Monday, 17 December 2007

Happy anniversary to "weblogs"

According to BBC News, blogs are a year old today:

Weblogs rack up a decade of posts

The word "weblog" celebrates the 10th anniversary of it being coined on 17 December 1997.

The word was created by Jorn Barger to describe what he was doing with his pioneering Robot Wisdom web page.

The word was an abbreviation for the "logging" of interesting "web" sites that Mr Barger featured on his regularly updated journal.

A decade on and blog-watching firm Technorati reports it is tracking more than 70 million web logs . . .

. . . In 1999 the phenomenon took off as easy to use tools started to appear which made it much easier to write and maintain these sorts of websites. Also in 1999 the word "blog" was coined as a shortened form of the original term . . .
I sometimes feel like I have a million blogs on my reader, but apparently there are 69 million more I am missing.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Clunk, click, every trip

Viola and I were watching the first couple of episodes of Series 2 of Life on Mars the other day. It has come, belatedly, to BBC America (slightly edited and not in widescreen -- very annoying!). At one point, Gene says "Clunk, click, every trip" and both Viola and I wondered whether this was an anachronism. We remembered the phrase from the late 70s, perhaps 1978 or 1979, but doubted that it was as early as 1973, when Life on Mars is set. Well, we were wrong. A reliable article on Wikipedia tells us that it became a slogan at the heart of a safety belt campaign as early as 1971, and even then it was borrowed from an earlier campaign in the 1960s. A trawl through Youtube turns up this gem from 1972, which encourages "you ladies" to belt up:



By the time I can remember these films, though, the "Clunk, click, every trip" didn't have to be explained, as it is here. It was just recited. There is a nice article from 2006 on this on BBC News, The message clicks.

New Doctor Who Voyage of the Damned Trailer

Sorry, couldn't resist posting the new trailer for the Doctor Who Christmas Special:



Monday, 10 December 2007

More Christmas BBC One Previews

More from Youtube for those of us who don't catch these things in our daily viewing, e.g. because we don't live in England anymore. First, a teaser trailer for the Doctor Who Christmas special. Only nine seconds, but still long enough to feature a spoiler:



And this forty second trailer focuses on comedy highlights. I am looking forward to Extras and Catherine Tate, both of which make appearances here:



I have heard elsewhere that this is to be the last of the Catherine Tate sketch shows for the foreseeable future, perhaps not surprising given her new life on the TARDIS.

Which is the best airline?

As British expats living in the USA, we do a lot of flying and in looking for flights for our 2008 trips back to the UK, the key factor is, of course, the price. But where the prices are similar, we already have strong feelings about our preferred airlines. At the bottom of the pile, we would put US Airways and at the top would be Virgin Atlantic, hands down. Somewhere in between would be American Airlines, which is so-so. We travelled on Virgin for the first time in the summer and it was head and shoulders above US Airways or American Airlines, which had been our usual carriers to that point. Friendly British staff, comfortable seats, good food, good entertainment. It turns out that our experience maps onto the results of the recent Zagat survey, which rates US Airways very low, American not much higher, but Virgin very much towards the top. Passengers rate the airlines on Comfort, Food, Service and Website. The report is here:

The Zagat/TODAY Airline Survey

If you are a regular flier, it is interesting reading.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Heroes / Torchwood Crossover Trailer

This is a twenty second gem from BBC2 last night. Heroes reached the end of its first series in the UK (we are about ten episodes into the second season in the US, in what may turn out to be the end of the season because of the writers' strike), and it broadcast this nice crossover trailer, advertising the forthcoming second series of the fantastic Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood:



We are particularly looking forward to the second series of Torchwood in our house given the news that there will be a pre-watershed family-version repeat. I don't think our kids have quite forgiven us for not letting them watch the first series, as if it were our fault that it had all that adult material in it. Now if they could arrange pre-watershed edits of all thirteen episodes of the first series, they will be even happier.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Muralitharan's Test Record, and a Sky News Report

I'm not able to watch as much of the cricket at the moment as I would like. The first test in a three match series between England and Sri Lanka began on Saturday, but it starts here each night at midnight (5am GMT), so even if I have a late night, I only catch the beginning. It is very annoying too that Test Match Special is unavailable to international users, and I haven't managed to find a back door that will allow me to listen. So I'm mainly managing with the TMS Podcast each morning (this time with Simon Hughes alongside Jonathan Agnew), and what I can find on the net, including some interesting bits and bobs on Youtube.

The early morning (our time) play today was momentous. Muttiah Muralitharan became the all time leading wicket taker in Test cricket, overtaking Shane Warne's 708 wickets, itself still a very recent memory. The following clip, from Sky News this afternoon, is unintentionally hilarious. As usual, there is more discussion of Murali's controversial action than there is of his amazing achievement. But here it becomes clear from quite early on that the Sky News presenter knows almost nothing about the game. Instead of a cricketing expert in the studio, she is joined by a physiotherapist who brings with her an arm so that she can illustrate Murali's congenital defect, and the big issue that worries the presenter is whether Murali will have arthritis in his old age, an issue she comes back to repeatedly. So congratulations to Murali on his fantastic achievement, and I hope you enjoy this bizarre (lack of a?) tribute:

Sunday, 2 December 2007

BBC One Christmas Preview

One of the signs that Christmas is getting near is when you happen to catch the first Christmas TV preview. It's always an exciting moment; there's something about it that recaptures your childhood memories of Christmas TV. Living in the USA, there is no chance, of course, of catching it while watching other things on telly. But due to the glories of Youtube, British expats can share the anticipation too. BBC One's first Christmas preview, a minute or so long, appeared this weekend. And of course the Doctor Who Christmas special features in there, among other things of interest:

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Hannah Montana, Greensboro

Last week was the Thanksgiving break here, a fine American tradition, and an enjoyable few days off work for me and off school for the kids. We capped our break off on Sunday by going to Greensboro, about an hour and half's drive west of here, to see a show in Hannah Montana / Miley Cyrus's "Best of Both Worlds" Tour. It was an enormously enjoyable experience. I have been to many concerts over the years, but this was the kids' first big concert other than the outdoor "Party in the Park" in Birmingham in 2005. The big spectacle, the lavish production, the family audience reminded me a bit of my first concert, when I went to see Abba at Wembley Arena with my Dad in 1979.

If you have not heard of Hannah Montana, she is a 14 year old TV pop star, loved by kids of about 7-12 years old, especially girls, who made up about 80% of the audience on Sunday. Hannah Montana is actually the name of the Disney Channel TV show in which she appears. The central character is played by Miley Cyrus and the show's premise is simple. By day, she is an ordinary girl named Miley Stewart. But she has a secret life as a pop star named Hannah Montana, with a blond wig. The show has been running for a couple of years now and is massively popular. And Miley Cyrus, the daughter of country legend Billy Ray Cyrus, who also appears in the TV series as her father, has become a real life pop star. When she announced her recent concert tour of America, tickets sold out immediately. They could have filled every one of the huge venues several times over. Apparently tickets were selling for thousands of dollars.

The theme of the concert tour is "The Best of Both Worlds", a phrase taken from the theme tune to the programme. For the first half of the concert, she appears in character, blond wig and all, as Hannah Montana, singing Hannah's songs. For the second half, she re-emerges "as herself", Miley Cyrus, without the wig, singing a slightly different bunch of songs.

We arrived in Greensboro absurdly early, something like 2pm for a concert due to begin at 4. But I'd much rather be early than late, and it added to the excitement to be sitting in place and watching the coliseum fill up. We had a pretty good view, on a balcony to the side. The Jonas Brothers were the support act, and there were many at the gig who were clearly pretty obsessed by them, including the two girls sitting next to me, whose screams were ear-splitting. The Jonas Brothers are three young pretty boys who sing acceptable, hummable American pop including covers of songs like "Kids of America", now adjusted to "Kids of the Future". They performed for 30 minutes or so and as they left the stage, Miley Cyrus appeared on screen to announce that she would be on after twenty minutes.

I was very impressed by how polished her performance was. Her voice is strong -- it rarely seemed to falter. The concert was definitely something of a show, with lights, screens, dancers, and multiple costume changes. I'm so used to going to small-venue gigs by indie type bands that one forgets the pleasures of the big spectacle concert, and the money that is thrown at it. Hannah Montana descended to the stage in a large cube, her figure in silhouette, and then she emerged singing "Rock Star", the first of seven or so songs in the Hannah Montana half of the set. The last song in this set saw the return of the Jonas Brothers, to the delight of my screeching neighbours, who continued with two further songs while Hannah was transformed into Miley. None of us saw where she came from when she returned, but we think she must have come up through the square door in the walkway in front of the stage. She then performed another six or seven songs as Miley, again with more costume changes. After leaving the stage, she re-emerged for one last solo song with a guitar on a stool, all about how she misses her Grandpa, over sentimental but quite sweet.

