Saturday, February 27, 2010

Us vs. the Bank

For those not keeping track, my better half came out to friends, family and workmates as bi-gender last year, and has been gaining in confidence about going around campus and around town en femme. In order to settle in her mind some doubts about whether she ever actually felt "male" rather than just "not bothered", she decided to try and "go female" full-time and see how that felt. To the best of my knowledge, so far it's felt fine. The main problem for me is that our son and I still see her and refer to her as his "daddy", for which female pronouns are confusing. It also makes it harder for her to "pass" in public if a small boy constantly calls her "daddy".

I'm also a bit concerned about how the rest of our family will react to this, and whether it will cause the boy any problems in the long run, but we're hardly the first to have to deal with these sort of issues. And so far, nothing is irrevocable, although she has now taken the first big step of legally changing her name. She's been using her new name for nearly a year now, and most people are used to it. After some debate she decided to go for the longer, female, version, and drew up the Change of Name Deed, and had it signed and witnessed on her birthday. We also went for a meal out with boy and Nana, tried the cheesecake we made which hadn't quite worked, and attempted a two-player, co-operative, game of the Battlestar Galactica boardgame. It was a good day.

Then began the great big "informing everyone" exercise. The first few places seemed to go fine, although there's still time for them to get back to us and complain that the deed isn't "official". See, it's a little known fact that in England and Wales you don't need to get a solicitor to do a Change of Name deed for you and you don't need to have it enrolled. Much like a will, provided you get the wording right and it is witnessed by two independent adults, it's legally binding. But we didn't encounter any problems until Thursday when we went into town to inform her bank.

At first, the personal banker was happy to accept it, but needed to check with the manager whether she could change her title, despite not mentioning it in the deed. As the titles "Mr" and "Miss" have no legal standing whatsoever, we weren't really expecting a problem. But she came back and told us that the manager had said they couldn't accept the deed as proof of change of name because, and I quote, "it doesn't have a stamp on it." We explained that it is not a legal requirement for it to be certified by a solicitor, but she couldn't over-rule policy and not being quite up to arguing our case then and there, we left. We wandered despondently around town, and where on our way home when we passed a solicitor's office and decided to go and ask how much certifying it would cost. It turned out to be a criminal solicitors, but we were directed to another one, where we asked if it was necessary to have a deed notarised but no-one was available, so we were sent to another place down the road.

There, we met a fantastic receptionist, who commiserated with us, and made a quick phone call. Again, no one from the family department was available, so he took my SO's name, contact number and a photocopy of the deed and said someone would get back in touch. Sure enough, a few hours later she got a call from a very nice solicitor who confirmed that it wasn't a legal requirement, but they would be happy to do it for us if we wished. Armed with this, and the passport office guidelines which explicitly state that a change of name deed does not need to be witnessed by a solicitor or Commissioner of Oaths, we went back to the bank yesterday.

This time, a manager was right there and on inspecting the document he didn't even seem to listen to our explanation but declared that it didn't look like any legal document he'd seen before. There was mention of "a raised bit on the paper" and a comment along the lines of "For all we know, you could have just printed this out at home." He seemed utterly uninterested in our protestation that that would be perfectly legal, and we walked out abruptly after saying we would be complaining. We went straight to the solicitors, and despite not having an appointment, were seen promptly. She checked the wording, which was fine, although more archaic than what they use, and asked if the problem was that it was laminated. When we told her it was "the wrong sort of paper", she said that was nonsense and the manager clearly didn't know what he was talking about. We decided to pay her £10 to make a couple of certified copies, in the hope that a solicitor's stamp and signature would be enough for them, and she told us to tell him to ring her if he wanted confirmation that it was a legal document. She was brilliant, basically, and we now have a go-to solicitors, although it would be nice to think we won't need to see them again.

