Friday, December 19, 2008

How often has the Christmas tree afforded me the greatest glee!

It was my birthday on Friday.  Thank-you, I did enjoy myself and got a good selection of books, chocolate and clothes, the latter two in larger sizes than the previous year.

Il Capo has a rule regarding the delineation between my birthday and Christmas.  She feels it is important to keep a separation between these two notable celebrations and therefore we do not decorate for Christmas until my birthday has passed.

Consequently, on Sunday we went looking for a Christmas tree.

I fancied the idea of cutting down our own tree.  I know this is normal American behaviour because I've seen it on Charlie Brown.  The more time I spend in America, the more I realise how true to life Peanuts is, for example the obsession with pumpkins that started in August and is still rumbling on.  I've even seen dogs that slept on the roofs of their kennels, although that was in Alaska.

I had a hunt around the Internet and found Wilkins Fruit and Fir Farm, a place where we could select our own tree and then mercilessly hack it down and drag it off to our home.

"This place will do, let's go here.  Wilkins Fruit and Fir Farm", said I.

"They do Christmas trees?", asked Il Capo?

"Yes, it's a fir farm.  It's only about ten miles away"

"OK... Um... Why do they sell Christmas trees at a fur farm?"


"Do they keep the bears in them?"


Eventually, we got our homophones in order and got in the car.

When we got there, I parked the PT Cruiser in a muddy field alongside the other cars.  I say cars, I mean trucks.  We were next to a Ford SUV which was a cross between a Humvee and a Greyhound bus.  It's what you get when the marketing department say they like the off-road ability of the Range Rover, so could you build the same thing, but with an extra row of seats and twice the luggage capacity.  All the Ford
SUVs have names starting with "Ex".  In growing order of size there is the Extirpation, the Exsanguination and the Extermination.

From the car-park, we took a hay-ride to the tree plantation.  A quick word of explanation here to my British readers.  A hay-ride is when a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer draws up alongside you, and you and your precious children sit on the trailer, legs dangling while it takes you to your final destination.

As an impressionable youth, I used to watch "public information films" in England that showed 70s children riding on trailers, before one would fall over the side and under the wheels, resulting in a grisly mess of blood and brown cords.  The other thing I learnt not to do was throw a frisbee up into an electricity pylon then climb up to get it.  As I recall, that leads not to blood but to ashes floating gently in the breeze.

The film did its job - I clung to my youngest all the way, scanning the horizon for tornadoes or other possible hazards while silently calculating whether in the event that Son Number One began to slip, it would be better to grab him and risk his legs slipping under the wheels, or push him harder so he would fall away from this whirling machine of death.

As it happened the three mile an hour journey was uneventful.

At the plantation we roamed between the firs, looking for the perfect tree.  What is the perfect tree?  Well, the trees I liked were tall and conical, Il Capo likes trees that were symmetrical and Nanny wanted something without gaps in the foliage.  Son Number One's only criterion was that he could reach the label.  Bagpuss ignored the trees and looked for mud to walk in.  Working together we succesfully dismissed every candidate until Son Number One found our Douglas.  He was a little over seven feet tall and perfectly formed.  I found an itinerant teenager with a saw who happily laid on the frozen ground and sawed Douglas down, then carried him back to the trailer for the journey back.

After another non-fatal hay ride back, Douglas was placed in a shaking machine.  Ostensibly this was to allow dead needles to fall, but I think it was really to remove the spiders.  If they can hide in a bunch of bananas, how many can fit into a tree?  Then he was netted and two willing teenagers tied him to our PT Cruiser for which I thanked them with a picture of Abraham Lincoln mind-beaming them to share it with the lad stuck back in the trees with the saw.

While all this was happening to Douglas, we were receiving free mulled cider and buying a huge and delicious apple and cranberry pie.  Cider in America isn't the same as cider in Britain.  To the British, cider is an alcoholic drink made from fermented apples that is prized by teenagers for its easy drinkability and low cost.  To Americans, cider is a non-alcoholic drink, made from unpastuerised apple juice.  The mulled stuff was pretty good though.

Back at the ranch, Douglas was stood, watered and decorated and I think he looks pretty good.

Picture taken with a 2.5 second exposure without a tripod, so apologies for the blurring.

P.S.  I went hunting for the old UK public information films and found these.  They are not exactly as I remember, but the essential horror remains.  In fact, the trailer scene is one part of a long film which was shown in schools when I was small called Apaches.  Looking at it now, it's the Alien of public information films, almost 30 minutes long and with the theme of 80s horror films, except it was made before them.  A group of six children on a farm, one by one they meet grisly deaths until only one remains.  You might think that after one child has been crushed under a trailer, one drowned in a pit of slurry and one has drunk paraquat, the parents might think to take the other children away, but horror films don't work that way.  Remember, they made us watch this at school.

Part 1, The hay-ride scene is 4.30 in:

Part 2:

Part 3:

After that, the relatively mild frisbee film is here.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #12

Inflatable Horton is passing by with an inflatable clover and 56 wranglers below him.  Followed by the Care Bears.  A woman is miming something turgid about Christmas while bears ice-skate.  I need a beer.

Kermit is back, non-inflatable this time.  He's singing, but his voice is all wrong.  Bagpuss went to get her Fozzy Bear to wave at Kermit.  Meredith Vieria is announcing a group who aren't there.  The final band of the day are imminent, but first Andy Williams.

Andy is singing something Christmassy.  It's interesting how Christmas themed this Thanksgiving parade is.  There was one giant turkey, some over sized cranberries and about a dozen Christmas songs.  Perhaps someone should write more songs about pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes.  As I wrote that, the final band turned up and played Jingle Bells.

And here's Santa to wind up the parade.  He's a good Santery looking Father Christmas, with a thick but carefully groomed beard and is preceded by a long line of animatronic reindeer.

Matt Lauer is winding up, and Son Number One is reaching for the Wii remote.  The parade is over.

In conclusion, the whole thing was a little fraught - the Squeakers didn't enjoy it very much.  They would have loved it if they were there, but to see it we would have had to get up at oh-my-God-o-clock.  If we watch it on TV again, next time I'm turning off the commentators.

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #11

There is now a steam-boat, populated by sailors, giant mice and a sixteen year old singer called Charice.  The captain has an eight foot head.  It represents Good Housekeeping.  I'm confused.

A marching band with a twist.  It's filled with octogenarians from Florida.  I think I just saw Lloyd Bridges playing a trumpet.

Spongebob Squarepants is floating past.

While watching Trace Adkins singing, Il Capo remarked, "Country Music's very big here, isn't it?"

Now there are traditional Iroquois dancers and singers performing - followed by inflatable Kermit.  The organisers have an interesting way of ordering this parade

They've hacked the head and shoulders off the Statue of Liberty and Miss USA is dragging it down the street!

Now this is unusual.  The Fred Hill Briefcase Drill Team.

I think what is driving me nuts about the commercialism isn't that all the floats represent various shows or products - that's fair enough.  It's listening to Al Roker and Matt Lauer reading a paragraph from each company's marketing department every time a new float goes past.  Say, the float is from Build-A-Bear Workshop, but don't give me a hundred words on how turn children's dreams into nylon reality.

Andy Williams is coming up, but the Squeakers are beginning to rebel.  I may not make it...

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #10

Idina Menzel is singing on a float with the M&M men.  She's very well wrapped up with a big woolly hat.  Very energetic singing though.

Son Number One gazes adoringly at inflatable Pikachu.  Matt Lauer is explaining how Pikachu stores electricity in his cheeks.

Buzz Lightyear is floating over Broadway.  He's followed by a musical number from Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends - which is interrupted by... RICK ASTLEY!  Il Capo is on her feet - she's dancing!

We've had to rewind so she can dance more... I'll be back when it's over.

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #9

An Abby Cadabby inflatable, another marching band, and a giant Hello Kitty balloon. Bagpuss is happy again.

A giant pink castle is passing by. It has singing women on it.

Something that impresses Son Number One. Two jugglers juggling while one stands on the other's shoulders. They are from the Big Apple Circus.

