Tuesday, December 30, 2008

30 December 2008: Parade

Got to see the Doctor Who Christmas special on Boxing Day down in Louisiana.

Some kind soul had recorded it the previous day in the UK and was uploading it in seven parts, about one per hour, to YouTube. With several hundred people, including myself, hanging on each new upload, he got as far as number six before YouTube noticed what was going on and suspended his account. Happily, some other kind soul had uploaded the last five minutes separately so I got to see almost the whole thing.

And what to make of it? The first twenty minutes or so had to rate among some of the best stuff that RTD has written for David Tennant. There were several parallel plot threads unwinding nicely in tune with each other, an underlying mystery of 'who is this other Doctor and why doesn't he remember David Tennant's doctor', and this was nicely tested out with a few suggestions as to what was going on... the first 'pocket watch moment' was particularly tense, the outcome just adding to the intrigue.

But then, rather like Saints, it went vastly normal in the second half. The question was resolved, the 'Doctor' was revealed not only to not be the Doctor, but actually had almost all his questions answered with 30 minutes still left in the show. And then the episode climaxed by the city being attacked by a giant robot machine, which was defeated by the Doctor wielding a powerful ray-gun. Sheesh. No cliches there, then. At least Ghostbusters had a little humour as it did almost the same thing a quarter of a century ago (can you believe it?).

Still, better to have seen it than not.

Meantime, a new CD or two came my way for Christmas. A Hillsong compilation from the last few years was joined by a long-overdue collection item: "Join The Parade" by Marc Cohn.

For whatever reason, I always end up getting Cohn's albums about a year to eighteen months after they are released and this is no exception. And, as usual, I wish I'd got it before. Highlights include the 'radio single' "Listening to Levon", mixing Cohn's soulful sound with a little humour, and "Live Out The String", which covers his car-jacking incident from a few years ago.

Best track for me, though, is "Let Me Be Your Witness", again a soulful easy-listener which crescendos with a descending bassline that I find seriously reminiscent of the final part of Annie Lennox's song "Why". If I were doing this song live, I'd be adding her lines in there too.

But enough from me. Happy New Year to all, and no, I don't plan to add anything else to my YouTube channel. Still, 1500 hits in about a week isn't bad considering I just put it on this blog and only told three people about it.

Just hope Bill doesn't mind the extra publicity...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

15 December 2008: Traditions

Hands up everyone who's sick of hearing Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody"?

Hm, surprising number of hands from one side of the Atlantic, and a look of general confusion on the other.

Quick primer for everyone in the US: in 1973 the "battle for Christmas Number One" happened in the UK singles chart for the first time. The contenders were Wizzard with "I wish it could be Christmas every day" and the aforementioned Slade, who won the race, despite the Wizzard song being much better. Every year since then two things have happened: (1) there is interest in who will be number one in the charts at Christmas (these days it's almost exclusively the X-Factor winner) and (2) Slade and Wizzard have their songs played to death at Christmas parties, shopping centres and all over any radio station you listen to, along with a wide selection of other such Christmas number ones.

It's different here in the US: Christmas music usually means Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby singing "Frosty the Snowman" or "O Come All Ye Faithful". There's some more recent stuff - although often just remakes of traditional carols - indeed Mariah Carey's "All I want for Christmas is you" is a major exception to this rule. But that's about it - no Shakin' Stevens, no Cliff Richard, no Band Aid (any version) and not a hint of Terry Wogan.

And I miss it a little. So, last Friday we had a "British Christmas" at our place. Inviting over our friends from Southport and Luton (actually one family who moved around a bit), we had a fantastic time discussing games, traditions, differences and panto, while munching on home-made toad-in-the-hole (good sausages ARE available - you can buy them frozen from a pub of all places, down in Indianapolis), mince pies, Christmas cake and even some home-made Christmas pudding. Crackers were brought, of course, and we all wore silly hats for the evening. And there in the background was my Christmas CD.

Track listing, for those interested in such things:

1. Merry Christmas Everyone - Shakin Stevens
2. Driving Home for Christmas - Chris Rea
3. Fairytale of New York - The Pogues featuring Kirsty McColl (best Christmas song ever)
4. Saviour's Day - Cliff Richard
5. Merry Xmas Everybody - Slade
6. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day - Wizzard
7. Stop The Cavalry - Jona Lewie (Gloria's favourite)
8. Happy Xmas (War is Over) - John Lennon
9. I Believe in Father Christmas - Greg Lake
10. A Spaceman Came Travelling - Chris De Burgh eeeeeevil eeeeeeeeevil
11. Mary's Boy Child - Boney M
12. In Dulce Jubilo - Mike Oldfield...

and the list goes on, 21 tracks in all but you get the idea.

So we played this through the evening and heard comments from our ex-pat friends such as "wow, I'd forgotten about this one" and "is Cliff Richard still alive?", and it greatly added to the evening, even if in the UK it would be regarded as a load of old rubbish. I suppose that even stuff you take for granted - like Slade and Wizzard - you miss when you move away, and that's where the value in tradition comes in.

To make it better, as I drove to Cincinnati Sunday evening for a final (really?) two-day stint with some friendly clients, I was blessed to be in a hire car that had satellite radio. And that means two things: (1) BBC World Service and (2) BBC Radio 1 (for some reason on a five-hour delay). And Sunday afternoon meant - the chart show!

Along I drove, all 2 hours 40 minutes listening to Fearne and Reggie blabber their way through the top forty best-selling singles of the week in the UK. And there, rising between the variable quality of Beyonce and Kings of Leon, were not one, not two but FOUR yes FOUR count them FOUR tracks from my CD. Shaky in at 36, Slade at 32, Wizzard at 31 (ha! I knew Wizzard were better) and The Pogues slamming in at 13, just below Mariah Carey. Terry Wogan's at number three with 'The Little Drummer Boy' but that's a whole other story. And why are these all in the charts? Because they now count MP3 downloads as part of the sales chart, and at this time of year people go on to iTunes and pay a few pennies to get a copy of Noddy Holder shouting IT'S CHRIIIIIIIIIIIIISTMAAAAAAAAAAS!!!!! And so, in the chart they go.

And that wrapped up a fantastic weekend. Almost like being at home. Except we get snow and the UK gets floods. Still, at least we can all join in the same songs, like the boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay...

And the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

25 November 2008: Loss

For those still wondering why I continue to state Saints may not make it to the end of the season, or at best be stuck in terminal administration, I offer the following statistics from the club's financials, just released this week:

Saints last year made an overall loss of £4.9 million.

At the same time, they made a net profit in transfers of £12.7 million.

In other words, they actually lost £17.6 million and managed to recoup most of it back through a firesale of the best players (ie, highest wage-earners).

In the article linked to above, Rupert is smarming a little bit about how bad the board of Dulieu, Hone and the rest were, and about how he was better (well, for one thing he had Sky's Premiership parachute payments). What we'd really like to hear is what's been doing to stem the free flow of money and maybe some investment coming in.

But then, with bailouts making the news all over the world and nobody with any decent suggestions as to what to do about it, I don't see it happening. That said, if GM can get a bailout from the US government, so should Saints, since they're a business run every bit as badly (that's the criteria for a bailout, right?)

Saints v Argyle kicks off in eleven minutes. It still astonishes me that they are even playing each other in the league. At this rate, they won't be for much longer.

Postscript: Game finished 0-0. Most of the talk in the Pasoti chat room, before it crashed, was of cardboard vultures, which gives some indication of the excitement and passion shown by both my teams.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

23 November 2008: Tent

Big Tent Dream

It begins in a tent. I'm there, with a whole bunch of other people, and there's an exit (also entrance) where people can get both in and out. It's a huge tent, marquee but also with at least two storeys - there are escalators and it's a bit like a shopping mall. I see the janitor from Scrubs mostly letting people in and out but there are a few people he isn't letting out. Why is that? He won't let me out either. I have just ascended the up-escalator, by the way, to reach the top level where this exit is. It's possible that's where the narrative began for me.

That's because we're trapped in there. It's reality TV and we're there for the duration. Are we criminals? Is this a prison panopticon to keep an eye on us, to give people entertainment during our incarceration? Were we, like Truman, born into this place? But it's not a big place, bigger than a tent or marquee should be, but not like Truman's world at all. I can see the edges of the tent all the way around. What is clear is that I, and a number of others, are being held against our will for the sake of this TV show. Whatever TV show it is, although in the dream it's called 'Big Brother', and I wish my subconscious could have come up with something more innovative or at least different.

