Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Tips for dogsitters

Do not walk the in-law's dog up in the hills where the deer hang out. Oh, it was fun, and the view was great. But where there's long grass and deer, there are probably also ticks. And he's only a little dog, so it's not a big jump for them.

Oh yes. Five of them. Gruesome: big fat beige bodies, heads buried in the flesh, and awful spindly little black legs which move in the creepiest way.

The standard advice for removing them is to use pointed tweezers, grab the tick at the point of attachment (just below the head) and pull it straight out firmly. Well, what they don't tell you is how tenaciously the little buggers hold on: it takes an alarming amount of force.

Ick. I'm glad I was wearing long trousers that day.

(And a moral dilemma for dogsitters: do you confess to an infestation, or keep quiet? We confessed; the dog's fine; but I won't be taking him up there again...)


The DMV visit went fine: a 45-minute wait, but once you get to the head of the line it all goes pretty quickly. An quick eye test (reading lines off a chart, first with both eyes open, and then with one or other eye covered); a photo; a thumbprint; and the theory test. 36 questions, of which you can fail up to 6.

I'd brushed up with the California Drivers Handbook (which the DMV hands out free) and some sample tests the night before, so I wasn't too worried; driving here is not terribly different to driving in the UK and most of the questions are common-sense safety. As with the UK tests, there's some figures it's worth committing to memory: here they're blood alcohol levels (0.08% for over-21s, 0.01% for 21 and under); some of the parking distances (18 inches or less from the kerb; 15 feet or more from a hydrant); and some of the significant driving distances (indicate from 100 feet or more; enter bike lanes to turn 200 feet or less).

And it paid off: 100% pass. I now have the permit which lets me practice driving accompanied by a license-holder, and I can schedule the driving test which turns it into a full-blown license. The earliest appointment in Walnut Creek was 24th December — too long to wait — but there's another DMV office at Pleasanton which can fit me in on Friday (hooray) and which is has easier roads to test on (hooray again).

Saturday, November 27, 2004


We went out last night to attend the Danville treelighting ceremony: switching on the Christmas lights on Danville's historic oak tree, which is apparently 350 years old.

The ceremony itself is a little hokey: some speeches from the head of the Chamber of Commerce and the mayor (which both essentially boil down to "This is a great place to live and shop. Especially shop: please shop here."), an appearance by a rather unconvincing Father Christmas (slim, unbearded, and overenthusiatic; more gravitas needed), a countdown ("close your eyes and count down from ten"), and the lights go on.

More fun was the walkabout later; the roads which run through downtown Danville were all closed, turning them into huge pedestrian boulevards, and lots of businesses were offering free entertainment (singers, choruses etc) or refreshments (cookies, cocoa, or hot cider — although "cider" in the US means apple juice, and what I knew as cider here is always "hard cider").

What's odd, though, is how deliberately non-denominational Christmas is here. You hear a lot of renditions of Jingle Bells, Deck The Halls, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (ick) and Frosty the Snowman (double-ick) but very few real Christmas carols; it's as if they're afraid of mentioning Jesus. And "Merry Christmas" is rare; more common is "Happy Holidays" (yuck).

In a sense this is good: it recognises that we are a multicultural society and that there are other non-Christian celebrations which fall in the season. But it all feels a little forced and plastic to me; by not acknowledging any culture you end up with something empty of any meaning.

Maybe Christian celebrations get oppresive if you're of a different faith; but as an atheist I quite enjoy Christmas. I would never have guessed that one of the things I'd miss from home would be Christmas carols...

Friday, November 26, 2004


My Social Security number finally arrived today: I'm now a fully-fledged member of American society.

Now we can get moving on stuff: we've opened a bank account today, ready to wire the first big dollop of cash across from the UK; and I can finally apply at the DMV for my driving license. Their first available appointment is next Thursday; too far away, so we'll be over there first thing on Monday to wait in line to apply and take the theory test.


November 25th is Thanksgiving; an American holiday which we're vaguely aware of in the UK but which is very much more significant here in the US.

Nowadays Thanksgiving seems to serve three purposes. The first is the traditional celebration: to gather with family and friends, eat and drink, and give thanks for the good events of the past year. (It's handy, this, because even if you've had a really shitty year you can probably still find something to be grateful for: "at least I have my health" etc.)

