Sunday, October 31, 2004


So, as comments below suggest, I got an XBox as a leaving present from work; I've been playing Halo compulsively all week; and this morning I finished it.

What do I do now? Halo 2 isn't out for another week yet!

Start playing again on Heroic, I suspect. But it's time for a new game too; suggestions?

In related news, I was amused yesterday to spot a series of Halo novels. I wonder if they run something like this:

Chapter 3: Truth And Reconciliation

Forward. Forward. Left. Fire. Fire. Fire. Reload. Fire. Swap weapon. Fire. Sidestep right. Grenade. Ow! Back. Back. Pick up health.

Oh yeah

Went to Frys Electronics to rebuy the PC bits we left behind.

As ever, it was somewhat of a disappointment. Huge geek Mecca, yeah yeah yeah, but in practice it's hard to find what you want on display; and harder still to find the package corresponding to what's on display.

So, no speakers (they're on their way from Amazon instead) and no printer (the new Samsung lasers are butt-ugly; more research needed) but we did settle on a monitor.

And oh boy, he's a beauty.

Thursday, October 28, 2004


It can take up to 3 weeks for my SSN to arrive.

Until it does, I'm a non-person as far as much of the USA is concerned. In particular, I cannot open a bank account and I cannot apply for a drivers license. And without those, I can't really do much at all.

Melinda's going to take the lead on these; I'll have to be added to the checking account and take my driving test later.

On the upside, though, I have my library card — which gets me internet access (albeit limited to 60 minutes a day) as well as just books and videos...

And we're there

Travel and immigration is done: I am now officially resident in the USA.

The flights themselves were OK — even on a regular holiday the outward leg always seems to go much faster because of the anticipation, and it's all the more so when it's a one-way trip.

The Embassy had recommended allowing plenty of time to process the paperwork on entry to the USA, so we'd booked flights which gave us a 4-and-a-half hour stopover in Houston. (Why Houston? I'd wondered about that too, but it became apparent when we arrived: it's Continental's home city and their biggest hub.)

As it turned out, though, Immigration only took 30 minutes — and most of that we got for free because the plane landed early. And I got to see what was inside the mysterious sealed envelope: a disappointment, that's what. Mostly the same forms and photocopies that I'd given them in the first place.

We were taken off into a side room; I was fingerprinted yet again and gave two more signatures; the Immigration officer spend a long time tapping away on his computer and filling in forms; and soon enough I was called up, handed back my passport, and welcomed to the US. I now have a stamp which validates my visa and turns it into a temporary green card; the real one arrives in the post sometime in the next 9 months or so.

I can live here; I can work here; I can leave and re-enter; I am a free man. Although, as he was very careful to warn me, I am not a citizen: "do not try to vote in the election, if you do it's a deportable offence".

This is it: this is what we've worked towards for the last 7 months. It's a huge relief getting here.

But it's also scary as hell. Until now we've both been unable to see beyond this point; it's so significant a goal that we've been unable to focus beyond it. All our energy so far has gone into settling our affairs in the UK and moving us, and our stuff, to the US. But now that's done, the rest of the road opens out in front of us; we have to establish a life in the US.

There is still so much to do.

Oh, and the X-Ray? They didn't want to see it; I'm keeping it as a souvenir.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

And we're off

We fly at mid-day tomorrow. So long.

Net access is going to be sporadic for a while. More later.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Snots, two different ones

TV Licencing: if you ring them and need to talk to them in person -- and if you want to cancel a licence and get a refund on the unused months, you have to; their website doesn't cover this case -- and they're busy, they don't put you in a queue. Oh no. They hang up on you.

How rude. "Our time is more valuable than yours; but feel free to try your luck again later."

Grumpy old men would do well to remember that before the torture of music on hold, there was the tyranny of the engaged tone.

Airlines: if you need to buy a one-way ticket, they feel quite free to bend you over the barrel for it. They're never cheaper than returns. And you never get the same choice of routes. Direct returns are relatively cheap; but if you want to fly one-way, you'll have to pay either 50% more for an indirect flight, or 250% more for a one-way seat on the direct flight.

A 4-and-a-half hour stopover in Houston, TX it is then. Hopefully that's long enough for DHS to do all they need or want to do with me...

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Culling, selling, shipping, rebuying

We're travelling to the States with: the clothes we stand in. Two suitcases each, mostly containing clothes. The PC, keyboard, and mouse on my back in its backpack. Our vital documents.

Shipping separately are: the most valued books. The 400-odd CDs which survived the cut. The rest of the paperwork. And anything else we can't bear to part with. (I'm lobbying hard for my kitchen knives, but there's a question-mark still over whether they're allowed even in air freight.)

And that's all.

Everything else we own either has gone or is going. Some has been sold; a lot has gone to charity; some things will find new homes with friends or family; and an awful lot has gone, or is going, to the tip.

