Thursday, 31 January 2008

Human Nature Loves a Vacuum

henryvacuum
This is our new vacuum cleaner. I guess here in England you would call it a "Hoover." (Like Kleenex, that word comes from a brand, Britain's best-known electric floor-cleaner. The art deco building where they were once made was celebrated by Elvis Costello in his song "Hoover Factory." I pass it on the bus into the Big Smoke [the building, not the song]: "Five miles out of London on the Western Avenue....")

Oddly, the best thing you can say about a vacuum is that it sucks. Our old one didn't suck. Its hose also had the irritating habit of popping out of the canister when you tried to pull it across the room. This made vacuuming even more of a maddening chore than it normally is, since you had to walk over to the canister and push it along as if it was a quadriplegic. It was such a pain to vacuum that we hardly did, leading to the build up of huge drifts of black dog hair. Sometimes I couldn't find my house keys in the mess.

We asked the rental agent for a new vacuum and she yes, we'd be getting a Henry. A Henry? Whatever is that?

Well isn't he the cutest thing? Those eyes. That smile. He looks like a character from a children's book. Henry comes from a family of vacuums that includes James and Charles. (Basil has evidently been discontinued.) Okay, it's a bit disconcerting that Henry cleans with his nose, sucking up dirt the way Kate Moss snorts lines of coke. But he gets the job done--he could suck the white off an egg--and he makes me happy.

Let There Be Light
Speaking of good design, Summertown--the Oxford suburb where we live--is getting new streetlights. Road crews have been using cranes to pull the old streetlights out, a process that looks like a doctor removing a nasty splinter. I don't know if anything was wrong with the old streetlights. I guess they looked a bit dated:



And here's what the new ones look like:


Snazzy, huh? So sleek and high-tech. Notice the smaller, secondary light that shines on the sidewalk. There also appears to be a yardarm jutting out horizontally from the main shaft. It's oddly nautical. Perhaps they will hang festive flags from it--or dangle British youth.

Good design is important, whether it's on a Hoover or a streetlight. A well-made, well-proportioned, well-thought-out appliance, vestment, piece of furniture, automobile or building pleases the eye and, subconsciously perhaps, lifts the spirit.

Disraeli Gears


The design on this can gets the job done (the cap is a nice touch), but what I love most about the product is the name: Squirty Cream. That's exactly what it is.

More on Anthony Lilley
There was one thing I thought I should add to yesterday's review of the third Lilley lecture: When Lilley described how he would structure a networked BBC, he was at pains to say: "Don't touch news. Don't touch factual." I believe those are two departments currently on the chopping block.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

From BBC to BNC: Anthony Lilley Part 3

The good ol' BBC. To an American such as myself--well, let's just say to me--it's a force for good, a provider of quality television and radio programming and the repository of beneficial notions of "Britishness." But to an actual Brit it's something much more complicated. The British Broadcasting Corporation is the 800-pound gorilla in the room during any discussion of the media here.

Which is important to know when considering Anthony Lilley's third lecture last night. (I reviewed his first two lectures here and here.) It was entitled "Network Media as Public Space" and it was an impressive and largely successful attempt to explain why regulators and politicians need to comes to grips with the changes digital developments are bringing, going forward. ("Going forward" is one of those Internet-era phrases, like "long tail" and "space" [as in "social media space" or "search space.")

The forces at work conveniently all begin with the letter C:
Choice: More channels on TV. More pages on the Web.
Context: We can access information and entertainment in more and more places--a mobile phone while walking down the street, a screen in the back seat of a taxi cab.
Control: It's passing from broadcasters to us, "the people formerly known as the audience."
Conversation: We're increasingly sharing media back and forth, be it photos on Flickr or videos on YouTube.
Put this all together and you get the fifth C: Community--bunches of people interested in the same things, able to find each other more easily. We're rooted in our common likes, not only by that old limiter of affinity, geography.

Then Lilley moved to the principle of market failure, explaining that governments only invest in things that the market won't provide. That's the main argument for the BBC: The cultural, social and democratic benefits brought by the BBC wouldn't otherwise come about without the license fee. (Briefly, each household in Britain pays about 140 pounds a year. That money totals close to 4 billion pounds and it is the main budget for the BBC.)

But just as my act of sunning in the nude to provide my body with much-needed Vitamin D can frighten and disgust the neighbors, so too public investment in media can have unintended consequences. It can stifle competition. One can argue that a sober and thoughtful current affairs program broadcast at 9 p.m. on the BBC is important, but why do you need a celebrity ballroom dancing show at 8? Wouldn't the market provide that? Perhaps, goes the counterargument, but it's important to capture the viewers at 8 so that they'll stick around for 9. Besides, if everyone's paying 140 quid, shouldn't they get some value for their money beyond dutiful documentaries about global warming and dead sea turtles?

There are many definitions of what public service broadcasting should do. Lilley offered this one, among others: It should inform, stimulate interest in arts and culture, reflect and strengthen cultural identity, make us aware of different cultures. And it can do that by being of high quality (a heavily subjective area), original, innovative, challenging, engaging and widely available.

And here's where Lilley neatly pivoted and asked the audience to open their minds a bit. Interactive, networked media can do all of the things public service broadcasting demands of itself. Lilley argued that interactive media--computer games, Web sites--are by their nature educational. What's more, we are moving towards a world where there isn't an 8 p.m. dancing show followed by a 9 p.m. current affairs show. There are only shows that you download at your leisure.

In other words: Is the BBC putting its money in the wrong place? Should it be--my words, not his--the British Networking Corporation instead of the British Broadcasting Corporation?

I didn't hear Lilley commit to that notion, per se, and he was a little vague on what a BNC would look like. (More investment in radio; definite investment in educational computer games, especially those the market isn't providing; explore advances in "non-linear comedy.") But I think he's right that the landscape is changing and will change further. The dilemma that the BBC is facing--and The Washington Post, come to think of it--is that we're on one galloping horse and we need to switch to another. But, frankly, our horse has served us well, and making the leap to the other one--blowing up the notion of "broadcasting" and "mainstream"--could go horribly wrong. So we try to do both. Lilley thinks that's a recipe for disaster.

The decisions we have to make aren't easy ones, and in the case of Britain they are political decisions. "We're coming to a moment where that political judgment must be made," he said. (He also said, ruefully: "Our politicians think the media is the newspapers. They aren't thinking about it.")

How do you translate Lilley's ideas into change? I don't know, but I'm glad I'm not the one doing it. Do you risk altering--even perhaps destroying--something that has worked well, in the hopes that it will work even better in the future?

By the way, Lilley didn't use the word "meme" once last night. And he reiterated that he would assemble his last lecture from the blog postings of his readers. If you've always wanted to lecture at Oxford--albeit through the black-clad, bewhiskered person of Anthony Lilley--now's your chance. Go here and make a comment or ask a question. Or just leave a comment on my blog.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Here's to Your National Health


"So, is this the National Health?" I asked the doctor.

"Well this is my little piece of the National Health," she answered.

"It's not what I expected," I said, putting my shoe back on.

"What did you expect?"

"Oh, I don't know. Screaming crowds of children in the waiting room. Cancer patients stacked up outside the door. Misery and anarchy. That sort of thing."

What I'd found instead was no waiting and an unhurried 20 minutes with a Scottish doctor who wasn't wearing a white coat.

For the last couple of weeks I've felt a pain in my right foot whenever I walk. It's like a hot fork plunged into my sole between the big and second toes. (Why a fork and not, say, a dagger? I don't know; it's just more fork-like.) It only hurts when I walk and it hurts most in the morning. I can poke and prod the foot and it's fine, even grab my toes and wrench them back and forth like I'm trying to tear off a hunk of crusty bread. Nothing. But walk on it and ouch!

I felt there might have been two causes: I'd taken up jogging again as part of the British Army Fitness Program printed in the Guardian. Although my knees usually go before my feet, maybe I'd done my foot an injury. Then there were my new shoes: I'd bought a pair of cheap yet fashionable slip-ons, somewhat pointy of toe, and with a sole about one micron thick. Then I spent the day walking around London in them. I basically walked until I couldn't walk anymore. It felt like someone had taken a tire iron to the bottom of my feet.

