Wednesday, December 12, 2012

11 December 2012: Jingle

Time for the annual Christmas video. This time it's Hannah deciding to be camera-shy - normally she belts out 'Jingle Bells' at full volume, but bring out the camera and it's another story...

Happy days!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

27 October 2012: Yates

Sean Yates tells Bradley Wiggins how to correctly bowl an off-break during this year's Tour De France
The Sunday Telegraph reports that Sean Yates has left Team Sky due to unspecified past doping stuff. Sky have had a zero-tolerance policy introduced and it appears that Yates and a few others are the victims of the cull. (Use of the word 'victim' only in the sense of the image of a cull, those who have left have left because of links to drugs, which is entirely their own fault).

Two things.

Firstly, the Telegraph reports that "the exact nature of the doping has not been revealed" before going on to detail the fact that Yates rode with Lance Armstrong for several years in the early part of Armstrong's career. Sounds like a red herring to me, all you have to do is look at Yates' wikipedia page and there's a link to his little-publicised-but-I-certainly-remember-it doping failure in 1989 - have a look at the bottom of this page. And then translate it into English:

"Sean Yates, the British, winner runner of the Belgium Tower and the GP Eddy Merckx, suffered a doping control was positive at the end of half first step of Torhout - Werchter Classic held August 9 between Geel and Verviers. Yates had won the stage before re-offending, the afternoon in Charleroi, endorsing at the time of the race leader's Jersey."

Not fantastic translating, but you get the idea. I remember seeing it reported in The Times when it happened, and I remember the feeling of deflation as I realized that one of the very very few British world-class cyclists at the time had doped.

Second thing is the one that doesn't need translation. The headline for the version of this (2012) story in L'Equipe, the French publication, reads as follows:

"Cyclisme - Dopage : Yates quitte Sky"

Glorious how similar all our languages really are, isn't it? All together now, "fetchez la vache!"

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

10 October 2012: Appendix K

So while the world shakes its head about Mr Armstrong (and, it looks, quite rightly too), those of us with interest in actually reading the huge tome released by the USADA covering their "Reasoned Decision" to strip Lance of his seven Tour titles have been getting into the PDF.

It seems thorough but some items seem far more important in their implications that others. Of particular interest is the section beginning on page 129, which is entitled: "How Lance Armstrong and the USPS Team Avoided Positive Drug Tests". It covers the almost comedic attempts to run away and hide when the testers came, which seems far too ameteur an approach given the forensic nature of the doping programs described, but also hints at (but does not investigate or provide further evidence for) the much more damning idea that the management of the USPS team knew in advance -sometimes days in advance - when the testers were coming. And that is where deeper questions lie, regarding the complicity or otherwise of the UCI in the whole process, moles in the system and perhaps - not wishing to be taken to court by Pat McQuaid myself - just perhaps hints that things went right to the top. But the report stops short of investigating those leads, presumably because it's out of scope for the Armstrong-specific case under discussion.

Of most interest to me though, as a saddened yet ever hopeful fan of cycling and the Tour in particular, is Appendix K. As I mentioned earlier in the year, it has been becoming apparent for some time as the net closed around Mr Lance that every Tour winner from 1996 to 2010 (except for the 'weak field, what do you expect?' 2008 winner Carlos Sastre) was involved, to some extent or another, in some drug/doping stuff. Appendix K not only covers that (although it's slightly out-of-date - it doesn't cover the final verdict in Contador's case) but also covers the second and third placed finishers in the Tours for those years. And guess what? Quoting from the main report:

"Twenty of the twenty-one podium finishers in the Tour de France from 1999 through 2005 have been directly tied to likely doping through admissions, sanctions, public investigations or exceeding the UCI hematocrit threshold. Of the forty-five (45) podium finishes during the time period between 1996 and 2010, thirty-six (36) were by riders similarly tainted by doping."

Appendix K covers all these cases and just shows how widespread it was during this period. As the report states again and again (probably why it's 201 pages long), it wasn't individuals doping for success, it was whole teams doping at the team level.

Final note: David Millar, whom I respect more than almost any other commentator on the subject as he was one of the first to actually confess to doping and has done so much since to stand against it, is reading the report as I write this and is tweeting his responses as he comes up with them, and aside from a few of his usual expletives the most profound is this:

"It's all so sad."


