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Andrew Pollock

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Monday, 11 February 2013

Final tally of states visited

As my time in the US is rapidly drawing to a close, I thought I should capture the final count of US states that I've visited in the 7 years I've been here. I didn't realise it's been so long since I last did this.

US states I've visited as of February 2013

22 states. Not too bad. I'd have liked to have visited Hawaii and Florida. Maybe in my next life.

Update: I omitted Illinois.

[08:28] [life/americania] [permalink]

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Four days in New Orleans

Sarah's Mum had accrued too much annual leave and had to take some time off work, so Sarah did some (very mild) arm twisting and convinced her to come over for 3 weeks, and do a 5 day cruise to Mexico out of New Orleans.

Unfortunately, my annual leave situation wasn't quite so abundant, and I had a lot going on at work, so regretfully I didn't join them on the cruise, and instead went to New Orleans for a four day weekend when they returned.

From all reports, the cruise was very good. Zoe handled it well, although she did say "home" a lot. One of the two stops in Mexico was to check out some Mayan ruins, which looked awesome from the photos. The other stop involved a dolphin encounter. I was incredibly envious of all that they got to do, and would have loved to have gone with them, as I've never been on a cruise ship either.

I can also report that no cats were lost during this bachelor stint.

I had a night flight on the Wednesday evening to get there, which was scheduled to get in at around midnight, and I'd booked a motel room near the airport for that night, and we'd booked a vacation rental home for Thursday to Sunday nights. Unfortunately, my flight ended being delayed something like 2.5 hours, so I didn't get into New Orleans until around 2am.

The house we rented did the trick nicely. It was a small "shotgun" duplex in what looked like a nice neighbourhood. It was advertised as being close to the street car line, but they were doing some work on the tracks, so the street car didn't seem to be running as far down the line as it usually did, so it ended up being a bit more of a trek to get to it. It was also extremely slow, and there was a marathon on the Sunday, which closed everything down for a long time, making it a generally pretty unreliable form the transport.

We ended up renting a car for Saturday and Sunday, which was something of a saga in itself, as Enterprise didn't have any cars at the location we'd booked one, so after a couple of hours cooling our heels there (Zoe was incredibly well-behaved, all things considered), they shuttled us over to another location and we ended up with a minivan instead of a compact, which for the same price, allayed our concerns about being able to transport all of our luggage to the airport on Monday morning.

We had a very early morning flight on Monday morning to come back, which got into SFO at around 9am, and I went directly to work from there.

Thursday

We all arrived at the house, separately. It ended up taking them 2 hours to disembark the ship when it came back into port, with Customs taking an eternity to process everyone. I think we went exploring the local area that afternoon, and took a street car into the city to check out Bourbon Street, having a Cajun dinner at Remoulade.

Friday

In the morning, we went to check out Lafayette Cemetery Number 2. Sarah took Zoe back to the house for a nap, and Sarah's Mum and I continued back to explore the French Quarter some more, walking down the length of Royal Street (which was vastly different from Bourbon Street, just one block over). We had lunch at the French Market. The cemetery was interesting, as pretty much all of the graves were these huge above ground tombs, that seemed to have multiple family members interred in them. Apparently the cemetery filled up quite quickly courtesy of a Yellow Fever outbreak.

After lunch, Sarah's Mum and I continued wandering around the French Quarter. We went and took a look at the Mississippi River, and I had an encounter with a grifter who was so good at his job I couldn't bring myself to argue with him over the $20 he diddled me out of.

We tried to get to the Civil War Museum, but it closed at 4pm. We looked at the Robert E. Lee Monument, which seemed to be draped in drunks, and then I think we rendezvoused with Sarah and Zoe back on Canal Street for dinner at The Court of Two Sisters (which apparently we were under-dressed for, as Sarah and her Mum said we were getting a lot of dirty looks from other patrons).

Saturday

On Saturday morning, we had the aforementioned car rental experience from hell, and by the time we had the car it was lunchtime, so Zoe napped in the car after lunch on the way out to Oak Alley Plantation, where we were introduced to the delightful beverage known as the mint julep, and took a tour of the house and wandered the grounds.

Sunday

On Sunday, Sarah and her Mum did a swamp tour, and Zoe and I went to the zoo. As I said earlier, there was a marathon that completely closed down Saint Charles Avenue, which is where the street cars run, so after walking down to where the street cars started operating (which ended up being most of the way down South Carrollton Avenue), the driver informed me that the street cars were queuing up at the corner of South Carrollton and Saint Charles, and I should get off her street car and get on the one at the front of the queue. I did this, but the driver of the front street car informed me that she wouldn't be leaving for an hour and half. At this point, I started considering a bus instead.

Zoe and I went to check out the Mississippi River, which was quite close to where we were, and then I went back, and despite a street car having left (without any passengers) the driver of the current street car couldn't tell me when she'd be leaving, so I started walking down Saint Charles Avenue.

Unfortunately, Zoe's going through a phase where she wants to be carried everywhere, so I was lugging her all over the place on my hip. Sarah didn't take a stroller with her, and instantly regretted it. Lesson learned.

Eventually we managed to get onto a bus, which dropped us off at Audubon Park, which had Audubon Zoo at the other end of it. There was a playground near the Saint Charles Avenue end of the park, so Zoe had a bit of a play on that, and then we continued through the park to the zoo.

Mercifully, the zoo had dodgy strollers for rent, and there was no way in the world I wasn't going to rent one of them, so that made getting around with Zoe a lot easier on my back. We had a really good time at the zoo. There was some sort of a music festival on in the parklands within the zoo grounds, and that included a jumping castle, which Zoe expressed a desire to have a go on. She had a fabulous time on it. I think she probably spent about 15 minutes in there, without any tears. I was very impressed. I took a brief video of some of her antics.

It was getting close to Zoe's nap time, and she was getting tired, but fortunately Sarah and her Mum were able to pick us up from the zoo after their swamp tour and Zoe got to nap back at the house.

Monday

We had a very early start. Unfortunately, our flight (with United) was a couple of days after United and Continental officially merged, and despite having checked in online, we had to queue up with everyone else (for an extended period of time) to drop off our checked luggage. Then there was a 45 minute line for security screening. We pulled the "toddler going to melt down" card and jumped to the head of the line, but Sarah's Mum had to wait. The flight ended up being delayed because people were stuck in the security line.

Overall impressions of New Orleans

Fabulous architecture. There were so many gorgeous houses on Saint Charles Avenue and the surrounding area. I'd have loved to do an architecture tour.

Crap (but cheap) public transport. $3 gets you a day pass. The street cars are cute, but slow and unpredictable. The drivers were remarkably unhelpful. The buses were okay.

Great food. Zoe seemed to have a liking for the spicy stuff. I gave her some fresh alligator jerky, and after some initial coughing and spluttering at the spiciness of it, she came back for more.

Post-Katrina recovery. We really only saw a very small part of the city, but there were still some houses with boarded up windows, and some vacant blocks where buildings had been demolished, but largely you'd not have been able to tell that large parts of the city had been underwater, from casual inspection.

I really enjoyed the trip, even though it was brief, I feel like I got a good feel for the place. We were there just after Mardi Gras, and there were still beads everywhere. Draped all over fences. Over power lines. Trees on the parade route were absolutely covered in beads. I'd have loved to have been there for Mardi Gras. My friend Brandon, who is an excellent street photographer, took some great photos that capture some of it.

