Saturday 23 February 2008

The best little differences about the USA

This is a pretty random list, but here are the best little differences about the US:

  • Not having to sign for credit card purchases. If you buy stuff under about $10, you usually don't have to sign. Quick, easy, and signatures are a waste of time in the US anyway because the cashiers never check the back of the card. Once I put a $1.40 newspaper on my credit card because the newsagent didn't accept cash for ANY amount!
  • Restaurants being perfectly OK with splitting the bill across multiple credit cards. Makes paying for meals as a group really easy.
  • Never going inside to pay at a petrol station - lots of places don't even have an "inside", just pumps. Swipe your card, pump, and go. This approach is good for petrol stations owners too because there are no "drive-offs" that are a constant problem in Australia.
  • The little clip on the petrol pump that clicks the pump off automatically when the tank is full. Means you can put your hands back in your pockets when it is cold.
  • Big-brother style supermarket card that records every purchase you ever make, and lets you build an automatic shopping list online to have your groceries delivered.
  • Everything in the supermarket has a dollar-per-ounce price, which pretty much removes the last use for maths in everyday life, but makes comparing product prices really easy :)
  • Cheap consumer goods: clothes, cars, manchester, cookware and outdoors gear are all way cheaper. Strangely, electronics are only slightly cheaper.
  • Attentive staff in restaurants (product of tipping).
  • Awesome roads. Seriously. This country loves to drive. Unfortunately Americans bear a heavy tax burden for the privilege, with income taxes levied at the federal, state, and even county levels.
  • If you are a school kid, you get a day off or late start at the drop of a hat. Any little bit of snow, ice, or even fog(!) can cause schools in Maryland to call a delayed start or cancel school altogether. No so fun for the parents when this happens.
  • The price of food is cheaper in restaurants, although it works out similar to Australian prices once you add the tip. Guess this is just a different way of paying staff, but it feels like it is cheaper :)
  • Automatic counting machines in the supermarkets that let you turn useless metal (ie. coins) into usable currency.
  • I got a haircut and they vacuumed my head to pick up all the little bits of hair. Went back to work without being itchy! Oh, and the haircut cost $9.50 and took under 10 minutes. Awesome.

That's all I can think of for now, but I will keep adding as it occurs to me.

Wednesday 20 February 2008

Does anyone else think this is asking for trouble?

The side of this building in Boston says, in gigantic letters: Metropolitan Storage Warehouse. FIRE PROOF. Challenge? It's like calling a ship unsinkable...

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Sam Adams, brewer and patriot

I was really excited about touring the Sam Adams brewery in suburban Boston, but unfortunately I found the experience a little disappointing. The tour started with an explanation of the history of the brewery, which was interesting. The brewery aimed to fill a gap in the market for full-flavoured, high-quality beers that had all but died out during the Prohibition era. They named their brewery after Samuel Adams who was one of the major players in the Revolutionary war, a signatory on the Declaration of Independence, and a brewer by trade.

We then learnt a bit about the brewing process, but this seemed a bit tokenistic because none of the real bottling is done at the boston brewery so the scale is extremely small and there are no mesmerising lines of bottles flying past. We moved quickly on to the tasting, where we had some great beers I had already tasted, and finished with the horrible cherry wheat beer. This beer tastes like someone has spilt Dr. Pepper into a perfectly good beer.

Even though it wasn't great it was worth doing, and hey, free beer :)

Robot kangaroo

Want to see a monopod robot that hops along like a kangaroo? Robots that run like humans, trot like horses, bound like rabbits and do mid air somersaults? The MIT Museum is the place. They also have some awesome holograms and some creepy techno-mechanical art that I liked so much I took some movies of it.

MIT. Awesome.

After Harvard we went straight to MIT for their tour. The university is amazing, and it really appealed to my inner nerd. The tradition of MIT hacks is hilarious, some of my favourites are:

I was impressed by the ethos of getting undergraduates very involved in the research side of the university during their undergrad degree by giving them either credit or money for their research time. The guy giving our tour was doing computer science and said that classes taught and tested fundamentals, but all more advanced concepts and subjects were all problem-based learning (i.e. no exams), and most real learning was done by working on research projects run by the professors.

