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:


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 . . .