You think maybe that could have been the problem?

Whatever the cause, I was afraid I'd broken something. Aren't we taught that the human foot is a fragile assemblage of bones, each no thicker than a drinking straw? Might I have snapped one of these? I waded into the National Health.

My college here has a practice that it sends students to. I phoned the doctor's office to explain what was up, went in on Friday to fill out some paperwork and returned for my appointment yesterday. True to form, by this point my foot wasn't hurting nearly so much. It still seared in the morning but by the afternoon it was just a dull ache.

There was one young lady in the waiting room when I arrived but she was in and out in 10 minutes. The doctor called me in and listened as I described my symptoms. I always feel a bit of a fraud in situations such as this. I mean, people are getting their arms hacked off in Africa and my widdle footsie has a boo-boo. But the doctor showed no disgust. She examined my foot, asking if it hurt here or here or here. No, I said sheepishly.

I think in the States the doctor would have ordered an X-ray, a blood test and a full-body CAT scan. Instead, my National Health doctor diagnosed plantar fasciitis, demonstrated some stretches I should do and printed out a leaflet. She was going to prescribe a powerful anti-inflammatory but noted that it might interact with my heart medication and so decided against it. I'd just have to wait it out. If the pain wasn't better in a few weeks I should make another appointment.

And that was it. An altogether pleasant experience and no bill to pay. Of course, I might feel differently if I'd been denied some cutting-edge cancer treatment. (The local paper is full of such stories.) And if it turns out I do have a broken bone and my foot falls off in a week I'll be annoyed. (The doctor assured me there were no bones where it hurts.)

I have very good health insurance in America. It's also very expensive, paid for by my employer and by me. And as much as I'm glad that my children and I are covered, I can't help but feel a little guilty when thinking of all those children and parents who aren't.

The NHS doctor's waiting room was a typical assemblage of months-old magazines and children's books. I did notice one interesting thing on the wall: A review of the Michael Moore film "Sicko." Five stars the Guardian reviewer gave it.

Monday, 28 January 2008

By the Time We Got to Woodstock...


The mechanics of a successful pub must be the subject of great study in Britain: where to situate the pub, how to decorate it, what beer to serve, what food, what pub games and theme nights to offer. The exact combination of these factors combine to create a place people want to spend their time and their money.

Pubologists would do well to study the Woodstock Arms in Oxford--and then do the exact opposite. I haven't done enough research to determine what is the Sorriest Pub in Oxford but the Woodstock Arms certainly deserves a shot at the title. Or it would have, if it hadn't closed last week. I was walking the dog one morning and a lorry was parked outside. The pub's furniture was being loaded inside of it. The Woodstock Arms is shut tight now, though one blackboard sign leaning against a tree across the street, announcing 2-pound drinks for all of January (a good deal, if a desperate one), was somehow left behind.

The Woodstock Arms is right around the corner from our house but I've only been there twice--three times if you count the time I stopped by on a Saturday night around 10 p.m. a few months ago to find the place locked up tight. The times I was there it was like a funeral inside, but without the laughs. Where was the bonhomie?

The day after the Woodstock Arms closed I saw a headline in the Oxford Mail: "Celeb Chef Jamie Buys Local Pub." My heart leapt! Perhaps in a few months' time my local would be a gastropub operated by Jamie Oliver. But no, Oliver's opening an Italian restaurant in the city centre.

I have been to some lovely pubs. The Trout just outside Oxford is worth a walk, though I hear it's impenetrable in tourist season. The Turf is supposedly where Bill Clinton didn't inhale. The Bear is a quintessential pub: tiny, ancient (13th century, some claim), warm and cozy. The Rose and Crown has become the unofficial watering hole of the Reuters Fellows. The Argentine Fellow Abel is trying to be adopted by the landlady. Barring that, I think he wants to be reincarnated as a beer mat, so he can spend eternity in the Rose and Crown, gazing up at the amber liquid of his dreams.

The Woodstock Arms failed, I'm told, because the population of Summertown is too old. Plus, it's on a busy road, on the other side of the town from the main shopping strip that supports a more popular pub, the Dew Drop Inn. And, of course, it had no atmosphere. Whatever magical combination of attributes that a pub needs the thrive, the Woodstock Arms didn't have it.

What do you think makes a good pub?

Friday, 25 January 2008

Friday Grab Bag: Rule Britannia Edition

Nothing cures Anglophilia like actually living in England. What seemed quaint or quirky from the comfort of your easy chair, "Masterpiece Theatre" flickering on the TV, is maddening when confronted in the flesh. For example, it's amusing in the abstract that the English don't give you a glass of water when you sit down in a restaurant, but, Jesus Christ, when all you want is a freakin' glass of water--I mean, come on, I'm dying here--it suddenly isn't so funny.

But true love means accepting something, someone, warts and all. Which is a very roundabout way of getting to the seminar I attended last night. It was at the Said Business School and it was entitled "The U.K. Media Sector and the Global Media Business: Global or Bit Part Player?" Gathered to speak were David Levy, an associate fellow at SBS and former controller at the BBC; Will Hutton, journalist and chief executive of workplace consultancy the Work Foundation; Helen Alexander, chief executive of the Economist Group; Peter Bazalgette, former chief creative officer at media giant Endemol; and Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC.

Sadly, the session was off-the-record so I can't tell you about the BBC's plans to scrap "Newsnight" and replace it with "Celebrity Dwarf-Tossing."

I think I can reveal, however, that the panelists are very keen on what they called Britain's "creative economy" or "cultural industries." These are things like media production, advertising, publishing, design, architecture, performing arts, software, etc. They directly or indirectly employ close to 2 million people in Britain. At the same time, the U.K. is the world's leading exporter of cultural industries.

The world can't seem to get enough Britstuff, which means Blighty should be producing even more, and be smarter about how it produces and disseminates its cultcha. I heard, not for the first time of course, that digital will change everything. Throw out the business models. Trying to make money with old-fashioned notions such as sticking commercials in the middle of TV sit-coms won't work in a world where users download, mash-up and forward to friends.

So, a pep rally for Britain, with only a few dark notes thrown in. No one really nailed exactly why British creations are so popular, although one panelist's comment that Britain "brings a lot of character, some might say eccentricity, to the mix" is probably close to the mark. I confess I was a bit surprised at how in-demand British culture seems to be. BBC America never struck me as that good, and while I loved "The Office" I can't see some of my favorite movies, music, novels and TV shows playing well in Peoria.

Or course, that could just be the Anglophile in me. When you love something, you hate to share it.

BritNews RoundUp
No one can compete with Britain when it comes to wacky news stories. This News of the World subhed says it all: "Man traps penis in mannequin and complains to makers." Don't you just hate when that happens?

Things have been quiet on the Daily Mail breast front lately, but the paper came roaring back this week with another hard-hitting look at the science behind women's bosoms, with a story headlined "Why the British woman's cleavage has gone from 34B to 36C in a decade." Frankly, I didn't read the whole article (something to do with hormone replacement therapy and estrogen loose in the environment) but I did look at the pictures.

Swinging Virgin millionaire Richard Branson this week unveiled the design of the futuristic craft that will allow tourists to experience space. Here's the story. Make sure you watch the little animation, for it raises a question I hadn't thought about before: The video shows the space-suited passengers unbuckling their seatbelts to float around for "a few minutes" of weightlessness. The next thing you know, they're all buckled safely back in as the ship starts its reentry. What's neatly glossed over is how exactly the Virgin Galactic crew is going to get them all back in their seats. Can you imagine the mad rush to corral a half-dozen floating passengers and strap them in? I'm betting a few don't make it to their seats in time and have to be scraped off the ceiling back on Earth.

Here's a touching tale: A pair of black-clad Goths were ordered off a bus in Yorkshire because the man leads the woman around with a dog leash. "The couple said they 'loved each other to pieces' and the use of the lead was a 'sign of trust,'" wrote the BBC. It takes guts to dress like that in Yorkshire, by gum. And do watch the interview with the couple. Those accents go great with those clothes.

