Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Radio, Radio

The payment extracted for sipping wine in a handsome function room in an ancient Oxford college is typically attendance at a lecture. Usually it's a small price to pay. Sometimes the cost is steep, indeed. But occasionally it's a pleasure, as it was last night, when I attended something called the Philip Geddes Memorial Lecture.

The topic was "Radio: Medium of the Moment" and the presenter was a journalist named Martha Kearney. She started out in radio news in London, moved to television and, since April, has been back in radio, as host of BBC Radio 4's daily current affairs program "The World at One."

Many colleagues, Kearney said, were baffled that she left television for radio. In the hierarchy that all journalists mentally calculate, radio is inferior to TV. But, she argued, radio can touch listeners in ways no other medium can and is, in these challenging digital-broadband-podcast-user-generated-content times, showing amazing stamina. (Of course, you couldn't really expect her to say otherwise. I can't imagine her delivering a lecture entitled "Radio: It Was Nice While It Lasted" or "Radio: Can I Have My Old TV Job Back, Please?")

While television news audiences have fallen, radio listenership, especially among the young, has risen--this 40 years after the birth of "modern" radio in Britain. The explosion of delivery mechanisms almost demands a change in terminology. "Radio" is a multipurpose word that means both the machine that one switches on and the program that comes out of the speaker. Those programs--that "content"--will be delivered in increasingly diverse ways, from downloadable .mp3 files to programs sent to mobile phones.

Regardless of how it tickles your cochlea, Kearney said radio will possess the same vital qualities, that of being "personal, portable and universal." Radio, she said, "is the most personal medium of all, a voice in your ear that follows you around."

Socialized Media
After Kearney's lecture, Tim Gardam, himself a former television executive, asked a question: How fertile was the ground for commercial radio stations? Could they flourish in an environment where so many resources were lavished on the BBC? Kearney acknowledged the dilemma but hoped commercial radio could survive, possibly by taking advantage of the cost savings that come from harnessing new digital technology.

The exchange made me ponder the irony of the BBC: It wants to be--it has to be--successful, but it can't be too successful. It needs a viable commercial media the same way a company like Microsoft needs to be able to point at Apple and say: "See, we don't really have a monopoly."

As an Anglophile raised on PBS and "Masterpiece Theatre" I've always thought of the BBC as a Good Thing. And I'm sure it is. But I can see how--regardless of one's thoughts on its political bent--the BBC could be seen as a force that disrupts the intricate workings of The Market. Not that I understand those workings or even believe that they are intricate.

Wookey Nookie
As I mentioned Monday, we spent the latter part of last week driving around the West Country. Because driving around certain villages--their roads a warren of one-way streets and diabolical roundabouts--can be maddening, we often saw the same signs again and again. That was the case in the Somerset town of Wells, where between trying to find an ATM and looking for Wells Cathedral, we drove down the same stretch of asphalt a dozen times. We kept passing the sign for a village called Wookey Hole and laughing at the name.

Then in today's Guardian I read that a hotelier in Wookey Hole is planning to host Britain's first ever Erotic Film Festival there next summer. I don't think I will ever be able to think of Wookey Hole the same way again.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Halloween U.K.

pumpkin
It's the day before Halloween and we're wondering what will happen tomorrow, exactly. You see, October 31st in the U.K seems to be a totally different beast from October 31st in the U.S. And why shouldn't it be? They're different countries, after all. But the lead-up to Halloween in England has a menacing undertone: It's expected that the hooliganism that percolates just below the surface here will boil over.

Take the front page of today's Oxford Mail:


There's nothing sadder than an old lady cowering behind her door. The story says that police are gearing up for vandalism and are especially concerned about the elderly. The police have a "No Halloween Here" poster they make available for citizens who don't want their houses approached. Stores are urged not to sell eggs and flour to anyone under 18, lest they be employed in nasty hijinks.

All of this can be bewildering for Americans such as myself and Sarah Churchwell. She's a senior lecturer in American culture and literature at the University of East Anglia and author of an essay in yesterday's Guardian about Britain's bastardized Halloween. I'll forgive her gratuitous slap at my hometown ("Halloween is not scary, unless they reside in the inner city of Washington, in which case every night is scary") for I think she's on to something:
"There is a great deal of resentment toward 'American cultural imports', the myriad ways in which we are contaminating your demi-paradise with our corrupt practices. I hate to break it to you, but in the case of Halloween, you are the ones bastardising our culture. If your version is a violent, threatening and ugly spree across the month of October, don't blame America, blame yourselves."
As always, the comments after her essay online are the most entertaining. There's the America-bashing that is to be expected at the Guardian's Comment Is Free section, but the comments also provide a cultural/anthropological recap of various All Hallow's Eve practices across the British isles, from carving lanterns out of root vegetables to reciting poetry.

There's another article in the Guardian, by Sue Blackmore, extolling Halloween's virtues:
"Halloween is a time to get scared; to conjure up the most frightening ideas you can, of ghosties and ghoulies, and things that jump out in the dark; of spiders and skeletons and creatures that lurk under the bed. Or you can go out on a dark October night and dare to go up to some stranger's front door, looking more cool than your friends, and being the first to ring the door bell - or whatever level of scariness suits your age."
It's not only the English who are struggling to figure out what Halloween should be. In the States it's no longer a holiday just for children. Adults horn in on the action and their horny mindset (throw away your inhibitions on Oct. 31) have crept into the kids' holiday. There's a story on the front page of The Washington Post today about the pornified costumes that are being pitched to children this year, outfits such as micro mini skirts, belly-exposing shirts and fishnet tights.

I agree that Halloween has probably gotten too commercialized (last time I checked, everything had gotten too commercialized), but I think it might be particularly ill-suited to the thug culture that enthralls many (not all, not most) young Britons.

So, what will happen tomorrow? I don't know, but we won't be putting up a "No trick or treat sign" and our jack o'lanterns will be out and lit. I'll let you know if they survive the night.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Go West Young Man

I've never had much of a problem driving in the U.K. Oh sure, there's been the occasional near head-on collision, but the thing to remember is, they've been near head-on collisions. No harm, no foul, I say.

We rented a car for last week's jaunt to the West Country and driving was almost second nature. I credit the two months I've spent riding a bike on the "wrong" side of the road. It makes roundabouts and slip roads a piece of cake. And My Lovely Wife is a wonderful navigatrix. She always knew where we were, even when we were lost.

But being able to drive on the left is not the same as being able to painlessly get to our desired destinations. I probably wasted $50 in gas from overshooting our turnoff and having to drive for miles on narrow, twisty, hedgerow-crowded lanes before finding a place where I could turn around. Still, I never panicked, even when I encountered another car coming in the opposite direction on a road barely big enough for one vehicle, let alone two. (I was quite proud that when I returned the rental car this morning there was a bit of Cornwall hedge stuck in the passenger-side rear-view mirror. I wouldn't have been surprised to find a hedgehog in the wheel well.)

Where did we go? Well our first stop was a little town called Bradford on Avon and we stopped there for one reason only: I wanted to ask how many tourists show up hoping to see William Shakespeare's birthplace.

"About two or three a year," said the head of the tourist information office.

"Or they ask what's on at the theater," said a volunteer in the office, Joan Reeve. Joan told me they're happy to pass on directions to Stratford-upon-Avon, which is about 100 miles away and on a totally different River Avon. ("Avon" is a Saxon word that means "river." There are three River Avons--or "River Rivers"--in England.)

