Thursday, September 25, 2008

I'm rushed off me feet (yawn)

The U.K. version of the Nickelodeon channel is apparently doing a children's Halloween spoof of Eastenders called Beastenders. Check out the photo of "Dot Rotten" smoking! Oh for a photo of Ian Squeal . . .

On another Eastenders note, DigitalSpy has reported that YouTube is going to host a "best of Eastenders" channel, with clips of important events throughout the years.

I started watching a new series on DVD called Waking the Dead. The first disk only had two episodes, so that's all I have to go by. So far, I'm not impressed. In the first episode, "Pilot", most of the characters screamed at each other when they were on screen for any amount of time together. The resolution of the case borders on the absurd. The second episode, "Burn Out", had its own problems. The series concerns a "cold case" team that is put together to try to solve old crimes. When the second episode starts, they have been given a 3 week deadline to solve a decade old attempted extortion case. Why all the rush when the case is so old is never explained. The head of the team, DCI Peter Boyd, becomes sidetracked when a young woman asks for help in solving her father's murder. The problem with this episode was that the clues as to the resolution were flying thick and fast from the beginning of the program, and the team members remained clueless. It was quite annoying. I frequently get annoyed when characters come up with a solution to a problem seemingly out of thin air, but this was the opposite. I was sitting there exclaiming at the TV screen, "Oh, come on!" Another annoying thing was that the forensic specialist (who continually melted down in the first episode and seemed to be on the verge of tears most of the time) was given the evidence from the extortion case, nearly 4000 items, to sort through. The other team members said they couldn't help, because they were rushed off their feet. Cut to the scene of them hair twirling, foot-tapping, and stretching:

The series has gone on for 8 seasons, and appears to still be in production, so I'm hoping it gets better!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Great new exercise tip!




I've managed to find a great new exercise tip: watching Natalie Cassidy's Then and Now workout video provides some glimpses of London scenery in the background. OK, so maybe that tip wouldn't work for everyone, but for a dedicated Anglophile, I'll take what I can get! The workout itself is divided into four sections: warm up, sweat, punch and crunch. The sweat and punch sections are difficult, especially for a beginner couch-potato like myself, but otherwise lots of fun. The crunch section is amazingly short. There are some push-ups (UGH!) and a short crunch section, but that part of the video is brief. Of course, if someone has done the entire video straight through (cough, cough), I suppose a short section would be appreciated at the end.

It's also great to see the amazing difference between the "now" and "then" versions of Natalie. Unfortunately, she seems to have succumbed to the usual dieter's problem -- great enthusiasm, followed by great success, followed by the realization that you can't follow the new healthy lifestyle forever. If the video weigh-in portion was correct, at the end of the program, Natalie only weighed 113 pounds! That is surely much too thin, especially for someone who has had weight issues in the past. I hope she can find a happy medium and get back into a healthy lifestyle without going overboard.

Does anyone else think the trainer has a sort of Preeti look going on?




Final Verdict for Then and Now: Four Gherkins, for being an inspiring exercise program from someone with a "real" figure (well, at the beginning, anyway!)

Monday, September 22, 2008

London Landscape TV

While looking for good stuff to download onto my newly acquired iPod, I discovered a great site, London Landscape TV. This site features impressive videos of London. There are 5 episodes so far, each less than 10 minutes long. The videos are shot in high definition and the sound is either ambient sound or music -- there's no narration or voice overs. The videos are beautiful, and it really gives you the feeling of being there. Gorgeous!

It appears that you need to watch the videos through iTunes, but they are free, and it's free to download the iTunes player if necessary. I really enjoyed the beautiful videos. The most recent one was shot last Tuesday, so it's very timely. Head on over and look at the lovely London scenery!

Update: I obviously didn't explore the site well enough! There are tons of videos posted, and they play just fine on Windows Media Player. The link to descriptions and downloads is here.