Back to the bank we marched. The manager attempted to disappear, and barely glanced at the stamped copy before accepting it. He left the poor personal banker to inform us that they wouldn't change the title because it wasn't explicitly mentioned in the Change of Name deed. But they processed the rest of the change (and we realised too late that they'd taken one of our certified copies for their records instead of making their own copy) and we made a note of the manager's name. A letter of complaint, demanding both the change of title and a written apology, has been drafted and will be sent to both the branch and Customer Services. I'm not sure even that will be enough to prevent my SO from switching banks, especially as we find it hard to believe that a woman wishing to change her title from "Miss" to "Ms", say, would need to present a Change of Name deed. While the initial refusal of the deed is probably down to ignorance of the law, the refusal to change title smacks strongly of transphobia. We have several people (including myself) willing to go ask their bank about changing their title to see how easy it is. I'll be sure to let you know the results, as well as the response to the letter. If it's unsatisfactory, I might be more inclined to name and shame. At the moment, it could just be one man's bad call, rather than company policy. But that's possibly being too charitable.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In which I watch....stuff [Part Two]

This is the second part of my "hey, let's review stuff I've watched recently" shenanigans. I'll be covering my three "must-watches" of the moment: Being Human, Glee, and Veronica Mars. Inevitably, there will be spoilers. I'm also not sure how much sense this will make if you haven't seen the shows, I'm not great at coherence at the best of times and my head is still full of snot.

I heard about Being Human through my obsessive reading of SFX and cursed my lack of digital TV until they thankfully repeated the first series on BBC Two. Even then I managed to miss a few episodes by forgetting about it. Now it's back, we have a digital TV so I can watch it as it goes out for first time on Sundays on BBC Three. Fan reaction appears to be mixed, with the usual cries of "Not as good as the first series!" but a third series has already been commissioned. It follows the adventures of three housemates: vampire Mitchell, werewolf George and ghost Annie. The first series showed George trying to learn how best to "manage" his condition, Mitchell taking on the local vampire king and Annie discovering the truth about her death and deciding not to move on through The Door. This series has perhaps been a little disjointed: Mitchell's arc about becoming the reluctant leader of the vamps has been the most coherent. George losing Nina because she can't cope with what she's become and then rapidly getting into another relationship and moving in with her has seemed too rushed even for a rebound, whereas Annie's stories have, if anything, been over too fast - I really hoped we'd get to see more of "the Gatekeepers". While I originally watched for the delectable Russell Tovey as much as the story (and George still gets all the best lines), it's been Annie's encounters with doors and her way of coping with becoming "invisible" again that have provided the best drama for me. And the latest episode (the sixth of series two), where she gets to talk to her mother again via a psychic and tell her to get on with her life, was one of the most emotional. Kudos to Jacquetta May, playing Annie's mother, for her heart-felt speech about how it feels to lose a child. I admit the vampire plots tend to interest me least, I could get the same sort of thing reading an account of someone's Vampire: the Requiem game, but "least" certainly doesn't mean "not at all". The explosive end to "Episode 6" is certainly a game-changer and I expect the housemates will discover and take on CENSSA, hopefully rescuing Nina before their attempts to find a cure kill her. Of course, the best shows pull the rug from under our feet and I may be way off base....

Glee was another programme that we heard good things about before it started showing over here and despite being described by some as "High School Musical for adults", we gave it a try. And we fell in love. Ok, it helps that my better half is a sucker for musicals and I like many of the songs featured in the first few episodes and Jayma Mays is awesome in everything she does, but I really do think Glee is worth a try even if the words "high school comedy drama" normally make you retch. Yes, some of the cliches aren't undercut enough and some of the "minority" characters don't get as much screen time as the others (it helps to be black or gay, rather than Asian or disabled) and the plotting is both predictable and American-soap-opera at its most absurd (main character's wife is faking a pregnancy and manages to bribe doctor to falsify an ultrasound for her husband, hmm......) but....there are little wry touches that are laugh-out-loud awesome (such as the leaflets in the guidance counsellors office, including "Divorce: Why Your Parents Stopped Loving You") and outrageous one-liners courtesy of Sue Sylvester (the marvelous Jane Lynch). I admit it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and only time will tell whether I love it as much all through the first season, but at the moment I'm hooked.