Jeremy Paxman is host of the respected BBC program "Newsnight," regularly grilling newsmakers with a ferocity unknown on American television. He entered the news last week when an e-mail he sent to the chairman of British retailer Marks & Spencers (imagine a slightly more upmarket Sears) was leaked. In the e-mail, Paxman complained that the quality of Marks & Spencer underwear had declined noticeably. The socks fall down and the underpants don't, well, don't adequately support the family jewels, creating what Paxman termed "widespread gusset anxiety." This would be like Mike Wallace dashing off a letter to the head of Fruit of the Loom. In other words, odd. But in a way encouraging. Unless the whole thing is a publicity stunt, it suggests that you don't have to stop caring about the little things just because you're rich and famous.

Gargoyle of the Week


Isn't he great? Now that's a gargoyle. My Lovely Wife took this picture at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Iffley.

My, look at the time! Thanks for reading. Here's hoping we can all avoid widespread gusset anxiety this weekend.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Solving the Energy Crisis


Our craving for oil gets us nothing but trouble. It pollutes our landscape, complicates our international relations and makes millionaires (and presidents) of the undeserving. But what can we do?

We need to look for alternate sources of renewable energy. Big windmills of the sort you see in Denmark are fine. Hydro-electric power has its place. But I think we need to think small, capturing the dribs and drabs of amps and volts that are wasted every single day. Some of my ideas:

Health club treadmills and rowing machines could be hooked up to a giant grid. As you sweat those pounds away you could be reducing our reliance on foreign oil. Playground equipment--merry-go-rounds, sliding boards, swings--could be rigged to create energy, toddler energy, the cleanest known to man.

Can we put tiny dynamoes in the hinges of toilet seats? This would have the added benefit of encouraging men to put the toilet seat down. Better yet, put dynamoes in the toilet paper spindle so that every time you give it a yank it charges a battery.

Scientists in Portugal are harnessing the gentle swell of waves to generate power. Couldn't they also harness the shrugging motion of teenagers? "What would you like to do this weekend?" "I dunno." [Shrug.] That little bit of muscular energy may, on the individual level, be minuscule. But multiplied by the millions of disaffected teens the world over, it could be enough to light a large city. (France could hook the device up to waiters.)

What about installing solar panels inside refrigerators so that every time you open the door to grab a piece of pie the little light shines on the panels, producing a few microvolts?

Think of all the windpower that's wasted when birthday cake candles are blown out. Tiny candles shaped like wind turbines might be the answer. Asthmatics wouldn't need to feel bad if they couldn't extinguish them on one blow. Every additional puff would mean sticking it to OPEC.

The powerful hip-thrusts, leg-kicks and pom-pon shakes of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders are as energy-laden as the waters of the mighty Niagara. We mustn't let them go to waste.

Look, if the Professor on "Gilligan's Island" can create generators out of coconuts and a few palm fronds, we certainly ought to be able to come up with something. I welcome your ideas.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Hopping on the Lilley Pad

Last night Anthony Lilley delivered his second of four lectures on the future of media. (Click here for my take on his first lecture.) Today I'm trying to decipher my notes.

Lilley comes from the world of the mainstream media (his company has done work for Channel 4 and the Guardian) but he is not desperately holding onto old ways. He said that as we move from a broadcast model to a network model, the mainstream media will move from a position of control to one of influence.

He then illustrated the central quality of a well-connected network and how it differs from the broadcast model: The blinking television transmission tower sending its singular product to lone audience members--ie, broadcast--has been joined by the mobile phone model that allows users to talk to one another, and, more importantly, by the near-infinite network model that allows users to coalesce and come apart in an orgiastic assortment of groups. These groups can communicate to, among and with each other. (A Reed network Lilley called it, and who am I to disagree?)

Lilley quoted from my old friend Chris Anderson's book "The Long Tail" but he resisted the urge to sketch the graph central to Anderson's argument. (I had to sit on my hands so I didn't jot it in my notebook. I sometimes think that the key to Anderson's success is how easy, and how much fun, it is to draw that long tail. It's the Nike swoosh of new media bloviating.) Anderson's argument, by the way, is that niche products--books, music, film--can be more successful now that they're easy to find, thanks to the power of search.

Then Lilley was back to memes, those building blocks of culture. What makes a meme successful, Lilley said, isn't whether it's true or good or educational. It's how well it spreads. It isn't, he said in a nice turn of phrase, a matter of people accumulating ideas but of ideas accumulating people. It's a process akin to evolution, where memes compete in the environment, the successful ones spreading their cultural DNA, the unsuccessful ones being snuffed out with all the pitiless abandonment of natural selection. Competition drives memes to become more interesting and complex over time. We go from fin to paw, from paw to opposable thumb, from opposable thumb to wrist-mounted flamethrower (well, eventually).

Lilley touched on two arguments percolating in this field, between those who see great hope in "the wisdom of the crowd" and those, such as Cass Sunstein, who believe that the way the Web helps the crowd arrange itself can have a detrimental effect on society. We reinforce our beliefs rather than challenge or broaden them, says Sunstein, building "information cocoons." (Lilley called this the tragedy of the commons but that's not how I've seen that phrase used. I thought the TotC was more a conflict over finite resources, and how big groups of people--whether they be shepherds grazing their flocks or Webheads editing Wikipedia--just muck things up.)

But even something as seemingly "democratic" and free-form as Wikipedia is actually quite structured. There are about 100 overseers for Wikipedia, Lilley said. Not all Wikipedians are created equal. He moved to a discussion of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and the people Gladwell calls connectors (socialites with lots of loose bonds), mavens (experts trusted by those around them to know what they're talking about) and salesmen (those good at persuading others). For a meme to spread you probably need to involve one or more of these types of people.

These are all interesting concepts, and useful when it comes to contemplating the future. It's mixing this all together and finding value (as a creator of memes) that is difficult, or at least difficult for me to grasp from Lilley. Take this slide he put up onscreen:

Irreversibility
Reduce entropy locally
Increase entropy globally
Fit for human purpose

"Irreversibility" means, Lilley explained, that you can't put an idea out that has to be taken back. "Reducing entropy locally" means that as a user I will understand (via a network-generated or -distributed meme, I guess) more about something. But the very act of creating that meme increases entropy globally by adding to the already over-burdened world of ideas and connections (more potential connections than there are atoms in the universe! or something). And "fit for human purpose"? Well that's obvious isn't it? In fact, you could put that one first and dispose of the rest.

The notion of value in networked media is complicated, he allowed. And the tools we'll need to bring to bear are not simplistic, linear tools. In a network, the power resides in the relationships.

I think I believe all this. I suppose I do, anyway. But I'm again left hungry for some flesh on this succinctly-sketched skeleton. It's not that I want a business school case study, it's that I need some analogies to give form to these wispy notions. Nobody else may need it. He's probably doing a good job of describing the landscape as he sees it. It's just that I'm selfish.

Or maybe, and this thought just occurred to me, maybe what he's on about isn't the creation of memes at all. Perhaps Lilley feels that a meme is a meme is a meme. What's changed is how those memes are distributed. I shouldn't be expecting Meme Creation for Dummies, but Harnessing the Networked Meme. But then again, I don't think so, for I'm pretty sure Lilley is in the school that dismisses the notion that all we're seeing is the same old stuff in a new wrapper. I think he thinks it's a whole new ballgame.

By the way, Lilley promised last night that he would say some "naughty things" about the BBC and Channel 4 at his next lecture. So get there early to pile on, all you public service broadcasting haters.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Always the Bridesmaid...

Last year, before I abandoned The Washington Post to spend a year in the land of warm beer and cold loos, I worked with a lovely young woman named Julie. She was my assistant and, working together in a not very big office, we were each other's audience. It was helpful for my 40something male brain to hear things from a 20something female perspective.

I most enjoyed hearing about Julie's wedding preparations. Not for her own wedding, but for the nuptials in which she was playing the role of bridesmaid. I think there were at least two last year and it was a pleasure to hear of the outrageous demands being made upon her. The biggest indignities, of course, were the bridesmaid dresses themselves.