Friday, September 19, 2008

I'm on tablets for me nerves

. . . the same combination of tablets that Kerry Ketona was on when she had all that trouble with Brian McFadden. And so would you be if you inhabited the world portrayed in the sketch comedy show Titty Bang Bang. The show is described on the blurbs as a "female Little Britain", and there are recurring characters, among them:

*the "shy" foreign maid, doing her best to get attention from groups touring the stately home where she works

*the Scorton Ladies' Darts Team, who never score a point

*Maxine, the plastic surgery addict who must always contend with "just a little seepage"

*Leslie Marie, the sweet teenager whose mother is desperate to go on television to talk about raising a delinquent child

*the bottomless middle-aged ladies' sewing circle

*the SHUT UP family, who subsist on duck and chips

*the lesbian Australian dance teacher of children

*Ruth Baxter, who picks "fights" with tour guides, gardeners, vicars, etc.

*Melody, the magician who inflicts various tortures on her rabbit assistant

*Don, the odd man who hires escort after escort, only to have them leave when he reveals what he really wants to do with them

There are plenty of laughs, but just as many times when you're left scratching your head at the strange characters and situations. The same characters reappear in each of the 6 episodes, and their behavior never varies. It's funny to watch an episode or two, but more than that at once and it gets a bit tiresome.

On another note: YAY! I finally won an iPod. I have an mp3 player, but it's worse than useless. The flimsy manual goes on for about 3 of its 5 pages on how to change the AAA battery. I would think that anyone who has been alive in the past 50 or so years would have been able to figure that one out. I wouldn't mind so much, but there is absolutely nothing in the rest of the manual about how to use the stupid thing -- how to navigate through the menus, what all the little icons mean, how to move between items you've downloaded, etc. I like to listen to audio books and podcasts, and occasionally I have wanted to stop listening to an audio book after, oh listening for 30 minutes or so, and move on to something else for a while. This is apparently impossible. Also, in attempting to figure our how to find something else on the player, I would inevitably press the wrong button and start my audio book back at the beginning again. AAARRRRGGGGHHH! It was beyond frustrating. So I hope the Apple people have made things a bit more user friendly. However, I was less than impressed to see this notice from my local library concerning iPods and downloadable audio books. {sigh}

Final Verdict for Titty Bang Bang: Three Gherkins, for zany, sometimes bizarre British comedy

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Record stores are the Hades of the mall

What Was Lost is a mystery novel by Catherine O'Flynn that jumps between 1984, when a 10 year old girl disappears, and the present day, when the mystery is finally cleared up. Kate Meaney is a school girl from Birmingham, England who dreams of being a detective. She goes to the local shopping mall on an almost daily basis to scout for suspicious behavior and observe suspects. One day, she simply disappears. Because she is friendly with Adrian, a 22 year old man in the neighborhood, he immediately becomes the chief suspect in her disappearance. Harassment by the police and hostility from the neighbors force him to move from the area.

Twenty years later, Adrian's sister is now an Assistant Manager of the music store in the mall. She, along with nearly everyone else in the novel, hates her job and her very existence. Her brother has sent her music tapes over the years, and she is always hopeful that she will be able to contact him in the future. She befriends a fellow misery guts, a mall security guard, and they eventually begin dating. Her family, the security guard and the mall itself all figure in the resolution of the girl's disappearance.

The really strange thing that occurred to me, as I listened to the audio version of the novel, was the complete hostility and contempt that the author had for shopping malls in general, and music stores in particular. She details the shabby facilities provided for staff, the maddening customers, the ridiculous jargon of management and other factors which she apparently became familiar with when she herself worked in a music store. There is also a funny and true to life section about mystery shopping, another previous vocation of the author. An unusual part of the book is that random thoughts of various customers who are in the mall are shared with the reader. As with the mall employees, most shoppers aren't too happy to be there, either.

On another note, I received an email that the author Alexander McCall Smith will be participating in a live online chat this Friday as part of the National Book Festival. Readers are invited to submit questions. He was a really enjoyable and funny speaker on the recording Confessions of a Serial Novelist, so I have high hopes for the live chat!

Final Verdict for What Was Lost: Two Gherkins, for being an engaging mystery about a child's disappearance, but a real downer of a book due to the unhappiness of all of the characters

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Can you see me now?

