Saturday, 29 December 2012

Public Service Announcement

I've been having a think about the future of this blog.  I originally set it up for when I was in America and I loved the time that I had to think and write whilst over there.  I've really missed this time (hello, having two jobs) and also the stimulus to write since I've been back but want to find some way of getting this back.  

I've decided (as a mini-New Years Resolution) to find time to do more writing and so have made the decision to keep the blog going but retitle it as "Notts and Bolts".  It's going to be much less frequently updated than when I was in America but hopefully a bit more wide ranging about things that are going on in and around Nottingham that I find interesting.  

I've also spent a lot of the Christmas break writing my final report for the Nottingham Roosevelt Travelling Scholarship which once it's finally finished I will upload here for anyone that's interested.  

Friday, 16 November 2012


It's been nearly a week since I got back from America and I've been suffering from what I think is know as "re-entry difficulties".  I knew that things would be different when I got back (not least the fact that I was no longer free to start drinking at two in the afternoon and that I had to sit at a desk and do actual work at a computer) and it's been about as bad as I thought it would be. 

I was struck by the expected jet-lag from the flight home - I know why they call it the red-eye - and was potentially very dangerous on the drive home.  I played it safe and stopped for a rest about every 40 minutes which was the right thing to do but sadly had the effect of making it a very long journey! I got home in time to vaguely unpack, iron a shirt for work the next day, shove down some freezer food and get to bed.  It was an particularly unwelcome alarm that went off at 6am on Monday.  

It would have been bed enough to go back to my old job (which I knew how to do and loved) but instead I was having to face into a new job, new team and a fresh set of challenges.  I kept telling myself it was what I wanted and asked for but it still made for a tough first day back.  I knocked it on the head about 4 o'clock to avoid the awkward possibility of falling asleep at my desk!  

Since then I've variously - had a Labour Party branch meeting (where I talked a bit about my experience before, during and after election day); caught up with lots of friends; rather half-heartedly campaigned for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections and desperately tried to tidy up my house from my whirl-wind re-entry.  Oh, and had the plumber round to take a look at my boiler and explain why it was making a noise like it was going to blow up (answer: it was about to blow up and also featured a wasps' nest within it...).  

I need to start thinking about how I can write up my trip fairly soon whilst it's still fresh in my memory - I'm thinking about sitting for a couple of weekends in the University of Nottingham's library and cracking it all out.  There's so much I want to cover that I want to make a brilliant job of it so need some peace and the right atmosphere to make it work.  

A number of people have mentioned that they'd like for me to keep this blog going now I'm back in Nottingham.  I have to say I've really enjoyed writing it and lots of people sent me messages to say how much they enjoyed reading it so I'll have a think about how I transform it into something Nottingham focused (will have to change the title for a start!). 

Friday, 9 November 2012

Final Day

Today was my final full day in America.  As you'd anticipate, a day of real mixed feelings.  I'm very ready to get back home - I need to start eating properly (and lose some weight), see my friends, get back into work, re-engage with everything that's going on with the City Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner election (Thursday - make sure you vote!) and generally get back to normal.  But at the same time I'd gutted that my trip is coming to an end - it's been even more incredible than I might have imagined.  I've checked into my flight home (noticing at the last minute that the travel agent has printed the time wrongly on my itinerary so lucky I'm not going to miss my flight then!) and worked out for the final time what underused and rickety public transport offering I'm going to use to get to the airport.  (Actually, DC's public transport is pretty good so shouldn't be snarky about it).  I've bought so many Christmas and holiday gifts for people that I've had to plan to check in a second bag for the flight home - bearing in mind I've posted five parcels of stuff home as well!

I've not going to to try to even summarise what I've learned on this trip in this post - I've going to leave it some time to percolate through my brain and put it all into my final report for the Roosevelt Scholarship.  

In that spirit, I'm just going to drop a few final photographs into this post and leave it at that - see you on the other side.  


Yes, the sky really was that blue!  It was however freezing at 8 o'clock this morning before my official tour of The Capitol
I'm a massive geek when it comes to the US Supreme Court so was very excited to be inside this building
This is the Hirshhorn gallery - one of 19 Smithsonian museums.  An excellent collection of modern art, including a whole floor of Ai Weiwei
Stumbled across this almost by accident but thought a picture of FDR's memorial would be a fitting place to end this post

Thursday, 8 November 2012


I've been in wintry DC (it's bitterly cold with a North Easterly wind off the Chesapeake) for a day and half now and I'm still behaving like a child in Disneyland - there's so much that I want to see and do it's hard to prioritise.  I have however had to dig deep into the depths of my battered and dirty rucsac to find some warm clothes - having been spoiled by t-shirt weather in Houston and Bentonville I suppose I should just see this as a useful acclimatisation process for getting back to Nottingham. 

I'm staying just over the Key Bridge from Georgetown so I've been making the most of the bars, restaurants and shops (some good Christmas gift opportunities) just over the river while spending most of the daytime in downtown DC seeing all the monuments, museums and sights.  I'd like to pretend that this is an extension of my Company Towns research topic (DC being the ultimate company town for government), but in reality it's a totally self-indulgent time for me to wallow in all the political and cultural things going on.  And I'm loving it! 

