Ten Years in the UK!

Saturday, January the 3rd, 2004…birthdate of Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and my arrival date in the UK!

‘Twas a rainy and snowy day when I landed in Birmingham (don’t pronounce the ‘h’, it’s just ‘Birmingum’) and was picked up by my housemate and boss Greg in his tiny Ford Fiesta XR2i! As we traveled north to Derby (pronounced ‘Darby’) I saw all the red brick houses, slate tile roofs with bits of moss, open fields with old-growth hedges, everyone driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and much, much more, and just loved it. Loved it!

Since then, I’ve been all over the UK, from Kent to Northern Ireland, the Highlands to Land’s End, sometimes for work, mostly for pleasure. I’ve been to London more times than I can count, Edinburough a few times, Canterbury, Glasgow, the Isle of Skye, Chester, Liverpool, Falkirk, Cornwall, Manchester, Leeds, York, Sheffield, Wales, Inverness, Devon, Oxford, the Highlands, Bath and tons of other cities. I’ve been to Chatsworth estate, Salisbury, Stonehenge, Avebury, Canterbury, Tintagel and dozens of other manor homes and active and ruined castles and cathedrals. For my day job and other side jobs I’ve been to Germany, Italy, France, Portugal, Spain, Austria and other countries, including visiting Ireland and Turkey on vacation (different holidays, of course!).

I’m a fan of motorsport and although I’ve been to the Long Beach Grand Prix, California Speedway and a drag strip outside of San Antonio, I never really tried to get anywhere in the US for a big road trip, like to visit Laguna Seca or Sebring. Britain has a very long history of motor racing, for bikes and cars, and its small size makes it easy to get around. In 2005 I made it my goal to attend one of each of the major motorsports in the UK: F1, MotoGP, WRC, TT (Isle of Man), BSB (British Superbikes) and BTCC. I nearly got there: I went to the F1 race at Silverstone, the MotoGP race at Donington and the BTCC at Oulton Park. I would have been at the BSB round in September but that fell the same weekend I met my fiancee’, so I had to skip that. A couple of years ago I was able to go to the Wales Rally GB and the last place I haven’t been to is the Isle of Man for the TT, which I hope to attend at least next year.

While I don’t really think of myself as ‘British’, my British mates tend to, and probably most of my American friends as well. I do think I’ve been here long enough to complain about the weather and politicians, though! Our recent trip to  Turkey really highlighted just how fucking nice it is to be able to sit on the beach and watch the sun and clouds and actually ENJOY the weather, instead of damning it to hell. THAT is something I definitely miss from SoCal, when I used to drive half an hour to Laguna Beach just to watch the sunset…and be able to drive 2 hours in the other direction to go snowboarding! Yes, that’s possible, and I’ve demonstrated that to more than one visitor!

The same can be true of the UK, of course  – the mountains have a bit less snow on them, the beaches might be a bit more rocky and the beachgoers a bit paler (and fully clothed because of the cold, wet weather)…but it’s still possible. As a history buff one of the greatest things is being able to walk, bike or drive through literally thousands of years of history in the morning, take your lunch in a medieval pub and attend a show in a state-of-the-art theater (or should I say ‘theatre‘?) in the evening. It sounds really cliche’ but it is true that Britain has thousands of years of history packed within an area the size of Pennsylvania…or Oregon, or South Dakota (trying to spread out the geographical references for people all over the US). From places like Battle, where the Battle of Hastings was fought (which set in motion loads of historical precedents), to Parliament where laws and policies were enacted that changed the history of the US, Asia & the Pacific islands, Australia and more (the effects of which are still being felt today), to Camden where British fashion and music set the tone of the 60’s – and that’s just the south of England! There’s so much more but it would probably bore most of the people who might be reading this.

I’ve been hiking across Northumberland on the Hadrian’s Wall path, up and down and all around the Peak District and someday I hope to do the Coast to Coast Walk across Yorkshire. I’ve had several cars since I moved here (a Peugeot 106, the same Fiesta XR2i I first got in that day in 2004, Mazda 626, Saab 900 and now a Volvo V40) and they’ve gone all over the country the same as me. 