Photos from Sarah's cruise and our time in New Orleans are here.

[21:30] [life/americania] [permalink]

Wednesday, 08 February 2012

On making parking easier

Paul Wayper writes about the merits of using toll transponders to pay for parking.

I can report that I'm able to use my FasTrak tag to pay for parking at San Francisco International Airport, and it does indeed rock.

I'm unaware of anywhere else accepting it as a form of payment though.

[22:21] [life/americania] [permalink]

Friday, 09 December 2011

Six years in the US

Late last month our six year anniversary of moving to the US quietly came and went. This also makes it six years with Google.

I think if you had have told me at the start of 2005, that I'd be ending the year off by starting a six year (and counting) stint in Silicon Valley, I wouldn't have believed you.

Six years is comfortably the longest I've spent in any one place since I moved out of home (the four years living at the Central Park Apartments was the longest I've spent in any one home, also).

Six years is also far and away the longest time I've stayed with one employer.

I wonder what life will be like in another six years' time?

[21:21] [life/americania] [permalink]

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Whirlwind visit to the Windy City

Our friend Susan was going to be in Chicago for a conference, and as we hadn't seen Chicago yet, and it was on the list of cities we wanted to visit, we made the semi-spur of the moment decision to have a three day weekend there last weekend.

We got the Virgin America red-eye flight from SFO, which left on Friday at around 5pm, and got into Chicago at around 11:30pm, local time. Zoe didn't do as well as she has previously, and didn't sleep very well on the flight over, despite us getting lucky and scoring an empty seat between us on an otherwise fairly full flight. I think she's getting too big to comfortably sleep in the Ergo baby carrier (or isn't keen on sleeping vertically any more).

We stayed at the Swissotel, because that was where Susan was staying (and was where her conference was) and nearby hotels seemed to be around the same price range. When we checked in, we let them talk us into an upgrade to a larger room, which had fantastic views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. Lake Michigan is just mind-bogglingly big. It's an inland sea.

What can I say? I was totally in love with Chicago. The weather while we were there was unbelievable. Clear skies. High 20's (Celsius). It was more humid than the Bay Area, but less humid than Brisbane.

The first thing we did on Saturday was go visit a friend of Sarah's who lived in Bryn Mawr. We took the "L" there. The elevated train was an interesting affair, and turned out to be less accessible than we'd been led to believe from some light research in advance. In fact, I found Chicago in general to be fairly wheelchair (and by extension, stroller) unfriendly. We had to lug Zoe's stroller up and down stairs quite a bit to get from the river level to where the hotel was. Zoe seemed to find it amusing, at least. Aside from that problem, the city seemed pretty flat.

I'm really glad that we got out of the city and into Bryn Mawr, because it was really great to see that aspect of Chicago life as well. Lovely, quiet, tree-lined streets with wide sidewalks. Beautiful buildings. Sarah's friend was fostering 8 kittens, so Zoe got to have a play with all of them, which she thought was pretty cool.

After we returned to the city, Sarah and I kicked back in Millennium Park while Zoe napped in the stroller. Saturday, being 9/10/11 in US date format, seemed to be particularly popular for weddings, and there were a lot of couples getting wedding photos taken in the park.

That night, we tried to have some deep dish pizza at Uno, the home of deep dish pizza, but the line was ridiculous. We subsequently learned about Due, and went there the following night. The pizza was good, and I found the crust to be slightly different from what we'd get at Patxi's.

We checked out the Navy Pier on both Sunday and Monday, taking Zoe to the Chicago Children's Museum both days (we got free entry thanks to our membership at the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose). We had grand plans of checking out the Shedd Aquarium, but it turned out that Monday was a "free for all Illinois residents" day, and the line at 11am was ridiculous, so we gave it a miss and took at water taxi back to Navy Pier. It was Zoe's first boat ride, and she enjoyed it. I got some unbelievably good photos of the city skyline from the boat.

Our flight out was at 7pm, so we took the train to Midway. I was very impressed that we could get all the way to the airport by train for the standard price. I love flat-rate fares.

I really love a city with good mass public transit. The only thing that detracted from this in Chicago was the accessibility issues. We explicitly went to the Orange Line Clarke/Lake station to go to Midway because it was listed as being wheelchair accessible, and we had a stroller and a suitcase. We ended up going up to the wrong platform, and getting across to the other side was a bit of a mission. We'd entered the station from the street level, took the elevator up, and then realised we were on the wrong side. We had to go back down the elevator to the level below the street, cross the street from underneath it, and then go back up the elevator on the other side. Aside from these sorts of shenanigans, the whole elevated train thing was pretty cool (but I wouldn't have wanted to have an apartment with the train line right outside my window). If only the cars had glass roofs, the Loop would have been a lot more scenic.

Overall, it'd be hard to say whether I liked Chicago or New York City better. I liked the clean, flat nature of Chicago, the architecture and the lower density of buildings, but I also really love New York just because it's New York, and has an awesome (probably equally stroller-unfriendly) subway system.

Photos from the trip are here.

[19:59] [life/americania] [permalink]

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

4th of July in the Grand Canyon

Our adventurous friends Eric and Katie had invited us to join them on a hike in the Grand Canyon over the 4th of July weekend. As this struck us as something we'd never have considered doing otherwise, we thought we'd accept their kind offer. We're so glad we did.

It was quite a bit of traveling just to get there. We flew out of San Jose on Thursday night, got into Las Vegas, rented a car, and then drove to Peach Springs, Arizona, where we stayed the night. We didn't get in at the Grand Canyon Caverns Inn until around midnight, and we had to get up again for a 5:00am departure (I think we actually got away by more like 5:30am), to drive to the Hualapai Hilltop, where the trail head was. Zoe handled all of this very well. She didn't end up falling asleep in the car until about 10:30pm I think, and dealt with the transfer out of the car at midnight very well and went back to sleep.

The drive to the Hualapai Hilltop, along Indian Road 18, took about an hour. We had to dodge a bit of livestock on the road. The road itself was sealed and of good quality. We remarked on the way back out that as soon as you left the Havasupai Reservation and entered the Hualapai Reservation that there was a distinct degradation in the quality of the road.

We parked at the Hilltop, and got ourselves organised, and commenced our descent by about 7:10am.

The first 1.5 miles was very steep. There were a bunch of switchbacks and there was a fair few people coming up the other way already. There were also a few mule trains coming in the opposite direction that we had to dodge. The mule trains have right of way, so we had to stop and get out of the way to let them pass. Zoe thought they were pretty cool because they invariably had a few dogs with them as well, and she thinks dogs are awesome.

The remaining 6.5 miles (it was an 8 mile/13 kilometre hike in total) were fairly easy. There was a lot of variety in terrain. Rocks, sand, dirt. It wasn't all in the sun, which was made it more comfortable. Heat wise, I think it was in the high 30's Celsius, with pretty much no humidity, so it didn't feel too uncomfortable.

Towards the end, as we got near the water, there was a distinct change in the canyon. There was more greenery, and we started hearing insects and seeing bird life. When we first saw the water, it was hard not to just jump in, it looked so inviting.

The total hiking time was about 4 hours 45 minutes, which included a reasonable stop to give Zoe some breakfast. We arrived in the village at around midday. Unfortunately the lodge wasn't ready for check ins until 1pm, so we had to twiddle our thumbs for a little bit.

