Wednesday 30 April 2008

Sky Larking: Don't Adjust Your TV

My humble little blog doesn’t attract much attention. I like to think of it as appealing to a small but select readership, a readership that, to be honest with you, typically numbers in the low three digits—the very low three digits. Still, every writer dreams of a larger audience so when a producer from SkyNews asked me to appear on one of their programs, I had to say yes. She’d seen my Guardian essay and, given that she has the unenviable task of finding a new blogger to appear nearly every night, she’d asked me if I was game.

I was to appear on a segment that looks at stories that are “moving up the web.” I don’t know what particular criteria they use to select the stories—is the web vertical, up which things may move?—but I didn’t have to. They would provide me with five links, I’d look at them long enough to have a rough grasp of the topic, then I’d sit across from a presenter and blurb the sites while graphics played across TV screens around Britain. They’d also run my blog’s address, thus increasing the chances that some shut-ins might wash up here at Voxford.

I’ve been on American TV before (mostly the rarely-seen NewsChannel 8 but also, very early in my career, the CBS Evening News) but British TV was new territory. I spent 40 bucks of my own money and splurged on the fast train to Paddington, where a silver Mercedes sedan was waiting to whisk me to SkyNews’s west London headquarters.

The driver was from Iran. He was 15 when he left that country, traveling with a forged Yugoslavian passport and hoping to end up in the most Iranian of American cities, Los Angeles. (“Tehrangeles,” he called it.) But he was caught in Britain and this is where he’s been for the last 20 years. He said he’s never gotten used to the rain.

We had a lot of time to talk. Traffic was awful and it took us nearly an hour to navigate the drizzly back roads of London and arrive at Sky. A runner met me in the lobby and took me to the makeup room.

NewsChannel 8 doesn’t do makeup, so this was a first. Well, a first since my acclaimed performance in “You Can’t Take It With You” in 12th grade. “How long are you going to be on for?” asked the makeup lady. "Not long," I answered. "About three minutes." It turns out they don’t use the good airbrush-applied makeup if you’re only going to be on for three minutes. She used a camel’s hair brush, dabbing powder on my macrocephalic forehead until it had stopped shining like a signal mirror. She did my whole face—ears too.

“What’re you talking about?” she asked.

“Um, the web,” I answered.

“The world wide web? Oh, of course,” she said. “Today’s the 15th anniversary of when it was invented.”

Really? Somehow I’d missed that. Maybe that’d be good to work in, I thought. “Can I ask where you heard that?” I said, suddenly worrying that a SkyNews makeup lady might not be the best source.

“I saw it on TV somewhere,” she said.

I looked better with makeup on—not so shiny, little blemishes gone, my red and vaguely disturbing complexion obscured—but I’m not sure I approve of it. All the TV newsreaders in England—the white ones, anyway—look the same, with a sort of matte plastic appearance. I guess the viewing public would be horrified by a zit or the riverine sprawl of a varicose vein, but the makeup looks so fake that I have to wonder why they don’t just wear a kabuki mask.

Or use an avatar. See, the first story moving up the web was something about avatars. It was also the toughest one for me to explain, since I don’t really know from avatars and the story was based on some research at Stanford University, research described in a dense journal article I’d read on the train.

I went to the Green Room and re-read the notes—the script, really—that I’d written. How much detail should I go into? What if host Martin Stanford asked about the research methodology of the Stanford experiment? There was also an item on a huge pig balloon lost during an outdoor Roger Waters concert in California. I’d be okay if he asked what song had been playing when the balloon became untethered (“Pigs”) but I’d be sunk if he asked me to sing it or hum the melody. And no way could I pronounce “lysergic acid diethylamide”—aka LSD—the discoverer of which had just died.

The floor manager wired me with a microphone and escorted me to the set. I've learned a lot of things about TV and the most important one is that it's impossible for a newspaper person to look good on it. TV people sit with an erect carriage, they know how to hold their head and not to cross their legs. It's actually hard to do it right, which is why newspaper people look so awful. I am resigned to this and so I tried to get comfortable.

The other thing about TV--at least the sort I've been asked to do--is that it moves quickly. I'd barely gotten into the avatar item when it was time to move on to the dead LSD inventor. Oops, I'd forgotten to mention that the Stanford researchers call their theory the "Proteus Effect." Oh well. After LSD came Roger Waters's pig. I got my Obama joke in, but just barely. Barely time to address the Texas bonehead who tried to cash a $36 billion check or the Wisconsin paper that has migrated to the web.

One of the problems of going on TV is that TV people never seem to be paying attention to what you're saying. The same thing applies to radio. When I used to be on David Burd's WTWP program on Saturdays he was forever twisting dials, cueing up sound effects, seeing which callers were on hold--all while I was talking. Was he even listening? Yes, as it turns out. Martin was too, able to extemporize even though it seemed like he didn't even know I was there. This kind of multitasking is as vital to a TV person as knowing how to sit up straight.

And then it was over. The same Iranian driver whisked me back to Paddington and I boarded the 20:51 to Oxford. I arrived back home at 10 p.m., five hours after I'd left for my three minutes of television.

How did I do? See for yourself. The video isn't up yet, but it should be soon. And in the unlikely event that you've come to my blog because you saw me on SkyNews, thanks for making the trip.

On the Street Where We Live

To understand the cartography of North Oxford it's helpful to imagine a tuning fork. St. Giles in the center of Oxford splits into Woodstock Road and the Banbury Road to the north. Our house is between the tines of Woodstock and Banbury, in a neighborhood called Summertown. We're fortunate, though, that our street doesn't link those two arteries, and, thus, we don't have too much traffic.

But we do have some and we are often entertained from the comfort of our lounge by watching trucks try to negotiate our tiny lane. We'll be seated at the dining room table or on the couch when suddenly the sky will darken and a lorry from Argos will ease slowly by. It reminds me of a ship passing through the Panama Canal. It's a tight squeeze. You can park on both sides of our street and the space that remains is about as wide as a double bed:

That white box truck has just navigated the road. They don't all make it. Europeans know that when they parallel park they should fold in their wing mirrors, but even that won't help if the lorry is just too big. Occasionally a massive truck will turn down our street, its driver desperate to leave the warren of lanes in this part of Summertown. Hoping to find the sweet release of the Woodstock Road, he instead discovers that he just won't fit. He throws it into reverse and searches for another way out.

When we arrived here last September it was in a rented VW Transporter. It was the biggest vehicle they had at the airport and the only thing that would accommodate our ragtag traveling circus (children, suitcases, dog, dog's wooden crate, family of Latvian aerialists). With my heart in my throat, and my own wing mirrors tucked in, I carefully threaded the needle, silently cursing Volkswagen for putting three coats of paint on the van instead of two. There's nothing like going 24 hours without sleep, flying across the ocean, going through passport control, retrieving your luggage, retrieving your dog from the quarantine facility, and then driving on the wrong side of the road in a vehicle that has the steering wheel on the wrong side of the dash.

I pride myself on my driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road skills. We hire a car every few months and I can go from motorway to hedgerow-sided lane with ease. The only thing I can't do is parallel park on our street. Doing it is like trying to do a Rubik's Cube while looking in the mirror with an eyepatch on.

14 Minutes Left
I'm supposed to be on Sky News tonight around 7:30, talking about things on the web. It means going all the way to London for about 3 minutes of air time. But who was it who said one should never turn down the opportunity to be on TV? Gore Vidal? Paris Hilton?

Tuesday 29 April 2008

'SuperMedia': Can Charlie Beckett Save Journalism?