It was a remarkably accomplished, polished performance overall from such a young person. Viola and I found ourselves repeating, "She's only fourteen!" I suppose that brings with it the concern that she doesn't go the way of other child or teen stars, but she seems to be very well managed and at this point seems remarkably well adjusted.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Viola, and it's the rest of us sitting in Greensboro Coliseum a good hour or so before the thing started, enjoying our chips. Although recording devices were banned at the concert, some people appear to have gathered some very good bits of bootleg footage. Here's a minute or so from the first part of the concert, when she is still Hannah, and has just changed from a glitzy costume to put on her "old blue jeans".

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Max Headroom Broadcasting Hijack, Twenty Years on

Over on Targuman, Chris Brady links to an interesting story on Retro Thing about a TV hijack that took place twenty years ago in Chicago. In the middle of an episode of Doctor Who (a repeat, because it's a Tom Baker episode long after the Tom Baker era ended in 1981), a character wearing a Max Headroom mask bursts on screen. Apparently, the offender has never since been found, nor has he come forward. Here's some Youtube footage of the event:



If you'd like a slightly better quality of video, but without the translation, go to FuzzyMemories.TV. And here is a CBS News report about the incident:

Sunday, 11 November 2007

No Poppies in America on Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day in the UK. In the USA it is called Veterans Day or Armistice Day. It is a state holiday and so my kids will be off school tomorrow (Monday), but I will be at work since Duke has an odd attitude to state holidays and regards them as dispensable (with the sole exception of Martin Luther King day in January). But here is something we wouldn't have known if we hadn't come to live in America, that people don't wear poppies on 11 November, or the week leading up to it, as they do in England. I really miss it. To explain just how widespread this is in the UK, you will see people selling poppies at school, in the streets, in petrol stations, the corner shop and everywhere. The idea is that the wearing of a poppy signifies a shared, public act of remembrance. Because we watch a lot of British television, it has felt strange this last week seeing people wearing poppies on the news, the weather, in parliament and so on, where outside our front door men's jacket lapels look rather naked and sorry for themselves. As far as I can tell, there is no alternative badge of remembrance in the USA. In our church this morning, the man doing the children's talk gave out little US flags to the kids to wear. I couldn't help thinking that as a badge of remembrance, that does not work as well as the poppy, not least given that we were sitting there as British expats, wishing to join in the public act of remembrance for all those who have died in the world wars, and subsequent wars and conflicts.

Let me conclude, though, with a comment on our service at church this morning. The veterans present in the church were asked to come forward and the children gave them certificates of some kind. As the veterans returned to their seats, the congregation all rose, apparently spontaneously, and applauded them loudly. This kind of public act of gratitude and respect for the veterans I found profoundly moving, and it has made this "veterans day" quite special and meaningful for me. And in their honour, this blog is wearing its poppy with pride.

Monday, 5 November 2007

I miss . . . .

Guy Fawkes.

Remember, remember the 5th of November . . . .

It's much easier to forget it here. Living in America, it is all Halloween, and to a remarkable degree. People decorate their houses with Halloween lights, pumpkins and blow up ghosts; they hang up skeletons and put gravestones in their front gardens, sometimes with parts of bodies protruding above ground. Trick or treating seems to be the biggest night of the year, with everyone out on the streets in costumes carrying sack-fulls of sweets ("candy") that they collect from one house to the next. It's an amazing spectacle and although I find it all somewhat bizarre, there are things about the evening I like, not least the community-feel. In spite of the supposedly dark theme, it's a very friendly kind of evening. For the last two years, Viola went out with Lauren while I stayed in to give out the "candy". This year, Viola stayed in and I went out with Lauren, and enjoyed chatting to some new friends while we walked around the "neighborhood".

Nevertheless, I find that I really miss bonfire night. We always celebrated it in England, with a few fireworks in the back garden, and some hot food from the barbecue to keep us warm. But here, the day goes by without comment, except among expats. We can't light a bonfire in the garden, and if we tried we wood probably set the woods on fire, especially in the current drought conditions where everything is as dry as bone. And we can't let off fireworks. Here, fireworks are for the 4th of July, and you need a special license to let them off any other time of year.

We might be tempted to fire up the barbecue at least, and to think fond thoughts of England while we eat our food. Oh, and there's the second part of a particularly good Sarah Jane Adventures to look forward to tonight, and that should keep us happy.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Pidgin for Instant Messaging

PidginYesterday I was sitting in a meeting at Duke about instructional technology and we got chatting about a variety of things, one of which was instant messaging. I was lamenting the problems of multiple different instant messengers, and a Mac user present mentioned an kind of aggregator that enables one to gather together all one's different accounts under one client. They mentioned that there was an equivalent for Windows called Trillian. As soon as I got home, I gave it a try, but it has a problem: the free version does not incorporate Google Talk, which is one of the messaging services I use most often. But a quick search around revealed that there is an excellent open source option that covers all the messengers I use. It is called Pidgin (formally Gaim). It's easy to use and install, and I have already used it to message people on both Google Talk and YIM, and have added contacts from AIM and MSN too. So far, I'm impressed with it. The only downside is that it does not seem to be able to pick up Skype yet. Here's the website for the free download:

Pidgin

I have often wondered how long it will take before instant messaging will begin to become simpler across a group of different services. It is not as if you can only phone someone up who is on the same phone company as you, or only email someone who is on your email service. And it seems that the future is already here on this one. I love a nice new bit of useful technology and am amazed that I hadn't heard about it until now. What fun.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

£1 = $2.08!

The pound is now at a 26 year high against the dollar. At the moment £1 is worth $2.08. The strong pound is not good news for those of us who live in the States and travel regularly to the UK. Happily, we have already bought our plane tickets for Christmas, and paid for our hired car, but at this rate, shopping in England is going to be a very expensive business. Here's the BBC's article:

Pound powers past weaker dollar

The pound and euro strengthened their positions against the US dollar, with sterling once again rising to its highest levels since 1981.

The gains were fuelled by the Federal Reserve's decision to trim US interest rates for a second time in two months.

The pound rose to a 26-year high of $2.08, while the euro touched $1.45 - its highest point since its 1999 debut . . .

Monday, 29 October 2007

The week when the timings are all wrong

As a British expat in the North Carolina in the USA, I get used to living according to two different time zones, US Eastern Time and Greenwich Mean Time / British Summer Time. For 50 weeks of the year, we are five hours behind the UK. Our day to day activities are, of course, based on Eastern Time here. But at the same time, I am always conscious of what time it is in England, not least because I listen to a lot of British radio (Radio 4 and FiveLive mainly). And when I phone people back home, I know instinctively what time it is for them. But each year there is this odd week when all the timings go wrong, and it began today. British Summer Time ended on Sunday morning, but the hour does not go back here for another week. So this week, I have to adjust my British clock to four hours behind. I just tuned in for the Today programme on Radio 4, which normally starts at 1am, 6am in the UK, and it wasn't on yet. So for a few days I'll be a little disorientated. Normality will return again next weekend.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

They Might Be Giants in Durham, NC

Viola and I don't get to gigs as often as we used to when we were students. The kids aren't quite old enough to come with us yet, at least not to most venues, and it's always a bit of a drive to get in to Durham or to Raleigh, the two nearest cities. As we head towards middle age, we are often as happy staying in on a Friday night, having a couple of beers and watching the telly. Nevertheless, it's a bit of a thrill when we do venture out and last night, with the kids both on sleepovers with friends, Vi and I drove to Durham to see They Might Be Giants at the Carolina Theater.

Going to a gig here does feel like harder work than when we were younger. Because of the lack of public transport, one of us has to drive, and going to a gig stone cold sober isn't quite the same. I was in a bit of a mood too after I pranged the back of my car on a huge white stone pillar which appeared from nowhere when I was backing into a space in the car park. And then we couldn't find anywhere to eat in the area, went to the bar area of the Marriott hotel and had probably the worst service we've ever had (a long story). But things got a lot better when the gig started at 9.

The support was an indie duo called Oppenheimer who were surprisingly good. They are from Belfast in Northern Ireland. They did not look at all promising. A chubby, sweaty nerd with terrible hair is on guitar and keyboard and he leaps around and occasionally sings robotic-style vocals. A bald bloke with a soft Northern Irish accent plays the drums and sings.

They Might be Giants were on at 10 and played for about 75 minutes. Any advantage you might have had in claiming a seat towards the front was soon negated as John Flansburgh (the fatter of the two lead men) encouraged everyone onto their feet and forward. Flansburgh probably did the bulk of fronting the group, but occasionally John Linnell came from behind the keyboards to take his lead. They are both looking distinctly middle aged, but both were on good musical form and generally in pretty good humour. They are commonly described as "quirk pop" and if sometimes there was a little too much quirkiness and not enough pop, they did play most of the hits and they sounded good.