I started off the day with a Segway Tour of the major sights.  I was a bit sceptical of this - wasn't sure if it would be a bit corny or if I'd injure myself on the machine but I can't recommend it enough - huge fun and a great way to see the city.  We covered about eight miles in around three hours and it was much more fun than walking and enabled you to see more of the city.  It was freezing cold as you whizz along at up to 10mph (don't forget your gloves like I did!) but the sights make up for it.  

Roughly speaking the tour covers: OEOB, The White House, The National Archives, The Naval Memorial, The Capitol, The National Mall and all the museums, The Lincoln, Washington and MLK Jr Memorials, The Vietnam and Korean War Memorial and lots else besides.  Plus you get to do some "off-roading" on the Segway and enjoy some good banter with your fellow tourists.  

The Capitol Building - can't wait for my tour tomorrow

The Washington Monument looms over everything you see in DC

Vietnam War Memorial still incredibly moving even on a repeat visit

After that and a warming lunch I decided to check out the view across the whole city available from the top of the tower of the Old Post Office.  Apparently this building has been sold to Donalt Trump to redevelop as a hotel.  This'll probably be better than its current slightly sad incarnation as sort of shopping centre and dusty tourist attraction but my opinion of the bewigged one has gone down significantly following his unhinged election night outburst on twitter.  

I then went on to the National Archives where you can see the original Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights; along with a huge amount of other stuff.  I loved the exhibition about the Cuban Missile Crisis: it really illuminated something I'd only previously read about in books with contemporary documents, recordings and photographs.  The usual over-abundance of school-children only slightly dampened my enthusiasm for the place with its powerful sense of history.  

Finally (I was dragging my feet like a recalcitrant tweenager at this point) I popped into the Smithsonian Institute Castle to make sure that I'd identified all the places within the huge SI network that I wanted to see.  There's a great ten minute video (only slightly spoilt by being hosted by Ben Stiller) that outlines all the options so I've now got a clear plan for tomorrow.  

Need to get to bed now as I've got an early start for my tour of the Capitol tomorrow - can't wait!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Reflections on Election Day

(Warning, seriously geeky political post below.  Normal service (err, that's more of the same then...) to resume tomorrow).  

I'm safely in DC for my final stop before coming home and back to reality.  Despite probably the second worst hangover of the whole trip (see here for the day after the worst) I was incredibly excited to get to the nation's capital especially after such a great result for Obama and the Democrats last night.  

Thought I'd do a post looking at some of the election results that I saw some of in my travels and also look at why the Republicans had such a terrible night.  

I had a slightly odd election night - I spent it in Nashville which was a late addition to my schedule and was at a dinner at The Standard Club.  You can probably guess from the website that there weren't many members of the Revolutionary Communist Party in the house that night and I was the token liberal at the table.  I was meeting with Doug Tatum who is a long standing friend of the Roosevelt Scholarship and having read his book, 'No Man's Land' I was intrigued to be meeting him.  There were a few other people at dinner from a diversity of backgrounds and we had a good discussion about the election and business - but I think I was always on a losing wicket being 4-1 against when we got into the real political stuff.  Think I acquitted myself reasonably well however.  

I then moved on to the Fleet Street Pub.  I usually avoid these kind of 'British bars' like the plague but I'd seen that Drinking Liberally were having their election watching party there so I knew that I'd be among kindred spirits.  Obviously it was a totally phenomenal result - far better than my (amateur) predictions and a great night.  The atmosphere in the pub wasn't as electric as you might expect - there was a kind of resigned relief rather than anything else - people had been reading the polls (see below) and hoping for best and the result was a cathartic relief rather than anything else.  

A few of the races and initiatives I've been following;

- Michigan Collective Bargaining.  This initiative, which failed, would have enshrined in the state constitution the right for trade unions to collectively bargain.  Passing this initiative was a very high priority for the UFCW colleagues that I met in Detroit and I'm gutted for them - I know how hard they were working.  The only positive thing is that the status-quo is kind-of ok - ie unions are able to bargain with employers and no-one is actively threatening to take that away like in Wisconsin so fingers crossed that things muddle along.  

- Washington gay Marriage.  On a more positive note, I'm delighted that this initiative to legalise gay marriage passed in Washington.  From a purely ideological point of view I firmly believe in the right of any couple, whatever their genders, to marry if that's what they want, but one of my Servas hosts in Seattle was a gay couple so here's to Sara and Rebecca - many congratulations on your upcoming nuptials!  

- Minnesota.  Again a great result on initiatives - rejecting restrictions on voter participation and gay marriage.  See some thoughts here on my experience of the election day process - asking for more ID can only harm this.  And a strong return to office for Rep. Keith Ellison who was kind enough to host me for a day in Minneapolis - what a guy!