Zoe handled the hike incredibly well. We used a Macpac Possum child carrier that Nigel had passed down to us, and she didn't complain the whole time. She even took a nap in it. We were very relieved that it wasn't a problem for her. Sarah carried her, and I carried everything else. (I'm so glad I didn't see the photo of how I looked until well afterwards). In hindsight we probably brought too much stuff, but we didn't really know what to expect down there, so we'd rather have too much than too little.

The village completely exceeded my expectations. I had this (silly) mental picture of it being just the lodge and not much else, but somewhere between 450 and 700 people live in the village. It had two general-type stores, a cafe that was pretty much like a fast food/takeaway place, an elementary school, and some sort of basic medical clinic. There was also a small general purpose community centre of some sort. The main store had pretty much everything you'd need in the food department. The cafe frequently ran out of various different things, but you weren't going to go hungry.

For the remainder of Friday, we just stayed put in the village and let Zoe stretch her legs. Eric and Katie and their kids explored the first set of falls down from the village, unofficially named Rock Falls.

On Saturday, we all hiked down to Havasu Falls. We met a couple of other families (amusingly both from the Bay Area) along the way, so we had some interesting conversations. I have no idea how long the hike was.

Havasu Falls was impressive. Quite tall and narrow at the top, and quite loud. Zoe was impressed. We took her for a bit of a swim in the pools in the bottom. We had lunch there, and then Zoe and Sarah stayed there (Zoe took a nap in the KinderKot (also courtesy of Nigel) in the shade by the falls, and I took the Macpac with a water bladder in it to refill it at the spring in the campground, which was further down stream, and to check out Mooney Falls with Eric and Katie (and their kids), which was further downstream again from the campground.

Mooney Falls was pretty insane. A lot taller than Havasu Falls, and a lot more treacherous to get to the bottom of. Parts of it were vertical. Chains and rickety ladders were involved. Caves were involved. I'm so glad I didn't have Zoe in the Macpac, because on multiple occasions, the top of it got bashed into rocks, so without having Sarah with me also to act as a guide, there's no way I could have safely descended with Zoe in the backpack. My favourite photo illustrating how crazy this was is this one that I took of Eric and Katie. This photo highlights some of the craziness involved to get down.

I pretty much got to the bottom, had a quick look around and left Eric and Katie to it, because I figured Zoe would have woken up by now, and was probably bored. Turned out I had all of the sunscreen with me as well. So I climbed back up, and trekked back to the campground, refilled at the spring, and headed back up to Havasu Falls.

After we reunited, we then hiked back up to the village, which to be honest, was the hardest bit of hiking we did. I was carrying Zoe in the Macpac, and it was hot, and it was mostly loose sand all the way. We were very glad to get back to the village.

Zoe started showing signs of coming down with a cold and a cough, so we decided to cut short our stay in the village and leave on Sunday instead of Monday. We'd been tossing up between getting a helicopter or horses out. We ended up opting for the helicopter after learning that the horses still took about 3.5 hours, and you basically had no control over the animal. We were dubious as to how Zoe would go being bounced around on the back of a horse for that long. The helicopter ride also took all of about 5 minutes.

The tribal members get first dibs on the helicopter, and there had been a death in the village, and I think a lot of people had come to the village for the viewing (the casket itself was flown out earlier on Sunday morning for a burial out of the village), so I suspect there was a higher number of tribal passengers than usual. We didn't get out until 2pm. Again, Zoe was incredibly good. She just hung out with us while we waiting for a flight out. There were plenty of dogs for her to be entertained by, and some other kids. She also took a pretty decent nap.

So we finally got out, and got back to our car, and then the heavens opened. It absolutely poured down with rain. Sarah was keen to check out Hoover Dam, so we decided to stay near Boulder City in Nevada, and got a suite in the Hacienda Hotel and Casino for cheap.

The next day was the Monday public holiday for Independence Day, and we were tossing up whether or not to take Zoe to a doctor to get her checked to see if she had bronchitis (we've been a bit gun-shy about bronchitis since the time she came down with it when we were in Australia). She ended up falling asleep in the car while we were hunting around for an Urgent Care facility that was open, so we decided to let her sleep and drove to Las Vegas.

After she woke up, we took her to see the flamingos at Flamingo and the lions at MGM Grand. Zoe absolutely loved all the lights, sights and sounds of Las Vegas.

In the afternoon, we took her to a doctor, and got the "first child, huh?" from the doctor (she didn't have bronchitis).

After that, we went and briefly checked out Hoover Dam (just walked half way across the bridge in front of it and walked across the dam itself).

The following day, we packed up and spent the morning on the Las Vegas strip again. This time we went to the Venetian (Zoe thought the gondolas were pretty cool) and then we flew out in the afternoon.

So it was a lovely little family vacation. We ended up spending about as much time in Las Vegas as we did in the Grand Canyon, but that was okay. I'd really like to go back to Supai again, but I'm not sure if the stars will align themselves appropriately. If we did, knowing what I know now, I'd take a lot less food and put all of the luggage on a horse, and just hike in with the minimum of stuff. I'd probably be game to hike out as well if the bulk of the luggage was on a horse.

Photos from the trip are here.

[21:19] [life/americania] [permalink]

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

TransLink to become Clipper

No sooner do I discover it, and TransLink up and renames itself to Clipper.

I wonder how much that exercise is going to cost? I'm also curious as to what they're going to do in terms of a new domain name.

Ah, marketing:

Why is the name being changed?

Now that the system is fully operational on five transit agencies - Muni, BART, AC Transit, Caltrain and Golden Gate Transit and Ferry - it is available to the majority of Bay Area transit riders. Giving the system a new name and logo helps make it more appealing to potential customers and also takes away any confusion with other local programs such as FasTrak, Fast Pass, as well as several other transportation programs around the world that are also named TransLink.

With Bay Area public transportation being woefully inadequate, I have to wonder if much of any adoption problems (which is what I presume they're trying to solve with this rebranding) are more a function of overall patronage?

[22:25] [life/americania] [permalink]

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

We've officially left our mark on the US

We received our US census form the other day. Sarah's already filled it out, but I wanted to look at it before we mailed it back, just out of curiosity.

I'm astounded at how incredibly basic it is. Literally all it asks is name, age, date of birth and race. It's somewhat laughable how you're either "white", or one of a bazillion other racial ethnicities. They don't seem to be interested that I'm Australian. Or if I were a white Samoan, for example.

I can only remember having filled out one Australian census since I moved out of home, which was the 2001 census. I missed the 2006 census since I was living in the US. The US census seems to be a 10 year affair, compared to Australia's 5 years.

"Census night" was always a big deal in Australia. You were supposed to fill out the form on that particular date, for whoever was in that particular dwelling. So you really didn't want to be out visiting friends that night.

The US census form claims to care about the state of affairs on April 1, but it also says to mail it back immediately. It seems to only care about "full-time residents", so the whole visitor problem doesn't seem to exist over here.

Wikipedia tells me that the 2006 Australia Census had 60 questions, all compulsory, except for the questions about religion. I'm still gobsmacked by how small an amount of data the US tries to collect. I just quickly reviewed the 2001 Australia Census form, and I'm rather amazed at how many questions it asked.

I remember there being a meme at the time of the 2001 census to put down "Jedi" as your religion, with the word on the street being that if enough people said that was their religion, it would become officially recognised as one.