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

21 August 2012: Bonification

Despite the flurry of Tour De France blogs and the continuing interest in the donkeys (never had so many hits on the blog in its eight years), time to move them from the top in favour of a couple of new photos. First one was discovered while reviewing Amelia's hospital photos from when she was first born, which just seems to invite a funny caption:

Initial thought something like "Now, are you Hannah or Amelia?"

Second, Hannah jumping in the muddy puddles (or the puddy muddles, whichever you prefer):

 - reminded me of a similar picture from the original Winnie The Pooh books as drawn by Mr Shepherd:

Finally, an explanation of the title of this blog entry: while following a little of the Vuelta (and wasn't it interesting how Contador was able to streak away up that mountain yesterday... six attacks before finally settling down) I've frequently heard Sean "It Certainly Is" Kelly talk about "bonifications". Given Kelly's normal approach of using standard cycling language even if it's not English ("classement" being the exemplar) I thought he was just making it up.

But no - bonification is a real word, meaning either betterment or the paying of a bonus. Kelly uses it in the context of time bonuses awarded to riders who finish first in a stage or in a sprint ("Valverde would be keen get the bonification for finishing first") which appears to be roughly correct.

So there it is, word of the day. Bonification. Use it as much as possible in any context available.

Postscript: Naturally, Blogger's spell checker doesn't recognize "bonification" and suggests "bifurcation" as an alternative. Which to my mind is every bit as obscure.

Monday, July 23, 2012

23 July 2012: Donkeys

Occasionally it appears that this blog gets a run of hits from a particular Google search. In the past this has been "Plymouth beach" (eh?), "Wee Heavy And A Half Pint" and, over the last few days, "Tour De France donkey jerseys".

So, despite the excitement over a British winner of the Tour (and a British second place), along with seven (yes SEVEN) British stage wins by four different riders (and only three of those wins by Mark Cavendish), it appears that the interest here is less on my hard-nosed twenty-five-years-following-the-tour analysis and more about whether I have the best pictures of those donkeys. So before we get to a quick run-down of what happened and what will happen, here's your full 'donkeys in Tour De France jerseys' photoshoot (click on images to see them full size):

First up the donkeys are picked up by the helicopter camera with 17.7 km left on Friday's stage... Sagan in green, Wiggins in yellow and Voeckler in the Mister Tumble's Spotty Tour De France Jersey.

As the peloton flashes past, the donkeys sense the directional momentum and try to join in. Wiggins, naturally, takes the lead.

Then one of the donkeys (probably Voeckler) realises that they're on TV so they'd better pose for the camera.

And so finally we get the picture from Friday. Voeckler, by the way, clearly needs a haircut.

The final day of racing went as expected, of course - Wiggins unchallenged in yellow, Froome taking a comfortable second and Cavendish winning the Paris stage for the fourth year in a row (nobody has ever won it twice in a row before). And despite all the speculation during the tour about 'will Froome go to another team to try and win the race', the post-race headlines were along the lines of 'Sky boss Dave Brailsford says Mark Cavendish can leave'.

And so here we go with the same thing as last year, when I said I hoped Cav wouldn't go to Sky because, exactly as we've seen this month, Sky are interested primarily in the yellow jersey, and beyond that primarily in Wiggo. Froome is heir-apparent - and unless something weird happens I think he will probably stay with Sky, given the salaries, training facilities etc that are available. But he will be strongly, strongly courted by other teams who want (1) his cycling ability and (2) his inside knowledge on Sky's training regimes.

But for Cav, he has surely got to go somewhere else. Sky gave a little support on Friday and Sunday (and he won both), and even despite having almost no help during the tour and having to stretch that World Champion jersey to squeeze in all the bottles he had to carry for the rest of the team (is it just me, or is that a little demeaning for the World Champion?) he still won three stages, equal-most of anyone in the tour this year. With protection he would probably have won at least two more, with last year's HTC Leadout Express he'd have maybe won more (and not just because Matt Goss was in the train).

Cav joined Sky because it's Olympic year, let's be honest. Much easier to get full support from Team GB when you realise it's actually just Team Sky under a different name. But next year, he needs to get back to being in a team where he's the leader.