Mr Peanut from Planters Peanuts arrives in his Nutmobile. Did you know Americans consume more than 600 million pounds of nuts every year? That's not much, they eat more turkey in one day!

The cast from Hair are here, singing Aquarius. Hair is on, needless to say, Broadway.

The huge horses of the NYC Parks Enforcement Mounted Patrol. Followed directly by an inflatable Ronald McDonald.

"Long Island's teen sensation" Push Play are singing on a cardboard bridge - someone forgot to turn off Matt Lauer's microphone. And another marching band are performing.

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #8

I may be understating it, but there is a certain amount of product placement on the NBC broadcast of Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

Now this is a little different.  Hawaiian dancers and singers all dressed in grass skirts and those flower garland things.

Shontelle is singing beside a huge rhino that people are abseiling rappelling  down...  I can't explain it.

An Inflatable Dora that waves!  The Squeakers are momentarily interested.  That is followed by a Harajuku Girls float with an inflatable Gwen Stefani and then a giant Energizer bunny.

Lots of girls in short skirts with huge skipping ropes.  They have sixty foot ropes perpendicular to each other and lines of jumping girls.  Hard to explain, think of the ropes as a grid.

Ooh, Sesame Street.  Bagpuss stops looking for a grape under the sofa to watch Elmo.

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #7

Back to Harold Square outside Macy's.  The All-Star Baton Twirlers are twirling.  They each raised $2,000 dollars to appear - oh they've gone.

Peanuts characters, a giant inflatable Snoopy and normal sized Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus.

Il Capo's foot is better now.

Son Number One is asking to play on the Wii.

A marching band are now marching and playing.  More high-kicking from the band's majorettes.

The Bolt float is here.  Bolt is an upcoming film.  Miley Cyrus is miming to a song.  Miley Cyrus voices one of the characters.

Ah, now we have mounted police with a police band - oh, we are getting sponsors adverts over the top of them.  Obviously the police aren't paying NBC enough.

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #6

The parade has now reached Macy's.  Possibly NBC were lacking cameras, as we finally get to see some of it.

Did you know that 675 million pounds of turkey is eaten every Thanksgiving in the USA?  That's a little over 32 ounces of turkey for every person.  That's what I enjoy about these long live events, the nuggets that the commentators produce from their crib-sheets.

The smurfs are passing by.  They've given pleasure to millions says Meredith Vieira... and Sony Pictures are bringing out a Smurfy movie next year.

James Taylor is singing America the Beautiful.  I think he's the first person not actually selling anything.

And we now pause as Il Capo soothes her foot where Bagpuss spilled hot tea.

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #5

Interview with Ali Larter from NBC's Heroes.  Al Roker actually asked her about the parade, but then segued straight into Heroes, which you can catch Mondays at nine on NBC.

Now a performance of Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid, which is on... Broadway!  Ariel is wearing a pair of clam-shells in the street in November!

And now we have the Radio City Rockettes demonstrating their flexibility to a medley of Christmas tunes.  The Radio City Rockettes are appearing this Christmas at the Radio City Music Hall

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #4

Al Roker is fortunate to have Michael Flatley with him.  They're advertising a show on NBC.

Now it's lots of semi-naked sailors singing Nothing Like a Dame from South Pacific.  Apparently, South Pacific is on Broadway at the moment.  Who'da thunk it?

A quick recap.  We've seen a giant inflatable smurf and 600 cheerleaders from the parade, three promotions for Broadway shows and three interviews with people who are in NBC shows.

Now we have Harry Connick Junior in a helicopter over where the parade would be if he hadn't recorded it yesterday.

The Squeakers are starting to ask if it's over yet.

Interview with cast members from NBC's, The Office.  It's on Thursday nights at nine on NBC.

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #3

Uhhh, where was I?

There were six-hundred cheerleaders all jumping and wiggling.  Very hypnotic.

A giant Smurf just passed by - Al Roker got excited.

We now have a musical number from In The Heights , a musical on Broadway.

Al Roker has a special guest... It's David Hasselhoff!  Oh, no it's not.  He said Knight Rider and I got excited, but it's the star of the new Knight Rider advertising his show that isn't doing as well as hoped.  He just said a few words, gave the time and day of the show and then left, probably to go indoors.

Another musical number.  This is also from a Broadway show, a limited run of Irving Berlin's White Christmas.  I'm beginning to detect a theme here...

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #2

OK, NBC is on the television...

It's 37 degrees and Meredith Vieira really doesn't look happy to be outside in it.  A couple of statistics to start us off.  There are ten thousand parade participants and three and half million people watching on the streets of Manhattan.

NBC are going through all the performers that will be appearing.  It started off with Miley Cyrus and just kept going and going.  At one point he mentioned Rick Astley.  Got to stop typing, there are cheerleaders....

Live blogging the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade #1

Thanksgiving is a unique holiday in the U.S.  It's the only American holiday where the event itself appears to have more significance than the plastic novelties you put in your front yard.  In fact, other than a few inflatable turkeys there is little in the way of humourous trash with which to adorn the day.  The purpose - spending time with people close to you and eating your own weight in one sitting - is sufficiently consuming to make any ancillery gimcrackery seem pointless - detrimental even - to the day's significance.

There is however, one Thanksgiving tradition that has absorbed all this missing gimmickry and razamatazz and it is discharged in one long New York parade.  I'm told it makes other parades look like a queue line at the post office.  Initially it was my plan for the whole Potarto family to go and see the parade.  I mean, we're a few miles away, staying at home and watching it on TV seemed a waste somehow.  But Il Capo convinced me that the trauma of enduring four hours standing in the street in November with the Squeakers was something we should save for next year.  So, how amazing is the parade?  We shall see with the second Mr Potarto live-blog session.

Strictly speaking, this is less a live-blog, more a TiVo-blog as the parade started 40 minutes ago and the TV's still off.  Anyone with a DVR will understand - once you become accustomed to jumping over adverts, live television holds a certain repulsion.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"All the leaves on the trees are falling to the sound of the breezes that blow..."

It's late October and Autumn is in free-fall.  There was a week at the end of September when it was in the 70s, then during the night a switch was thrown and the next day the temperature dropped 15 degrees.  Since then we've been bumping along in the 50s and high 40s.  Last night the news reported 12 inches of snow in New Jersey, which is south of here.  However, the arrival of Fall is obvious even without considering the temperature.  Just look at the trees, the women and the houses.

The trees are doing that thing that trees in the American North-East are meant to do and turning orange and red.  I'm sure Vermontians would say that New York tree colour is a tawdry brown compared to the spectacular firework display of their maples, but they look pretty good to me.

I took a few photos across the river to the Palisades, but I think the zoom may have washed out the tones a little.  Certainly this photo of less distant trees is more vibrant.

Note for Sopranos fans, the Palisades are a line of cliffs along the Western side of the Lower Hudson.  They get a mention in the New Jersey mob series when Tony Soprano suggests that his demented Uncle Junior can wander off the cliffs.  However, these photos are taken at the Northen end of the  Palisades, near my house but away from Tony and Paulie Walnuts.

The women have signalled the end of Summer by moving their rain boots to the front of the closet.  Whenever it rains, the commuting women of New York take to wearing what I would describe as welly boots.  Not the plain black or green welly boots of England, however.  All the welly boots here are patterned with flowers, or spots, or stripes or paisley.  Each pair as individual as any other item of clothing.  In England, these sort of boots are reserved for children, and it is a sign of increasing maturity that you outgrow your colourful wellies and accept the uniform dullness of the standard boot.  Americans don't seem to do uniform dullness.

UK boots                                                   US boots

As for the houses, well Americans are of course the World's greatest consumers and they embrace any holiday as an excuse to buy stuff and use it to decorate the front yard.  Halloween is not a holiday, but it is a great excuse to buy plastic ghosts, scarecrows and pumpkins and arrange them around the front of your house.  Like, um, this:

I knew Halloween was a popular event in America, but I didn't realise quite how popular.  In someways it's bigger than Christmas, as Christmas is a Christian holiday, whereas Halloween is celebrated by
pagans everybody.