My curiousity sated, we drove on to a little village called Dinder, where we stayed two nights in a bed-and-breakfast called Middle Farm:


It was lovely, run by a retired school teacher and his artist wife. The house was filled with art. I was struck by this photo over the toilet:




It's of an Aboriginal Madonna and child from a cathedral in Darwin, Australia. The Christ child kept reminding me of someone. Take another look:



Tell me he doesn't look like Richard Nixon.

We took a day trip to Bath, where we toured the Roman spa and swam in waters fed from the very springs the ancients did. It was a place called the Thermae Bath Spa, open for just a year. There are four levels to the spa, several scented steam rooms (not as gross as that sounds), massage and mud-wrapping rooms, and two pools, including a rooftop pool that's open to the elements. It was wonderful. You emerge from the elevator shivering in your bathing suit then plunge into the steamy pool and float blissfully, your skin pruning up. All around you are various Georgian buildings, church spires and the like--what my youngest daughter called "random historical crap." She meant that in a good way.

We had lunch in the posh Pump Room restaurant where a uniformed waiter stood behind a sign that read: "Why not try the famous spa water? 50p a glass."

Why not? Allow My Lovely Wife to answer that:


Frankly, the spa waters are better for swimming in than drinking.

The next day we hiked Glastonbury Tor (see Friday's post) and headed further west, to Tintagel, King Arthur country. Ruth and I had been there before, on our honeymoon 20 years ago. It's a striking, windswept place, craggy cliffs that reach out the sea. Was King Arthur born there? Probably not, but it's fun to think so. And the town of Tintagel has certainly capitalized on its association with the King of the Britons. Every other souvenir and tea shop is "King Arthur This" or "Merlin That." Twenty years ago I took a photo of a trash can full of plastic "Excaliburs" for sale outside a tacky shop. I think the swords were selling for 60 pence. It didn't take me long to find the shop again:


The price of everything has gone up.

Royal Treatment
The price of blackmail, for example. Imagine my surprise at yesterday's Sunday Times story on a member of the royal family targeted in a 50,000-pound sex and drugs blackmail plot. Unseemly. (But not unprecedented. Here's a history of royal blackmail.)

The papers today assure us that it is not a "senior royal" who is involved. They don't explain what that means. Does it mean it's not an elderly royal? Or not one of the ones we all would recognize--even Americans? Is there a list somewhere of who's senior and who's junior? Is there a lesser crested royal?

I can't wait to learn the juicy details. And I won't feel guilty. In his book "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics," British journalist and gadfly John Lloyd has this to say about coverage of the royal family:
“Their private life has to be an issue issue of public concern because one of the fruits of royalty’s loins will become the British head of state. And thus the royal loins are a legitimate area of interest.”
A slab of royal loin will be served soon, I'm sure.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Greetings from Glastonbury



I'm sitting in the parking lot of of Glastonbury Abbey in southwest England. We've just come down from Glastonbury Tor, a huge hill topped by a 15th century monastery (above). The monks are long gone, of course, but it's a two-pound bus ride from town to the base of the hill, and then a strenuous climb to the summit. The sun was burning off the clouds as we arrived and below was the English countryside, pastures cross-crossed with hedgerows.

We were without Internet yesterday, while staying in the tiny village of Dinder, a collection of stone houses outside of Wells. We were at a B&B called Middle Farm. It turned out the owners, Francis and Liz, used to live in Oxford, on the same street we now live on. Small country; small world.

Have I mentioned we have the dog with us? Charlie's cramped our style a bit but it's broadened his mind. He'd never ridden on a bus before. Or seen a cow. Or climbed a tor and entered a 15th-century monastery. I think it had a profound effect on him. Here he is surveying the landscape below and contemplating his own mortality. Or he could just looking for a place to poop:

We have thousands of years of British history to learn about today, and what is my family doing? They're off shopping. Between the supposedly New Age powers of the tor and the rock festival that's held here every year, Glastonbury has a collection of funky shops that they couldn't resist. Ah, here they come now.

We're off to Tintagel, supposed home of King Arthur. Charlie is dying to see it.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Reader Mail

Why should I do all the work? Today I'm culling some of my favorite comments left by readers of this blog. You are a thoughtful and intelligent group. And so good-looking!

In my column about the inquest into the suspicious death of an English judge named Andrew Chubb--who was burned to death in his shed, ostensibly while fueling his lawnmower-- Richard noted:
"The big tragedy for an Englishman is that he died with the lawn unmown."
After reading my post about the traditions of dining at an Oxford college, Paul wrote:
"You think college dinners are odd, try the British military (Google 'Mess Rugby' and 'Mess Cannon), or the livery companies (Google 'livery dinner' and 'loving cup')!"
I did. An item on military dinners had this to say about Mess rugby: "Officers may indulge in such games as 'Mess Rugby' in which a cushion is used instead of a rugby ball. It is not unknown for these activities to result in torn shirts, bruises, or, very occasionally, broken bones. Nonetheless, the basic rules are that there should be no damage done to property or injury caused to people."

Oh, that's okay then.

My item about job cuts at the BBC prompted this reaction from
Mark from Alexandria:
"As much as I would like to sympathize with the BBC's problems,there are two words that stop me. Well, an abbreviation and a word: BBC America. They started out by, apparently, finding every way they could to alienate what should have been their core audience (e.g., the EastEnders debacle), then, with their Discovery Channel partners, went on to try to become just another LCD cable station. How much mileage can you get out the late Princess of Wales? Well, that is my rant for the day."
And a fine rant it was too, Mark. I agree. BBC America is awful. "Life on Mars" was great (and I recommend that odd, fine series to anyone who hasn't seen it) but the rest of the primetime lineup is stuff like "Footballers' Wives" and some show about horny airline pilots. (I think it might be called "Horny Airline Pilots.") This is obviously a conscious decision. The suits must think they won't be successful in America duplicating PBS or showing "Masterpiece Theatre"-type costume dramas. Makes you wonder why they bother with the "BBC" name at all.

I got a ton of response to my screed on newspaper naysayers. Suburban Correspondent wrote:
"It's really hard to read the Washington Post Online at the breakfast table, or on the bus, or at the beach, or on a park bench while I'm watching my kids. And, for some reason, I can sit and read the paper without my children feeling as though I am ignoring them; but if I sit down at that computer monitor, they're all over me in a second."
That could be our new motto: Buy a newspaper. Ignore a kid.

Anonymous made a good observation, pointing out that most communities don't have a newspaper as good or trustworthy as The Washington Post:
"When you come back from Oxford, you should travel through smaller cities and small towns in the country and study their newspapers. Our local paper consists of approximately 20 standard pages and a 16-page tabloid containing comics, TV listings, a few lifestyle columnists, and one article, usually taken from a service. The front page is a shortened version of articles found inside the paper, the TV listings are made up two or three weeks in advance and are frequently inaccurate, and any article about a product recall gives a brief summary of the problem and a Web site to check to find out what specific items are recalled and what to do with them. And it costs 50 cents on weekdays.