- Montana Senate.  For some reason I've always been a fan of Senator Jon Tester.  I first came across him in 2006 via Daily Kos and I've always been a fan of his plain-spoken plaid shirted image so I was chuffed to see that he retained his seat.  Having travelled across most of Montana on the train my admiration for his ability to retain what is a very rural seat (great quote here: A profile of Tester after his 2006 election described his as "truly your grandfather's Democrat—a pro-gun, anti-big-business prairie pragmatist whose life is defined by the treeless patch of hard Montana dirt that has been in the family since 1916") for the Democrats and promulgate a broadly progressive agenda has only increased.  

Now as to how Obama won and why so many people thought he wouldn't I've just got a couple of comments.  

1) This isn't new or original, but the strength of Obama for America's GOTV and "ground game" was obviously decisive.  And it looks like a laser-like focus on places like Cuyahoga County in Ohio (basically, Cleveland and its suburbs) paid off in spades.  

2) The revelation for me on election night was the amount of self-delusional thinking around 'skewed polls'.  A quick detour before we get into this.  Many people will recognise the concept of group think and the 'echo chamber' where you end up believing your original opinions even more fervently when you discuss it with people of similar views.  And I'm as guilty of this as anyone - I socialise and work with people of very similar views and so always come up with a start when I meet people who fundamentally disagree with my views and almost forget why I believe what I do.  And so it's perhaps not a surprise that I hadn't come across the idea of Skewed Polling which apparently had been a common discussion point amongst Republicans for the last six or eight weeks.  The basic theory is that the public polls (which had been showing small but significant leads for the President in all the swing states for the last couple of weeks at least) were oversampling Democrats and were based on a 2008 turnout model.  This was all total news to me at dinner on Election night but I was firmly told by the Republicans present that Romney was going to comfortably win and that the polls were all 'skewed' (classic group-think).  This line of thinking generated a whole industry of recalibrating the polls - eg UnSkewed Polls.  (As an aside, it should be noted that the polling companies (like YouGov, MORI etc) many no money (or make a loss) on political polling - they do it to create publicity and as a loss-leader for more lucrative commercial work - so they stake a lot of credibility and future commercial work on getting it right and have little incentive to do anything other than report the truth as they find it).  This belief in Skewed Polls is a great example of group think and somewhat delusional self-belief - great summary from a friend here.  

3) The Republican ticket from top to bottom was pretty poor.  Romney was robotic and walked into stupid own-goals over not releasing his tax returns.  But the real issue was the terrible Senate candidates.  Again, a well-worked theme so I'll just link to a couple of articles that summarise it well: Akin and Mourdock on rape and a more general summary

Phew.  Ok, stopping now.  In summary: Obama won because they had a good plan and operation; some good results on gay rights and for unusual Democrats; trust the polling data; Republicans are terrible at selecting candidates. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Election Day

Pretty clear that you need ID to vote here then!
Finally it's here - polling day.  After months of campaigning, thousands of speeches and untold millions of dollars it's all happening today.  I just got back from the polling station at Pickens County, Georgia where I'm staying.  I was keen to see what the elections process is like here in the US compared with the experience in the UK so I jumped at the chance to accompany my host family to the polling station.  The people I'm staying with were keen to get there as early as possible so I dragged myself out of bed at 6am which is about the earliest I've got up this whole trip - good practice for being back at work I guess!

First thing to note is that as a US voter you don't get a polling card each election like we do in the UK - this explains for me some of the issues with people not knowing if they are registered to vote or not knowing where to got to vote: has spawned a whole set of websites to help people locate their polling station.  As a political activist in the UK you spend a lot of time telling people who've lost their polling card that it doesn't matter and they can still vote without it, but I think I like the security and simplicity of the system we have that means you know you're registered to vote before you make the trip out to the polling station. And although I laugh when I get my card at home which has a detailed map to help me navigate the 400metres to my polling station up at the WinWood Community Centre, it's better to have that than turn up at the wrong place (see below).  

The second thing is that you have to show some form of ID to vote here in Georgia (see main photo).  This is interesting because of the work that Rep. Keith Ellison is doing in Minnesota to prevent just such a thing being required there.  I'm a bit conflicted on this one - I think it's odd that in the UK you can just turn up and say your (or any) name and address and they'll dish out a ballot paper, but I know that any kind of restrictions will fall disproportionately on the most excluded in society already - the poor, the old and minorities.  And based on my experience this morning further restrictions will reduce turnout and suppress participation which has got to be a bad thing.  

(As an aside, I was pleased to notice that one thing was exactly the same as the UK - the somewhat matriarchal poll staff who were very suspicious of my presence and almost asked me to wait outside in the rain). 

All throughout the process there were a lot of queues.  Now I'm British so that means I automatically like queues but this was a bit ridiculous!  You had to queue to get a form to complete certifying that you were a legitimate voter and not disqualified - again this is often seen as a form of voter suppression and it was somewhat fearsome. 

