Sunday, 31 October 2010

Jim Beam

It turns out that American whiskey (Jim Beam, since you ask) is surprisingly pleasant. Much cheaper here (in California) than Jameson and Bushmills.

I'm on a quest to find the perfect whisk(e)y. A friend, Dermot, has in the past gotten me bottles of a f***ing *lovely* old bushmills. It's my current favourite.

But I'm still hunting.

It turns out that Laphroaig tastes like Jameson after it's already been through me. Twice.

Jameson is alright. It's not the fancy old bushmills, but it's alright.

And Jim Beam is a bit like Jameson. It's got a slight hint of the smokey pishy taste that's in Laphroaig, but it's totally drinkable.

Still hunting.

Saturday, 30 October 2010


Here in california folk really care about baseball. Especially now, with the SF Giants in the "playoffs". I'm starting to pick up some of the excitement, and I'm absorbing some of the rules. By osmosis.

We'll go see a game in a week or two somewhere. Probably not the SF Giants though. Maybe a more "local" team. Whatever there is in San Jose.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Crossing the road ("street")

In NI ... and Ireland/UK in general, there is no law against "jay walking" per se, so it's normal to cross the road wherever you want. In practice, though, sanity tends to mitigate against just walking into traffic.

But one thing people do at home is weave among cars that have stopped at lights. It's why you don't drive fast alongside a row of stationary cars: somebody might just pop out and you'd hit them.

Here in California, though, *nobody* does that. Crossing the road among cars would be ... insane. People just don't do it. Not at all. Cross at the crossing.

Of course, there are specific laws against jay walking here, which probably counts. But also the roads are much wider, so you've so much further to go. But the big one is probably that nobody expects you to do it, so driving fastish alongside a row of stationary cars isn't so insane here, so folk kinda do it a bit, so you'd stand a non-trivial chance of getting creamed. Which would be bad.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

House prices and property tax

When you buy a house here in California, the sale/purchase price is a matter of public record. This is quite different to UK/Ireland, where the purchase price is totally private.

The house we're currently renting though, last sold for about $620k. About seven years ago. (Wow!)
It's probably worth a bit more now, but it's totally academic.

You can find all this sort of information out through

But that's not what this blogticle is about: what's interesting is the property tax.

The property tax on this house is about $8400 a year. My goodness. As far as I can tell, the main chunk of the property tax will not be more than 1% of the assessed value of a house. If you buy a house, there's an assessed value right there.

Soooo, if you buy a house, figure on paying 1% of the purchase price in local taxes every year for ever more.

Thanks to the famous (Reagan-era?) proposition 13, though, your property tax will not rise by more than 2% a year. So if you never move house, that 1% of purchase price is going to increase every year by 2%.

But still ... one percent. Ouch.

The lesson for me is that suddenly I don't feel *so* bad about the rent on this place: nearly a quarter of it goes in local taxes! (Unfortunately, of course, I don't get to deduct these against my income tax. Such is life. I guess that's why I "should" buy a house here. Aye, right.)

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Drying clothes

In Ireland, every house has a washing line out the back. Or, at least, *some* method of drying clothes when it's a "grand drying day". Many houses have "tumble dryers", but not all. And using them, although it is convenient, feels slightly wrong. And if the weather is even slightly conducive to drying clothes outside (which, I should point out, it rarely is), we prefer to dry clothes naturally.

In California, *nobody* dries clothes outside. I think it's considered Just Not The Done Thing. Which is ridiculous in a country where it never rains (I'm typing this on the first miserably proper wet Irish-Summer day of the California winter). So everybody - including us - dries their clothes indoors. Oh well.

In fairness, dryers are very good. Our dryer here is much better than our dryer at home. Not sure why. Maybe because it's a lot bigger.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Washing clothes

Washing clothes is different here in California compared to Northern Ireland.

Washing machines are much bigger here. You can put a lot more clothes in for a given wash.