Speaking of travel, if you listen (and if you talk to any of the locals it’s impossible not to) you can experience the British Isles just by listening to the accents of the people around you as you travel around. It’s really amazing, but honestly not unlike traveling your home state or even a place like New York City with its different neighborhoods and cultural areas. But because in the US the various accents are so easy to hear on a daily basis because of television and movies, it’s easy to just ignore the accents you hear – and even if you do think about it you’re likely to think Southern, Italian, New Jersey, Surfer Dude, Northern, and No Accent (usually the Midwest mix of accents, which is how I sound). This video goes through most of the really distinctive dialects in the UK – at least close enough for American ears!:

There’s only 2 places I’ve lived, however, my mate Greg’s house in Derby for 7 years and for the past 2 and a half years around the corner from my workplace just outside of Burton-on-Trent. I don’t relish the thought of packing and moving again! But it’s an inevitability.

The first question people who don’t know me ask is ‘Where did you live in the US?’ and when I tell them Southern California and Texas the follow-up question is ‘WHY did you move here?!’ The simple answer is ‘work’ but the longer answer could just be I’m a wanderer…or I was, at least. Both my parents left their home countries when they were young, met in Germany and here I am!

Of course I’m planning a wedding later this year…for myself of course! I wouldn’t want to plan anyone else’s wedding. Having met my lovely fiance’ over 8 years ago I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life with anyone else…I just hope she’s prepared for it! Apart from a (usually) insanely great job, meeting her and our times together is definitely the major highlight of my 10 years in Old Blighty.

People ask if I plan to move back to the US. My only family in the US is my mother in Texas, and she’s getting old but is still able to look after herself for now. I wouldn’t pick Texas as the first place I’d want to live should I move back (except maybe Austin), but I do have many connections there. I have just as many connections in Southern California, having lived there for 7 years before I moved to the UK, but the cost of living is much higher and it’s just…different. Not all in a bad way, though. The awesome weather and outdoor places might be enough to offset cost and difference though.

So that’s about it…some of my thoughts on living in the UK for 10 years now!

What has Frank been up to…what Frank has been up to… what I’ve been up to (What I’ve Been Doing – Episode 3)

This was originally started in June 2011, after my 20-year high school reunion (Go Mavs!), but it just never got done…since I’ve been updating my blog recently I noticed that this and other blog posts have been sitting in the ‘Drafts’ section for quite a while, and with my 40th birthday coming up it’s about time to finish this up!

With my recent 20th anniversary high school reunion and trip to Texas to see old friends (and in Chicago, too!), I’ve been getting a few more friend requests on Facebook, which is great! Unfortunately, many of the friend requests come mostly from people who I haven’t seen in 10 years (at the last high school reunion), 14 years (when I left Texas), or even 20 years (when I left high school)! So it’s hard to catch up individually with everyone and explain what I’ve been doing in that time. Don’t get me wrong – I love to catch up with folks who I haven’t seen in ages, but by the time I condense the last 20 years of my life to the 20th person, it comes out like, “Moved to California in ’97, moved to England in ’04. What have you been up to?” And that’s just not fair. People (as in literally everyone) want to hear what The Frank has been doing, so here goes a general timeline:

1991 – graduated high school, worked at Tom’s Ribs (the original location!) for the summer, went to North Carolina A&T on a full-ride Army scholarship. I picked ‘Architectural Engineering’ as my degree choice. That was…okay. Continue reading

What I’ve Been Doing – Episode 2

So, more in the ‘what have you been up to?’ segment…

The past couple of summers, I’ve been to a couple of major RC (radio-controlled model) car racing events around Europe, so I’ve been doing a little extra travel as a side-job and reporting for a site called RCRacing.TV

Basically this entails taking pictures, talking to the top drivers at each event, doing various race reports and posting the reports and pictures online. Pretty geeky, yeah, and very few people realize how seriously many of these racers take their racing – most of them pay hundreds of (pounds, Euros, whatever) to drive or fly hundreds of (miles, kilometers) across the continent to race in front of very few spectators for no other glory than to try to do better than they did last year. Those that haven’t paid their way are there because there are companies that actually sponsor them (with money!) to do well and promote their products – the top guys are actually paid a salary to race toy cars for a living – and if the sponsored guys don’t do well, they know their sponsors might be tempted to look elsewhere when their contract is finished. So there’s a lot of pressure involved and it usually means some good racing.