Those who cannot call to mind a They Might be Giants song might in fact already know one without realizing it. They sing the theme tune to Malcolm in the Middle (and performed all 30 seconds of it at this gig) and their biggest hit is Birdhouse in Your Soul (which also recently appeared, bizarrely, on Pushing Daisies), the video for which is below.

We had never seen They Might be Giants before and were very pleasantly surprised to find out how good a live band they are. We would definitely make the effort to see them again, though next time it would be good to take the kids too -- they are definitely family friendly, and Durham's 14s and over policy didn't seem to make any sense.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Rory Bremner does the Archbishop

The new series of Bremner, Bird and Fortune is better than ever. This Sunday Bremner did several short sketches impersonating the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and it's a remarkably good impression. Here he is comparing himself to Doctor Who and the Anglican Church to the TARDIS:



Sunday, 21 October 2007

Fifth Doctor and Tenth Doctor meet

I am delighted to see tonight that the BBC have made official what has been rumoured now for some time, that the forthcoming BBC Children in Need event on 16 November is going to feature a "special scene" in which "David Tennant's Tenth Doctor is set to meet Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor":

Who Needs Another Doctor?

The BBC's Doctor Who website has a nice picture of Tennant and Davison, and The Sun has somehow scooped an even better one.

Children in Need have a fine reputation for Doctor Who specials. Don't forget that two years ago we had this treat, six minutes of footage of the Doctor and Rose, immediately after the regeneration from the ninth to the tenth doctor, a scene some have called "the lost episode" of Doctor Who, since this was not part of the "Christmas Invasion" epsisode a month or so later:



There were other, less honourable efforts too, like Dimensions in Time in 1993, which had appearances from all the doctors then alive. But the good news about the new Children in Need special is that it will be written by Steven Moffatt, who has a fine pedigree, the author of one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever, "Blink", as well as the Comic Relief Doctor Who special starring Rowan Atkinson et al, in 1999.

Father of a teenager

I passed an important milestone recently and became the father of a teenager. We couldn't resist going back to Harry Enfield's Kevin for a good laugh, and reassuring ourselves that things could never be this bad:



Watching the Rugby World Cup

BBC News reports on the massive numbers who watched yesterday's Rugby World Cup Final clash between England and South Africa:

World Cup attracts 15.8m viewers

England's defeat to South Africa in the Rugby World Cup dominated Saturday's TV viewing, with audience figures peaking at 15.8m towards the final whistle.

According to overnight figures an average of 12.8m people tuned in to ITV1 to watch the match at the Stade de France in Paris.

Figures do not include the millions of people who packed into pubs to watch the game from there.
Nor do the figures include the British expats in America who had three options, (1) Pay Time Warner Cable $30 for the privilege of viewing the match; (2) Find a pub that is showing it; (3) Watch it on P2P. Since I am not a big rugby fan, and wouldn't even think of spending that much on one cricket match, $30 was unthinkable, so (1) was out. (2) was a possibility, and would have been ideal for a bachelor, but would not work for the family, especially as the kids have no interest in rugby (they are football fans). So it had to be (3). And the P2P streaming I found was pretty rough, but just about good enough to be able to work out what was going on, and to share in the misery of our failure to win. Still, a darn sight better than the England football team did on Wednesday.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Laurel and Hardy Impersonators in Harlem

One of the highlights of our trip to Harlem, GA was the presence of Laurel and Hardy impersonators Jamie McKenna and Bill Leavy. Viola took some video footage of their ad hoc performance in the Laurel and Hardy Museum and I have uploaded it to Youtube (my first experiment in doing that). Here is the clip. It is just under three minutes long and is their performance of the classic "Trail of the Lonesome Pine". You can hear us giggling quite loudly. Watch out especially for the moment where Hardy looks at Viola's camera and says "Thank you very much":



In the unlikely event that you do not know the original, here are the real Laurel and Hardy performing the "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" from the film Way Out West (1937). (This is a coloured version; the original was in black and white):



Here is a second short video (3 minutes) of the Laurel and Hardy impersonators performing on Saturday, this time a song called "Kitty from Kansas City":

Monday, 8 October 2007

Travel Diary: Harlem, GA: Oliver Hardy Festival

Lauren and Laurel and Hardy, 6 October 2007, Harlem, GAAs I mentioned in my previous post, our reason for driving out to Augusta, Georgia was to attend the nineteenth annual Oliver Hardy Festival in Harlem, Georgia. As the article in the Augusta Chronicle mentioned, we were missing an annual event in Birmingham, a Laurel and Hardy day at the MAC which took place every October. And finding ourselves in America, we decided to make pilgrimage to this annual event in Harlem, a small town in Georgia, about twenty miles from Augusta and a mere 300 or so miles from where we live in Raleigh. Oliver Hardy was born there in 1892 and this annual festival is the small town's opportunity to advertise itself to the world, with parades, stalls and entertainment.

We drove from Augusta and parked on the side of the road, about a mile out of town, when it became clear that others were doing the same thing, and the traffic going into Harlem was at a stand still. As we got closer, we met the parade coming through the town, with Laurel and Hardy impersonators at the front of it, the first set in a Model T Ford, the second set on the back of a van. There were lots of vintage cars in the parade, some local politicians and dignatories, and lots of schools, bands, cheerleaders, clowns and historical recreation types. In other words, it was a general celebration of Harlem; and the festival as a whole was the same, the streets full of people, stalls and huge amounts of food.

Since we are now pretty fond of Carolina barbecue, it was good to try Georgia barbecue, which is slightly different but still very good. It is a kind of "pulled pork" with a very tangy sauce, perhaps a touch hotter than the Carolina variety. There were multiple lemonade stands too, one in the shape of a lemon. Lemonade in America is what we would call lemon squash in England, and they drink lots of it, and it's quite nice.

We spent most of the day hanging around the Laurel and Hardy Museum. It was pretty full of people all day, but it was not so full that one could not look at the artefacts including some original Stan Laurel letters from the 1960s, shortly before his death. There were films showing all day and we watched The Chimp, The Music Box, Sons of the Desert and Busybodies. Lauren laughed so much during all of these that people occasionally turned round to stare (I think fondly).

Most memorable, though, were Laurel and Hardy impersonators Jamie McKenna and Bill Leavy. They remained in character throughout the day, walking around the town and meeting people, and they performed songs and interacted with people in the museum. The picture at the top is of the two of them with Lauren, taken by Viola. Viola also took some video footage, which have uploaded to Youtube and will link in a separate post. Here are several more photographs taken by Viola:

Mark, Emily and Lauren, Harlem, GA, 6 October 2007 Harlem, GA, Oliver Hardy's birthplace Harlem, GA, Oliver Hardy's birthplace

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Goodacres mentioned in Augusta Chronicle

You may ask what we were doing in Augusta, Georgia. Well, before I was able to give you part two of my travel diary, it seems the Augusta Chronicle was there ahead of us:

Thousands celebrate comedian
By J. Scott Trubey| Columbia County Bureau

The city of Harlem opened its arms to the world Saturday as thousands of people from across the nation and across the Atlantic gathered for the 19th annual Oliver Hardy Festival.

City officials said the crowd of about 37,000 featured guests from more than 30 states and Great Britain.

Mayor Scott Dean said the festival is a chance to showcase Harlem "globally."

The festival pays tribute to Hardy, Harlem's most famous native son, and his comic sidekick, Stan Laurel . . .

. . . . Feeling a little homesick, British transplants Mark and Viola Goodacre and their two daughters, now living in North Carolina, said they felt right at home with thousands of other Laurel and Hardy admirers. Mr. Goodacre said his family used to attend a Laurel and Hardy film festival in Birmingham.

"We were missing that, but we wanted something locally," Mr. Goodacre said. In England, the comic legends retain their popularity, and Mr. Goodacre said he fondly remembers watching their films as a child.

"It's like people keep rediscovering them as time goes on," he said.
You can read the whole article, and see several pictures, by going to the link above, though you'll have to sign up for a (free) subscription. And I'll complete my travel diary, I hope with pictures, as soon as possible.

