, and our daughters X ferch Lottie (you can read more about this here), or some variation on this. But this still involved emphasising our son’s relationship with one of us, but not the other.

Then it occurred to us that you don’t need to make reference to the parents’ names at all. So we didn’t. When we filled in the birth-certificate form at the hospital, we put Iorwerth in the first-name box and Rowan in the last-name box. Rowan was just a name we happened to like (in fact it was in the running as a first name for quite a while). We’ll choose other last names for our other children.

No one since his birth has criticised our decision. When we suggested it to people before the birth, however, we were quite surprised by the negative reactions. Some people liked the idea very much. Others disliked it a lot. I also posted a question in the relevant section on Yahoo! Answers to see what people there would say. The reaction was very negative. Perversely, however, we were encouraged that we were doing the right thing. This is mainly because no one came up with a negative consequence that we thought believable and which would affect him rather than us. As far as I can see, the main disadvantage to doing this is that we may need to take his birth certificate along on certain occasions in case officials or school teachers refuse to believe we’re his parents. I can live with that.

I’ll list the main counter-arguments (and my responses) in a follow-up post, because I think they’re interesting. But to some extent I’m more interested in why some people seemed to dislike the idea so much. Part of it is probably that people get very uneasy when anyone does anything unconventional with children, however innocuous it may be. Another possibility (perhaps a superset of the other) is that a lot of people are simply much more conservative than I’d realised, and any flouting of normal practice puts them a little on edge. There’s another possibility as well. Some meat-eaters respond to vegetarians almost as if they’re offended by the vegetarians’ not eating meat, and I think this is because they take the vegetarians’ lifestyles as an implicit criticism of their own lifestyles. In the same way, I think some people assume that, by not giving our son either my surname or my wife’s, we were aiming a criticism at people who pass on their last names.

I would like to assure these people that we most certainly were not.

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Tystiolaeth a barn

Pam mae pobl yn meddwl bod tynnu barn allan o’u tîn yn gywerth â cheisio deall tystiolaeth gwyddonol?

A pham mae pobl yn dyfalbarhau i feddwl bod yr hawl i fynegi barn yn meddwl yr hawl i fynegi barn heb gael eich herio ynglŷn â’r barn hwnnw? Weithiau mae rhywun fel Galileo yn sefyll fyny ac yn herio’r consensws, ac yn cael eu camdrin—er mai nhw sy’n gywir, nid y consensws. Ond yn amlach, y pobl sy’n darlunio’u hunain fel hereticiaid sydd yn anghywir. Sut y gallwn ni wahaniaethu rhyngddynt? Y rhai sy’n talu mwy o sylw i dystiolaeth ac yn gwybod sut i’w deall yw’r rhai i ddilyn. Weithiau maen nhw’n gwneud camgymeriadau, ond mae’r rhai sy’n anwybyddu’r tystiolaeth yn gwneud llawer mwy.

Ond mae pawb yn gwneud camgymeriad weithiau. Ac mae’n well i’r pobl sydd o blaid y consensws beidio â gweiddi “heretic” yn rhy groch chwaith…

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Finding an apartment in New York City

So I’ve living in New York City for a little over two months now. I started work on 15 February and we flew over, via Iceland, on 7 February. Our first week was a little stressful, since not only did we have to find our feet in a new city, we had to find somewhere to live (for the first week, we stayed here, which was surprisingly good value). This is far from being a trivial task in New York, where the market is controlled by brokers, who—we were warned before coming—are well known for pushiness, dishonesty and for charging large fees. We were also hampered by the fact that we’re new to the country, so have no credit history whatsoever here. Oh, and we’d just found out before leaving the UK that we’re expecting a baby, which added a certain extra stress and urgency to the hunt.