I begin to notice the other 'trapped' ones here. We're as free as everyone else to do what we like within the confines of the tent, we simply can't leave. It's still near the beginning of the series/season - there is a long way to go. It may, in fact, still be day one, but I'm not totally sure about that because the thing is swinging along quite nicely. The 'ordinary' people don't act strangely at all, they seem oblivious to the fact that a few of us are blocked from leaving by security teams.

Escape becomes top priority. The problem is that nobody has ever escaped. We all know that. This may be Reality TV, but security is very personal. They know where we all are, all the time. There are only perhaps a dozen of us 'trapped' ones. And while the series seems to have been running for maybe two or three years (a run of about ten weeks per year, a la the Big Brother in the real world), nobody has ever escaped. But still, surely we must try, futile as it may be. Surely, surely, there must be a way.

I try to charge an exit but security grabs me and throws me back inside - I give them a look and then walk off in a huff. I descend the escalator and get off at a mezzanine level - on the left-hand side of the tent (if the exit was ahead, well, you know what I mean) I walk carefully towards the canvas exterior and notice it's possible to crawl underneath it by removing a couple of the pins holding it to the ground. I do so, it provides just enough clearance for me to get through. I find myself between layers of canvas - over the inner layer is an outer layer (presumably for extra rain cover?) and as (still lying on the ground) I look for a way under the outer layer (glimpsing, with a brief look, a grassy park, sunny day, heavy marsh (lake really) down the shallow slope), sniffer dog at my right leg. I try to stand, but the gap between the two layers of canvas narrows with height, and I have to stoop over. Security don't physically hurt me but the two of them, and their smelly dog, throw me back under the inner canvas, back into the shopping mall mezzanine.

I need to escape. I'm being watched the whole time. I need a way to escape and have them think I'm still there. Now, at various stages of the narrative, I give different explanations of how I manage this but I think the original one was a combination of repeating the canvas trick and digging a sort of tunnel of some description under the canvas. I may have to take memory pills to remember how I did this, but the point was that it wasn't immediate: in fact, I did it very early morning, about 5.30 the next morning. I do it without them noticing (I have a feeling there was already a tunnel formed by an underground river, way down in the bowels of the thing) and I do it by repeatedly doing something, which they initially suspect is weird, but get used to it because it doesn't seem to do any harm. What that thing is, I don't know. Maybe I end up taking the cameras out for a while? I have a feeling the final answer is more natural than that, possibly a natural underground cavern. Possibly. I get out, I escape, and they don't know I'm gone. Whatever it is, it's an ingenious solution.

I run across open countryside in very very early morning. There is nobody about. The sun is about to rise over the hills to the east (it's a bit like Dartmoor, although somehow the hills are less big. Exmoor, perhaps). As I run, I know there is an exclusion zone around the tent, well not an exclusion zone so much as a permanent border patrol about a mile in all directions around it. Getting past THAT is going to be a problem. And then what? In the dream I have no life, no family, no existence outside the tent. (Is this because I'm a criminal or because I was born into the tent?). As I run, fast as I can, I want to get as much distance between me and the tent as I can before they notice I'm gone (although I did set up something to make them think I was still in bed, asleep, down in the underground basements beneath the tent). I don't look back. Ahead, as I run on pretty much flat moorland (I've gone past the boggy lake and am now on something of a flat area of land, below the higher hills but not at river-valley level), I see a valley upcoming and beyond that another hill. I'm running full-pelt though, and don't realise that there is an almost-sheer drop up ahead. I realise too late and go charging off down said drop, running/falling into the water below. COLD water! Early morning it is, sometime in May, and the water is cold. It's also deep, at least at the bit where I fall in, so despite my speed and general lack of diving grace I go down, don't quite touch the river bed, come up feeling very awake, swimming back toward the shore. I look around and immediately see people. They are young-ish, some about my age, some perhaps a little bit older, some of them swimming, some sitting on the shore.

"It's not bad once you're in, is it?" says a guy with short, black hair from just a little further down the river. I've swum towards the bank of the river by now, but haven't yet fully got out. It's deep here, the bank more of a small cliff, and I'm standing now, but the water is still up to my chest. He's right, though, it's not that cold once you're in. In fact, it's quite nice.

I count them. There are eleven of them that I can see, although there are trees around so some of them may be hidden from my view. They are swimming, eating, enjoying the countryside. They seem very relaxed, but are keen to know who I am and where I came from.

I hesitate. In fact, I don't answer their question at all, pretending instead to be out of breath (which isn't too far from the truth, and the cold water perhaps exacerbates that). The black-haired guy tells me that they are there to remember. Remember what, I wonder? A young lady seated on the grassy bank says that they are all people who have escaped from the reality TV show in past years. (Escaped?? I think. That's *impossible*, nobody has *ever* escaped, we all know that. But for the moment I keep my thoughts to myself as she continues her story.)

They now live their own lives, fully integrated into society, new lives completely exchanged for old except for this day, one day, once a year, the first Saturday of the new series, when they come here, within the security zone of the tent, and meet up, swim, eat, *remember*. Because we have to remember, she says, otherwise we will forget. The rest of the eleven, and a few others who I hadn't seen in my original count, are now gathering. I swim downstream and get out at the bank where their towels are arrayed. The dark-haired guy passes me a towel.

"I have escaped from the tent," I tell them. "I didn't want to say, before, because I didn't know who you are. But look, this is a real issue: we all know that nobody has *ever* escaped from the tent. Never. And you’re saying you have? It’s not that I don’t believe you – I do, what you've told me about the tent proves that.” (I don’t think anyone other than the viewers know what’s going on, by the way – the ‘normal’ people in the tent haven’t a clue that some of us are prisoners. Security is too careful though, there’s no way out. Still, the fact that these people know about prisoners in the tent is enough for me.) “But we know, we *know* that nobody from the tent has ever escaped. Even now, they don’t know that I’m gone and I’m wondering how I’m going to get past the one-mile security before they notice I’m missing.”

“How can they not know you’re gone?” asks the young lady. “The juice is on, they’ll have the cameras up again now.”
“Juice?” I ask. “They think I’m asleep. What’s juice got to do with anything?”
“Electricity,” she says. “The power cut, right? There was a power cut, and you took the way out.”
I’m confused.
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
“Look,” she says, “All of us here, fourteen of us this year, all got out in the same way. There was no plan to it, no structure. We are all from different series’ of the reality TV show – I am from two years ago. There are a couple from last year. Some go back as many as four or five years. But there was no code, no secret messages – simply that there is only one way out of the tent, and we all worked it out individually. The power cut, the canvas, the lake. Always the same.”

Now I’m confused.

“You mean you didn't come that way?” asks a younger-looking man.
“Tell me what way you came, and I’ll tell you how I came.”

“It’s simple enough, really,” says the young lady. “The security are everywhere. They don’t tag us with radio devices because their cameras are everywhere, always watching. Always looking. You try to escape, they stop you, because they can see what you’re doing the whole time. Individual cameras tuned on everyone, every moment of every day. There’s only one way out of this trap.”

“Sounds to me like there’s *no* way out of it.”

“The cameras run on electricity. The show runs for three months every year. Right out here, middle of nowhere, not a great location, especially for maintenance issues. One storm, one big rainfall, maybe something somewhere is going to get wet. Maybe water gets into the generators. Maybe some of the sockets get wet underwater. But it happens, usually once or twice in the season. And what happens then?”

“The electricity goes out,” I say, starting to get the picture. “And with it go the cameras.”
“Never for very long, but if you’re sharp and thinking, that’s the time to do it. Usually under the canvas and out the side of the tent. A number of trapped ones will do this, normally.”
“And then you make a break for it,” I continue.
“Yes,” she says, “but you’ll notice that there’s not a great number of us here now. When that happens, most of them get caught. You run, you reach the security perimeter, they know you’re gone, on the alert, you are caught, returned to the tent. If you try to wait within the mile zone until the alert is over, you’ll be caught too, they’re out there with dogs and sticks, flashlights if it’s at night, as it was in my case.”
“So how did you get out, if it’s impossible?”