I was at a gathering the other day where the host asked for a show of hands: "How many of you read blogs?" The audience numbered about 30, including many worthy journalists. Four hands, including mine, went up. Twenty-six people glared at us as if we'd just confessed to an unhealthy infatuation with donkeys. "Blogs," they were thinking. "Ugh. How can you read those sleazy digital compendia of slime and vitriol?"

It's the sort of attitude that drives me crazy and makes me want to storm the battlements of the mainstream media, pitchfork in one hand, flaming torch in the other. Then I remember that sitting at a desk on the other side of the battlements is, um, me. I like me enough that I don't want to set me on fire.

Eight months ago I came to Oxford to study citizen journalism and while I've learned a lot I'm not sure I've decided anything. I'm disgusted by the sclerotic worshippers of journalism's "Golden Age" who see nothing but rack and ruin in digital technology. But I'm equally disgusted by the techno-evangelists who keep promising a glorious future automagically assembled from the "wisdom of the crowds."

A new book by the LSE's Charlie Beckett falls into neither camp, though I'm not sure it's a total success, either. "SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World" starts by sketching the tale of economic woe that faces the news media these days. Losing money (or not making as much as we once did), losing audience, losing respect--these are bad things. But they're counterbalanced by advances in technology that in some ways make journalists' jobs easier, make us able to reach more people. And these people--famously dubbed the "former audience" by proselytizer Dan Gillmor--want to get involved. Involving them is part of what Beckett calls "networked journalism." He writes:

Networked Journalism is a description and an aspiration. It reaffirms the value of the core functions of journalism. It celebrates the demand for journalism and its remarkable social utility. But it insists on a new process and fresh possibilities. It means a kind of journalism where the rigid distinctions of the past, between professional and amateur, producer and product, audience and participation, are deliberately broken down. It embraces permeability and multi-dimensionality. Networked Journalism is also a way of bridging the semantic divide between Old and New Media.

Beckett is vague on exactly how networked journalism can be applied. He admits he's more interested in "the dynamics than the details." Thus "SuperMedia" is more manifesto than instruction manual. Because of that, it's sometimes hard to assess the claims he makes for networked journalism. The phrase is invoked so often that it starts to sound like a miracle drug or an all-purpose stain remover. News media losing its way? Try networked journalism! Citizens don't care about politics? Try networked journalism!

I worry about some of the practical considerations of networked journalism: How, on deadline, can a reporter involve an audience? (Especially if, as Nick Davies claims in his new book, "Flat Earth News," that reporter is being pushed to produce ever more stories.) What's to stop elites from dominating the conversation once they're invited over the battlement's walls? Have we, as Adrian Monck might argue, mis-framed the problem entirely?

Still, Beckett has made a valuable contribution to the dialogue. The message I decided to take from "SuperMedia" was this one: Journalism has evolved over time. There is nothing wrong with it changing again. It's a message I wish those 26 people who didn't raise their hands would take to heart. (In the year 2008 it's journalistically irresponsible not to cast as wide a net as possible for information. And it's stupid not to spread your product as widely as you can, however you can.) As Beckett writes:

Networked Journalism is a return to some of the oldest virtues of journalism: connecting with the world beyond the newsroom; listening to people; giving people a voice in the media; responding to what the public tells you in a dialogue.

As for whether it will actually make a difference, that remains to be seen.

Monday 28 April 2008

How Much Is That Rabid Doggie in the Window?

For many years the English have been ridiculously proud of being rabies-free. The country might have its problems but snarling, foaming Cujos are not among them. That's one of the benefits of being an island. It's simple really: Keep the rabid mammals out, drive out the poisonous snakes, fix it so the dinosaurs can't reproduce, and you'll be just fine.

Except when you're not. Last week three Londoners who work with animals started receiving rabies shots after they'd been nipped by a rabid puppy. Wait a minute. If there's no rabies in England, how can someone in London be bitten by a rabid dog? By importing a rabid dog from another country, of course. The puppy in question was one of 13 brought from Sri Lanka by a charity group that rescues street dogs from that island (!) nation. As if England doesn't have enough abandoned animals, these people are airlifting rabid dogs into London. Maybe they could just let the Sri Lankan street dogs fend for themselves on the mean streets of Sri Lanka?

Fortunately for the staff at Chingford Quarantine Kennels, the current treatment for rabies isn't the one we all grew up fearing: a series of painful injections right into the stomach. I know this because My Lovely Wife was treated for rabies. Strictly a precautionary measure, of course. When she was in college her family's dumb, lovable Weimaraner, Max, got in a tussle with a raccoon which may have been rabid. (In America, we assume that all raccoons out and about after 5 a.m. or so are rabid. It's tough being a raccoon.) Ruth cleaned Max's injuries, potentially exposing herself to the nasty virus. She was treated the modern way, with one shot of gamma globulin in her buttocks and a single injection of vaccine in her arm. She kept the empty ampule of vaccine in her medicine cabinet for many years. The first thing a nosy person opening her medicine cabinet would see was a little brown bottle marked "RABIES VACCINE." One tended to tread carefully near her after that.

The world's largest animal charity, the RSPCA, announced this week that last year it rescued some 150,000 animals in Britain. No one can be so cynical as to find humor in abandoned pets, but some of the reasons owners gave to the RSPCA for giving up their animal companions are a bit... well, "funny" isn't the right word. They do show how idiotic humans can be:

"My cat doesn't match my new carpet."
"My dog doesn't match the new sofa."
"I thought chinchillas only lived for two years - I don't want a pet that lives for 20."
"I've got a new puppy that is too boisterous for our old dog - can you take the old dog away?"
"Our kitten isn't playful enough with our children."
"We don't want our three rabbits because they don't come out to greet us."
"I've got two elderly terriers and I don't want them to get the new carpet dirty."
"I'm going on holiday."
"My dog keeps hiding my shoes."
"Our cats sleep on the stairs. I don't want my daughter to trip over them when she comes to stay."
"She hurts my legs when she wags her tail."
"My dog barks a lot."
"I've just bought a new leather sofa and I don't want the cat to scratch it."
"Our dog gets jealous when we sit together."
"My cat goes on the Internet and orders jewelry I can't afford."

Okay, I made that last one up.

Despite the 150,000 abandoned critters, the British love their animals. It was reported last week that a Devon sanctuary for donkeys received 20 million pounds in donations in 2006, 3 million pounds more than was given to a charity for battered women. There have been complaints that such a discrepancy is out of whack, but, really, isn't a donkey cuter than a battered woman?

As one donor told the Guardian: "People always ask me, why donkeys? I can only say it's just a deep passionate love, really. It's not something you grow out of. When you fall in love with a donkey, you've had it really. You're hooked."

Passionate donkey love. I don't even want to think what sort of Google searches that will get me.

Bowling With Brooker
Great column today by the Guardian's peerless Charlie Brooker on the ridiculous way American TV is covering Obama and Clinton's every burp and fart, as if something can be gleaned by the way Obama eats a burrito or goes bowling. An excerpt: "The focus on conjecture and analysis has reached such an insane degree that pundits are chasing some kind of meaning in the way a presidential candidate scratches his face. This is what lunatics do when they think people on television are sending them personalised messages.... Except the lunatics have an excuse: they're lunatics. Lunacy is what they do. It's in their job description."

Friday 25 April 2008

Oliver Loaf, Or: Please Sir I Want Some More

I confess I have a soft spot for Jamie Oliver, the chef so beloved by middle Britain. His livery lips, his unruly thatch of hair, his speech impediment--I could just eat him up. And soon, I will.