And here's the other thing: for all the attention Wiggins is getting (quite rightly too, it's pretty historic from a British perspective), Wiggins should go down in history as being remembered as one of the all-time great Olympic champions - six medals, three gold, and more to follow in the next few days. In Tour De France terms he's a Carlos Sastre or a Pedro Delgado - good rider, but only won it once (by the way, it's hard to think of that one-time-winner list without thinking of the druggy riders like Riis, Ullrich, Pantani, Landis et al). Even Steven Roche won the world champs and Tour De France in the same year, and I don't see that on Wiggo's radar right now, although maybe I'm wrong.

Wiggins, right now, is a one-time Tour winner. Next year the course probably won't be so suited to his strengths, he'll be 33, Contador and Schleck (A) will be back, Froome will be chomping at the bit (whether at Sky or elsewhere) - it'll be tougher to defend. If he does win next year, then we definitely have something more like a 'great' on our hands with Wiggo. But right now, in Tour terms, he's won it once.

And then you have Cavendish, who on Sunday took his twenty-third stage win to move fourth in the overall record books, overtaking the only other sprinter in those books (Andre Darrigade) and a certain Lance Armstrong. He's now two stage wins behind Leducq and after that it's only Hinault and Merckx to beat. As discussed earlier, nobody has ever won the Champs Elysees stage even twice in a row, but Cav has now done it four times back-to-back. In Mark Cavendish, even if his career finished today, we're talking in terms of all-time records and the immortals of the sport. Wiggins isn't there yet in terms of road racing.

Defend the Tour successfully and maybe we then begin to talk in those terms.

Finally, as Andy points out, this tour really does appear to be pretty clean. As the net closes on Lance Armstrong and it becomes apparent that every tour winner from 1996 (Riis) to 2006 (Landis) was juiced, and with the 2007 and 2009 winner (Contador) currently serving a drugs ban, it may actually be that we're finally moving away from the drug-dominated arena. How can you know unless you are inside the team? Well, there are a few pointers:

1. The BBC stats show that Andy linked to talked to people who suggest the numbers output by this year's riders are much more consistent with lab-tested results given by riders - often at least 10% lower power/weight ratio outputs than ten years ago.
2. Also the stages - and certain mountain stages in particular - are slower. And this with all of Sky's increased technology and Wiggo's streamlined sideboards.
3. Haemoglobin levels are also now lower across the board, suggesting no more direct transfusions of the type Armstrong is accused of, nor EPO (David Millar's drug of choice in 2003). And this despite Sky's crazy Tenerife experiment where they tried all that altitude sleeping and sea-level training stuff.
4. Most importantly, Phil Liggett says it's cleaner now. I know that sounds weird (this from a man who talks about dancing on the pedals and having a suitcase of courage), but you get certain vibes off people and teams, and Liggett is one of those who is close enough, and experienced enough, to know the difference.
5. Similarly, David Millar has also openly stated that he believes Wiggins is clean, and that's pretty telling given that Millar co-created the Slipstream (now Garmin) team specifically to show that you can race at the top level without drugs. Millar's word counts for a lot I think.

Anyway, enough waffle, Olympic road race on Saturday and provided Cavendish hasn't totally fallen out with the Brailsford/Wiggins axis by then he may still be in with a shout of a medal. After that, it's open season. Now, which team might have two point four million dollars to buy out his contract?

Eh? Who said Saints?

Friday, July 20, 2012

20 July 2012: Wiggo

Despite the picture above, it is Bradley Wiggins and not a donkey who owns the yellow jersey following the end of the mountains in this years Tour.

Mark Cavendish won today's stage - coming from nowhere (with Wiggins' assistance) to overtake a breakaway right on the line. A comfortable warm up for Sunday in Paris and then the Olympics next weekend. He moves up to 22 all-time wins, now level as the best-ever sprinter and moving up the list of all riders. While Wiggins gets great attention (and rightly so) for his achievement, the fact is he's won the Tour once now, while Cav is busy breaking all-time records in the race.

Still, barring accidents (and we've seen a few of those) or some weird time trial result, Wiggo wins the Tour, the first ever overall winner for Britain. And of course if he fails, Chris Froome takes over. So either way, a Sky/British winner is prety much guaranteed from here.

Detractors will say it's like 2008, a weak race with the best racers not present. Standard response is 'well, you can only win the race in front of you' by the opposite-of-detractors. (What is the opposite of a detractor? A protractor?) The record books will say that in 2012 Bradley Wiggins won the tour, just like they say the 2008 version was won by Carlos Sastre.