I don't know if you knew this or not, but women are very particular about how they look. They are especially particular about how they look at certain high-profile events. Just try telling a bridesmaid that she is not the main attraction at the wedding and you're likely to get a dyed-to-match shoe up your bum. The tragedy from a bridesmaid's point of view is that she will inevitably be forced to wear a hideous garment, the whole point of which seems to be to diminish her in the eyes of any eligible males at the wedding. (And who's to say there isn't something to that? I wonder if, much as in certain primitive societies the bloody sheets of the marital bed must be displayed as proof of conjugal deflowering, so too must bridesmaids be dressed in ugly outfits.)

Julie kvetched continually about the color, cut and design of her wedding wear. She even went so far as to stealthily alter one dress so she could show a little more leg.

I thought about Julie, and all those other poor bridesmaids out there forced to pull on oddly-colored, puffy-sleeved garments, when I came across a passage in a book I'm reading for a story I'm working on. The book is the memoir of a society woman named Daisy Breaux Calhoun who was born in 1864. In describing her wedding in Charleston, S.C., in around 1890 Calhoun writes:
The bridesmaids were all dressed as wild flowers, field companions of the daisies, and carried baskets of daisies, mingled with the flower they represented. Besides the wild roses there were two brilliant brunettes as buttercups, in yellow crepe, their hats lined with golden brown velvet and covered with butter cups and two blonde girls represented corn flowers, with hats and baskets similarly bedecked. Then there were two petites chataines as ferns, in pale green crepe with maiden hair ferns on their hats and in their baskets, also two striking brunettes representing poppies.
See, Julie, it could have been worse. You could have had to dress as a flower.

By the way, there's an entire Web site devoted to ugly bridesmaid dresses.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Kids! What's the Matter With Kids Today?

I have a tough time keeping all the yob-attack stories straight in the British press. "Yobs" (or "chavs") are what the Americans might call teenage delinquents: no-goodniks who terrorize the community. I've already described some of My Lovely Wife's encounters with British youth. Those incidents pale in comparison to the horrible headlines in the British press.

The latest case involves a 47-year-old father of three named Garry Newlove who went outside when he heard some teenagers vandalizing one of his vehicles and ended up getting beaten to death. Three teens were sentenced to prison, including one who had been out on bail for earlier assaults. These cases, awful as they are, seem to meld into one another, so frequently do they seem to happen.

The perception that crime--and teenager-induced crime especially--is on the rise wasn't helped by a story in the Sunday Times that Britain's home secretary, Jacqui Smith, is afraid of walking in certain London neighborhoods alone at night. She's catching hell from opposition politicians over this, but isn't she just guilty of being honest? I don't remember the Conservatives being able to eliminate all crime. It's a shame we can't walk anywhere we like, anytime we like, without feeling a little nervous or "being aware of our surroundings," as the tourist guides put it. But wasn't it ever thus?

The BBC's Have Your Say site has a forum going asking users to suggest ways to get teen gangs off the street. There's the predictable "In my day we would have sent them off to Australia" response. The teens I've seen interviewed on TV all want youth centers. Hey, if it gets them beating up each other in a building rather than beating up the rest of us on the streets, I'm all for it.

Britain's always had a bit of a thug culture, a creepy undercurrent of violence that runs through everything like the vagus nerve. I remember when I attended school here as a teenager. There was a kid named Pete in my year who had a sniveling little toady assistant whose name I can't remember. Pete was the one to worry about. He'd come up to you in the morning and say, "Gissus a sarny." Translated, that meant "Give us a sandwich." If you'd brought your lunch it was wise to hand it over.

Did he ever hit me? I don't think so. But he only had to hit a few people to make everyone else fall into line. He'd move from threatening body language and near-incomprehensible yob-speak into actual violence very quickly. One minute you'd be joking in a quavering voice, "Ha-ha. No Pete, I don't think you'd like my sandwich" and the next he'd be pummeling you with his stony fists. It was the shock of it, the suddenness, that was so terrifying.

I remember watching from 50 meters away as my friend Adrian got taken down by Pete on the blacktop. Adrian was bouncing a soccer ball against the wall of the playground when Pete came up, wanting, I guess, to steal the ball. He swept Adrian's legs out from under him and Adrian tumbled to the ground. Adrian popped up and Pete did the same thing again: a practiced kick that sent Adrian to the tarmac. Up Adrian got again. I kept wanting to shout "Stay down! Stay down! He won't knock you down again if you're already down!"

That probably would have been bad advice. Those poor suburban fathers who got their heads kicked in probably stayed down.

I suppose Pete came from a broken home and had an alcoholic mom and was abused as a child. I certainly hope so anyway, the bastard.

Oddly, I have something of Pete's. No, it's not his tooth embedded in my scalp. When I was younger I did magic. He found out somehow and said he had a magic trick he wanted to sell me. It was a a little guillotine. It had two holes: one for your finger and the other for something like a carrot. You'd first use it to chop a carrot, then you'd put your finger in the top hole and a carrot in the bottom hole. Push down on the blade and the carrot flies off in two directions, but your finger--if you've done it corrrectly--stays attached to your hand.

I already had one, but Pete really wasn't asking if I wanted to buy it. He was telling me I was buying it. So I did. While my other version of the trick was clean and surgical, his finger chopper looked like it came from about 1840. Mine was shiny plastic. His was wooden, held together with tiny brads, the blade alarmingly rusty and dull. He had carved his initials on one side of the wooden frame. (Like a lot of thugs, Pete was always carving things. I seem to remember he had some of those dull blue tattoos on his hands that you only get from using ballpoint ink and the point of a compass.)

I suppose he'd stolen the finger chopper and didn't want it anymore. I still have it, in a box up in the attic. It probably beats up all my other magic tricks.

But for all this talk of violence, I feel relatively safe here in Oxford, and in England in general. I certainly don't fear that I'm going to get my head blown off by a gun, which is always in the background in America. Here there's a different potential worry, as this sign illustrates:


Although being stabbed or slashed by a knife is an unsettling prospect--so messy, so Shakespearean--I think I'll take it over getting shot by a gun anyday.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Friday Grab Bag: Wet, Wet, Wet Edition

rain
I understand that it snowed in Washington yesterday: lovely, sticky snow, up to six inches deep in places. We love to complain about snow in Washington, about how it snarls our traffic, springs our students from school, inspires manic trips to the supermarket. And yet I love it. Or, loved it. The chances of a little snow visiting Oxford fall somewhere between slim and "When an English tennis player next wins Wimbledon."

Instead, we get English sunshine. We've had gallons of the stuff this week, enough to cause flooding in some of the places that were flooded last summer. ("Let's see that war spirit again," reads the headline over today's Oxford Mail editorial, exhorting readers to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of the deluge. I expect we will soon be taking in some ragamuffins from East London to keep them safe from the Blitz.)

The English take rain as a matter of course. It runs off them like, well, like water off a duck's back. They grin and bear it. Well, bear it, anyway. They're not really a grinning people. I've become stoic myself, except when it comes to cycling. I hate biking in the rain. Unless you wear a rubber suit that you strip off at your destination, you will arrive wet. And because my bicycle seat seems to be made out of a sponge, even when it's stopped raining--even after I've squeezed the seat as much as I can to wring the water from it--I spend the day walking around with a moist crotch. ("Moist Crotch"? Wasn't that Spinal Tap's under-appreciated seventh album?)

Of course, what I should do is wrap a plastic shopping bag over the seat, like so:


That's what most cyclists in Oxford do. For some reason, I can't bring myself to do that. I just tell myself that it will stop raining soon.

The Darfur Flies
At any one time, dozens of lectures on a variety of arcane topics are being offered in Oxford. That's one of the great things about the university and about my fellowship: I can drop in to whatever I like and fill up the old brain pan. Yesterday I attended one on Darfur, co-hosted by my fellow Fellow Meera Selva. Meera covered Africa for the Independent and wrote about the troubled area of Sudan.

Like many Oxford lectures, it attracted a diverse group: students, academics, journalists, former aid workers, people interested in free cookies. Most interesting of all, though, were the four or five officials from the Sudanese embassy in London, who sat in the front row, vibrating with anticipation. As soon as the lecture was over and question-time started, the communications minister leapt to his feet. The Darfur crisis was misrepresented in the Western media he said. How come no one writes about the good things happening in Sudan? I'm sure President Bush feels the same way about Iraq. What about all the people who aren't being killed every day?