Oxford is all a-flutter over the impending arrival of a new restaurant conceived by Oliver. It will be known as Jamie's Italian. And what exactly will the cuisine be like? Well, I took this photo of the site, which is being renovated now:

A "twist of Jamie." It sounds cannibalistic. But it's the obvious next step in the deification of celebrity hash-slingers. First you could buy their cook books. Then you could buy their skillets. Then you could buy their ingredients. Now you can buy them, little bits of their bodies to sprinkle into your sauces and salad dressings, like a pinch of a saint's relic. A twist of Jamie. Some Oliver oil.

Or maybe I'm thinking this way because we saw the wonderfully odd French movie "Delicatessen" last night.

BritNews RoundUp
Did you see Emily Wax's delightful Washington Post story about the Redskins cheerleaders traveling to India to perform at cricket matches? Now comes the backlash. The Guardian reports that the pom-pom shakers have angered conservative politicians and drawn lewd comments from male oglers. "I think in the Indian context [cheerleaders] are seen as slightly sleazy which is not a reflection on the women but the perception [from Indian men]. So lewd comments, I am sorry to say, do not surprise me at all," Mukul Kesavan, a cricket writer, told the Guardian. Slightly sleazy? Cheerleaders? No.

Meet Britain's worst driver: Jamie Manderson has never had a driver's license and yet he notched his first driving offenses as a teenager, getting banned at age 15. This week he was jailed for eight months after earning his 51st driving-related conviction. Rob Ross, Manderson's lawyer, told the court: "He still has a problem with motor cars. He always will." In the past, Ross, who describes his client as a "likeable idiot", has said Manderson suffers from "a serious addiction to cars."

I haven't been able to find a decent video online (someone must have bought the rights to film it in 3-D Imax) but even the still photos are pretty amazing: More than 1,600 Belgian students dropped Mentos into Coke bottles yesterday, creating the world's largest eruption of sticky sweet geysers.

The same arguments over the HPV vaccine are being fought here as in the States. There's that puritanical tinge to it--the vaccination to shield girls from cervical cancer will just encourage them to have sex--but England being England, there's also an anti-science bent. This, after all, is the country that swooned over the MMR vaccine, when middle class mums with too much time on their hands started to believe a discredited researcher who said the jab caused autism. (It doesn't.) The Daily Mail helped fan those flames. Now the paper says one in three British girls offered the HPV vaccine in a trial have refused it. Or is it one in five, as the Guardian reports? Oh let's just average those and call it 25 percent.

The making of a new James Bond movie is greeted here with the same sort of excitement and glee as the news that a member of the royal family is pregnant. It's an excuse for Fleet Street to run all sorts of stories, starting with the annointing of the new Bond girls, roles that are roughly equivalent to those of the vestal virgins in ancient Rome. The latest movie, "Quantum of Solace," is providing lots of news, especially since they keep crashing those expensive cars. The third accident in five days has people talking of a "Bond curse." Maybe that's what you get when you give your female characters names like "Papilloma Jabb."

Finally, everybody hates J.K. Rowling. And when I say "everybody," I mean all the other authors at her publishing house, who feel the imprint pays far too much attention to that darned Harry Potter.

Gargoyle of the Week

This fellow peers down from a university building on the Banbury Road, the master of all he surveys.

I survey the weekend coming up. Have a good one and thanks for reading.

Thursday 24 April 2008

You Can't Say That

If censors had a motto it might be "What you can't see won't hurt you." Countries such as Iran and China might have censors--in practice if not in name--but surely enlightened democracies such as Britain and the United States don't. Not so fast, says Henry Laurence, a Bowdoin College professor who lectured yesterday here in Oxford. Henry compared episodes involving public broadcasting in the U.K., Japan and the U.S. The bottom line: Uncomfortable subjects make people uncomfortable.

In 1965 a British filmmaker named Peter Watkins made a film for the BBC about the devastating effects that a nuclear attack might have on England. Called "The War Game," it featured harrowing scenes of death and destruction. We see those sorts of things everywhere now--I'm disappointed if my evening's television viewing doesn't include at least one mushroom cloud, fireball or slow pan over a post-apocalyptic landscape--but it was scary stuff back then. And since the film seemed to question the very notion of mutual assured destruction--aka, "Nuke! You're it!"--executives at the BBC started to get nervous. In the end, they were so nervous that they didn't show "The War Game." It was finally aired in 1985.

Japan's public broadcasting service, NHK, was explicitly modeled on the BBC, though critics say it is so deep in the government's pocket that it's covered with lint and fuzz. Nothing is more controversial in Japan than that country's World War II atrocities. When a conference was held in 2000 to discuss the issue of "comfort women"--Chinese, Korean and other women forced into prostitution to service the Japanese Army--it was big news. Or it would have been big news, had the Japanese media bothered to cover what was being billed as a "People's Tribunal." Still, NHK commissioned a documentary on the conference and the reparations movement. But after alleged pressure from top government officials, including future prime minister Abe Shinzo, NHK watered down the program to the point where it was as useless as a dose of homeopathic medicine.

If issues of defense and national guilt are controversial touchstones in England and Japan, what excites Americans? Sex! Gay sex! Girl on girl action! Animated rabbits! PBS's Buster the rabbit really stepped in it in 2005 when he took his camcorder to Vermont and showed families involved in producing maple sugar and cheese. The problem: The two families happened to be headed by lesbian couples. This worried the Bush education department, which had provided some funds for the children's show, and it pressured PBS not to distribute that episode of "Postcards From Buster," though stations could request it from WGBH, its maker. PBS honcho Wayne Godwin said: "In fairness I would have to say a gay character is not one we would not include. The fact that a character may or may not be gay is not a reason why they should or should not be part of this series." Apparently he was getting paid by the "not."

It's hard being a public broadcaster, taking the public's--or the government's--money but striving to remain independent. I wonder if things would have been any different if those three networks had been private. Maybe not. I remember the foofaraw over "The Day After," a 1983 ABC docudrama that, like "The War Game," showed the effects of nuclear war, in this case by incinerating Lawrence, Kansas. (Well, pretending to incinerate Lawrence, Kansas.) The Reagan White House was nervous about the film's anti-nuclear message. ABC went ahead with it. (And in Langley Park, Maryland, a college student and his roommate were inspired by the program to write a pop song called "Tomorrow Might Be the Day After." It was sort of an updating of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," in which the singer urges a girl to sleep with him tonight, since tomorrow the Soviets might drop the big one. Yeah, it didn't really work as a song or a pickup line.)

Then there's the decision in 2004 by the Sinclair broadcasting group not to show an episode of "Nightline" in which the names and photographs of 500 U.S. servicepeople killed in Iraq were to be aired. "We find it to be contrary to public interest," said Barry Faber, general counsel to Sinclair, which owned eight ABC affiliates and dozens of other stations.

"Contrary to public interest." Hey, here's an idea: Let the public decide.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

The Great Escape, Plus: Mind the Gap

Oxford is an ancient university and so certain workarounds are required to bring it into compliance with the 21st century. For example, in the good old days, if you were in the basement of a building and a fire broke out, you were content just to die of burns or smoke inhalation while silently chanting in Latin. Or, if you were lucky, you scrambled up a fire escape only to find your exit blocked by a chair against the door. Not any more. Now, courtesy of signs like that one above in Nuffield College, your escape route is clear: You simply climb to safety, emerging from the wainscoting like a rat.

I spent much of the lecture I attended in that room yesterday distractedly wondering if the panel would pop open and a ragtag line of dirty-faced survivors would crawl out. Finally, when I could take it no longer, I got up and moved a heavy table against the wall, ensuring that the proceedings wouldn't be interrupted. Now let me see, did I push the table away when the lecture was over?