Once you've filled in the form mentioned above you queue up to get your ID checked and be issued with your ballot.  The elections office here have eschewed the tried and tested method of using a piece of paper and a pencil that has worked so well in the UK for many decades and use a complicated system of touch screen computers.  I was therefore able to be very smug when the system crashed and refused to work.  I said (perhaps little too loudly...) to those around me: "a pencil never ran out of power or crashed!".  

The queue to get your ID checked and be issued with a "ballot"
Once the computers were coaxed into life the (by now somewhat testy) queue started moving relatively quickly.  (One guy when I was there had turned up at the wrong polling station - he needed to be in the next county.  He claimed to have voted here in the primaries so wasn't happy but the staff sent him away never-the-less.  I hope he got a chance to vote somewhere!  The staff member actually used the phrase, "the computer says no" - obviously this is a cultural thing as I was the only person to laugh at this point). When you got to the head of the line your ID was scanned (everyone used their driving license - but other forms were acceptable - not sure how they would "scan" them if they didn't have a barcode) and you were given a sort of credit-card with a chip on it that you took over to the main voting action.  

I say you took it over, another poll worker took it from you and escorted you over to the main machines.  This was a bit odd, not sure why this was the case.  I wouldn't want that card (which activated the machines and linked my vote to my ID) out of my sight!  Maybe I'm just paranoid!

You can just see the row of 5 or 6 touchscreen machines - sorry, not very good photo
At this point I obviously stepped away so that I didn't compromise the security of anyone's vote but I imagine that the screens then show you a series of ballot options and you press your choices.  I know that you don't get any kind of confirmation or receipt which is odd as this would be easy enough to produce I'm sure.  

I managed to grab a sample ballot which I've photographed and put here - main thing to notice is how big it is.  I got a similar document when I was in Detroit which was even longer - no wonder turnout is so low when this is what you get confronted with. I'm not sure that even I could summon the energy to get enthused about choosing which person I wanted to be County Coroner or Limestone Valley Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor (actually, it looks like even the candidates couldn't get enthused as no-one has stood for that position!).
Page One of the Ballot
Page Two of the Ballot
An early start but I was very glad to have the chance to experience an authentic polling day operation here in rural Georgia - hope the GOTV is going well for the Obama teams in the key swing states!

Monday, 5 November 2012


Coke was invented by a pharmacist dontchaknow
Thanks to a contact through work I was able to meet with some colleagues from the Coca-Cola company today.  We met at 'The World of Coca-Cola' which meant that I was able to get into that exhibit for free which was a bonus.  

I met with one of the company historians and also a representative from the CSR team who were able to give me some interesting perspective on the role that Coca-Cola has played in the development of Atlanta.  Some thoughts and perspective from other cities;

- Coke made the funding for 'Pemberton Place' available which is where the 'World' is located alongside the city's aquarium and also the future site of a museum on the history of civil rights.  This was part of a commitment to the downtown area as part of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.  The kind of commitment to the city is similar to that of P&G and Cincinnati

- However, Atlanta didn't suffer from race or other riots in the 1970s as many other cities did (again, see Cincinnati and also Detroit) because, "the city was too busy making money to riot" - it's always been a very business focused place that didn't suffer so many of the issues that other places did.  
- The City was apparently one of the first to integrate their businesses, schools and eating establishments - again because there was a good business reason to do so.  
- The company has consistently acted as a "thought leader" and catalyst for philanthropy - not always covering 100% of the cost of projects but providing a kick start for matching fundraising.  (A different model than Alice Walton in Bentonville of course).  
- The company has been involved in the funding or founding of various institutions including Emory University, the Centre for Disease Control and helped saved the baseball team for the city back in the 1930s.  

A useful morning and some confirmation of the sort of themes that I've been seeing in other places.  It's a shame I didn't manage to see some more of downtown Atlanta - it looks like an interesting city.  But I've loved being in the rural part of Georgia.  Tomorrow (Tuesday) is election day and I'm going with my hosts to vote first thing which should be interesting!

The vending machines from around the world were one of my favourite exhibits

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Georgia On My Mind

(I promise the terrible punning blog post titles will end soon)

I'm in Jasper, Georgia staying the some contacts made through the Roosevelt Scholarship and I've been made to feel incredibly welcome - all you hear about Southern hospitality is totally true.  I arrived on Friday night sorry to leave Bentonville and North-West Arkansas but I've hardly stopped since so I've not had any time to feel sad about my trip nearly coming to an end.  

I'm staying out in Jasper, Georgia which is about an hour from Atlanta and is the home of the Georgia Marble Company - I'm in a company town without even planning it!  The marble from here was used to make the Lincoln Memorial which I'll be seeing in a few days.  The trainline to and from the quarry runs just past the home where I'm staying and I can hear a train clicking past as I type this. 

On Saturday we went to the annual Chomp and Stomp festival in Atlanta - a mixture of beer festival, running event, live music and lots and lots of chilli.  We were able to sample a lot (a lot!) of chilli and I also tried some of the beers from Sweet Water Brewery from Atlanta - I can recommend the IPA in particular.  It was a really warm and sunny day and I could have stayed from much longer, but we were on something of a packed schedule.  I really liked the atmosphere in the neighbourhood that the festival was held - a place called Cabbagetown - it felt a bit like Sherwood in Nottingham: lots of independent businesses, people really engaged in their community and some great green spaces - the kind of place that I like to live! 