Finally, Veronica Mars is another show I heard great things about but missed entirely as it wasn't shown over here on any station I could get. Sometime before Christmas I discovered it was on every weekday morning (and afternoon) on E4 and it quickly became the fixed point around which the rest of my day was organised. It's about a high school student who works for her private investigator dad and seasons one and two at least fall into a pattern of "case of the week" mixed in with an ongoing story arc in which Veronica finds the true murderer of her best friend Lilly and discovers the culprit behind a horrific bus crash respectively. I started watching mid way through season two and have now nearly looped round, but missed chunks over Christmas and with vivas and things meaning I haven't seen much of season three and still haven't seen the finale of season one either. I'll get there in time. As with Glee, I would have thought the high-school-i-ness of it would put me off as I can hardly relate (my experience of secondary school certainly wasn't like that) and the "outsider" status is often overplayed for me, but Buffy taught me the tropes well and I suppose I learned some tolerance from that. Veronica is smart, sassy but not infallible and ultimately like-able, and the relationship with her father is fun and believable. The cases often throw unexpected twists and the whole thing has that glossy look and feel that makes American dramas so watchable. Enough exposition is given in the voice-over to make catching up with current state of the ongoing investigations easy if you've missed a few episodes, and I'm finding the whole thing very addictive. Soon I'll find out whether it stands up to rewatches as well. If so, I might need to splurge on the DVDs - allegedly region-free despite what the packaging might say (and there's always the computer).

So, that's what I've been watching (beside QI, duh, and far too many cartoons)

Monday, February 15, 2010

In which I watch....stuff [Part One]

Specifically, Moon, Being Human, Ponyo and Glee. Heck, maybe I'll even throw in Veronica Mars. Spoilers ahoy!

Came down with a cold a few days ago and so haven't done much over last few days other than watch...stuff. Because I've been struggling all day to get this damn thing finished, I've decided to split it into two posts. Later, I'll attempt to review the TV series I'm currently watching. Today, I'll look at the two films I'm seen recently.

First, we finally got round to watching my Christmas present: Moon on DVD. Having heard nothing but praise for it, I was really looking forward to it, and boy does it not disappoint. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the lone worker at Lunar Industries base on the moon, harvesting helium-3 to be sent back to Earth for use in the fusion plants which provide most of the planet's energy. He is nearing the end of his three year contract and looking forward to returning to his wife and daughter. His only company has been the base's AI GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and he's going a bit stir crazy....

The film is beautifully atmospheric (yeah, yeah, ironic etc. ha ha); the slightly creepy incidental music, slow pace, lack of dialogue and Spacey's emotionless AI voice all add up to give it that 2001 vibe early on. The model work gives it a timeless feel too - CGI dates movies more than anything else and I'm sure this one will look just as good in ten, twenty years time. Having been spoiled on the clone issue, I was surprised at how early that was revealed but then I feel one of the strengths of this film is that way it supersedes expectations. A set-up of a lone person on a deserted base often leads to a horror/thriller style film, for instance. One might have expected more conflict between the two clones, but they start to work together quite quickly once they realise their position. And it was wonderfully refreshing that GERTY turned out not to be evil or mad after all, but resolved its conflict of interest by siding with the clones it was programmed to help. And yet that still didn't rob the ending of any tension as I desperately hoped that Sam would get away before the arrival of the "rescue" team. Another strength would be the lack of explanations - leaving things to the audience to work out both makes them feel clever and leaves open the possibility of a theory that is better and more water-tight than your own. So very little is revealed about the science behind both the helium-3 harvesting and the cloning/memory-implanting, which is great because then nothing in the film is objectively wrong. It's never explicitly stated that the clones have a three-year life span, just heavily implied. If you choose to believe that this is nothing inherent but is instead due to radiation poisoning and new-Sam will live a full and healthy life on Earth, then fair enough. It makes an already quite upbeat ending all the happier. And while it's fairly obvious that simulating moon-strength gravity for the entire film would have been technically difficult and unfeasibly expensive, no attempt to shoehorn a mention of artificial gravity into the script was made, leaving the viewer to make up their own mind as to whether it all "actually" took place in low gravity or not. (At least, that's one way you can think of it. I'd vote "no" as the treadmill and skipping wouldn't work too well in low g.) The only confusion that came from not having things spelled out for us in our household was that we weren't sure whether Eve's dad was meant to be the original Sam Bell or not: the one sentence he spoke wasn't enough for me to recognise the voice and Sam had admitted Tess had been leaving him, but then Eve also confirmed it was "the Bell residence" so maybe that should have been enough of a clue. Overall, I think it's a wonderful, thoughtful film and the disgraceful lack of Oscar nominations belies the idea that they reward merit rather than popularity.

