October 26, 2004

Year 1: An Emotional Rollercoaster

We finished dinner on Sunday evening, the 24th of October, and I turned on the telly (as they call it here in the UK). The kids were down (finally), and Rachel and I wanted a few minutes of mindlessness before I returned to coding. I checked out the four channels that we can get here – ITV1, BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4 – and as there was nothing more interesting on, sat down to watch the National Teaching Awards. For each winner they had a 4-5 minute video vignette, followed by a second video showing a surprise award presentation in front of the whole school. The teacher was then brought up on stage to receive the award and say a few words. A bit like the Oscar’s – nicely choreographed, funny MC, well known presenters, everyone in tuxes and suits. Lovely.

I was amazed by how emotional I felt watching it. During each of the vignettes I found my eyes watering a bit (ok, sometimes more than a bit), and when I would look over at Rachel we would both laugh at the fact that it was happening to the two of us at the same time.

I went upstairs afterwards and checked on the two boys before sitting down to do some more programming. Nathaniel was asleep with his arm around doggy, and I leaned over to kiss him and told him that Mommy and Daddy loved him very much. I then looked in on Sebastian. His crib has been in our bedroom for the past three weeks because he just can’t seem to shake a long-standing cough that he got some five weeks ago now. He was breathing more easily than usual, binky firmly in mouth, and he looked so vulnerable lying there face up. I stroked his hair gently, tucked his covers up a bit, and whispered that Mummy and Daddy loved him very much too.

I sat down to code, but couldn’t find a way to get started. To waste a couple of minutes I checked out some web sites and came across a piece on Discourse.net which pointed to Sarah McLachlan’s new video, World On Fire. I like Sarah McLachlan, so I watched the video, and quickly found my eyes watering again.

Not ten minutes later I received an email from an old friend, Karin S, who lives just up the hill from our old house in Sausalito. She wrote:

Well, a Year in Cornwall has turned into longer – are you there indefinitely? What are your plans? How are you supporting yourselves? Are you still considering France and retreat centers? Have you fallen in love with England?

We miss you here on the Ridge. Thinking of you and hoping you have a great bday.

I really enjoy your blog and your writing and photos–thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences so eloquently. And I love seeing the boys from afar. I wish I had the technical savvy to do the same, but can’t even get over my new techno-phobia these days to put up a website myself.

Love to you and Rachel and Nathaniel and Sebastian. Keep in touch.

What a nice coincidence. All evening, as we’d watched the teaching awards, I’d been staring at a picture on the mantelpiece of Rachel and me that was taken five years ago in Sausalito. It’s a lovely photo that was taken in our house there, and though you don’t see the house at all, it had been dredging up memories all evening. We completely rebuilt that house, in the process pouring our hearts and our sweat into making it a wonderful place to live, to have friends over for dinners and conversation, and in the end making it our home. But we sold our home in Sausalito, and a year ago we left everything to see if we could create a new life.

I started to reply to Karin, but I couldn’t find the words with my fingers, just like two months ago when Julie had written and I hadn’t been able to find the words to respond to her either. And so to distract myself some more, I picked up an old coffee cup and took it downstairs to put by the sink. I walked into the darkened living room, looked at the picture of Rachel and me, and once again found the tears running down my face.

What was going on I wondered? Why was I feeling so emotional this evening? Did I want to be a teacher? Did I want to go to Africa? Did I want to return to Sausalito? Did I miss our friends and family? Did I miss my father who passed away exactly five years ago, on my 43rd birthday?

At that point it seemed all a bit much, so I gave up trying to understand what was going on, went upstairs, crawled in to bed, snuggled up with Rachel, and fell asleep.

It’s the 26th today, two days later, and I’ve had some time to think about what was going on. The short answer is that in one evening I had gone on a mini-version of the larger emotional rollercoaster that we’ve been on for just over a year now.

Back in California there’s a roller coaster on the Santa Cruz boardwalk called the Big Dipper, and it has to be one of the world’s great roller coasters. It’s made of redwood (really), and while it doesn’t have any of the fancy high-tech loop-de-loops of the newest roller coasters, I love it, and I’ve never seen anyone who wasn’t grinning from ear to ear as they got off. Whenever I ride the Big Dipper I always buy three tickets, so that as soon as the first ride finishes I can get right back on again, and then one more time – because only after three rides do I feel replete.

This first year has had its shares of ups and downs and tight corners, just like the Big Dipper. But they’ve been good highs and lows and corners, because out of it I believe that Rachel and I have become closer, and our marriage stronger. And so while our friends and family would probably prefer we didn’t do it, I think that like with the Big Dipper we’re going to get back on this ride again. And see what comes of next year. And probably the year after.

And only then will we know if these changes we’re making have made our life replete as well.

p.s. Karin and Julie, I promise to write soon to tell you where we’re going next. As soon as I figure it out.