People enjoying the early Autumn sun
That is a lot of chilli that's been eaten!
We had to dash off to make sure that we got to Stone Mountain in time.  This is an enormous granite monolith which would be impressive enough but it also has a huge carving of three Confederate commanders in the side to commemorate the American Civil War.  The surrounding park was quite Disney-fied but the mountain itself was pretty spectacular especially the walk down (we took the cable car up!) to ground level.  A great view of Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs.  

A not very good picture of the carving.  The white mound to the left is a man-made ski-run...
Today (Sunda) was a long trip again to see the Little White House at Warm Springs.  This was where Franklin Roosevelt went to get relief from the debilitating effects of Polio and ended up living and working here - it was whilst meeting local people here that he was prompted to develop progressive policies like the New Deal, rural electrification and the Public Works Act. 

A pretty humble house, even for the 1930s. 
The museum here is really impressive - telling a lot of the story of FDR and his work plus what his life was like down here.  You can also travel to the original springs and bathing area where FDR found relief and also prompted the research that ultimately led to the discovery of the vaccine for Polio and its virtual elimination.  I've always been a fan but today really opened up a different side of the man and his work. 

Tomorrow I'm meeting with Coca-Cola at the 'World of Coke' in downtown Atlanta - worried that my Diet Coke addiction might get out of hand once I'm left to roam freely in that place...

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Road Trip

I had planned to have a bit of a slower time for my last full day in Arkansas, but ended up driving nearly 250 miles instead which was unexpected.  But then lots of this trip has been quite unexpected!

My original plan was to get out of the City and check out the Ozark National Forest.  You can see from that website that information on actual walks and trails is a bit sketchy so I decided to go to one of the Ranger Stations where I was promised maps and guides.  Two hours later I rocked up at the designated place and was met by two very nice rangers.  Who didn't really have any info that could help me.  They were keen for me to take the below map...

...which I'd already downloaded and didn't really give me quite the detail I needed to do a decent walk...  It's a times like this that you feel really grateful that we have Ordnance Survey in the UK.  I finally managed to winkle out enough information to attempt a walk.  It was nice enough and I persevered for a couple of hours but the trail was pretty indistinct and after Yosemite (perhaps I've been spoiled a bit!) the scenery was a bit unspectacular.  

So, having read about the Thorncrown Chapel which didn't look that far away (ha!) I hopped back into the car and went to check that out.  I was very glad that I did despite the 90 minute drive - it's an unexpected delight pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  I only had about 15 minutes as they were closing up for the day but managed to grab some photos of it.  The chapel really is very peaceful and a great addition to the landscape - not being religious it's hard for me to understand what it must be like to worship there but as a lover of the outdoors it's a spectacular piece of architecture.  

Finally back at the hotel I had a glamorous evening of washing my clothes in preparation for the final week of my trip: Atlanta, Nashville, DC to navigate before I get home.  Oh, and a Presidential election...

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Parks and Recreations

(The title is apparently a US TV show about local government which I haven't managed to catch yet but is supposed to be good - and was appropriate enough for my day today). 

(Actually, scratch that, I've just watched an episode on Hulu - it's very good!)

Today I had my final meeting with the team at Bentonville City Council - with the Director of Parks and Recreation (see what I did there?).  An early start but well worth it to see parts of the City I've not seen yet on a combined drive and walk along the network of trails and seeing the city's extensive parks.  The City has had enough foresight to buy up distressed property when it comes on the market to enable it to be converted to park space and there are a range of different uses - including a dedicated dog park for "off leash" dog exercise. 

A couple of shots;

After this interesting start to the day I want to the WalMart museum at the original store - for a relatively small space there was a huge amount of information and history crammed in.  I did feel a little brainwashed at the end of it, but certainly shows a different side to the business and the man who founded it.  And it's very well curated and put together. 

Finally, the day took me to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.  For the initiated (like me), this is a world class art museum built by renowned architect Moshe Safdie and funded entirely by Alice Walton, including a $1.4bn (yes, billion) endowment to enable free entry in perpetuity.  It's an extraordinary space built with great sensitivity to its location and a great collection as I hope some of the pictures below show -  a real sign of the commitment that the Walton family show to the locality that they come from and still live in.  

The location of the museum in such a perceived "backwards" place hasn't necessarily gone down well with the art elite on the East and West coast, as seen in this video from the LA Times.  

Kind of reminds me of the controversy in 2005 when the Royal Ascot horseracing meeting moved from their usual location to be at York racecourse for a year whilst its home course in Berkshire was being redeveloped.  This was great for me as it meant that I got to go to a race meet I wouldn't ever usually see but there were all sorts of comments like, "isn't it a long way away".  I distinctly remember John Humphreys on Radio 4 responding in unusually nuanced and subtle way, "well, it's not a long way away if you live in Leeds".  (I realise that that will be totally lost on my American readers - sorry).  Putting this new art gallery in Arkansas doesn't mean that it's "out of the way" if you live in, say, Fayetteville or Memphis or Oklahoma City... 