BritNews RoundUp
A tourist council in Suffolk is reprinting one of its brochures after someone noticed that the cover has a photo of a girl picking her nose.

Which married media star has fathered a love child? This column in the Daily Mail doesn't say. But he ought to be pretty easy to find. According to the photo that accompanied the story, the father has very dark skin and a big question mark in the middle of his head:



The dirtiest hotel in Britain is in Oxford, according to users of TripAdvisor.com. The Nanford guest house was described as "squalid," "horrendous" and a "total and utter dump." The owner of the guest house is keeping that war spirit: "I don't give a damn what TripAdvisor says," he told the Guardian.

Cats in the news, Part I: A man in Wales was arrested for murdering his girlfriend after police secretly taped him confessing to his cats. "I don't know if they can prove it or anything," he allegedly said to one. Unclear whether the cat is cooperating with police but given how duplicitous they can be, I wouldn't doubt it.

Cats in the news, Part II: A Bournemouth cat named Sgt. Podge takes a mile-and-a-half walk every night and waits in the morning in the same place to be picked up in the car by its owner. "I know where to collect him - as long as he's not wandering the streets," said owner Liz Bullard. Great. A cat with a carbon pawprint.

And just so my dog Charlie doesn't get jealous: A Hungarian scientist has developed a computer application that can translate a dog's barks. Sadly, it translates them into Hungarian, and what good is that?

Gargoyle of the Week



Sorry, haven't the slightest idea where I saw him, but he reminds me of Tom Hanks.

Have a safe and happy weekend.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Vote-o-Matic!

Who are you voting for in the U.S. presidential election? Well if you live in England, I'm assuming your answer is "None of the above." You're not allowed to vote, are you? But we Yanks have to make a decision. But how?

I once proposed that the religion page at The Washington Post print a big chart comparing all the world's faiths in various categories (views on sex before marriage, policy on sin, who gets into heaven, etc.). Readers could then run their fingers down the page and decide if they wanted to convert. ("Hmmm. These Zoroastrians have something going for them.")

This sort of thing is now easy on the Web and it's being applied to the presidential campaign. My friend and former Post colleague Craig Stoltz created a very cool online tool that compares the candidates' viewpoints on various healthcare-related topics. Tiny little candidate heads (echoes of Spy Magazine, Craig?) are arranged on two axes depending on how important the issue is to them and whether they see the solution as being, say, something for the market or for government. When you change issues--from stem cell research to heathcare reform--the heads obediently rearrange themselves. It's a nifty way of visualizing information.

The Washington Post has a few cool things, too. "The Front Runners" is a collection of Post coverage, including interviews, stump speeches and a neat feature called "Free Association." It creates a tag cloud of words voters use when describing a particular candidate. Thus John McCain's cloud includes "veteran," "old" and "hero" while Hillary Clinton's includes "Bill," "woman" and "b----."

"Choose Your Candidate" is a bit like my religion-o-matic. You answer a series of questions on various issues to help decide whose opinion most matches your own--though how helpful a statement such as "Yes. I propose a specific plan to guarantee truly universal health care for every man, woman and child in America" is is open to debate.

The Post's "Issues Tracker" shows what's being written about the candidates--in news stories, in op-eds, on blogs--on various subjects, from the abortion to the Iraq war. You can see that Hillary Clinton and "education" has garnered 22 mentions, while Hillary Clinton and "health care" gets 497. You can then click through to read the stories.

The Post has some other online political tools but I couldn't find them. That's one of the drawbacks of the Web: stuff just gets subsumed and lost so quickly. (Shades of the attention deficit Anthony Lilley spoke about.)

The New York Times has an interesting thing called "Candidate Schedules". It shows where the candidates have been campaigning. Light purple circles of various sizes are arranged on a map of the U.S. depending on where a candidate and how often he or she went there. When you press "play" violet circles bloom across the map. It looks as if Ebola is raging through Iowa and New Hampshire. (Which may be exactly what voters in those states thought.)

It's a bit easier to find the flashy (and Flash-y) campaign features on the Times's Web site, since there's a tab that calls up interactive offerings. That's how I found the debate analyzer, which shows how much each candidate spoke during a debate and allows you to mouse over a graphical representation of the debate, calling up their utterances.

None of these multimedia tools are a substitute for a sober , thoughtful analysis of the issues and the candidates. Oh, who am I kidding? They might be a perfect substitute. Or, rather, if the choice is between doing no research on a candidate and clicking around on a nifty Web tool, the latter is probably better. I doubt that any of them will replace that age-old deciding factor, however: How the candidate strikes you in the gut.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Thanks for the Meme-ories: Gilding the Lilley

And so last night to the first of four lectures by Anthony Lilley, CEO of a U.K. production company called Magic Lantern Productions. Lilley is the News International Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media here at Oxford. He'll be pondering the future of media and, as expected from a 21st-century digital guy, he's inviting the audience to play along. He wants all of us to contribute to his blog so he can create a user-generated lecture, one that presumably comprises the points that the audience raise.

Have the students write the lecture? Nice work if you can get it!

But seriously, it will be interesting to see the direction Lilley takes over the next three lectures. Last night was a bit of a curtain raiser, as he stuck his standard in the ground and staked his claim for a networked future where the one-to-many broadcast model will be swamped by the many-to-many. The mass media of the last 100 years, he said, will be seen to be an aberration, a deviation, as we return to a culture defined by social networking, this time made possible by the Web as opposed to the face-to-face ties that flourished in the pre-mass media age.

Lilley lamented that no mainstream media organization has at its head a visionary. As he said this he flashed a PowerPoint slide that featured a quote from Ernest Hemingway: "Never confuse movement with action." Ouch.

Then Lilley went all memetic on us. Memes, he explained, are the basic building blocks of culture, the stories societies tell themselves. The media no longer controls the creation and distribution of memes. The internet makes it possible for anyone, anywhere, anytime, to slip some memes into the cultural bloodstream. In other words: Come on down to Karl's Kulture Barn! We've gone meme crazy! Buy one meme, get one free! Better yet: Make your own memes!

(This meme business, by the way, was evidently started by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford professor best known these days for doing all he can to ensure he doesn't get into heaven.)

The problem we face isn't a scarcity of memes (we suffer, Lilley joked, from "infobesity"), it's a scarcity of attention. We're hip-deep in memes and don't have the time or attention to sort through them all. In the past, brands served as attention filters. We know what to expect from a BBC1 comedy or a Channel 4 TV show. We know how a Washington Post story differs from a National Enquirer one. But now things like "search" (trolling for memes using Google) and social networking (sharing memes with your friends on Facebook and MySpace, presumably) are eroding those distinctions. The days of the mass media's brute control of stories--of being, in Lilley's words, "the bouncer at the door"--are over.

I think he's probably right, though of course it's impossible to know right now to what degree this will Change Things. And Lilley was short on specific, real-world examples of how he sees this all playing out on the ground. A point about broadcasters always paying a lot to transmit sporting events because of sport's inherent memeeness didn't quite satisfy. And a slide he threw up that proclaimed "The Novelty of the New...The Immediacy of the Now" left me scratching my head. Why not "The Nowness of the New...The Immediacy of the Novel"?

I did take heart in his supposition that storytellers will have a place in tomorrow's interactive, networked world. He didn't say what their role will be. But Lilley has three more lectures to cover that ground.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

British Youth: Hanging or Firing Squad?

What's the best way to deal with the youth of Britain? Hanging has a certain old-school appeal-- more humane than drawing and quartering but, when properly, um, executed, just as fatal. A firing squad, on the other hand is more festive. It involves more people, more pomp, more circumstance. And it has that son et lumiere thing going for it.

Oh no, I hear you saying, why must the youth of Britain be killed at all? Surely we can just flog them. To which I reply: Flogging is cruel, you heartless bastards. I won't have it.

What has brought on this burst of law and order in this liberal's suddenly-stony heart? Only having My Lovely Wife being told to "fuck off" yet again by yet another youth of Britain.