This year I was asked to try to do race commentary, which, if you’ve watched motorsports before, consists of some guy who thinks he’s a know-it-all about the race and the drivers (‘some guy’ being me in this case) and babbling over the practice, qualifying heats and races. It was my first time doing it at the European Championships for electric buggy (there being two classes: 2WD and 4wD), then the following week I was scheduled to announce for the Championships for the much larger and cosmically faster 1/8th scale on-road class.

Here’s the race edit of just the fastest 10 guys (the A Final) in the 2WD electric buggy, with my commentary (the other voice you’ll hear is my friend and colleague during the trip, Mat):

Continue reading

What I’ve Been Doing – Episode 1

So, for the last year, the biggest new thing I’ve been doing is doing a lot of tabletop wargaming.

I used to do a bit of tabletop gaming before I left Texas but because I played with just a couple of friends it never grew into anything bigger. The game we played at the time was Heavy Gear, which hss a futuristic sci-fi setting and you move around small piloted robots kind of like Gundam or Robotech, but they are much smaller than the robots in those settings. I really enjoyed playing these games and it was just very casual with terrain (buildings, walls, etc.) made from old boxes and styrofoam packing materials. I still have all the models I built and painted from that time. Good stuff!

Last May or June one of the guys I play Dungeons & Dragons (and other tabletop roleplaying games) with said he started collected some of the newer Warhammer 40K models, so I checked them out and bought an army from a guy I work with. Fast forward a couple of months and my fellow D&D player, the guy from work and two more guys from work are playing regular games, every week or two, at mine, in the dining room. Fast forward a couple more months and I’ve got a second army, the original guy from work has a second army and we’re playing pretty much every week, sometimes a couple times a week!

So it’s been pretty busy on this front, which is why this is my first ‘episode’ of what I’ve been up to for the last year or so. So busy, in fact, that we’ve got a website that I maintain, plus a Youtube channel that has all of our latest tabletop battles. There’s also a big online photo album of most of my models I’ve painted up for my armies, and another online album of pictures taken during the battles (once we moved to video battle reports the flow of pictures has slowed down quite a bit).

To give you an idea of the painting I’ve been doing (which takes up a LOT more time than actually playing the games), here’s a few of my favorite models I’ve done:

Continue reading

Big catch-up!

Yeah it’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog, so I figured what the hell.

What prompted this is I caught up with a buddy I used to play tons of online games with, and getting him up to speed after about 10 years of no contact got me thinking I should update this sucker. Plus, I got in touch with another friend who I hadn’t talked with in several months, had a nice online chat and got caught up with him too.

So over the next little while I’ll be updating this here, so hopefully someone will read this and catch up.

Destroying the World

So here’s a couple of cool things, especially if you think the human race will be eliminated sometime this year…

First up is a simulation of what would happen if a rogue star happened to fly through the solar system: http://janus.astro.umd.edu/orbits/nbdy/rstar.html

You can change around the various numbers to see how close the star will come to the sun and Earth – just keep in mind the blue dot is the Earth! That we’re on. Just think of that when you see it whizzing off to destinations unknown…without a sun, without any daylight and with mass chaos everywhere.

For more fun and a bit more graphics bang, check out Universe Sandbox (http://universesandbox.com/), which lets you toss in asteroids, planets and more. You can even play around with scenarios like seeing how close that asteroid in 2010 came…which is very scary to watch!

So have a go at destroying humanity 🙂

So I’m getting a convertible

Since my first ride in a convertible (in high school, in a ’67 Mustang), I’ve always wanted one, but never really had the urge to really look for one or price one up. Now an opportunity has come up to get a FREE CAR, which happens to be a first-generation Mazda MX-5 (the one with the pop-up headlights), which is one car I’ve always thought would be really fun to own and drive.