Son Number One's school is holding a parade on Halloween.  All the children will bring a costume and then march around the school grounds in front of the parents.

Il Capo took the children to a party shop to choose costumes.  It was a kind of modern-day Argos, in that there were no pens or form-filling.  One long wall was covered in photos of the costumes.  When you have made your choice you tell an assistant and he radios the guys in the back room who bring it out to you.  Son Number One picked a Spiderman outfit and Bagpuss will be a spider.

To generate a little ectoplasmic spirit we went to a couple of local events the last two weekends.  First was Legends at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, which is the setting for Washington Irving's story about the Headless Horseman - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  We all wandered around the grounds in the dark and met various period characters.  There was a story-teller who talked about local ghosts and tales of Ichabod Crane.  We listened to him for twenty minutes before Bagpuss began to rebel against the enforced silence so we moved on.  When we left he was showing no signs of flagging or repeating himself.  There was also a musician singing songs of murder and a few of the ghouls mentioned by the story-teller were wandering around, including the Horseman himself.  He was headless, and for reasons that slipped by me, waving a pumpkin.

We followed that up last week by visiting Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor .  This is simply a display of carved pumpkins.  The interest comes from the quantity of pumpkins - there were over 4,000 - and the quality of the carving.  The images were created by not just cutting holes, but by also by leaving varying thicknesses of pumpkin skin to alter the amount of light that shone through.  Again we wandered the grounds of an old house in the dark, this time moving from tableaux to tableaux, each rendered in orange fleshy vegetables.  It's kind of hard to explain, but basically there were dinosaurs, pirates and fairies as well as a scene from Thriller all made from piled pumpkins.

Suitably inspired, the next day we took our knives to our own brace of 25 pounders and created the works of art in the photo above which I think all will agree would not look out of place in the Louvre.

Friday, September 19, 2008

When CSIs stray too close to home

I remember an interview with Emma Thompson way back when she was in The Tall Guy with Jeff Goldblum.
"You play a nurse, did you spend time at a hospital to observe how nurses work?" she was asked.
"No." She replied, "I'm an actress, I acted being a nurse."
I loved that response, skewering in a few words a legion of method actors and the interviewer into the bargain.

Yet, how many of us have watched our profession portrayed in film or on TV by some walking cosmetic-surgery commercial and cried, "No one buffs nipple-gimlets like that!"  (or words to that effect).

Well, I was enjoying an episode of CSI:NY the other day - it told the story of the Cabbie Killer, an evil taxi driver who kidnapped and gassed his passengers.  The idea of a killer cabbie is ironic as most of them seem to be trying to kill themselves and everyone within side-swiping distance anyway.  Anyway, the Cabbie Killer had kidnapped some irritating blogger (bloody bloggers) and was forcing him to live-blog the killer's moments with his current corpse.  Our hero, Mac Taylor and his attractive but useless sidekick, Montana were reading the web-site with distate.  On recognising that the page was being updated in real-time, Montana turned to Mac and said...
"I'll create a GUI interface using Visual BASIC and see if I can track an IP address"

Ignoring the fact that no-one except the Goateed Bassman writes anything in VB, it doesn't make any sense.  She may as well
Write a Java app that connects to the domain using ASP.
Prototype a Ruby executable that will decode the URL.
Create an extreme program with DSDM that derives the TCP/IP.
Developers don't really sound like that!

Do we?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Where nuts come from

I am typing this with fingers that are stained black.

We have a walnut tree in our garden yard and it is laden with fruit.  Walnuts are one of those things where I was a little vague about how exactly they grew.  Il Capo's father was from the Welsh valleys and he used to talk about the evacuees* that came to his village from Liverpool.  These young city children knew milk came from a cow, but they couldn't work out which part of the cow the bottle came out of.  Same with me and walnuts.  I knew they came from a tree, but after that it got a bit vague.

The walnut that you see in a bag in the shop has an edible kernel and an outer shell, but on the tree this shell is surrounded by a green fleshy hull.  To prepare walnuts you have to remove the hull then leave them somewhere cool and dark to cure for a couple of weeks.  That sounds easy, doesn't it?

Our tree is a black walnut tree, so named (according to my cub scout book of trees) because of its black bark.  Well, our tree's bark is grey, but having hulled an experimental 21 walnuts my fingers are definitely black.  The problem is that the hull doesn't want to come off the shell unless you hit it with a hammer.  And when you hit it with a hammer it sprays out this dark green juice that dries into a black dye.

So a couple of days ago I was out on the deck, hitting these lime-like fruit with a hammer and making my hands look like I'd just stepped out of the cellars of 50s Fleet Street.

I tried cleaning them with alternating washes of soap, lemon juice and a combination of vinegar and baking soda, but none of these had any significant effect.  Il Capo suggested bleach and I couldn't quite tell if she was serious.  After I admitted defeat, Il Capo took me into the kitchen and showed me where "we" keep the gloves.  You can imagine how much I appreciated that.

I'll let you know how the walnuts turn out after curing.

I wonder if is still available.

* In the first couple of years of World War Two, Britain was under continual bombardment from the Luftwaffe.
A decision was taken to evacuate city children to the countryside, where they lived with those who volunteered to take them.  For the children this meant saying goodbye to mother and father (if he wasn't already fighting abroad) and getting on a train with a suitcase and a name-tag around their neck.  Once at the destination station, a coordinator with a clipboard would allocate them to whomever they could find to take them in.
I don't know what the general opinion of this policy was, but my Dad was six when he was evacuated with his older sister and he hated it.  Suffice to say that times were hard, people were forced to accept children they didn't want and the outcome in his case wasn't good.

Friday, September 12, 2008

We Fat

When I was young and single, I was lithe.  I was lanky.  I was, let's face it, skinny.  I'm six feet one inch and in my early 20s I weighed eleven stone, which is 152 pounds.  Then I met Il Capo and started visiting her family for meals.  Her Mother, now known as Nanny, resolved to rectify my problem.  Over the next year I gained 20 pounds.  Today I notice I've gained 15 pounds since we arrived in America exactly eight months ago, which puts me two pounds shy of 200.

Luckily, it's attractive fat.

With obvious concern for the structural integrity of the house, last week I ordered a Wii and accompanying Wii Fit.  If you haven't heard of a Wii Fit, have a look at this video.  Or um, this one.

Today it arrived!  Having ushered the Squeakers off to bed, I plugged it in and it measured our BMI and then announced our Wii Fit Ages.  This is the machine's opinion of a person's fitness.  My Wii Fit Age is ten years above my actual age.  Nanny's Wii Fit Age is seven years below her actual age.  Il Capo's Wii Fit Age is... (whisper it) 18 years above her real age!!!

We've spent the evening jogging, stepping, balancing and dodging football boots.  It's a lot of fun, but will we keep it up?

The real test of the machine comes tomorrow.  Son Number One will wake and he will want to try it.  And anything he does, Bagpuss will demand doing also.

Did Nintendo design Wii Fit to survive SNO and Bagpuss fighting over who gets to do Yoga?  We will see tomorrow...

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sneaking out

I snuck out the office early this evening to catch Federer versus Murray in the US Open Final.  With luck I would be home by 6pm, one hour into the match.

Well it's 6pm now and I'm in a train stationary in The Bronx.  An earlier train has broken down and is blocking the track.  We've been here 30 minutes so far.

To be honest, I can only remember three other incidents that have caused delays greater than five minutes (and that includes a building collapsing beside the track) so that's about a 1/80 chance of such a delay on a particular trip.  I just hope Murray doesn't wrap it up in three quick sets...

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Hanna has left us and is heading for Nova Scotia.  We're all still here, though the beer took a battering.  Last night four inches of rainfall had turned the house into waterfront property, but that has all seeped away now.

To be honest, even as little Hanna was passing, a lot of attention was being focussed on her big brother Ike, who is a category 4 hurricane with average speeds near the eye of 135 mph.  Ike is about to hit Cuba then pass into the Gulf of Mexico towards Texas.