"If newspapers went to retain readers, try giving them something to read."
And Steve Yelvington said the decline of newspapers started in the 1970s, long before the Internet:
"The real question is: Can the newspapers compete for your interest in a fully networked world? From what I see, neither the content nor the organizational metaphor of the newspaper is keeping up."
That is the question. I hope that, come what may, I can keep my organizational metaphor up. I'll let Erin have the last word:
"I think the naysayers will be proved wrong and newspapers will survive. I'm 21 years old and I still subscribe to a daily paper. There's just something wonderful about holding the paper in your hands, smelling it, and being able to sit and enjoy the paper at your leisure."
I agree. And I think there's something wonderful about this digital medium, too, about being able to instantly post our thoughts and communicate with people around the world.

We're off on a quick jaunt to the southwest of England. I'll let you know how it goes. Keep reading--and keep writing.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

A Stranger Calls

The weirdest thing happened yesterday: I was home alone after lunch and the doorbell rang. I opened the door (two doors, actually, there being an airlock sort of thing at the entrance to our house). Standing there was a fiftyish woman dressed in black.

This is what she said: "Would you buy from a Gypsy?"

This is what I said: "No thank you."

I watched as she turned without comment and walked out our gate, shutting it behind her.

I closed the door(s), went back inside and then thought: What the hell just happened? My natural abhorance of door-to-door salesmen had surfaced before I understood what exactly was going on. Was she selling something? I didn't see her holding anything. Was she selling something invisible? Intellectual property? Investment advice? A melody? Was she conducting a survey? Had I just been marked down as anti-Gypsy in some way?

The fact is, we're in the market for some steak knives. (They don't sell them at jumble sales. It's like selling guns at an American yard sale.) And a nice wind-up mantle clock. If the woman in black had produced a set of six serrated blades or a chiming time piece she might have had a customer.

Bottoms Up
There was a blip of media activity here late last week after it was revealed that government figures introduced 20 years ago outlining safe alcohol consumption limits were "plucked out of the air."

My first reaction upon seeing the headlines was that the government must have high-balled it, so to speak. Why else would people be upset than if they'd engaged in dangerous behavior, thinking it was safe? But no, the outcry was because the government had set the limits too low. All over the country there was the sobbing of men and women who regretted that they hadn't drunk enough. While the suggested limits were 21 units a week for men and 14 a week for women, one study found that men drinking 21 to 30 units a week had the lowest mortality rate in Britain.

I don't know how that fits with a story about how alcohol abuse is killing twice as many women in Britain as 15 years ago. You've come a long way baby. Hic.

BritNews Round-Up
In other news: It's a bad time to be a badger in England. The government's chief science advisor is recommending a badger cull to keep the striped little fellows from spreading TB to cattle. Unsurprisingly, the Badger Trust (warning: extremely cute photo) is against the move. Think of all the ailments a single unlucky British cow could contain: foot and mouth, blue tongue, mad cow, bovine tuberculosis....

Visitors to the 2012 Olympics in London will have to take public transportation to their events, as organizers set to ban all car travel. Olympic officials will send a personalized itinerary to every ticket-holder, showing how to arrive at events. They hope to avoid the catastrophe that was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, universally recognized (at least according to the Times) as the worst-run games, transportation-wise.

This is why we should be glad that digital cameras were invented: Three-year-old Charlie Thomas of Cullompton, Devon, put a traffic cone on his head, thinking it would make a perfect wizard's hat. It took emergency workers half an hour to cut it off.

Good Morning, Oxford

There was a lovely sky yesterday morning as I left the house to walk the dog. The clouds were tinged with pink and the telephone wires made a Maypole over my head.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Citizen Canes--or "Look Ma, No Hands"

To paraphrase John Travolta (mouthing Quentin Tarantino's words): "You know what the funniest things about England is? It's the little differences." It's the way the English say "pressurised" instead of "pressured"(as in, "I was pressurised into changing my mind"). It's the way single nouns take plural verbs ("BMW have announced the closing of another factory").

There are two other, less obvious, things that I've noticed: Old people with canes and young people riding their bikes hands-free. First, the canes: A sizable proportion of the elderly here perambulate with canes in their hands. "Sticks," they're often called (the canes, not the people). At first I thought it was because the English were more likely to have health problems--poor diet from wartime rationing, years waiting on NHS lists for hip-replacement surgery--and were only able to get about with the help of a cane. In America, I thought, these people would be hale and hearty, not halt and lame.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think I have it backwards: I don't see as many people with canes in America because they go straight from walking unaided to not walking at all, or to scooting about in one of those little motorized wheelchairs.

I have no data to back this up. It's just a hunch based on several weeks' experience watching gray-haired Brits bent into the rain, firmly planting the rubber tips of their surrogate legs on the pavement in front of them. Then again, maybe it's a fashion thing. Maybe the British just like canes.

Or maybe as youngsters they fell off their bikes while riding with their hands off the handlebars. Not that I've seen anyone fall off, though I've seen plenty of young people cycle past, hands in pockets. Some move at a pretty good clip. Some pedal sort of languidly, with a cell phone raised up to an ear. (The British are addicted to their mobiles; most can't go more then 30 or 40 seconds without checking theirs to see if they've received a text.)

I've done a fair amount of research on the early days of the bicycle and being able to ride without hands was actually recommended by cycling instructors. (There were such people back then; newbies had to learn somehow.) Cycling was meant to be aesthetically pleasing and the reasoning was that hands-off riding forced the cyclist to pedal evenly, favoring neither the right leg nor the left.

I'm jealous. Ever since I was about 11 and wiped out while trying to look cool, I've kept both hands on the wheel, so to speak.

The scary thing is, it's much easier to drive a car with no hands than a bike. Not that I would ever do that. I mean, unless I was doing some really serious air drumming.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Friday Grab Bag

I Got You, Beeb
It's turmoil time at the BBC, which
must save money by trimming 2,500 jobs, reducing duplication and canceling what it calls "middling" programs. (How you'd like to have worked on one of those?) Because the British love a good strike (we never know when we're going to get our mail, though yesterday our postman said he'd see us at least "for the next few days"), BBC employees are threatening to join the picket line.

The same sort of forces that are facing newspapers are facing the BBC. Of course, the BBC receives money from every household in Britain, courtesy of the TV license fee, something The Washington Post doesn't enjoy. But just as The Post is being buffeted by increased competition and an uncertain marketplace, so too is the BBC.

In his column in today's Guardian, Simon Jenkins observes that the BBC's role as a sort of national surrogate newspaper is being eroded by advances in technology. True "public" broadcasting is the sort that shows up on the Internet. Transform the Beeb into a lean, mean multi-platform machine, Jenkin argues. And he gets off a great line: "Like the Royal Navy, Oxbridge and the Church of England, the BBC has been led to imagine that it can join the 21st century by thinking of ever cleverer ways of staying in the 20th."

Shouldn't She Have Seen It Coming?
Sunlight streaming through a crystal ball on the windowsill of a house in Dorset set the curtains on fire. "It was a most unusual incident," said a firefighter.

In the Zone

My hometown, Washington, D.C., has always been a desirable vacation destination for people who like to live life on the edge. Why? Because you never know what you're going to be charged when you take a taxi cab there.

Though the gear and the pinion wheel were invented centuries ago, and the taxi meter not long after that, in D.C. cab drivers prefer to charge their customers based on something known as the zone system. Posted in each cab--displayed in a curling and yellowing plastic sleeve on the back of the front passenger seat--is an inscrutable taxi zone map that divides the city into 23 separate chunks of real estate. Your fare is determined by how many of those different borders you traverse. Oh, and by how honest your driver is.