[21:53] [life/americania] [permalink]

Friday, 08 January 2010

TransLink, the Bay Area's best kept public transportation secret?

We're not huge users of Caltrain, because frankly, it sucks. It's way slower than driving to San Francisco, and by the time you've paid for two return tickets, you might as well have driven and paid for parking.

That said, we do use it from time to time. One of the things I noticed when we first moved over here was this intriguing box on a pole, to the side of the normal ticket vending machine. It looked all battered and faded, kind of like a deprecated form of ticketing that had been phased out years ago. Except it looked too high-tech to be phased out.

Fast forward to four years later, and we're using Caltrain to get back from SFO after returning from Atlanta for Christmas, and there's this "Don't forget to tag off" TransLink poster inside the carriage. I'm now officially intrigued.

I did some browsing of their website on the journey home. How could this be? Hong Kong's MTR has the Octopus Card. London's Tube has the Oyster Card, and the Bay Area has TransLink? Why the hell isn't this thing being pimped out more? It's awesome! I mentioned it to a co-worker the other day, who's been in the Bay Area for 7 years, and he'd never heard of it.

So I signed up for it for myself and Sarah, and two cards promptly arrived. If you sign up with an autoload of $20 or more, there's no cost for cards at all.

So from now on, whenever we need to ride Caltrain (or BART or Muni, which are the public transport networks we're ever likely to use) we can just wave these cards at something and never have to worry about a ticket ever again. It's awesome. Apparently VTA is coming on board with it later this year, so that'll round things out nicely.

It sounds like it's been an epic implementation, starting back in 1999, and still rolling out ten years later. Better late than never.

The added bonus will be for our visitors. When they come, we can just give them these cards, and they won't have to deal with BART's utterly confusing (for casual riders) fare system.

One of my favourite things about Hong Kong was the MTR and the Octopus Card. Now we just need awesome mass transit for the Bay Area. Somehow, I think that's going to take even longer than TransLink.

[23:55] [life/americania] [permalink]

First encounter with the police

I was driving home from a late night at work recently, and I was almost home, when the car behind me lit up like a Christmas tree.

My immediate reaction was, "Oh crap, I'm tired and I wasn't paying attention to my speed". So I pulled over.

To my relief, it wasn't my speed that was the problem, my left-hand tail light was out. The officer was very nice about the whole thing, but he gave me a fix-it ticket.

He told me I had until I think some time in February to fix the problem, then I had to get a police officer to sign off that it had been fixed. I thought that was the end of it, and continued on my way home.

The other day, I got this official looking letter in the mail the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. My initial thought was, "ha, the fools have issued me a jury summons like they did for Sarah. Can't they tell I'm an alien? Nanoo Nanoo."

So I open the letter and start scanning it. It's a courtesy notice. The first actual sentences I run into start with "Failure to respond to this notice by the due date may result in your bail being increased...". Huh? Bail? What?

It turns out that there's a bit more to the fix-it ticket story. Not only do I have to get a police officer to sign off that I've had the tail light fixed, to avoid going to court, I have to pay a $25 "dismissal fee" (also known as California is broke and needs every dollar it can get).

Today was the first day that either of us have had any time to scratch ourselves, so we trekked off to Toyota. The guy yanked off the cover inside the boot, and was poking around to show us where to change the bulb, when lo and behold, it started working again. So it was just a loose connector. Dammit.

So now I have to track down a police officer. Preferably under the cover of darkness, as we've tinted the front windows of the Prius, which is apparently cause for another fix-it ticket. Although I'm struggling to find the wording that specifically says that.

[23:26] [life/americania] [permalink]

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Overheard at the library

The Mountain View Public Library is a really fantastic public library. A little while ago, they redid the check out system and switched to using RFID for everything. I can walk in check out books and walk out again without having to interact with anyone.

I put a hold request for a book recently via the library's website, and it came in a few days ago, and just popped down to pick it up. All of the books on hold for people are on a set of shelves in the "holds" section, with a bit of paper sticking out of them with your name on it.

I was ferreting around these shelves, trying to find the P's, when I overheard a woman remarking semi-shocked to her husband about the privacy implications. She commented to a librarian stocking shelves nearby about how she worked in library in Fort Lauderdale, and weren't they concerned about privacy and everyone seeing what these people were reading? The librarian said that she guessed not.

I must have low privacy standards (or I guess everyone else who puts holds on books in the library does as well) because I really can't see a problem with the way the holds are done.

It would be horribly inefficient to have to ask at the counter for my book (the holds section would have had easily a hundred books on the shelves). The bit of paper has my name on it. Granted, it has a fraction of my middle name, so it's a little more personally identifying than it perhaps needs to be, but either way, I don't consider it a terrible invasion of my privacy.

As it was, I was able to walk in, find my book, use a self-checkout machine and walk out again. For that convenience, I'm prepared to lose a little bit of privacy if someone wants to spend all day, every day, casing the holds section of the library just to try and figure out that I'm reading Good calories, bad calories

[14:56] [life/americania] [permalink]

Wednesday, 08 July 2009

On ZIP codes and states

I was just booking a flight and hotel accommodation for an upcoming work trip, and it occurred to me: why does everyone ask for the state and the ZIP code, when the state can be derived from the ZIP code?

For example, 94043. The first three digits fall within 900 to 961, so it's obviously in California.

It seems like such an annoying extra step to have to drop down a list and find your state. At least I'm in one close to the top.

I guess I could ask the same question about Australia. The state is similarly encoded in the post code.

Any system I ever have anything to do with in the future is not going to ask for the state.

[21:12] [life/americania] [permalink]

Saturday, 10 January 2009

The Story of Stuff

Sarah brought The Story of Stuff to my attention today. It's well worth 20 minutes of your time, irrespective of where you live.

[14:34] [life/americania] [permalink]

Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Civic Musical Road and Other Adventures

It's not a holiday without a road trip, especially with petrol prices being lower now than they were three years ago when we arrived here.

So we headed off on Christmas Day for San Simeon, with the general plan to tour Hearst Castle on Boxing Day (which isn't a public holiday in the US, but is a company holiday), and then head to Thousand Oaks, to visit a friend of Sarah's who also had heart surgery this year, and then head home.

We'd hatched this plan a few months ago, and afterwards, saw a news piece on the "Civic Musical Road", and when we discovered it wasn't too far from Thousand Oaks in the grand scheme of things, we decided to throw that on the itinerary as well.

I found a five-part "making of" documentary on YouTube, along with what I presume is the original commercial, and of course, we had to record the experience.

Making of, part 1

Making of, part 2

Making of, part 3

Making of, part 4

Making of, part 5

Presumably the final commercial

Our experience (on the relocated version)

[18:03] [life/americania] [permalink]

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Expedia class action

[22:47] [life/americania] [permalink]

Tuesday, 04 November 2008

On being a fly on the wall for the 2008 Presidential Election...

(or Taxation without Representation)

Wow, it's finally over, and best and right man won. I'm very excited and happy with the result.

It has been very interesting being able to observe the entire process from start to finish. All the primaries and caucuses, the protracted battle between Clinton and Obama in the Democratic primaries, the record breaking money Obama raised, the campaigning, the misinformation.

It'll be very interesting to see what the next four years brings. It's an exciting time to be living in America.