Just kidding! Of course I didn't do that. I concentrated on the lecture, a talk by Paul Kellstedt, a political science professor from Texas A&M University, on sabbatical with his family here at Oxford. The lecture was entitled "The Macro Politics of a Gender Gap" and while much of it was lost on me (I start to sweat when I hear words like "variable" and "coefficient"), it was interesting.

Kelltstedt's central finding is that there is a gender gap between American men and women when it comes to political policy. Women are, on average, 2 to 5 points more "liberal" than men. What's interesting is that this relatively small number pales in comparison to other gender gaps: There are much bigger gender differences when it comes to party identification, political participation, presidential approval and presidential candidate selection. These gender gaps are growing while the macropolitical gender gap is staying the same. In other words, what you would expect to be the bedrock foundation for decisions about politics--a person's stance towards various policies (on the environment, welfare, etc.)--does not correlate directly to which candidates people support or how they vote.

I'm sure I'm mangling this completely.

Paul didn't mention it yesterday, but here's another bit of research that resulted in counterintuitive findings: The more you know about global warming, the less motivated you are to do something about it. Kellstedt and colleagues surveyed 1,093 American and asked them about global warming. "More informed respondents both feel less personally responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming," they wrote in the journal Risk Analysis.

Said Kellstedt: "The findings that the more informed respondents were less concerned about global warming, and that they felt less personally responsible for it, did surprise us. We expected just the opposite."

Too bad there's no fire escape to help the planet escape from global warming.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Hey There Delilah: Shirt Happens

Cable news giant CNN appears to be testing a new feature that will allow you to order a T-shirt emblazoned with a headline from its web site. The beta site is already attracting the derision of bloggers. I was prepared to heap abuse on poor CNN myself, but then I paused. Why shouldn't people be able to order a T-shirt that has a CNN headline on it?

The gleeful scorn with which some bloggers met the CNN T-shirt news is unseemly for a few reasons. The first is that most of these bloggers who are calling the CNN shirts lame already wear lame T-shirts. They probably have drawers-full of 100 percent cotton Hanes Beefy Ts with lolcatz, "Zero Wing" and other ironic sayings on them. Second, the underlying premise of the Internet--the one most vigorously embraced by most bloggers--is that you can do anything. You can find anything, post anything, download anything. The web is ancient Rome, baby, and we're all Caligula. You want to pirate "Silver Surfer," upload a video clip of your roommate barfing, sleep with your sister and make your horse a consul, go ahead! But let poor CNN dabble with a T-shirt and suddenly it's "the death of broadcast journalism."

If CNN goes through with this--and it appears that some of its beta T-shirt web site has already been taken down--I can guarantee you that first in line to buy the shirts will be spittle-spewing bloggers who will defend their purchases by arguing that they wish to wear their chemises in an ironic, post-modern way.

Pest in Show
Some of the bloggers say the shirts will be lame because's headlines are lame. Okay, there's something to that. But all news web site headlines are lame. They're designed to be read by machines, not humans, an attempt to achieve maximum Googlage and linkage. I was told that to increase traffic to my blog I should use straightforward headlines. But simple, boring headlines leave me so cold that I opt instead for inscrutable ones like today's, which will guarantee no one but adolescent girls and dyslexic "Forrest Gump" fans find me.

Anyway, everyone knows the best news headlines are on tabloids. The New York Post's "Headless Body in Topless Bar" and the Sun's "Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster" are classics of the genre.

The British are also good at writing "news bills," those advertising signs outside of news agents and tobacconists. Here's one I snapped this morning:

The problem arises when you don't put the sign in its holder correctly:

An "ex pest?" Well what's the problem then?

Monday 21 April 2008

Sky Prince: Something in the Air

First off, a very sincere welcome to anyone who has arrived here courtesy of my essay in today's Guardian. It's about how some people find my blog, usually people who aren't looking for it, but for something a bit more, um, interesting. Like most people with web pages I have a little bit of software that shows me how many people are visiting. (I use one called StatCounter but there are others. [Any recommendations on a better one?]) Rest assured that it doesn't tell me who you are. Your identity is safe.

Now to Britain's royal family. I confess that I have trouble keeping England's princes separate. Which one is the heir to the throne? William? Henry? Wait, there isn't a Henry. It's Harry. Harry?

Both brothers have something to do with the Army, in a stage-managed, Potemkin-village sort of way. But one turns out to also be in the Air Force, or at least to have gotten his wings from the RAF.

That would be William, who recently earned his pilot's wings after some sort of crash course in flying ("crash course"; that's probably not the best choice of words). And now Prince William has been criticized for using his newfound ability to fly a helicopter to his cousin's bachelor party. Training, said the RAF. A waste of 15,000 pounds, said critics.

The episode made me think of my own dodgy flights courtesy of the Air Force. Well, not totally dodgy. My dad was in the U.S. Air Force and as a dependent I was able to fly "space A": space available. Sometimes when I went from one divorced parent to the other it was on an Air Force passenger plane. (The best flight was when Dad did an exchange tour with the Royal Air Force and I jetted from England to the U.S. on an RAF VC-10.)

Then there was the time after college when my dad was the commander of a U.S. base in Germany. I had just graduated from college and was kicking around Europe, planning on being the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald. (I must look into why that never happened.) I went from Germany to France and then to England, where I pitched up at the Camberwell flat of my friend Adrian. It was there that I ran out of money and decided I had to go back home and start my adult life. The problem was, half my luggage was back in Germany. How would we be reunited?

As there was a USAF jet flying from Germany to RAF Alconbury, Dad had my suitcase put aboard. He said it was an F-4. Can that really have been true? My Samsonite in a Phantom, the workhorse of the Vietnam War? I like to think of it nestled in the nose or strapped to a wing. In any event, Adrian and I went to pick it up. We think of tight security as a post-9/11 artifact, but bases were guarded just as strictly then. I had my Air Force dependent ID card with me and pulled it out as we drove up to the gate. Oddly, the guards were in combat uniforms, with machine guns slung over their shoulders. A yellow flag hung from a stanchion on the gate house. There was some sort of war game exercise going on, explaining the extreme readiness.

The guard ordered us to stop and I handed over my ID. Just then, a phone rang. The guard answered it. "Uh-huh. Yes. Yes. Okay," he said. He took the yellow flag out of its holder and replaced it with a red flag. "Did we just die?" Adrian asked as the guard returned my ID and waved us through. Perhaps on some war planner's graph paper a Soviet bomb had just obliterated Alconbury.

We drove to a little office attached to a hanger and there was my suitcase, specially delivered by the U.S. Air Force, faster even than Fed Ex could have brought it. I think because of that, I don't begrudge William his little helicopter trip.

Friday 18 April 2008

Pesky Tesco: Tough 'Love' in Thailand

We won't be shopping at Tesco anytime soon. It's not really a hardship. There isn't one nearby. We're in Co-Op/Somerfield/M&S Simply Food/Sainsbury's territory. Still, it makes me feel better to think I'm boycotting the supermarket giant.

And why? Because its Thai subsidiary, Tesco Lotus, is suing two journalists for allegedly printing anti-Tesco statements. The dispute centers on Tesco's expansion in Thailand and the fear that it is harming homegrown stores. The latest libel case involves a business columnist named Nongnart Harnvilai, who in a tongue-in-cheek piece wrote that Tesco Lotus "doesn't love Thais." The supermarket chain is asking for 1.6 million pounds in damages.

Will Tesco Lotus have to prove in court that it does "love" Thais, and if so, how? Does it buy them chocolates? Take them dancing? Bear their children? Care for them on their deathbeds? It's a crazy allegation, designed to stifle a free press in a country that has a shaky enough grasp on these kinds of things without the local subsidiary of a British corporate giant entering the fray.

