Friday 28 September 2007

Friday Grab Bag

Just a few short bits and bobs today, as we slide into the weekend. First up:

Meet Rechie, the King of Kustomer Service
My Lovely Wife has been trying to extract some information from the online payment site PayPal--namely, whether we can set up an account in two different currencies, dollars and pounds. Here is the entire text of the e-mail she got back from PayPal in response to her question:

>Dear Ruth,
>Hello my name is Rechie, I am sorry to hear about the situation
>regarding (Briefly repeat the members situation), and understand your
>frustration and concern over this issue. I am happy to assist you with
>your questions.
>If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact us again.
>PayPal Consumer Support
>PayPal, an eBay Company

I think I'm going to use that when dealing with any problem I may encounter. Rather than articulate the dilemma, I'll just say "Briefly repeat the members situation."

Not Their Piano Forte

A story in yesterday's Guardian caught my eye. The Bosendorfer piano factory in Austria has donated a $170,000 concert grand to a classical music festival taking place in the wilds of Exmoor and Dartmoor. This piano replaces a Bosendorfer that festival organizers had spent years raising funds for. What happened to that one? This is what happened.

I think this quote says it all: "Mr Adie, 61, said that the piano's workings would be examined but it was impossible to believe that the 10,000 working parts would have survived the impact."

My Lucky Number
I got my first Oxford hair cut this week. Because everything is so expensive around here, I'm determined to save money wherever possible. I pay $35 for a haircut in Washington. But that's because I go to a hairdresser, not a barber. Prices at hairdressers near my house in Oxford are comparable to that--18 pounds for a man's cut--but I can't bring myself to shell out that much. I hear there's a barber college somewhere--that's what I really want; maybe they'll pay me--but I haven't found it yet. So instead I went to Cowley Road.

Cowley Road is a diverse, if somewhat shabby, street in East Oxford. It's where we bought our bikes and where I bought some drumsticks. It's where the biggest music club in Oxford is. And supposedly where the junkies and prostitutes hang out. In other words, perfect for an economical haircut.

I found a place, Youssef's, that charges only 9 pounds. Youssef asked what I wanted. I described the haircut: short, but not too short; a little longer at the front; keep the pathetic, vestigial sideburns. "You want a Number 4," said Youssef.

"I guess," I said. I looked around to see if there was a chart on the wall showing various styles, each one carefully numbered. There was none. Youssef fired up his electric clippers.

It turns out British barbers use a uniform system to describe the setting on their clippers. Number 1 is basically bald. Number 2 is a teensy bit longer. And Number 4? Let's just say I have the shortest hair I've had since I was born. It should definitely save me money, though. I won't need to spend another 9 pounds for about six months.

Have a great weekend and good luck surviving any impacts you may encounter.

Thursday 27 September 2007

Tea'd Off

What does it take to get a decent cup of tea around here? Three weeks in this country (three weeks today, in fact) and so far I've been sluicing an underwhelming gray beverage down my throat. Not that I blame anyone other than myself. I fall into a stupor when confronting the tea aisle in a British grocery store. So many different brands to choose from! So why have I always chosen so poorly?

We were occasional tea drinkers back home in the States, preferring--like most of our countrymen--the bitter tang of the coffee bean to the sublime kiss of the tea leaf. The house we're renting in Oxford is not equipped with a proper coffee maker. There is a French press. That primitive contraption undoubtedly has a smaller carbon footprint than the Krups drip-filter machine we have back home but there's something fussy and fey about it. And that name, "French press": It sounds like some kinky sex act you'd get in Pigalle.

But we shouldn't be drinking coffee anyway. We're in England, the Land of the Cuppa, that obligatory goblet of multi-purpose liquid over which Britons relax, dish, kvetch, commiserate and ruminate. And while British coffee-making technology may be sorely lacking, the British excel at the science of instantaneous water heating. Every home in the United Kingdom is equipped with an electric kettle (below, right) that can turn cold tap water into superheated steam in about 8.5 seconds. Frightening, really.

The first tea we bought was something called Sainsbury's Fairtrade Tea. Drinking it--imagine warm water with just a hint of grass clippings--I was reminded that whenever I let my conscience be my guide ("Fair trade? Well that'll be better for the environment") I'm disappointed. Clear cut the forests, I say, if it means a tasty cup of tea.