Would he have beaten Contador, Schleck (A), Froome on any hypothetical different team, Cadel Evans without stomach bug? Hard to say. Wiggins and the Sky train were strong but had no real acceleration - you could just see the likes of Armstrong, Contador etc racing off up the mountains into the distance had they been in the race. (Possibly due to drug taking, of course).

But then you look at Miguel Indurain, who won five in a row and didn't do accelerations - he did good time-trials and just rode tempo up the mountains, dropping off rivals one by one and just ignoring the occasional mountain attacks that came. So while it's been a rather boring Tour (well done Team Sky - seriously, that's a real achievement), Wiggo has won the Tour using a recognized, established tactic.

Anyway, presumably the knighthood follows shortly, and of course there's the Olympics in a few days, where Wiggins, Froome and Millar will work for Cavendish, who for a change won't be asked to carry bottles for everyone else. Still find it very hard to believe Cav is happy with this whole situation.

Next years Tour? Wiggins, Frooms and Cav all on different teams. Unless Wiggins sees the light and realises this, 2012, was HIS year (like 2011 was Cav's year), and he won't have another Tour like it. In which case he works for Froome, and we get another British winner next year.

Depending on Contador, Schleck (A) and the rest, of course, who should all be back...

Friday, July 13, 2012

13 July 2012: Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep

I know, you'd all rather see a video of Hannah doing something cute rather than read my waffling views on a minority sport.

She was much more vocal before I got the camera out, of course, but it's still pretty funny.

Original video here.

13 July 2012: Continuing

So David Millar won stage 12 of the Tour, being part of a long all-day breakaway and pulling away at the end to win the stage. The fourth Tour stage win of his career, but also the fourth different British stage winner this year. And what with Wiggins still in yellow, Froome in second (and according to many commentators the stronger rider of the two), Evans seeming to struggle and Vicenzo Nibali seemingly offering the only real opposition, who's to say it won't get even better for the UK?

The Froome situation is the most interesting. Yesterday he seemed to struggle a little at times, then bounce back, but when Nibali accelerated it was up to Froome to bring Wiggins back up to the wheel of Nibali. He did so, and immediately Wiggins was on the wheel of Nibali, Froome accelerated himself and went off on his own. Then... he pushed his earpiece into his ear, slowed down and went back. Why? Because Wiggins had not been able to hold on to Nibali, so Froome had to go back and help again.

As discussed a couple of days ago, it looks as if team orders are the same as the Vuelta last year, which cost Froome victory in the race. Harsh, but that's what teams are about. Wonder what will happen in the Pyrenees...

Also Millar's victory points interestingly towards the Olympics, which remains Mark Cavendish's aim, although he'll have his eye on a couple of flatter stages left in the Tour, including Paris of course. Why interesting? Because the four different British stage winners this year (Cavendish, Wiggins, Froome and Millar) are the core of the five-man Olympic team - add new British champion Ian Stannard (I know we could do better - Geraint Thomas or a fit Ben Swift would be a better fit, I'd suggest) and that's the team that will try to get Cavendish to the line first in London next month.

And it's also the same core of the team that won Cav the world championship last year, Millar captaining the team on the road and Wiggins draggings the peloton through the last kilometer.

Final thing - of course Millar is only in the Olympics because the British Olympic Association had to change their rules on drug cheats. Millar took EPO back in 2003 (and possibly before) and was banned for two years, quite rightly. Since then, however, he's been one of the most vociferous opponents of drug use in sport and spends a lot of time working with young people to warn of the dangers of it. So - not saying the banning decisions are right and wrong, but Millar (unlike certain other people) has been open about what went on in those days (and probably still does to a much smaller extent now), and is trying to do something about it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

10 July 2012: Louisiana

So we moved again, only four and a half years after the previous move, which isn't bad going really.

This time (now with two little girls in tow, whether they like it or not) we've moved to a town called Monroe in Louisiana. Partly because my current job allows me to work from anywhere in the US, partly because it just felt like it was time but mainly because Gloria's dad and step-mum live here. Having grandparents handy, especially when there are two young children, is a very big plus, so 'Pop Pop' and 'Lu Lu' are helping out with occasional Hannah- and Amelia-sitting whenever the opportunity arises. Currently house-hunting down here, so if you have any good tips on houses in the Swartz area of town, please let us know.