The map is nearly impossible to read, especially if you're unfamiliar with the city. Many's the time I've taken a cab from Point A to Point B, only to be charged something completely different when I went from Point B to Point A. It's always been a crap shoot to take a D.C. cab, especially if you're visiting from out of town.

But Washington's mayor, Adrian Fenty, has pulled the plug on the zone system, announcing that D.C. will switch to time-and-distance meters, like just about every other city in the civilized world.


Washington has a lot of quirks to it. (Its citizens don't have a voting representative in Congress for example.) The zone map was one of those, an artifact, it's said, of a time when politicians wanted to cheaply travel from Capitol Hill to the White House. There's also an argument that the zone system is fairer to poor people, who, without cars, use cabs to travel from one end of the city to the other.

Of course, it had the potential to screw every one else, especially tourists. The city has been mulling a change for years, and all sorts of studies have been done. There was talk of some sort of hybrid system, using GPS receivers to automagically determine when a zone was passed. But given that many of the cabs can't even manage working air conditioners or seat belts, it seemed a stretch to think advanced technology would solve the problem.


So meters it is. The taxi drivers supposedly aren't happy and are threatening a strike. Now, do you think they'd do this out of concern for customers? I'm sure some crooked drivers will figure out a way to still cheat, but it's going to take some creativity: circuitously driving on back roads or purposely getting stuck in traffic as the meter ticks over. If they're going to rip us off, let's make them earn it.

Gargoyle of the Week
Two squirrels, clutching their nuts:


And I hope they're red squirrels, since as I mentioned previously, Britain is fighting an invasion of non-native gray squirrels. A hotel in Cumbria has added squirrel appetizers to the menu in an effort to reduce the overpopulation.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Video Trouble?

Having trouble downloading the jumble sale video I mention below? Try going directly to YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-7EuWH0z2c

Sorry, and good luck.

Jumble Sales R Us

Colin the bass player had read my blog entry about how My Lovely Wife lugged home a free hand-cranked sewing machine, just the oddest in a series of artifacts she has started accumulating.

"What you want to try is a jumble sale," said Colin.

"A jumble sale?" said I. "What's that?"

Last Saturday I went to the village hall in Wolvercote, just north of Oxford, to find out. Click on the video link to join me.



As it happened, I didn't see Colin there. He said he'd heard the Wolvercote jumble sale would not be up to its "usual standard" so didn't bother going. Colin's a difficult man to please. Me, I can't wait till the next one.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Hell, Yeah

According to a story in the Telegraph, new research suggests what anyone who has ever worked in a high-pressure job already knew: Swearing can be good for the workplace.

Yehuda Baruch, a management professor at the University of East Anglia business school, and graduate Stuart Jenkins, set out to study bad language and its place in the work environment.
Swearing, said Prof. Baruch in a university press release, was used as "a social phenomenon to reflect solidarity and enhance group cohesiveness, or as a psychological phenomenon to release stress."

Sorry, boss, you can't fire me for dropping the F-bomb; I was merely enhancing group cohesiveness.

Prof Baruch added: “We hope that this study will serve not only to acknowledge the part that swearing plays in our work and our lives, but also to indicate that leaders sometimes need to ‘think differently’, and be open to intriguing ideas.”

The full paper-- "Swearing at Work and Permissive Leadership Culture: When Anti-Social Becomes Social and Incivility Is Acceptable"--isn't available online, but there's an abstract here. It includes this wonderful passage: "[The] paper found it necessary to use swear words (avoiding usage of the explicit form); bearing in mind the purpose of the paper, the paper hopes that this will not cause offence to the readership of the journal."

Oh, go ahead and give us the explicit form. We're #*&%@! grown-ups.

Though Suicide Is Painless...
And so last night to the Bookbinders, a funky little pub in Jericho, which is a funky neighborhood along the canal in Oxford. It was a dark and rainy night, perfect for bundling up with some beer nuts and a pint of ale. My friend Richard and I had settled in at a table in the crowded pub when he detected some tell-tale change in the atmosphere: "Ah, it's pub quiz night," he announced. "Shall we have a go?"

I don't think we have these in the States, preferring to do our drinking in private and our brain-teasing while sitting on the couch in front of "Jeopardy" or "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?"

A pub quiz is a communal exam, and quite elaborate. Some in the crowd were taking it seriously. One guy looked like he had brought a reference book. People frequently dialed up friends on their mobile phones for help. I think the prize was more beer, with entry fees going to Amnesty International.

There were five or six sections to the answer sheet that Richard and I paid a pound each for. The quizmistress read questions over the PA in such categories as Current Events, Local Knowledge, Comedy. There was a visual round, where we had to identify book titles based on just a tiny section of the cover. (We knew one must be "The DaVinci Code." Shame we picked the one that was actually "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban.") There were audio cues too, 10 snippets of music whose composer or band we had to ID. (Richard was very strong on the classical and jazz; I snagged a Beck tune. Both of us nearly threw a clot trying--and failing-- to remember who did that catchy "Duh do-do-do" song from the '80s that was used in a VW commercial. [It was Trio.])

The final round was a sort of elimination, all-or-nothing thing: Get one question wrong and you'd lose all five points. The first question was: Which televised U.S. comedy ran longer: "M*A*S*H" or "Cheers"?

Do you know? We didn't.

Declare the Pennies on Your Eyes
I was glad to witness an actual pub quiz since I'd seen this story in the Daily Mail: The U.K. government is considering taxing pub quiz winnings. I think they could have a revolt on their hands.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Yes, Thanks, I'd Love Another Glass


"Oxford," the Warden of Green College explained, "is a peculiarly opaque institution."

I thought that was an appropriate choice of words on his part. It helped explain what can be so disorienting to someone who went to, say, the University of Maryland. Most students at Oxford, for example, don't take classes. Some do, the ones studying science for example. But the vast majority embark on a journey of independent study, guided through the jungles of knowledge by a native bearer known as a tutor. The tutor suggests a course of reading, and assigns and critiques writing and translation assignments. It's up to the student to actually do the work, and to attend lectures that might be appropriate.

As for that opacity, Oxford University is made up of 39 different colleges, each an independently-functioning organism. Then there are countless institutes. There's the Bodleian Library, one of the world's largest. Each college has its own library, too, which may or may not allow students from other colleges to check out books. A library card--called a "Bod" card--is required to accomplish anything at the university and it's issued in a matter of...days. (There's a lot of medieval-style waiting at Oxford.)

So, Oxford is not a very streamlined system. It's a collection of fiefdoms, with, I imagine, the same sort of bloody skirmishes and convenient alliances that characterized actual fiefdoms. Every few years someone tries to reform the system, fails and goes away.

Which is fine with me, since what Oxford does very well is what the English do very well: exercise a set of traditions that have the comfort of a well-worn leather club chair. The photo at the top of the page is of the place cards from a formal dinner that My Lovely Wife and I attended last week. Each college has its own rules and traditions when it comes to dining but even a relatively relaxed place like Green College, to which I'm assigned, puts on a jolly good show.

Every Thursday there's a formal dinner at Green, served in a high-ceilinged dining room built in an 18th-century observatory. It's "7:30 for 8," meaning the couple of dozen diners gather in a common room for sherry and wine at 7:30, mingle (I tried to work the words "I say" and "frightfully" into conversation: "I say, this is frightfully good sherry"), and then troop upstairs when a gong is sounded at 8.