After dying during a routine medical procedure, Dr. Bertram Pincus discovers that he can see ghosts. This might be unnerving in and of itself, but the ghosts all want Dr. Pincus to do something for them. The most persistent ghost, Frank, wants to prevent the upcoming wedding of his widow. Dr. Pincus is a very nasty piece of work, rude to coworkers and patients, as well as inconsiderate to members of the general public. In order to avoid the non-stop parade of favor-requesting ghosts, he agrees to help Frank. Of course, in the meantime, he falls in love with the soon-to-be-married widow, played by a skeletal Tea Leoni.

Dr. Pincus is portrayed, of course, by Ricky Gervais. I know he is the "flavor of the month" in comedy circles, but I honestly never "got" him. This movie doesn't do anything to help explain his appeal to me. First of all, he's supposed to be a "cosmetic dentist", but he himself has a mouth that looks like it's full of thumbtacks. That would hardly inspire confidence in prospective patients, would it? I was wondering at the beginning of the film why in the world his character had to be a dentist, but all was explained when he is called upon by the merry widow to provide dental expertise on a mummy. Aside from his prickly personality, he's somewhat, um, odd looking, so it isn't really believable that someone whom he had offended on a regular basis for years would suddenly fall in love with him. Call me the Grinch, but it doesn't make sense.

Other than those gaping plot problems, the film itself is enjoyable enough. The audience was laughing hysterically at some points, although I didn't find the film as funny as they apparently did. It's a pleasant enough film, but I would hesitate to pay $8.75 to see it. Wait for the $1 movie showing, or rent the DVD.

Final Verdict on Ghost Town: Two Gherkins, for some humorous moments, but no great contributions to cinematic history

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cheer up, Britain!

This week I finished reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, the chronicle of an American author travels to various countries to find out if the people who reside there are happy, and if so, just what it is that makes them happy. There is a chapter in the book devoted to Great Britain, which, Weiner points out, is a country that is deeply suspicious of happiness. As a British friend of the author assures him, "The British . . . possess a 'latent happiness.' It's there, lurking deep in their bowels. You just can't see it. Or feel it. Or hear it. Or detect it in any way know to man. But it's there . . . ." He discusses a BBC program from 2005 entitled "Making Slough Happy", in which 50 volunteers in the city of Slough were given instruction by psychologists and other "happiness experts" on how to become happier.

Here are the "10 Steps to Happiness":

Plant something and nurture it
Count your blessings - at least five - at the end of each day
Take time to talk - have an hour-long conversation with a loved one each week
Phone a friend whom you have not spoken to for a while and arrange to meet up
Give yourself a treat every day and take the time to really enjoy it
Have a good laugh at least once a day
Get physical - exercise for half an hour three times a week
Smile at and/or say hello to a stranger at least once each day
Cut your TV viewing by half
Spread some kindness - do a good turn for someone every day

The news report makes it sound as if Slough was chosen at random, as a sort of "typical British town", but in the book, the author discovers that Slough itself is an undistinguished town full of residents who say things like, "Slough is crap. Total crap. I hate it." And that is from a person Weiner deems to be relatively happy! On the bright side, the experiment was deemed to be a success with increased happiness levels of 33% (although how the experts managed to quantify happiness is not explained). On the other hand, the jury is still out on whether this will be a lasting effect, or whether it was just a temporary clearing of the dark cloud which apparently hangs over Slough.

Meanwhile, the maddening Swedish newspapers have done it again. Today, they carried the tantalizing story about a "beloved world-famous Swedish artist" who was arrested for brutally beating his wife over the weekend. Now, I am a great follower of the newsgroup alt.gossip.celebrities, and I know all about "blind items." However, since the person in question has been actually arrested, you'd think they could spill the name. No go, just teasing hints about his "up coming world tour" and so on. My poor mind was reeling with the possibilities. Thankfully, a little research has uncovered the gem of a website Flashback, which helpfully put me out of my misery. I think I will be bookmarking this one for future reference.

