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.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

23 April 2008: Driving

The State of Indiana decided that I needed to take a driving test.

Not because I'd caused any accidents or anything, but because my driving licence was from a country that wasn't the USA. This meant I didn't know how to drive although, interestingly, they do allow non-residents to drive for up to a year on a foreign licence. The moment you become a resident, however, the law changes and your driving licence is no longer recognized as being valid proof of driving ability. The point at which you become a resident is exactly 183 days after moving here, so I had a little time to deal with it, but I thought it best to just get on with it.

(None of this is to mention the fact that actually, according to Indiana's state equivalent of the 'Highway Code', I was not ever legal to drive in Indiana as my UK driving licence was not accompanied by an International Driver Permit. The IDP, for those who don't know, is a specifically non-legal document whose entire purpose is to translate driving licence information into English. OK, what country did I just come from? And what language do they speak in England?)

So, off we went to the BMV, which is one letter away from BMW and far less fun. It's the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Indiana's equivalent of the DVLA, and instead of just having one generally unresponsive unit hidden away in Swansea, it has branches all across the state, where you can walk right in, take a driving test, get your driving licence printed out right there, along with a number of other useful things such as registering to vote (which I'm not allowed to do) and sign up for the draft (which, if I were under 26, I would be legally obliged to do. Leading me to ask questions about 'what do people do if they also have to perform military service in their own countries?').

We first went in on Saturday. To get an Indiana licence, Gloria just had to give them her licence and take a written test even simpler (believe it or not) than the UK equivalent. We also had to get Indiana registration plates on the car - that's still ongoing due to the fact that, technically, our car is still 'owned' by a Toyota dealership in Corpus Christi who four years ago offered a very enticing interest-free offer. As for me, well, it was always going to be complex. I brought along: UK passport, UK driving licence, Permanent Resident 'Green' card (it's white), Medical Insurance card, Social Security card and our housing lease. All of which was required. I took the written test (without first reading the manual, and that made no difference: it was still ridiculously easy) and booked the practical test for today, Wednesday morning, 9am.

In we went. Same documents, plus registration and insurance for the car, and out came the examiner, a very happy-looking older gentleman with, I could tell immediately, a mouth he could not keep shut, even for a moment. Quick sight test, and out to the car we went.

"Just drive out of the parking lot straight ahead," he said. "Turn right, and we'll go from there. Say, how many holograms do you have on these UK licences?"

I looked over to see him admiring my pink-and-green DVLA photo licence. I'd never noticed holograms on there. He told me he could see at least three. He proceeded to write some bits down from said licence, asking me a couple of questions along the way, then put his clipboard on the floor.

Hm, I thought, this is a little different to my UK test. That day I'd had an A-Level mock in the afternoon and so my double-nervousness had made me notice everything, including every single mark the guy had made on my sheet. This time?

Well, let's just say a couple of times I reached a junction without knowing which way I was to go next, mainly because said examiner was too busy telling me about his travels to Canterbury and Rome. We went on the same street a couple of times, and he proudly took me round one of the rarest sights on a US road: a real, honest-to-goodness roundabout, which he directed me to go all the way round and then back the way we came.

"I have a question," I said as we approached the roundabout, trying to squeeze the words in during a tiny pause between his sentences. "What's the signalling protocol for a roundabout here? In the UK we'd signal left, then go round until we passed the preceding exit, then signal right, then take the exit. Except for left I mean right, because we go round them the other way."
"You know what?" he said. "I have no idea."

At this point I began to suspect he wasn't an examiner at all but just some guy from the BMV who wanted to be taken out for a nice mid-morning drive.

So we drove round the same few streets a couple of times and then he said:
"OK, that'll do, let's go back to the BMV."

Back we went. We'd been about fifteen minutes maybe. Gloria looked at me as we walked back in, assuming I'd failed as it had been so quick. But no, I'd passed. Without doing any parallel parking, reversing round a corner or emergency stops. And that was that.

Except, of course, for the paperwork. The State of Indiana, it turns out, do not recognize my 'green' card as being valid proof of my permanent residency (which is funny, because that's its exact and only purpose). Instead they take my details, send it to Indianapolis where someone who clearly should have better things to do will take this information, contact the US Customs and Immigration Service (not our favourite people, if you've followed previous blogs), find out whether I'm supposed to be here or not (I suspect the answer will go along the lines of "well, we gave him a Permanent Resident card, what do you think"), and will then send me my shiny new Indiana driving licence in the post. In the meantime I have a scratchy photocopied-with-bits-filled-in-by-pen sheet of paper to serve as a temporary licence.