In September 2005 I was in Connecticut doing the work of colleagues who had travelled to Houston for some performance testing of our software.  When I did some testing in Houston myself, I remember our dedication to sampling the local culture, especially the Margaritas they make down there.  Anyway, they had only been there a couple of days when they evacuated from impending Hurricane Rita.  This was a month after Hurricane Katrina, so everyone was jumpy. 

When they came back, they reported the attitude of the Houstonians was exemplified by the signs displayed at the bars - The only good Rita is a Margarita!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hanna drops a spanner

I am writing this from under the table.

Tropical Storm Hanna is heading our way (you can track her course here) and I am enacting my emergency plan which is to find a safe place and retreat there with a cache of beer.

Sustained winds of 50mph doesn't sound too scary to me,  but the gusts could be a lot higher for all I know.  Plus, the accompanying rain is forecast to be 3-6 inches.

Anyway, if we lose water I have my beer.  I we lose power I'll have to play Uno with Son Number One until it's restored.

Pray we don't lose power!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Vernal mutterings

Monday was Labor Day, which most Americans consider the unofficial end of the Summer.  Looking at the weather forecast, today is going to be in the 80s but I do feel that the season is coming to an end.  In high summer there were thunderstorms every evening and they stopped a few weeks ago.  The trees seem to have noticed, as some early-adopter leaves have already changed colour to red or brown.

In the city there are less trees, but you can see Autumn Fall is on its way by looking at the advertising hoardings.  In America, most of the dramas and comedies start each series season in September and looking around New York, 80% of the adverts are for TV shows that will be starting soon.  Remarkably, half the remaining hoardings are for paint.

It's curious which industries spend the most on TV and billboard adverts in the USA and the UK.  In the UK, the most frequent adverts are for cars, washing powder and beer.  Over here, there are few car and beer adverts and possibly none at all for washing powder.  There are lots for drugs, (including the excruiating Viagra one), lots for TV and phone companies and lots for chain restaurants.  A hurtful person might say that this implies British men spend their time driving to the pub while the wife is at home cleaning and that Americans use technology and pharmaceuticals to keep them happy and when that doesn't work, they head for Chillis.

I'm sure that right now there are many socialogy students earning their theses by expanding that last paragraph to 200 pages.

Another sign that Fall is around the corner.  Son Number One has his first day at school tomorrow (not including the three months he did last winter in the UK).  School will neccessite a dramatic change in our morning routine, as we'll have to get Son Number One fed and dressed approximately 30 minutes earlier than he's ever managed it before which means me getting up earlier to encourage it into him.

Early night tonight...

Also it is Il Capo's birthday tomorrow.  A quick tip for you currently single guys - don't hitch up with a woman who's birthday falls at the beginning of the month.  I spend each August thinking, "Oh, it's next month, plenty of time" and then three days before, I suddenly realise I have nothing but an afternoon of intensive present shopping between me and a gruesome death.

I wrapped her presents last night and hid them under the bed, then this morning whispered to Son Number One to go and have a look, but not to tell Mummy.  He went to Il Capo and said, "stay there", then went and found them.  When he came back he said to Il Capo, "Mummy, don't look under the bed".

Swimming cities of Switchback Sea

We went to an artistic production last week.  A group of travelling artists and a floating performance on the Hudson River.  They had four home-made boat/raft/junk-piles on which they stood and told a story while the audience watched from the river bank.  They called themselves the Swimming cities of Switchback Sea.

They told a story of a perhaps near-future world, where people driven by failure or hopelessness or a lack of belonging, gathered and created a ship-borne group that travelled from town to town, never much welcome in any place, but kept strong by their shared spirit of community.

The story was told by a series of monologues, interspersed by music from a quartet who sensibly decided not to risk their instruments on the boats and stayed on dry land with us.

It was interesting, but a little odd for someone as literal as me.  I'm not a big fan of experimental theatre, so I found myself hoping for more interaction between the actors.  A little dialogue to separate the monologues.  The couple of times when people did interject into others' speech were the moments when the story seemed most real to me.

The writing was very good, there was a rythym  to the words that made them flow beautifully and most of the actors spoke them well.  It was a little disappointing to notice half-way through that several of them were reading their parts, though.

The music was good and the female vocalist was great to listen to.  Curiously, the musicians sat facing the aquatic stage with their backs to us in the audience.  I'm not sure why they thought that was a good idea.

Overall, an unusual night out, and cheap entertainment - free entry and several hats passed round at the end.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


There was this boy on the train home last night. He was about four, and I could see he was looking at a fat book where each page had a grid with blobs on it. Having a young son who is interested in puzzles I watched him surreptitiously to see if I could work out what the game was. Luckily his Mother got talking with another passenger - clearly someone more musical than I - who had deduced these were chord patterns.

The boy had a way with music.

He said the train's horn was Low C and A flat, but that he liked horns that were E and A His favourite chord is A# major 7. I have no idea what that means. And yet for all that, he is a little boy. One who says, "Go, train, go" when we are stopped at a station and spontaneously cuddles his mother when she is talking to someone else.

After his book of chords, he pulled out a 4x4 sudoku and started filling it in.

Number One Son is never going to be good very good at music with my genes. However after watching a documentary on Singapore's water system, he has drawn a four page plan of a filtration system, complete with arrows showing direction of flow and different tanks for each process. It's not the sort of thing he can show off on a train, but I'm proud of him.

New York Bingo #5

I saw my first cockroach today!

He was on a staircase underground in Grand Central and wow, he was a big boy. He was maybe an inch and a half long, but nearly an inch wide. I had to be careful not to tread on him, he was big enough to shrug me off back down the stairs.

Olympic Notes

Over the last few days I've got to see some athletics on NBC!

After the Women's 100m final, they used a directional mike on the mother of an American athlete so we could hear what she was saying to her friend about her daughter's failure to win a medal. She didn't know we were watching her and she didn't know we were listening to her conversation. The police wouldn't be able to do this without a court order, but it seems it's just fine if you're NBC (and in China)

By the way, have a look at these different medals tables:

BBC Medal table:
               G  S  B  T
China         46 15 22 83
USA           29 34 32 95
Great Britain 17 12 11 40
Russia        16 16 19 51

NBC Medal table:
               G  S  B  T
USA           29 34 32 95
China         46 15 22 83
Russia        16 16 19 51
Great Britain 17 12 11 40

I love the way NBC consider a bronze medal to be of equal worth to a gold. I wonder if it is a coincidence that this eccentric approach puts USA on the top?

Local farming for local people

There was a story in my local paper recently about a couple who have turned their home into a farm. You can read the whole story here.
Spadea and McDowell are part of a growing movement that has some people rethinking their connection to agriculture, whether it be as farmers, retailers of locally grown produce or consumers of pesticide-free foods.

They rent an 1870s home on a 6-acre parcel, but they farm just 1 acre. The couple hope to buy the property one day.
Rockland County is upstream and the other side of the Hudson to New York City. Before the Tappan Zee Bridge was built in the middle of the 20th Century, the area was all farmland. But the bridge narrowed the commute to the City, and towns started to replace farms.
The couple's goal is to create a model for how a small farm might operate successfully in the suburbs, where housing developments and strip malls have replaced most fertile farmland.

They want to support existing farms and nurture new ones so that enough food can be locally grown to feed all of Rockland's nearly 300,000 residents.

"That's a dream," Spadea said, "a dream we are working towards. What keeps me going is all the response."

A local supply means food doesn't have to come from distant places in trucks, reducing fuel consumption and air pollution while providing fresh produce, she said.

The couple continue to get the community involved with the farm, where educational programs are held for schoolchildren. A fundraiser Saturday attracted people interested in a tour and in supporting the farm's mission.
An admirable dream. Low-impact farming that sustains, and is supported by, the whole community. But how much work is it?
McDowell and Spadea [do] the lion's share of the work, but they get some help from two Rockland AmeriCorps workers and a student intern.

Maryam Mohiby, one of the AmeriCorps workers, lives nearby and said she wanted to work at the farm this summer to ensure future generations have such a growing place.

"I want this place to prosper," Mohiby said. "I want to help out so I can have my children come along and say one day: 'This is where your mother used to work.'"