Update (27 October): Savannah Morning News has the same story.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Travel Diary: Augusta, GA

It's fall break at Duke and we are on the road again. We are clearly becoming more Americanized, and used to the enormous distances people travel here, because driving over 300 miles to Augusta, Georgia on a Friday evening did not seem like a big deal. It took us a little over six hours, with a stop at Cracker Barrel on the way. If you get a good Cracker Barrel, it's a great experience -- good American cooking, friendly waiters and waitresses (three lots of liking our accents today) and pretty good value -- $28 to feed four of us until we were stuffed. They advertise themselves as a kind of "old country store" and the d├ęcor, which looks pretty much the same in every one you visit, is American style olde worlde, with old portraits on the wall, old baseball bats and balls, and of course some mounted fire arms. The food is all breakfast, burgers and barbecue, and I love it. Eating "biscuits", a kind of tasty savoury scone, which sounded so strange to us two years ago, is now a natural and regular event. Cracker Barrel biscuits may be the best, though Bojangles ("chicken'n'biscuit") runs them a close second.

Driving on American roads is unbelievably straightforward. On a big journey like this, you never hit a single track road (=single carriageway), so it's like being on a big motorway for hours. And even on a Friday night, our route was very easy with no traffic jams anywhere. So you just point the car in the right direction, bang it into cruise control and there's not a lot more to do except choose your BBC podcasts. We managed to clear a bit of a backlog on that front, going through several Daily Mayos, Start the Week, Thinking Allowed, Genius, Safety Catch, and a programme celebrating 25 years of Radio 1. The most poignant moment in the latter was the short feature on John Peel, still missed. Earlier today, on my way back from work, I finished listening to a wonderful, lengthy documentary celebrating 40 years of Radio 4. Nice to think that others are turning 40 this year.

We are only just in Georgia. Having driven through North Carolina and South Carolina, Augusta is right on the eastern border of the Georgia / South Carolina state line. We have a twenty minute drive tomorrow morning to get to the small town of Harlem. More on that later this weekend.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Death of the TV Title Sequence

Den of Geek counted down their Top 10 TV Title Sequences of All Time (Part Two; the winner) this week and mostly got it right, e.g. The Prisoner and Doctor Who are both in the top five, which has to be right. I like the inclusion of The Tomorrow People in the top ten too -- watching that YouTube clip still makes me tingle with a kind of anxious nostalgia.

These days, the art of the great title sequence is dying a death, especially in the USA, and it's a development I am not keen on. I think it goes back to the first season of Lost, which made do with a three-four second mood-graphic instead of a proper title sequence, and the programme is poorer for it. I find myself not wanting to give it the benefit of the doubt. And then Heroes came along last year and tried to do the same thing. If any programme needs a good, old fashioned title sequence to pull you into the excitement of the subject matter, it's Heroes, and imagine how good it could have been, with all those drawings of key characters, and clips of actions of them doing their thing. Now, this year, with several new programmes airing, they are all following Lost's lead, with no decent title sequence. Bionic Woman, Chuck, Journeyman, all of these, this week airing their first episodes, failed to capture the viewers attention with an exciting title sequence. A shame.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

New Bionic Woman

On Exploring our Matrix, James McGrath reckons that the new, reimagination of The Bionic Woman, which premiered on NBC in the USA last night, is "off to a decent start, with characters that have the potential to enchant us and draw us into their stories, and keep us glued to the TV night after night". We thought so too -- a very promising start. Jamie Sommers's reaction when she first wakes up, about half-way through the episode, was a great moment. Sommers is played by British actor Michelle Ryan who is doing a Hugh Laurie and using a very convincing (to me, at least) American accent. She was most recently seen on the short British series Jekyll, written by Doctor Who writer Stephen Moffatt. (It only took me a couple of links to get it back to Doctor Who). Ryan was excellent; I am looking forward to more. One disappointing element: they have pitched the series at an adult audience where the original was a family show. The reason that 30 and 40 somethings are tuning in to watch this new version is that they watched the original in the 1970s and 80s. It would be nice now to watch the new version with our kids, as we now do with the re-imagined Doctor Who.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Drought in North Carolina

We are in the middle of a massive drought in North Carolina at the moment. The water restrictions are getting more severe all the time, and every day when I commute to Duke, I see how much more the Falls lake has gone down. At Duke, though, all continues in blissful ignorance of all this. Water squirts everywhere for hours on end to keep the gardens green and sprightly. When I walk from Campus Drive carpark, I often see pools of water on the pathways where the sprinklers have not aimed as well as they might. I was pleased to see an editorial, therefore, in today's Duke Chronicle, encouraging the Duke community to take notice:

Save Water

Unbeknownst to most students, North Carolina is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in its history. Last month, the state had its lowest streamflows in almost 110 years. Farmers and city-dwellers alike are feeling the water crunch.

Here at Duke, however, the lawns are well-watered and a healthy shade of green.

For a university that claims to be "green" and concerned about the surrounding community, Duke and its students should make a better effort to practice conservation during this time of need . . .


Monday, 24 September 2007

Travel diary: Myrtle Beach

This weekend we have been at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. We are staying in a huge hotel on the sea front, made up of lots of privately owned but centrally rented condos. Ours is very nice and very well equipped. It's high up and has a balcony overlooking the next door hotel, which is also huge. We can just see the sea from our balcony. The hotel has several swimming pools and a "lazy river". The latter is a lot of fun; you sit on a "tube", like a blow-up beach ring, and get carried around a little circuit on a slow water flow. We all went on it last night for a while, then swam and then went into the hot jacuzzi. Today we spent the early afternoon on the beach, where the sea was pleasant, with decent waves, and the sand was hot. The weather was well into the 30s Celsius and we all got pretty hot after a while. It must get very hot down here in July and August. Coming in low season like this is ideal. And it's not too crowded at this time of year.

We've had a few minor incidents along the way. We picked up a flat tyre on the way down; we saw it as we walked out of the Mad Boar restaurant, where we'd had a nice lunch, about 30 miles from Wilmington. There was a big nail in the tyre. Triple A put the temporary tyre on for us while we went back in to the Mad Boar to have some coffee, and we got a new one fixed about 20 minutes away from Myrtle Beach.

I'm writing this in the small hours after the toilet overflowed and poured water all over the bathroom and kitchen. I managed to stop the flow before it reached the carpeted area. A lady came to mop it up for us, but the fire alarm went off in the hotel while she was doing it, about 90 minutes ago, and she never came back. Eventually, I just finished the job myself and will probably give up waiting and go to bed soon. In the mean time, I've got lots of extra work done, with the Today programme on Radio 4 in the background. We'll ask for some money off our bill for the trouble.

Viola has taken several photos, and I hope to add some when we get back later today.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Two Years in America

It was two years ago today that we left Birmingham to begin our new life in the USA. We stayed in a travelodge at Gatwick airport that night, and arrived in North Carolina; my travel diary continued with Waking up in America, finding my office and Supersize Me! I found it enjoyable reviewing those travel diaries and a lot of those first impressions have stayed with me. I still find it amazing to have the warmth of a British summer in late September. In fact, the climate here in the autumn is lovely, and I often sit outside to work. Although I can now find my way to work without trouble, I still get lost if I am on an unfamiliar journey. Groceries are, on the whole, a little cheaper than in the UK, though you have to invest a bit of time to get all the best prices. Eating out is much more common for us here than it was in the UK; it is often as much as once a week. And I still love my job.

The second year here has been much easier than the first. There were moments in the first few months when we really struggled, and we were on the verge of leaving. But the only really draining thing in the last year has been the application for the Green Card, which went off in January. That was a massive amount of work, and all a bit soul destroying, but fantastic once we had it over and done with. Viola received her work permit not long after that and now enjoys working for a computer company, from home.

I don't know how Americanized we are becoming. I can say American words now without feeling self-conscious, though asking for "water" in restaurants is still a challenge and sometimes we have to use a cod American accent. Lauren does a really convincing North Carolinian accent when she is with American kids. Our lives are a mix of Americana and British stuff. The kids watch a lot of American TV and Viola and I watch some of the big American series, but we all still watch quite a lot of British TV, and I listen mainly to British radio.

One thing we'd like to do is to explore more of America as a family. So far we have explored the mountains in North Carolina (twice) and the coast. We have driven the 620 miles to and from Orlando, Florida, and we have flown to Seattle. We have more trips planned over the coming months, and I hope to blog my travel diaries here.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Sarah Jane Adventures

Well, we might have a long time to wait before the Doctor Who Christmas special, but there's plenty to keep us going in the interim. We are enjoying series three on SciFi in the US at the moment, and last Friday we had "Blink", one of my favourite episodes ever. Meanwhile on Saturdays on BBC America we have Torchwood, the superb Doctor Who spin-off, episode 2 of which aired on Saturday. That's one we can't watch with the kids. But one we can begins next Monday, on BBC1 in the UK, the first series of Sarah Jane Adventures. It will be nice to be able to watch a character from my childhood (she was the third and fourth doctors' companion) with my own children. There's a nice new website, and the first 19 second trailer has been uploaded to Youtube:



Twenty20 Cricket Bowlout

I am finding the first ever World Twenty20 Cricket tournament enormously enjoyable, and very refreshing after the tedious seven-week Cricket World Cup earlier in the year (the one-day, 50 over a side form of the game). Twenty20 is a relatively new form of cricket, a fast-paced, fun-for-all-the-family, throw the bat spectacular. If test matches are the seven course gourmet dinner of cricket, Twenty20 is the burger and chips. And sometimes you fancy burger and chips. It's already very popular in the UK, and it's likely to become more popular internationally as a result of this World Cup, which lasts for just two weeks, finishing next Monday.