So I won't be shopping there. Hasn't Tesco been testing the waters in the U.S. too? If so, where's the love?

BritNews RoundUp
This may be the single most important article printed in any newspaper this week: Research has shown that "drummers are natural intellectuals." I knew it all along and will be packing a copy of the Daily Telegraph story in my drumstick bag to show to all those snooty guitarists and pampered lead singers in the future. Okay, maybe the "intellectual" tag is a bit of a stretch. I think of an intellectual as a nearsighted, leather elbow-patched professor droning on about Habermas and Derrida, not a drummer in a black sleeveless Motley Crue T-shirt. Still, researchers at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet had subjects tap a drumstick while answering 60 psychometric questions. Those who could keep better time were better at answering them. Take that, Bono.

The British love getting drunk. And when they get drunk, they like doing interesting things. Some of them involve sex with inanimate objects--regular readers of this blog will remember fences, bicycles, lamp posts, Members of Parliament. And some of them involve reaching out in unusual ways to our mammalian brethren. Or sistren, for "Dave," a wild bottlenose dolphin often spotted off Folkestone coast, is actually a female. And it was Dave with whom two British men were convicted of "interfering" after an all-night drinking party. (The men were drinking; Dave, we assume, was sober.)

Michael Jukes, a 27-year-old pipefitter, told Dover Magistrates' Court: "It was approaching us. We were touching it, but not in an aggressive way. I was not hurting it." The court thought otherwise, fining Jukes and Daniel Buck 750 pounds. Dave did not testify and she hasn't been spotted since the incident.

While we're in the water, a British sailor who got into a spot of trouble while 700 miles off the coast of New Zealand knew exactly whom to call: His wife. When Tony Curphey's sailboat starting taking on water, he radioed his wife Susanne, who was in another sailboat about 150 miles away. He said he didn't want to trouble rescue services. I don't know what's odder, the fact that Curphey called his wife, or that the two of them are sailing around the world in separate boats. Perhaps that's the secret of a long marriage.

A 93-year-old former Pentecostal minister from Glamorgan has decided to give up driving after flipping his Ford Fiesta while driving through an auto dealer's parking lot. Jack Higgs was uninjured but the same can't be said of the two Porsches his car landed on top of.

Gargoyle Roman Appendages of the Week
The Italians just don't do gargoyles. I thought I'd collect a bunch but I didn't see a single one. Of course, the Romans have plenty of old statues. Many of the statues have seen better days, though. Like this one, from the Vatican Museum:

And this one:

I think this was my favorite, though:

A big big toe. There's probably more beauty in that big toe than in a hundred lesser sculptures. If it hadn't been about the size of a medicine ball, and just as unwieldy, I would have snuck it under my coat and back to my hotel room. It's just toe-riffic.

Have a great weekend. There's rain in the forecast here, but I hope it's sunny wherever you are.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Pillow Talk

I get the basic rationale behind this tag, which is on the pillows in our Oxford rental home:

Don't smoke near the pillow. Yes, it's made of flame-retardant material, but absentmindedly putting out your cigarette on it is a bad idea.

What I don't get is what's printed on the other side of the label:

Shake and refluff daily? What happens if I don't? Will the pillow burst into flames? And how much work should a pillow be anyway?

I love England, but normal domestic life is filled with this sort of maintenance. Our dishwasher has a filter that must be cleaned regularly and a salt reservoir. We have to add special dishwasher rock salt every now and then. (And when I say "we," I mean My Lovely Wife.) Our washing machine stopped working a few weeks ago. It just wouldn't rotate and the lights blinked mutely. The rental agency was called, a workman was summoned, and he gave his diagnosis. We hadn't cleaned the washing machine filter. It was behind a bit of wainscoting at the bottom of the machine. It didn't say anything in the instruction manual but the guy said we should occasionally be prying off the paneling, unscrewing the filter, and rinsing it out. Riiiight.
It's like owning an old Bentley.

We Americans like to push a button, walk away and return 20 minutes later to find our clothes washed, our plates clean, our pillow pre-fluffed. I'm not saying that's a good thing. That kind of mindset is what got us in trouble in Iraq. "You mean we have to add salt? And clean the filter? I thought I'd just push the 'shock and awe' button.

Seen in London
I jotted down the wording on a sign in a Pret a Manger the other day: Over a photo of a "hot wrap" was the legend "Fresh from the oven. Naturally."

Naturally? Is there an unnatural way to take something from the oven? Do other restaurants remove their toasty sandwiches in a perverse manner?

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Confessions of a Travel Writer

There's a bit of a to-do over a new book from a travel writer named Thomas Kohnstamm. In "Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?" Kohnstamm admits to various bits of trickery and corner-cutting while working on guidebooks for Lonely Planet. Among the allegations are that he gave a good review to a Brazilian restaurant after having sex with a waitress on a table ("the table service is friendly," he wrote) and that he wrote a Colombia guidebook without ever visiting the country. The former seems to be true, the latter not.

I haven't read his book, but Kohnstamm seems like kind of a smarmy guy, willing to take Lonely Planet's nickel and then diss himself, and by extension them. I was in the guidebook game for a while, rewriting most of the Fodor's travel guide to Washington when I was a freelancer in 1989 and then updating it for the next few years. I never got to have sex with a waitress on a table, though I did French kiss Ling-Ling, the giant panda, behind the National Zoo's snack bar. ("The pandas, a gift from China, are not to be missed," I wrote later.)

I think guidebooks are better now than they used to be. Fodor's, part of Random House, encouraged me to be quirky and conversational in my tone, to divide the city into walking tours instead of alphabetical lists of attractions. Other, narrower guidebooks are on the market now too, with Rough Guide, Access, DK and Lonely Planet earning fans. But there is a bit of sameness to any travel guide, as opposed to a travel memoir.

That's because the first thing you do when assigned a travel guide is read all the other travel guides, just to make sure you don't miss anything. If you think something's a waste of time--Hillwood in D.C. springs to mind--you can't just leave it out. Your travel guide would be lacking. Also, you're not paid that much--or at least I wasn't. I was a lowly freelancer, happy to get the job. I think I was paid $3,000 to write eight walking tours, update the entire front of the book, pull together a history of the city and compile a list of nightlife. My friend Jeanne did restaurants and hotels. I probably earned something like $5 an hour.

And I made some rookie mistakes. I wrote the book on a tight deadline in the autumn and it was published the following spring. I remember visiting some part of the Mall the summer after the book came out and noticing that a view had changed. I had said something like, "Note the uninterrupted vista from the memorial to the building off in the distance." Well when I wrote it was uninterrupted, but that was because there were no leaves on the trees. By summer you couldn't see a thing. I fixed it in the next edition.

There was one cool thing, though: I saw a family using my book, near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I wanted to walk up to them and introduce myself, but thought that would be weird. At least they didn't look lost.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Citizen Journalism and Barack's 'Bitter' Aftertaste

What is citizen journalism anyway? Maybe it's something more definable by what it isn't than by what it is. Clearly, my column in The Washington Post isn't citizen journalism. But does this blog--done with no support from or attachment to The Post--qualify as citizen journalism? Or does the fact that I am a journalist make it impossible for me to be a citizen journalist? And when people get upset by "citizen journalism" what exactly are they getting upset at?

A news story from over the weekend prompted these musings. Barack Obama's campaign scrambled to explain comments the presidential candidate made at a fundraiser in California. Obama had said that working-class voters in Pennsylvania felt abandoned by both Republican and Democratic administrations, adding: "And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

The remarks were quickly pounced on by the Clinton and McCain campaigns and they dominated what is called the news cycle (as with a bicycle, once you learn to ride a news cycle you never forget). After having made up some of his Pennsylvania deficit behind Clinton, Obama seemed to sag in the polls.