Final Verdict for The Geography of Bliss: Two Gherkins, for being an interesting look at happiness in various countries

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Rescue me from distorted body image

Fat Friends is an interesting series about a group of people who meet weekly at a weight loss club. Each episode of the first series concentrates on a different character: the middle-aged woman and her daughter (who is attempting to fit into a wedding dress she's already bought that is two sizes smaller than what she currently wears); the aspiring actress who only needs to lose a few pounds, but remains convinced that her butt is enormous; the teenage boy who is living with his needy, depressed mother; and the newspaper columnist who still works for the same paper where she had a disastrous affair with her married editor a few years previously. I was particularly cheered to see the actress with the distorted body image resorting to Rescue Remedy. Sister, I've been there (although I'm more likely to take a giant swig directly from the bottle, rather than taking a few dainty drops)!!

The middle-aged mother is played by Alison Steadman, who is showing up more and more often lately. She is Gavin's mother in Gavin & Stacey, currently being shown on BBCAmerica, as well as Mel's mother in The Worst Week of My Life. The latter series is being adapted for the US in the CBS show Worst Week, which starts next Monday night. I doubt that Ben Miller and Sarah Alexander can be improved upon as the disastrously unlucky couple, but I'll watch it to see if it attempts to follow the original series at all.

I recently listened to the delightful Confessions of a Serial Novelist, a one hour speech given by the author Alexander McCall Smith. The CD was recorded in front of an audience, and at the end of the CD he takes questions. The speech is delightful, punctuated by such observations as his reflection that as a serial novelist, "You write serial novels, and then you die." He also tends to veer off into reminiscences and stories from his career as a novelist. He gives insight into why it took so long for his "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" to be made into a film ("Film people have a different sense of time. Immediately means 5 or 6 years.") and gives examples of some of the great first lines in literature ("Mr. Saltina was an elderly man of 42 who liked to have young girls come and stay with him."). He also speaks a bit about each of the 4 series that he is currently writing, and how easily he gets side-tracked from his original intentions while writing the books. For instance, he predicts "several volumes of difficulties" before there is a wedding for Mma Makutsi (whom he describes as a representation of "all the people who don't get what they deserve in life"). The most enjoyable part of the lecture is when he reads out part of his latest novel, and several times becomes overcome with giggles at his own wittiness. Listening to the CD is a very pleasant way to spend an hour.

Final Verdict for Fat Friends: Three Gherkins, for being a touching look at the struggles people go through in an attempt to lose weight

Final Verdict for Confessions of a Serial Novelist: Four Gherkins, for providing a humorous, intimate look at a talented novelist

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tipsy toddlers

I was excited to see that after a brief summer hiatus that Paul Parkinson was back with a new episode of his wonderful This Week in London podcast. The podcast this week is about pubs, and he does a good job of educating listeners about the pub culture in England. One thing that was somewhat startling in his podcast was the information that in England, the legal drinking age for children (at home, and with the permission of their parents) is FIVE YEARS OLD! I was really shocked, first of all that this is something that needs a law passed, and secondly, that a group of people apparently decided that while a four year old is too young to drink responsibly, a five year old can hold his or her liquor. How strange! No wonder kindergarten students like to nap in the afternoon. They're probably sleeping off the effects of the night before!

I saw another amusing sign today at the local recycling center. I was particularly confused by the admonition that people not fill the container above the top. I wonder how that would be possible? Isn't the top of the container, um, the top? How could you possibly fill the enclosed container any more if it was filled to the top? Inquiring minds want to see that in action! Perhaps they meant that if the container was full that people shouldn't put things outside on the ground. Still, "Don't Put Things on the Outside of the Container" would seem to be a more logical sign in that case.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The countdown begins!