We had a few things in our favour, however. First, we were looking for somewhere in Washington Heights, which is a nice enough part of the city (long past its problems in the 80s), but still not gentrified. Rents are lower and there’s less competition for apartments. Timing is also good. Winter is the slow season, and it wasn’t long after the economic crash. We’d also been recommended a broker who wouldn’t mess us about too much. And my boss was happy to act as guarantor for us. If he hadn’t done that, then our lack of a credit history might have meant us having to pay several months’ rent up front. So we were lucky. I still find it almost unbelievable that we managed to find a relatively large one-bedroom apartment, right next to where I’m working, in a week. And there was no broker’s fee. I’m sure the catch is just waiting to reveal itself…

So if you’re moving to New York from overseas, I recommend the following:

  1. Don’t agree to take an apartment (and certainly don’t send any money) before arriving;
  2. Find somewhere cheap to stay while you’re looking. It may take a little while;
  3. Ask around for advice on brokers in the area who aren’t going to waste your time;
  4. Take a careful look at any apartment you want. Make crystal clear who pays for what, how much is paid upfront to whom, and what the actual rent is (be careful of “net rent”, which means you’ll pay more than the figure quoted).
  5. Ask other tenants about the building, if you can. Is the super reliable? Are all the apartments run by the same people? Are they honest? Does it get noisy?
  6. Open a US bank account as soon as you can. This is usually quick, but transferring the money from your home country may not be (it can take up to 5 working days), and landlords tend to require cheques to be drawn on a US account;
  7. Get a US mobile phone as soon as you can (we went with Net10);
  8. Prepare to pay at least three months’ rent on signing the lease: one month’s rent for the first month, another for the deposit, and another for the broker’s fee (both deposit and broker’s fee may even be higher than one month’s rent);
  9. If you don’t have credit, find a guarantor.

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Don’t send unsolicited Office files!

For some reason, some people still think it’s a good idea to send you Office documents by email. On rare occasions, they’re right. On most occasions they’re wrong, and my heart sinks when I receive them (I’m not alone in this). Let’s start with when they’re right: sometimes it’s reasonable to assume that the recipient will need to edit (or copy and paste from) the document in some way. In that case it’s OK (though see below). In almost all other cases, it’s just annoying.*

Indeed, even when the recipient needs to edit the text you’re sending, or insert it somewhere, it’s often unnecessary to send it as an Office file. If it’s just plain text with no special formatting, it’s usually much better to simply send it as a text file. Even that’s unnecessary in many cases. It’s quite amazing how often one gets sent attached documents when the text contained in them could just have been put in the body of the email. That’s always more convenient.

And if the text has special formatting (so can’t be sent in the body of the email and can’t be sent as a txt, or even rtf, file) and doesn’t need to be edited, there’s a simple rule: convert it to pdf before you send it.

This should start to be seen as a matter of manners. Consider the following:

  • PDF files can be opened by almost anyone with a computer without needing to be converted (PDF readers being available for free, and provided as standard with most new computers);
  • They’re nowhere near as version-dependent;
  • They’re generally quicker and more pleasant to open and read through;
  • They can be read on most e-readers;
  • They usually look more or less the same to sender and recipient—formatting and special characters are much less likely to be garbled;
  • They tend to print with fewer problems (especially from the command line);
  • The Operating System is usually irrelevant;
  • They’re not likely to contain viruses (which can be hidden in macros in Office files);
  • With modern software, it is easy and fast to convert Office files to PDF.

In view of all this, if you ever need to send someone a file, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the text reasonably short and without any special formatting? If so, put it in the body of the email.
  2. If this can’t be done:
    1. Is the recipient expected merely to read or refer to the text? If so, convert it to PDF before sending.
    2. If not, and the recipient is expected to edit or copy and paste the text, then:
      1. Is the formatting unimportant? If so, send a plain text (or at most a rich text) file.
      2. Does the formatting matter? If so, make sure what kind of file the recipient is likely to prefer and, where possible, send that.

To sum up: if you’re sending something to someone and they haven’t told you specifically that they’d prefer it as a Word document, an Excel document, a Works document, a Pages document, a LaTeX file, or other such formats, then you should most likely check before you send any of these. Powerpoint is an exception only because it’s fiddlier to convert to PDF if you have animations. Even then, however, it’s safer and more considerate to do so.