Next we tried Twinings Classics Traditional English Tea. It was better-- Classics and Traditional!-- but it wasn't the transporting experience I was hoping for. What do I want in a tea? I guess I want something dense and chewy, the kind of tea you can stand a spoon up in. We've been told that we need to try PG Tips. People call it "builder's tea," the sort of strong tea that the lower classes supposedly prefer.

Tea has been in the news here. I read a story yesterday in The Times about how the United Kingdom Tea Council got its knuckles rapped for exaggerating the health benefits of tea in a series of ads. Guess what: Drinking four cups of tea a day isn't really as good for you as eating five servings of fruits and vegetables, as one ad may have suggested.

The Advertising Standards Authority's full report is sort of fun to read, if a little dense (and chewy?). The UK Tea Council provided all sorts of studies to supports its health claims--"antioxidant" this and "flavonoid" that--but the ad police pointed out that two of the studies were funded by the tea barons. One study even said "the quality of the studies now available is insufficient to draw firm conclusions."

I think it would be fun to work at the Advertising Standards Authority, debunking outrageous and misleading claims. The ASA released nine other reports yesterday, smacking everyone from the Body Shop (the effects of moisturizer are superficial, not physiological) to a home furnishings store whose television commercial showed a wife slapping her husband. "[We] considered," wrote the authority, "that the woman's action in [the ad], of slapping her husband twice as punishment for leaving the toilet seat up, gave the impression that aggression and violence enabled people in everyday life to get their own way."

And of course that isn't true. Aggression and violence never solved anything. But if I don't get a decent cup of tea soon, I won't be responsible for my actions.

Wednesday 26 September 2007

Sew What?

Should I be concerned that My Lovely Wife has lugged home a 1928 hand-operated Singer sewing machine that weighs as much as a boat anchor and is probably just as useful? And a scratchy wool horse blanket, despite the fact that, as far as I can tell, we do not own a horse? And that yesterday she made me lash a cork bulletin board to my bicycle and carry it through the streets of Oxford to our home?

Should this bizarrely acquisitive behavior worry me? Maybe, but I think I understand it. See, three weeks ago we moved to Oxford from our comfortable suburban Washington home, a home filled with a surplus of stuff, anything we could possibly ever want or need. And though our house here in Oxford is furnished, it isn't what you'd call overfurnished. While I am content to muddle through ("There's only four of us; do we really need more than four plates?"), she is determined to assemble a full complement of staples.

Then, too, there is the fact that My Lovely Wife has too much time on her hands, time that she must fill somehow. She's decided to fill some of it by grazing through the Oxford Freecycle listings, the Web site for second-hand items that people would rather give to a good home than throw away.

The cork board? Our daughters aren't allowed to put up posters, but they may hang one picture. A bulletin board should allow them to decorate a bit and still get us our security deposit back. The horse blanket? Ruth is convinced a hard winter is on the way and that our linen closet is lacking. Then there's the sewing machine....

First of all, Ruth is a wonderful seamstress. She can sew anything. I used to daydream about owning a polka-dot shirt like one I saw Ringo Starr wearing in a photo. Ruth made me one for Father's Day. Do you have any idea how hard it is to make a shirt? It almost broke her--Ruth's eye still twitches every time I say the word "placket"--but she did it.

Our 14-year-old daughter's school is having something called "Book Character Day," where students dress up as characters from books. When confronted with an assignment like this, Beatrice doesn't think in terms of "What's my favorite fictional character?" She thinks, "What would be the coolest outfit to wear?" A simple Nancy Drew twin-set would not do. She decided on Scarlett O'Hara's dress from "Gone With the Wind."

Oxford is the thrift shop (or "charity shop") capital of England so Ruth was able to pick up a few patterned bedsheets for a couple of quid. An ancient, hand-cranked sewing machine showed up on Freecycle and she snapped it up. She will need to take it apart, clean it, oil it, and put it back together again.

Ruth is slowly filling our house with objects she has salvaged. I wouldn't be surprised if I came home one day to find a crockpot, a snooker table and a stuffed crocodile in our living room. It should bother me, but frankly my dear....well, you know.

