Friday, April 28, 2006

Home Movies

As you all know, I got a new digital camera for my birthday, so I thought I'd share the odd home movie with you.

Here's a couple for starters:

Lauren and Emily's Friend Singing Karaoke -- If you look closely, you'll see one of the cats playing with a ball in the background. If you look very closely, you may even spot Mark now and again.

Lauren Dancing

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

How to cope without British TV and Radio: Football Supplement

Another post by Mark:

In the first of my posts in the series How to cope without British TV and Radio (see also Part 2 and Part 3), I included a paragraph about football:

If you are a football fan, there's a whole channel devoted to it even on the basic cable packages. It's called Fox Soccer Channel and broadcasts a lot of live premiership football. One of my staples has become the 5 pm GMT (12 pm ET here) live match every Saturday. In fact, I am now watching more premiership football on American TV than I was on UK TV, because you have to subscribe specially to Sky TV for the live Premiership stuff in the UK. Fox Soccer Channel gives you the Sky commentary, but overlays it with an American introduction, which always refers to the "“EPL" (English Premier League), "soccer" and "game" (never "“match"”), e.g. they have a "player of the game"”.

One minor correction to that post: you don't get FSC (Fox Soccer Channel) with "even . . . the basic cable packages"; it tends to be a part of what they call "America's Top 180" Channels, but not "America's Top 60" or "America's Top 120", so usually you'll need a slightly more expensive package. Another additional comment: FSC also provides some coverage of the FA Cup. At the weekend, we had one of the semi-finals live, Middlesborough v. West Ham.

Lately, though, our attention has begun to turn to the World Cup, and we began to wonder about who was providing the coverage here in the USA, not least given that FSC were showing only limited signs of excitement about it. It turns out that all 64 matches are to be covered by ABC Sports and ESPN, as Viola mentioned, including even ESPN High Definition, if you have that. I've not fully got on top of what is what with American satellite and cable, but it certainly looks like ESPN and ESPN2 are on basic packages, so to get the World Cup you don't even have to have an expensive package.

What I hadn't realized until looking for details about the World Cup on the telly was that ESPN and ESPN 2 also sometimes broadcast other football matches, including -- it turns out -- European football. So today, for example, you can catch the second leg of the Champions League semi-final between Arsenal and Villarreal, 2.30 pm Eastern Time. What excellent news. It will be the first time I've watched European football since coming to the States, and it will be interesting to see if they take the ITV Commentary. I hope so.

Having missed all of the opportunities to watch European football until now because of this ignorance, I began to wonder how one could keep track of what's on where? I've found a great site called Live Soccer TV, which bills itself as "Your ultimate Soccer TV Guide" and it is, indeed, very useful. It gathers information from all over the place, and lets you know the schedule of what's on where, Live, Delayed and Recorded. Definitely one to bookmark.

Meanwhile, one will want to get some feeling for opinions on the ground, and one of my favourite podcasts is the 606 Football Phone In on FiveLive. I always listened to this when I could in the UK, and it's a pleasure to be able to catch it now, three times a week (four last week) via download.

I close with a confession: the other day, I found myself calling football "soccer".

Saturday, April 22, 2006

New Technology and Old-Fashioned Communication

This is another guest blog by Mark, but on a slightly different topic to his previous posts.

A move across continents is, of course, a far easier business now than it would have been even ten years ago. Communicating with friends and family back home is a doddle via email and instant messaging, but there are other ways in which one can use the internet to communicate across the seas, ideal for keeping in touch with those among one's friends and family who are less computer-literate. Let me mention two in particular:

(1) Skype Out: Several of the Instant Messaging services (Yahoo!, MSN etc.) have an audio / video facility and so, with your broadband internet connection, you can talk to friends and family back home with ease, and even see their expressions and let them see yours. You can even show them your new pet cats. But this has two major drawbacks. First, you need your friends to be on-line when you are on-line yourself, and with the time difference, this is often not the case. Second, and more seriously, lots of people still do not have computers connected to the internet, and those who do have simply never entered the world of instant messaging. But there's a great way around these problems: Skype Out allows you to telephone people from your computer. It's very straightforward -- just download the software, plug in your headset and microphone, add some credit to your account, and then you are ready to telephone your friends overseas for next to nothing. It's not free, but it is cheap. We pay about a cent a minute to contact land-lines in the UK. Sometimes Skype will give you some free credit too. Occasionally one is unlucky and one gets a terrible line, but most of the time the line is great.