Elsewhere in the world there was the astonishing predictability of the Euro 2012 football (England lost in the quarter-finals on penalties? Whoever would have thought of such a scenario?), Argyle failing to sign anyone decent, Saints not really making any early headway in the transfer market (J-Rod aside) and Greece still somehow having the Euro as their currency.

But the big news (for me anyway, in my half-awake zombie seven-week-old-baby state) concerns the Tour De France, about which I've been meaning to write for several weeks now and haven't had the time. As predicted last year, Mark Cavendish's move to Team Sky hasn't exactly been a raging success for him: he's won one stage and been a little unlucky in crashes and punctures to thus miss out on a couple of others, but overall it's kind of sad to see the world champion and clearly the fastest man in the race be given little or no support by his team.

Theoretically he has Bernie Eisal and Edval Boassen Hagen watching out for him, but last week in one of the few sprints Cavendish did contest, Boassen Hagen led him out to the front of the pack with one kilometre still to go, which is a suicidal technique for leading out a sprinter... Cavendish realised this and dropped back on his own, but then didn't have the legs for the final push.

And while it may be unlucky to be involved in so many crashes, the thing is that if he had a team and some actual protection around him, he'd be a lot safer. He wears the rainbow jersey of the world champion, he has won more stages than anyone else in the last four Tours and as such he's a marked man. For Sky to offer little-to-no protection or help must make him think, at least a little, 'why am I here and not at Rabobank with Mark Renshaw?'. Still, the main target for Cav seems to be the Olympics... let's just hope Team GB (roughly equals Team Sky here) can figure out how to do a leadout for him.

Of course the reason Sky aren't doing much for Cav is that they're busy protecting Bradley Wiggins, currently the leader of the race by a pretty massive margin (almost two minutes, yes that is massive in this sport). Last year's winner Cadel Evans is in second, and creeping up in third is one Chris Froome, another Brit (although he's actually from Kenya and has British parents). In fact if Froome hadn't been delayed in one of the first-week crashes he'd be comfortably in second place right now. Wow, you might think, possible one-two for Britain in the Tour De France.

Maybe. But the problem is this: Wiggins isn't quite as good in the really high mountains as Cadel Evans and Chris Froome. At least, he's not shown that kind of form in the past, including this very excellent season that he's had. And so, here's the scenario: Evans attacks (or at least sets very good pace) on the high mountains that are coming up imminently (tomorrow, Thursday and also Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday next week), Wiggins and Froome stay with him but eventually Wiggins cracks and starts to drop back a bit. So what do Team Sky do with Chris Froome? Do they send him back to help Wiggins or do they tell him to keep going, because he can probably not only stay up with but actually beat Evans, probably both in the mountains and in the one remaining time trial? Received wisdom says he should go back to help Wiggins... but what will they do?

THAT, to me, is probably the key question remaining on the Tour (assuming Wiggins does crack on the mountains at some stage, which I think he very well might). The problem is that Sky have been in exactly this position before - in the Tour of Spain last year, Froome would quite comfortably have won the race (a Brit winning a Grand Tour! Amazing!) but the team ordered him back to help the ailing Wiggins in the highest mountains. As a result, Froome finished second in the Vuelta and Wiggins third.

Commentating legend Phil Liggett already stated a couple of days ago that Sky clearly made a mistake with those team orders. And given their aim of a British tour winner by 2014, will they do the same again?

I'm not sure, and I don't know that Sean Yates, Dave Brailsford and the rest of the decision-makers know yet either - but I will say this right now: I think, even at this stage of the game, that Froome is the better, stronger rider of the two and is much the more likely to beat Evans.

Evans meantime is looking to divide and conquer, and hope that Sky send Froome backwards when crunch time comes.

Oh, and we found Weetabix here at a local supermarket. And Rich Tea biscuits. Just to put things in perspective, ya know.

Postscript: one amazing thing already in the Tour for the Brits is that there have already been three different British stage winners this year - Cav, Froome and Evans have all won a stage. Considering years (sometimes decades) go by without a single British victory, it's already been the most memorable TDF Britain has ever had.

Friday, June 08, 2012

8 June 2012: Alike

My mum was digging through some old photos and found a few of her at Hannah's age. We've been commenting recently how Hannah's hair seems to be straight with gentle curls appearing near the ends - rather like I recalled my mum's hair being in old photos. But now we can compare on a to-the-nearest-month basis (17 months old), one photo from 1944 and one from 2012.
I think we can say there's a certain likeness visible, except of course that Hannah tends to wear her hair-bow on the other side.