California is an interesting state. It has "ballot initiatives". Its constitution can (and has been) amended by essentially referendums whenever there's some other excuse for a vote. Anyone can propose a ballot initiative with sufficient backing by petition. Wikipedia has a good writeup of all of California's propositions. Probably the most controversial one this time around is Proposition 8, which seeks to essentially reverse the same-sex marriage right that the Californian Superior Court ruled on earlier this year.

This concept of ballot initiatives seems to trickle all the way down to the city level, where they're called Measures. San Francisco has some ridiculous number of them this time around. They use letters, and I think they go all the way to V. There's one to rename a sewage treatment plant after George W Bush, there's one to decriminalise prostitution. A co-worker who lives in San Francisco brought the official voter guide book to work with her today. It's about the size of a phone book and about 1.5 centimetres thick. I don't see how it's possible to make an informed decision on everything you're expected to vote on, when there's that much reading.

The observation I've made is that Americans seem to have an inherent distrust of their governments, so that's why so many bits of it are directly elected by the people. Judges are voted for, county sheriffs are voted for. You vote for your school board. It seems like very few positions of any power are appointed by someone.

Coming from Australia, where it's really the opposite, I'm not sure what I think is better. I think I like the simplicity of the Australian system. You vote for someone, and you essentially delegate power to and place trust in them.

[22:38] [life/americania] [permalink]

Thursday, 01 May 2008

Lock up the credit cards!

Sarah's favourite American city has an online store.

[11:43] [life/americania] [permalink]

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Four days in San Diego...

...is just not enough time to see the place properly.

I took Friday and Monday off, and Thursday night a week ago, Sarah and I flew down to San Diego for a bit of a "Yay, we've achieved normality" escape.

We'd intended to go to SeaWorld on Friday, vege out for two days, go to San Diego Zoo on Monday, then fly home on Monday night.

Well we did SeaWorld and the zoo as planned, but lazing around the pool never happened, we ended up running ourselves ragged exploring San Diego all day Saturday and Sunday instead.

We stayed at The Dana on Mission Bay, which we picked because it was the closest to SeaWorld. The accommodation was more like a motel than a hotel. There were numerous two-storey buildings across a fairly sprawling area. It had frontage onto what I presume was Mission Bay, and also had a Marina attached to it, so the outlook was quite nice. It also had free WiFi, so we could upload photos throughout the stay. The food offerings were pretty good, and reasonably priced as well.

SeaWorld was really good. It's been a long time since I've been to the Australian equivalent, but I don't remember it as being as interactive. San Diego's SeaWorld had a Bay Ray feeding area, where you could purchase food (small whole fish), and hand-feed the Bat Rays. That was pretty cool. It took a bit of a courage to leave your hand in the water, palm up, with something the size of sardine dangling between your fingers and let these huge rays literally swim right over your hand so they could suck the fish from between your fingers.

There was also a dolphin feeding area, where you could purchase some small fish again, and give the dolphins a pat on the head and then throw them a fish. I really love dolphins, and one day I'd like to be able to swim with them.

The main attraction of SeaWorld is the various shows that they do. I think we caught all of the different ones. The killer whales are just amazing. There were a few different programs where for an additional fee, you could swim with various animals. Dolphins and Beluga whales seemed to be the ones we noticed in particular.

There were a few oddities, though:

The park is owned by a beer company, so there was a part where you could go and get free samples. Two per person per day (I think on the honour system).

At least at the food outlet where we bought lunch (they don't allow you to bring in any food or drink from the outside "for the safety of the animals", so they have a nice monopoly on catering) every kid's meal came in a commemorative Shamu blue plastic lunch pail - whether you wanted it or not. There were two empty ones left on the table that Sarah and I sat down at. The lady cleaning up the tables asked us if we wanted them, and we said no, and she promptly chucked them out with the trash. This just struck me as a terrible waste. They obviously cost money and energy to produce, and they're just going to end up in landfill. They could have been washed and reused instead. I felt this was very hypocritical for a park that was trying to send people away with a message about conservation.

Other than this nitpick, I thought SeaWorld was really great. It was a good size, and it was doable in one day, in their normal opening hours. I guess it'd be a bit slower with kids. Photos from the day are here.

The next two days we spent exploring San Diego. The hotel was conveniently located on an MTS loop, which ran surprising frequently for a weekend (at least compared to public transit in the Bay Area), so we bought day passes on Saturday and Sunday and used it to get to the Old Town transit centre.

On Saturday we explored Old Town, which was a historic preservation of how San Diego looked "back in the day". In the afternoon, we also bought 48-hour tickets for the red double-decker "hop on, hop off" tour bus, and did one of the two loops that it offered.

The next day, we caught the loop in the opposite direction, and checked out Mission Beach, which was probably the best beach I've seen in California so far (although the water was still far too cold), saw some pretty cool alternative accommodation (possibly for next time), and did part of the other loop on the tour bus, getting off at the USS Midway. This massive retired aircraft carrier is permanently moored at San Diego, and for a fee, you can crawl all over most of it. It was very interesting, and gave a good insight into the life of a sailor. We blew a good 4 hours or so here, and ran out of time to see the entire thing (we didn't make it onto the "island" part of the ship, which we were a bit bummed about).

We then caught the trolley back to Old Town, and grabbed a beer at a pub that sold it by the yard glass and half yard glass. We opted for the half yard glass, since the full yard glass seemed a bit unwieldly, and we thought it looked like a hell of a lot of beer, but the half yard glass, whilst also looking like a lot of beer, was only about one and a half pints.

We then grabbed some dinner at one of the very authentic looking Mexican restaurants (they had women out the front, almost on the sidewalk making fresh tortillas on the spot) and headed back home. Photos from our exploration are here.

On the last day, we went to the San Diego Zoo (which every time I read the URL for, I read it as "Sandie go Zoo!").

This zoo is purportedly the best zoo in the country, but it really didn't blow my socks off. We seemed to have a really hard time navigating the place, and spent a lot of the day walking around in circles trying to find various exhibits. It's also in a bit of a valley, so the circles tended to be up and down hills, which was tiring. I really don't think we were very efficient at all in our coverage of the place.

The other thing that I personally found annoying was the cages. The wire was very close together, which made it really hard to take photos, because the camera would keep focusing on the wire, instead of what was behind it. I guess this is why God invented manual focus, but that made it very hard to photograph big cats stalking their cages. The photos we did manage to get are here.

Overall, we had a great time in San Diego, and it seems we didn't really scratch the surface. I'd like to go back again and see Balboa Park, the Gaslamp district, and I thought there were more naval vessels that you could look at, but I might be mistaken.

Definitely a very nice city.

[23:55] [life/americania] [permalink]

Tuesday, 04 March 2008

Viva la fortnight!

I'm slowly converting the team I work with to use the term fortnight. It's so much less ambiguous than "bi-weekly".

(Provoked by Dave Jones' post)

[20:33] [life/americania] [permalink]

Sunday, 02 March 2008

Australia to American translation #4

truckie
teamster

[16:37] [life/americania] [permalink]

Sunday, 06 January 2008

I only feel like I'm living in America when I watch commercial TV

MythTV's commercial skipping really spoils us, and we practically never watch anything live (we don't watch a lot of TV at all, really, more DVDs, thanks to Netflix), so we're totally insulated from all the commercials except when we're staying in a hotel, or, as is the case right now, having a stay in hospital.

It seems all of the commercials during the news programs are pharma-related. The majority are prescription drugs to "ask your doctor about", with the rest being health-related.