There have already been all sorts of interesting moments, but one of the oddest sights was the first ever "bowl out" last Friday in the match between India and Pakistan. It was a remarkable match, with a late surge that saw Pakistan catch up with India's total of 141, but unable to surpass it off the last couple of balls. Then, instead of awarding the sides one point each, it emerged that there would be a "bowl out" to decide the winner. This is like a penalty shoot out in football; a best of five bowling at the stumps. Although they have been used in British county cricket, this was the first time I'd ever seen one, and I watched in disbelief as all three Pakistani bowlers failed to hit the stumps. India, who hit the stumps with each of their first three balls, won the bowl out. Here it is on Youtube (after 20-30 seconds of guff):



It's difficult to know whether to be amused or baffled by the sight of international bowlers unable to hit the stumps with no batsman there. Even I can do that and I am absolutely crap at cricket.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

The End of Summer

It was easy to know when summer had ended when we lived in England. It ended when the cricket season was over, and you felt that cool September breeze and had to return to school. It's more difficult in North Carolina to work out when the end of summer comes. The schools start earlier than in the UK -- they go back at the end of August, when it is Bank Holiday Monday in England. And the weather still seems to be roasting hot even now in mid September.

But the moment when the whistle blew on our summer was at 5.50pm on Sunday evening when our neighbourhood pool closed. It's open every year from mid May to early September and it is one of the big bonuses of living here, and one of the reasons we chose this neighbourhood. Over the summer, we have made as many visits to the pool as possible. On school days, we have tried to get down there as soon as the kids are home. Last weekend, we spent as much time as we could there, and on Saturday evening we ate there and stayed until the sun had set, and we "made a memory". On Sunday evening, when the lifeguard blew her whistle for the last time this summer, everyone in and around the pool gave a jokey "boo", sighed and went home. I'm already hankering for next May.

Pavarotti at the Pearly Gates

Received this in an email this morning:

Luciano Pavarotti knocks on the Pearly Gates ...

St Peter opens them and says, 'Oh it's you Luciano, salutations, come on in - squeeze through'.

Pavarotti boomed, 'Hold on, I am carrying an envelope from the Vatican City for you, from Il Papa, the Pope.'

St Peter opens the envelope and reads it...

'HERE'S THAT TENOR I OWE YOU'


Jonny Vegas on Evangelical Christianity

I have just finished watching Jonny Vegas' Guide to Evangelical Christianity while doing housework. Like Steven Harris, I was pleasantly surprised. The programme aired on Channel 4 in the UK last night and I was expecting the usual amusing but clichéd American evangelical bashing. Instead, it was a sympathetic portrayal of the better side of evangelical Christianity in America in what was more about Vegas's personal journey than it was about anything else. At points it was quite moving, and without spoiling the ending if you have not seen it yet, I was impressed by Vegas's candour and honesty. I'd love to see him make a follow-up.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

The Adventures of Mini-Doctor

Paul Cornell's House of Awkwardness has an extensive A-Z of its author's recent travels in Japan, and many of these adventures were shared by a small plastic figure of the Doctor in The Adventures of Mini-Doctor. I found this bizarrely enjoyable. Our Lauren received one of those little plastic figures of the Doctor for her ninth birthday last year; a nice idea that he could come on our travels with us and get photographed. Tempting.

No Prisoner Remake but More Doctor Who

When asked to name my favourite TV series, I am often tempted to list the cult 60s classic The Prisoner right at the top. I first watched it in 1984, when it was shown not long after the launch of Channel 4. I even used to go along to the conventions with my brother Jonathan; and for years we had had family holidays to Portmeirion, where the series was filmed. Given the cult status of the original, I have not quite known what to make over the planned remake of The Prisoner over the last year or so. Initially, the news was that Sky One was to remake the show, partnering with AMC in the USA. But it now seems that the plan has been abandoned. A Digital Spy interview with Richard Wolfe (head of Sky One) featured the following comment:

What happened with the planned remake of The Prisoner?
"The Prisoner is not happening. It's a very quintessentially British drama and there were too many creative differences trying to share it with an American partner. I didn't want to be responsible for taking something that is quintessentially British and adapting it in a way that I didn't feel was reflective of the way people would remember it and the way people would want it to be. So we called time on that."
Although some on the web are commenting on this as breaking news, it is worth adding that Sky actually pulled out of this project some months back; the Daily Telegraph reported this in April:

Sky One Pulls Out of Prisoner Remake
Neil Midgley
It was Sky One’s biggest drama commission of 2007 – but now the channel has pulled out of an £8million remake of cult 60s TV drama The Prisoner after an acrimonious row with US cable movie channel AMC, its co-funding partner. “We love the original Prisoner series but on this occasion we have decided not to proceed with our co-production partners,” said a Sky spokesman . . . .
At that point they were still talking about the possibility of finding other funding for the project, but it does not sound like that has come to anything.

Meanwhile, there has been good news this week has been of the continued production of Doctor Who, now confirmed right through to 2010. We already knew of the fourth series next year, currently in production, but the latest official news is that there will be three specials in 2009, written by Russell T. Davies and starring the current doctor David Tennant, and a full length series in 2010. That is excellent news, even if we will be a little short in 2009. It looks like David Tennant really is set to make the role his own, and I am delighted with the news that Russell T. Davies is going to stay with the show for the time being since he is responsible for the brilliant re-invention of the series over the last few years, and he has written some fine episodes.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Labor Day

The first Monday in September is designated "Labor Day" in the USA and it is a bit like the August Bank Holiday Monday in the UK. It provides a chance for a late summer weekend away, or the last chance to get to the neighbourhood pool before it closes, or a chance to refocus for the Fall term ahead. Practically everyone celebrates it except Duke University, where life goes on as normal. I was impressed, though, with the way that the students threw themselves into the day as a normal teaching day; attendance was about the same as usual. But there is a slightly odd feel to campus in that the faculty and the students are not joined by the rest of the staff who are, quite rightly, spending the day at home or off on holiday for the weekend. So the car parks are half empty, the administrative offices are all closed and there is no post. My family and our visitors spent the day at the planetarium while I was teaching, but I am not complaining, especially after having had the luxury of being able to work at home so much this summer. And on Saturday we had a great day out at Old Salem. I hope to blog about that with a couple of pictures in due course.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Guilty Pleasures

This year is the year to turn 50, first Mark E. Smith of The Fall on 5 March, and now Stephen Fry, last week, on 24 August. I don't think I realized quite how fond I was of Stephen Fry until I watched a handful of programmes celebrating his life last week on BBC4, Stephen Fry at 50. The documentary on his life made one realize the sheer versatility of the man, as writer, actor, comedian, intellectual. Perhaps the best of the programmes was the one that actually featured Stephen Fry himself, a simple half an hour called Guilty in which Fry discussed several of his "guilty pleasures". Some of them were, to me, incomprehensible, like watching Countdown and Darts, but that was the point of the programme -- these were things that Fry saw as guilty, self-indulgences that may be incomprehensible to others. Fry was so good at enthusing about these things that by the time he had finished, you almost wondered why you had been missing these delights all these years. His first guilty pleasure, though, was one that I very much share, a love of Abba. I've loved them all my life, and have the big Abba collection to prove it, right down to the dolls, the soap and the perfume.

Most of Stephen Fry's guilty pleasures were simply an intellectual's admissions about enjoying different aspects of popular culture. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed the programme so much. Many of the academics I have met don't appear to have any guilty pleasures, and if they do, they won't admit to them, as if participation in what the masses enjoy might sully their reputation as one of the elite. Well, the more fool them. Often, they don't know what they are missing.

Monday, 27 August 2007

I miss . . . .

Bank Holiday Monday.

It's the last Monday in August, and it's always a bank holiday in England, the excuse for a nice weekend away at the seaside, or a long weekend to visit family and friends. Here in the US, the contrast is pretty stark because the last Monday in August is the first Monday of term. So my teaching begins again, and traditional year schools begin their school year, so Emily will be back to school on the same day. It's a strange feeling; no sign of the cool autumn breeze that characterizes the return to school in England. It is still roasting hot here, with daily visits to the pool, and air conditioning on all day.