(2) Superletter: What about writing to those with no email? We all have older family members and older friends who have not joined the computer revolution. When I want to write to them (I'm not very good with paper, pens, envelopes, stamps and all that kerfuffle), I use I first discovered this when a very good friend was out in Iraq. One can send a bluey for free to armed forces using Superletter. Having discovered it, I now use it to write letters to friends and family in the UK who don't have email. It doesn't cost much for each letter, 40 cents or so [cheaper than a stamp (Ed.)], and you get your first few free when you sign up. The gist of it is very simple: write the letter and add in the address. Superletter deliver it by post for you, usually about 48 hours after writing. One drawback: it strips out a lot of punctuation, but otherwise it's an excellent service.

Note: I am not affiliated with either of the above, nor am I profiting from recommending them! There are, I dare say, competitors to these, e.g. I know Yahoo! runs a similar service to Skype.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

How to cope without British TV and Radio: Part III

Here's the third installment of Mark's TV/radio series of guest blogs:

This is the third in my series of posts on finding ways of getting access to British TV and radio when abroad (See How to cope without British TV and Radio and How to cope without British TV and Radio Part II. In those posts, I focused on two major areas, listening to BBC radio on-line (especially in Part 1) and watching BBC television on-line (particularly in Part 2). In this post, I would like to provide an update on some elements in those posts and then, in my next post, I will explore the world of podcasting.

First, the updates. A new programme has this week been added to the BBC News Player, and it's one that I have been hoping that they would add for a while, This Week [features Abbott & Portillo cozying up together on the sofa; not to be confused with Abbot & Costello (Ed.)]. I don't think that a live broadcast is available, but you can watch it as soon as it is available. Remember that to get the broadband quality for these programmes, you need to bookmark the BBC News Player, go to "Programmes" and then select from the list.

Second, I have recently bought a wire that connects my laptop to our television set and so now we can even watch these things on our TV, at a decent volume, and not just on the laptop. Finding the right wire is itself something of a kerfuffle, and it took a couple of stabs before I got it right. In the USA there is no equivalent of the scart lead in the UK, and you'll have to have separate inputs for video and audio. After examining my laptop and the TV, and googling for a little, I found a nice lead on-line that went from my laptop's external monitor outlet to the TV's PC inlet, and had an adjoining wire that went from the laptop's headphone socket to the TV's PC audio inlet. The problem was that the distance between the external monitor outlet socket and the audio socket on my laptop was too great, and I had to get an extension from Wal-Mart. But all's well that ends well and it's wonderful to be able to watch broadband broadcasting like This Week and Newsnight on the TV, a further step in feeling more at home. In addition, it's much more convenient not to have to put our various downloads onto CD before we can watch those on the telly. For things like the latest Dr Who, it was a matter simply of watching it straight off the laptop fed into the telly and not first burning to CD. My advice to others in a similar situation would be to explore the possibilities for getting your PC or your laptop joined up to your telly. One little bit of exploring for the right wire(s) is so worthwhile.

Third, in a comment to the previous post on the topic, Jonny G asked whether there was much in the way of non-BBC TV content available on-line. I would say that the BBC are way ahead of the competition here. The only other place I go to at the moment for broadband TV broadcasts is Channel 4. There have been rumours for some time of Channel 4 making available its entire channel content streamed on-line. The fullest and most recent article I can find on this is here, in Digital Bulletin last year:

Channel 4 to air all content on broadband"
by Jeremy Lee Campaign, 7 July 2005
LONDON - Viewers will be able to watch Channel 4 on their computers by the end of the year, with news that the broadcaster is planning to simulcast all of its TV content via broadband.

At present, Channel 4 restricts its broadband content to repeats of shows such as 'Trick of the Mind', 'Johnny Vegas: 18 Stone of Idiot' and 'Jamie's School Dinners'.

However, the broadcaster is planning to make its entire schedule broadband-enabled and transmit its programming over the internet at the same time as the TV feed, via the website . . . .
Several months into 2006 and there's no sign of this yet, but I'll be keeping my eyes and ears open. Any chance you could get this up and running before this year's Big Brother, Channel 4?