Green has no "high table," the seat of honor in many colleges, where it's often an actual high table: a table elevated above the rest, from which the college's big cheeses can survey the scene, "Harry Potter"-style. But there is still ceremony. After we'd taken our seats, Colin Bundy, the Warden of Green College, dressed in his robes, banged a gavel signaling us to stand up, then recited a Latin grace. (At least I think that's what it was. He may have been telling us where to get our parking validated.)

And then we sat down for dinner. I haven't had a bad meal at Green, where I sometimes eat lunch (less formal; no Latin). You'll notice that my place card has a red smudge on it. It's wine. Wine is the default option at dinner; you have to tick a box on your reservation form if you don't want it. It's all so civilized--no, civilised.

To my eyes, the stain looks like a cartoonist's thought bubble. What was I thinking? Probably something along the lines of, "I say, a chap could get frightfully used to this."

Monday, 15 October 2007

The Future of Newspapers?

As I've done every day since I moved to Oxford, yesterday morning I walked my dog, bagged and disposed of his poop, then stopped at the newsagent's to buy a paper.

When I got home, I sat on the couch and started to read it (the newspaper, not the dog). Suddenly, I was overcome by a wave of shame, as I heard the catcalls of smartypants media bloggers:

"Oh. My. God. You're reading a newspaper? That's dead trees, ya know? And, how quaint. You're on a couch! You're sitting on something analog! I bet you're 'drinking coffee' from a 'mug' too! Luddite! I'm suspended in mid-air, sucking argon through a carbon-fiber ventilator while downloading Slashdot directly to my hippocampus! And I'm Twittering."

My vision was the result of the kerfuffle over a recent posting by the Poynter Institute's Roy Peter Clark, in which he suggested that it's the duty of every journalist to buy the newspaper. I don't know Roy Peter Clark, and I'm naturally suspicious of anyone whose moniker consists of three first names, but I'm amazed at the abuse that's being heaped on the guy.

An "Internet troll" says one Steve Yelvington, who opines: "There's nothing wrong with paper. It's your journalism that isn't relevant." Jokes Mark Potts: "Wait, I've Got Another Idea--Let's Have a Bake Sale!" "Wrong-headed" says my friend Craig Stoltz, who recommends journalists steal papers from street boxes to "help destroy the hulking structure" that stands in the way of our bright digital future. Cynthia Brumfield writes "Paper is an inefficient method of delivery and has been supplanted by virtually costless digital distribution." (Guess what: No it isn't and no it hasn't.)

I've been reading these bloggers for a while so I'm accustomed to the spittle-flinging glee they exhibit every time newspapers make a "mistake." The weirdest thing is the bitter tinge to these comments. There's a creepy sort of Oedipal thing going on. They really seem to hate newspapers and the people who create them. Dude, I want to ask, what did a newspaper ever do to you? Beat you up and take your lunch money? Turn you down for a date to the prom?

Here's the reason I think journalists should subscribe to a newspaper: not to "save" the industry or as some noble gesture. If you work at a newspaper you should subscribe to it because it's your god-damned product. If you seriously think it's doomed--if you think spending 35 cents a day contributes to some mass hysteria that afflicts only newspaper publishers, or "enables" editors the way a slice of rum cake enables Owen Wilson--then quit.

If you're embarrassed that your product is produced the same way as the Gutenberg Bible, then go start your Backfence.com. Go see if hyperlocalnewswithintherangeofmyvision.com or you-be-the-editor.net are hiring. (Go work at the Gap, even. But the minute you start mouthing off about how bricks-and-mortar retail is stoopid I hope you'll have the decency to give your notice there, too.)

Yes I understand that newspapers are in the information business, not the tree-recycling business. I know that circulation is down everywhere. I agree that the World Wide Web might just catch on. But do these hyperventilating bloggers seriously believe that simply because the perfect social media/web cam/citizen journalism/FaceBook-compatible widget hasn't been introduced all editors and publishers are just sitting on their asses waiting to turn off the lights?

No one knows what's going to happen in the future, not even people who know the difference beween RSS and CSS. Actually, I do know what will happen in the future: Tomorrow morning I'm going to walk my dog and buy a newspaper. And I'm not going to feel guilty about it.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Coroner's Verdict

Because I know you were wondering: Jennifer Chubb did not kill her husband, Andrew, by blowing him up in their garden shed. That's what a British coroner decided yesterday. According to a story in today's Times, the coroner decided Mrs. Chubb wouldn't have known when her husband was going to ask for a divorce and thus couldn't have pre-planned his demise.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Friday Grab Bag

Tattoos! Tea! Gargoyles!

The Illustrated Idiot
Like many people--and like most journalists--I am prey to crippling bouts of self-doubt. Am I living a virtuous life? Am I a good writer or am I a fraud? Am I kind enough to my family and other animals? Just as I'm rolling into the fetal position (or what the British disturbingly call the "foetal position") I'm rescued from the abyss by the happy realization that as bad as I may be, there's someone out there worse than I.

This week it was a Daily Mail story about man in Wales who got a life-sized tattoo of his wife and two daughters on his back. It's not a very handsome tattoo--it looks like one of those sterile, computer-generated designs you can get inked in frosting atop a sheet cake--but he's not a very handsome man. Perhaps that's why, not long after Alan Jenkins had endured the painful tattoo process, his wife left him for a "Latvian hunk she had met at work."

A family torn asunder. Sad. And yet the photos accompanying the article reduced any sympathy I may have had. The first photo is of the shirtless cuckold surrounded by his wife and daughters. Taken pre-split perhaps? No, because the second photo is of the adulterous wife and her Latvian hunk, and she's wearing the same outfit. The pix were obviously taken at the same time. Ditto for the story in the Sun. (Britain's tabloids will not be beaten when it comes to tattoo-related articles.)

The family gathered one last time for their sordid 15 minutes of fame. How gross is that? As we ponder the excesses of the media, let's not forget the excesses of the public.

It's in the Bag
Time for another study on the beneficial effects of tea, this one touted in a USA Today story. According to the article, drinking tea inhibits the growth of human cancer cells implanted in mice. Ingesting or applying green tea polyphenols protects against skin cancer in mice.

I don't think any of these findings will change my intake--about one or two cups a day. The real message is, if you are a mouse you really ought to try to get your paws on some tea.

Claws Celebre
To update my Sept. 25 item about the BBC's cat-naming controversy: In a letter published in the Guardian, the BBC's children's programming director said there was not a suspicious surge of votes for "Cookie," nor was there the belief that the name had a sexual connotation.

Over the weekend a letter-writer to the Daily Mail speculated that the discomfort over the name must have come from a joke that was "popular in the Seventies" in which a man tripped over a cat and uttered the Spoonerism "Cooking fat!"

I dave my houbts.

Blog-Rolling
At least two of my fellow Fellows here at the Reuters Institute have blogs: Abel Escudero Zadrayec and Wang Yao. Too bad I can't read them, they being in Spanish and Chinese, respectively.

By the way, Wang Yao said he gets around 200,000 hits on his blog. If I can siphon off just a few of those.....

Gargoyle of the Week
I think I snapped this one at Christ Church College:


We should have a caption contest. My entry: "What's that smell?"

Have a great weekend.