Except of course that it doesn't serve as proof of ID, which is pretty much why people get driving licences over here.

Still, the good news is that they didn't take away my UK licence, so I won't have to take a real heavy DVLA driving test if and when we return to the UK one day. After today's experience, I don't think I could handle a real driving test again.

Friday, April 18, 2008

18 April 2008: Rumbles

The conspiracy theorists are out in force here in Kokomo.

Three nights ago, in nearby Logansport, a loud boom was heard. Police had reports from people seeing strange lights in the sky.

Two nights ago, right here in downtown Kokomo, our ceiling and windows were shaken at 10.30pm by a boom, the like of which I've only come across before while waiting at Tiverton station when a local fireworks factory blew up. The local newspaper, the Kokomo Tribune, reported an unexplained loud boom and a 'faint metallic smell reported in downtown Kokomo'. (I didn't smell anything, but then hayfever season is just getting underway here.) Again, locals (including a few fanatics on Jonathan's favoured news source 'Scan Kokomo') reported seeing lights hanging in the sky but despite wide, varied and lengthy through-the-night searches by local police and fire crews, no plane wreckage was found, and no aircraft were reported missing by either civilian or military sources. Most likely explanation, they said, a meteor: there's apparantly a minor meteor shower called the Lyrids at this time of year. Conspiracy theorists on 'Scan Kokomo' begged to differ: meteor lights don't hang in the sky, particularly *after* the loud boom.

Last night, around 5.30 in the morning, we were awoken by what sounded like the symptoms of a very strong wind: the window blinds, the windows themselves, the whole building in fact, all shaking, and the external emergency escape ladder banging wildly against its housing. No booms this time. Just rumbles. And then it stopped. A look outside: everything seemed normal. But three nights in a row? What was going on?

Answers emerged slowly: the big boom, the National Guard eventually admitted, was a sonic boom of the type Concorde used to make, caused by a training exercise involving F-16 fighters. Apparently they're not supposed to go super-sonic, certainly not after bed-time, but they did, and there's your boom. Reports seem to indicate that the Logansport phenomenon from Tuesday night was probably the same thing. So why didn't they say anything when the police and fire crews were out trawling the night for potential wreckage? Don't know, but they've promised it won't happen again.

As for last night, that wasn't an F-16 so much as a 5.2. In fact the US Geological Survey initially reported it as a 5.4 but later revised the estimate down a couple of notches. Biggest for 20 years in the midwest, so they say, and interestingly identical in magnitude to the one in the UK earlier in the year. Apparently there was a mild aftershock at about 11.15 this morning but I was hungry at the time so probably dismissed it at a stomach growl, and didn't pay any attention.

Dave provides this link to a two-minute clip of a local on-air station if you'd like to experience the fun for yourself.

Or just sit back, chew it over, and see what you think. Aircraft training? Earthquakes? And all this while the Pope is in the USA?

Conspiracy theorists all over Howard County are eagerly awaiting nightfall to see what happens next. And the sun is setting...

Sunday, April 06, 2008

6 April 2008: Milk

One of the best experiences from our weekend came when we went to visit the nice people at the Traderspoint Creamery. And the nice cows.

We read about it in one of the glossy brochures from the hotel, and saw something about it on an Indy tourist website. Turns out it's just outside the city, in a borderline place between Indianapolis and the satellite village of Zionsville: in fact, so borderline that our new exciting GPS system (nicknamed 'Flo II' for reasons I decline to explain) actually couldn't quite figure it out. But we found our way there, and it was worth it.

As regular blogophiles will know, part of our self-appointed mission here in the USA has been to find not just British goods, but generally decent, natural foodstuffs of the kind taken from granted by those who shop at Waitrose and Uptons of Bassett. The hardest thing to find has been milk: even finding organic milk has been a struggle, and to be honest it's not all that exciting even to find "homogenised 2%" which happens to also be from an organic source. The only clotted cream was imported UHT from England, and we've yet to see a hint of even that here in Indiana. No Gold Top, no Jersey milk, nothing even close.

Until yesterday, when we went to Traderspoint. Not satisfied with simply being 'Organic', they have a good size herd of Brown Swiss cows (all of whom we saw yesterday as we happened to be there at milking time) who are entirely grass-fed and hormone-free. Pasteurizing is short and hot, killing nasty bad bacteria but preserving the good kind that you find in yoghurt, and then they make it up into different ice creams, yoghurts, chocolate milk and just plain old Whole Milk. You can actually watch the whole process - from the field, through the milking, the pasteurizing and (as witnessed this afternoon when we returned to buy some stuff) the bottling. The whole place is open for you to walk around, ask questions, explore a small working farm with everything on site and nothing to hide.