The interesting thing from a citizen journalism point of view--and a detail that wasn't reported much at first by the mainstream media--was that the story was broken by a Web site called Off the Bus, a citizen journalism offshoot of the mighty Huffington Post. One of Off the Bus's amateur writers, Mayhill Fowler, had attended the fundraiser, as she had many others. She is a self-described Obama supporter, has contributed financially to his campaign and wants him to win.

New York University journalism professor, and Off the Bus co-founder, Jay Rosen has a very good description of what happened. He doesn't shy from asking--if not answering--the many questions the whole episode raises. (The New York Times has a good story, too.) Some of the questions being pondered: Should Fowler have been at the fundraiser? Were Obama's comments off the record? If Fowler is an Obama supporter, should she have reported his comments, comments that damaged his campaign? If she is an Obama supporter, should she be reporting on him at all?

Good questions, but I think they sort of miss the point, or at least confuse it. I'll get to why I believe that down below, but first I want to chew over some of the citizen journalism issues. First, for better or worse we are approaching a time--if we're not already there--when it will be nearly impossible to do anything in private. It is simply too easy to capture an image on a camera or some words on a recorder and then spread them around the globe. I suppose we could have something like the cone of silence from "Get Smart" but that seems impractical. Comments don't lose their sting just because they were said with the expectation that no one else would hear them. (Whether they actually sting is another matter.)

Second, when push came to shove, Mayhill Fowler acted more like a journalist than a supporter. She knew her story might hurt Obama but she went ahead with it. This is a powerful argument against those who see in citizen journalism nothing but rack and ruin. I'm sure that information can be mistreated--fabricated, manipulated, choked off--but so-called citizen journalists don't have a monopoly on that. Sadly, journalists do it too. What I find encouraging about Fowler's actions is that she weighed her options and made the choice that most journalists would make: She decided the ampule of information she could inject into the campaign discourse--Obama said some voters were "bitter"--was interesting.

It's my belief that many of the flaps surrounding citizen journalism--or the uneasy union between professional journalists and amateurs--could have been avoided with transparency. The controversy last year over the Cleveland Plain Dealer's bloggers springs to mind. A left-leaning blogger tapped to contribute to the paper's political blog was found to be a donor to a Democratic candidate. Wrote the Plain Dealer's reader representative: "You can't contribute to a political candidate and then write about his or her campaign, either as an employee or as a paid free-lancer for The Plain Dealer, on paper or online." To which I would say, Uh, yes you can, if you're a freelancer hired for your political opinions and you tell readers about your donations so they can judge for themselves how to weigh your blog postings.

Citizen journalism makes special demands of editors--they must be very clear how one snippet of copy on their Web site might be different from another, from a different source, created by a non-journalist--and it makes special demands of readers. All of us have to be more media savvy as we filter the information that flows into our lives.

Finally, though, I wonder how much any of this stuff really matters. There are, no doubt, bitter people in Pennsylvania, just as there are bitter people everywhere. Are we so sensitive that we flinch when someone says that? Are we so sensitive that just calling someone a "monster," as Samantha Power did, is enough to get you fired? I mean, come on people. Grow a pair. Modern campaigning has become a process of launching an attack whenever your opponent says anything remotely interesting, anything that seems to deviate from the simplistic bromides spouted in stump speeches, anything that suggests a candidate might not be likable, as if that was the most important quality in a leader. All politicians do it, Obama included. And that's a problem that has nothing to do with citizen journalism.

Monday 14 April 2008

Bang the Drum Slowly: William Ludwig II, RIP

The perfect drum roll is a glorious thing. What starts out as a nearly-mechanical buzz may, at the drummer's discretion, pulse and throb like a swarm of bees. It becomes a living thing, a living thing that is more complicated than it sounds, for a drum roll isn't simply the rapid beating of left hand followed by right hand--RL RL RL RL. The most seamless roll is what's called a double-stroke roll: RR LL RR LL RR LL....

I've played the drums in rock and roll bands for 30 years and I can't do a proper double-stroke drum roll. Neither can Ringo Starr, a fact which annoys some purists. But someone who could was William F. Ludwig II, who passed away March 22 at the age of 91. Ludwig and Starr are forever linked in the annals of pop music history.

In the 1960s Ludwig was the head of the American drum company that his father, William Ludwig Sr., had founded. The modern drum set--as opposed to a bit of animal skin stretched over a hollow vessel--is a relatively recent invention. It came about in the early 20th century when the percussion sections of orchestras were called upon to create more and more sounds with fewer and fewer people. In the cramped space of a vaudeville playhouse or moving picture theater, there wasn't room for a snare drummer, a bass drummer and a cymbal player. One musician would have to do it all. And so the drum--and the drummers--evolved. A drummer's feet became as important as his hands.

Ludwig Sr.'s great contribution to drumming technology was a bass drum pedal that actually worked. Here's a photo. That little metal curlicue under the beater would have tinkled against a cymbal. The idea was to provide as many interesting sounds as possible. Drummers often had a tray of effects next to their sets--shakers, whistles, rattles. These "contraptions" gave the modern drum kit its nickname: a traps set.

Ludwig's pedal was better than the rest. He added a much-prized snare drum--the "Black Beauty"--to the inventory and the company flourished. It would never have been as successful as it was, however, if it wasn't for a sickly Liverpudlian named Richard Starkey. When he first joined the Beatles Ringo played a set made by Premier, England's, um, premier drum company. But American things were cooler than British things and when the band became more successful he visited a London music store and was convinced to switch to a set made by Ludwig. He evidently liked the color: black oyster pearl.

I can imagine that the young drummer wanted to advertise the fact that he had an expensive American kit. Why drive a Rolls-Royce with all the badges removed? So he asked the owner of the music store, Ivor Arbiter, to paint "Ludwig" on the front bass drum head. (Beatles manager Brian Epstein insisted that the band's name be painted even bigger.) When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in February of 1964 Ringo advertised the brand to the world.

Today, instrument companies make all sorts of deals with celebrity endorsers to help sell merchandise. They give musicians free gear, pay them a stipend, fly them around to conventions, anything to shift a few more units to young fans convinced that they can sound just like their idols if only they had the same equipment. The drum sets of these stars are often plastered with as many brand names as a stock car. But back then Ringo paid full price for a drum set he liked and he was the one who ordered the Ludwig name emblazoned on the front.

I met Bill Ludwig II about 20 years ago, at a vintage drum show in Maryland. He said he was as surprised as anyone when he saw his company's name on the Sullivan show. It was an appearance, he said, that launched a thousand orders. Ludwig signed a book on his company for me and then he picked up a pair of sticks, stepped behind a snare drum and asked the attendees to do the same. I slunk to a corner (can't do a drum roll, remember) and watched as he started playing a rudiment called "Three Camps," a leftover from when drums were vital pieces of military equipment and the distinctive cadence was used as a signal between different army divisions. He played by himself at first, his sticks beating out a perfect drum roll, then invited the other drummers to come in and join him.

It was a bit of a party trick, a performance piece he'd done countless times. But it showed that Bill Ludwig II could actually play the drums. And if you don't believe me, click here to listen for yourself.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

When in Rome....

This is what it has come to: There is so much history in Rome--so many classical statues, so many hunks of fluted stone and finely-worked pieces of bronze--that a marble likeness of some Caesar or other is stuck in a corner of the Vatican Museum directing tourists to the cafeteria. In any other city he'd be in a place of honor. In Rome, he's lucky he isn't in a broom closet.

Yes, it's possible to overdose on the art and beauty here--possible, but unlikely. I haven't even started processing it all yet but it's nice when foreign places are, well, foreign, when they do things differently.