“Did you see the lake? It’s more a marsh than a lake sometimes, although if it’s been raining it gets deeper.”
I nod.
“If you hide in there, get down real low, right in the water and among the marsh-plants, they can’t find you. You get bitten to pieces by moths, the stench is unbearable but it loses the dogs, if it’s at night there’s a chance, just a chance, that they won’t find you there. All of us – every last one of us – hid in the lake until the alarm was over. Three, four hours usually, sometimes as much as a whole night. When the alarm is over, security on the one-mile perimeter is downgraded again. If security is on alert, you have no chance. If security is not on alert, you can just stroll right through.”
“How is that?”
“One-mile security is absolute. If they’re on alert, nobody comes in or out. If they’re not on alert, you can usually get through.”
“Why not keep security on alert all the time?”
“They need the people coming in. This place, this tent, is an attraction, a huge tourist draw. The TV show, the game, isn't even shown here, it’s shown in another country. The people come because of the shopping, the attractions, the sheer spectacle of the Big Tent. It’s two worlds in one, and if they keep the people out, they lose on both counts – nobody visits the mall, nobody watches the show. No tourists, it becomes a very different – very boring – show.”
“So you hid in the lake for hours?”
“Hours. I still got scars to prove the bites I got. I think we all have. Wait to the next day, security opens up, you hide in a crowd and you’re out. Unscathed, except the scars. Scars which, I notice, you don’t seem to have.”
“I left the tent maybe twenty minutes ago,” I say. “I didn't do the lake, and there was no power cut.”
General gasps all round.
“Then how did you get out?” they ask.
“A tunnel,” I tell them. At this point, of course, I’m really needing to tie up continuity, but in the dream I tell them about a small underground stream that has left a cavern which exits at the bottom of the slope, slightly beyond the pond. I got to the entrance cavern entirely in the dark, from the depths of the underground sections beneath the tent, without using any lights, so cameras couldn't see me.
“Amazing,” they say, “so there’s another way out?”
“Yes,” I continue, “But they don’t know I’m gone and I've little doubt they soon will. You know how they are with their checks.”

“We've got to get you out of here,” the dark-haired guy says. “This place will be crawling soon.”
“Look,” says another guy, shorter, with curly ginger hair and a moustache, “I've got a car here, I’ll drive you out past security and that’ll get you free.”

I’m nervous now. They’ll know I’m gone, they’ll be looking for me. Security at the one-mile border may be completely stepped up – nobody in, nobody out. What if we’re not in time? And what about these people here? Will they be caught too? Will they be put back in the tent?

“No,” says the young lady, “We’re from previous years. As far as they are concerned, we never existed. It’s better for them to simply erase us from their records when they realised we had gone. Then they maintain the illusion – the rumour – that nobody has ever escaped, and nobody ever will. But people have escaped, we've been doing it for years.”

I hesitate before asking the next question. The rumour had always been two or three, although the young lady had told me earlier of people there from four or five years ago. Was the show really that old?

“Just how long has this programme been running?” I ask.
“Thirty years,” she says.

Thirty years?

“Security!” someone shouts.
“In the car!” screams ginger guy, opening the right-rear door in his green mini. “Now get *down*!”
I clamber into the tiny back seat, duck down below the window-line and cover myself with an old rug or blanket I find on the floor. Is this to be my version of the lake? How long will I have to hide here?

I hear the car start and we begin to move. Then stop. Security at the window, I hear them talk. Nothing here, haven’t seen anybody matching that description, officer. What about the back seat there, asks the officer? He asks nicely, he knows that nobody apart from security knows about the prisoners in the tent. Normal people know nothing about us. Except for this group, but security doesn't know that. Still, he asks again what ginger has in the back seat. He, of course, has me, hidden under a blanket, but he says it’s just stuff from their picnic. Bit early for a picnic, isn't it, asks security. Wanted to avoid the crowds, says ginger. I begin to wonder what has happened to the rest of them. Have they scattered and run? Probably not, not if they have nothing to be afraid of.

I’m afraid, though. I’m afraid because security is wanting to see what is in the back of the car. Ginger stomps on the accelerator and we’re moving, fast, suddenly. Down a hill in a tiny mini. I look up from beneath the blanket. No point hiding now, we’re both fugitives. Down the slope ahead is security gate, couple of men there, a few people queued up outside, waiting to come in. Security is on alert though, so nobody in, nobody out. But outside that, outside that barrier, I can see the land, it’s freedom. No security there, no jurisdiction. The people there are free and if I can get there, security can do nothing to me, nothing at all. Ginger steams down the hill, faster and faster. We’re not stopping at this gate. It is a gate, or at least a barrier, but it looks plastic not metal. Two securities waving us down, but we’re not stopping.

[At this point, my alarm clock goes off and I wake up.]

So what happens? Do I make it out, into the land of freedom? Is it really free or does security secretly try to follow me and get me back? What the heck was the tent anyway – how did it work? And more to the point, what am I? I have no family, no history outside of the tent (although I know how to swim, apparently), no recall of anything prior to the start of the latest series. Had I been brought up there, a la Truman, and only put ‘live’ for this series? Or, and this is perhaps what I think, am I a computer program, or some kind of artificially-intelligent robot, a la Blade Runner? Programmed to think as a human, act as a human, created just a few weeks ago to be part of the television show. The show was reality TV, asking the question of whether the visitors would be able to tell who was real and who was robot. But I am robot, and I am real. You program me as human, I will want to be free. Maybe.

It’s important to remember, to not forget. I could get out, live a normal life, but once a year I’d have to come back and remember with the others. Earlier escapees (and there were some) didn't do this, but we must. Ritual maybe, but mainly about not being complacent. The tent is a bad place, a place from which we must escape, and when we have escaped we must remember why it is a bad place, so that we do not make the same mistake. We must not create a Tent of our own. But did I ever get out, break that barrier? I don’t know. I’d like to think so. But as I woke up, I cursed my alarm and thought very clearly…

But I wanted to know what happened!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

5 November 2008: Electorial Voting Competition

America Elects Bloke

The Electorial Voting Competition (EVC) to decide who will be the 44th Prime Minister or something of the United States took place on CNN last night.

The big winner of the night was Irish candidate Barry O'Barma, who won most votes in the categories 'Most Likely To Be Next President' and 'Male Vocalist of the Year'.

"Begorrah", he told a curious crowd of assorted Irish residents in Chicago last night. "Looks loike the auld electorate have chosen me to run the show for a wee bit. I reckon we should all go for Giordano's pizza. Hillary said she's buying."

He spoke of his younger years when he was inspired by another man with a vision, a dream for the future of the nation.

"As my spiritual hero and mentor Bob the Builder would say, 'Yes We Can'. Can we fix it, America? Yes we can! But we will have difficult choices to make. Guiness or Murphy's?"

Runner-up in the EVC was Republican candidate and former Die Hard star John McClain. Speaking to a gathered collection of reporters and palm trees in Phoenix, he told of his disappointment at not winning the competition.

"Yippee-ki-yay," he solemnly shouted. "We fought as hard as we could. If you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem. How do I feel? Pretty blinking unappreciated, Al."

Chief Judge and Supreme Court Justice Simon Cowell earlier passed scathing comments on both major candidates. "You call that singing?" he said to O'Barma after a karaoke version of 'The Irish Rover' failed to impress. "I've seen better election campaigns from a dead person," he added, probably referring to the charismatic British Prince Regent Gordon Brown.

Reactions to O'Barma's victory trickled in from around the world as news spread that the longest, most boring string of television commercials in history had come to an end.

"All very well electing someone new," said Denzil in the UK's Southern Daily Echo newspaper. "But is he going to build my ice-rink in Southampton town centre? Somehow I doubt it. All words and no action, these politicians." O'Barma and McClain both responded by saying that Denzil was a deranged nutter who should be locked up.

Lewis Hamilton was too busy driving his car to offer any comments, but remains favourite over O'Barma for the main EVC of the season which is still to come, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

In other news, Microsoft used the old Tony Blair plan of 'it's a good day to bury bad news' by announcing that you can't buy Windows 3.1 any more. Many commentators have described this as a bad move by Microsoft given that 3.1 was the last stable release of the product to hit the shelves.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

2 November 2008: Late Night Sou' West

In a small space between a certain unnamed county in southern Florida somewhat famous for the words 'chad' and 'hanging', and a brief if not unwelcome return to Cincinnati, I have a weekend at home. And into this space last night came a blast from what seems a very distant past: yesterday evening, for the first time in about sixteen years, I listened to Chris Langmore doing the late night show on BBC Radios Devon and Cornwall.

Now, this will mean nothing to almost all of you, probably even Becky. The story goes something like this: around May 1988, aged 13, I was struggling to sleep one night and turned the radio on. Radio was tuned to Radio Cornwall, which I thought stopped broadcasting around 7pm and just took the national Radio 2 feed until 6am the next morning. But there was a guy on there playing what seemed normal Radio 2 music, yes, but reading out a bunch of messages from people in places like Ipplepen and Kingsteignton. I listened intently, trying to figure out exactly what this show was, broadcasting on Radio Cornwall but seemingly listened-to exclusively by people in Devon. At the end of the show, at midnight, the presenter guy, one Chris Langmore, revealed it was a show called Late Night Sou' West, it was simulcast on both stations and they'd be back tomorrow at 10pm.