Anyway, enough provincial chip-on-shoulder ranting, it's been another great day, need to plan tomorrow's fun now!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

North-West Arkansas Preconceptions

Something of a packed day today including some serious pre-conceptions squashed, a mini-road-trip and me being presented the Freedom of the City of Bentonville...

As per yesterday's brief update I've had most of my original ideas about this part of the country challenged if not totally blown away today.  One of my work colleagues told me before I left the UK that for a while he was planning to move here for work and was really looking forward to it.  I looked at him a bit strangely and was somewhat sceptical.  Well, I'd probably join him on the plane if given the chance now - seriously.  Well, maybe I'd hold out a little longer for the Chicago option but this is a strong second!

I met with three people from Bentonville City Council - Troy Galloway, the Director of Community Development, Mike Churchwell who heads up Transport and finally Mayor Bob McCaslin.

A few thoughts and things learnt;

- Bentonville downtown is brilliant - could almost be a facsimile of a 1930s small-town America used for a film set but it's a living and breathing city centre mixed-use location - shops (including what looks like a great bike shop. I've not allowed myself to go in - there's only so far I can stretch my baggage allowance on flights...), restaurants, bars and offices.  I note the irony that this is exactly what opponents of WalMart say their presence destroys but here it is, in their own home-town.  A few pics inc one of the original WalMart (a five-and-dime store that's now a museum);

- I knew that WalMart either explicitly or otherwise encourage their suppliers (CocaCola, P&G, Unilever, Kraft, Nestle etc etc) to have an office here but I didn't know how big they were (up to 400 people) nor now many companies have in fact co-located in the Bentonville/Rogers/Fayetteville/Springdale are: around 1400 in total!  There are some interesting parallels here with Boeing's supplier base in Seattle and how venture capital and legal firms have strong presences in Silicon Valley
-The City's daytime population pretty much doubles with the commuter influx into the City from surrounding locations but the focus at the moment has been to manage that traffic through more road building rather than any attempt to move people out of their cars.  The team know that this is next but haven't yet been able to find a way to ease people out of their cars and into public transit in quite the way we've been able to do it in Nottingham and Europe more generally.  
- The City's relationship with WalMart is generally very strong but hasn't always been so - back in 2005 the company was working with central government to secure improvements to a particular road and had secured 80% of the funding - the remaining 20% to come from the City.  Unfortunately no-one had thought to engage with the team at the Council which led to some red faces and hasty rejigging of budgets...
- The Mayor spoke very passionately and from a position of knowledge (he headed up a Bentonville team for Kraft for many years) of the good things that WalMart do and how they operate in an ethical way.  I directly asked if WalMart put people out of business and he said that wasn't the case.  Like many people I've read books like 'The WalMart Effect' and been sceptical about the value that big-box retailers bring to the consumer landscape so it was great to be challenged in a knowledgeable way on those views.  
- The Mayor presented me with the Key to Bentonville - as per the photo at the top of this post to celebrate my visit.  This was obviously a huge surprise and a great honour.  

There's loads more info and detail that I captured but that'll do for now - safe to say that I'm hugely looking forward to my next few days here in NWA!  

PS - managed to find some beer at the brilliantly named County Line Liquor today so I'm back in the game on that front.  I'm in Benton County as indicated on this map so there are a number of options around but none that are hugely close!  I learnt today that there's a ballot inititive (referendum) to make the county 'wet' at next week's vote.  

PPS - longtime readers will be excited to hear that I got a haircut today - a snip (haha!) at $13. 

Quick Hit on Bentonville

Tired after a long day of travel (in no way do I regret saving £30 by booking a flight rather with two changes rather than a direct one to get me from Houston to Bentonville - oh no) but thought I'd just jot down a few thoughts on Bentonville / Arkansas so far.  Walmart brings me here - and along with Detroit is probably one of the highlights of the trip for me in terms of my research project for the Roosevelt Scholarship

In no particular order;

- when flying into Northwest Arkansas airport I was struck by how green the countryside was.  I'd developed this mental image of Bentonville as a sprawling industrial city but it's a pretty small place (about 35,000 people) and set in some great countryside - not for nothing is Arkansas called 'The Natural State'.  I think I'll fit in a visit to the Ozark National Forest whilst I'm here. 

- in the airport the majority of adverts on the walls are for companies focusing on retail and Walmart - offering to help with your supply chain, merchandising, sales etc etc - first sign of a true company town.  

- the map you get with your hire-car shows all the Walmart head office locations alongside hotels and restaurants - nothing else is worth a mention...

- Benton County is dry - something I discuss here but had totally forgotten about.  Had I remembered I might have saved myself 20 minutes wandering around a Walmart wondering where they'd put the beer...