But I suppose stereotypes are nice, too. For example, in a way it's reassuring to know that all that blather about Heathrow's ill-fated new Terminal 5 and how the English can't build anything was actually spot on, as the Brits might say. We checked our four bags 90 minutes before our flight left then watched in Rome as only two of them spun around on the baggage carousel. Yes, the carousel repeatedly broke down and bored looking Italian airport personnel would kick it occasionally and then disappear, but after 45 minutes it was clear our bags weren't coming. Nor were the bags of half the other people on the British Airways flight. We waited in line for an hour to file our claims, cursing our folly at departing from Terminal 5. My bag came the next day; My Lovely Wife's the day after. But that's why hotel rooms have sinks, right? To wash your clothes.

What can I say about Rome that hasn't been said before, except maybe that it's possible to have too much Sistine Chapel. We went there first thing yesterday, shuffling in the interminable line that leads to Michelangelo's masterpiece. It's been cleaned since I saw it last, 20 years ago. It gave me a shiver, despite the room having all the ambiance of a bus station. Rome is much more crowded than last time I was here. We made our escape then tried to see what are known as the Raphael Rooms, a set of rooms painted by that master artist. But the Vatican Museum is like Ikea: It's set up to take you through a predetermined route from which you may not deviate. Every route includes the Sistine Chapel. What I mean is, to get to the Raphael Rooms we had to go through it again: the same meandering route, the same preparatory rooms (the tapestry room, the map room...), the same lines. It's enough to make you convert.

That's all I have time for now, blogging as I am from the lobby of a hotel with spotty wi-fi, listening to the rain on the cobbled streets outside. Yes, the rain followed us from Blighty, though yesterday was glorious and sunny.

Here are some photos to frighten you:

If that Medusa head doesn't turn you to stone, maybe this will:

Wow, it's so lifelike.

Pull It, Sir
News travels slowly here, so belated congratulations to all my colleagues who cleaned up at this year's Pulitzer Prizes. Six of U.S. journalism's top honors were awarded to The Washington Post. The nice thing is, each one was richly deserved.

Friday 4 April 2008

Extra Kinky Sex Please, We're British

The headline in last Sunday's News of the World said it all: "F1 Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy With 5 Hookers." Some translation may be in order: "F1" is Formula One, the auto-racing league that's big business everywhere but the United States. The league's president is Max Mosley, a wealthy Englishman who just happens to be the son of notorious British fascist Oswald Mosley. That's what makes a Nazi orgy all the more piquant. As for what sort of behavior makes a Nazi orgy sick (as opposed to healthy?), well, I'd rather not speculate.

But I don't need to. The News of the World details it all: how the 67-year-old Mosley spent five hours (!) whipping prostitutes, being whipped by them and, almost pedantically, engaging in sex acts. Some of the hookers were in striped outfits reminiscent of concentration camp victims. Mosley barked at them in German.

Mosley couldn't deny that this had taken place, since the tabloid had photos and posted a video of selected highlights on its web site (since taken down, interestingly, though you can find sanitized excerpts on YouTube). In his defense Mosley said he spoke German not because he was engaged in some sick, twisted Nazi fantasy, but because two of the prostitutes were German. Ah, that explains it all. He was just putting them at ease. (The really sick ones speak in Esperanto. "Frappi mi nu!" Or, "Hit me now!")

The battered F1 chief isn't taking this lying down. Or, rather, he did take his battering lying down, but now he's fighting back. This was a covert sting, he said. And perhaps he's right. I can see a bunch of News of the Screws editors kicking around ideas on who to entrap and how, and being enormously pleased with themselves at coming up with the concentration camp theme. Perhaps Max had ordered the randy schoolgirl fantasy package ("I'm sorry, Headmaster, I won't lose my homework again") but when confronted with Elsa She-Wolf of the SS he just went with the flow.

Mosley got a little early support from the Telegraph's motor racing writer, Kevin Garside, who said it shouldn't matter what Max got up to in private with his privates. But even he has backed down after Mosley's latest maneuvers. After the Toyota, Honda, BMW and Mercedes racing teams wrote a letter criticizing the F1 chief, Mosley responded by saying he wasn't surprised BMW and Mercedes would sound off, given their history "particularly before and during the Second World War." You'd think Mosley would've approved of that history.

So, a wonderful British sex scandal, involving what all good British sex scandals involve: wealth, aristocracy, the delicate sting of the lash, along with a side order of fascism.

I'm fascinated by the way Mrs. Mosley--for there is a Mrs. Mosley--is depicted in the News of the World article. Jean, his "devoted wife" of 48 years, is a saint. Guess where they met? At a fascist rally. Lovely couple.

BritNews RoundUp: Model Behavior
It would be hard to compete with that story, but I offer Naomi Campbell, who yesterday was arrested at Heathrow Airport after one of her bags was lost. She allegedly spit at a cop who had come to calm her down. This took place at Heathrow's Terminal 5 which was unveiled last week with much fanfare and then quickly descended into a sort of Dantean hell. Mere hours after it opened flights were being canceled because the baggage system was all screwed up. By mid-week more than 20,000 bags had been lost and travelers were told they could bring only carry-on luggage.

The British love a disaster of their own making--they wallow in their failures*--but this one was colossal. What's worse, we leave tomorrow for a week in Rome. Guess where we're flying from: Terminal 5.

*(A side note: When we visited Dover last week we toured the secret bunkers from which much World War 2 strategy was planned. It was from there that the Dunkirk retreat was overseen. I had always thought of Dunkirk as a disaster, a broken army barely escaping from the Nazis. But at Dover the evacuation of 300,000 soldiers is celebrated as a great victory. I can sort of see it, since it allowed the British to keep fighting long enough for us to come and save the day.)

As bad as it is for Max Mosley and Naomi Campbell and Terminal 5 travelers, it could be worse. They could be Mischa Barton and be fighting the heartache of "dimpled thighs." According to the Daily Mail, "the slender 22-year-old's extremely pale thighs already appear to have some issues with cellulite." The horror.

How much do you love your spouse? Would you save him/her from a crocodile? Norm Moreen did. The Australian didn't just watch as his wife, Wendy Pethereen, was grabbed by an 8-foot-long beast. He jumped in the water, poked out its eyes and rescued her. How long before crocodiles evolve goggles?

It might be time for Glenn Crawley to get a new hobby. The 52-year-old from Newquay in Cornwall enjoys sailing. That's a problem, since he doesn't really know how to sail. He has needed rescuing by the local lifeboat team so many times that authorities have banned him from launching his 16-foot craft until he learns to sail. Said Crawley: "I'm just being victimised because I go out there and push the limits - that's what I enjoy doing."

Gargoyle of the Week

This rather agitated fellow clings to the wall of the Career Services building on the Banbury Road. Can't find a job? Don't worry. I will eat you.

Blogging may be a little sporadic next week, as the family will be taking a Roman holiday. And we're visiting Pompeii, though I hear it's kind of run down.

Thursday 3 April 2008

How to Solve the Iraq Crisis

I've come up with a sure-fire way to solve the Iraq crisis. Note that I didn't say "to end the Iraq War." It might be that my scheme will allow the war to burble along for years.

My idea addresses one of the things that bothers me most about this conflict, I mean besides all the death and destruction. That's the feeling that the people we are ostensibly helping--the Iraqis--don't want us there. So, we just ask them. We have a ballot with a simple question: Stay or Go? If the majority votes "Yes, coalition forces, please stay," we gut it out in the fashion we've done for the last five years. But if the majority votes "No, thank you," we bring the troops home.