Woo Hoo! I just booked my flight and hotel for a London vacation next year. If no major disasters occur (and it would take a major disaster to keep me away), I'll be there from April 29-May 15. I had to go a bit earlier in the year than I would have liked, because I was using frequent flier miles and I had to complete my trip by May 15. I've booked a hotel at £56.00 per night, but I'm on the lookout for a better deal. This weekend, I thought I'd stumbled upon just that. A hotel near Victoria Station was offering single rooms for £35.00. There was a shared bathroom with another single room, but I would have gladly done that to save nearly 40% off the bill. Of course, when I contacted them (nearly 8 months out), they claimed that they would be undergoing refurbishment in January and couldn't guarantee the single room would still be available. Waaah! I briefly thought I'd found the deal of the century there. Oh well, I still have plenty of time to find a great bargain.

We've had guests from overseas the past few weeks, so I've been sadly remiss in my reading and DVD watching. I have been listening to the audio book of The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith, and while it's much better than Portuguese Irregular Verbs, it's still not a patch on The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series that he wrote. I also must admit that, while this most recent audio book wasn't especially holding my interest, I did "take agin" it when the author had one of his characters state quite boldly, "Cats are sociopaths." Rather unnecessary to malign the poor moggies, I thought, especially when there are no cats in the story.

The story concerns Isabel Dalhousie, the editor of the journal the Review of Applied Ethics -- and that is where the problems start. Isabel has to take every thought which enters her head and ponder it from every angle to discover the moral or ethical implications. For instance, she dislikes her niece's new boyfriend, and has repeated fantasies of the young man perishing in an avalanche. Every time the thought comes up, she has to go round and round with herself about what an uncharitable and immoral thought this is. This makes for lots of talk, hand wringing and "philosophical discussion", but very little action.

On another note, I was interested to see Russell Brand hosting the MTV video awards this week. I watched his monologue and wasn't surprised by it, although I saw that it would cause some controversy. I first learned about him on a trip to England last year when I was arrested by his photograph in the Guardian, where he had written a funny column. When I got back to the states, I researched him and discovered he hosted his own radio program. I tuned in, but must admit I was somewhat taken aback by his accent. Somehow, it wasn't what I had been expecting, but maybe I just haven't been exposed to the Essex accent enough to appreciate its nuances. Still, I'm glad to see that he's attempting to make a name for himself in the U.S. as a presenter and actor. I have to wonder, though, how many films call for the role of a pirate. I would have thought Johnny Depp had the market cornered on that particular genre, anyway . . .

Final Verdict for The Sunday Philosophy Club: 2 Gherkins, for lovely descriptions of Edinburgh, but action that drags

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Put your close in the clotheset

On the way to work this morning, I saw a handwritten sign outside a small store on main street. When I saw what they were selling, I had to screech the car to a halt, jump out, and record it for posterity. It had never before occurred to me that the words "close" and "clothes" sound alike and might cause confusion. Let this be a lesson to all of us: Sharpies don't come with spell (or grammar) check (although I don't think either would have helped in this situation anyway). I am somewhat "spelling challenged" myself, but somehow I can spot the mistakes of others a mile off. I still remember when a fellow student became upset that I laughed at his article for the school radio station which stated, "The fire started in a trash shoot."

My own personal homophonic bugaboo is "flour" and "flower." I know the difference, but for some reason when I'm writing, my mind goes on autopilot and I always write one when I mean the other.

Before I left for the sweepstakes convention last week, I had been enjoying the audio book The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble. It is the story of 5 women who get together once a month to discuss a book chosen by a member of the group. Throughout the year, events happen in their lives which draw most of the women closer together. There are 3 women in their 30s, and 2 in their 40s. Three have unhappy marriages, one is happily married, and one is engaged. I managed to get about 3/4 of the way through before I had to pause for my trip. I was really enjoying the story up to that point, and hated to leave it. Today I finally finished it, and it was a major disappointment. All of the characters and the conflicts started out quite strong and I was really anxious to find out what happened to everyone. Suffice it to say that by the end, everything was tied up neatly in a treacly, sickly-sweet ribbon. Every conflict was resolved with hardly any fuss, as the person causing the problem simply seemed to "come to their senses" and behave correctly. People who had, according to the author, had one personality for their entire lives, suddenly and without explanation decided to become entirely different people. The ending was a huge let-down, for a book that started out so promisingly.