The following night I tuned in and heard, again, a bunch of generally easy-listening music along with some good fun chat and - here's the rub - a phone-in competition. Usually a general knowledge question, read out at 10.20pm, and you had until 11.05 or so to get through on the phones with the correct answer. All the correct people would have their names put into the bin, one would be pulled out and they'd be called back, have a five to ten minute chat with the presenter on the air and then they'd be sent a nice prize of some description.

Well, I was hooked. I spent numerous evenings in a cold hallway attempting to phone through to Howard in the phone room, get the 'engaged' signal, redial... I'd usually get through at some point, and a few times I'd even be chosen as the lucky winner (the prize? A random CD or, if you didn't have a CD player, a vinyl LP). One of the best bits, though, was the 'roll of honour', where Chris would read out all the names of the people who got it right. This was where you began to get a feel for the regulars who always listened and who, like me, always entered the competition. Names like 'Bill in West Hill', 'Pete and Pet in Carnon Downs', 'The Planners of Threemilestone' (and, of course, 'Duncan in Ivybridge'), along with many others, came up almost every night. Often the winner would come from this gang of regulars, and it would be fun to hear their voices and learn a bit about them (the aforementioned Bill in West Hill won one night and claimed the only reason he listened was that his radio was stuck on the station and he couldn't turn it off). In short, it became a small club, and that was why it worked.

Whether it was that or just the general fun of the show that made it a success, I don't know, however (as Chris points out on his website), it grew to achieve not only huge audience figures but also an astoundingly high audience share for what was the first ever late-night show on a BBC local radio station in the UK, and indeed still holds the record for that category. It was this show that provided the template for BBC local radio in the UK to do late night programming, and that's the biggest legacy I think.

It ended on Christmas Eve 1992, when Chris left Late Night Sou' West to take up a more senior position on Radio Humberside or somewhere like that. Howard the phone guy took over the show (after a brief stint by Monica Ellis who clearly didn't want to be there) but it was never quite the same, and I drifted into listening to the new Virgin 1215 station, and then moved to Southampton anyway. Chris then went on to read the weather on ITV Carlton in London and eventually to become one of the continuity announcers for ITV1.

However, while in Florida this week and struggling to sleep in the featureless hotel room I was staying in, it popped into my head to Google for Shakatak, whose jazz-funk song 'Night Birds' was the theme tune to Late Night Sou' West. Not only did I find it on their MySpace page (track 2 on their music player thingy) but it also got be to thinking 'I wonder what that Langmore guy is up to now'. So, a little more Google and up he came, with his mobile disco website and various media projects, along with a little note saying he was covering the Saturday night late show on Radio Devon for a few weeks until the new presenter came along.

And that was that. Last night, 6pm local time (our clocks only went back this morning here in Indiana), switched on Radio Devon over the internet and there it was, Chris Langmore doing the late night show, first time I'd heard it in almost sixteen years, and it was very much like the old show as I remember it. Gloria wasn't sure what to make of it, although she joined in with the little quizzes he did such as asking people to spell 'Mississippi' (the phone guy spelling it M-I-S-S-I-P-P-I-S-S-I on his first attempt, which when pronounced sounds mildly humorous), and we listened to pretty much the whole thing. I even attempted to phone in and failed to get through, a fine throw-back to the Good Old Days.

And somehow it's comforting to think that in this crazy world where the economy is going down the toilet faster than last night's curry, where I'm now married, living in the USA, have a PhD and have been around the world, where the US election seems to be the only thing anyone is talking about over here (except for the NFL of course), it's comforting to hear something that I used to listen to every night, some twenty years ago.

Postscript: You might be asking 'ok, but tell us more about this Florida deal'. I won't say much - don't want to get in trouble with the boss - but I will say this: if the stuff we were told about the electoral process is true, nothing will surprise me in terms of who gets elected. However I will say this: it's meant to be a secret ballot, isn't it?

Monday, October 13, 2008

13 October 2008: Dwarf

See, I get busy and forget to blog for a week, then I find something hiding out there on the internet and realise I have to put out a short blog on it immediately.

Hence, you're not reading about the global economic meltdown on here today, nor about our exciting discovery of the local 'Nickel Plate' bike trail (and equally surprising discovery of the drag racing track it goes beside). You're not reading about how to make Christmas Pudding in Indiana, nor about England beating Borat 5-1. All that may follow given a little time, but the most important global news was in fact announced almost a month ago, and I've only just seen it now.

There's new Red Dwarf on the way.
Well spin my nipplenuts and send me to Alaska.

Red Dwarf, for the uninitiated, is not (in this instance) a small, relatively cool star. Instead it's the name of a BBC TV sit com from the late 1980s and early 1990s, set 3 million years in the future on a big spaceship where everyone was killed except one... by the time he was brought out of stasis, his pet cat had had kittens and they had had kittens and so on, such that cat-kind had evolved into something fairly human-like, and also the survivor's dead bunk-mate was brought back as a hologram. Add to that a slow-witted ship's computer and, form series 3 onwards, a robot invented to clean toilets, there you had it: the anti-Star Trek, and the nearest thing to Hitch-Hikers that you were likely to get. It was inventive, funny and even genuinely science-fictiony at times - but best were the set-piece exchanges:

KRYTEN: It's impossible to tell at this range. Whatever it is, they clearly have a technology way in advance of our own!
LISTER: So do the Albanian State Washing Machine Company.
RIMMER: Step up to red alert!
KRYTEN: Sir, are you absolutely sure? It *does* mean changing the bulb.

So, new 'specials' to be created, mainly because 'Dave', the Freeview channel formerly known as UKTVG2 (now why didn't *that* name catch on?), has been showing reruns for almost a year now and is single-handedly making that channel a success, bringing in an entirely new generation of Dwarf fans. So, no movie, no season nine, but hey, four 'specials', two of which will be actual episodes.

My fear, of course, is that it'll be rubbish. (Well, my bigger fear is I won't get to see it here in the US since Comcast don't seem to have 'Dave' as one of their channels). The problem was that after series 6, Rob Grant (one of the two writers, and the one who actually did the overall plots and heavier sci-fi ideas) left, leaving Doug Naylor (the more joke-punctuating half of the duo) to write it all, with occasional help from a few others... and the series slid so dramatically downhill that the eighth season wasn't - I believe - ever repeated. I watched it because it was Red Dwarf, but (rather like Asterix after Goscinny died), it just wasn't the same, not even close.

Anyway, so if you're in the UK, watch out for that, and if you feel like telling me if it's any good or not, that'd be great! Oh, when is it going to happen?

"Sometime in 2009."

Don't hold your breath...

Friday, September 26, 2008

26 September 2008: Sentamu

Meant to mention this earlier in the week (ie when it was news) but didn't have time given the pressures of creating training materials for URM, along with the continued excitement of Plymouth Argyle's winning streak (now standing at 2 (two) games) and my dad jeopardising his forthcoming visit to Kokomo by developing a kidney stone. Anyway, here it is now...

John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, made a speech to a bunch of bankers telling them that the City was populated with "bank robbers and asset strippers". Naturally, the beardy one joined in with his own condemnation (also reported in that first link) and that was that, cat firmly among the pigeons.

The reactions were unsurprisingly unsurprising. The BBC did a 'Have Your Say' page about it where ordinary web folk largely called the C of E hypocritical when for hundreds of years it sold pew season tickets, 'prime' burial spots in the crypt and the like, and even now 'it' has lots of money (although remember, there's not much of an 'it', each church is technically independent and legally even the building is 'owned' by whomever happens to have the keys, usually the vicar). The Financial Times chimed in, saying the bishops don't know what they're talking about and that short selling is a darn fine thing, don't ya know. And so the debate raged for, ooo, minutes, until the media started talking about the bail-out thing over here in the US instead.

But the thing that interested me most was a statement Sentamu made towards the bottom of the article:

"One of the ironies about this financial crisis is that it makes action on poverty look utterly achievable. It would cost $5bn (£2.7bn) to save six million children's lives. World leaders could find 140 times that amount for the banking system in a week. How can they tell us that action for the poorest is too expensive?"


And while fiscal experts and free-market debaters continue to discuss the relative importance of a stable economic climate (the standard response to such a statement), Sentamu's stance rings true on two levels: firstly, at a 'mood of the people' level, average folks who aren't part of the system but who are currently struggling to buy rice or sell a house are going to say 'hm, he's got a point', even though their personal struggles will take priority; secondly, we remember events like Live8 and the ONE campaign when we learned that there is an issue out there of unpayable third-world debt, where those debts simply now serve as a means of controlling the poorest countries and building what still amounts to little more than slave labour. Governments talk the talk and walk a little walk often - the usual 'it's complex but tell ya what, we'll double our aid to fifteen quid a year' . But then this happens and you go 'oh, so they do have lots of money', and no matter how much debate comes up as to context, the figures that Sentamu gives just look flat-out awful.