All around the small farm last week, fields brimmed with lush tomato plants, lacy carrots, slinky squash vines and more, all of it a big change from early spring, when open fields abounded and it was still too cold for planting.
It sounds amazing. All those wonderful vegetables, waiting to be picked and eaten.
The support of neighbors, elected officials, agriculture experts and others has helped inspire the couple to pursue the farming, even on the most challenging days.

A few weeks back, an invasion of Japanese beetles swamped the farm, McDowell said. It took him, Spadea and eight friends about three days to collect the bugs.

The beetles were frozen, then burned, and the resulting powder will be used as a natural insect repellent on next year's crops.
Even when they face adversity, they turn it into a benefit for their farm.

So is this a template for localised, environmentally friendly food, or is it a romantic delusion that will live for a few years before petering out? Look deeper.
A few weeks back, an invasion of Japanese beetles swamped the farm, McDowell said. It took him, Spadea and eight friends about three days to collect the bugs.
The infestation took ten people three days to clear. Perhaps not everyone worked every day, but it is still 20-30 man-days to clear beetles from a single acre of land.
McDowell and Spadea [do] the lion's share of the work, but they get some help from two Rockland AmeriCorps workers and a student intern.
Even without beetle infestations, they still need three unpaid workers to help with their acre of produce. How is the farm faring financially?
Like most people, McDowell and Spadea also grapple with money issues and finding enough to pay for all the equipment and supplies needed to keep the farm going.

The couple continue to get the community involved with the farm, where educational programs are held for schoolchildren. A fundraiser Saturday attracted people interested in a tour and in supporting the farm's mission.
The farm is losing money. They are dependent on the charity of the community to keep them running.
The McDowells now offer baskets of fresh produce to those pledging to support the nonprofit Camp Hill Farm with weekly or seasonal donations.
So the fund-raiser is on top of regular donations they already receive.
They are concerned that biodynamically grown food is too pricey for the majority of people.

"It's almost like a luxury item, and I don't want it to be a luxury item," Spadea said. "Everybody should be able to afford biodynamic food."

Reducing the costs of the food is one of the many issues they work to figure out.
McDowell and Spadea love the way they grow food and want the whole county's food grown the same way. I'm sure if that was achieved they would want the whole country's food grown that way also. But their system requires five to ten people to work a single acre and they would still fail if their friends and neighbors weren't regularly topping up their bank account.

How can they seriously think their farm is a model that could be extended across Rockland? Why are they giving educational programs to children when their farm does not work? It cannot work without generous physical and financial support. They can't sell their food at the price it costs to make it. If people did pay the amount it costs to farm this way, then they would have less money for the rest of their life-style. Nothing for vacations perhaps, or their children's sports and after school activities.

It's a wonderful dream, but it's a childish dream. We all want to live in Eden, but most of recognise that if we don't want to impoverish our children we need to go to the dull, tedious, modern job that pays for our family's happiness. This farm is not feeding its community it is feeding off of its community. If their neighbors didn't work in the strip malls and the city, they wouldn't have the money to give to McDowell and Spadea and allow them to keep dreaming.

Meanwhile, large-scale, economically viable farms continue to produce food at a price that allows the rest of us to enjoy our lives.  McDowell and Spadea's dream is to take this away and replace it with people working in the fields every hour of daylight.
"That's a dream," Spadea said, "a dream we are working towards. What keeps me going is all the response."
I suggest people respond with a polite, "No thanks."

Saturday, August 16, 2008


I recorded a documentary on Singapore's efforts to upgrade their water system by building a dam and a giant sewage system with huge tunnels.  Son Number One discovered it and has watched it several times - it has lots of footage of giant drilling machines, and a huge floating crane carrying a 500 ton piece of concrete.  When he was watching it, he mentioned the engineers.

I asked him, "Would you like to be an engineer when you grow up?"

"Nah", he replied, "I want to work on check-out number six at the A&P grocery store."

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Squeakers

Il Capo and I went to see The Dark Knight last night.  We very much enjoyed it.  I'm a fan of the darker mood of these last two Batman films, and also the last Bond film.  Coincidentally, they showed a trailer to the forthcoming Bond film, A Quantum of Solace, which made Il Capo very happy as Daniel Craig is one of her two favourite men (I haven't asked her to choose between us).

Now, I know what you non-child-rearing people are thinking.  "They went to see a film, Whoop-dee-do."  Conversely, all the child-rearers are thinking, "They went to see a film? Lucky, lucky bastards."  There was a year, not so long ago, (but pre-children) when we saw over 20 movies in a year.  The Dark Knight is Il Capo's second film this year (I've seen four, because I took Son Number One to WALL-E and Horton Hears A Who).  I would predict maybe one more (Mr Bond) is on the cards.

Having children is an incredible experience, but as soon as the first is born, one lifestyle stops dead and another begins.  And the new lifestyle comes with a day which has six hours less than before.  Each morning begins with certain plans and aspirations and 18 hours later you get into bed and find you've achieved about 15 minutes of what you intended.

The other side of this coin is I find myself deriving great pleasure from doing things that must seem positively banal to an outsider.  For example, we ordered three years of photo prints and they arrived last night.  So this morning over breakfast we passed around picture after picture of Son Number One and Bagpuss, asking the children who's that?, who's this?  Every time Bagpuss shouts, "Meeeeee!" or "Bubba!" (brother) I glow inside.  So much so that I forgot the time and missed my train to work.  Luckily, I'm not expected to provide an excuse when I get in late, as I doubt the answer, "Spending  time with my children" would seem much of a reason to others.

But it does to me.

Binning a bin

When we moved in, the previous owners left their garbage bins.  They were a bit tatty, so we've bought some new ones.  But, how do you throw away a garbage bin?  If I leave it out for the garbage men, won't they just empty it and put it back by the side of the road?

World Affairs

Worried from Georgia asks...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5...

I was sitting in my car yesterday by the side of the road, when a young woman I'd never seen before got in the passenger side and told me start the engine and drive around the corner.

Yesterday was driving test day.

Before the test I had a 90 minute lesson with an instructor.  80 minutes in, I was of the opinion I should have had more than one. 

The lesson was basically a series of fake tests.  My instructor said, "Please sign and date here... Now start the car and turn left at the traffic lights."  We then proceeded along the route he requested, with a pause in the middle for a parallel park and a three-point turn, until we arrived back at the starting point.

He then said, "You failed your test.  Here are the reasons..." and detailed four or five things I'd done wrong in two miles of driving.

Then he pulled out another form, got me to sign it and we did it all again.  And again.  And again.  And I think one more time, could have been two, definitely at least one.

The last time I took a driving test was May 1988.  In that time I've driven about 250,000 miles and I doubt any single mile of that was of a sufficient standard to pass a test.  So I needed the lesson to teach me how to drive properly.

I expected a few problems with my driving - if for no other reason than I wasn't quite sure what the double yellow line down the centre of the road means (actually, I still don't know, I forgot to ask).  What I didn't expect was sheer number of reasons my instructor would find that would fail my test.

Pulling out
  • Looking over my shoulder too much instead of using the mirrors more
  • Failing to go when a gap presented itself
Stop signs
  • Stopping at the sign, not the kerb line of the junction
  • Waiting for traffic to cross in front of me that had to stop itself
  • Too fast while cruising
  • Using the accelerator when reversing
  • Accelerating too much, then braking to stay within the limit
Road position
  • Too far to the left
  • Not turned to the right at a right turn
  • Not entering a traffic light junction when turning left
  • Too close to the car in front when in a line of traffic
Parallel parking
  • Not looking over my left shoulder
  • Turning too fast, too far from the kerb
  • Too far from the car in front
Three-point turn
  • Using too much road width unnecessarily
There was probably some more.  I'm sure there was more.  I blanked the rest out.