We were invited, with the in-laws, to a party at the house next door. Good fun, and excellent food: Gary, the host, takes cooking very seriously. Thanksgiving food is similar to Christmas food: turkey and stuffing (which Americans call "stuffing" if it's cooked inside the bird; "dressing" if it's cooked separately). Potatoes, although tradition here is mashed not roast. Roasted sweet potatoes (often but wrongly called yams). And green bean casserole, a 1950s invention which became a tradition: green beans baked in cream of mushroom soup and topped with crispy onions.

The second purpose of Thanksgiving is as a bookend for Christmas preparations. While stores here have their Christmas goods out as early as Halloween, after Thanksgiving the Christmas season really gets going. In particular, the day after Thanksgiving seems to be the earliest acceptable date to put up Christmas decorations inside or (another American tradition) outside your home. A couple of hard-core fanatics in the neighbourhood had full nativity scenes in place by the afternoon of the 26th.

And the third is to provide some heavy-duty shopping action: all the big stores here have huge sales starting the day after Thanksgiving and running through into the weekend. And they start early: 6am is common, and some go to 5:30am or earlier. What kind of nutball gets up at 4am, sleepy and hungover from the night before, to go shopping? Not me, but millions do.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Movie roundup

Shark Tale (Bracknell UCI, UK)

A soulless Nemo-wannabe. Computer animation's finally got old enough that it's just another tool: it's not enough of a draw on its own any more to make a movie unique, except for the geeks who go to check out the latest water or hair effects.

And this is a good example: it's a poor movie which just happens to be rendered by computer. It feels over-calculated and written by committee; every joke carefully analyzed and choreographed. Ultimately, it's a machine for extracting movie-goers money; it has no heart.

The animation is lazy. Finding Nemo never let you forget that it was set underwater, it was obvious in the way the characters moved, the lighting, the sheer texture of the water. Here the water may as well be air; an effect not helped by the cityscape set designs. And it's too vivid: the colours are garish and the lighting harsh. The characters are too three-dimensional; the highlights to bright, the shadows too deep; it's tiring to watch. (Shark Tale isn't alone in this over-compensation; Disney's latest straight-to-DVD offering, heavily plugged on TV at the moment, has the same feel. It was revolutionary in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, where it really worked in placing 2D cartoon characters into the real 3D world; but it's old and tired now and its no substitute for decent, traditional animation skills.)

And I am tired of cartoon characters which are caricatures of their voice actors. Again, it used to be funny; now it's just lazy. Why bother inventing new characters when you can simply riff on the actors' appearances and back-catalogues? It's unoriginal and it leaves me feeling short-changed. (And it's notable that Pixar's films, with which this Dreamworks offering competes, do work hard to create original characters.)

2 out of 5; don't bother.

The Incredibles (Walnut Creek Century, USA)

Pixar stumbles a little here: this is a good movie, but not as strong as their tremendous run of previous successes.

As usual, it has their magic touch: you forget within minutes that you're watching a computer-animated film, or even an animated film; the story is the thing. And they have, finally, worked out how to animate humans successfully: the trick is to keep the look cartoonish, rather than to attempt photo-realism. The characters here are expressive and engaging.

But it's a darker film than previous offerings; it's moved up a rating, and it shows. It's violent; and people die, albeit only villainous henchmen in bloodless Bond-style deaths. Previous Pixar movies were unashamedly kids' movies, with in-jokes for the adults; this one seems more unsure of its audience. And it's also unsure of what targets its hitting; is it a superhero movie? A Bond spoof? A folksy family movie?

The set-pieces are spectacular: Mr. Incredible battling a giant robot, Dash outrunning mechanised pursuers in a chase reminiscent of, but much faster than, the speeder chase in Return of the Jedi.

Somehow, though, it doesn't gel quite as much as Pixar's other films; Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. left me wanting to see them again. This doesn't; it was entertaining, but forgettable.

And finally, Samuel L. Jackson's Frozone character comes across as an afterthought; he's incidental at best. Did the filmmakers not believe that the Incredibles were strong enough characters to carry it alone? Or did they simply need a big name to add marketing weight?

3 out of 5; OK, but not great.

Nice theater, though: stadium seating, good picture, great sound. Shame about the snorer at the back. And — and this gobsmacked me — they don't accept credit cards at the box office. WTF?

And the Star Wars ep 3 trailer looks fantastic. Lucas can't direct movies for toffee — for example, the nail-bitingly painful Hayden Christensen / Natalie Portman scenes in ep 2 — but he does make killer trailers.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Socially Secure

The SSN saga continues: today we went into the Social Security office in Walnut Creek to try to find out what's going on with my number.