They use a lot more water too (at least, I think they do), which is odd for a country where you have to pay through the nose for water.

Washing machines here in California don't heat water on the fly: they just assume you have a constant supply of hot water. In the UK, all new washing machines are cold fill: it's basically impossible now to buy a dual-fill washing machine. (Which is annoying if you have solar hot water!)

And they're much quicker: a wash here takes less than an hour. Maybe a lot less. Washing machines in NI will run for, like, three hours if you let them.

And I don't know if it's the washing powder or the time taken, but washing machines here just don't get clothes as clean as they do at home.

I miss our washing machine in Dromara.

Monday, 25 October 2010


We get the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle delivered at the weekends. One of them comes thursday through Sunday; the other, Friday through Sunday.

I think it cost $20 for each of them for, like, three months of subscription.

The only problem is we get huge volumes of newspapers and ads to wade through every week. There's lots of duplication, and we just end up putting most of it straight into recycling, and reading some of it.

I really miss newspapers in the UK: fantastic selection in every garage/newsagent. Newspapers is definitely one of the things the UK does really, really well. But one doesn't tend to get, like, *overwhelmed* by newspapers like what happens here. I guess subscribing to newspapers is odd and weird in NI.

It's a shame they're dying. I miss The Times' crossword. (On physical paper, of course.) I miss the letters page in the Times. Also the Irish Times. I hope they'll all still be alive if/when I get back.

I don't miss the belfast telegraph.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The power of craiglist

Craigslist is fan-f***ing-tastic, so it is.

Check it out:

You can (I imagine) sell anything you don't want with moderate hassle.

But you can stock your entire house with furniture and suchlike very cheaply.

And it's the only way to buy a car.

I *heart* craigslist.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Nice baps!

Something I miss about NI is being able to buy nice bread cheaply.

There are lots of wee bakeries around that sell crusty baps, lovely and soft on the inside. Mmmm. We used to live opposite one on the Antrim road - just past Duncairn gardens. (It's one of just a handful of things I miss about living in North Belfast...)

And then there are supermarkets, which sell baguettes and flippin' *lovely* breads. Even though these are half-baked before they get to the supermarkets, they're still darn fine. But the point is that they're all pretty cheap.

Here in California, it *is* possible to get hold of decent bread, but it's darned expensive. But even half-decent bread - par-baked, moderately tasty, with an ingredient list that isn't outrageously long - is hard to get and Not Cheap.

And I miss going to the supermarket an hour before closing and buying all the bread that's marked down to less than half-price (and freezing it). They don't seem to do that here.

Hmmm, I see a theme in all the things I miss about NI: anything I prefer about NI, I only miss it because it's dearer or slightly less convenient here. :-)

Friday, 22 October 2010

Smelly cheese

Something I like about Northern Ireland - and the UK and Ireland in general - is that you can go into Sainsbury or Tesco or whatever and expect to buy smelly cheese without paying the earth.

Cheeses like Epoisses, a half-decent Camembert, some Brie, some Pie d'Angloys, some Stilton, some Danish Blue.

One of those - I think it's the Epoisses - quantum tunnels its smell through tupperware and the fridge and pervades your entire house. (Thankfully it doesn't taste like it smells; it tastes divine.)

Of course, France is better for cheese, but your average UK supermarket is Good Enough. And the point is that it's not that expensive.

And it's a lot better than California, where unless you go to really fancy places (like Whole Foods), where everything is seriously expensive (they call it "Whole Paycheck"), you just can't get decent cheese.

Supermarkets - if they have anything like that, they might have a naff Danish Blue, and maybe a Brie or a Camembert ... but they'll have no smell and they'll be as hard as a rock. And if you just buy them and ignore them, they don't age gracefully: they just get harder. Ridiculous.

It's something I miss, that's all: NI is just better than California for cheese.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Car insurance - limit of liability

I wrote a couple of days ago about insurance in California v Northern Ireland.