And what's also nice is that we have photos of them together, although of course they no longer look quite as alike:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

16 May 2012: Amelia Kay

That's Amelia Kay, born at 12.03pm on 16 May 2012, 8lb 5oz and 20.25 inches long.

She came by c-section - we had been planning a 'VBAC' but the scar was sufficiently hurting during the final week that Gloria in the end just had to ask the doctor to get her out. So in we came to the hospital at the thoroughly civilised hour of 9.30am (far better than 2.30am after four hours of labour!), prepped and went into the operating room around 11.40 - and she was with us in time for lunch.

Everyone doing well, including Hannah, who came down to visit with Pop Pop yesterday afternoon, and was pleased to find that Baby Sister (who we now know is named Amelia) had brought a gift for her. Here's the vid (HD available for this version, unlike the one we put on Facebook!) of Hannah meeting Amelia for the first time:

So far the consensus is that Amelia looks remarkably like Hannah, including lots of hair and eye colour, but in personality she seems to be a little more of a cuddler and also has far more patience when it comes to nursing, which this time seems to be an actual possibility.

More photos as we get time to deal with it, no news yet on going home but given standards for c-sections I'd think we're looking at Saturday morning. After that it's time to pack up and move to Louisiana, but that's another story...

Some more photos from day one:
Quick photo with Hannah and one of Baby Sister's outfits before going to the hospital.

Birth weight in kilograms, equivalent to 8lb5oz.

Hannah sees Baby Sister Amelia for the first time.

When asked "would you like to hold her" she says very clearly "yes please" - you can see that moment on the video!

Baby sister brought Dora toys and stickers, a guaranteed winner with Hannah.

Later on, Hannah kept climbing on chairs to check on Amelia. Possibly to see if she had any more Dora merchandise for her.

Pop Pop (Gloria's dad) made a valiant attempt at getting both grand-daughters in one chair, but it never really worked out.

Duncan wore a Saints shirt for the occasion. Amelia, like Hannah, may turn out to be a Saints girl rather than an Argyle girl, but we'll see.

Ryan, Alyssa and ten-week-old Emery pay a visit and wonder how it is that Amelia already has much more hair than Emery.

Monday, May 14, 2012

14 May 2012: Nearly

Becky quite rightly asks why no comment on the football.

Answer: we're about to have another baby, currently at the point of counting contractions when they happen and looking for various other signs that things have actually started and we have to go to the hospital!

Also, Gloria's dad (known to Hannah as 'Pop Pop') is here and that's making Hannah very excited:

(That one's available in HD by the way, courtesy of our exciting Sony HDR-CX160 camera that is so small you'd think it's incapable of doing anything yet it records in 1080i/p and has 16GB internal memory as well as an SD card. But enough specificationing.)

The thing about Argyle staying up is that it seemed so amazingly unlikely back in September. There's an old saying in most sports that you can't win the title in the first month of the season, but you certainly can lose it. And back then, Argyle had the worst start just about any club has ever had - clicking this link will take you to a match report and league table from 17 September, nine games in to the season. Argyle had just lost again and had amassed (if that is the right word to use here) a mighty one point from those nine games, and that was due to a miraculous last-minute equaliser from soon-to-be-manager Carl Fletcher, one of the very few players who didn't leave. Argyle were regularly fielding teenagers to make up the squad and it looked bad.

In fact it reminded me of something Danny Baker once joked about regarding a league table once - Argyle would be the team this time who would not just finish bottom, but they would finish SUPER-bottom, so far adrift at the foot of the table that the Football League would have to send out search parties to try and find them.

But, James Brent came in, got a few players in, replaced Peter Reid (who frankly did his best) with Carl Fletcher, happily removed Peter Ridsdale (never trusted him) and the results slowly, slowly turned around such that the final 37 games of the season yielded 45 points, not wonderful but enough to keep Argyle up with a couple of weeks to spare.

Meantime Saints were at the opposite end of the Football League - in the top two of the Championship the entire season and despite a couple of wobbles, made it back to the Prem. Saw the final day 4-0 win over Coventry and very much enjoyed it. Curious thing is that the core of the team is the same one that struggled under Alan Pardew at the start of the League One season the previous year, Billy Sharp and Jack Cork (and possibly Steve De Ridder) being the only notable additions, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain the notable absentee. So, a settled squad but one that did, for a while, struggle in League One. I dunno. They say Hooiveld and Fonte are a good central defensive partnership, but frankly Saints shipped a LOT of goals, especially in the second half of the season. Just as well West Ham forgot how to win games...