Harvard, home of the worst statue ever

We started out in Boston with a free tour of Harvard by a female student, who was very good, but had the worst case of man-walk I have ever seen. One of my favourite parts was the statue inscribed with John Harvard, Founder, 1638 which is funny because:

  • Harvard contributed land but wasn't the the founder;
  • The institution was founded in 1636; and
  • The statue isn't even a likeness of John Harvard, because there were no photographs or portraits available of the actual John Harvard.

My other favourite piece of folklore was that students don't walk through Johnson gate because there is a superstition you won't graduate if you pass through the gate during your time at Harvard. It was funny to watch everyone squeezing in and out of the much smaller curse-free gate beside it. We managed to catch a student destroying their career in the photo!

Does anyone else find it slightly amusing/annoying that Harvard is in a locality called Cambridge? Maybe it's just me.

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Air? That will be 50c please

I had a good laugh at myself the other day. I was trying to put some air in the car tyres at a petrol station and couldn't figure out why the pressure wasn't going up. It didn't even occur to me until I had been around and tried to fill every tyre that I might be required to pay for the privilege! It was pretty embarrassing because there was a guy waiting behind me who saw me visit every tyre, scrabble in the ashtray for some change, and go back to every tyre for round 2 :)

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Democrats, Obamicans, and Australians who can't vote, turn out for Obama

It's cold (about 19°F and windy), and I'm standing in a line that curls around 4 sides of the 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore. The line is due to metal detectors and bag searches needed to keep presidential candidate Barack Obama safe. Thirteen thousand people pack the arena and when the man arrives about an hour and a half late the place explodes with clapping and cheering. The audience is made up of Democrats and Republicans who have changed teams for Obama: "Obamicans".

I didn't really mind which candidate I saw, I just wanted to experience an American-style political rally, but I'm glad I saw Obama. He is an excellent speaker, obviously, and stands a real chance of winning the Democratic nomination having just tonight carried the Potomac/Chesapeake/Beltway/Crabcake Primary (Maryland, DC, and Virginia).

I think someone should have some sort of clap-o-meter at these things. Seeing as MSNBC and CNN are trying to outdo each other with the most ridiculously expensive touch-screens and fancy election graphics I'm surprised they haven't done something like this already....Here's how I heard it:

  • End the multi-trillion dollar war in Iraq, and spend money fixing problems in the US: Yeah!!
  • Affordable health care and insurance for everyone: Yeah!!
  • More money for teachers and schools to make our children the best educated in the world: Yeah!!
  • Create an Environmental Protection Agency that actually cares about protecting the environment: ...the sound of two Australians clapping, 12,998 Americans shrugging their shoulders, and some particularly loud crickets...
  • Increase fuel efficiency standards, and end this country's dependence on foreign oil: ...two Australians clap, and I feel people looking at us....

Sunday 10 February 2008

Hills Hoist, reinvented as the "outdoor clothes dryer"

I have been meaning to blog about this for ages. I saw a hills hoist clothesline being sold in Bed Bath and Beyond as an "Outdoor Clothes Dryer". I also found out that 60 million Americans live in places where clotheslines are banned or restricted because they are "unsightly". Although some environmentally conscious Americans are pushing for the "right to dry", pretty much everyone uses electricity to dry their clothes. According to the NPR article 6-10% of domestic energy use in the US goes toward drying clothes.

Got Water? Australia and California have something in common

My last post prompted me to look into how water is being conserved in the US. Water conservation is a hot topic in Australia, a product of about 7 years of drought. Although California has continuous serious water problems and is taking similar steps to drop consumption, the drive to save water hasn't been taken up generally in the US like in Australia. Here are some of the things happening in Australia, with notes from my limited knowledge of the US perspective:

  • Mandatory labelling and minimum standards for water efficiency have been introduced in Australia for pretty much everything that uses/delivers water. I haven't seen any water efficiency labelling of appliances etc. in the US.
  • Pretty much every Australian household has a dual-flush toilet, and these are mandatory in new homes. Most are 1.6 gallons per full-flush and 0.8 gallons per half-flush (6L/3L). Dual-flush toilets don't seem to exist in the US. The "high-efficiency" American 1.6 gpf (6 L) toilets replacing the old 3.5-8 gpf (13-30 L!) are obviously much better, but don't meet the Australian minimum standards of 1.45 gpf (5.5 L).
  • Waterless urinals are becoming more common in Australia. Haven't seen any in the US.
  • Grey-water recycling systems that use waste water from sinks and washing machines to flush toilets and irrigate gardens are common in new Australian homes. Those living in older houses without plumbed-in systems often run grey-water hoses from their washing machines as the only way to water the garden under harsh water restrictions. In contrast, many US cities and states have regulations prohibiting greywater re-use, so the introduction of similar systems in the US could be problematic.
  • Australian homeowners and increasing numbers of businesses are installing rainwater tanks to relieve the pressure of severe water restrictions. In the US, given the restrictions on clotheslines as "eyesores", I don't like the chances for rainwater tanks getting planning approval. Underground tanks are good for new homes, but can be tough to build into existing buildings.