One important difference - a consequence of how different people have different limits of third party liability - is that your insurance company really, really wouldn't want you to tell the other party in an accident what the limits of your liability is.

The question doesn't arise in NI.

I note at this point that drivers in California are far more civilised on average than drivers in NI. (Who are sometimes f***ing insane.) It's probably cultural, a product of the cold northern climate or something.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Papers please

One of the cool things about living in the UK is that there is no requirement that you be able to prove who you are. You don't have to carry an internal passport, an ID card, your driving licence etc.

(This will probably change at some point. One person's Fundamental Human Right is another's Technical Legal Loophole.)

Here in California, you're required to carry your driving licence with you when driving. You're also supposed to have proof of insurance and proof of ownership of the car. Or something like that: I keep a photocopy of something in the car, the registration document I think.

I also have a notion that you're supposed to carry identification at all times in the USA even when you're just walking. I don't know how true this is in theory, but of course it hardly matters at all in practice.

I also suspect that as a foreigner, I should probably have my passport with me at all times. F*** that - losing it would be far too big a hassle. Anyway, I don't look Hispanic, nor do I live in Arizona. (I'll rant about the outrageousness of that some other time, once I can write about it without wanting to smash things.)

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Car Insurance

I'm sure I've written about this before, and I'm sure I'll write about this again, but car insurance is just *different* between California and Northern Ireland.

One difference is who is insured to drive: in NI, the only people insured to drive your car are the people specifically listed on the insurance policy. If your spouse isn't listed, they're probably not insured in NI.

California is different: basically anybody who has your permission to drive your car is insured. Also, family members are insured even if they don't have your permission. (At least, as far as I can tell!) This is better.

Another difference is what you're insured to drive. In NI, if you have comprehensive cover, then you're probably insured to drive other people's cars third-party-only. (That is: if you crash their car, you might have to buy them a new car.) If you only have third-party insurance in NI, then you probably aren't insured to drive other cars.

If you hire a car in the USA, interestingly, it seems that you don't need to take out insurance from the hire company: your normal car insurance covers you. Let's just say that this doesn't happen in NI.

Another cool thing about California: my insurance policy says something like "if you buy another car, and all your cars are currently insured with us, then you get thirty days insurance on the new car until you have to tell us about it."

Another difference is that in NI, if your insurance premiums scale quickly with the "powerfulness" of your car. What's that? You've got a three litre V6? And you're under forty? Ffffffff, s'gonnacostya.

In California, it seems that engine size and powerfulness have little impact on insurance. I mean, I imagine a Corvette is more expensive to insure than a Civic, but it's nowhere near as extreme as in NI (where there could easily be an extra zero!)

One good thing about NI (at least, I *think* it's good) is coverage: insurance basically has infinite liability to third parties. I mean, it's usually a couple of million pounds' limit. Or thereabouts. So basically infinite. Once you have insurance, you're *insured*. Done.

California, not so much. The legally required minimum of third party liability is $35k. So if you cause an accident and somebody needs to spend some time in hospital, and/or they have a nice car, then you're in trouble. Most people with something to lose get higher third party liability coverage!

I have a suspicion, that if you wanted e.g. $2m of third party liability coverage, then the extremes of premium that are more common in NI could start to appear in California. That is, maybe premiums are so closely clustered here because whether you're in a Toyota Corolla or a Nissan Supra, you're about equally likely to cause $30k of damage. But maybe you're much more likely to cause $1m of damage in the faster car. I don't know.

More of the same on insurance later...

Monday, 18 October 2010

October Rain

It's raining today.

The weather forecast earlier in the week said it would rain today, but I just laughed. Yeah, right.

Turns out it was serious.

But some perspective is in order. Here in California, it's almost late October. October!

And it's rained properly for the first time since spring.

I found myself feeling a little bit chilly. Exactly like a (normal) wet July or August day in Derry, Donegal or Dromara. But - get this! - I then noticed that I was damp (from being out walking in the rain), I was wearing shorts, and nothing on my feet. And I was feeling a little bit chilly.