And you know what? Look at the bottles and you see cream at the top. Genuine top-of-the-milk. Haven't seen that over here before. I asked them if farms like this are common over here.

"We're the only one that we know of," replied the helpful worker.

And I can understand that: at three dollars for a two-pint bottle of milk, it's a little over-the-odds, even for an expensive corner shop in Southampton, and in America the move over the last generation or two has been for cheaper, mass-produced goods, even if it's at the expense of quality. So producing milk that costs a dollar fifty a pint hasn't been a popular move, and it's hard to find. It may be that, as in the UK, the trend is finally moving towards more organic, naturally-produced goods, but it's a good way behind the UK and there seems rather more inertia holding it back.

And a word about the moo-moos: I just had a look to see what I could find out about Swiss Brown (mainly to see if they're similar enough to Jersey cows to allow me to attempt making clotted cream) and found they're quite possibly the oldest of all dairy breeds, recorded use dating back to some monks over a thousand years ago.

And there in the background you can also see chicken coop where the free-range girls lay their eggs, which are also sold in the little farm shop.

So there it is, an exciting discovery just outside Indy, a place where extremely rich, creamy milk is produced in an entirely natural and fully expensive way. And on a fun weekend which involved cycling round the downtown canals of Indianapolis (why did nobody tell me this is a really nice city?), meeting an old friend from many years ago, shopping for British goods at the local Marsh (and guess what: we found Alpen, imported all the way from... Canada...), this was a clear highlight.

So come visit us in Indiana, and we'll take you down on the farm.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

5 April 2008: Indy

To my surprise, and as hinted at the end of the last blog, we've ended up in Indiana.

This is a state I knew almost nothing about, prior to arriving here. The sum total of my Indiana knowledge amounted to the following:
  1. Indy 500 is a car race that takes place in Indianapolis and the cars look a little like Formula One cars but they're actually different.
  2. There's an NFL team called the Indianapolis Colts.
  3. Rich Mullins was from Indiana.
  4. I once must have gone through the top of Indiana on a Greyhound bus from Detroit to Chicago but frankly I don't remember anything about the state: I just know it must have happened out of geographical necessity.

So, it would not have been somewhere I'd have thought we'd end up. It wouldn't have been somewhere I thought about at all. Except for the fact that my previous employer in the UK (the one that required me to go to London early in the mornings) has ties to a roughly equivalent firm in a small Indiana town called Kokomo, and put me in touch.

A few interviews later, here we are: in a land where the locals call themselves 'Hoosiers' and constantly tell me that Indiana is a "basketball state". I've discovered the Indiana is largely flat, gets a bunch of snow in the winter, features a good bit of corn-growing (along with strawberries, I'm informed) and generally chugs along mainly with the manufacturing industry - particularly motor vehicles - providing the economic backbone.

Kokomo itself is a strange town, a town where it's clear things used to be bigger. Back in the day they (whoever 'they' are) discovered a large amount of natural gas sitting under Kokomo. Not sure if it's as much as the Barnett Shale (a big seam of natural gas sitting under west Fort Worth back down in Texas, which apparently is making the region quite recession-proof down there), but they did an interesting thing with it: they said to businesses and industries: 'If you move here, you can have free gas'.

Unsurprisingly, lots of businesses did, particularly large manufacturing firms. There's still a hint of that in the town today - Chrysler is the biggest employer in the town, followed by Delphi Electronics and then Haynes International (business set up by local hero Elwood Haynes), but most of the big factories have moved on. The legacy is interesting: you can tell the era of the boom by the fact that there are loads - I mean loads - of disused rail tracks criss-crossing the town. Indeed, two blocks away from us is a disused passenger rail station complete with tracks and even a signal box standing high above what is now a road. The town now boasts a population of around forty-six thousand, and chugs along slowly, relying on Chrysler and Delphi probably more than is healthy for a town the size of Kokomo.

More to follow as I get time about where we live, photos of the place and things that happen here. Meantime it's Saturday morning, we're in Indianapolis (an hour south of Kokomo) for the weekend and there's football on the internet. Plymouth Argyle 0-0 with Charlton at half-time, and that after Charlton's keeper was sent off. I've not figured out the anonymous proxy thing yet to get UK-only radio streams, but the boys at Pasoti are keeping me nicely up-to-date. After that, we're off to White River Park, and tomorrow we meet with one Matt Jolley, a friend from my Queen Mary days (the Uni of London college, not the boat or the monarch), who lives just over on the east side of Indianapolis.

Maybe he can give me tips on where to get good English bacon over here.