Thursday, 11 October 2007

Complaint Bureau


Sir Christopher (center) and two of his colleagues.

I went yesterday afternoon to an interesting meeting in the Town Hall. The Town Hall is an imposing Victorian stone building in downtown Oxford, or in what they call "city centre." (Actually, what they call it is St. Aldate's, Oxonians preferring to refer to building locations by a scrap of the street the structure is on. This is taking me some getting used to, since I can't tell my St. Aldate's from my St. Giles, my St. Giles from my St. Clements.)

The occasion was a presentation by the Press Complaints Commission, an organization that is entirely alien to an American. You will notice on the home page of their Web site is a sentence that reads: "Click here for information on what to do if you are being harassed by a journalist." No, the link doesn't take you here or here. It takes you to a very detailed list of recommendations--pin a note to your door saying you are too distressed to talk, deputize a friend or neighbor to speak on your behalf--that ends with "If these measures fail and you feel that you are still being harassed, contact the PCC immediately." They offer a 24/7 anti-harassment service.

Earlier in the day, PCC staffers had confidential meetings with anyone who had a beef with the press. After that, some of its members discussed how they work to a room of about 20 interested people. The organization is independent and non-governmental. It receives its funding from the newspapers and magazines it keeps an eye on. The ravenous British media is known for digging up to its elbows in the private lives of celebrities, but commission members said the vast majority of its cases involve regular citizens who feel they've been wronged by their local paper.

That might include someone like Ms. Joyce Pinfield of Bromsgrove who, according to the PCC, complained that an article in the Clevedon Mercury "was inaccurate in its presentation of claims made against her by her former partner. She said that the piece had failed to distinguish between established fact and disputed allegations. There were also one or two points of simple inaccuracy....The matter was resolved when the newspaper indicated that it had removed the article from its electronic archives."

So, we don't know what it was specifically that Ms. Pinfield complained about, but a quick Google search and you can get some context. It involved alleged benefits fraud and adultery. Ah, the British.

The PCC's Code of Practice is an impressive document meant to keep journalists on the straight and narrow. It urges accuracy, warns against invasions of privacy and spells out how to write about children and victims of sexual assault. It has a section on "Intrusion into grief or shock" ("approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion").

The commission is chaired by Sir Christopher Meyer, whom Washingtonians may remember as Britain's ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003. Sir Christopher (and that's what people called him as they raised their hands to ask questions) says the system is working. Though the PCC levies no fines, he says editors dread having to publish the retractions it insists upon when they rule in favor of the wronged reader--whether it's Catherine Zeta-Jones or Joyce Pinfield.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Dirty Laundry

Someday I'll have more to say about the Daily Mail, Britain's most popular newspaper. Today, though, I want to concentrate on a story it's following about an inquest into the demise of one Andrew Chubb, a judge who in 2001 burned to death inside a shed behind his country house in Chard, Somerset.

This story has so much going for it: The name "Chubb." The name "Chard." The country house. The mistress. The laundry. It positively reeks of Englishness, crying out for a Miss Marple to start poking around in the ashes.

Wait a minute, I hear you asking, the mistress? The laundry? What's up with that?

In a nutshell, shortly after Judge Chubb told his wife of 34 years, Jenny, that he'd been having an affair and wanted a divorce, 20-foot, gas-fueled flames were engulfing their garden shed. Judge Chubb had the misfortune to be inside. As he was being transformed into a human bratwurst, it was reported, his wife calmly took the washing in off the line. "If her husband was in the shed, why was she bothered about the washing?" said neighbor Peter Evans, who testified at the inquest.

Why indeed, Mr. Evans (as Miss Marple might say).

Jenny Chubb received an insurance payout and moved to Australia, where she now is dating Michael Palin, or a man that looks incredibly like him.

But let us pause for a moment. I will not condemn Jenny Chubb merely for taking the washing in off the line while her husband was roasted to death. Since we've moved to England we have become obsessed with laundry and making sure it gets dry. When I say "we" I mean My Lovely Wife, for I have studiously avoided learning how to operate the incredibly complicated washing machine nestled in the kitchen. All I know is, Ruth does the laundry every single day. And since she dries it on the line, she is incredibly attuned to the vagaries of the weather, ready to whip the clothes down at a moment's notice.

A laundry-related compulsion is not a capital offense in this country. It is a smart bet.

What I found oddly touching about Andrew Chubb's final hours on this Earth was this line from the Mail story: "The 58-year-old father of three died in a fireball less than 90 minutes after telling his wife he wanted a divorce and walking out to mow the lawn."

Emphasis added. What a sad domestic tableau. The bad news delivered--and surely Mrs. Chubb must have suspected: the long hours at work, the weekend travel to "conferences," the hushed mobile phone conversations, the stray hair picked from his coat jacket--Mr. Chubb set about tidying his garden. Why, if the tables had been turned--if it had been Mrs. Chubb inside a burning shed--I'm sure he would have done the same, calmly cutting the grass in the summer sunshine.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

I Don't Drink...Wine

What is proper wi-fi etiquette? When you fire up your laptop after moving into a new house and your browser latches on to a stray signal, are you allowed to sink your fangs into it, like Dracula supping on the neck of some unsuspecting beauty? Or do you have to bypass that sweet-sweet broadband and wait until your cable company or phone company can get its butt in gear and get you hooked up?

I think I know the answer--it's okay to suck a little free wi-fi, just don't be greedy--but am I right?

Two incidents have me pondering this modern dilemma. The most recent occurred here, after arriving in Albion. The first thing we did after dragging our suitcases into our house was turn on our four MacBooks. We were absolutely bathed in broadband. The AirPorts identified a half-dozen signals. All save one were password-protected, however. I will call the victim, er, the open signal, "Valparaiso."

We leapt on Valparaiso like hungry ticks upon a hound dog. When we had gorged ourselves we dropped off. The pattern continued for two weeks. Occasionally our surfing would slow to a crawl and we would curse the Valparaiso family for their bandwidth-hogging ways ("What are they doing? Downloading the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy?"). Finally British Telecom finally sent us our DSL pack and we bid the Valparaisos goodbye.

Now, one could argue that if the Valparaisos were not smart enough to password protect their signal, they had no one to blame but themselves. They were just asking for it, your honor. Or perhaps they intended for others to partake of their wi-fi, as a sort of community gesture.

To be honest, I hope that my BT signal is password protected, but the installation was so complicated that I have no idea whether that's the case. A karmic digital vampire may be lapping at my jugular as I type this.

What was the other incident? Well it happened before we left the States. Because we had rented out our house as of August 1 but weren't leaving the country until later in the month, we were obliged to stay in various friends' houses while they were on vacation. We stayed in a lovely house in Kensington, Maryland. We found wi-fi there, too, courtesy of neighbors I'll call the Wallendas.

We'd been there about a day, guiltily supping on the Wallendas' signal, when the telephone rang. The house we were in had caller ID, that service that tells you who's calling. A readout on the kitchen phone said: "Wallenda." We'd been caught! The jig was up! We were certain they'd been able to trace us somehow. With trembling fingers My Lovely Wife answered the phone.

It turns out they just wanted to drop something off for the owners and wondered if we'd be home to answer the door. Our secret was safe, leaving us to pilfer again.