I am not going to complain, though. I am missing family and friends in England, but it's great to have Viola's mum Lettie with staying with us at the moment, and after a nice long summer, one of my most profitable for writing for a long time, I am looking forward to returning to teaching again.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Busybody's Doctor Who Review

I was going to avoid coming back to Doctor Who again so soon, but Loren Rosson's excellent review of all three seasons of new Doctor Who, Doctor Who: The Complete First, Second, and Third Seasons on his Busybody blog compels me to comment. It's a fine, detailed review from someone with a good knowledge of classic Doctor Who, but who has only recently come to all three seasons of new Doctor Who. I agree with a lot of what Loren says, the celebration of just how good all three seasons are, the admiration for David Tennant, the underlining of the strength of the stories and more. We also agree about several individual episodes, notably anything written by Steven Moffatt and Paul Cornell. More of that below. We also disagree on a huge amount, though; in fact some of the things I most liked about the resurrection of the series are the things Loren dislikes, so reviewing his review is a lot of fun. If his is "an exercise in self-indulgence", it is a worthwhile and enjoyable one, all the more so because it provides the invitation for similar self-indulgence for me.

I should contextualize my own comments by noting that Loren is probably much more to be trusted than I am. John Peel used to say about his favourite band The Fall that "their very presence on stage" was such a thrill to him that he was unable to make critical comments about given performances, or to compare one gig with another. I am a bit like that with the new Doctor Who. I spent the whole of the first series (2005), which we watched in our home in South Birmingham every Saturday night, thinking that I must have died and gone to TV heaven; I just couldn't believe how good it was. A more intense emotional reaction came with Series 2 (2006); we were now in the USA, and watching it week by week on Saturday nights was a strong link with England, which we were missing. By the time Series 3 came round this year, it was already an institution in our house, and then we had the additional thrill of watching Episodes 12 and 13 back in England. So I have watched the three seasons spread out over three years, with waits between each episode, which changes one's appreciation of it. Loren has watched them back to back, without the context or the waits, and I think that leads to a different kind of perspective.

Let's begin with where I agree with Loren. Several of his highest rated episodes are definitely some of the best. Paul Cornell has written three episodes, all brilliant -- "Father's Day" in Season 1, and a two-parter, "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood", in Season 3 (see previous comments on). All of those are five star episodes. Likewise Steven Moffatt's episodes -- these are all superb, with "Blink" in Season 3 one of my favourite episodes ever. I will be delighted if the rumours about Steven Moffatt taking over Doctor Who after Russell T. Davies leaves turn out to be correct.

I disagree with Loren on the Christopher Eccleston, the ninth doctor. I thought he was brilliant -- tragic, lonely, funny, quirky and yet a very twenty-first century doctor. We were very disappointed when it emerged early in his season that he was going to go at the end of that season, even if it gave one the thrill of looking forward to a regeneration, something we did not get at the beginning of that season, from Paul McGann to Christopher Eccleston. One of the things I liked about the Eccleston Doctor was the humour, born from an unlikely optimism that helped him to cope with the tragedy of his lost planet and people. So one is fascinated by his struggle to cope in episodes like "Dalek", but one loves his one-liners throughout the series. "Lots of planets have a north" is a fantastic joke. I suspect that Loren does not enjoy the humour of the first season very much. I loved "Boom Town", for example, a light-hearted episode with lots of jokes, but Loren gives it only 1 Tardis groan, and suggests that it is "an uneventful melodrama that serves no purpose other than to push an anti-capital punishment agenda". I don't agree, and there may be a cultural difference here. In the UK, there is consensus on capital punishment -- it was ended years ago and will never come back (I hope!); as a political issue it is simply not on the agenda in the way that it is in the US; I doubt that Russell T. Davies was trying to push any agenda here, and it certainly did not read that way to me. I thought "Boom Town" was a delightful episode, not the best but funny and clever and poignant. If there is anything wrong with it, it is the typical Russell T. Davies deus ex machina ending, though by now we have got used to that.

A related issue is that Loren does not like Rose's back story, and the more involvement he sees from Mickey and Jacky, the less he seems to like the episode. I don't feel the same way at all. One of the things I like about the resurrection of Doctor Who since 2005 is that it asks all those questions that we were asking ourselves in classic Doctor Who like "What happened to the people who were left behind?" So the Doctor does not simply find Rose in the first episode, and drop her off back on earth two years later, at the end of the second season. Rather, there are agonizing questions about the boyfriend and the Mum who get left behind, and the viewers' interaction with them helps us to understand Rose better too. And I think that adds greatly to the quality of the new Doctor Who. It's more than just science fiction. It's life in all its complexity. That's why we laugh and cry much more with Russell T. Davies in charge than we have ever done in the past.

In fact, the thing that emerges from Loren's review is that he does not actually Russell T. Davies's writing very much. He gives "Love and Monsters", the season 2 "doctor lite" episode, one Tardis groan, which surprises me. I loved that episode, especially first time round. There was something delightfully endearing about a story surrounding a group of geeks meeting together in London on a regular basis, forming friendships and somehow getting involved in a Doctor Who adventure without realizing it. It was the second time that there was some homage to Doctor Who fandom in new Doctor Who (the first being the character in "Rose"), and I think it's played beautifully. I also liked the ongoing relationship in this episode between Doctor Who and Blue Peter -- the monster played by Peter Kay was the winner of a Blue Peter competition. And Peter Kay wasn't wasted in this episode.

Similarly, I think "The Runaway Bride" rates much better than a 1. I wonder whether there are a couple of necessary components for full enjoyment here. First, you need the Christmas Day, 7pm context. This episode is loud, with dramatic special effects (the Tardis on the motorway one of the most enjoyable effects-scenes ever), an orchestral score and lots of brash dialogue. It is clearly trying to shout across the room at the viewers as they eat their turkey sandwiches and worry about whether or not they should be helping out their mum in the kitchen (or is that just me?). And I think one enjoys this episode much more if one knows and loves Catherine Tate, almost as big a comedy figure in England as the previously mentioned Peter Kay. There were little allusions to some of her comedy characters in the episode and I'd recommend a crash course in Catherine Tate for all before they watch this episode, all the more so now given the excellent news that she is coming on board for the whole of the fourth season.

Just time for a couple more disagreements before I finish. I loved "Idiot's Lantern" in Season 2, which Loren also dislikes, commenting that "there's no feeling of period at all, and it could have easily taken place in the present". Nonsense! The evocation of early 1950s Britain was brilliant, and Maureen Lipman's increasingly menacing BBCTV presenter was spot on. This was a fine episode. And a couple of episodes that Loren liked much more than me were The Impossible Planet / Satan Pit. These reminded me too much of classic Who, with lots of tramping around space stations and quarries. Better than virtually all of those, to be sure, but not better than other stories in new Doctor Who.

And it looks like Doug Chaplin, over on Metacatholic shares some of the same views as me. Perhaps it's a British thing?

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Onion Wikipedia Article

Over on the NT Gateway Weblog, I often discuss engaging critically with Wikipedia (over against those academics who would rather turn their backs on it). I particularly enjoyed this piece from The Onion with thanks to Brandon Wason:

Hard To Tell If Wikipedia Entry On Dada Has Been Vandalized Or Not

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—The Wikipedia entry on Dada—the World War I–era "anti-art" movement characterized by random nonsense words, bizarre photocollage, and the repurposing of pre-existing material to strange and disturbing effect—may or may not have been severely vandalized, sources said Monday.

"This is either totally messed up or completely accurate," said Reed College art history major Ted Brendon . . .


Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The anti-climax of one-day internationals

I was delighted with England's victory today in the first one day international against India. This is a pretty rare thing these days in English cricket. Our one day form has been abysmal. But the delight at seeing such an emphatic win, with centuries from both Cook and Bell, doesn't help to lift that general feeling of anti-climax that hangs around yet another lengthy series of one day internationals, this time bolted on to the end of the British summer. Like most English cricket fans, I like test matches (the old-fashioned five-day form of the game). In the old days, the test matches would start later in the summer (June) and would continue to the end of August. The last test match at the Oval meant that summer was almost over and it was time to go back to school. But now the test matches finish in mid August and we have a whole bunch of one day internationals from now until early September. When a one day series precedes a test series, the one days whet your appetite and help you to look forward to the real action. When they come afterwards, they just feel like afterthoughts.

Several things made the beginning of this series of seven one day-ers feel even more like a damp squib. England's one day side is quite different from the test side, different captain, some different personnel, and it makes it feel less like a continuation of the summer than it would if it were the same side, as it used to be years ago. It was in Southampton, too, and not at a test ground, and under lights. I don't know that floodlit cricket really works in England. I once went to a floodlit match at Edgbaston, Birmingham, England v. Pakistan, the night of the 2001 general election, and the atmosphere feels odd, not least because it is rarely hot enough in England to make one enjoy sitting outside all evening.