Turns out that autumn ("fall") here is a *lot* like summer in Ireland. (Only it gets hotter here, and doesn't rain as much.)

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


We've had *something* pulling tufts of grass out of our front law recently.

I initially thought it was the kids. So I asked them. They had no idea.

Then I thought it might have been a dog. But there's been no sight of a dog.

Next I thought of a cat: but I haven't seen one.

All the while, the problem's been getting worse.

Finally, we've figured out the problem: we saw some *crows* yanking up tufts of grass! Crows!!!!

So we've put up a sign outside the house that says feck off crows!.

Ah, seriously, K has put up a tinfoil scarecrow tree thing for now, while we try to figure out other options. (If that doesn't work.)

Monday, 11 October 2010

Online banking - transfers to arbitrary accounts

I use smile for internet banking at home. Mostly they're grand.

In the US, I'm with wells fargo. They're not so good. There are some cool things, like scanning your checks (sic) for you but for online transfers, they're a bit naff.

First, as far as I can see, to transfer money to the UK, I have to pay a visit to the branch. In person. Sheesh.

Second, as far as I can see, to transfer money to the US, I have to pay a visit to the branch. In person. Sheesh.

It's not completely terrible though: if I just want to transfer to a *person* (as opposed to a business), it looks like I can do it online. And if I want to transfer to another wells fargo account, it looks like I can do it online. But for businesses - even those with US bank accounts - fuggedaboutit.

It's all a little bit last century. So I'm on the lookout for a bank with better online transfer fu.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Specialty license plates

One cool thing in california is custom license (sic) plates.

As far as I can tell, you can get whatever you want on license plates, provided it's not already taken. And you pay for it. Isn't that neat?

My favourite is a VW Bug (we would call it a Beetle), with the license plate "FEATURE":
...although I haven't actually seen that.

There are lots of funny ones: "FOR MA STF" is one we noticed recently, on a big 4x4.

Anyway, it looks like specialized plates cost, like, $50-$100 up front, and $40-$80 a year thereafter. (Still seems like a waste to me, but it *is* cool.)

This is, of course, in complete contrast to the UK way of personalizing registration numbers, where you have to squint really hard. In this world, a 5 is an S, 13 is a B ... or maybe an R, 2 is a Z, and so on, I is a one, O is a zero (of course), 7 is a T ... it's just lame.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Getting tags from the DMV

I posted off the form (with payment) near the end of August to get new tags for our car. (The old ones at the end of August.)

It's now early October and they haven't arrived yet.

They haven't even cashed the check yet!

I could go to one of the their offices ... but it could take hours just to talk to somebody who can't help me.

I could ring them, but I'll be on hold for at least an hour ... and will probably end up talking to somebody who can't help me.

In the end I checked their website again and it says (something like) "if your tags haven't arrived within eight weeks, contact us again.".

Eight weeks???!!!!

But it also says that if you get hassled by the police for not having up-to-date tags, it's ok: so long as you sent off payment for the tags, you're covered.

Gotta love it.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Tesco and supermarkets in California

One of the things I used to really like about living in the UK was the supermarkets, especially Tesco.

It's probably just me rather than something inherent to UK supermarkets, but in my memories, of all the things you can get in tesco, they're all reasonably cheap, nothing is egregiously overpriced.

Here, there are lots of different supermarkets, and they all seem really *expensive*. Sometimes, outrageously so.

I do reckon, though, that it's probably just me. I'm used to getting the sorts of things I'm used to getting, and those sorts of things are just expensive here.

Things like smelly cheese, nice bread, butter, cheap natural yoghurt.... I'm used to them being dead cheap in Tesco and Sainsbury. Here, there not. Well, butter isn't *too* expensive (but I suspect "grass-fed" butter is. I mean, what? Anyway, that's a rant for another day.)