The three-point turn was particularly galling.  In Britain, the manouvre is deliberately called a "turn in the road" (or at least it was, in 1988).  The point this attempted to convey was that it doesn't matter how many back and forth movements you make as long as you are safe and don't hit the kerb.  Admittedly the roads are often a lot narrower in the UK.  Now I did my first three-point turn beautifully.  Wheel hard left, drove towards but didn't touch the kerb.  Pause, wheel hard right, engage reverse, back towards other kerb, front of car turns to face intended direction...  During this part, my instructor was saying, "Ok, enough, enough, enough."  It seems that I was using an unnecessary amount of road during the reverse phase of my turn.  I could have stopped earlier and driven down the road, so to continue backwards for the full width of the road was incorrect and therefore worthy of a penalty.

I could partially see his argument.  If I've already reversed far enough, further reversing is unnecessary.  Reversing is more dangerous than moving forward, so don't do it unnecessarily.  And yet, if me reversing six feet is dangerous, I shouldn't be on the road.  If I'm capable of reversing it shouldn't matter!


After my fifth, or possibly sixth fake test, I was pronounced ready and quickly drove to the real test before I forgot everything.

The test site was a surprise.  In the UK there is a building, called a test centre, and you park, go to the reception, announce your arrival, wait in the waiting room, meet the examiner and walk to the car.

I pulled over in a residential street, next to a sign that read, "NYS Driving Test Starts Here" and a few minutes later a young woman got in the passenger side and told me start the engine and drive around the corner.  While we were waiting for her to arrive, my instructor briefed me on the junction immediately ahead and said how some students mess it up.

"Then they come straight back here and are told they failed.  We call that the one minute test."

As I went through the first junction, the examiner pulled out a piece of paper and started writing.  "Oh no", I thought.  We made a few turns, then I did my manouvres and we did a few more turns and suddenly we were back at the beginning.  It must have been no more than five minutes.  As I parked, In my head I went through all the people I'd told I was taking my test and now had to tell I'd failed.

The examiner turned to me and said, "Your license will arrive in the mail.  This (handing me a slip of paper) will be good for 90 days.  Thanks for getting here early.  Goodbye."

And she was gone and I was left clutching my temporary New York driving license.

And it felt pretty good.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


I was in Grand Central Terminal yesterday and I walked past a busker.

I haven't seen a lot of buskers in New York.  In fact, I don't think I'd seen any before this guy.  In Cambridge, I would see five or six in an hour.  Some were full groups with electric equipment, some were orchestral quartets.  There was an opera singer who sang accompanied by a tape recorder providing the music and also a old tramp who blew into a tin whistle and jumped about in a performance where effort trumped ability.

This guy was alone and playing something classical on a violin, which seemed appropriate for the tall marble halls and gilded chandeliers of Grand Central.  He was so good that I actually thought there was more than a single violin playing.  I watched him to see where the rest of the music was coming from, but it was just him, the violin and the bow.

Anyway, I pulled out a dollar and walked over to drop in into his violin case.  As I was doing so, I noticed a small sign in there that read, "Laid off".  I have to say that left me confused.  I wanted to pay him for his work, but now I seemed to have given him charity.  I'm sure if he was desperate enough to write the note, he would take his money anyway it came, but I couldn't help feel that a man with his talent would get more from passers-by paying for his music, than from giving for his condition.

On a more personal point, what does it say about me that his note took away some of my enjoyment of the moment?  I think it's because it changed our relationship from equals trading money for music, to him becoming a supplicant to my charity.  Am I hard-hearted because I don't like that, or not hard-hearted enough because I even notice it?

Watching the Olympics

I'm very much enjoying the Olympics at the moment.  NBC are covering it here and not only is it on NBC and CNBC (their news channel) they have also set up two Beijing Olympics channels so there is room for about 72 hours of coverage every day.  Disappointingly, the coverage is not as expansive as it first seems.  The two dedicated channels only run between 2.30am and 2.30pm, possibly because they are sharing bandwidth with evening channels.  The other two channels tend to show coverage repeated from these two.  Admittedly, that's still around 24 hours of footage a day.

I have to say I am disappointed about all the teams that had to leave early.  I haven't found the news story that explains it, but I watched the opening ceremony and there were hundreds of teams, yet most of them seem to have disappeared.  I assume it is a visa issue.  I know there are some Australians there, because I've seen them in the pool, swimming against the Americans.  And I know the Chinese are there (well, obviously!) because I've seen them playing basketball against the Americans.  There were a pair of Poles playing beach volleyball against the Americans, so Poland is represented.  Perhaps the other countries are in sports that haven't started yet.

That's the other curiousity.  Five days in, and the only sports so far have been swimming, basketball, beach volleyball and gymnastics.  I have to say I'm surprised the Chinese gymnasts weren't disqualified for using invisibility cloaks.  Seriously, they did!  An American would approach the four-inch beam, and the commentator would say, "Now Kandy Dinkins has to score 8.4 or better to beat Cheng Fei of China."  Kandy would then get 8.4 or so and then, there she would be again beside the assymetric bars and the commentator would say, "Following Cheng Fei's good performance, Kandy Dinkins needs to get 8.6 to pull ahead."  And the whole evening of gymnastics would continue in that vein.  I did see a Chinese gymnast once, but that was when he fell off the pommel horse.  Clearly holding onto a magic cloak while circling above a pommel horse is as difficult as it sounds.

I read an article about NBC's coverage before it all started.  They have this mad inventor who devises interesting new ways to place cameras in the action.  For example, there will be a bulls-eye cam in the centre of the archery target watching as the arrows approach.  And for the diving, they have a camera in a long plastic tube that goes into the water.  As the diver leaves the platform, the camera follows them down into and under the water.  Should be good to watch.

When are the archery and diving competitions starting?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A lack of tact

I was in a Duane Reade drug-store yesterday morning for some medicine and there was a big sign that read,
"Prescriptions in Rear".
I thought... "but I don't want any suppositories."

Frog watches Spiderman - goes to his head

The family were settled down for the evening, watching Gibbs, Abbs and Ziva when I glanced at the glass door leading onto the deck and saw this young fellow:

He didn't like the camera flash much and moved around:

Once it get dark, a chorus of various bugs and slugs starts up and I think some of those making the noise are frogs.

This little guy appears to be a Gray Tree Frog (Hyla Versicolor), though he may be Cope's Grey Tree Frog (Hyla chrysoscelis) as they live in the same area and are almost completely indistinguishable. Apart from his little sucky-sticky toes he can change colours,so he's quite a clever little frog.

The next night we had another smaller frog climbing up the same window. I expect its breeding time. Chasing girls is a good excuse for bizarre or ridiculous behaviour, even in amphibians.

"Talking is cheap, people follow like sheep"

Apologies for the long, empty period in Potato Potarto.  Il Capo has got herself an Internet job, to earn herself some pocket money.  She updates a website and gets paid based on the number of views she generates.  I've been helping her with it, and simultaneously neglecting this place.

I do have a plan to take photographs along the Hudson, from Manhattan up to Bear Mountain and put the photos together to show the way the river the geography and the buildings change as you move upstream.

But that's a long-term plan.  In the mean-time, check the next page for a sticky frog.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

When anchormen attack

This is about seven years old, but it is very, very funny.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Not tickled pink by these

Here's a couple of locals that I'm not so enamoured by.

First Ixodes scapularis. Cool name, nasty creature. Our friend the deer, or black legged, tick:

(Click the picture for a closer view)

He's a little hard to see, but he's pretty much just a bag of blood because he's been feeding on one of us. I think he is an engorged nymph, but it may be an adult male. Anyway, Il Capo managed to remove him without squishing him, so I could take some photos (before squishing him).

These guys carry Lyme disease, so are best kept exterior to your epidermis.

Now this lady is Dermacentor Variabilis, known to her friends as the American dog tick. I discovered her walking quite quickly up my shirt heading for my neck. I'd just been attending to Rayhound, who had just been running around our (and the neighbour's) garden.

(Again, click the picture to see her in her full glory)

She doesn't carry Lyme disease, but she does carry several others, among them Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and tularemia. Again, much better to intercept her while on my clothes, than allow her access to my skin.

We do have the garden sprayed to prevent these guys, but we have a wild area beyond the garden that the children and the dog occasionally stray into. Less often the better is now our rule. I have my photos so I do not need any more ticks thank-you.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mad dog

Rayhound hates thunder. When there's a storm he tries to find the furthest corner to hide in. Recently he's discovered the shower tray...