Still, if England keep performing like they did today, I might manage to be less grumpy about that anti-climactic feeling that the cricket season is hastening too quickly to an end.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Pepsi Max comes to America

When we lived in the UK, we were fans of Pepsi Max. Since Viola and I were often on diets, it was a good idea to find a soft drink that we really liked. And we really liked Pepsi Max. It was marketed in the UK, where it appeared in the early 90s, especially at men. It avoided the "diet" tag, which apparently put off men, and went with the slogan "maximum taste, no sugar". When we arrived in the USA, we were surprised to see absolutely no sign of it. Every other coca cola under the sun, but no Pepsi Max. And then recently, when we were in Seattle, we saw a product called "Diet Pepsi Max" on the shelves. We concluded that it must be a North Carolinian oddity to be a Pepsi Max free area. But then two or three weeks ago, it appeared in our local Kroger, and at only $1 (50p!) a two litre bottle. We stocked up, and it's been great to be drinking it again.

My curiosity was piqued. America, the home of cola, took fourteen years to catch up with the UK here. How could this be? Well, according to Wikipedia's article on the topic (and who is to say that that is not right?), there is a reasonable explanation:

The product remained unavailable in the United States until only recently (The U.S is PepsiCo's native market, and the largest consumer of carbonated soft drinks), where one of its principal ingredients had not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The ingredient in question—acesulfame potassium—is combined with aspartame to provide the beverage's sweetness. Some people claim that this results in a better taste than that of other diet colas (most of which are sweetened with aspartame alone).
Unfortunately, there is a downside. I had never realized that Pepsi Max is much heavier on caffeine than are traditional cokes. Energy Fiend has the breakdown and notes that "a 12 ounce can of Diet Pepsi Max contains 69 milligrams of caffeine" in comparison with regular Diet Pepsi, which has 36mg per 12oz can.

So we are enjoying our Pepsi Max again, after two years without it, but avoiding the caffeine overdose by drinking plenty of other new favourites like American diet lemonade (a kind of lemon squash) and diet root beer (not drunk at all by Brits, an acquired taste, but very pleasant once you are used to it). And lots of green tea.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Classic Doctor Who in 5 minutes

A correspondent suggested to me yesterday that the primary reason I had set up this blog was to have the chance to go on about Doctor Who as much as I want. This reminds me that it is almost two weeks since I last blogged about it, and I have a nice Youtube clip to share (hat tip: SF Gospel and Paul Cornell's House of Awkwardness). It is a five minute condensation of every single Doctor Who story, from 1963 to 1996 (so called "classic Doctor Who"):



Lots of fun. One thing that struck me was just how many dalek stories there have been across the years.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Bush's new threat

Excellent piece of footage on Youtube from myeverything.com:

Search for Good American Fair Trade Coffee


When we were living in the UK, I liked to buy Fair Trade whenever possible. Here in North Carolina, at least in our corner of it, Fair Trade has made little impact in the shops. But I was delighted recently to discover Yuban Dark Roast. It announces itself as "the world's largest supporter of Rainforest Alliance Certified™ coffee beans" and it tastes fantastic. At $4.65 a tin, it is a bit more expensive than the cheapo varieties in our local Kroger, but much cheaper than the supposed "gourmet" varieties. I am drinking a cup of the dark roast as I write.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Oxford theologians in the news

It's not often that things go so badly for Oxford theologians that they find themselves in the national newspapers. My ears tend to prick up when I hear news about Theology in Oxford because it's where I did all my study. Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill's blog links to these two stories. The first, in Saturday's Guardian is about Wycliffe Hall:

Oxford gives warning to theological college
· University steps in to protect liberal values
· Allegations of misogyny and homophobia

Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent

. . . Complaints at Wycliffe, traditionally of broad evangelical principles for would-be ordinands in the Church of England, have centred around the management style and views of its new principal, Dr Richard Turnbull, who was criticised in a letter to the hall's governing council by his three immediate predecessors, although he has been supported by some current students. Dr Turnbull admits he has appointed a deputy who opposes women's ordination or leadership, but he rejects allegations of homophobia which surfaced in an anonymous internal document . . . .
I didn't often find myself at Wycliffe Hall when I was in Oxford, though I cycled past it every day, but I had dinner there once, I think I also went to a couple of lectures there, and I knew several of the students through different channels. I am sorry to hear of the recent problems.

The second, in today's Times concerns St Peter's College:

Anger after college chaplain sacked
Patrick Foster
An Oxford college founded by a former bishop on Christian principles is to be investigated after making its chaplain redundant as part of a cost-cutting drive . . . .


Friday, 10 August 2007

Speaking as a feminist myself . . . .

You Are 94% Feminist

You are a total feminist. This doesn't mean you're a man hater (in fact, you may be a man).
You just think that men and women should be treated equally. It's a simple idea but somehow complicated for the world to put into action.


Thursday, 9 August 2007

Scorchio!

It's been over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the last few days here in Raleigh, NC. Today there were highs of 103F, which is 39C. This kind of heat takes a bit of getting used to for a Brit. We are used to getting outside, with our shorts on, as soon as there is any sign of sunshine. But a nice summer's day in England is in the late 20sC, 30 if you are lucky. It's pretty rare to get the kind of high temperatures that appear to be the norm here in the summer. So it still feels a bit odd to me to be trying to stay indoors in the summer, but that's what you have to do. Like all Americans around here, we have air conditioning in the house, and we have it whirring away a lot of the time. When you step outside the front door at night, there are the intermingled sounds of everyone's air conditioning whirring away and the crickets and the tree frogs almost as loud. Goodness only knows what kind of impact all this air conditioning has on the environment. Our electricity bill in the summer is a lot higher than it is in the winter.

It feels odd to me not to be able to pop the window open and get a nice through breeze in the house. In our house in Birmingham, we'd just pop the patio doors open if it was a bit warm, or open the back door and a couple of windows. Here, that just makes the place hotter. And our cats are annoyed at the moment because they don't get to sit in the window and watch the world go by. I have stopped trying to sit outside on the decking for the time being at any point in the day because it's too hot. I am now getting used to the phenomenon of being able to sit outside in December, but staying inside in August.

When we were back in England in June, we saw a lot of the flooding that has devastated some areas. And then we got back here and everywhere was dry; our lawn was brown. We have water restrictions here so that we are only allowed to water the lawn on certain days.

There is still something quite exciting and different about being in such a warm climate. And the storms, when they come, are very dramatic and exciting. The thunder storms are like the kind you get in films. We once got caught in a very dramatic one when we were driving back from Durham. We could hardly see two feet in front of us because the rain was so heavy.

One of the major pluses of this kind of climate, though, is that lots of the neighbourhoods around here have their own pool. Ours is great, and only a short walk from our house. It's open from May to September and is "residents only". We try to get down there every day if we can. Some really posh people, including one or two of my colleagues, and some of the kids' friends, have their own pool in their back garden, but that doesn't appeal to me much -- it seems rather a lonely and isolated thing to swim on your own in your own pool with just the lizards and flies for company. But it was interesting that at our pool today, there were only a handful of people, perhaps because the heat was so intense. After the sun had been beating down on it all day, it was like jumping into a hot bath. And the slabs around the pool were very hot underfoot.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

An American Life on Mars?

One of the best British TV series of recent times has been Life on Mars. Viola and I are just finishing the first series on DVD, and looking forward to the second. Digital Spy reports that David Kelley is planning an American version, but that the British stars of the series, John Simm and Philip Glenister, have turned down roles:

. . . . Simm, who played DI Sam Tyler in the cop drama isn't interested, saying: "They wanted us to have US accents. But I don’t know why they have to remake everything.

"Anyway, they have already got their own version of our show — Starsky & Hutch.”
It is interesting to see American attempts at remaking great British TV series. The American Office, in particular, has been a triumph, but there have been many more failures. Part of the difficulty, I think, is that not every series lends itself to the American 20+ episodes a year intensive treatment.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Those Star Trek Red Shirt Casualties

One of Eddie Izzard's many hilarious routines focused on the poor "Stevens" in a red shirt, going down to the planet with Kirk, McCoy and Spock. It was, of course, inevitable that the said Stevens would be the one not to return to the Enterprise. Here he is on YouTube, doing his stuff about Star Trek (Stevens in the red jumper at about 4'50"):



Well, one sometimes wonders if the memory distorts these things. Were there really more red shirt casualties on Star Trek than there were mustard shirt and blue shirt casualties? On Locusts and Honey, Red Shirt Casualty Statistics, John links to a great analysis of this question:

Analytics According to Captain Kirk
By Matt Bailey

. . . We need to segment the overall mortality (conversion) rate in order to gain the specific information that we need:

* Yellow-shirt crewperson deaths: 6 (10%)
* Blue-Shirt crewperson deaths: 5 (8 %)
* Engineering smock crewperson deaths: 4
* Red-Shirt crewperson deaths: 43 (73%)

So, the basic segmentation of factors allows us to confirm that red-shirted crewmembers died more than any other crewmembers on the original Star Trek series.