The books the women in the group discussed were mostly new to me, and I am going to try to read some of them in the future. The books the group read were:

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Woman who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle
Guppies for Tea by Marika Cobbold
My Antonia by Willa Cather
The Memory Box by Margaret Forster
Eden Close by Anita Shreve
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier
The Alchemist by Paul Coelho
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

The only ones I'd read were Rebecca and Girl with a Pearl Earring. Can't say I was too enamored of either of those. Ditto for Atonement, which I don't need to read because the film wasn't all that great. Still, several of the others will likely show up on my reading list in the near future.

After finishing that audio book, I was anxious to start on Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith. I adore Mma Ramotswe, and I was looking forward to meeting a new cast of characters he created. Well, I was sadly disappointed. I had to give it up in the second chapter. Life is just too short to suffer through interminably boring books. The characters in this latest frolic were all German academics with ridiculous names. Presumably, we were supposed to find the names so amusing and charming that we would overlook the fact that the characters were dumb and the plot was non-existent. I have several other audio books from different series by the same author, so I hope they will be better. Then again, even if they turn out to be drivel, I will still wait anxiously for the next adventures of the lady detective from Botswana.


Final Verdict for The Reading Group: Two Gherkins, for starting off strong, and giving me a few new items for my reading list
Final Verdict for Portuguese Irregular Verbs: One Gherkin, because even though the story was a mess, I still have warm fuzzies for the author!

Monday, September 1, 2008

We got hosed in San Antonio

I'm back from the much anticipated sweepstakes convention, and there is good news and bad news. I'll start with the good news. San Antonio is absolutely gorgeous! I had never been there before, but I definitely want to return. Dare I say that San Antonio is the London of the USA (a gorgeous city that encourages repeat visits)?

There were several members from the Knoxville UCanWin2 Sweepstakes group that attended the convention, and their company made the entire experience really great!


Larilyn, Cat, Judy, Saundra and Anne enjoy the river boat cruise

We had lots of fun in the evenings on the River Walk:

Judy experiences the dreaded brain freeze


Saundra samples the "mild" salsa

We were also able to avoid a major scandal when Judy successfully held back Saundra and Cat as they planned to storm the bar and take over dancing duties at Coyote Ugly. Yes, ladies, we know "there ain't nothing to that" and "I can dance better than that", but I believe there are certain procedures you need to go thorough to get hired on as dancers!

Now, for the bad convention news. Many of us who attended this convention were veteran convention goers. This was my 5th convention, and I was especially excited, because the people who were sponsoring this year's convention were the same ones who sponsored the first convention I attended, back in 1999. I had a wonderful time at that convention, and won many prizes, so I assured everyone that they were in for a treat this time as well.

The reality was that we were left wondering what happened. Instead of many sessions where dozens of wonderful prizes were given away, this convention only had several sessions were a few people were chosen from the audience to participate in "games." The games included a version of Deal or No Deal and a Pinata event. The prizes that were awarded, however, were nearly all donations from sweepstakes clubs, newsletters and generous individuals. Over 1000 people had paid $160 each to attend the convention, and we were under the impression that most of our convention fees would go to purchase prizes. However, that was most certainly not the case. I kept assuring the people at my table that it was good we hadn't been chosen for the games, because the "big prizes" would be given out after the games were finished. That never happened! I don't know why the convention organizers thought it would be great fun to let 10 or 12 people come on stage to play a long, involved game, while 990 others sat there, bored senseless, but that seems to have been the plan for this year. We are still left wondering what exactly our registration fees were spent on. There were 3 meals provided, which I'm sure weren't cheap, but surely there was enough left for a few iPods and digital cameras???? As Judy so eloquently put it, We Got Hosed!

There were a few bright spots in the otherwise dismal prize haul, such as when Anne won the table prize, and I got lucky in one of the raffles and won 2500 stamps (that should last a few weeks).

Final Verdict on San Antonio: Five Gherkins, for being a charming, vibrant and exciting place to explore

Final Verdict on the 2008 Sweepstakes Convention: One Gherkin, for great fellowship with other sweepers, but anemic prizes