Crazy dog.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

What do you call a snake with no clothes on?

Il Capo and Nanny were out working in the garden during the recent hot weather when a snake passed them and headed up the path towards the house.

Il Capo shouted after it,

"There's no one home."

No I'm kidding. what she actually shouted was

"Holy Christ! Snake! SNAKE!"

When it reached the house it seemed to disappear, which hardly put these two ladies at their ease.  In fact that evening, Nanny moved her bed from underneath the window, so nothing would slither onto her in the night.

The following weekend we were at a barbecue at our next door neighbours' when someone noticed a snake on their drive.  A group of us trooped round from the back of the house to look at it.  Not Il Capo or Nanny, they didn't want to appreciate it.  It was a garter snake, about eighteen inches long. 

Like this one:

We stood around it in a crescent, which made it nervous and it moved onto our drive.

"Uh oh", said I.  "My wife won't like that", and I called Son Number One to help me drive it away from the house.  He was very excited by this duty and may not have been paying complete attention because even though it was between him and the house he ran straight at it, giggling.  The snake accelerated away towards our front door.  I overtook him and stood in the way, but as far as the snake was concerned I was not nearly as scary as a laughing child waving his arms and it went right past me and hid in a bush beside the front door.

Not a wholly successful manoeuvre maneuver.

I broke the news to the ladies that we had relocated the snake to three feet from our door.

They took it remarkably well, considering.

P.S. Snaked!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Barbecue - a comparison

When we lived in the UK, we had a barbecue. It looked like this.

We didn't bring it because for some reason it got rusty being outside during a British summer.  US customs don't like you importing rusty things.  Seriously, they don't like rust and will impound your belongings if you try and bring in rusty stuff.

Now we are living in a place where you can expect sun during the summer, I thought we should get a new barbecue, or grill as they are known here.  We went to Home Depot and I saw this.

It's got cupboards and drawers and it's even got a fridge for the beer and a roof so you can grill in the rain!  I'm currently in negotiation with Il Capo over its purchase.  As I keep stressing to her, if she ever threw me out the house, I could live in the grill!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Lunar Phase

A local student has been arrested and charged for something he did at a graduation ceremony. His actions prompted the Schools Superintendent to write to him.
"I deeply resent the fact that the Briarcliff community will have to erase the ugliness of your despicable act from what should be a completely beautiful memory that enriches their lives", she wrote.
If you don't want to see what he did, don't click here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

It looks like I'm going back to school

I have applied for my New York driving licencse. A local license is useful both as a universal ID and also because without one, car insurance premiums are close to treble.

You might think that having been driving for twenty years, having driven more than 200,000 miles, having never had an accident, (cough) well, not on the road, that getting a license would a a simple procedure. In a word, no.

I went to the DMV and got a provisional licence, or learner's permit. I won't go into huge detail about the DMV, except to say the staff seemed friendly and completely unaware that we visitors would prefer not to stay the whole day. Once I'd had my photo taken, a test was sprung upon me. There were two 16-year-olds, a girl with her older boyfriend and a boy with his mother (and that right there says so much about being 16), plus me and a German man. It was twenty multiple choice questions of which seven were about driving drunk. One of the other questions was:

Road rage is:
a) not an offense in New York
b) illegal, but allowed the first time.
c) understandable if someone cuts you up
d) a serious crime, punishable by 1-3 years in prison.

I managed to pass the test and got my learner's permit. I assumed the next step was a driving test, but reading up on the subject, I discover I first have to pass a five hour course where I will get a certificate that I then take to the test as proof. I'm not sure how much of the course is practical or theory, but seeing as the average charge for the five hours is $50, I assume that it will not be one-to-one tuition. So it looks like I'll be spending a Saturday in a classroom with a bunch of American school-kids.

It's going to be great


Interceptor. Isn't that a cool word? When I hear interceptor, I think of several things. I may think of the Jensen Interceptor, six litrers of V8, chrome-covered 70s fuel-gobbler.

Alternatively, I may think of this car:

I may even think of Annabel Croft

So, interceptor means power, it means charisma, it means catching bad guys and looking cool.

New York Police Department obviously feel the same way, because they drive around Manhattan in the Westward Industries Interceptor:

Whenever there's a need for a three-wheeled, sub 40mph pursuit with optional milk delivery, the Interceptor is there.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

New York Bingo #4

Not strictly a bingo, but I'll crowbar it in anyway.

Il Capo, driving on the highway was overtaken by a man on a Honda Goldwing - jeans, t-shirt, helmet, and poking out of the helmet clamped between gritted teeth was a fat cigar.

Smoking a cigar while riding a bike at 60mph, is that not the embodiment of the American Dream?

Friday, June 20, 2008

A Hendricks by the Hudson

I see in the news that Boris Johnson has banned alcohol from the tube, probably prompting most people to respond, "You mean I was allowed to drink on the Underground?"

This brings to mind the beer at Grand Central Terminal.

New York has a different attitude about alcohol from the UK. Some rules seem more relaxed, others more rigid. It's complicated.
  • The UK is more relaxed, look at the 18 age limit on buying alcohol compared with 21 in New York.
  • New York is more relaxed, look at the closing times, usually 11.00pm in the UK compared with well past my bedtime (4am) here.
  • The UK is more relaxed, watch TV and you will see alcohol all over the place, on US TV people who drink are usually mad, bad or dangerous to know.
  • New York is more relaxed, the spirits liquor measures are almost twice the size (45ml to 25ml) and it's half the price.
  • The UK is more relaxed, you can buy all your alcohol in supermarket, in New York supermarkets only sell beer. If you want wine or spirits, you have to go to a liquor store (which isn't allowed to sell beer).
  • New York is more relaxed, people in the UK have been refused alcohol in supermarkets because they were accompanied by their teenage children, because they are accompanied by their 47-year-old mother, because they are foreigners, even for attempting to buy barbecue sauce without ID. In the UK you have to accept the judgment of the check-out girl as to whether you are a suitable customer.
As I say, it's complicated.

Anyway let me tell you about Grand Central Terminal. The best way to visualise Grand Central is as a large fork, with the main concourse that you see in the films as the head of the fork, and all the platforms laid out like the prongs. To make it more accurate, imagine your fork has 30 prongs and then another layer of 17 prongs underneath (Grand Central's platforms are all underground).

Now imagine you have a long chip French fry on the end of your fork. Actually, two large French fries, one on each layer of tines. These fries are tunnels that allow access to the platforms from the wrong end which is great for me as they exit just two blocks from my office.

Now, ask me what they sell in these French fry tunnels?

Beer and liquor. There are several concession stands selling a variety of beers as well as whiskey and vodka to commuters. You can buy a can of beer or a miniature bottle of liquor, unopened from a man behind a cart, in a tunnel, in a station.

Just knowing I can buy a couple of shots of gin on the journey home makes the working day seem a much more pleasant prospect.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Doris Day

Following Nanny's communication problems with the dry cleaner, Il Capo took responsibility for this week's trip. The conversation went something like this:

"I've got these trousers for dry cleaning," said Il Capo.

"OK, what's your phone number?" asked the dry cleaner. Il Capo gave our phone number and dry cleaner typed it into her computer to find our details.

The dry cleaner looked at the details on the computer screen asked, "Doris Day?"

Il Capo was confused. "Excuse me?" she said.

The dry cleaner asked again, "Doris Day?"

Il Capo nervously grasped the nettle and said, "Um... Doris Day is dead."

The dry cleaner stared at her and replied, "I said Thursday!"

Il Capo blushed furiously. "Oh! Sorry! Yes please!"

The shame of it now requires we find another dry cleaner.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mad dogs and Englishmen

The news is a lot more interesting here. We turned on the telly this evening just as this story came on.

A bit of detail here.

Suddenly the bears seem a lot more cuddly.


Speaking of bears, this is an hours walk away. I think it's time for me to accept that this is a new and different country to the one I was used to.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bearing down on us

Last week a bear was sighted 25 miles away. Now look:

A Mahopac resident who was weeding her garden off West Lovell Street came face to face with a black bear Monday.