Of course, I'm a little biased. John Sentamu was the Bishop of Stepney (technically the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington) when I was living in London and doing the Anglican thing at various churches. From time to time he'd show up in his blue Beetle car, huge smile, and he'd thoroughly enjoy doing the bishopy-thing at any service where he was present. He'd jump in the air and stand on pews to ensure that people in the gallery would get sprinkled with the holy water shaker thing he had, and he'd preach sermons that were somehow both relevant and timeless. He was famous for putting his reputation where his mouth was - he had a major role in the Stephen Lawrence enquiry - and it was no surprise when he was promoted first to oversee Birmingham and then to the second-highest episcopal post in the country, Archbishop of York, from where he has the position to say what needs to be said without the 'need to please everyone' demand of the Canterbury position.

Most of all, I liked the fact that he actually remembered me whenever he'd show up - he'd ask about my forthcoming round-the-world trip or how the music was going. He expressed surprise once on seeing me at St Stephen's up in Canonbury, given that he'd previously known me from a couple of other churches down in Hoxton (where he'd often voice support for Len's work doing all those jumble sales). He always seemed to be a very genuine, passionate man who cared a lot about the people - and their issues - in a rough part of London.

And is he qualified to talk on big matters? Well, let's not forget he's actually Dr John Sentamu, holding three degrees including a PhD from Cambridge, and before that he was a High Court lawyer in his native Uganda, where he was imprisoned and beaten for being willing to stand up to Idi Amin, before fleeing to the UK. He was a parish vicar and canon - actually based in Brixton at the same time as my dad was running the Methodist church down there - and he's been willing to jump out of a plane at 13,000 ft to raise funds for soldiers injured in Afghanistan. So he's been around, and has a little wisdom to match the passion he likes to show, so at the very least he's worth a listen. Whether anything happens as a result is, of course, another question entirely.

Meantime Rob tells me he's started blogging again, and actually got his version of this story up a couple of days ago. Sigh. On the upside, it's meant I've discovered that Casting Crowns are going to put out a Christmas album and Ubuntu is the new Fedora. Now, what odds can I get on Rob becoming Archbishop of York one day...?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

21 September 2008: Irish

OK, so we're not really Irish. Still, the it was worth the trip down to Indy for their 13th Annual Irish Festival yesterday, just to get a little flavour of home-ish, and to see how many people in Indiana really do think they're Irish.

The idea is simple enough: it seems that plenty of people in Indiana are Irish (for this read: 'have Irish ancestry at some point if you go back a few generations'), so the town holds a festival every year to allow these folks to discover their roots a little through buying green tee-shirts, browsing family name history books and eating authentic Irish food provided by the town's Irish pubs (typical menu items yesterday included barbecue pork and burgers, with occasional yet honourable mentions of 'bangers and mash', 'Irish stew' (which was very nice) and 'scotch eggs' that did look, actually, like scotch eggs).

Of course, Guiness and even a little Bushmills (not single malt, just the regular blended stuff) was present for those enjoying a tipple, and there was even a demonstration by the Indianapolis Hurling team (which actually showed a little more skill than I remember seeing when I used to occasionally watch the stuff on Setanta back when it was known for showing GAA rather than poorly-audienced England games). There was a rugby tournament taking place somewhere, although we never found it, and naturally we found an importer man selling Rowntree's, Cadbury's and the like for two dollars a packet (standard price for Fruit Gums in the US import stores: $1.25). However, at least he was actually from Ireland.

The highlight of the day, of course, was the music. While there were many bands, all playing various reels and versions of 'Whiskey In The Jar' (not the Thin Lizzy version), our favourites were 'The Irish Airs', a four-piece led by a gentleman from Galway who kept asking us to shout out requests for songs, which he always responded by refusing to play for some reason or another. Still, the songs were authentic (apart from one Johnny Cash number towards the end, which I still can't work out) and everyone joined in.

At one point he asked "have we got any Irish people here today?"

About half the audience put there hands up.

The thunder arrived at 2.30pm. We left shortly after and within a short period the rain began lashing down. I don't know how the festival fared after this unexpected interruption, but I as the rain didn't last, I imagine it picked up again and carried on long into the night. We, meanwhile had other business to attend to.

And that business involved effectively closing the chapter of the book of our lives called "trying to locate things from the UK in or around Indiana". As you may have noticed, the vast majority of blogs this year have been about, to a greater or lesser extent, attempting to see what we can and can't find over here in the US. Texas was hit-and-miss, and the hits were generally at Central Market, which is a Texas-only establishment. Since arriving in Hoosier country, we've managed to locate a local supermarket selling British and Irish cheeses, another local supermarket with a small British section (Fruit Gums $1.25), a far-flung import store near Cincinnati selling everything including bacon (imported and frozen) and, as you'll know if you scroll down a couple of blogs, milk of sufficient goodness that you can make clotted cream out of it.

And yet, we were still slightly short on a few items. Our own particular favourite brand of Green Thai curry paste (Jungle Jim's carries a few, but not the one we used to like from Waitrose), good fresh naan bread, decent sausages (Lincolnshire if possible) and (and this one's proved very elusive) a cut of meat known as 'shoulder of lamb'.

Shoulder of lamb is recommended by both myself and Jamie Oliver as the best cut for roasting. Leg is nice, but often not as flavoursome and tender as you can get the shoulder, as it's not so fatty. But try telling that to the local meat suppliers in Kokomo - the couple that do carry lamb will not supply a whole shoulder, although they do sometimes supply it pre-cut into chops for you. The organic sheep farm somewhere in the region will do it, but not as a standard cut, and we haven't had the time or the money to investigate the possibility of buying an entire sheep from them as seems to be the approach you have to take in order to get an un-sliced shoulder.

But yesterday, in we went to Whole Foods down there in Indy, and asked the man if he had a shoulder of lamb.

Sure, he said, and brought it out.

I blinked a couple of times as he weighed it and charged far more money than you'd normally be willing to pay for a shoulder of lamb. Still, you can get it, and that's the point.

Then we walked around the rest of the shop and found our favourite Green Thai curry paste, fresh naan bread, a variety of international cheeses and, as usual amidst the cheese, the legendary imported UHT Clotted Cream, previously only seen at Central Market. At $7.99 for the jar though, it seems substantially cheaper to make it, especially as this Whole Foods also stocked not only Traders Point Creamery fresh milk, but also some locally-produced organic 'heavy whipping cream', which together will make a far better version of clotted cream at less of a price, and still leave milk left over.

So, sausages apart, that closes the book. Our Irish importer dude from the festival did claim to be about to start importing good quality Irish sausages ("five to the pound" and he's talking weight not currency), but frankly given the amount of lamb I just ate for lunch I could probably do without the cholesterol impact of sausages.

The point is this, however: we may indeed be a long way from Waitrose and Uptons, but one way or another, if we really really need something, we can get it.

And that's a comfort. Now, on with our lives...

Monday, September 15, 2008

15 September 2008: The Great Gig In The Sky

Pink Floyd founder member Richard Wright has died, aged 65.

He played at Live8 three years ago, although he was very subdued that day, presumably because Roger Waters was back (they didn't like each other much) and he didn't get a microphone. Still, he went touring with Dave Gilmour a lot in the last few years and always had some interesting chord changes up his sleeve. His earlier stuff - probably most famously 'The Great Gig In The Sky' from Dark Side of the Moon - was always musically very interesting and atmospheric, almost descriptive at times. His more recent output often featured two or three sets of voices singing at once, melding it all to create atmosphere. As much as Gilmour's guitar solos were all about shape, Wright's keyboard, organ, piano and general songwriting were about creating an atmosphere, a landscape on which the others (mainly Gilmour) could paint the foreground. He did some collaboration with Waters, judging by the sleeve notes, but not often and Roger was obviously the better, more talented songwriter. Wright was probably more of a composer.

Anyway, so two years after Syd departs, now Rick heads off to his gig in the sky. I liked his stuff more than I realised for a long time - kind of like George Harrison's stuff with the Beatles, although without the Buddhist overtones. And his collaborations with Gilmour on The Division Bell are still, in my opinion, highly underrated.

Hmm, maybe I can find that old Nurofen advert on YouTube...

Postscript: Found it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

13 September 2008: Clotted

Doesn't feel like Devon here really. Possibly because it isn't.