SITE for Sore Eyes
My colleague Joby Warrick has a story on the front page of The Washington Post today about the non-profit group SITE--it stands for Search for International Terrorist Entities. The outfit combs the Internet looking for terror group-related postings. It was able to procure Osama bin Laden's most recent video tape before any official U.S. intelligence outfits. And that's where the problems started.

SITE shared the video with the White House with the request that it not be distributed, arguing that wide disclosure could endanger the sources SITE had built up. But the White House evidently leaked it. "Techniques that took years to develop are now ineffective and worthless," said the firm's founder, Rita Katz.

A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told The Post that the leak shouldn't worry anyone: "We have individuals in the right places dealing with all these issues, across all 16 intelligence agencies."

In other words, since official channels are monitoring al Qaeda communications compromising an unofficial channel isn't anything to get upset about. Which strikes me as odd, since the Iraq war is the most outsourced conflict in U.S. history. The administration is depending on everything from private caterers to armed bodyguards to support the war effort, and here they've apparently pulled the rug out from someone who was doing some good.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Throwing in the Towel

There are some things I will never understand about the British: their strange affection for Marmite and Hobnobs, for example, or why they pronounce "lieutenant" the way they do. But chief among the Mysteries of the British is their embrace of the common tea towel.


Figure 1: A tea towel in its natural habitat.


A tea towel is a roughly 16-by-23-inch rectangle of fabric. While a normal towel's primary purpose is to absorb liquid, a tea towel is designed to repel liquid. It's woven from a special water-repellent type of cotton. Even so, the English keep tea towels in their kitchens to deal with spills. The towels don't sop up the spills. Instead, if you're confronted by a little puddle of water--on a countertop, say--you use the tea towel to push the water around. The water won't soak into the towel, but you will eventually produce enough friction so that the water starts to evaporate.

Starts to evaporate, but never completely evaporates. The British love moisture. It may have something to do with living on an island. Surrounded by water, they crave dampness. That's why convertible tops in MGs and Triumphs leak, why windows and roofs in English houses let in the rain--and why tea towels shed water like the back of a duck.

But the tea towel is more than just a maddeningly inefficient household tool. It represents one of history's most stunning cartographic achievements. For example:


devon
Figure 2: Devon in all its glory.

Note that various Devon tourist attractions are depicted on the towel above. There is also a map of the county, with the positions of more than two dozen towns--from Ilfracombe to Torquay-- marked with red dots:


Figure 3: Mercator would be proud.

If the level of detail on that towel is too coarse for safe navigation through Devon, one only need grab a tea towel that depicts North Devon:


northdevon
Figure 4: North Devon.

In addition to crudely-rendered images of such attractions as an Exmoor pony and the Hartland Lighthouse, there is a map of North Devon's major population centers:

north devon detail
Figure 5: Ilfracombe and Woolacombe.

All of Britain is graphed out on tea towels, down to a scale of 2 cm to 1 km, just like on Ordnance Survey maps. I'm pretty sure that during World War II the Ministry of Defence confiscated the more detailed tea towels, lest they fall into German hands.

Showered With Affection
Here's a strange question I hope you'll answer in the Comments section: When do you bathe? The question came up yesterday when a gaggle of acclaimed international journalists were trying to make their way to the bottom of a bottle of wine. The Chinese journalist said before he traveled to England, friends told him that the British shower in the morning. Chinese, he said, shower in the evening.

It's the difference between a shower as a relaxing activity at the end of a stressful day and a shower as an invigorating activity at the beginning of a day. Thoughts?

Friday, 5 October 2007

She'll Never Be Hungry Again
On my blog of Sept. 26 I described how My Lovely Wife resurrected a 1928 hand-cranked Singer sewing machine so she could recreate Scarlett O'Hara's famed barbecue dress from "Gone With the Wind" out of some old bedsheets. Here she is at work:


Why would she want to do this? So our younger daughter could wear the dress to Book Character Day at her school. Some bedsheets, some wire hangers and My Lovely Wife's scary competency resulted in this:


Pretty amazing, huh? Beatrice literally stopped traffic this morning as she walked to school. There is a Plantation Road in Oxford, but I don't think they've ever seen anything like that.

Friday Grab Bag

The Friday Grab Bag
A little bit of everything today, from the sex lives of squirrels to voyeuristic firemen. And introducing a new feature: Gargoyle of the Week.

Feeling Squirrelly

The Daily Telegraph reports that environmental officials are eager to start a mass sterilization of gray squirrels, an invasive species that is threatening Britain's native red squirrel population. Scientists are trying to develop a bait that would render the pests infertile.

I'm thinking tiny little squirrel condoms.

Cuckoo?
Patients waking up at hospitals in the Liverpool area will soon be hearing something other than the beep of respirators and the moaning of their fellow inmates. Award-winning sound artist Chris Watson recorded the "dawn chorus," the morning concerto provided by British songbirds, and will play it back at five medical centers. His hope is it will uplift and recharge patients.

"The dawn chorus is believed to be a cathartic process, the combination of sound and the transformation of light to dark providing hope and inspiration," reads an entry on the Web site of the sponsoring group, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology.

If the Privet's a-Rockin', Don't Come a-Knockin'
This headline caught my eye in the Times yesterday: "Firemen Are Disciplined for Disturbing Orgy in Bushes." Four Avon fire fighters returning from a call shined a flashlight into a bush where four men were having sex. One of the bush-sex men later complained of the intrusion and after a three-month investigation the fire fighters were disciplined.

Two were fined 1,000 pounds, one was demoted and the fourth was given a written warning. All have been required to take a two-day course called “Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender Equality in the Fire Service – an absolute taboo?”

It's illegal to have sex in a public place, but really, how public is a bush, even if there are three other people there? Larry Craig's lawyers may want to look into this case.

Gargoyle of the Week
I snapped this yesterday at St. John's College:



Have a great weekend and thanks for reading.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

A Bright Idea

There has been a fluorescent explosion in Britain. Everywhere you go you see retina-searing articles of clothing: a sort of electric lime green color emblazoned on jackets, vests and bags. Apparently, these items are designed to keep the wearer from being flattened by a truck. (Or "lorry," as the British quaintly insist on calling them.)

Here's a construction worker in one of these "high-visibility" garments:



Here is an off-duty bus driver:


Where you mostly see them is on cyclists:



I bought my daughter a green and orange "tabard" for low-light cycling. (I love that noun: tabard. It was originally the sleeveless tunic a knight would put over a suit of armor. The English never really left the Middle Ages, did they?) I also bought a couple of safety patrol-style bandoliers for us to sling on when we take to the streets. And, of course, no cycling outfit is complete without a bicycle clip. When I lived in England as a teenager, a bicycle clip was just that: a metal anklet for keeping your trouser leg out of your bike chain. Now it's Velcro and it's reflective:



Alexei Sayle had a column in the Independent the other day about the phenomenon, and whether we will become inured to it. If everyone is in a high-visibility jacket,
will anyone be visible? Or more visible than anyone else?

I had the same thought when Canada mandated daylight running lights for its cars. Snowbirds pouring down Interstate 95 with their headlights burning certainly stood out. And now I see more cars in the U.S. driving with their lights on in the middle of the day. But if every car is like that, are we going to have to add sirens and Congreve rockets to our vehicles to make sure they're noticed?

I also worry about the environment: With all those high-visibility jackets being sold in England, surely the famed Day-Glo mines of Cornwall must be in danger of being depleted.