That's fifteen miles from our house. At this rate they'll be at the door this time next week. The bears are coming for us.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

It's hot here at night, lonely, black and quiet

You know it's hot when you hear this on the weather forecast:
"...but we will get some relief on Wednesday, when the temperature will drop to 87 degrees."
It's been in the high 90s the last few days, which has been fun. In England, such temperatures would shut the country down, but it's different here. The most important difference is that here it's only 98 degrees outside. In England I would spend the time in a shady spot with an electric fan and copious amounts of beer, In New York, I move leave my air-conditioned house, drive my air-conditioned car, get into an air-conditioned train, spend five minutes in a non-air-conditioned, really quite warm Grand Central, then a quick walk to the office that is air-conditioned. No problems.


It seems other people have been selfishly using their A/C as well and all this extra demand for power is causing black-outs. If only everyone else used electricity more responsibly. I have taken the liberty of cutting the power to my neighbours' houses so to reduce the load on the local circuit. I wouldn't want any power-cuts in our area.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"We interrupt this program..."

We were watching Boston Legal last week when they broke into the program with news about Barack Obama's victory in the Democratic Party leadership race. The news program continued for twenty-five minutes and then they returned us to Boston Legal twenty-five minutes beyond the point we left! I guess this is a consequence of the network system, presumably programs are broadcast from a single national source with the local studio providing the news, weather and commercials. This makes sense when you consider that the previews explain that a particular program is broadcast at (say) 9pm Eastern, 8pm Central.

There is a radio station called Q103 near where I used to live in England. They have a sister station called Chiltern FM broadcasting about 30 miles away. While they have different DJs and adverts, they follow the same play list in the same order, with one usually a few minutes behind the other. If you are listening and hear a particularly good song, you can switch stations afterwards and there's a good chance it will be just starting on the other station.

I wonder why US tv channels don't even have that much autonomy, enough to allow them to show the same shows but at the time of their choosing. Having news shows that overlap the programs around them seems a little amateur.

Wildlife getting wilder

It seems there is more than just chipmunks out there:

This is about 25 miles from our house.

Yes, there is a town called Southeast, it's next to um, Sodom.

View Larger Map

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


I know my son is watching too much Scooby Doo when he asked me to do something and when I said no, he replied,

"Would you do it for a Daddy Snack?"

Big Bridges

There's a story in the local paper about a drunk driving for several miles in the wrong direction. These sort of stories are not that unusual, in the UK or the US. However, for me this woman added an extra dash of horror by driving the wrong way over the Tappan Zee bridge.

I don't really like big bridges. I love them for their beauty and for their engineering. They are one of the most impressive marks that man has left on the world, huge monuments to our ability to shape our environment. I just don't like driving over them.

In May 1980 when I was nine, my family went on holiday to Florida. We stayed in an amazing hotel in St Petersburg and we also drove to Orlando and Disney World. At one point we drove over the Sunshine Skyway.

The Sunshine Skyway was a bridge that spanned over five miles of Tampa Bay. Actually it was two bridges alongside each other. Each bridge carried traffic in one direction. The design of the bridge was to keep the road close to the water's surface for the majority of the span, and to have a high-point for ships to pass under. The same basic idea as the Tappan Zee bridge, shown above.

At some point in May 1980, I think before we arrived in Florida, a ship crashed into the Sunshine Skyway causing 400 yards of the bridge's span to fall 150 feet into the sea below. You can read all about why it happened in this detailed and fascinating St Petersburg Times article.

With one bridge gone, both directions of traffic ran on the other span until they built an entirely new bridge in 1987. I remember driving over it aged nine and looking out the car window as we passed the missing section. I thought about the cars driving up the slope of the bridge, not realising that the section was missing and the driving off the precipice into the water below. I found it very unsettling.

You can see what the bridge looked like after the crash and get a real idea of the size of the collapse in the opening credits of SuperBoy, a TV show that ran in the 1980s.

I don't like driving over big bridges. They make me nervous. To be honest, I've never been worried about the bridge coming down, more about being pushed over the edge by another vehicle. I tend to stay away from lorries when I'm on them. If a driver loses control of his lorry, I won't be nearby to deal with it. Now I have to contend with drunk drivers coming the wrong way as well as the lorries.

The new Sunshine Skyway is amazing, though.

Monday, June 9, 2008

New York Bingo #3

An occasional series listing things spotted that are specifically American or New York.

I saw a old woman in Bloomingdales in a fur coat with a chihuahua on a lead. Old woman with dog in shop - that's the bingo. However, just for added enjoyment, she was pooper scooping the dog's little accident from the marble floor.

A little bit more nature than was wanted

Il Capo came to pick me up from the station after I had accidentally drunkened myself in a bar after work.

"I bloody love you!"

As we got out of the car and walked up the path in the dark, I noticed something on the ground in front of us. "Look at that," I said. "It's a leaf," she said and bent down to pick it up, at which point it leapt straight at her face then off into the bushes.

It was a frog. Or a toad. Something amphibious and bouncy. No, not Pamela Anderson in Baywatch.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Little Differences 3

I just saw a bank advert commercial which was boasting about how they offer free chequescks and free ATM withdrawals. So I don't have to pay for you to give me back the money you borrowed from me? That's your selling point?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

"Would you offer him your hunger?"

I've just had a meatloaf sandwich for lunch - Am I American yet?

Friday, June 6, 2008

It's always primetime at the pump

I pulled up at a petrol gas station the other day and was brought up short as I reached the pump. Alongside the hose, the numeric display and the credit card slot was a tv showing the news and weather. This is, so I discovered, Gas Station TV. From my three minutes of exposure it appears to be short bursts of news and consumer affairs separated by adverts for Coke.

I never realiszed how much I was missing the telly while filling up the car until now. Imagine all those wasted minutes, kicking the tyres, making faces through the car window at The Family, gazing at the young woman filling up at pump number 3... All that time I could have been educating myself with GSTV. For instance, from that one short viewing I now know that "low fat" written on a packet of food doesn't necessarily mean a small amount of fat, merely that is has less fat than some similar product.

Who knew pumping gas could be so edutaining?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Veering off topic to the NHS

I've been reading about the NHS and how it is withdrawing treatment from patients if they decide to supplement their treatment with private medicines not available on the NHS.
Jack Hose, 71, from Bournemouth, whose entitlement to health service care was withdrawn by the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust because he chose to pay for a drug that is not normally funded by the state. Hose has been billed by the trust for £11,500.
Have a look at Doctor Crippen's site here.

I can think of three separate arguments against this

The logical argument
  1. These drugs are not available on the NHS, because they do not provide worthwhile effects for the money.
  2. We will not allow you to take these drugs because it will create a two-tier health service.
If taking these drugs gives me superior health care, then they are not as ineffective as suggested.

If the drugs are so ineffective then they are not putting me at an advantage over those that can't afford them.

The government are arguing two mutually exclusive things at once.

The extreme argument

I'm borrowing this again from a Doctor Crippen article, but this one does contain one rather rude word, so don't click unless you can take it.

You break your ankle. You go to A/E and are X-Rayed and plastered and sent home with some paracetamol for pain relief. The paracetamol really is not enough, so you go to the chemist and buy some over-the-counter Nurofen. Next day, you go back to the hospital for your plaster check appointment. The doctor asks you if you are getting any pain, and you say "not since I bought the Nurofen". The doctor refuses to see you and kicks you out, telling you that if you can afford private drugs you can afford a private doctor.
Realism argument

People can already add private aspects to their NHS health care. If you go to an NHS doctor and are referred to an NHS consultant, you can choose to pay to see the consultant privately and thereby move up the queue. The Government's argument is that you are paying for something that is available free, so it doesn't breach their principle, but if you have a serious condition and by paying you get it attended to months sooner, isn't that a two-tier service?

Given the purpose of this blog, it would be reasonable to make a few comparisons with the US health service. I will be writing about it in the future, but I don't currently have enough experience to compare and contrast the two systems.