Posted by: Frank @ 5:20 pm — Filed under: Comments (2)

October 11, 2004

The Price of Gasoline

John Robb is one of my daily must-reads. He’s in the midst of writing a book on Global Guerillas, and appears to be posting all of his research notes. It’s been fascinating reading, and I can’t wait to see if his book will add another layer of insight to the issues that’s he’s been covering in his weblogs. Of course if the current insights are any indication, I’m sure I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The reason I mention John is because of a piece he posted on Saturday where he pointed to an article in the Christian Science Monitor on the potential impact of $50 oil on the global economy. At the bottom of the entry is this quote from an analyst at Morgan Stanley named Stephen Roach. He says:

“Oil is now at the price point that could provide a serious shock to an unbalanced world economy; if WTI oil prices hold at around $50 for another 10 weeks or so, the risk pendulum should swing toward global recession in 2005.”

I couldn’t help thinking about that quote as I filled the car up yesterday at the Texaco station down the hill from us. When the tank was full I looked at the pump and went inside to pay £51.29 for 59.71 litres of diesel. Let’s skip the higher math and cut to the chase – yes, that’s right, I spent $91.80 to fill up a 15.8 gallon tank. At $5.81 per gallon.

For those of you reading this from the US, you’re probably gasping and shaking your collective heads. How could you possibly consider paying that much for gasoline? Are there any cars on the road ? Are the trains and buses completely packed with people paniced at paying $5.81 a gallon for gas?

Well, actually, no. From my perspective, $5.81 per gallon seems to have had little or no impact on car usage here. The roads appear just as full as they are in the States. People drive just as fast, and on the freeways a whole lot faster. And while I would guess the average miles-per-gallon is significantly higher here than in the US – for example we have a Ford Galaxy minivan that gets 40 mpg, while the equivalent van in the US barely gets 20 – there are plenty of high performance cars that get crappy gas mileage here too.

How can that be? How is it possible what with gasoline at $5.81 a gallon, not only is the UK economy in better shape than the US economy, but it appears to have had little or no impact on people’s driving habits?

I’m no economist, and so I can’t say whether there’s some obvious econometric reason for this. But I don’t think it’s about economics. I think it’s about human nature. And my take on human nature is that we humans can get used to just about anything, and the Brits have definitely gotten used to higher gasoline prices.

What does this mean for the US? I think it means that if oil stays at $50 per barrel, and then climbs slowly but inexorably towards $60 and beyond, the American consumer will simply wind up doing the same thing the Brits have done – they’ll get used to paying higher and higher prices. Sure they’ll balk for awhile, and the news media will wring its hands, and the Republicans will get red in the face, and the Limbaugh listeners will sit for hours in long lines to save $0.10 a gallon. But when it comes right down to it, the US consumer will do exactly what Dumbo did when the mouse said “Sit up and beg” at the little local circus we took Nathaniel to recently, they’ll simply ask “How high?”

Ok, I know I’ve been a little glib here, but I really couldn’t help making reference to the Dumbo picture I took at the circus. Of course a steep rise in oil prices could, and likely will, have some severe negative consquences. First, a sharp rise in prices could shock the world economy into a recession as people and corporations reallocate resources to deal with the increased costs. Second, countries like India and China which are experiencing surging demand, will likely switch from oil to coal wherever possible, causing increased air pollution world-wide. And third, a negative feedback loop will be created whereby global guerilla attacks on Middle East and African oil infrastructure, including in Saudi Arabia, will create escalating tensions, driving oil prices even higher.

The saddest thing is that this all could have been forestalled with just the teeniest bit of actual leadership from our so-called leaders. What could they have done? First, they could have reduced US demand, and second, they could have done something in the Middle East that actually had a chance of reducing tensions there. And it wouldn’t have been hard – US demand could be reduced with something as simple as increasing the miles-per-gallon on new cars sold in the US by a miserly 10%. Or imagine that when Arnold became governator of California he got on tv and said “Sure, I used to drive a Hummer, but now I drive a Prius, and I want all Californians to follow my example and conserve gasoline". How much easier could it have been?

But no, there’s really no incentive for either Bush or Cheney to do such a thing. Why? Because they, and their wealthy supporters, are the ones who will be most positively impacted by the price of oil going up. Check out George Bush’s tax return for 2003. It shows that he made over $395,000 in interest on an oil trust last year. Does George Bush care if the average American has to pay $500 more this winter to heat their home? Of course not. Because next year his interest from The Lone Star Trust is going to have gone up a lot more than $500. You can bet on it.

Posted by: Frank @ 12:46 am — Filed under: Comments (8)

October 7, 2004

2004 Presidential Overseas Absentee Ballot Received!

I received my California absentee ballot today.

After all the horror stories I’ve been reading about problems in Ohio and Florida, I was wondering if I would actually get one, and if I didn’t get it, what I would do then.

I vote in California, a pretty safe Kerry state, so at one small level my vote isn’t going to make that much of a difference. But as my folks would say (no, as they drummed into me), “If you don’t vote you can’t complain".