Now there are times when "fuck off" is the exact, appropriate response to a situation. If, for example, My Lovely Wife had pinned a British youth to the pavement and was slowly decanting a beaker of fire ants into his eyeballs. Or, less extremely, if she and the British youth were friends and joshed in that profane manner that friends sometimes do: "Give me a french fry, you twat." "Fuck off!"

But it was not the appropriate response when My Lovely Wife was riding her bicycle past a nearby car park a few months ago and saw a group of British youth attempting to destroy the wrought iron fence that was surrounding a tree, rocking it back and forth, trying to pull it from the ground. In a jocular manner she said, "C'mon, what's that tree ever done to you?" To which the British youth replied: "Fuck off!" They were 8 and 9 years old.

Nor was it the appropriate response last night when two British youth laughed after their unleashed dog ran into the street, almost toppling My Lovely Wife from her bicycle. She pointed out that the dog should be on a leash, lest both it and she be injured. They responded, with an originality and wit that Shakespeare and Shaw would have appreciated, "Fuck off!"

I am embarrassed to report--though I understand the impulse completely--that Ruth's response utilized one of their two words, and that word wasn't "off."

Such is the affect that British youth can have on you. Not all British youth, of course, but enough that walking down the street can convince you--what with the swearing and the aggression and the limpid pools of binge-drinking-induced vomit--that "Clockwork Orange" was a documentary.

The boys are marginally worse than the girls, but what the girls lack in foul-mouthed incipient ultra-violence they make up in hooker-shaming fashion. The Oxford Skankocracy, I call it: teased hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, trashy blouse, and either capillary-constricting jeans or a mini skirt so microscopic that it seems to have been designed to allow gynecological access. I count it a good day if I can make it to the High Street and back without seeing a stranger's genitals.

God I sound old, don't I?

"Thatcher's children" is how one English acquaintance described the youth of Britain. I couldn't quite follow his argument, but it involved how the go-go '80s infected their parents, whose quest for filthy lucre then caused them to ignore the basic tenets of parenting, which evidently includes teaching your children not to tell adults to fuck off.

Maybe that's true. All I know is that if one more spotty British youth in trainers and a hoodie tells my wife to ...well, you know, I shall be in the market for a rope.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Citizen Journalism: Save Your Hay

"Save Your Hay"? Of course I mean "Have Your Say." Have Your Say is what the BBC calls the reader interaction area on its Web site. It's a delightfully British name: to the point, non-threatening, human. Though internally the BBC bandies about the expression "user-generated content"--aka UGC (one of the ugliest acronyms out there; just look at the way you have to twist your mouth to form those sounds)--to its credit it doesn't use that jargony term when inviting the public to participate. "Have your say," it says. And you do.

What does it mean that the public is invited to participate? All sorts of things, some of which were touched on last week in a speech by the head of the Beeb's newsroom, Peter Horrocks. Most noticeably, he said, the public can be quite nasty. Many of the comments in the Have Your Say forum after the murder of Benazir Bhutto were of the "Islam sucks" variety.

"The vehemence and the unanimity of these opinions against the Muslim religion were striking," Horrocks said, and the BBC briefly considered pulling down its comment board. If it had, it would have been accused of inviting free speech only to stifle it. Since it didn't, it could be accused of condoning intolerant speech. (The Washington Post has had similar debates about the propriety of its comments, as the paper's ombudsman wrote in a column last week.)

Horrocks is thinking beyond just what message the comments might send to those who read them, though. He's also concerned about what the BBC should do with them, that is, what are the news implications? Does the preponderance of negative comments mean more people are anti-Muslim than we think, or that BBC reporters should rethink the way they cover Pakistan or immigration or religion?

Not necessarily, he decided: "Rather than playing a numbers game to drive our agenda I instead encourage our teams to look for thoughtful or surprising views and opinions [in the forums]. In other words we still need to be journalistic with this material, as we would with any other source."

I think that's the right response. After all, "It's the journalism, stupid." But what are the journalistic implications of forums and, more broadly, of user-generated content? That's a vague question with a big, sprawling answer--or collection of answers.

The BBC does more than almost anyone in this arena. The Have Your Say portion of its Web site includes forums; it invites readers to send in pictures and raw video; it asks for input on specific articles that are in the reporting stage, in search of sources; it posts stories ("Your Stories") inspired by users. The UGC operation sifts through the comments and e-mails to see what should be sent on for use by other BBC journalists. There is a 20-minute weekly TV show, "Your News," that runs on the BBC's News 24 digital channel and is based on user-generated ideas.

More than two dozen people work in the BBC's interactive department, and at any one time a 13-person unit called the Hub is sifting through the tsunami of incoming submissions. E-mails are forwarded, images are categorized. Have Your Say editors set up and moderate forum debates. Some 10,000 items come in every day. Horrocks pointed out that though this number is impressive it represents fewer than 1 percent of the 5 million people who visit the BBC Web site every day. (That may not be strictly true; I understand Cardiff University will release some updated numbers soon.) It's a self-selecting group of BBC users with all the opportunity for bias that suggests.

One of the things I always wonder about the citizen journalism efforts of large, mainstream media outfits such as the BBC is: Why? What is the factor that spurs such an investment? Is it to wring some journalistic worth out of the torrent of submissions? Or is it to give the public the impression that they are wanted as more than mere recipients, that they are being taken inside the tent--to engage in conversation, not listen to a monologue, as Dan Gillmor might put it?

The BBC says it's the former. But, with 10,000 inputs day, this is journalism on the factory-farm scale. Many of the people who commented on Horrocks's speech pointed out that it's almost impossible to wade through hundreds of comments. Are those comments there to inform the people reading them or to please the people writing them?

Also, it's not always clear how readers or viewers should interpret UGC. What, for example, makes a Your Story any different or better than a Their--that is, a BBC--Story. Are these stories that might have slipped through the cracks if citizens had not sent them to the BBC? Are they not a subtle argument that even the BBC is infallible? (Not necessarily a bad thing.) Are they the journalistic equivalent of Dr. Johnson's female preacher/hind-leg walking dog: not done well but impressive for being done at all.

Still, I think it's right that the BBC has invested so heavily in Have Your Say. Even if it is the journalistic equivalent of mechanically-reclaimed meat, nuggets of value will surface regularly. It puts in place a structure that comes into its own when there is a big breaking news story: a natural disaster, a coup, a terrorist attack. And no less importantly it sends the message that a seemingly opaque organization cares enough about its readers (or viewers or listeners) that it wants to hear from them. This is vital at a time when the public's trust in the media is lower than the Marianas Trench.

Besides, the trash-to-treasure ratio of the UGC selected for display on a mainstream news site is probably no worse than that of the overall news site itself. Those who vehemently oppose citizen journalism would do well to remember just how bad some professional journalism is.

What of the future? Vicky Taylor, head of the BBC's interactive department, envisions a time when the Hub isn't processing only comments, photos and the odd shaky cellphone video. She can see the Have Your Say site hosting citizen-produced video of a more professional nature, a BBC YouTube, if you will.

"That can’t stand alone," she told me. "Everything has to work with everything else. But I personally have no problem if somebody can produce a really good form themself that has a piece to camera in it and there’s a narrative. Then you can run that as a film. Or we can give them the tools to do audio slide shows, that type of thing. And we run them on our site."

It would be the video equivalent of their message boards: blanketed with disclaimers that this or that video package doesn't represent BBC policy or adhere to BBC standards, but posted with the belief that a viewer somewhere will be interested in it.

"I don’t see a problem with that," she said.

There are some journalists who, having their say, would say that goes to far. I'm convinced, though, that you'll never know if you've gone too far until you've gone far enough.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Friday Grab Bag: Wrinkly Face Edition

BritNews RoundUp
The British media, the Daily Mail in particular, love tallying the toll that age takes on the formerly beautiful. Every other day, it seems, there's a story about how absolutely awful it is that a one-time Bond girl or supermodel has developed cellulite or crow's feet. Look how the mighty have fallen, the paper seems to gloat. Strangely, the related fascination of the Mail is at botched plastic surgery. If you're a celebrity, you're either punished for getting older or you're punished for trying not to look any older.