Tuesday 25 September 2007

The BBC's Cat-astrophe

The basic commandment of journalism is Thou shalt not make stuff up. It isn't Thou shalt usually not make stuff up, or Thou shalt not make up important stuff, but it's okay to make up the unimportant stuff.

No, not much room for interpretation. Yet it's amazing--and troubling--how often this commandment is broken. There are a lot of sinners out there. One must ask: WWJD? What would a journalist do?

The latest making-stuff-up episode to take place on this scepter'd isle involves the BBC and a drip-drip-drip of revelations, each one arguably minor, most of them almost laughable. The poster child--or poster pet--is a kitten that either is or isn't named Socks. The kitten is the mascot of a venerable children's TV show called "Blue Peter."

I remember watching "Blue Peter" when I was a teenager in Britain in 1977/78. The show's hosts would come and go, but all were characterized by a hale and hearty chipperness: "Hullo!" they'd exhort. "Today we're going to make a chronometer out of ice lolly sticks!" They'd glue a few wooden popsicle sticks together--while viewers at home desperately did the same--and then they'd recite the magical incantation--"Here's one I made earlier"--and pull from underneath the table a breathtaking example of the watchmaker's art. Meanwhile, you were left with sticky fingers, a ruined carpet and something resembling a matchbox that had been dropped in a blender.

And then there were the animals. My English mate Richard tells me the onscreen quadrupeds--cat, dog, tortoise, each with a compelling back story and plenty of screen time--were designed to comfort children who weren't allowed to have pets of their own. A kid living in a cramped flat or council house could have some sense of ownership of the "Blue Peter" cat--a 1/1,237,900th share in it, if you like.

I can't remember if the viewing audience always chose the name, but that's what happened with the most recent kitten. "Socks" had been in the lead for a while, but was overtaken towards the end of voting by "Cookie," the eventual winner. But "Blue Peter's" producers went with "Socks." (Why? Theories abound. They may have suspected voter fraud [a hanging chad?]. "Cookie" supposedly is slang for something rude, though I haven't been able to figure out what. My favorite explanation, though, is that "Cookie" was too American. They don't have "cookies" in the U.K. They have "biscuits.")

Socksgate was the latest in unsettling revelations. Earlier a "Blue Peter" audience member was press-ganged into posing as the winner of a phone-in contest. (The English are mad for contests.) Through the magic of editing, a BBC executive on another program was inserted--doing the prototypical ruminative nod--into interviews he himself did not conduct.

None of these things are as bad as what a reporter for my employer, The Washington Post, did 27 years ago, when she created an 8-year-old heroin addict. But, need I remind you, Thou shalt not make stuff up.

Trust and believability are all we journalists have going for us. We hold mirrors--and microscopes and telescopes--up to reality. We don't hold kaleidoscopes; we don't play with the truth. Sometimes reality means the cat gets a name you don't like.

Sunday 23 September 2007

A Day in the Museum

ashmolean museum statue
I'm determined this year to force-feed my children culture like a foie gras farmer feeding grain to a goose: Open up kids, here it comes! The weekend before last the culture injection was an open house at Christ Church, the Oxford college whose Great Hall was the setting for some scenes from Harry Potter. Last weekend it was Oxford's famed Ashmolean Museum.

My idea of seeing a museum is to get there right when it opens, to be the first to stride through the doors, before even the uniformed docents have reached the furthest recesses of the gallery. This is impossible with teenagers. They are capable of prodigious feats of sleep. I have found that barging into teenagers' rooms, ripping the sheets from their beds and shouting, "Wake up! We're going to the Ashmolean!" is actually counterproductive. It raises the degree of festering resentment above the already toxic background level that chitters in a teenager like a Geiger counter near a glow-in-the-dark watch.

So I bided my time on Saturday and only when when they were up and fed and washed and dressed did I remind them what the day had in store for them. I think they were really touched by my interest in their cultural development. They were thanking me all the way there.

Here's something I didn't know: The Ashmolean is named after someone named Ashmole. This surprised me for two reasons. First, because I'd assumed it was a Latin word. Second, because I felt sorry for Elias Ashmole (1617-1692). I can imagine how tough it was for him as a kid: "Nice move, Ashmole!" (Or would that be "Arshmole"?)

