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.