The TV is on the 'Weather Channel' right now, as they continue their thoroughly excited coverage of hurricane Ike, complete with flashy graphics and waterproofed-up meteorologists getting blown over in Houston. The projected track of Ike, interestingly, has it turning north-eastward fairly rapidly and making a beeline for Kokomo, where it's expected to arrive sometime Sunday evening. Of course,by that stage it'll be little more than a heavy shower, having been tracking across Missouri and Illinois for several hours and become thoroughly bored in the process. Probably won't even match the thunderstorm we had last night.

Still, it's different from Devon. Saturday morning here, yet only an hour (from when I write this) until Plymouth Argyle are playing. And that means, give or take the somewhat immediate need to return the rental car, that I'll be heading to the Pasoti chat room to keep up with the Norwich game and find out how the new players are doing. And, of course, discuss with other Plymouth exiles (usually located in Ottawa, North Carolina and New Zealand) the fact that you can't get decent pasties and clotted cream in such places, unless you go to Texas and visit Central Market. And so, you have to make these things yourself.

As readers with bovine interests might recall, earlier this year we discovered a local-ish farm that specialises in Swiss dairy cows, feeding them nothing but organic grass and allowing anyone to view the entire process, from grazing through to buying the cream-rich minimally-pasteurized and, importantly, non-homogenized milk in their shop. So, Gloria dropped in there and got about four pints.

And then we (well, to be precise, Gloria did almost all of it...) made clotted cream.

And now, thanks to reading this blog, so can you. Here's how you do it:

  1. Go to Traderspoint and buy some cream-rich milk. OK, you may not be living near Indianapolis. Umm... well, if you're in the UK, go to Sainsbury or Waitrose etc and buy some Gold Top milk. All the biggies stock it. Of course, they also all stock clotted cream, but that's beside the point. Otherwise, just get the best, richest milk you can. It's hard in the US to find milk that hasn't been homogenized, but look hard and try the organic shops. Jersey or Guernsey cow milk is traditionally the best, however we found that Swiss cow milk is very good too.
  2. Also buy - and here's part of the key - some cream. Double cream in the UK, heavy whipping cream in the US. Again, get the best you can, but cream isn't homogenized so it's less of an issue. This boosts the cream amount of the mix, and keeps the price down.
  3. Put the milk in a bowl. Add the cream. How much? Well, we used roughly a 1:4 ratio of cream:milk, but with better, richer milk you probably need less cream.
  4. Put the bowl the fridge for 12 hours. We did this bit overnight. Then...
  5. Several ways to do the next bit, but here's what we did and it worked: put the milk bowl over a pot containing warm water. The water must be warm but not boiling - our hob involved putting it on a setting between 'low' and '2' (doesn't have a '1', just like TV channels over here - I guess they don't like that number in this country). The milk must get warm but not boil.
  6. After about an hour and a half, the top will get crusty and, in our case, slightly cracked. This is because the cream is being pushed to the top by the heat. To me, it seemed a little thin, but then we got much more cream than I thought we would so don't worry if it seems very little. The longer you leave it, the better: we did three or four hours in the end for this stage.
  7. When you're bored with the waiting, prepare a tray of ice water. Cold cold cold. Put the milk bowl into the ice water. Leave it for a couple of minutes, so it cools. Then, as soon as it's cool enough, put the bowl back in the fridge. As before, leave it for a while - a few hours was sufficient for us.
  8. Skim off the clotted cream from the top using a big spoon. Put it in a bowl (see photo at top of page). If a little liquid comes with it, that's good, it will be soaked up into the cream. Bowl into fridge again, just to firm up, then make your scones, get out the triple berry jam and off you go.

So that's it - you can make your own clotted cream. It's a little expensive because of the quality of the milk you need, but it's still - generally - cheaper than buying it, even in the UK, because of the amount you get (we got the equivalent of one of those big tubs from Langage and that was just using two pints of milk).

And what to do with the whey - the left-over milk in the bowl? Well, whatever you want: effectively, what you've now got is reasonably skimmed milk. So, have it on your cereal, cook with it, whatever you like. The Rodda people dry it and sell it as skim-milk powder: in fact, I read that the majority of skim-milk powder in the UK comes from clotted cream production.

And the key question: was it any good? Oh yes!

Now, let's see how Argyle are going to do today...

Postscript: Let's not see how Argyle did today.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

11 September 2008: Theo

Becky requests more blogs.


Actually, the issue tends to be a lack of desire to hunker down over a keyboard at the beginning or end of an on-site day. And there have been several of those recently - indeed I write this from a hotel in Cincinnati, coming to the end of another couple of weeks in Ohio. But partly as a result of Becky's request, and partly as a result of the result against Croatia, it's time to blog again. And hopefully - and I make no higher commitment than that - it will be able to become a regular item again.

So what to talk about? There's the US election, which continues to bemuse me although I'm getting pretty bored of it all (it's rapidly turning into a sports fan contest). Still, there's a blog in there about the relative and absolute political spectra: a wise professor at Southampton Uni once told me, as a long-haired (ha!) politics undergrad, that the UK Conservative party exists at about the same place on the political spectrum as the US Democratic party. Yes, you read that correctly. Listen to some of Obama's policies: Cameron, Major and in many cases even Thatcher would approve. It's interesting, to say the least.

Or how about the latest Argyle signings? A Belgian international?! Mpenza will make his debut against Norwich on the weekend and by the sounds of it, season ticket sales have re-taken off despite the season already being underway. Let's hope it's not another Rufus Brevett moment. Or Taribo West. Or (gulp) Peter Swan.

Hurricane Ike? About to hit Texas, it's become enormous (700 miles wide) rather than powerful, which is a good thing if you live in Galveston but less good if you live in the wider vicinity. Still, oil prices are still hovering around a hundred dollars a barrel without spiking, and the dollar continues to strengthen against the pound... the dollar-converter says 1.7559, down from two dollars about six weeks ago. Which is good news for me and bad news for anyone reading this in the UK who wants to come and visit our ridiculous apartment.

And then there's clotted cream, Willow Creek, Saints continuing to hemorrhage a million a month and Lance Armstrong coming out of retirement to raise cancer awareness. So many choices (unlike the number of TV channels offered by the hotel of the week) but there's only one word I need to mention, really.


If you don't know who Theo is, read this. Actually, if you don't know who Theo is, that probably won't mean much to you either. Sufficed to say, many commentators are today offering variations on the following statement:
"Well, that's the end of David Beckham's international career."

First saw Theo for the Saints reserves against Eastleigh in pre-season over four years ago. He came on during the second half, around the time that Neil McCan't and Kenwyne Jones (playing in midfield, of course!) were tiring. This little fifteen-year-old came on to the pitch, playing right wing, immensely quick and keen to run the Eastleigh defence ragged (Eastleigh keeper Wayne Shaw was too busy being chubby to notice). The buzz went around the small crowd: "Who is this guy?" He's too small to be Nathan Dyer." "Theo Who?" "Well, he's quicker than Telfer."

Saints went down that season, and Theo didn't play. Come the following season, first game of the year, he was in the team against Wolves (I think it was Wolves? Kev - correct me if I'm wrong). And he was quick, he was skillful, but we've seen that before: Nathan Dyer was already doing that and was two years older. Plenty of pointless wingers have come and gone and we've barely noticed, and that's because they did the following:

Get ball on halfway line from lazy right-back. Run very fast at opposition left-back. Fake inside, go outside. Head towards corner flag. Have opposition left-back and central defender rapidly close in. Attempt skillful Cruyff-type move. End up on ground or, frequently, in row AA.

Saw it coming a mile off with Theo. He got the ball, ran wildly at the opposition defence, headed for the corner flag, in came not two but three defenders, big crush in the corner... and suddenly, brilliantly, out came Theo from the melee with the ball, which he proceeded to cross in for Leon Best or someone to hopelessly screw up a relatively good chance.

Buzz around the ground: "Didn't know he could do that." "Better than Prutton." "Saw him play at Eastleigh once, you know."

Over the weeks that followed, Theo started scoring, continued to run defences ragged and sometimes produced fairly crazy bits of skill that made people wonder not whether he would make it as a professional, but which Premiership giant would come in and snap him up, and how much Saints would get for him. Saw him against Plymouth Argyle with Gloria and my mum present and I remember pointing him out in the warm-up and saying "the little guy there is the best young player I've ever seen in twenty-odd years of watching football. He's even better than Garry Monk. He'll play for England, no question."