Anyway, the Ashmolean is one of the oldest museums in the world--one of the first institutions, in fact, to go by that word: museum. It opened in 1683 and the bulk of its collection included artifacts that had been gathered by a father and son named Tradescant, from whom Elias Ashmole purchased the curiosities.

I have a fondness for jumbled museums that don't try to teach you too much. They're not in vogue anymore and, in fact, the Ashmolean is undergoing a renovation. Perhaps when that work is done the museum will be a place that's heavy on the wall text and the context, and not an assortment of objects in cases and paintings in frames.

In its current state the Ashmolean illustrates what enthusiasts the English are and, evidently, always have been. They like stuff: collecting it, cataloging it, displaying it. The best illustration of this was not one, but two cases full of early English spoons:

ashmolean spoons

If you like old spoons, that's your place.

The object I really wanted to see--and wanted my children to see--was something called the Alfred Jewel. It's more the jewel of the Ashmolean's collection than an actual jewel. In fact, it's hard to say exactly what it is. The Hope Diamond it is not. Rather, it's a 9th-century ornament about the size of a cigarette lighter. A teardrop-shaped piece of rock crystal covers an enameled figure. A snouty sort of animal head is at one end and an inscription runs around the whole jewel: Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan, "Alfred ordered me to be made."

That would be King Alfred. The jewel may have been one of several that he gave as gifts, to be used as pointers when reading religious texts. I can see the reaction: "Uh, thanks Alfred. It's a, um, pointer for reading religious texts you say? Just what I always wanted." (It's believed Alfred gave the religious text too.)

alfred jewel

Or maybe they didn't. Maybe it's not a pointer after all. They aren't really sure.

As the museum undergoes renovation, some of its most treasured objects are gathered together in the same room, so that a mere jewel's throw from the Alfred Jewel is Powhatan's mantle, a cloak once owned by the native chief who so impressed Capt. John Smith.
Looking at the shell-embroidered animal skin--both of us transplants from the same distant land--I thought about how Pocahontas herself, if I were to take her to the Ashmolean, would surely recognize it as belonging to her father.

If, that is, I was able to get her out of bed.

Wednesday 19 September 2007

I Got a Line on You, Babe

How does the world end? In a supernova? In a nuclear conflagration? In the frigid embrace of a second ice age? Or does it end in a queue?

The TV news and the front pages in Britain over the last few days have featured stories about Northern Rock, a bank that has suffered financial woes. You don’t like to hear the words “bank” and “financial woes” in the same sentence; you especially don’t like it if it’s your bank. And so account holders at Northern Rock have been lining up to get their money out.

You only need to have seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” once to know that this is Not Good. If you’re one of those people who can’t be bothered to take your money out, if you believe it’s safe there and you refuse to be cajoled into acting like a lemming--or if you simply hate queues--you might end up losing your life savings.

But apparently no one in Britain hates queues. In fact, they love them. Will Pavia has a lovely little story in the Times today about the scene outside a North London branch of Northern Rock yesterday. “Everyone agreed that it was a perfect day for [lining up outside Northern Rock]. Barry Finer, 59, the director of a fashion wholesaler, said: ‘It’s been a bit cold but it’s been lovely. There’s a been a lot of Dunkirk spirit. I have to admit I rather like queueing.’ ”

Who doesn’t? I’ve always thought you could have an amusement park ride called the Mighty Inchworm that was simply a humongous queue. There’d be notices that read: “Two hours from this sign,” “One hour from this sign,” etc. You’d shuffle slowly along, your sense of anticipation growing (“Five minutes from this sign”!), and then you’d round a corner and...the line would just end.

Tell me real life isn’t like that.

Speaking of real life: All this bank-going-bust stuff doesn’t seem like real life. It reminds me of one of those movies where there’s a creeping global meltdown, where a fake newscaster announces a “Cross-border incursion by rebel forces in Africa” and a “drop in shares in America’s largest manufacturer” and “mysterious livestock die-offs across large parts of the Midlands.” They seem unconnected but before you know it, zombies are walking the Earth.

Or queuing up for their turn to walk the Earth.