But in the meantime, Channel 4 do have a whole section of their website devoted to Broadband video clips:

Channel 4 Video

Most of the site offers clips of Channel 4 programmes, previews and the like, but also included is this on-line movie show:

Movie Rush

This programme earns its way by linking minute - minute and a half features with Stella Artois ads. You can't launch it in a stand-alone player, but a right click on screen will allow full screen view. Also worth a mention is the Channel 4 News website, which provides a decent number of news reports taken from the programme:

Top 10 Video Clips -- News

But what the site does not yet have, and what would be particularly welcome, would be something paralleling the BBC News Player, which allows you not only to view these short reports but also to watch entire programmes. I do miss Channel 4 News at 7 each evening, so I look forward to the day when, perhaps, this will be available too. In the meantime, though, there is a new podcast presented by Jon Snow:

Jon Snow's Podcasts

And speaking of podcasts, that will be the topic of How to cope without British TV and Video Part IV.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Maundy Thursday found me helping in Lauren's class all day. We spent the morning "conducting an experiment" to see which of three brands of egg-dying kits are best. In the afternoon the children watched a cartoon about Spring and ate ice cream sundaes. They got the ice cream and one topping for free, but had to buy additional toppings with tokens they'd earned from learning their times tables -- an extra topping for each table learned. The children also had a special assembly with a boy-band performing for the school.

They had Good Friday off school, but nothing else special marked the day. Mark had to go to work as usual (as he is doing on Easter Monday). I think that next year I'll try and find a Good Friday church service to take the girls to. We need something to make the day more special. Today we went to church in the morning and to some friends' house for Easter lunch.

Mark has written about his Easter experience this year in his blog. I very much enjoyed reading it, especially as it made me very nostalgic for Oxford.

The Patriot Game

A few weeks ago, I was listening to Spike Lee being interviewed by Simon Mayo on Five Live. The topic was Spike Lee's new film Inside Man (which, by the way, is quite good fun, even if there isn't much depth to it; it got me on side straight away with some stylish opening credits and a good Bhangra track). The topic somehow got onto football (soccer) and the World Cup. Spike Lee said that he liked football and would be supporting Brazil because they're a good team.

This is what I want to know -- can he be tried for treason?

How can anyone support another country over their own? One's team can be the worst in the world, but it's one's patriotic duty to support them. By all means, once they've been knocked out of the competition, one can support whoever one likes; but until then, one should support their own.

US Flag hanging outside a homeAmericans are patriotic people. You put flags everywhere -- in your schools, places of work and homes. You pledge allegiance to the flag. Perhaps Spike Lee is atypical in his disregard for his country when it comes to sport. OK, so the US are not among the best, but they're getting better with each World Cup.

If you're an American and a soccer fan, you should definitely get behind your team. Here's the USA's page on the FIFA World Cup website. It shows how they've been doing so far in friendly matches. Here's the match schedule. USA are in group E. Their first match is on the 12th of June at midday (EST), against the Czech Republic. Match coverage in the US is being provided by ABC Sports and ESPN. In addition, depending on your internet service provider, you may be able to watch all the matches in the entire World Cup live on the web at ESPN360. Here's the source of my information.

April 25, 2006

If you live in the US and are interested in European/British football, you may want to take a look at Mark's guest post on how to access European football from the US:
How to cope without British TV and Radio: Football Supplement

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Doctorin' the TARDIS

Well, I've never known anything like it.

The first episode of the new series of Dr. Who aired today, in Britain, on BBC1 at 7:15pm (2:15pm here in NC). It finished at 8pm and by 9pm (that's just an hour), we got to download it (along with a few thousand others). Last night we watched a new children's programme that we downloaded for the kids, called Totally Dr. Who. It was like Blue Peter, but with footage from The Christmas Invasion's edition of Dr. Who Confidential. The only interesting part was a section about a couple of teenagers who make their own mini-episodes with a camcorder and PC, in their house and back garden. This reminded us of a certain friend who used to make his own Dr. Who movies as a child and had built (along with some friends) a full size Dalek in his garage, which he used to take along to conventions. Emily pronounced at the end of the programme that it was rubbish, so we may not be bothering with that again. Tonight, we've downloaded the latest Dr. Who Confidential to watch tomorrow night.

So, from here on in we're going to be watching the Christopher Eccleston series on Sci-Fi at the same time as watching the David Tennant series via the internet.

We've already promised the girls the DVDs as soon as they're released in the US.

(By the way, if you're wondering about the title of this post, it's taken from the title of the novelty single by The Timelords (a.k.a. The KLF).)

Weathering the Weather

Last July, while we were on our scouting trip, before moving here, we experienced the worst thunderstorm of our lives. We were driving along the freeway. The rain was so heavy that we couldn't see farther than a few feet. The rain was sheeting down. The thunder thundered and lightening lit up the dark clouds. Many cars pulled in on the shoulder and under bridges, but we decided to keep going. There were many accidents that slowed us down even more. It took over three hours to do a forty-five minute journey.

As I write this it is 88oF (about 30oC), with a light breeze coming in through the windows. The severe drought continues, as do the water restrictions. According to Weather Central, there are chances of thunderstorms this afternoon and tonight.