So, here I go, doing my bit to make sure that George Bush gets booted, and the fear and terror mongering sown by the Republicans becomes just a faint nightmare, the kind where you shake your head and wonder if it ever really happened at all.

Posted by: Frank @ 10:01 pm — Filed under: Comments (2)

October 3, 2004

The Ghost of Chernobyl

Lots of cruft in my InBox (now down to just 39 messages). But among them I found this gem from Don Thorson:

“This is an amazing and chilling look at Chernobyl as it is today. It’s called “Ghost Town” and it’s put together by a Russian riding around the Chernobyl area on a motorcycle. Check it out when you have a minute. I think it’s worth your while.”

– Don

I’d seen it before, and it was worth looking at again.

Posted by: Frank @ 6:51 pm — Filed under: Comments (1)

Moving To England – What Do I Bring?

(Note: for anyone reading this who wants to know more about the how’s of moving to the UK, you can find almost everything you need at the Britain/USA website at http://www.britainusa.com.)

I’ve been cleaning out my In Box today – some in the bottom were well over a year old – and found an email from Jason Cook. I worked with Jason at Wired, and we keep in touch on and off – through his year in Rome, and our year here in England.

His email thanked me for some advice about things they might want think about before they moved. I scrounged through my Out Box and found my note to him. As I’ve had several people ask the same types of things, I thought it might be worth posting.


Well, I’m officially moving to England. Azure and I are probably going to arrive 28 August – I start at Cambridge in mid-September.

While we’re not moving house on the same scale as you and Rachel (mostly because we own no house) I thought I’d at least ask you if you had any small tips worth sharing. Anything in the realm of initial setup (opening bank accounts, health care) that you’d wish you’d known about, going over?

The one question I can think of offhand is: what cell phone provider should I use? That’s one of the first things I expect I’ll need to do, and I don’t want to get stuck with the wrong provider/plan (it’s hard enough to figure out who’s best in the States…).

Hope we get a chance to have a pint in the next year…



Very exciting that you’re moving to England…I think you’ll like it a lot.

You’re welcome of course that stay with us when you arrive if that would help. We’re about 40 minutes by train into London, easily got to from Heathrow and Gatwick, and have lots of spare room (but not as many beds as bedrooms, so one of you would be in a sleeping bag on the floor). Come stay as long as you like…

Will you be buying a car? That was the first thing we did, and after looking around in the papers/auto trader, we went with a dealer. We can help you with that if you want.

Bank account-wise, you don’t really need one, unless you want to move a bunch of money into pounds. Rachel had an HSBC account that I got added to, but everything can be done with ATMs and VISA/MC and electronic bill pay. I have a Wells Fargo bill pay account, and I do everything that way. What it doesn’t do is let me write checks in pounds, so yes, I guess you’ll need a bank account. You might check out Citibank in the US before you come. I’ve seen Citi branches here, and it might be possible to have dollar and pound accounts that you can move freely between. We wanted to move a bunch of stuff to euros and wound up opening a swiss bank account, but it’s not as convenient as I’d hoped it would be.

Phone-wise, there’s T-Mobile that works in the US, UK and old-Europe, or Vodaphone seems to be good pan-Europe provider. I’m using O2/BTCellnet and wouldn’t recommend it particularly. What I would recommend is using the pay-as-you-go plans – we’ve saved a lot of money by only topping up when we need airtime as opposed to paying for lots of time that we never use. I bought an unlocked phone in the US before coming here – I’d recommend looking on Google for the phone you want and buying an unlocked version before you come. But don’t worry too much about getting the wrong provider – there’s a CellPhoneWarehouse on every street corner, and buying a pay as you go chip is as little as 29 – if you don’t like it, go get another one.

That’s all I can think of now…if you have any other questions fire away.

We’re on the Cape now, and will be back in the UK on the 14th.

Hi to Azure…

– Frank

One thing I forgot to tell him was about health care. In the UK they have the NHS – National Health Service. To see a doctor, all you do is show up at the local doctor’s office, and fill out a short one-page form. That’s it. Really. I know all you folks in the US think I’m kidding, but I’m not.

For small things like colds and shots and prescriptions it’s amazing. Fast and free. Just this week Sebastian had a terrible cough – we called at 10:05, they said come in at 10:30, and we were out by 10:45. And the prescriptions are reasonably priced as well – free for children, and just £6 for adults.

For emergencies it’s pretty good too. I broke a rib a month ago mountain biking, and on the third night was in so much pain that at 4:00AM, after not being able to get back into bed, Rachel bundled me off to the emergency room. I was the only person there, and was in and out in about 45 minutes – 3 x-rays and some free pain relievers later I was a much happier person.

Where it appears to fall down a bit is with non-emergency procedures. There can be a 2-6 month (or more) wait for certain procedures, even for life-threatening things like cancer treatments. If you think you might need such surgery, then some form of private insurance might be useful. I’ve recently seen a policy advertised that will pay for private care if the NHS won’t schedule something within 6 weeks – sounds interesting.

Posted by: Frank @ 1:08 pm — Filed under: Comments (92)