It has been a very liberating experience. I'm fond of Sturgeon's Law: "90% of everything is crud". Well, it seems to apply to possessions too: a large proportion of what we own is unnecessary. We've been through cycles of culling, and haven't really missed anything that's gone. If you haven't used it in a year, you probably don't need it. It's also left us both feeling rather ambivalent about acquiring new possessions in the US: how much stuff, really, do we need?

(I still lust enormously after an iPod Mini, though.)

We've sold books and CDs on Amazon Marketplace, an experience which has been almost entirely positive: it cost some time in packaging and shipping, but the proceeds pretty much paid for the visa.

I think Marketplace is an absolute stroke of genius on Amazon's part: used bookselling with all the convenience of their existing catalogue and payment-processing infrastructure, but none of the bother of carrying inventory or shipping product. Get the seller to do it and take a slice of the transaction.

CDs in particular are ideal for Marketplace sellers: they're durable; small and light; and of relatively high value for their weight. Amazon offer fixed postage allowances for books and CDs, which can be either good or bad for book sellers: on light books you can turn a profit on the postage allowance alone, which is why you often see used Penguins selling at 1p each; on heavy books you risk losing your profit in postage. CDs are more consistent in weight, and Amazon's postage allowance is generous; buy cheap packaging in bulk and ship second-class but immediately and you can keep your buyers happy and make good profit.

Shipping is tricky: Royal Mail no longer do cheap surface mail on packages of any significant size, and the courier services (Parcelforce and the like) tend to be pricy on heavy boxes. Better to use a specialist shipper, and it turns out that for reasonably small quantities air freight is both faster and cheaper than sea. We're using Excess Baggage, who have yet to prove themselves; a bit of confusion over quantities and dates, but they should be dropping off empty boxes on Friday and picking up full boxes next Tuesday.

And finally, there's a category of things which simply cost more to ship than they're worth: the PC's 19" monitor is beautiful, but enormously bulky and heavy and cost under £200 new. Similarly, I've been very happy with the laser printer — an office-grade Samsung — but it's big and heavy and obsolete and consumer lasers cost £50 now. These we're disposing of here and rebuying new equivalents when we arrive.


I wrote my first ever resignation letter yesterday. A strange moment and a hard letter to compose.

Although I've worked for three employers and six owners over the past nine-and-a-half years, by the miracles of TUPE it's all been, legally speaking, one continuous employment.

I shall miss it; and more than anything, I shall miss the people I worked with.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Movie roundup

Collateral: meh. Not quite as good or as smart as it thinks it is.

I quite liked Tom Cruise playing the bad guy for once, rather than the clean-cut hero; and I quite liked Tom Cruise playing his age ("silver fox", as the Guardian Weekend put it) rather than being forever spookily stuck in late-20s roles.

I liked the use of Los Angeles as the location; not the glossy LA that gets so lazily and incestuously used in films ("yeah! let's get a shot of the Hollywood sign! let's do something with the Capitol Records building") but a grimy, dark LA. And I really liked the recurring use of straight-down helicopter shots tracking the protagonists in their cab through the night-time streets.

Ultimately though I don't think the film had much to say: it tries to take a moral stance by watching bad-guy Vincent through average-Joe Max's horrified eyes, but then it confuses us by lingering lovingly on Vincent's violence.

2.5 out of 5: Adequate.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: hmm. Stunning, as long as you don't care about character or plot.

The style is amazing: a mixture of 30's sci-fi, film noir, and comic strip. The computer-generated backgrounds are fantastic and convincing. It's creative and just sheer fun to watch, particularly if you keep an eye out for the frequent references to classic movies: some scenes in particular pay very clear homage to Metropolis and King Kong.

I loved the way the actors were lit. Very noir directional lighting, with strong highlights and dark shadows. This really helped anchor them into the style and blend them into the virtual sets.

But: the characters are paper-thin. The plot is little more than an excuse to throw a succession of stunning locations on the screen. The actors struggle with their dialog and their eyelines.

Raiders of the Lost Ark did comic-strip-as-movie well by realising that adventure alone isn't enough: you need strong, human characters underneath it to make the audience care about the outcome. Sky Captain fails at this: it's all glamour, no heart.

Visuals: 5 out of 5. Plot: 1 out of 5.

Now, if only the upcoming Cruise/Spielberg War of the Worlds remake could look like this. Wells's plot, Sky Captain's looks; what a movie that could be! As it is, though, I'm worried it'll be little more than a rehash of Independence Day. Filming in New York, says IMDB; bah. The book's British to the core; set it in Surrey where it belongs.

Categories: Movies


One of last week's cheapie CD purchases: Michael Jackson's Thriller, £3.99 in the MVC sale.

And wow. He's surely a deeply disturbed kook; he might be a monster; but in his prime he was such a musician.

The album wobbles a bit at the start. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' is great, but Baby Be Mine is nondescript and the Paul McCartney collaboration, The Girl Is Mine, is slightly embarrassing — particularly the spoken exchanges between McCartney and Jackson.