However, that's only just simple stats reporting - ready for some analysis?
There's lots of it -- and some great tips for avoiding death if you ever find yourself stuck in an episode of Star Trek wearing a red shirt.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Do you have Asperger's Syndrome?

On The Busybody, Loren Rosson points to a test which asks What's Your AQ?. You can take the test and find the answer. I find that I come out with a pretty low score of 13, a long way below the requisite 32-50 that might indicate Asbergers; indeed I appear to score much lower than the average male or female computer scientist (21), and a bit lower than the average man (18) and the average woman (15).

Viola's Work Permit

Several readers of Viola's excellent Americanization of Emily have been reading my new personal blog here, and one of the frequently asked questions is "What has happened to Viola's blog?" Lots of people, including me, have been missing the once regular posts. I can't, of course, answer for Viola except to share the good news that she recently received her work permit, after almost two years of life in North Carolina, and that means that she is now working hard and receiving an income. We petitioned for the work permit as part of our green card application. We don't know yet how long it will be before we receive the green card, but one benefit of the application process is that a spouse is able to petition for a work permit as an element within the application. The work she is doing is some sort of complicated computer stuff. It's great to be a two income family for the first time. But my guess is that there won't be many Americanization of Emily posts for the time being.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Just how good is the new Doctor Who?

Warning: Post contains some minor plot and casting spoilers

According to Loren Rosson on The Busybody, the New Doctor Who is as good as it gets. James McGrath on Exploring our Matrix is enjoying it too. For those unfamiliar with the show, here's a quick summary from an earlier post of mine on the NT Gateway blog:

American readers will be less familiar with Doctor Who than British readers. Very briefly, it is the longest running science fiction TV series of all time, from 1964 to the present; it is produced by the BBC and is about a time-travelling alien from the planet Gallifrey called The Doctor. He travels in a blue 1960s police box called the TARDIS and has a companion, usually female. He is able to change his appearance when he regenerates, and has done this nine times. The series was cancelled by the BBC in 1989; it re-emerged briefly in 1996 for a TVM; it returned triumphantly in 2005 when it had been transformed almost out of recognition from what we were brought up with, under Russell T. Davies. The current series is the third of these new Doctor Whos, with David Tennant playing the tenth doctor.
I was a big fan of Doctor Who as a kid. Jon Pertwee, the third doctor, was "my doctor" and they say that everyone thinks of their first doctor as the doctor. I spent much more time, though, watching the fourth and most famous Doctor, Tom Baker (1974-81), though, and this tends to be the doctor to those Americans who have heard of Doctor Who, apparently because the show was often on PBS at the time. When the Doctor appears briefly in The Simpsons, its Tom Baker's doctor we see.

Doctor Who was something of a Saturday night institution in the UK. I remember sitting down for Saturday night telly, the best of the week; the Midlands sports news used to go on for an age and then, finally, we would get Basil Brush, and then Doctor Who; the cliffhangers used to make you ache for the next week's episode. As I got into adolescence, and as Doctor Who moved from Saturdays to Monday and Tuesday nights, and as Peter Davison took over from Tom Baker, my interest began to drop off, though I kept going with it for most of the time, out of loyalty as much as anything else. I never liked the sixth doctor, Colin Baker, I am afraid, and I was at university by this time and although Doctor Who was back on Saturday nights, I often missed it. I do remember thinking, all the same, how good "Trial of a Time Lord" was when I caught it. I began to tap back into the show again with the seventh doctor, Sylvester McCoy, partly because a new friend called Matthew, a close friend to this day, was something of a Doctor Who geek, who built Daleks, made animated films and so on. By the time it was cancelled, in 1989, I was pretty disappointed to see it go.

The Doctor Who that came back in 2005 was a complete re-imagining of the original, loyal to the show's mythology, in continuity with its story and charm, but brought right into the twenty-first century, with decent budgets, good special effects, great scripts, fine acting, and lots more emotion. I used to say after every episode of the first series of the new Doctor Who, "I think I've died and gone to TV heaven!" Much of the success was due to the appointment of Russell T. Davies as the head script writer, one of the finest TV writers around today. It's alleged that he said to the BBC, over a period of years, that the only think that would lure him to the BBC would be the return of Doctor Who. And that's one of the keys to the success of the re-imagining -- it is done by Doctor Who fans. Paul Cornell, the writer of three of the best episodes of new Doctor Who, "Father's Day" in Season 1 and "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood" in Season 3, graduated from writing fan fiction, to writing Doctor Who novels, and eventually to the new series. Similarly, Steven Moffatt, writer of perhaps the best episode ever, "Blink", in Season 3, as well as earlier gems like "Girl in the Fireplace" in Season 2, was also a Doctor Who fan in his youth, and was responsible for the superb Comic Relief special in 1999, featuring a range of actors playing the Doctor, Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Grant, Joanna Lumley, Richard E. Grant and Jim Broadbent. In the most recent series of Doctor Who Confidential, David Tennant directed an episode that was a celebration of how fans of the show had become its producers, writers and actors, and it included a trip around the old BBC studios where it was filmed.

Unlike Loren, I very much like the way that the new stories, in Seasons 1 and 2, are grounded in a run down estate in present day London, with Rose's Mum Jacky and boyfriend Micky as recurring characters. But if anything, I enjoyed watching the doctor's new companion for the third season, Martha Jones, even more than Rose, though my kids disagree. I enjoyed every minute of this third season. It finished recently in the UK and we were delighted to be in the UK to watch the last two episodes "live", as it were. As soon as it finished in the UK, it began airing in the US, and we are watching them all again each week. Currently, we are on episode 5. The second half of the season, though, is much stronger than the first half. The two dalek episodes (4 and 5, "Daleks in Manhattan" and "Evolotion of the Daleks") were perfectly fine, but easily the weakest in the season. Episode 7, "42", was also not one of my favourites -- I am never a big fan of too much tramping around a space station. But the second half of the season was sublime, all the more so given the casting -- Jessica Hynes, Derek Jacobi, John Simm -- and some great stories.

Just how good is Doctor Who at the moment? It is difficult to imagine how it could get any better, and a huge part of that is down to David Tennant, who is now my favourite doctor by a country mile, and it seems that the majority agree (recent poll). His acting abilities in the role are taken to new heights in "Human Nature" / "Family of Blood". Rumours abound now that he is leaving in the fourth season, but a report that his replacement will be James Nesbitt has been categorically denied by Steven Moffatt, who is tipped to take over from Russell T. Davies as the executive producer / story editor. That would be a fantastic move, and he would be the ideal new head honcho. There is talk that the recent BBC1 series Jekyll, written by Moffatt and starring Nesbitt, is something of a preparation for Moffatt to take on Doctor Who Season 5. We have watched the first episode of Jekyll and are looking forward to the rest. It starts on BBC America tomorrow, good news for us since it is usually a six month wait before things arrive there. And speaking of BBC America, the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood is now scheduled to begin on September 8. Very well worth watching -- we loved it -- and will certainly be watching again now it's arrived here.

I've been gushing about Doctor Who for long enough for the time being. But it won't be the last time. The new Doctor Who has successfully turned me from a part time fan into a proper nerd who buys the magazine, downloads the podcasts (Doctor Who Podshock) and would even buy the t-shirt.

If you haven't watched the new Doctor Who yet, you are much more likely to be one of my American readers than one of my British ones. If that's the case, you can dip into the first season (2005) on PBS channels all over the country at the moment. The second season (2006) has reached the BBC America stage. The third season (2007) is currently showing on SciFi Channel. Or just buy the DVDs. For those of us who are up to date, it's a case of waiting for Christmas Day, and the Doctor and Kylie aboard the Titanic, which should be a lot of fun.

Update (13.49): I have adjusted the text above to alter my comments on The Sun's speculation about James Nesbitt as the new doctor, which has been categorically denied by Steven Moffatt himself over on a forum at Outpost Gallifrey today:
"The James Nesbitt story is a total fabrication. Made up. A fantasy. Just a guy sitting at a desk and just inventing stuff.

I wasn't going to say anything, but I'm getting embarrassed for the deeply wonderful Jimmy Nesbitt. So tell everyone please, cos it's getting very silly."
Of course what this refutation shows is that Moffatt is in a position to be able to deny the story, which suggests that there is some truth to the rumour that he is to take over from Russell T. Davies after Series 4.