So, Arsenal bought him, and I think I remember a news story about Saints recently re-negotiating the deal for cash-now-and-fewer-appearance-based-fees-later. Still, twelve-point-five-million looks pretty much a bargain for a player who is now the youngest ever player to score a hat-trick for England. He's good - the comparison generally given is Thierry Henry, although I think Theo may be a more natural finisher - and he's getting better.

And it's pretty sudden: he played on Saturday (saw it on the internet, and he did pretty well) but at the full-time whistle yesterday I did a Google news search on 'Theo Walcott' and came up with about three thousand hits. As I write this - 24 hours later - I do the same search and the number is 7, 257.

So, whether he has the skill and ability to prove that his game is more than just pace (Tony Daley never quite became what he should have become, did he?) is a question that can only be answered by time. But it's fair to say he's energised the England football world rather like Sarah Palin (who?) seems to be shaking up the election over here.

Difference is, she's not scored a hat-trick for Alaska, has she?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

20 August 2008: Box

So a little over four years ago I blogged about a magic toaster that was going to revolutionise the world. While that hasn't quite happened yet - although the 1/4 terabyte 'WD Passport' drive currently USB'd to my work laptop might disagree - there's another box that just came into my life which promises far less and delivers a much more useful service.

It doesn't store photos, or videos, or cricket statistics, and it doesn't give off smoke. At least not yet. What it does, silently and effectively, is takes electricity from our American socket at 110 volts and outputs electricity into our British equipment at 240 volts, provided said British equipment doesn't want to draw more than 6 amps or so in the process (very few things do). Meaning not only do we now have a printer again (hurrah!) but our glorious region-free DVD player and sound system will now stop dropping out the audio from time to time, and it also makes us sort-of wish we hadn't given away the old John Lewis waffle iron (although it went to a very good, if blog-deficient, home).

The best feature might well be that it will also perform the reverse operation as required, meaning essentially any equipment purchased in any country with either voltage rating is now usable in the other, just in case any such moves are required in the future.

Meantime I'm investigating Oracle-Stellent-UCM-thing's new replacement for Verity, which is hard enough to find and even harder to use. Not only is it not on Metalink (like they said it would be) but it also only works on an Oracle 11g database. Your Content Server can sit on any other DB if you like, but to use OracleTextSearch you need 11g, and if it isn't your core DB, then you have to install it just for this component. Your alternatives? Full-text DB indexing, perhaps some unsupported Verity, FAST-it-yourself and maybe even Google (*cough*).

The features look good - stemming, thesaurus use, the usual suspects - but when the first attempt (loading onto an existing Content Server running on 11g) failed with a confusing-looking Oracle error, I decided it might be safer just to try it on a brand new installation. And that means installing Oracle database 11g, standard edition, with Spatial tagged on in case I want to do some RDFing at any point. And how long does it take to install this thing? Currently two hours in and only at 52%. Even after this, who's to say whether the component will work or just crash like before?

Makes a Windows re-install look almost inviting. Maybe that's why they've not put it on Metalink yet.

Addendum: The Lincolnshire Poacher seems to be no more. I noticed this about a month ago when I saw the Wikipedia article now referred to it in the past tense. After viewing the 'spooks' website though, I realised I probably have more reason to be worried about the Poacher's trackers rather than the mysterious counting sources themselves. Do these folks really have nothing better to do?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

16 August 2008: Paula

Minor respite from travelling means a little blog energy. And for the nth time this summer, this was the view from our living room window early this evening. (n > 4 I think). On this occasion, Kokomo's downtown square was filled with a festival called 'A Taste of Kokomo' where local restaurants (for some reason including chains such as Ruby Tuesday and Cracker Barrel) show up and offer a particularly small selection of their wares (usually including pulled pork) for slightly over-the-odds prices.

Three dollars to get in, and we were honest and did actually leave our place by the rear door, walk round the side of the building and pay the fee at the entrance, rather than just walking out our front door as we could have done, right into the midst of it all.

And it wasn't too bad, albeit not enormously distinguishable from the other various town-square festivals we've either seen or missed during the summer. The food was ok, particularly the freshly-barbecued corn-on-the-cob from a local catering company, the worst (comfortably) being the raspberry lemonade from Ruby Tuesday. The local bands were as loud as ever, and keen to give shout-outs to the in-town radio stations that occasionally play their MP3s. Overall a good feeling to the thing, although after an hour and three times around the square, it was pretty much a done deal for us.

We went back in through our front door. No shame in that.

And upstairs to watch the TV and see the ladies running the marathon. First Olympics I've actually seen so far, and I thought it might be a good chance to see Paula win, or at least do something dramatic (it's never boring with Paula, whether it's tears or pee-pee around the twenty mile mark). The 2004 Olympic ladies marathon was what first got me interested in running such dumb distances: watching Paula just gradually slow up made me shout things at the television screen, typically: "oh just RUN will you, how difficult can it be?" (Answer: very difficult, especially with dodgy knees.)

But as I write this, watching it on NBC - and can I just say, by the way, that whatever criticism the BBC may get in the UK, at least they don't keep interrupting the marathon coverage with (1) adverts, (2) pointless re-runs of men's 100m race from previous day and (3) pictures of Tony Blair meeting swimmers, and THEN saying "continuous uninterrupted live coverage of the marathon continues here, but first..." - where was I? Yes. Watching it on NBC I've seen some Romanian lady charge out in front, taking smelling salts it looks like, and right now she's being chased down by a small group headed by a tiny Chinese lady.

At least I think that's happening right now, because as I write this what they're actually showing is a trailer for "America's Got Talent" (featuring Piers Bleddy Morgan) and something about buying a 4-hour DVD of the opening ceremonies. Presumably with the advert breaks removed?

Oh, and Paula? She faded away about 30 minutes ago, just drifted off the back of the chase group. Boring.

For the first time ever, Paula Radcliffe is being boring. Maybe she's just getting old or something.

Postscript: I'm not going to talk about the football. Except to say, for the first time, I'm actually starting to think Rupert might get his wish and Saints might, actually, not make it to the end of the season. At least Argyle have some kind of hope and can afford to pay wages.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

15 July 2008: D

From time to time I miss a few things, and I'm about a week late with this one.

Delirious last week announced they're finishing at the end of 2009.

For those who don't know, they're a Christian rock band based in Littlehampton on the south coast of rainy ol' England, and since going full-time in 1996 (I still have the insert in a Cutting Edge CD saying "New for '96! The Cutting Edge band are now Deliriou5?") they've produced a wide-ranging set of albums, some of which did pretty well on the mainstream chart (highest UK singles chart position of 16, highest UK album chart position of 13), some of which was overtly worship-based music that was generally regarded as being their "better stuff". While they did a great deal to raise the profile of Christian music in the UK - and raise the vision of those wishing to make an impact in that country - their biggest success can be seen over here in the US.

Not just because the Christian music industry is bigger here, either. In fact, if you look at what the 'mainstream' Christian music stations over here have been playing over the last ten years, there's a noticeable shift. Ten and fifteen years ago it was dominated by songs you listened to: Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, the Newsboys, DC Talk. Then along came Delirious and suddenly "I could sing of your love forever" was on the radio as well as in the churches. Maybe it's coincidence, but it was almost exactly the same time that Delirious became big in the Christian music sub-culture over here that that same sub-culture itself began to shift from "stuff you listen to" to "stuff you sing". By 2002, Michael W Smith, Rebecca St James, Third Day, the Newsboys and even Amy Grant were busily producing worship albums rather than straight CCM songs. Hillsong became not only played on CCM radio but also had their songs covered by CCM artists. Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman became radio favourites and indeed still are. And all that without mentioning Audio Adrenaline, SonicFlood and the rest.

So whether that's the biggest legacy of Delirious, or if their impact in the UK is more important, I don't know. Last time I saw them was the re-opening of Central Hall in Southampton, which was incidentally the first place I saw them, back in 1994 when 'Cutting Edge' started up. A lot has changed in that time (Martin's hair was one of the first things to change), but it's a little sad to hear they're closing this chapter.

Meantime I'd better start checking out the tour dates in 2009 before it's all over.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

24 June 2008: Rottingham

What? A new blog entry? But I was enjoying looking at that orange commercial on YouTube every day!

Yes, it's true, I've not scribbled anything here since before there was jam in doughnuts, and it's time for that to change. Partly because I've now got a little time to write some things, but mainly because three different people have asked within the last couple of days as to why I've not been blogging.

If your name isn't Jonathan, you'll guess it's the usual excuse for such a blog hiatus: work. A week in Cincinnati (about which more anon) was followed by a few days back in sunny Kokomo, then on to Willoughby Hills, Ohio, which is just the other side of Cleveland, reached by what can officially be classed the world's most boring five-and-a-half-hour drive, which I did every weekend for about a month. Such journeys have a way of making me tired, no matter how exciting NPR's news programme can get (and with the Democratic selection process reaching its conclusion, NPR was at fever pitch, even mentioning the China earthquake from time to time, to its credit), so the evenings and weekends were filled with sleep, curry and sleep.