Since moving here, we've realised that extremes in weather are a fact of life. A beautiful hot day can easily turn into thunderstorms. Rainclouds can appear without warning, drop their payload, then disappear again, to reveal a cloudless blue sky, just as suddenly as they appeared. We have experienced several thunderstorms that are worse than anything we've ever experienced in England. Any given part of NC can expect about 40-50 thunderstorms a year, mostly in the summer. These storms cause about $5 million damage per year. Even so, buildings tend to be stick-built and don't tend to have lightening rods. The story of the three little pigs comes to mind. If your house is in danger in being blown down, it may be prudent to build it out of something stronger than sticks.

NC also averages about 2 hurricanes per year. It is the coast that bears the brunt of these.

The other extreme weather is the tornado. Tornadoes are not unheard of in the UK, but are rare and are rarely big. The Birmingham tornado hit while we were on our reconnaissance trip last July. Although we haven't experienced a tornado yet, we have had several tornado warnings. They tend to come hand in hand with the severe storm warnings.

NC is not exactly Tornado Alley, but it turns out that it gets an average of about three tornadoes a year. This is enough for tornado drills to be a part of school life for the girls, as are fire drills. Apparently, in the event of a tornado, one is supposed to find an inside room on the ground floor, where all the walls are not exterior walls. One is supposed to crouch into a ball in this inner room until the tornado is passed. As our house is entirely open plan -- this advice is fairly useless. The advice for storms is to stay at home and keep away from electrical/electronic devices and telephones.

All things considered, however, the weather at this time of year is fantastic. It's like a perfect summer -- hot and sunny, but with a cooling breeze. The windows are open and the fans are on. At the height of summer it will be too hot to open the windows and we will need to turn on the air conditioning, so we plan to enjoy every second of this perfect weather while it lasts.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Franz Ferdinand

When we first moved here, everywhere I went and everything I did would be with the thought:


Everything seemed alien to us. Now, I've just about got used to the house. Stepping out of the house and walking the children to school still brings on a less pronounced:


Eventually, I dare say, it will become:

"Yeah, we're living in America, no big deal."

Even though we're getting used to being here and are starting to settle in, there is still occasionally something that once again highlights the fact that the Atlantic is a very big pond.

This story is one such case. All the clues were there. At the end of this story you will all wonder how we can be so stupid and the only defence that I have to offer is that, although the truth was there for anyone to see, our expectations were so strong that we were blinded to the blindingly obvious.

When we found out that Franz Ferdinand were playing at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium and that Duke had a number of cut-price tickets set aside for staff and students, we jumped at the chance.

The Ticket
The Ticket
We were quite pleased that they had managed to cross the Atlantic divide and make it big here (big enough to fill a 9000-seater stadium; compare this with the 200 or so people who came to see The Wedding Present). When we got the tickets, we found that they were being supported by an American band that we'd never heard of called Death Cab for Cutie. This is where we missed the first clue (see picture of ticket). We thought it strange that the support band is listed first, but after all, they're on first and perhaps that's how they do it in America.

Anyone with half a braincell has by now realised our mistake, but not us. Our stupidity runs much deeper than this.

We took the liberty of downloading the latest Death Cab for Cutie album from the internet before the gig, so we had an idea of what they were like. They were decidedly uninspiring. Each song started with what can be described as a promising intro, but failed to develop into anything more interesting. The entire album lacked (as the French would say) a certain "I don't know what" and by the end I was quite bored with it. Nevertheless, they weren't rubbish -- they were obviously trying hard, but only succeeded in coming across as a bit pretentious. I thought that, although they're no Franz Ferdinand, they'd probably be OK as a support band.

The second clue came on the night of the gig (Friday), when the babysitter became animated to hear that we were going to see Death Cab for Cutie, but had never heard of Franz Ferdinand. Still, we were too slow to understand the implications of this and dismissed it out of hand.

The doors were due to open at 5:30 and the first band was due to come on at 7:00. I have never known a gig that starts on time (apart from the one at the Cat's Cradle), so we got there at about 7:30. The queue was very long. We wondered why entry to the stadium was taking so long, even though everyone seemed to already have tickets. The event staff were keen to keep reassuring the queue that they need not worry and they won't miss the show. From this, we assumed that they were running a bit behind with getting everyone in so were delaying the start of the gig. Forty five minutes later, we reached the front of the queue and realised what was taking so long. The security was strict enough to rival an airport. EVERY SINGLE PERSON was being individually searched before being allowed in. Come to think of it, even airport security isn't that tight!