Meetings with Bentonville City Council tomorrow - more to follow. 

Houston Food

Just a brief post to talk about some of the amazing food that I consumed this weekend just gone.  I'm fairly sure that I've put on a lot of weight so far this trip and this weekend won't have helped.  Back into cycling and running when I get home I think!

In no particular order, we went to the following places with my capsule review alongside.  

Empire Cafe.  An excellent lunch and chance to catch up with Brad and Louise, nice shady patio too and what looked like a great strawberry flavoured soda for the kids.  

Hugo's.  Wow.  Just wow - what a great place.  A cool vibe, with a mix of couples, families and business meetings.  I had the Barbacoa which featured some of the tastiest lamb I've had in a long time and also enabled me to learn a new word - cilantro.  Oh, and the Oaxacan Rita margarita was excellent - a real smoky taste.    

House of Pies.  This was a welcome addition to the afternoon when flagging from a full day (with a two-year-old) at the Museum of Natural Science.  I can personally vouch for the Apple and the Texas Pecan Fudge looked suitably artery filling...

Rudy's BBQ.  This place was an excellent Saturday night choice - real rib-sticking stuff but unpretentious and laid-back.  You order at the counter and get a kind of plastic crate to load your meat up into - we had a mix of moist brisket (to die for!), ribs and sausage.  Plus the sides were excellent too.  You lay your own table with butcher's paper and get stuck in - highly recommended!

Finally, we went for a brilliant brunch at a Mexican place and I had the best virgin Bloody Mary I've ever had - if only I could remember the name of the place!  My Huevos Rancheros was phenomenal - perhaps second only to 'Kiosk' at the end of my road in Nottingham, as discussed here - but then I would say that wouldn't I!)

I knew that Houston had a rep for good food but I hadn't realised quite how great it was going to be - no wonder they eat out the most of all Americans!

The other surprising thing about Houston was how green it was.  We went for a walk in Hermann Park but even outside this the streets were very green and leafy - a function of the kind of neighbourhood I was in I suppose but even so.  

Monday, 29 October 2012


When I worked out that I'd be able to pass through Houston and catch up with an old university friend Brad and his wife Louise and son Sean I was keen to experience some real American football.  Having been to see Leicester Falcons play once and been a bit underwhelmed I really wanted to see what the fuss was all about! 

Unfortunately the Houston Texans were out of town the weekend I was there but Brad assured me that a trip to see his Alma Mater, Rice University play on the Saturday would be just as good. 

We headed over just after 11.30 to try to catch some tailgating which there was a small amount of, as below, but then headed straight into the stadium for the main event.  I'd been given a quick briefing on the rules before getting there (which did remind me of the hour I spent trying to explain cricket to my hosts in Seattle - thanks for being patient with my stupid questions Brad!) but I was still not sure if I'd follow all the action. 

In a slightly surreal moment a guy came up to us at the queue for the ticket office and handed over three tickets with the words, "You need tickets? Here take these" and wandered off with no request for payment - bargain!

The game was against Southern Mississippi University whose mascot is a Golden Eagle - a fair foe to face off against the Rice Owl (as seen at the top of this post). The first thing that strikes you when entering the stadium is the sheer scale.  Rice is a pretty small university even by UK standards - c. 4000 undergraduate students - but the stadium holds 47,000 people!  There weren't that many people there on this slightly chilly (for Texas!) Saturday in October I can assure you.  (As an aside the stadium was where JFK made his famous declaration that we go to the moon because it's hard, not because it's easy: "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too".  And apparently this is the one time that the stadium was filled to it's old capacity of 70,000 people).  

And apart from the scale of things, the spectacle is much more impressive than even a professional sport game in the UK - the players run out onto the pitch through an inflatable tunnel and dry ice and there's a proper half-time show (of dubious quality admittedly but, still).  

I won't try to do a play-by-play account - you can get that here but let's just saw that it was a great afternoon's play - probably more enthralling than the baseball (my report of that here) as although it's similarly stop-start in terms of the action, when things get going they really get going - I was cheering good plays and abusing the referee with the best of them by the end of it!

Not sure it's quite supplanted cricket in my ranking of sports to go and see (and I certainly wouldn't get up at 1.30am to get tickets for it) but I loved the authentic experience and might be tempted to follow a professional team in the future.  The NFL are committed to bringing a series of games to Wembley and according to this there might be a plan to create a UK team to play in the NFL in the future - bring it on! 

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Five Hours in LA

Or, "Travelling for 15 Hours and Still Being in California".  

I left Yosemite early-doors to make sure that the rest of my day's travel got off to a good start - and glad I did as it was a bit of a marathon!  I drove for four hours across California - which was just a beautiful as the way into Yosemite although I took a slightly different route.  The only radio station I could get a reliable signal for played solely country music which was an interesting accompaniment.  Most interesting was the constant political advertising (both pro and anti) for Adam Gray - not a politician who had previously crossed my radar and running for a relatively junior position he certainly has provoked some serious emotions - the attack ads were really vicious and the responses to them no less trenchant!