What's Going on in Burma?
Of course I'm not spending all my time here in Oxford snapping photos of workmen in green jackets. I'm pondering what's known as "citizen journalism," the movement to democratize the media via the Web. If you saw a shaky cell-phone video of the saffron-robed monks marching on the streets of Rangoon, or read a blog by a Burmese citizen, you experienced citizen journalism. Glenda Cooper provides a good overview of what's been going on there and how it may change the media equation.

Ad today many bloggers around the world are supporting the citizen journalists in Burma, and indeed the citizens, by posting a "Free Burma" banner on their Web sites.


Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Seen on the Street

Determined to be the compleat digital journalist, before leaving Washington I bought a compact digital camera, the sort you can slip into a pocket and produce at a moment's notice, like a magician pulling a coin from behind an unsuspecting ear. (And really, aren't all ears unsuspecting, when you get right down to it?)

I also bought a laptop computer, an Apple MacBook. So equipped, I was ready to snap away and surf away and blog away.

Then I boarded the airplane at Dulles, shoving my laptop into my briefcase before stowing it in the overhead luggage compartment. When I arrived at Heathrow I discovered that as fragile as laptop computers may be, they're sturdier than digital cameras. The MacBook had intersected with the camera in such a way that the camera's screen was cracked. Only the bottom third of the screen worked. It's amazing how often you need to see the top two-thirds of what it is you're taking a picture of.

So I bought a new camera in Oxford, a nicer one actually (at great expense: 1 dollar = 50 pence). And I bought a case for it. Why, here's a photo I took just today:

condor

It's a Chinese restaurant not far from the Oxford train station called "The Oriental Condor." And what's that hanging in the window? Could it be? Yes, it's...

ducks

...Peking condor!

Of course it's not Peking condor. It's Peking duck. Or maybe it's an art installation by Damien Hirst.

We haven't been eating out much since we've been in Oxford (1 dollar = 50 pence, remember). We haven't had a curry, the best fast food in Britain. There isn't a fish and chip shop near us (an outrage, if you ask me). There's a mobile kebab stand that rolls up each evening a few blocks from our house to serve drunken teenagers who are eager to conjure up from their stomachs something more colorful than an evening's worth of Foster's when they inevitably succumb to their binge-drinking.

Here's the kebab place I want to sample:

That logo makes the Kebab Kid look like the James Dean of take-away halal food. Or is it the Fonzie of falafel?

I'm fascinated by the streetscape of Oxford. It isn't all dreaming spires. There's an understandable tension between the architecturally notable buildings that tourists take pictures of and the greasy spoons that I've taken pictures of.

Earlier this week, noted Oxford resident Philip Pullman, author of the wonderful "His Dark Materials" trilogy, complained that development is threatening the city's unique character. He's among those protesting redevelopment down by the waterfront, in a cool neighborhood called Jericho. The argument can be made that if Oxford needs tourists to survive, the more you do to make the city less attractive to tourists, the fewer who are going to come. And the counter argument is, Screw the tourists, I live here, I want a cheap kebab.

But enough about that. I had two more photos I wanted to share. One is of a candy wrapper my older daughter brought me a few days ago, knowing I would find it appealing:



The candy's name--"Tangfastics"--is not to be confused with the tanning salon in Wilmington, North Carolina, that I snapped back in August:



I took that "Tan-Fastics" photo with my old digital camera--may it rest in pieces.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Look, Up in the Sky...

Sunny? Yesterday My Life Was Filled With Rain...
The British media doesn't seem to obsess about weather to the degree that we do in the States, at least like we do in the Washington area, where it seems that every TV station has its own doppler radar and cloud-seeding airplane and where, come winter, meteorologists Bob Ryan and Sue Palka compete to see who can go the longest without sleep.

(For those of you reading this blog in England, imagine a local TV newscast where fully a third of the program is devoted to the intricacies of the weather: that day's actual highs and lows; that day's perceived highs and lows [they're different somehow]; the amount of precipitation at various spots around town; computer graphics in an endless loop showing the eastward march of clouds and wind and minute fluctuations in isobars; that day's deviation from normal temperatures; the deviation from record temperatures; a quick round-up of statistics compiled by amateur weather buffs tending back yard anemometers; a five-day forecast; a seven-day forecast; a 10-day "extended" forecast. And if there's any possibility the weather may be slightly extreme--a slight chance of snow for example--the TV weather machine goes into overdrive, with reporters dispatched to snowplow marshalling yards, tricky intersections and the milk aisles of supermarkets. We take our weather seriously in Washington.)

Perhaps because the weather is so changeable in England--sunny one minute, rainy the next--TV weatherfolk don't get too invested in making ironclad, and apocalyptic, forecasts. Or maybe it's that the weather is pretty much the same all the time, so there's no reason to get all freaked out over minor blips in the status quo. The weather report at the end of the evening news is just the briefest of snippets, delivered almost apologetically.

I still care about the weather, though, and I can't shake the habit of asking out loud "What's the weather going to be like today?" before pulling on an outfit. For the last few days--and, it looks like, for the rest of the week--I think there's just one answer to that question: "English."

The weather will be English today.

That translates as "moist and raw." There hasn't been anything so vulgar as a driving rain, though. Instead, England seems to specialize in a nebulous mist. The sky spits out a fine precipitation as if from a celestial soaker hose. You never actually get anything as common as "wet." After venturing into it you return to your house sort of dampened, like a tennis ball that's been carried in the mouth of a Labrador.

Indoor Fireworks
Over on the island of Jersey a man named Terry McDonald was eager to recapture his world-record crown for the most pyrotechnic devices set off simultaneously. He was planning on launching 110,000 fireworks in August, breaking the Guinness record of 56,405. But environmental concerns forced him to scrub the endeavor. Officials didn't want the detritus from all those rockets littering the beach.

You can sort of understand that. Here's the rest of the story: According to a brief item in the Daily Express Saturday ("The world's greatest newspaper," according to the motto printed on the front page, though its Web site leaves something to be desired), McDonald has had to sleep in the same room with all the fireworks for the last two months, guarding them, presumably against accidental detonation. "It's a living nightmare," he was quoted as saying.

This is probably not a guy you want to sneak up behind with an inflated balloon and a sharpened knitting needle.

How Green Was My Alley?

I haven't yet decided how I feel about the British preoccupation with the environment. I'm pro-environment, of course, but there's a hectoring, sanctimonious tone to much of the conversation here. People drag their carbon footprints around like a family ghost. They wear their green-ness on their sleeves. (Greensleeves?)

That does leave room for comedy, though, and a columnist named Terence Blacker has a funny, satirical piece in the Independent today about the upper class's embrace of All Things Green. It's not often you see the expression "tickety-boo."

Reuters Foundation
At the end of this week a half-dozen journalists from around the world will arrive in Oxford, the latest crop of fellows to study at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, where I'm hanging out for the next year. The institute, and the fellows, are sponsored by the Reuters Foundation. Yesterday's Guardian had a story about the foundation and the work it does.

One of its most important functions is training journalists in foreign countries. Instructors don't, foundation folks insisted, tell people what to write, just how to gather information. "You have to be cautious about trying to impose some kind of neo-colonial pattern on it," Oliver Wates, a former Reuters reporter running a seminar on reporting on climate change, said of the training.

They may rank somewhere below used-car salespeople in the public's perception, but most journalists really do try to do the right thing.