Comes now Britt Eklund, whom the Mail says has "trout pout." What's that, you wonder? It's collagen implants that make the lips pucker like the face of a fish. The Mail helpfully includes photos of other actresses suffering from the same ailment, including Meg Ryan.

I love the headline on this Daily Mail story: "I Lost Everything After Succumbing to the Office Piranha's Seduction." (Trout? Piranha? What is it with the Mail and fish?) It's the sad tale of a married father of two who...well allow me to let him explain: "I was reeled in hook, line and sinker by a woman who deliberately set out to find a husband. She knew I was married and that my wife was pregnant, but she still targeted me for herself. She seemed happy to try to seduce me and then destroy my marriage in the hope that I would marry her."

And guess what? Her diabolical plan almost worked! Britain has banned smoking in pubs and hunting foxes. Surely Parliament can introduce legislation banning office piranhas.

According to today's Daily Mail, 1,000 binge drinkers are hospitalized every day in Britain. According to today's Daily Telegraph, 500 marijuana users are hospitalized every week in Britain. By my rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations, by 2046 every person in Britain will have been hospitalized for one or the other.

In other news, a dog in Wigan missed his late feline friend so much that he dug up his dead body and carried it into the house. Reports the Times: "Arthur [the cat] is now reburied in a secure grave. And Oscar [the dog] has a new playmate, a kitten called Limpet." I'm guessing Limpet sleeps with one eye open.

According to the Telegraph, a chapel outside Manchester is going to be heated with power obtained by burning corpses at a nearby crematorium. Ashes to ashes, dust to BTUs.

Finally, if you're flying to Fiji, make sure to ask for a seat in the "non-urinating" section: "Urinating Soldier Blamed for Falling Fiji Tourism."

Gargoyle(s) of the Week
This window is absolutely encrusted with the guys:


I really should write down the names of where I take these pictures. I've forgotten where I took this one. It might have been Christ Church. Definitely in Oxford, though.

You know what would be really funny: if inside this building you could see the bodies of these 13 figures, crouched over on all fours, their heads stuck out through the wall.

It's a rainy day here in Oxford, a day to go to the library, if only going to the library didn't involve going out into the rain. Whatever the weather in your neck of the woods, have a great weekend.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

The Shirt Off Your Back

A couple of years ago I bought my baseball-loving Lovely Wife a replica Washington Nationals batting practice shirt. I paid northwards of $100 for what was, when you get down to it, a hunk of brightly-colored polyester.

I won't get into the odd psychopathology that drives sports fans to clothe themselves in the raiment of their heroes. (Can you imagine if supporters of all sorts did that? Should Barack Obama supporters follow their candidate while dressed in coat and tie? Would Hilary Clinton's fans choose a sober pantsuit? And who would horse-racing gamblers choose to emulate: the jockey or the horse?) I'll just point you to a story from today's Guardian that confirms what many sports fans suspect: They're being ripped off.

According to the Guardian, fans who bought certain England and Manchester United replica jerseys were gouged. "Prices were kept artificially high because of unlawful agreements between manufacturers and sellers," reported the paper. Those who can prove they bought such a shirt can get a refund of up to 20 pounds.

Also on the rip-off front: Apple is going to have to cut the cost of iTunes downloads in Britain. I've had nothing but trouble with iTunes since moving here. My old U.S. account isn't any good and I don't know if that's because I changed my credit card address from the U.S. to the U.K. or if Apple figured out I was in England from my ISP details. Whichever it was, it costs 79 pence to download a song. That's about $1.60, compared to 99 cents-per-song in America. Also, I can't order iTunes gifts for people in the U.S. online, even if I pay in pounds.

Part of the problem, of course, is the weak dollar. But the European commission ruled that Apple was unfairly charging more for music in Britain, compared with the rest of Europe. Steve Jobs seemed to be contrite, saying this is a step toward "pan-European" pricing of music. Sure, Steve, but how about pan-global pricing?

Incidentally, both of these efforts were spearheaded by Which?, a U.K. consumer organization. They're like a super-activist Consumer Reports.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Coffee-Blogging

Ah, that's better: off the bus, in a coffee shop at Gloucester Green, sipping a decaf cappuccino and about to join some fellow Fellows for a pint. Perhaps it isn't norovirus after all, just a bad bus driver. (He was the sort, and I've known them before, who can't keep a constant speed. He liked to speed up then slooooooow down, thenspeedup, then sloooooow down. I'm getting sick just typing that.)

I was in London yesterday to talk about my study topic with a few smart people. One was Martin Moore, the director of the Media Standards Trust. (Their web site appears to be down right this moment.) The MST is a relatively new outfit that is doing lots of things, but the most interesting to me is a project to come up with what amount to ingredients labels for news or comment web pages. They're working with Tim Berners-Lee to develop a system where users could search for information based on various criteria, ie: Show me news stories about the unrest in Kenya that rely on two or more named sources, utilize reports that are funded by impartial observers and include links to original source material. Or if you'd rather have first-person commentary, you could set your filter for that, too. I don't know much more than that, but it's an interesting approach, one that attempts to help deal with the avalanche of information that is being uploaded to the web every day.

I also met with Vin Ray at the BBC. He's director of the Beeb's College of Journalism, an outfit started in the wake of the Hutton Report. Vin's shop has prepared hundreds of pages of material--both technical, nuts-and-bolts, how-tos and more reflective material meant to touch on journalistic ethics--to help improve the quality of BBC journalism. There's a robust section on user-generated content, which is what I'm interested in.

Then I spoke with Vicky Taylor, czarina of UGC at the Beeb. The BBC is among the most active media outlets in requesting content--comments, photos, videos--from users, harvesting it for the web site and passing it on to BBC reporters as possible source material. This is the sort of thing--user-generated content, citizen journalism--that drives some journalists crazy, akin to letting the inmates run the asylum. Best not to think about comparing my profession to the madhouse.

My friend Richard (and former fellow Fellow) showed me around his shop. It was nice to be back in a newsroom again: the energy, the intelligence, the gallows humor.

Most exciting of all, during my stint in White City (the name of the multi-building compound that the BBC calls home) was a glimpse of a couple pooches being walked out back by a minder. A gaggle of schoolchildren were taking a tour and almost as one they screamed out "The 'Blue Peter' dogs!" Ah, celebrity.

Bus-Blogging

Okay, this time I really am on the bus. The wi-fi is working on this particular Oxford-bound coach.

I feel a bit nauseous, actually. I don't know if I have the norovirus or if it's the fact that I'm sitting backwards. It was the only available seat at a little table, but the stop-and-go of the bus as it leaves the city, and my backwards vantage, is conspiring to give me that flushed, queasy feeling. Or maybe it was the cheddar and pickle sandwich I had for lunch. In any event, I think I better sign off for now...

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

London Calling

I would have uploaded this from the bus to London, but couldn't. The wi-fi was down. So here am I filing today's blog from the BBC (and more on that tomorrow):

I'm on the bus right now, going to London to catch the norovirus. When I come back tomorrow, I'll give it to my kids and My Lovely Wife.

Of course, I hope I don't get the norovirus, but if you believe the papers, everyone in England has the norovirus. I was skeptical at first, then I read that my fellow Reuters Fellow Glenda Cooper was struck by it. And one of the people I'm going into London to meet today, Martin Moore, also claimed in his blog to have been laid low by "the flu." Who does he think he's kidding?

The bug, which I know mainly because of the way it runs rampant through passengers on cruise ships, is also called "winter vomiting disease." You've got to like an ailment whose name leaves no doubt as to its symptoms. It's like sleeping sickness or chicken pox. I read, though, that among the norovirus's other symptoms are diarrhea. If diarrhea could be a verb, the malady might have a different name: winter diarrheaing disease.

Which, apropos of nothing, reminds me of the time right after college when my father, brother and I took a road trip from our dad's house on an air base in West Germany to the west coast of France to visit, for reasons too obscure to get into here, the Beneteau boat factory. When we left Deutschland my brother was in the throes of a 24-hour bug of some sort. Trapped as we were in a sealed container--a lime green 7-series BMW--it was only a matter of time before the contagion spread. My father caught it next and as I was the only person who spoke any French--badly--I was dispatched to the pharmacy. My father said his symptoms included diarrhea. Do you have any idea how hard it is to pronounce the French word for "diarrhea"? It involves muscles at the back of the throat that Americans aren't even born with.