I saw something I liked in all the Utah hotels I stayed in: the fan and light in the bathroom were on a timer, which is great encouragement to take a quick shower :) Australian hotels take note!

Our American toilet goes the "wrong" way!

This is a fairly weird thing to blog about, but we get asked about this a lot so I thought I would satisfy both American and Australian curiosities with a two-part series. Here is our (freshly cleaned) American toilet doing its thing, just water plus some toilet cleaner to make things easier to see :)

Things to note:

  • High water-level in the bowl, although our toilet water-level is actually lower than a lot of American toilets I have seen.
  • Side lever for flush instead of button(s). The lever pulls a chain inside the cistern, which releases the outlet plug.
  • No dual flush: I haven't seen one anywhere. Modern water-conserving American toilets would actually be illegal in Australia, see my next post!
  • Flushes the "wrong" way for the northern hemisphere. There is an urban myth that water drains counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere, due to the Coriolis effect. This is false (as demonstrated by our toilet!), the rotation is due to the shape of the bowl and how water is sent into the bowl.

Sunday 3 February 2008

It's all about the ads

I forgot to blog about the Superbowl ads! I wish ads were this good all year. You can watch them yourself at myspace. My favourites were:

  • The diet pepsi ad that is a parody/homage to the classic A Night at the Roxbury skit.
  • The coke ad that features stewie from The Family Guy as a Thanksgiving parade float.
  • The amp energy drink that combined with Push It by Salt-N-Pepa allows a fat guy to to recharge a car battery with his nipples.

Super-bowl of buffalo wings

Em and I watched the Superbowl at the ESPN Zone in Baltimore. They have this bar with a ridiculous number of TV screens - you can probably see at least 4 huge LCDs no matter which way you are facing, and they were all playing the Superbowl.

The game and the atmosphere were awesome. It was incredibly close, and the Giants pulled out a miracle touchdown to win in the final seconds. I felt a bit sorry for the New England quarterback Tom Brady since he was getting smashed by the Giants defence. The Patriots lost their chance at Superbowl history by making this their first and only loss of the season: 18 wins and 1 loss.

The bar was pretty much evenly divided between Patriots and Giants fans, but when the Giants made that final touchdown the whole bar erupted, with Giants fans smashing glasses and jumping up on the tables!

I had my first feed of buffalo wings....mmmmm spicy.

Saturday 2 February 2008

Watch for.....what?

The state of Pennsylvania has put up signs that say "Keep Alert - Watch for DUI Drivers". that the best you can do? Put up a sign? I'm used to watching out for deer....There must be some serious drinkers around here.

That's right, woodchuck chuckers. It's Goundhog Day!

To add to the list of wacky American festivals we have attended (see my Punkin Chunkin blog) we drove 4.5 hours into rural Pennsylvania to see the seer of seers, prognosticator of prognosticators. As always we were super organised and decided to do this on Wednesday night, and soon found that every hotel in a 40 mile radius around the tiny town of Punxsutawney was booked solid. We found a bed in Clearfield, slept in it for 4 hours and started driving to Punxsutawney at 4am to make sure we were in time for Phil to get dragged out at dawn (7:30am).

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It was crazy. I'd guess there were about 10-15,000 people there. It was like a weird music festival, and it was pretty damn cold (27°F, -2.7°C) to be standing around outside.

There were some great life imitating art moments:

- They played Pennsylvania Polka. Strike up the music the band has begun....
- They played Bill Murray's speech over the loud speakers.
- The Inner Circle (guys in the top hats) member who read the prediction in the movie is a retired member of the real Inner Circle, and was on stage today.

Oh, and Phil saw a shadow, so six more weeks of winter :(