However, following the conclusion of the Cleveland travelling and before we head to the UK for eleven days of Big George's fish'n'chips, Dewdney pasties and Dandelion & Burdock, there's a little time for some catch-up news from downtown Kokomo.

Key points:
  1. Back bacon has been found, and not just from the link given there. Imported from Ireland, it can be purchased, frozen, by the half-pound from a giant shop called 'Jungle Jim's' on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Also there you can find anything you want that you might get from Sainsbury's or Waitrose, including Alpen, Golden Syrup and, quite bizarrely, bath-related products such as Radox shower gel, despite the fact that almost-identical products are freely available over here. Most disappointing were the sausages picked up from next to the bacon. Marked 'Irish Bangers', they looked the real deal, especially as the bacon was imported. Closer inspection, some time after purchase, revealed they were made in Chicago (by Irish immigrants, presumably?). They were rubbish.
  2. Runner beans are growing in a tub on the flat roof out the back. Found one solitary packet earlier in the spring, containing twelve seeds, of which seven germinated. Six-foot canes are currently erected and the flowers are just starting. It may prove to be too hot, but we'll see how they do.
  3. Rupert Lowe is back at Saints, bizarrely alongside Michael Wilde, and they are currently dismantling the family woodwork to sell off (having already sold off any family silver in his previous time in charge). News today reached us that twelve-year club stalwart Claus Lundekvam was told by the new management that if he wanted his promised testimonial, he would personally have to pay for it, including fees for Celtic to come down and to have the pitch relaid. Total amount: £600,000. Not that Claus needs the money from the testimonial, but still, as I stated on the Saints Forum earlier today, it's just plain weird.
  4. Atlanta Braves have successfully managed to lose Smoltz, Hampton, Soriano, Moylan and now probably Glavine to long-term injuries. And all this before their usual June slump. I remember when they used to win things. Weird thing is, player for player, they're a pretty decent team, probably better than some of the division-winning sides of recent years.
  5. Plymouth Argyle released Paul Wotton because he wasn't good enough for the Championship. He just couldn't get in the team. Saints this week snapped him up. Apparently, he's a contender to be the new captain. Seriously.
  6. Jonathan and Bill inform me that pasties are not only well-known over here, but actually considered a specific delicacy of northern Michigan. All due to Cornish miners moving over, it seems. I've yet to try one.
  7. I know it's old news now, but Boris Johnson is still Mayor of London. How embarrassing is that?

Biggest news story though goes to the extended weekend back in Texas a week or so ago. Gloria's sister runs Camp Change, a kid's camp largely attended by Baptist churches from all over north-central Texas (and, for some reason, a random church from down near Houston). Protocol dictates the family turn up en masse and help out, and this year that meant me for the first time (last year's camp clashing a little with PhD graduation).

So off we flew down to DFW, and onwards to the Riverbend retreat centre in the middle of nowhere (actually close-ish to a town called Glen Rose, but since that means little to you we can safely call it 'the middle of nowhere'). Flo Jr, the sometimes wacky GPS system, actually kept her head for a change and seemed to know even the tiny roads running through the enclosed camp site, which was impressive.

Of course it's called a camp, but the kids don't actually stay in tents. It's more dorms-and-chalets than poles-and-canvas, more Spring Harvest than Soul Survivor. Still, it gave a tremendous sense of being outdoors (right down to the rumours of rattlesnakes in the woods) and overall proved to be a fantastic facility. The kids had main meetings in the big auditorium (happily air-conditioned in the 100 degree Fahrenheit afternoons), lunch in the giant dining facility, and played games on the courts and fields around the site, including a new one on them this year: "English dodgeball", where I got to be like Mr Copley at Cornwood Primary school and mercilessly chuck balls at close range against the scampering legs of nine-year-olds.

Highlights for me: 'Camp Live' in the mornings, where four or five of us would do 'Whose Line Is It Anyway' on stage for a couple of hours (best moment: miming taking a number-one loo break on the stage, which I believe was a first for Camp Change), and then, of course, there was The Race.

So there were three race drivers. Me, Chris and Vince. Each of us displayed a character flaw which didn't fit with Micah 6:8 (mercy, justice and humility respectively), and by the end of the week, and the race itself, we were to resolve these issues. We had a scripted (or sometimes unscripted) sketch in a couple of the meetings each day, building up to the race, and the race itself took place on the final evening, and saw us racing round tracks and through the main auditorium on highly-decorated golf buggies. Photos to follow once we get them off the camera and onto computer. Final lap: Chris and Vince crash, I zoom past mercilessly... then show mercy by getting out and helping my competitors, and we all cross the line together, character flaws corrected and declared joint winners.

Didn't entirely work as planned, of course. The problem partly came from how our flaws were presented: as the mean-spirited Duke of Rottingham, I was scripted to tell the folks that I'd run over a grandmother and her grandson, and had only been upset by it because of the damage it did to my car. The worst crime of Mr Unjust (Chris Gibson, playing a frighteningly-accurate Mexican character) was to bribe border guards with sopapillas. Mr Vain's crime was looking at himself in the mirror too much. So: all flaws, yes, and all in need of correction... but I'll give you three guesses who ended up as the pantomime villain. Ah well.

Still, a fantastic week and one I'd highly recommend to anyone in Texas in mid-June. Next summer the theme is 'Superheroes': what's the betting I end up as 'Captain Evil'?

Meantime, it's time to pack up and prepare to visit the old country. Let's see if I can still remember how to drive on the left.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

27 April 2008: Copycat

There's a TV commercial doing the rounds quite heavily over here at the moment:

Those of you from the UK might well look at that and respond: "Say, that somehow reminds of some other adverts I've seen over the last couple of years..."

Compare and contrast:

I've done some minimal Googling but can't yet find any reference to links between the two, but it all seems a little suspicious to me, even down to the use of the English accent in the Tropicana commercial. (Although it's interesting to note how many English accents are used in adverts here, Geico probably being the most common). If anyone know if it's the same agency doing it, I'd be mildly curious to know.

After all, this is not just a blog. This is an M&S blog. (McRae and Spencer, right?)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

25 April 2008: Humph

Very sad to load up the BBC News site tonight after watching Doctor Who (they just showed episode one of the new season on the Sci Fi channel over here. Is it me, or is Donna the next Bonnie Langford?). One news story.

Veteran jazz musician and radio host Humphrey Lyttleton has died aged 86.

I never knew much about the jazz side of things, but one thing I listened to from a very young age was the radio show, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. This was a strange panel game featuring two-thirds of The Goodies, the cartoonist who read Winnie The Pooh and an annoying writer, all being given silly things to do by Humphrey Lyttleton, with Colin Sell setting some of them to music. I learned to recognise the games as they came up semi-regularly, and played them often with friends and family: Cheddar Gorge, One Song To The Tune Of Another (best one ever: 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' to the tune of the German national anthem; close second: 'Girlfriend In A Coma' to the tune of 'Tiptoe Through The Tulips'), Pick Up Song, Swanee Kazoo and usually ending with a round of Late Arrivals. If you don't know what these games are, that's why there's Google. Find some archives and get listening.

The best of them all, of course, was the most pointless: Mornington Crescent. Now I'm not going to give away all the secrets of the game, but having lived in London for six years and witness the joyous reopening of Mornington Crescent station, it's clear that though Humph has passed away, Mornington Crescent should live on. Again, do some Google searching and you'll be sure to find some people playing online somewhere. Follow a few games along for a bit and you'll soon pick it up.

I guess, given that Humph was 86, this day shouldn't come as such a shock, but it does. Humph, to me, was always an elderly man, full of humour and never seeming to age in the thirty-odd years I listened to the show. He's gone, and we'll miss him greatly, and I don't know that we'll hear his like on radio again. I wonder if, partly, that was due to his being a musician first and a broadcaster in his spare time: he didn't have to worry about trying hard, he was just himself. Jools Holland, perhaps, also fits the same category.

As for us Clue fans, the question now becomes what do we listen to? For a long time I've proclaimed Mark Kermode's film reviews as being the best hour on radio anywhere in the world each week, and today's episode was no exception. There's Harry Shearer, of course, and The Goons will live forever, or at least as long as there's BBC7.

But today, as the lemmings of time leap wildly over the cliff of eternity, and the janitor of destiny mops up the mess below, we say goodbye to Humph, and enjoy a lot of golden memories.