Anyway - so baby sister coming sometime soon and who knows what fun we can have with the HD camera after that!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

15 March 2012: Quick

Got five minutes, so wanted to post a couple of things. First, this headline, taken straight from the BBC News website this afternoon:

"Legal challenges against the scrapping of a tax loophole that allowed the Channel Islands to sell low value goods VAT-free fail."

Now I don't mind that Jersey used to offer VAT-free goods, or that this was due to a legal loophole, or that said loophole was to be scrapped or that there was a legal challenge against said scrapping or indeed that said legal loophole had failed. What I objected to was that I had to not only read the sentence four times, but actually work it out piece by piece to figure out what it was saying and determine if it meant things would be cheaper or not. (Answer = "not cheaper").

And secondly, looks like the Save The Hobbit campaign, which got support from the likes of Stephen Fry and Ian McKellan (Gandalf himself, of course), has succeeded. Hurrah! Not that I get to go there much these days, but there's something reassuring about knowing that not all unique pubs go the way of the Old Black Cat.

Happy Thursday. Time for another meeting.

Monday, March 05, 2012

5 March 2012: Tumble

This one's been brewing for a while - since our visit to the UK in January, in fact - but my sis spotted a news article from the Guardian concerning the same subject and I knew it could wait no longer.

According to said article, there will soon be Mr Tumble - The Movie.

That statement will have a small minority of you cheering, and the rest (from both sides of the Atlantic) scratching your heads in puzzled bemusement. But I know what it's about, because during our visit to the UK, my mum (bless her) decided it would be good to put a cushion on the floor in front of the television, sit Hannah down on it, and switch on CBeebies - the BBC digital TV channel for the under 5s or so which just celebrated its tenth birthday.

Well, needless to say this went down well with Hannah. Back home we offer her occasional trips to Dora the Explorer and a little Bagpuss or In The Night Garden (thanks to birthday DVDs), but here was a constantly-on channel aimed right at her! Well, we thought, it's holiday time, she can watch a bit more TV than usual.

Of course, what also happened is that as well as Hannah watching it, we watched it too, and watched her watching it. And I began to see what has happened to BBC programming for pre-schoolers since those many years ago when I'd watch Brian Cant or Fred Harris trying to make Little Ted sit up straight on Playschool.

The first thing to say is this: it's a lot better than you'd think, and a lot better than pre-school equivalents over in the US. Partly because there's no adverts (no adverts to speak of on PBS Sprout either, to be fair) but the reason Hannah clicked with it was because it was, for the main part, actual real people (and usually adults) rather than animation. It surprised me that she preferred that, given the flexibility of animation, but there was no question that she really liked seeing even the continuity announcers being real grown-ups playing around with toys.

And then you get to the programmes themselves. 'In The Night Garden' was there, of course, just before bed time (although Hannah also got into the 'Goodnight Song', so we've had to YouTube that a few times for her since) - whenever the Night Garden characters appeared, there was a visible jump from her (not yet 18 months by this point, remember). But we also soon picked up which shows were her favourites and which ones she didn't care for.

And the winner, unquestionably, was a programme called "Show Me Show Me", which was roughly twenty-five minutes long and generally featured two adults playing with five toys, interspersed with occasional songs and video shorts. In other words, it's Playschool, innit?

The presenters, Chris Jarvis and Pui Fan Lee (the latter of whom I find slightly irritating for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, although I did read that she used to be a Teletubby so that might have something to do with it...) - anyway, apparently they used to be CBeebies continuity presenters who got a show of their own when their contracts were up. And it's really good. Just pacy enough to keep Hannah interested without being over the top, and sufficiently non-patronising that they can make in-jokes and only-parents-are-going-to-get-this references without ruining the show.

Other favourites included Mister Maker, an art/craft show fronted by the eponymous Mister Maker, who energetic performance makes him appear to have some kind of bi-polar thing where he is right at the top and about to plunge over the edge... then there's ZingZillas, a bunch of monkey-costume musicians whose ten-minute show is a nice length; some train animation thing called Chuggington that I don't particularly get but seems to have Playschool alumnus Floella Benjamin somewhere in the background; and Grandpa In My Pocket (aimed at much older children than Hannah I think, but she loves it), featuring James Bolam of all people - playing yet another version of James Bolam, of course, but that's always pretty good value.