The office is a little bit grim: bureaucratic decor and crowded. But the mood seems generally upbeat. There's an armed guard at the door to check bags, and presumably to step in if clients get a bit lairy; but he's cheerful, chirpy, and chatty.

The procedure is: answer the question "Are you carrying any weapons?" correctly. (Hint: "No.") Get your bag searched. Join the line for the reception window. Check in at reception: tell 'em your name and your problem. Sit and wait for your name to be called.

We sit and wait. And wait. I wish I'd brought a book and start people-watching instead. There's quite a mix here: retirees, kids, lots of immigrants.

One chap seems to be having trouble with the procedure; he has a wad of documents an inch thick, none of which seem to be exactly what he needs to be showing. He's sent to sit and wait, but keeps cutting back in at the reception window each time he finds a new document: "will this one do it?" The officer bears with him remarkably patiently, but on the fifth visit her patience finally snaps: "Sir, I've checked you in: that is all I can do. You will have to sit and wait for your name to be called." He's not happy; raises his voice; demands to see her supervisor. Fine, but he'll still have to sit and wait to be called. He moves aside to the next (vacant) window but next thing we know he's cut in at one of the service windows waving his documents.

By this time Melinda and I are rubbing our hands together in anticipation. What's going to happen now? The guard is called. "Sir, you're going to have to go sit down and wait to be called." And instantly he's docile and submissive; sits quietly; drama over.

After 90 minutes wait, I'm called. My passport and green card are checked — including some form of secret inspection of the green card with some equipment under the desk. (The green card is covered in holograms, watermarks, and other security features, including an area on the back which has the appearance of photographic film; my guess is that she's checking one of these out, but I've no idea which or how.) Much tapping on the computer. Aha: the Texas office did submit an SSN application for me, but "it hasn't been cleared". What does this mean? No idea; but the gist seems to be that it's wedged in the system. More tapping; I sign a sheet to say yes, I do want to apply for an SSN; and it's unwedged.

My card should arrive within two weeks. We'll see. But I do at least now have a receipt acknowledging my application and with the magic numbers on to look me up in the system should things go awry again.

I feel somewhat better, but I'm still frustrated: I want to be driving, damn it, but I can't apply for a license without an SSN. Patience, patience.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Contact us

It's been 3 weeks since I entered the US and I still have no social security number: I should have been sent one automatically under the SSN visa program.

So I call the Social Security Administration, as they tell me to do, to check what was going on; and the operator has no idea about the process or about what I was talking about. She suggests I visit my local Social Security office tomorrow to apply for an SSN in person.

I'm fuming; this was supposed to be the quicker easier option but instead I'm knocked back to square one and face another two-week wait.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Little things

It's the little differences which strike you:

American toilets work by whirlpooling, not the brute-force flush that British toilets use. Urinals always have flushes, either a button or handle to press or (disconcertingly) a magic eye which flushes it as you turn away.

American road markings seem the wrong way to me. In the UK an instruction on the road would be written to be read top to bottom: BIKE LANE. In the US, they're written the other way around, as if you read successive lines as you travel: LANE BIKE. Maybe the last remmnants of Burma Shave?

Coupons are a big deal here: Sunday papers come crammed with advertising fliers filled with coupons to clip out and use. In fact, in general it's the land of the Great Deal: whatever you want, somewhere there's probably a special offer, a coupon, or a mail-in rebate for it. Often in supermarkets these are linked to the loyalty card: in the UK, loyalty cards let you build up points to redeem against future purchases. Over here, loyalty cards get you special prices on selected products right here and now. I wonder if there's some sort of law driving this difference?

Mail-in rebates are peculiar: buy a product, mail in the receipt and maybe the barcode from the packaging, and 6 weeks later get a cheque check for part of the price. They're very common, particularly on electronic equipment; often when a specially low price is advertised, part of the discount will be via a mail-in rebate. Sometimes it's taken to extremes: an instant rebate at the store plus a mail-in store rebate plus a mail-in maunfacturer rebate. Sometimes it gets ridiculous, as with one computer advertised in the Sunday flyers: multiple mail-in rebates on each of the computer, printer, monitor, scanner... My guess is that a good proportion of customers either forget to mail in the form, or get it wrong in some way which disbars them from the rebate.