But then you get the killer triple-punch of Thriller, Beat It, Billie Jean. What a combination.

Allmusic is snotty about Thriller: "the ridiculous, late-night house-of-horrors title track [...], arriving in the middle of the record and sucking out its momentum". Well, phooey. The momentum's already been sapped by then; Thriller picks it back up and drives it forward.

It's not just a great track: it's enormously evocative of childhood memories. Staying up late to see the premiere of the video on Channel 4. That black-and-red leather jacket. The dancing zombies. That school trip to Germany, on which a classmate bought the album in a German record shop and listened to it non-stop on his Walkman for the next three days. The opening horn sting alone (DAA-DAAAH! DAA-DA-DAH!) is enough to send tingles up your spine.

I am mighty pleased with this purchase.


We exchanged contracts on the flat at 4:45pm today. Completion in two weeks' time.

Now things start to move really fast.

Monday, October 04, 2004


Got it. My passport now has a US visa glued inside it. Disconcertingly, it looks rather like a poor inkjet forgery of a passport.

I also have a mysterious sealed brown envelope which I have to hand over when I enter the US. Contents unknown: the Embassy's "what happens now?" sheet says it contains medical records "and other documents", but the envelope itself says "this is your visa".

I'm itching to pick it open, but it has an Embassy stamp and a signature across the seal so I think they'd notice...

Friday, October 01, 2004

What happens now?

Well, not exactly what the Embassy's welcome sheet says:

Your visa should arrive by post between 1 and 5 PM on the day after interview.

It didn't: according to it didn't even leave the Embassy until 8:10 PM today and it now won't be delivered until Monday.

Not a big deal, but a little disappointing after everything else went so smoothly yesterday.


The visa medical is an odd experience.

It's not at the Embassy itself; it's at the surgery of the Embassy's panel physician. By the look of it, he's got himself a comfy little number there: a nice steady stream of customers at £125 a go.

I'm not the only one who had a quick interview: we arrive at the same time as applicant 002, and inside applicant 003 is already waiting.

Anyway, his waiting room is quite plush: certainly much nicer than my local GP surgery, but then again I'm not paying my GP to attend to me. They take from me my medical questionnaire, my vaccination records, yet another photo (good job I had plenty done) and my passport—hold on, the Embassy has my passport! Apparently the Embassy should have given me a photocopy of it. They didn't; but I'm well-prepared and I'm carrying my own backup copies of all my documents. I'm sent back to the waiting room until its my turn.

I'm called! I pay the £125 (ca-ching!) and sign permission forms for the examination and blood test. I'm handed back a folder with my documents in and I'm sent downstairs where there is...

...another waiting room. The documents go in a holder on the wall and I wait my turn. In a few minutes I'm called into a side office to have my blood drawn. No problem: I give blood so I'm used to needles in the arm, and this is a comparatively small one.

Back to waiting again. Applicants 002 and 003 get called for X-Ray; and soon enough so am I. I'm given a cubicle and told to strip to the waist; and I wait. And wait. It's not very interesting in the cubicle, and the decor down here is much more functional than the plush waiting room upstairs. I notice a handle on the wall of the cubicle and give it an experimental tug: it's an under-stairs cupboard containing cleaning materials and telephone wiring. I hear movement outside and quietly close the cupboard door.

X-Ray. It's a chest X-Ray and I have to assume a position rather like a chicken; hands behind me at kidney level so I can hold the lead sheet which protects my lower body.

Oh no! Back to the boring cubicle again. I've been told to keep my shirt off, and I'm starting to feel a bit chilly. People come and go from X-Ray; eventually, I'm called to the doctor's office for the examination.

It is without doubt the quickest and most perfunctory medical exam I've ever had. He races through the form ticking boxes and moves me around the office like a rag doll: blood pressure, say "ah", left ear, right ear, breathe in, breathe out, lie down, get up, cover your left eye and read this — a comedy moment, my trousers fall down as he hasn't given me time to fasten them. It all seems to go all right, but I'm left wondering: I know I'm healthy, but with an exam this quick how can he be sure?

I'm handed back my vaccination records, which have done the trick: I'm up-to-date and don't need to pay nosebleed prices to have the vaccinations done there and then.

And back, yet again, to the boring cubicle. At least now I can get dressed again. Finally I'm called one last time. I can go. I'm handed my X-Ray in a rolled-up brown envelope; I'll need to give it to Immigration when I enter the US. And I need to come back at 1:30 to get my blood test results.

Phew. All the hard stuff is done. Time for lunch and a wander round the shops on Oxford Street. We poke around the Selfridges food hall a while — £5.99 for a packet of Oreos?! — kill some time at the HMV sale, and hop on a bus down to Piccadilly Circus to check out the new Virgin megastore. (Tower Records is no more, which feels rather sad — it was a fixture on Piccadilly Circus for as long as I can remember.) It's disappointing; it was always a cramped building and still is, and their sale is more lame than mega.

The results are clear; I'm healthy. We head home.