It’s small, rear-wheel drive, perfectly balanced, convertible (for those few weeks every year that the British weather lets you enjoy top-down weather) and apart from some common but well-documented rust areas apparently it’s a solid car to drive.

With cheap storage costs it’ll be a decent deal, although insurance will be a bugger. Even though it’s free the end cost after it’s fixed up will probably be close to what I could get a good running car for: there’s no interior except for the dash and steering wheel, it hasn’t run in 2 years so it’ll need a new cambelt and maybe tires straight off, it needs an exhaust and the rust I mentioned will have to be cut away and replaced with new steel, then rustproofed and painted.

Luckily a workmate knows how to fix up cars and knows a few people locally who can deal with the welding and electronic stuff (to bypass/remove the faulty alarm), plus his son can do things like take the brakes off and clean them up to see if they’re OK, etc. So in effect I’m getting a new car and spreading the ‘payments’ over a month or two, then I pay the Vehicle Excise Duty (mistakenly called the ‘road tax’ by many British), get it on my insurance and take it to the MOT centre where it gets inspected to make sure it’s legally road-worthy. Once that’s done it’s top-down time, no matter what the weather is like 🙂

The first comment I got on Facebook after I said I’d be getting an MX-5 is that it’s a “hairdresser’s car”, which is what Brits call a “girl car”. Fair enough, it’s a small convertible but to be honest I don’t see many women driving an MX-5 around. It’s usually men, and men who know what a decently performing car is like. (Maybe it doesn’t help that the first person I knew who had one of these cars is a gay guy named Bart.) But then, most British folk call the Jeep Wranger a “hairdresser’s car” too…not something I would call off-roaders, hunters and rock crawlers, really, who are the only people I’ve seen drive Wranglers.

So the list of stuff to get for this car seems long, but I’m finding really cheap stuff (like a complete exhaust system for £30) because there’s a big market of MX-5 “breakers”, or people who buy old MX-5’s and take them apart to sell the parts. I can get whole doors, body panels, sets of wheels with tires, etc., it’s all about looking as much as possible and comparing prices.

Could I get a whole, running car cheaper? Maybe. But putting together (or, to be fair, helping to put together) a car that I can turn into a daily driver will be part of the joy of driving it.

And I fully intend to keep the White Lightning (the Saab 900S) – I’ll need it to carry all the parts I have to get!

As for a name for the MX-5? Not sure yet, but maybe “Marty” or “Max”, to keep with the M-theme.

How to watch the Star Wars movies: IV, V, II, III, VI

Great blog post from a full-on Star Wars geek about the best way to watch the Star Wars movies. Notice Episode I is ‘missing’. Here’s why: Red Letter Media’s 70-minute review of Episode I

Anyway, check out this blog post to see why this is the best and most entertaining way to watch the Star Wars saga, and read all the way to the end to read about a real test with someone who’d never watched the Star Wars movies before.

Yeah, been a while

I’ve been thinking about starting up another blog, based on geekdom, consisting of basically reposting and commenting on other articles online, which would cover these sorts of things: radio-control stuff (the industry I work in, basically) video/computer games computer stuff techie things political things like SOPA/PIPA, etc. that sort of thing I like reading and talking about this sort of thing, so that’s why I was thinking about doing another blog. Call it something like ‘geekgasm’ or ‘geektastic’ (the URLs of which are taken in nearly every form).

Then I thought about it some more and thought about what the end goal would be – monetizing? writing for another, bigger blog (like engadget, etc.)? what? Well monetizing is pointless for someone like me, because I don’t want to do the web SEO thing and try to write thought-provoking articles every day or two. And I already do enough writing in my day job and after hours that I don’t want to try to break into a whole new field, which will take loads of time and effort.

So I think I’ll just work on this blog here, get some writing done for my other blog http://frankthewriter.wordpress.com/ and work on expanding my thoughts that I put into Twitter messages into longer blog posts.

Sound alright?