Today's exciting product I learned about was Might Putty (you can watch the ad on their site). I just wish I had something to use it for.

The other thing that piqued my curiosity was the Takara Patch. It sounds like a bit of a gimmick, but I've always liked gimmicks that look like they're doing something. The Biore Pore Strips for example. I'll have to do some more research.

[20:23] [life/americania] [permalink]

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Thanksgiving below zero

We got home from our week in Arizona late last night. We decided to drive non-stop yesterday, and get home in a day, rather than split it over two days like we did getting there. It ended up taking around 15 hours (we had an unexpected delay at Lost Hills because we found a stray dog (we initially thought it to be injured to boot) and Sarah was trying to get hold of some local animal control people to do something about it), otherwise it'd have taken closer to 14 hours.

The drive to Phoenix was pretty uneventful. We took our time leaving Mountain View on Sunday (we had an early Thanksgiving dinner with all of our neighbours on Saturday night), and decided to call it a night at Cabazon. For about the same price that we stayed in a crappy motel last time we went this way, we stayed at the Morongo Casino, which was really nice. We were in a "Canyon View" room, and, well this is what the view looked like...

We arrived at Craig and Sarah's place at about 5pm on Monday afternoon. Their new place is really nice. It's huge, with a huge yard, and a nice view of the hills. I've found suburban Phoenix (well Peoria to be precise) to be the closest looking thing to what I consider "normal Australian suburbia" that I've seen so far in the US. Granted, Peoria's a bit upmarket (at least the part that Craig and Sarah live in).

So we spent a day and a half vegging out at Craig and Sarah's place, then on Wednesday afternoon, we headed off to Woods Canyon Lake, in the Sitgreaves National Forests. I rode most of the way with Craig in their new motor home, and then swapped to drive our car after we got close to our destination. It turns out that the headlights in RVs are universally crap, so it was better for the Prius to be out front lighting the way on the gravel road.

I'd always associated Arizona with cacti and sand, but as it turns out, the majority of the state is forest. We arrived at the campsite after nightfall, and set up shop. We met some of Craig and Sarah's friends that night, who were all very friendly towards us. It was ridiculously cold that night. We went to bed rather under-dressed for the temperature, and absolutely froze.

The next day (Thursday), we all drove from the campsite (Craig towed their Jeep behind the RV) to Woods Canyon Lake itself, and went fishing. Arizona fishing licences for non-Arizona residents were a bit on the expensive side, so Sarah and I just hung out on the rocks and chatted to people and took photos. The collective haul of trout from about 5 hours fishing was pretty impressive.

I'm not quite sure why, but Friday was the group Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone pitched in, and cooked up a storm. They deep-fried three turkeys (which came out very nice and looking much less like KFC than I expected), and we had way more food than we needed. We all ate outdoors at around 3:30pm, and it was about 33°F (0.55°C). The only downside of this (aside from it being bloody cold) was the leftovers went cold almost instantly, so going back for seconds was a bit of a disappointment. Everyone gravitated back to the fire pretty quickly afterwards. It got pretty cold that night. I think it was down around -4°C when we went to bed that night.

We left a bit before 8am the next morning, and the car thought it was -7°C outside. One of the other campers told Sarah his thermometer was reading something closer to -14°C. I'm not sure how cold it was when we were in New York in January, but I didn't think it was that cold.

It was a good week away. The mix of camping and not camping was about just right. Now it's back to work for two weeks before we head off to Australia.

Photos from the trip are here.

[22:55] [life/americania] [permalink]

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Two years in the US

So as it turns out, two years ago today, was when I arrived in the US with the intent of staying here for a bit.

Aside from recent developments, it's been a good couple of years. We're both pretty settled, have made plenty of wonderful friends, and seen a bit (not as much as we'd like) of the country. Sarah would have liked to have had a better time with employment, but it's not like she's been sitting around at home climbing the walls in her unemployment, either.

We keep talking about "when we move back", but I'm personally in no huge rush. I also don't have any strong desire to do anything relating to putting down roots over here. Buying a place just feels extremely unfeasible, and we can't really stay forever on the visa type I'm on, and I can't really see myself ever qualifying for a H-1B.

[17:37] [life/americania] [permalink]

Monday, 12 November 2007

Trip to Boston (well Cambridge really)

The week before last I spent in Cambridge. I didn't really see a lot of the place (although we ventured out on the T to have dinner in Boston a few times).

I quite liked what I saw of the place though. I like any city with half-decent mass-transit. I think ever since I saw the MTR in Hong Kong I've really liked big subway systems. Ones that run so often you don't need to have a timetable.

What I saw of Boston felt like New York without quite the same size and pace, which made it feel slightly less intense. I'd go visit again.

[21:35] [life/americania] [permalink]

Wednesday, 07 November 2007

"As keen as mustard"

Daniel observes that the simile "as keen as mustard" isn't grokked by Americans, and had some trouble explaining the etymology of it.

As far as I understand it, it derives from a brand of mustard, known as Keen's.

Keen's mustard

[08:07] [life/americania] [permalink]

Friday, 20 April 2007

On the right to bear arms

Steven's blog post reminded me that I had to make a note about the two email responses I received to my own.

I received one email from Pro Guns Person A quite quickly after my blog post went up. He was quite civil, and had things to say such as:

The truth is, if a few good citizens were armed and nearby, they would have had a chance to stop the killer before he could do any more harm.

and went on to say how if a person really wanted to, they'd break laws to get guns, so gun control doesn't achieve anything, except leaving the good guys unable to defend themselves.

Sure, they'd break laws to get guns. You can't stop them if they really want to, but you can make it harder. And you have to make it harder universally. It's no good if one state cracks right down, if people can just pop over to the next state and pick up a firearm instead. I agree with Steven. Leave the gun toting to the people trained in their use (i.e. law enforcement).

Frankly, it disturbs me that "defending yourself" equates to being able to shoot the attacker. I think it's Texas where you can legally shoot trespassers. Scary stuff.

Pro Guns Person A went on to say:

To close, again without intending offense, please do not call for gun control if you aren't even a citizen of this country. The real problem is the societal issues that drive people to do these things. The truth is, fifty years ago in this country, people could leave loaded guns in their unlocked cars, even in high school parking lots...and nothing like this ever happened. But now, even though we have far more restrictive gun laws, things like this do happen, because of the societal problems.

I have the right to express my opinion, irrespective of my citizenship, as do you, Mr Pro Guns Person A. You don't have to like my opinion, just as I don't have to like yours, but I respect your right to have your opinion. No offense taken, either. You were very polite in putting across your point, I appreciate it. (By the way, I agree. Society's gone to pot.)

Pro Guns Person B's email was along a similar theme: the bad people will always get their mitts on a gun, and the good people won't be able to defend themselves.

Think about these figures (I'll write about the US, since that's the nation you wrote about now): In the state of Arizona the gun per person ratio is 2,5 (on average 2,5 guns owned by 1 person, and these are the legally purchased ones). In the state of New York there is an official prohibition on guns. So why is it that New York has the higher armed crime rate among those two? (and one of the highest across the country)

I don't think reverting the entire US to a "wild wild west" scenario is really going to help matters at all.

Sarah was saying that she'd found some statistic somewhere, probably saying something like what this page is saying. Now this was done at a Federal level, so that's why it worked, whereas anything done piecemeal, is going to cause a situation like what Pro Gun Person B was describing in his email.