Notes
*^I’m not just talking about Office files, by the way. They just happen to be the most common format. Files written in Pages, or Works Word Processor (someone sent me one of those, amazingly without apology, only a couple of years ago), for example, are just as bad. For simplicity, I’ll refer only to Office files here.

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My honeymoon, or: how my wife and I visited 9 countries in 30 days.

I’ve told you about my wedding, so, as promised, I’ll say a bit about my honeymoon. It was good. The day after the wedding, we took an overnight ferry, in a luxury cabin, from North Shields (near Newcastle) to IJmuiden (near Amsterdam). We spent two nights in Amsterdam, including a day-trip to Delft, and spent the rest of the month travelling round continental Europe by train. We’d previously bought InterRail passes, and, even though we were too old (and too young) to qualify for any discount, it worked out pretty well for us. We’d heard, after booking them, that InterRail wasn’t as good as it used to be, and that you end up having to pay supplements on most trains, so you don’t necessarily save any money. This may be true if you’re mainly travelling in certain countries, like France, where we not only had to pay a supplement on the TGV, but were lucky to find one that had any InterRail spaces left. Elsewhere, however, we found it really was a matter of hopping on a train and letting it take you where you wanted to go. Apart from the TGV from Lausanne to Paris, the only supplements we paid were for berths on night trains, and we could hardly complain about that. Overall, we probably saved a small amount of money by doing it this way. More important than that was the freedom we found it gave us. The other source of freedom (or, rather, something that allowed us the luxury of both freedom and relatively low stress) was LateRooms.com. A day or two before we left anywhere, we’d just look on LateRooms and book somewhere to stay in our next destination. We recommend this highly.

A few extra recommendations for anyone planning something similar:

  • Before you leave, get hold of a printed copy of rail times in Europe (the Thomas Cook guide is particularly good). We didn’t, although we picked up a Eurorail guide in Berlin. These are of the utmost help in planning your route.
  • Deutsche Bahn are particularly helpful when it comes to checking train times and booking tickets (for sleeping compartments, for example) almost anywhere in Europe.
  • Before you leave for your next destination, print off a map (or at least write down directions) to where you’re staying there. This will save you a lot of stress when you arrive and, quite possibly, taxi money. Don’t assume there’ll be anyone who can give you information when you arrive.
  • Always carry some relatively unperishable food with you.
  • Always carry water with you.
  • Always carry wet-wipes with you.
  • Always carry toilet paper, or at least tissues, with you.
  • Always have some spare cash in a widely accepted currency (in Europe, this means Euros) on you.
  • At least try to say something to someone in the local language.

So, anyway, here’s the route we took:

Further posts will say more about specific destinations.

Addendum: as I work it out, we travelled more than four and a half thousand miles altogether, none of it by plane.

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How I got married

Two months ago, on 19 June to be precise, I got married. The ceremony was a Humanist one and there was a steampunk theme. It was really fantastic, and my wife and I had a really lovely day. We’re so proud of the effort so many of our friends and family made to make our day special, and we’re very proud too of the efforts we put in to planning it. Our parents paid for most of it, but we designed it all between us, and we managed to get it done for significantly less than the £15,000 websites told us an average wedding costs in the UK (though some websites suggest £11,000 instead — in any case, we didn’t spend that much either). The purpose of this blog post is to list a few of the things we think worked well, in the hope that other people wanting to get married may find it useful.

Advantages of a Humanist wedding
If you’re religious, then I guess the advantages of having a Humanist ceremony are probably outweighed by the disadvantage of not getting married in that religion. However, if you’re not very religious, you don’t especially want to be married within your religion, or you can’t be for some reason, then I think Humanism is the way to go. Humanism is basically about living according to shared human values — reason, compassion, and love are commonly cited examples — and, although the vast majority of people who now identify as Humanists are probably atheist or at least agnostic, there need be nothing anti-religious or divisive in the ceremony. Indeed, it’s really the wrong occasion for anything like that, and I’d imagine that most celebrants would actively discourage you from introducing any such notes. Weddings are about coming together, and the principles of modern secular Humanism are, ideally, about rising above what divides humanity and stressing what joins us together.