And now here I am headed into the norovirus contamination zone: a megalopolis of wheezing, hacking Brits. And did I mention that I'm spending the night tonight in a house with three children under 7, those little infectious agents that rival the anopheles mosquito as brutally efficient vectors of disease? This is like "28 Days Later" or "I Am Legend." My wife expects me to dip my hands in bleach, gargle with naphtha and burn my clothes when I return.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Drive, He Said

The best program on British television, and possibly the best program in the history of television, runs Sunday nights on BBC 2. It's called "Top Gear" and it's about how each of us can make the world a better place with simple acts of kindness, compassion and neighborhood voluntarism.

Who am I kidding? "Top Gear" is a totally indefensible hour-long show devoted to the internal combustion engine. It's about cars. But to call it a weekly car-test show is like calling "La Boheme" a show about a girl with a pesky cough. They drive new models, yes, but "Top Gear" is unadulterated car-porn, but with much better production values. The segments are beautifully filmed and edited, making each car look tooth-achingly beautiful. It's as if they called in Ridley Scott or Michael Bay to direct.

And they do ridiculously entertaining high-concept things in the show, like have a Bugatti Veyron race a light airplane from Italy to London or have an Aston Martin race a man on rollerskates with a jet-pack strapped to his back down a runway. They bring in celebrities to do a timed lap around their course in an econobox then reveal whether Simon Cowell was faster than Jamie Oliver. Sure, "Top Gear" demonstrates the luggage capacity of the new Land Rover, but goes far, far beyond merely dutiful reviews of the new Honda or Daihatsu.

The first thing I noticed about "Top Gear" was how pathetic it makes America's closest analogue appear. In the States there's a PBS show called "MotorWeek" which manages the amazing feat of making every car it tests look boring. It has at its host a humorless guy named John Davis who sucks the life out of even the most thrilling vehicles. Part of it is Davis's incredibly over-scripted delivery, each word uttered as if he's reading it from a TelePrompTer. And part of it's just Davis. He's a tubby guy who couldn't lever himself into a Lotus or Lamborghini unless he was sprayed with graphite. The other main character is Pat Goss, a garage owner from suburban Maryland who talks about car maintenance. His segment at least makes viewers dream that their garages could be as clean and well-equipped as his, but he's another chubby sourpuss. (And nowhere more sour than on his weekly radio program. He can barely hide the contempt in his voice when listeners phone in to ask about their "Check Engine" lights.)

The cars on "MotorWeek" are driven responsibly. You can't imagine them getting above 55 mph, let alone racing a man with a jet-pack on his back.

"Top Gear's" main host is Jeremy Clarkson, the anti-John Davis. In addition to his "Top Gear" duties, Clarkson pens an engaging car column in the Sunday Times. It's his weekly non-car column that explains why Clarkson is so popular in Britain, though. (There's a nascent "Clarkson for Prime Minister" movement.) Fed up with political correctness, Clarkson is a master of "I calls it as I see it." He can deploy a metaphor with the aplomb and audacity of a Thai stripper picking a Ping Pong ball up off a bar floor. It can all be a bit much sometimes, but it's a refreshing antidote to the furrowed-brow hand-wringing that characterizes so much British journalism.

This segment gives a taste of "Top Gear's" sensibility:



There's nothing as entertaining-- or wonderfully irresponsible--on American televsion. "Top Gear's" in re-runs now. It won't start up again till the summer, by which time I'll be back in the land of "MotorWeek." Pity, as I enjoy my weekly dose of petrol--er, gasoline.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Friday Grab Bag: Pants on Fire Edition

BritNews RoundUp
The most British news story of the week surely must be the one that was headlined thusly on the BBC Web site: "Giant Knickers Put Out House Fire."

What first springs to mind is a massive, house-size pair of underwear draped over a burning building like a circus tent. But, no, Jenny Marsey of Hartlepool doesn't have an ass as big as a house, just big enough for her quick-thinking son, John, to snatch her knickers from a washing basket, soak them with water and then throw them over a burning pan. Naturally, the panties were from Marks & Spencers and John was making fry bread.

An aside on fry bread: It's a staple of what's known as the "cooked English breakfast," or "full English breakfast," or "heart attack on a plate." The name is perfectly descriptive. It's not bread that's been toasted but bread that's been fried in a pan. I'm not a fan, not because of the way it tastes--you could fry a pack of cigarettes and they'd taste good--but because of the challenge consuming it poses. Fry bread is too greasy and gross to pick up with your hands, but it shatters when you poke it with a fork. Of course, if you're eating a full English breakfast you probably don't care how you get it down your throat.

Perhaps Jenny Marsey will be approached by producers of a reality TV show. I hope she first reads this shocking story from the Daily Mail: Some people say reality TV ruined their lives. Hard to believe, isn't it? You would think that swapping your wife or letting a stranger raise your child or allowing camera crews to film your bowel movements would bring you nothing but respect. Sadly, that seems not to be the case. "It was to be my 15 minutes of fame," said Claire Molyneux of her appearance on a show called "Take My Mother-in-Law." "I signed up in a fit of madness, and I have regretted it ever since." I'm guessing she regretted it because they gave her mother-in-law back.

I learned from the story that many reality TV shows harvest their participants from a Web site called beonscreen. Among the British shows looking for suckers, er, stars, is one called "Spa of Embarrassing Illnesses." Then there's "Let's Talk About Breasts" : "We are looking for outgoing, outspoken women (and a few men!) of all shapes and sizes to talk about their relationship with their breasts for a new high profile TV documentary."

Relationship with their breasts. Hmmm.... "Well, Moira, it was fine when we were young but lately we've just sort of drifted apart...."

The always-impressive Guardian has a nice feature today on the best Web sites for downloading free music. The paper is very good at these sort of reader-service pieces. This one is broken down by different genre (soul, garage, B-sides). I haven't tried any of its suggestions yet, but I will.

And, of course, all the papers and media here are reporting on the Iowa caucuses. The U.S. presidential election is being watched very carefully from here. Bush is widely seen as a disaster and most observers can't believe Americans would actually elect Huckabee. But we've surprised them before!

Gargoyle of the Week
This guy is on Westminster Cathedral:


Say, I hope my readers from Washington have already contributed to The Post's annual Children's Hospital fundraising campaign. This is something the paper has been doing for 60 years. I usually write the columns about the work done at the hospital but this year my colleague (and Oxford alum!) Alice Reid is doing the honors. Please consider making a gift. All proceeds go to help pay the bills of kids who come from poor families.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Paper Trail

As previously described, I start every morning here in Oxford by walking to the news agents. This accomplishes two things: The dog gets a walk and I buy the papers, always the Oxford Mail and usually the Guardian.

There must be a word to describe the posters that British news agents put outside every day, the ones that highlight the big story from that day's paper. (Street sheet? Paper poster? Perhaps an English newspaper vet could enlighten us.) These usually advertise a tabloid paper, the main story boiled down to a precipitate of eye-catching--and hopefully change purse-emptying--prose. Like a good tabloid headline, the ideal poster catchline pushes all the right buttons, whether they be fear, greed, joy, sex, or some combination thereof.

I spotted a good example this morning:


"Grieving," "tragedy"--the perfect combination of pain and pathos. Even better, though, was the poster on the other side of the sign:


I dare you to resist buying the Oxford Mail after seeing that line, just to find out what exactly a "volatile man" is. (Isn't that a Neil Diamond song? "I'll be what I am/ Volatile Man....")

The story is here. I suppose in a less enlightened era the poster would have read: "Crazy Man on the Loose."

In case you're wondering what I do with my dog, Charlie, while I'm inside buying the newspaper, this is what I do:


I lash Charlie to the bike rack as if he was a 10-speed Raleigh. He drops the tennis ball he's been carrying, since he knows as soon as I come out I'm going to give him a little doggie treat. Then we walk home, he reads the paper and I curl up for a nap. Or is it the other way around?