[21:59] [life/americania] [permalink]

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Short-stay furnished apartments in New York

One for the note-to-self file.

Years ago on Getaway, I remember seeing a story that mentioned New York had companies that offered short-term rentals of furnished apartments as potentially more economical alternative to hotel accommodation. After a bit of concerted searching with Google, I've come up with Abode as one such company.

[18:16] [life/americania] [permalink]

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Happy pi day!

pi day is an American phenomenon that we who don't write March 14 as 3/14 (or more appropriately for today, 3.14) just don't get to experience.

Much pie seems to be consumed. I wonder if July 22 could serve as an alternative?

[22:04] [life/americania] [permalink]

Sunday, 19 November 2006

The cultural acclimatisation continues

One of Sarah's co-workers at VMware invited us to a "no so very thanksgiving" Thanksgiving dinner/shindig at her house this weekend.

One of the other co-workers had a relative with a liquor store that had some surplus kegs of beer, so there was a keg there as well.

Turns out from conversation that one of the things that happens in College (or maybe it's a Frat-house thing) is the keg stand. This involves one doing a handstand on top of the beer keg, whilst two other people hold you up there, and third person shoves the hose in your mouth and you drink until beer comes out of your ears or something. Mmm, hygienic.

Anyway, somehow it was decided that that had to be done, and the key who brought the keg was only going to do it if someone else would do it, so I volunteered, to see what all the fuss was about.

It wasn't terribly eventful. No beer came out of my nose. I don't think I got exceptionally pissed from it, either. I think it's got mythical status for rapid intoxication like drinking through a straw supposedly has.

So now I know what a keg stand is, first hand.

Everyone was very polite at the party. We couldn't stand around for very long without other people introducing themselves to us. It was nice. Turns out it's a small world, and we met Carol, who knew Kate, the receptionist in my building at work.

[23:36] [life/americania] [permalink]

Sunday, 22 October 2006

Egad. They've banned Vegemite!

Apparently I should be outraged.

Reasons I'm not: I have an enormous stash from when we moved over here, and the micro-kitchens at work don't have bread, so Vegemite on toast isn't part of my breakfast regimen any more.

We have bagels every other Friday, but I found them too heavy, so haven't bothered with Vegemite for a long time.

But seriously, WTF?

[22:48] [life/americania] [permalink]

Saturday, 07 October 2006

Finally licensed

Huzzah!

That only took seven months.

I think leaving the country and coming back and restarting the process helped.

After I went back to Australia for SAGE-AU'2006, I had to get a new I-94 when I came back into the United States, and as the I-94 number is what the DMV was verifying my legal presence with the INS for ever and ever, I had to go back and get them to start again with the new I-94 number.

Seven weeks and one day later, my licence arrived in the mail. This concluded my bootstrapping - I have every bit of Government issued ID I need.

I think starting over was what helped. I asked a lot of questions as to how the whole "verifying my legal presence" worked. It seems they photocopy my passport, visa, and I-94 and mail it all off to the INS with a request that they sit on it for as long as possible. It wouldn't surprise me if it gets lost in the mail and/or they have no tracking for it, so requests can just disappear off into the ether.

[00:41] [life/americania] [permalink]

Sunday, 01 October 2006

Would a pain killer by another name kill pain as well?

I don't get sick very often, so I'm not a big consumer of off-the-shelf drugs. I had noticed that Panadol equivalents (i.e. pain killers containing paracetamol) didn't seem to exist in the US, until Sarah said that Tylenol's active ingredient (acetaminophen) was what they call paracetamol in the US. Sure enough, Wikipedia confirmed this.

It's funny how the same thing can have different names depending on what country you're in.

Paracetamol is certainly a damn sight easier to pronounce than acetaminophen.

[13:06] [life/americania] [permalink]

Saturday, 09 September 2006

Got to meet the Governator

One of our neighbours, Carol (the one who adopted Cleo, the mother of the litter of kittens we temporarily fostered a while ago), is a mad keen volunteer for the Republican Party (at the state level).

I think Sarah mentioned I was interested in having a political discussion with her some time, so she invited us to come to a rally in Saratoga today and gave us free tickets (normally you'd have to pay at least $25 per person to do what we did).

So we went along to check it out. It started about 45 minutes late, and we'd arrived 30 minutes early. It was in a high-school auditorium that held about 400 people by our guestimations.

While we were waiting, it was interesting to do a bit of people-watching. The vast majority were Caucasian, and either young or elderly, not a lot in between. Those that were had children there as well. A few conversation snippets I overheard were people seeming to justify their opinions with themselves and each other, which was interesting.

First up was some sort of attempt at crowd warming for a couple of minutes, then I think it was the state leader of the Republican Party who had a few words, then Arnold himself came on.

He gave a pretty good spiel about how he'd unfucked the state since he took office, and how he needed to be returned for another 4 years, and rattled off a list of his accomplishments and what more he wanted to do. It was good to hear him talk about the environment, although in the next breath he went on to talk about "rebuilding California" and how there'd be cranes and concrete everywhere, with new roads and tunnels and whatnot, so you've got to wonder a little bit...

In the same vein, he went on about not raising taxes or increasing spending, yet had this whole "rebuilding California" thing going on. His speech was generally fairly light-on details and more of a rousing the party faithful, than a "vote for me", I think.

He wrapped up with an "I'll be back" and proceeded to throw some campaign swag into the audience, then came down off the stage to kiss hands and shake babies.

I got to shake his hand, so that was the highlight of the whole outing.

I certainly walked away from the rally thinking fairly highly of him as a candidate, even if he is a Republican. I'd be inclined to vote for him if I was entitled to.

For the sake of hearing both sides, I'd like to go and hear what Phil Angelides has to say for himself as well.

Some photos from the rally are here and a little bit of video is here.

[15:36] [life/americania] [permalink]

Saturday, 24 June 2006

I am finally a card-carrying, socially-secure alien

The other exciting thing that happened on Thursday is my Social Security card arrived. It's only taken me something like 7 months. Mind you, it's around 4 weeks since I applied for it the second time, so if it only took that long for Social Security to get their blasted secondary verification from the Department of Immigration, I'd love to know why I'm soon going to need my third temporary 120-day drivers licence from the DMV...

[00:55] [life/americania] [permalink]

Saturday, 20 May 2006

Time flies when you're having fun

Half a year ago yesterday, I stepped off a plane in the United States.

It's been an eventful 6 months, as can be seen from reviewing my blog, and I thought I'd summarise the top 10 things I like and dislike about living in this country as opposed to Australia.

Ten things I like about living in California:

  1. Plenty of sunshine

    Love the sunshine. It was a bit wet in winter and early spring, but I'm told that it should be pretty much rain (and cloud) free for the rest of the year. Daylight saving also helps make enjoying the copious amounts of sunshine easier, it doesn't get dark until well after 8pm.

  2. The public transport options, particularly in San Francisco are vast

    Particularly in San Francisco, your options for getting around the city are huge. You've got the BART, the Muni (which covers about three distinct forms of public transport in itself), and the VTA overhead electric and petrol powered buses. Elsewhere in the Bay Area, you've got the Caltrain, and VTA light rail and buses.

  3. Petrol pumps

    You need never darken the door of a petrol station. Everywhere has pay at the pump (with plastic of course), and the pumps all have the automatic latch, so you don't even need to stand at the side of the car holding the handle while it fills up.