The other major advantage is that a Humanist ceremony is, more than any other kind of wedding ceremony I’ve seen, very much about the individuals involved. Our celebrant, Juliet Wilson, who was marvellous, really helped us put together a ceremony that was personal to us: she asked us for a list of the things we loved about each other; the story of how we got together; and so on. What’s more, while many wedding ceremonies involve the celebrant telling the couple and the congregation what marriage should be about, Juliet simply asked us what we saw as the meaning and purpose of marriage, and read that out.

Finally, a Humanist ceremony can be a good deal more interesting than the average civil ceremony, where the registrars are quite tightly constrained in what they can say.

The only disadvantage of a Humanist ceremony is that not many countries accept them as legal. In fact, only six do: Scotland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the USA (only certain states). Had we got married 50 miles or so to the south, we would have had to have a civil ceremony as well. Aren’t we lucky to live in Scotland?

A steampunk theme
I’m not suggesting that everyone should have a steampunk wedding. It really worked for us, but it’s clearly very much a matter of taste! For one thing, if you want your guests to join in (and I don’t think it’s really fair to oblige them to), you have to be sure that a significant number of your them will be up for it and will enjoy taking part. One of the advantages of a Victorian or steampunk theme is that you don’t have to stray too far from ordinary wedding attire, so people can join in with only very subtle touches. The big advantage of having some sort of theme, if people really are up for it, is that it adds to the fun of the occasion for everyone, and makes it more memorable. We also made clear to all our guests that they were very welcome to wear whatever they felt comfortable in, however formal, informal, traditional, or standard. I think that’s important.

Get friends involved
Everyone says this, and they’re right! You almost certainly have friends and family with all sorts of skills, and people are usually very honoured to be asked to help out. Lottie’s cousin (who studies costume design) made her dress; a friend of hers, a professional seamstress, made the bridesmaids’ dresses; another friend of hers, who is an excellent photographer, took the official photos; a friend of mine played the music during the ceremony; various friends helped set up the reception venue and transport food; and so on. Of course, we paid for materials and expenses and so on, but we paid less than we would have done by hiring, say, a professional photographer, and (I hope!) everyone involved enjoyed the experience.

Food
Consider not having a sit-down dinner. They can be great, but they’re often expensive and not always terribly inspiring (though there are some clear exceptions). What’s more, working out the seating arrangements can be one of the most stressful parts of a wedding. The alternative, which we thoroughly recommend, is to have a buffet. We had a Middle-Eastern vegetarian buffet, which was really great and excellent value (we also recommend asking round for recommendations and taking your time to choose caterers). We had a vegetarian buffet partly because Lottie’s immediate family is vegetarian (she’s vegan), as are several or our friends. It’s also cheaper.

Wedding favours
These can be very nice, but I don’t think anyone ever leaves a wedding disappointed at not getting any. They can also be expensive. We did, however, give out party bags to the kids, with (non-messy) activities for them to do during the ceremony. Weddings can be incredibly dull for children.

Ceilidhs
In Great Britain these seems to be mainly popular in Scotland and Northumbria (though there are similar things in various other places), but it’s a very nice way to get everyone dancing together and (at least in my opinion) more fun than a disco.

Have fun
This is obvious, but here are some suggestions for making it fun:

  • Make it personal—the more it’s about you and less about the institution of marriage, the more special it will be, and the more people will remember it.
  • Take time out—this depends on your preferences. If you like, you can go straight from the ceremony to the party. However, there’s nothing wrong with making space between the two parts of the wedding to relax and eat with your immediate families (we went to an upstairs room in a nearby pub). If your guest list is long, this gives you a break from the long list of people lining up to congratulate you (nice though this is).
  • Follow tradition only so far as you’re legally obliged or want to. If you don’t want the traditional speeches, for example, don’t have them.
  • We do, however, recommend sticking to the tradition of the groom not seeing the bride on the eve or the morning of the wedding (I slept on my best man’s floor). Not only does it add to the romance of the occasion to be separated for a short while before meeting at the ceremony, it’s quite practical. Getting ready on the wedding morning can be stressful: do you want to remember the day as starting with an argument?

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