And then there's Justin.

Ah, Justin. What can you say, other than he appears to be on just about every other show on the channel and everyone loves him. Justin Fletcher MBE, of course, given the award for services to children, television and communication, as I understand it. He was on something called Tikkabilla (another Playschool clone that my sis says I was lucky to miss), voiced several of the Tweenies (another show we avoided happily), and today still hosts a joke-related show named Gigglebiz and Hannah's other favourite: "Justin's House" (essentially a weekly pantomime with much audience participation). And of course, Mister Tumble.

The show is actually called 'Something Special' and is about to start filming its eighth season. Justin plays both himself - meeting special needs children and doing some activities with them - and said character Mister Tumble, a strange man dressed in spots and with a mild clown-like appearance, whose sections of the programme are shared by an unseen child (presumably representing the viewer) who talks and interacts with Mister Tumble and his unusual family (all also played by Justin). The Guardian article tells you more about the show, the sign language it uses and Fletcher's family (although it fails to mention that his cousin is Guy Fletcher from Dire Straits) but what surprised me was that for a slow-moving show aimed at special needs children aged 4 to 7, it GRABS Hannah's attention almost as much as Show Me Show Me. She interacts with the sign language to some extent and ALWAYS performs the magic to transport Mister Tumble's Spotty Bag to Justin ("touch your finger to your nose, blink three times and off it goes..."), usually ahead of cue.

The show is slow-moving and generally not all that interesting to me (contrasting with Show Me Show Me or Justin's House, which I'll happily watch all the way through) but it seems that it's not only Hannah that loves it - children of all ages and across the needs spectrum are huge fans of the show, so much so that (like In The Night Garden), the BBC dare not take it off the air even for one day. And I suppose that's why Justin has his MBE - he is such a good communicator and is able to teach children in the context of fun, as well as giving such great exposure to special needs children in such a positive way.

So enough gushing from me, the challenge now we're back in the US is to get Hannah back from being a telly junkie... especially as it's not long now until her little sister arrives...

Thursday, February 09, 2012

9 February 2012: Corruption

Breaking out of semi-blog-retirement to comment on the Harry Redknapp thing and the England manager thing.

Not much to say, really, except that the whole thing stinks worse than a pig sty after curry night. Not content with the fact that everyone within the game (really, everyone) knows that Harry's been doing the bung thing for years (and not just bungs), the FA seem poised to sanction his behaviour by appointing him England manager.

The only light in this dark place appears to be that a little over fifteen years ago, Terry Venables was removed after two years as England manager essentially because of his somewhat shady dealings. The fear, however, would be that times have now changed and the FA aren't as concerned about corruption as they used to be. I mean, look at them parachuting David Lampitt into Portsmouth, an organisation that seemingly exists purely to allow Mr Chainrai's clients to "own" for a short period so they can do some laundry. (Really, buying David Norris using the savings of elderly Lithuanians and then declaring bancrupty? Mmm.)

The thing that really made me think, though, was the fact that earlier this week Alberto Condator was found guilty of drug cheating due to the world's tiniest measurable amount of Clenbuterol in his system, and banned for two years. Notwithstanding any appeals he may make, the facts are that he is now officially branded a cheat (although the amount in his system would have had zero effect on his body or performance) and has been stripped of the 2010 Tour De France title.

Now don't for a moment think I'm suddenly a Contador apologist. He's been involved in doping controversy - either at a team or an individual level - on at least two prior occasions AND there was evidence (due to the presence of a type of plastic in his samples) that he may also have been involved in blood doping (where they transfuse blood with more red blood cells into his body - hard to trace, fairly effective but also highly dangerous) during 2010. Totally unproven, but a slight whiff of 'something not right there' Add to that his 2011 performances, which were much more normal/human, which also fits with someone who used to use banned performance enhancers and now doesn't... all unproven conjecture but to me it just smells a little.

Contrast this with football's corruption, right up to the highest level, and the thing appears to be this: at least cycling, as a sport, is DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Football just buries its head in the sand and watches the money roll in.

Makes me think, do I really want Saints to get promoted back to all that Premier League stuff?