Made it to San Jose safely enough (via a small detour to try to find a petrol station before giving back the hire car) and was very early for my flight to LA.  But to be honest I was grateful of the chance to just sit down and chill-out: I'd been either walking or driving for the last three days so it was nice to just do nothing.  

Flight was fine, if anything the internal flights have very quickly lost any glamour they might have had and are just a bit tedious now and I successfully negotiated LAX's huge number of terminals (and satellite terminals) to find the departure location for the FlyAway bus to the city's Union Train Station.   This was very cheap ($7) and very efficient - negotiated through rush-hour downtown traffic in about 40 mins.

So I ended up very early in the station ahead of my second Amtrak trip - all the way to Houston.  Had resigned myself to a terrible station dinner and sitting in some uncomfortable seats but happened to stumble across Traxx Restaurant which looked nice and so decided to treat myself to some proper food.  For less than £30 I got a two course meal with wine and the opportunity to sit in a very nice location whilst I waited for my train - eat your heart out Burger King!

Eventually I thought I'd outstayed my welcome so wandered over to see if the train was ready yet and was able to get on and make myself comfortable in my sleeping compartment.  I was taking the Sunset Limited so was hoping for scenery as good as that as I saw on my first Amtrak trip.  I was a little disappointed - essentially West Texas is a lot of cactus and desert and not a lot else - there was little in the way of settlements and other action that broke up the Montana scenery.  

One photo and I'm going to try to upload and video that I took on my phone - so poor quality but will give a sense of it I hope!

Eventually arrived in Houston and was picked up by my friend Brad.  Despite living here for most of his life, Brad had to look up where the train station was - and I don't blame him to be honest, it was basically a shed and one track - compared with the incredible art-deco and impressive stations in other cities, it's nothing at all that you'd notice if you weren't looking for it!  

Brad took me over to the house and it was great to see Louise his wife again and also meet two new additions to the family - Ginger the dog and Sean their two year old son who is a real star!  More to follow including how I've lived up to Houston's reputation as the city that eats out the most in America and my trip to an American football game - I know you're both looking forward to that Gary and Alex N! 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Another cold night and I woke up to very stiff limbs after the exertions of the last two days.  Still, was determined to make the most of my last day in Yosemite so I forced myself out of the bed and out to face the world!  At least it had stopped raining - the major hazard now was being hit by snow or ice dripping off the trees. 

I decided to get out of Yosemite Valley and see some of the rest of the National Park.  I understand that most visitors don't ever leave the Valley so I decided to buck the trend and see what else was out there.  I'd also read about the giant Sequoias and thought that a visit here wouldn't be complete without seeing them.  

This entailed a drive of around an hour to just beyond Wawona and I was a little trepidatious to do this drive given the change of weather over the last couple of days.  However, all the "Snow Chains Required" signs were firmly spun away from the road and unilluminated so I pressed on.  The drive was quite pleasant actually with very few other cars on the road and the roads were by-and-large dry and clear.  It was noticeable however that the snow at the side of the road suddenly appeared once I passed 5000ft of elevation.  There were a number of look-out points along the way but I pressed on to get to the parking area at Mariposa Grove as quickly as possible.  In the end, the biggest stress was finding a parking space and enduring the queue for the toilets at Mariposa Grove - phew! 

In the summer there is a tram (sic: actually a sort of open air minibus) available to take you around the Grove but I eschewed that and pressed on on foot.  There was a really good explanatory guide available for just 50c that included a map and explanatory text.  The trees really are incredible - at least 2000 years old and so resilient.  I learnt that they actually thrive on the regular fires that occur in the forest and their roots can spread for 70metres or more underground.  

I pressed on beyond the usual tourist route and up to Wawona Point which offered some great views out over the valley.  And on the return I went down the road rather than the path which I pleased I did as I meant I got to see the little beauties you can see below.  

Some photos offers a better description than any of my text...

This is one of the first Sequoias that you see and the one that many people turn around after seeing.  He is a beauty but there are some treasures later on too.  

Like this, a replacement for the famous "drive-through" tree that eventually succumbed to the damage that that carving did to it.  You can walk through this dude and it is really amazing to get a sense of the scale and size when you're inside it.  

This is the original tunnel tree, left in its felled state as a reminder of the damage that past generations have done to the trees and the neighbourhood in general.  

These two shots are from the Wawona Point lookout.  Note the snow on the mountaintops alongside the lush green valley below.  And the two smoke streams in the second photo - I wasn't sure if they were from residential locations or were forest fires.

Tomorrow I leave Yosemite at the crack of dawn to: (deep breath) drive to San Jose, get a flight to Los Angeles, then a bus to LA Station and a train to Houston.  I then get to relax on the second of my Amtrak journeys (36 hours of food, scenery and occasional stops).  Plus I'm really looking forward to seeing my friend Brad who I met at university in my first term and haven't seen since - it's a testament to the strength of the friendship developed in those ten weeks that he offered without hesitation to host me for a weekend on my trip.  Can't wait!