American chemists drugstores sell booze. And often cheaper than supermarkets do. Which seems odd: as if Boots still sold laudanum.

Categories: Food


So far, California hasn't been the balmy paradise I was promised. We've had a week of stormy rain and cold weather, and it's now well-set into autumn fall. The trees, though, are spectacular; there are lots of maples in the neighbourhood, and they're all on the turn and flaming in shades of red and gold.

Even on gloomy days, though, the light is different; a gloomy day in Britain is dark and depressing. A gloomy day here can still be bright, even dazzling.

American TV still sucks...

...but: on a good night you can see up to 5 episodes of Seinfeld. Superb, and horribly mistreated when the BBC showed it in the UK: late in the evening, in a different slot every week, and forever being shunted to make way for snooker and other such guff.

And PBS isn't too bad either; on Saturday we got Casablanca, uninterrupted by adverts. Yesterday an episode of Red Dwarf, although with terrible sound: as if it were being played off a 3rd-generation videotape. It's a little like an amateurish BBC2; although I could do without the endless reruns of Are You Being Served, which America apparently loves but which still makes me cringe.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Credit cards

Are going to be a problem. We've kept our Nationwide cards open, as they don't charge any loading in foreign transactions; this makes them the cheapest way to spend money here, at least until we get local accounts set up. And this has worked well; they go through fine in shops and restaurants, even the ones with fancy automated tills, although they don't work for pay-at-pump at gas stations. Amazon take them without blinking for normal and Marketplace purchases.

But: most other online retailers (or e-tailers as they'd have it here; yick) won't take 'em. Usually, buried deep in the small print is something along the lines of "we cannot process cards issued or billed outside the United States".

Annoying, because the printer I want is $200 at amazon.com and most other places, but only $150 at buy.com. I want to use 'em, but they're one of the small-printers. I've tried ordering anyway to see what happens, but I think they're onto me; I shall plead ignorance and see what happens.

I'm not sure how easy it's going to be to establish credit in the US; my gut feeling is "not very". The hard-slog route is to start at the bottom with a secured credit card (i.e., you deposit $1000 or so into it so that you're spending your own money, not the lenders') and then work up through store credit, auto loans and so on. It all sounds like a lot of bother...

Friday, November 12, 2004


Our 5 boxes of air-freighted stuff arrived today.

It was a painless experience at the UK end — apart from the last-minute rush to get everything sealed and labelled before the courier arrived to pick the boxes up — as everything's coordinated by Excess Baggage.

But at the US end, everything slows down; and you have to deal with the US importing agent yourself. The boxes landed in Los Angeles on the 27th last month; took another week to clear through customes; and then took most of this week playing phone tag with the agents to arrange a delivery date through their couriers.

All appears intact, but the boxes certainly look well-travelled; battered and covered in routing labels.

So that's that; everything we own is here now.

Monday, November 08, 2004


Saturday brought me another "congratulations, here is your A-number" letter; and today, yet another. I guess they want me to feel very, very welcome.

But today's big mail: my Permanent Resident Card, a.k.a. the Green Card, arrived. Disappointingly, it's not green; mostly white, with a photo and a thumbprint.

It's supposed to remain "in my possession" at all times — which seems to be a rather vague stipulation; some USCIS documents, for example the (slightly patronising) Guide For New Immigrants say that it must be carried at all times, while others suggest that all you need to be able to do is produce it when requested. I think I'd best play it safe...

Still no SSN. Grrr.

Thursday, November 04, 2004


A letter from USCIS: I have been assigned an INS A-Number (I assume A for alien, although my ex-colleagues might have other suggestions) and should receive my green card within the next three weeks.

Which is odd, because my impression was that it could take up to a year and that you shouldn't start to worry until about nine months in. I'm not complaining though...

No SSN yet though.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

American TV sucks

I knew it'd be bad; but it's really, really bad.

Ad breaks every 5 minutes. Whole channels of filler. Repeats as the rule, rather than the exception. (In UK TV listings, repeats are identified with an (R); in US TV listings, you can assume everything's a repeat unless it's specially identified with an (N) for new episode.) And syndication means that the same old shows are repeated across multiple channels.

It's dumbed-down to schoolchild level; nothing is challenging or intellectually exciting. It's opinionated and biased beyond all belief. It's censored to a suprising degree. And it's hugely insular; the world outside the US, Iraq aside, simply might as well not exist.

Awful, just awful.