Yesterday we made a family trip out to the cinema. It was fairly packed (being half-term) but we still got our pick of seats to see Ponyo - Miyazaki's latest about a young boy who befriends a magical fish-girl. Despite being "rescued" by her father, the fish-girl Ponyo wants to become a human and escapes to find her friend Sosuke again. Her transformation throws the world into imbalance however, and floods the island Sosuke lives on. After travelling to find his mother, Sosuke affirms his love for Ponyo as a human or a fish, and she agrees to give up magic to become a human child.

Definitely aimed towards the younger portion of their usual family audience, it's more a Totoro sort of film than Spirited Away say, with a simple story and much of the delight coming from the astonishingly accurate portrayal of young children. The visuals are as rich and luscious as ever, the characters are all like-able and Sosuke's relationship with his mother in particular warmed my heart (hmm....I wonder why?). Miyazaki's recurring theme of the damage humans do to the environment is revisited, and while the portion of their journey where they identify extinct fish now magically brought back to life may seem a little too pedagogical it is exquisitely drawn and captures the childlike wonder that is appropriate for such a scene. You do have to remember to switch off your adult brain as the story doesn't particularly hold up to real world scrutiny (what sane mother would leave two five-year-old children alone in a house while a storm hits?) and the ending might seem a little anti-climactic with no real peril (compared to a heart-stopping moment or two earlier). Once you do, you realise it has the same sense of magic, adventure and wish-fulfillment that young children put into their own stories (albeit with a more coherent narrative), and for that, it is the perfect children's film. And I suspect like many other Studio Ghibli films, it will be one we watch time and time again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

So here's what happened

I had lunch and a walk in the freezing cold with my love and got increasingly nervous but nowhere near panic, thankfully. Didn't have to wait long in coffee room before internal showed up and invited me into office. There was the awkward shaking of hands and then the external went through what the viva was about (check work is my own, see if I can put my research in wider context, go through any concerns they have) and then proceeded to start with the hardest question ever: what part was I most proud of?

That was my first but far from last moment of sitting in silence wondering what the hell to say before they moved on and framed it another way by asking if it was the published work (from our paper) I was most proud of (which I half-agreed with) and then went on to talk about what I felt was the most significant or hardest parts of the work. I started to relax and despite a few more bumps the time started to fly by as I discussed my disappointment with not finishing one of the calculations and why that was so interesting, as well as clearing up some notation confusion and doing some simple calculations on the board, mostly because they were fun. (Although I did utterly fail to explain why taking the trace of a projector gives the dimension of the subspace it projects on to - "it just does" was about all I could manage.)

I wasn't utterly convincing when it came to suggesting what impact the ultimate goal (which we didn't reach but took steps towards, hopefully) might have on theoretical physics but I was saved in part by the examiners disagreeing with each other on whether it had any bearing on physics at all but agreeing that at least it stood by itself as a piece of pure maths.