After all, hasn't this whole thing been about planting the tree of democracy in Iraq? (More on this later.) To critics who say, "Well you couldn't trust a vote undertaken in such circumstances, the violence, the coercion," I say, "Yeah, but there have been several elections there already. If you don't think the Iraqis are capable of voting honestly in a fair election on this issue then the whole thing is a sham."

Other criticisms:
Voting will follow sectarian lines, pitting majority Shia against minority Sunni and Kurd. So what? Am I wrong in thinking that the continuing drip-drip-drip of violence in Iraq might just be exacerbated by foreign troops? Does the disaffection with an occupying army transcend tribal and religious differences?

An election puts American foreign policy in the hands of foreigners. Wouldn't want that! Wouldn't want foreigners actually having a say in actions that affect them. But seriously, I can understand this criticism. A superpower doesn't stay super powerful by putting everything to a referendum. But when it's something that supposedly is done for the benefit of another nation, that nation ought to have a say, especially when that nation's desires are used--ex post facto, admittedly--as a justification for war. (I wonder how the Vietnamese would have voted....)

If the majority votes for a U.S. pullout, things could descend to chaos--I mean, an even deeper, more chaotic chaos than we have now. Yes, that's a possibility. But to be cold about it, why should we care? Iraqis would have exercised their right to self-determination.

Ah, but what if Iraq then became a hotbed of terrorism? This would only matter if that terrorism was directed outside Iraq, at the United States or its allies. Isn't that really why we're there, to, as President Bush puts it, fight terrorists in the streets of Fallujah so we're not fighting them in the streets of Philadelphia? But I haven't seen any evidence that terrorists in Iraq have tried to mount any operations outside that country. That's proof, perhaps, that Bush's "strategy" is working, but if attacking us was really an aim of the terrorists (and I don't think they're the monolithic group that word suggests) don't you think they would have tried something already, just for the PR coup?

Yes, terrorists attacked the United States. But they weren't from Iraq. The subsequent plots that have been uncovered didn't involve Iraqis. (In fact, they mainly involved Americans.) The 7/7 bombers in London weren't from Iraq. I think the Iraqis are quite content to kill each other without worrying about us.

But that does get us back to what this war is really about. It's only after the fact that it's been advertised as being about democracy. It's been five years, and my memory is kind of hazy, but I seem to remember the invasion being about weapons of mass destruction. Okay, there weren't any. Then it became about stopping terrorism. But Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Now it's about bringing democracy to those people.

If we really believe that, let them vote.

In Praise of Bush
The Guardian's Timothy Garton Ash lauds George Bush's diplomacy in a column today. He means the father, not the son.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

The Fools on the Hill

The British love a good April Fool's joke, the press especially. You'd think the news media would be reluctant to take part in pranks, given the low trust many readers put in the stories that aren't meant to be made-up--and the frequency with which stories over here are assembled out of half-truths and lies. But no harm's done, I guess, and I'm in favor of anything that brightens our otherwise doomed, pathetic lives.

While flipping through the Guardian while on the bus to London yesterday I saw an ad for new technology from BMW: The Canine Repellent Alloy Protection system prevents dogs from peeing on your wheels by administering a 200-volt shock. The ad, as well as "news" stories about the advanced feature, were in other British papers, including Metro. It was a joke, of course, though PETA didn't find it very amusing. "The car company's choice of April Fools prank is not exactly in good taste," grumbled one PETAphile.

The BBC pulled a prank showing a group of penguins that have developed a unique way of migrating. The fact that the video clip was introduced by Monty Python's Terry Jones should have been a tip-off. The best BBC April 1st prank must be the 1957 "Panorama" report on the Swiss spaghetti harvest, told with the detail and specificity that makes good jokes work, and delivered in a straightforward Beeb style that makes you question how you could ever question it.

Here's a roundup of other April Fool's stories, from the Daily Telegraph. The Guardian's article on Britain turning to France's first lady for advice on stylishly dealing with problems such as binge-drinking and the collapse of Northern Rock fooled My Lovely Wife. That's the problem with April Fool's jokes over here: The papers are filled with such bizarre stuff, it's hard to decide where fact ends and fiction takes over.

London Calling
We packed in a lot during our daytrip, including visits to the Royal Academy and the Tate Modern. It was from that last venue, in a converted power station on the south bank of the Thames, that I snapped this shot:

The museumgoers taking a break on the Tate's balcony look as if they're watching the world's largest high-definition television--which I guess is what reality is.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Pullman, Transporter

And so last night to the Oxford Town Hall, where author and Oxonian Philip Pullman kicked off the Oxford Literary Festival with a reading from his new book, “Once Upon a Time in the North.” The slim novel is a “prequel” to Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, a snappy little tale featuring a 24-year-old Lee Scoresby, the laconic Texas “aeronaut” who figures in the later books. (And is there a rule that “laconic” must be followed by “Texas”?)

Pullman said that one of his favorite parts of putting the book together was collecting the little bits that accompany it, picking out the dark blue cloth that it’s bound in (an homage to his university?). Oxford is full of Oxfam used book shops and he said the listings in an old Shipping World Yearbook from around 1910 were the inspiration for the ramshackle Arctic port where the action takes place.

The new book, he said, is a retelling of a classic Hollywood movie he saw as a boy: “The Magnificent Seven.” He said of his novel, “This is not a Western, it’s a Northern.” It’s set in a frontier land where courage is the chief virtue. “Courage could be said to be the most basic virtue there is,” Pullman said. “It allows you to exercise your other virtues.”

One of the things I like about Pullman is that he doesn’t have to compromise any more, not that he ever did. He managed to make a long, dense trilogy about the depradations of organized religion into a best-seller. And though his new book will no doubt appeal to Guardian-reading peaceniks, one of the first thing Lee Scoresby does is pull out his revolver—even if it is only to bash a balky valve on his balloon. Lee is even revealed as a bit of a playa.

It’s hard for a writer to see someone as successful as Pullman and not wonder, How does he do it? What’s his secret? Pullman was very open about how he works, but of course the answer to those questions is that he’s very smart and he works very hard. He knows his Milton and his Blake, his Genesis and his “Treasure Island.” He’s proof that the secret behind great writing is great reading. As for the writing, Pullmann does 1,000 words a day, in longhand, and even if the prose is flowing like water, he stops before getting much past 1,001. “If it’s going well that’s a good time to stop because it will be easy to start the next day.”

He doesn’t start a project with a theme in mind but builds it from the particulars of a scene: the smells, the sights, the sounds, the “minute particles” that bring a world to life. He lets the characters develop on their own, sometimes being surprised when they demand bigger roles than he intended for them. He isn’t afraid of the obvious, either.

Pullman answered questions from the sizeable audience that filled the Town Hall, saying that, yes, he has interesting dreams but he never includes them in his fiction. Your dreams, he said, are never interesting to other people. He said his daemon would be a raven. (His illustrator, John Lawrence, had already drawn it.) And he liked the look of last year’s “Golden Compass” movie, a comment that suggested there were things about it he didn’t like. But there are always compromises in film versions of books. A book, he said, is like a democracy, where author and reader each cooperate and play their parts, the writer providing the ingredients that the reader assembles in his head.

“Why did Lyra have to join the grown-up world?” asked one attendee. Pullman said that to have done otherwise, to leave her a child, would have made her a Peter Pan. “And Peter Pan is a ghastly book,” he said. The His Dark Materials trilogy is about the loss of innocence and how something that some might think is sad is actually to be celebrated, since it brings special compensations, such as wisdom.

“Innocence is not wise,” he said, “and wisdom can’t be innocent.”

Speaking of innocence, I love this photo of a little girl peering down from the balcony in the ornate Town Hall, a human face almost lost among the putti and the plaster.