Anyway, we finally took our seats at about 8:15 only to find that Franz Ferdinand were already on stage and happily playing away to their hearts' content. We were very annoyed because not only had we missed the entire support, but had also missed some of Franz Ferdinand. I didn't want this to spoil the night, so I worked hard at trying to overcome my (as I thought) righteous anger.

Herein lies another couple of clues. Timing wise, if the support came on at 7:00, then if Franz Ferdinand came on at about 8:00 and played for about an hour and a half, they'd be finished by 9:30, which is far too early for a gig to end. I tried to justify this problem with timing by thinking that perhaps they would be doing an extra-long set. I wasn't happy with this explanation, but couldn't think of a better one. The other clue was that people who were behind us in the queue were still rolling in about half an hour later than us, but didn't seem to be in the slightest bit bothered that they'd missed most of the show.

Franz Ferdinand were excellent. Despite my negative feelings about missing half the gig, I could not fault their performance (what there was of it). We only got to hear about 8 to 10 songs before they went off stage at about 9:00, all the lights came on and people started filing out. There was not even the sniff of a possible encore. Mark and I looked at each other and wondered aloud what was going on. It was only then that the penny dropped and the unthinkable became thinkable.

Franz Ferdinand were the support band. We were so starting to get used to living in the US that we'd forgotten that in Wonderland many things can be topsy-turvy. Franz Ferdinand are not big in the USA, but the band that we'd never heard of is. All the anomalies were instantly explained and everything started to make sense.

There was also another band, called The Cribs who were on at 7:00-ish, followed by Franz Ferdinand at 8:00-ish and the main band, Death Cab for Cutie, at nearly 9:30. I've heard of The Cribs, but have never heard them, so was very disappointed when I found out that I'd missed them.

Death Cab for Cutie came on. Armed with the realisation that they were the main band; and upon witnessing the increased excitement of the crowd, I became determined to see the good in them. I thought, "They must be better live than their album suggests for them to be so popular". I was already familiar with many of the songs that they played from their album, but unfortunately, despite my initial enthusiasm and desperation to take home something good from the evening, after five or six songs I had to admit to myself that I was bored and that Death Cab for Cutie lacked both interest and stage presence (especially as a follow-on from Franz Ferdinand). By the time they were half way through the second song of their encore I found myself hoping that there would not be a third. By this stage, many of those near us who donned Franz Ferdinand T-shirts had already left.

Even with all that went wrong (missing The Cribs and the start of Franz Ferdinand), just going out together was fun. Also, to put it into perspective, Death Cab for Cutie weren't bad. It's more that it surprised me that they were good enough to almost fill a 9000 seater stadium. I say "almost fill" because it was clear that there were many who, like us, had gone to see Franz Ferdinand; although I doubt that any of them were as stupid as us in not realising that they were the support band.

All in all, despite everything, we had a thoroughly good night out.

So, what is the moral of this story? What were the lessons to be learnt?
  1. Don't expect bands that are big everywhere else in the world to be big in the USA.
  2. Don't expect that just because a band is big in the USA, we'll have heard of it.
  3. Expect there to be an extra support band that has not been billed. This seems to be the done thing in the US. When we went to see The Wedding Present there was an unexpected extra band as well.
  4. Expect US gigs to start on time.


Since Friday, we've downloaded an excellent live recording of a Franz Ferdinand gig in Berlin last year. It really is very good.

The other thing is that it seems that Death Cab for Cutie have done several small-venue European tours over the past 3-4 years, but it's just that we'd never heard of them. It also turns out that on the current tour they are supposedly "co-headlining" with Franz Ferdinand. This was far from the reality that we experienced.

On the bright side, at least we got the T-shirt:

Back of the Franz Ferdinand T-shirt, showing the tour datesMark wearing his new Franz Ferdinand T-shirtA close up of the tour dates, showing Durham, NC

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Signs of Life in Britain

There's a fun post on road signs in Britain from a Canadian perspective at The Anglo File, Too. There's also a good post with photos of views in Snowdonia.

You Can't See the Mast for the Tree

Q: When is a tree not a tree?
A: When it's a mobile phone mast.

Competition Time

Mobile phone mast disguised as a tree

Spot the mobile phone mast disguised as a tree for a chance to win a self-satisfied glow that comes with knowing that you are able to differentiate between a cleverly disguised mobile phone mast and a tree. Submit your answers on a postcard. The winner will be drawn from the correct entries.

I'd never encountered this phenomenon until moving here, but apparently they can be found all over the US and Europe, including the UK.