And then we moved on to the corrections and clarifications stage which is when my heart really began to sink. This is the part where you realise why it's called a thesis defence as it really does feel like your work is being attacked and ripped to shreds. As I predicted my introduction took most of the flak as it was riddled with missed out explanations, glossed over technicalities and occasional abrupt jumps of topic. There was also a point when the external launched into an explanation of an alternative approach and I wondered whether all my work of the last few years had been barking up the wrong tree, which while it had no bearing on the worth of my thesis for PhD still undermined my confidence somewhat. One small glimmer of hope was when the external said "If we decide you have to delve back into the \LaTeX..." which at the time I took to mean most of his quibbles were small but I suppose, on reflection, it could have meant the exact opposite! Overall the tone was positive though, and once past the first two chapters the pace picked up and my biggest fear - that the unfinished work would be deemed insufficient - didn't come up at all.

The first two hours had flown by and so I'd refused a break, which meant we finished just before five o'clock. They asked me to step out for a bit while they discussed and I went to the coffee room just opposite to get some water. My supervisor immediately appeared in the doorway wanting to know what was happening, looking about as nervous as I felt. I hadn't thought before then what it must have been like for him in the office next door to the one the viva was held in....He went back to his computer but came out into the corridor to watch as soon as my examiners emerged from the office. They shook my hand, offered congratulations and the external confirmed there were corrections to be done. I'm not sure at what point I started smiling but I suddenly noticed I was shaking more then than I was before the start! They went off to deal with paperwork and my supervisor came up an gave me a hug.

I was still full of nervous energy so paced round the coffee room as I wrote a text to send to just about everyone I knew. At least the first one got sent before I ran out of credit....cursing myself for not topping up beforehand and failing to manage to do so there and then, I rushed to a computer to try and catch my partner online but by then she'd already left work to see if I was finished yet. My supervisor bumped into her before I did and blurted out the news and only when she came and gave me a big hug did I finally start to relax. We then proceeded to tell everyone by text, email and Facebook and I did the somewhat nerd-ish thing of changing my Twitter picture to one of Matt Smith.

Then we went to the pub, picking up a couple of friends on the way.

It was a good night - couple more friends met us at the pub and then we went to Bella Italia for a meal. Couple of pubs afterwards - possibly having two doubles of whisky on the go at once wasn't such a good plan as I couldn't finish either, but despite being somewhat legless by the time we got home, I wasn't too ill. After enough water, anyway. With boy at Nana's for the night we got to have a lie-in this morning too, although the house was somewhat strangely quiet.

Today - it still doesn't quite seem real. Possibly it never will. But I feel quite happy and mostly relaxed right now and so am determined to enjoy it while I can. Corrections can wait until next week.

I'm a doctor(ish)! Go me!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Big Day

Today's the day I've been dreading since, well, since I started a PhD. After the stress and general searing anxiety of the last few weeks, I suddenly hit a period of calm yesterday where it seemed like I'd gone through panic and out of the other side. Today I'm a bit more nervous, but nowhere near as bad as I feared. In two and a half hours I have to meet someone new and talk to them about my work.

I know I'll be fine. I might not do stunningly well, he might ask all the questions I don't want him to ask, and maybe I'll freeze up a bit at the start and have difficulty talking for a bit. But ultimately I'll survive, and I trust my supervisor's judgment enough to have confidence that my thesis is worth a pass. I expect there to be revisions, possibly more than I really want, but even that is something I can cope with. It was easy to establish this sang-froid once I realised I don't actually have a lot riding on this. Yes, it would be a disappointment (and not just to me) and frustrating should the last five years work turn out to be for naught. But I don't have a job or career depending on the outcome of this afternoon. And my self-esteem has already hit rock-bottom lately - I can't imagine it getting any worse. But it could get better. And getting through my viva should help with that.

Besides, however badly it goes, I have a night out with friends to look forward to. Unless I get arrested or hospitalised, and it's hard to see how it could go that badly....