  4. Free parking

    This was a big change, coming from Canberra, which has a love affair with pay and display parking. Even the multi-storey and underground carparks in the downtown areas are free.

  5. Pedestrian crossings that countdown

    No excuse to get skittled because you thought you could make it in time. You known exactly how long you've got before you'll get mowed down before you step off the side of the road.

  6. The postal system

    Saturday delivery. Every mailbox is an outgoing mailbox (just put the little flag up).

  7. Right turns on red

    This is a real time saver. I can't see why Australia couldn't adopt this for left turns. The only downside is you can spend so much time looking to your left for a break in the traffic to dart out in, that you miss your green arrow (but that's what the guy behind you and his horn is for).

  8. Corporately run rental apartment complexes

    Instead of having an apartment complex where individual landlords own each apartment, the entire complex (and they tend to be larger) is owned by a mega-corporation that employs half a dozen people to maintain it and run it as a business. The upside is they tend to have better facilities, an onsite office (great for receipting packages delivered during the week), onsite maintenance (some places even have a service-level agreement). This offers some economies of scale that you wouldn't otherwise have.

  9. At least the perception of a low cost of living

    I haven't done the sums, and it's probably partially because the bills come monthly instead of quarterly, but all the utility bills seem fairly low and reasonable. Dollar for dollar, petrol is also cheaper, even though it's jumped a dollar a gallon in the time we've been here.

Of course, one must take a balanced look at these things...

Ten things I don't like about living in the United States:

  1. The currency

    Not a big fan of the notes. I miss the one and two dollar coins, and the distinctiveness between each denomination. I figure that vending machines over here must be so much more expensive because they have to have a note reader, and even then, the treasury decides to produce some new oddball note that half of the readers don't recognise... I blame tipping. If there were no tipping, the utility of one dollar bills would diminish enormously.

  2. The government bureaucracy

    As my blog records, I haven't exactly had a smooth run with the system over here...

  3. The banking system

    The banking system in general is woeful by comparison. The cheque (or check) still reigns supreme, whereas it's nearly obsolete in Australia. There's no such animal as BPay (and oh how I miss it). In fact, the equivalent system here often involves the bank cutting a cheque on your behalf and mailing it to the biller. How ridiculously antediluvian is that? Oh, and I miss vaguely decently authenticated electronic payments. I've been at cafes were I've paid by credit card, and haven't even had to provide a signature. Given that the credit card is actually a debit card, it's pretty disturbing how easily someone can clean out your bank account.

  4. Ex-tax pricing

    I'm so glad that when they introduced the GST in Australia, they required by law that all prices include it. Most prices here don't, but the occasional food outlet does (like Subway for example), so it's sufficiently confusing that you can't budget for how much you're going to actually fork out.

  5. ATM fees

    The ATM fees are more in your face. Instead of the bank charging you a fee at the end of the month for every transaction conducted at an ATM that isn't theirs, the ATM itself tacks on an extra amount to the withdrawal and effectively skims the money. I've seen fees as high as $5 a transaction, but $2 is fairly common. It's kind of weird seeing an ATM withdrawal of $42 on your bank statement... So having a bank account that doesn't charge you feeds for non-bank ATM withdrawals is all well and good, but it doesn't stop the ATM from charging you.

  6. Inaudible pedestrian crossings

    Oh, the number of times I haven't been paying attention and missed the walk light at a pedestrian crossing... In some places, they do make noises like birds, or talk to you when you can walk, but they're definitely not the norm.

  7. The road surface

    For the highways, they seem to have gone for quantity and not quality, or they're too busy to take offline to resurface. Either way, the road surface quality is pretty poor.

  8. Sugar

    Everything is loaded with sugar. Absolutely everything.

  9. Alcohol labelling

    Light beer is low calorie, not low alcohol. I miss Australia's concept of "standard drinks". Makes it very hard to drink and drive responsibly.

[23:25] [life/americania] [permalink]

Saturday, 13 May 2006

Copha == shortening

[17:15] [life/americania] [permalink]

Friday, 12 May 2006

Finally, Sarah can work

It's been 5 and a half months, but after another E3D visa holder got her work permit in only a month, we figured it was time to stop waiting patiently.

We went to the USCIS office in San Jose this morning to politely go "what the fuck?", and to my amazement, they didn't hesitate in issuing Sarah with an 8 month work permit on the spot. Apparently the full-blown one will come when its good and ready, but in the meantime, she's all good to go. Well, she can go try to get a Social Security number in 10 working days and see what happens...

While we were in the vicinity, we also went to the San Jose Social Security office, so I could have another go at applying for a Social Security card, after what happened last time.

Again, we waited for an hour, only to be told that no, they didn't keep my immigration verification on record, and I wasn't showing up appropriately on their computer system, so they'd need to re-request verification of my status from Immigration anyway. Argh!

Apparently this happens to other people, not just me, so it seems to be luck of the draw as to whether your vital statistics actually propagate through all the various Government systems or not.

So $DEITY only knows when or if I'll receive my Social Security card. At least I'm not sweating on it to get paid or anything.

[23:03] [life/americania] [permalink]

Wednesday, 03 May 2006

Still no licence

So about a month ago, I discovered that my driver's licence was stuck in bureaucratic hell.

Well the temporary piece of paper licence was due to expire on May 10, and so I called up the DMV again yesterday, and was told it was still pending. So I made an appointment to renew it.

Today, coincidentally, I received a brand new 120 day temporary piece of paper licence in the mail, with a note attached:

Your application for a California driver license cannot be completed. California law (Vehicle Code Section 12801.5) prohibits the issuance of a driver license until your legal presence, as authorized under federal law, has been verified. This information has not been received from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

...

Your application will remain valid for 12 months from the date you applied for your driver license. Your license will be issued and mailed to you as soon as the information is received from INS. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you.

The process inconsistencies are incredible. I know of two other E-3 visa holders that have received their proper licences without significant delay. I seem to be cursed.

[22:12] [life/americania] [permalink]

Friday, 14 April 2006

Taking separation of Church and State to new levels of silliness

It's always surprised me how for such a supposedly puritanical country, America seems very wrapped up in political correctness when it comes to observing holidays (gee, what's the derivation of that word?) based on Christian events.

It's not "Merry Christmas", it's "Happy Holidays". There's no public holidays for Easter, for example. They get right into Halloween, which is a very pagan event.

Today I tried to call a utility company, and got a recorded message, and it turns out that some employers to give their employees Good Friday off. They just call it the "Spring Holiday".

[22:40] [life/americania] [permalink]

Tuesday, 04 April 2006

The US Government bureaucracy strikes again

It's been more than the six weeks since I passed my driving test, and I still haven't received my real licence in the mail. This is despite the fact that Sarah received hers a couple of weeks ago, and she only did her test less than a week before me.

So today I actually had the presence of mind to ring up the DMV and ask what was going on. Turns out I'm waiting for the dreaded secondary verification with the Department of Immigration. God bless that institution of central delays.

The DMV gave me another number to call, which when I finally got through turned out to be somewhere else within the DMV, and they told me pretty much the same thing, and that it took at least four months for Immigration to get back to them and I shouldn't expect anything until at least May. But my licence might come before that. Whatever the hell that means...

So I continue to wait. The temporary licence expires on May 4 or something...

[23:05] [life/americania] [permalink]