I imagine people moving from the USA to the UK have the same problem: the things they're *used* to are expensive, and they haven't adapted to liking things that aren't out-of-this-world expensive yet.

I'll get there. And the move back to the UK - if and when - will probably be much more traumatic! (e.g. But But But Mars bars are only supposed to cost 25p???!!!!!)


It has just rained.

It's early october here in Silicon Valley [0], I still wear shorts most of the time, we still have our summer duvet on our bed, and it still gets lovely and sunny and warm when the sun shines.

Yesterday was a cloudy, slightly chilly day. And Irish person (like me) might wonder if maybe it was time to put on long trousers, or maybe socks.

(Of course, the natives are all commenting out how *cold* it is. Bless.)

But yesterday it rained. It was just a slight smattering. Irish people would hardly notice. The ground had a slight smear of water on it after the "rain" had passed.

Apparently this is what winter is like. Chilly, often not sunny, warm during the day, occasional rain. It sounds just like the season I used to call summer!

[0] I imagine it's early october in other places too...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Netflix is down

As I write, netflix is down.

We use netflix for most of our tv watching. We have an "app" built into our TV (in hindsight, I should have got a cheap TV and a Roku box!) for netflix, so that's where most of our TV comes from.

For $8.99 a month, we get one physical DVD at a time through the post, and as much streamed stuff as we can watch.

I'm a *big* fan. I'm mildly annoyed that it's down right now, but we'll live.

I'm sure streamed movies ... whatever you want, almost ... will arrive back home soon enough, but I bet it'll cost, like, £24.99 a month or something outrageous like that. Sigh.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Suburban parks

One of the things I really like about living here in California is the parks: there are maybe four or five parks withing *walking* distance of our house, and tons within driving distance.

And they're all great: any one of them would be an exceptional park at home.

They all have tables and barbeque thingies (and you can bring your own), lots of green space, people walking dogs or playing volleyball, and (most importantly) swings and climbing frames and slides and whatnot.

One in particular near us (called Jack Fisher park) has a water play thingy: fountains and jets and the like. Great on a hot day.

Vasona park, not walkable but trivially driveable, has a big lake, and you can hire boats. (Or, I guess, bring your own.)

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Price of gas (petrol...)

I filled up the car last night. It's a minivan with a three litre (liter!) petrol engine. A V6. (It's a 2005 Mazda MPV. It's silver, since you ask.)

It seems to do about twenty mumble miles to the US gallon. A US gallon is a bit over 3.5 liters. So that's, what, six miles to the liter? Ouch.

A car like this would be unthinkably expensive to run at home. At £1.10 per litre of petrol, it would break your heart. But here, it just doesn't matter.

I guess the upshot is that it costs about the same to drive a mile here in a normal car as it does to drive a mile in a normal car at home in the UK.

People say gas is cheap here - it cost less than $3 per US gallon to fill up last night - but we adapt to adversity here!

Oh, octane levels: they price gas per octane level here, which somebody pointed was much lower than at home. The gas I put in yesterday was 87. Regular is maybe 90 and premium 93 or 94. I think. Can't remember exactly. In the UK, octane levels are much higher, I'm sure...

(And if I knew what an octane was... ;-)

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Sales tax when buying a car

In NI (and the UK, and the Republic of Ireland), when you buy a car second hand, you don't have to pay any taxes. So there's really nothing to stop you buying a car and selling it on: there is very little government-imposed *friction* to buying and selling cars. This is a good system.

Admittedly when you buy a *new* car, the price *includes* lots of taxes. But at least the price you see is the price you'll pay. More or less. (Assuming you don't get suckered into buying all sorts of crap by the sales fella...)

Here in California, the price you see when you buy a car is not the price you'll pay. You'll pay *about* ten per cent extra in taxes/fees. There are a few different components, but by far the biggest is the registration tax. I believe this actually goes to the county you live in rather than to the state. Which is something, I guess. The tax goes by different names in different counties, and may vary slightly in amount, but it's going to be pretty darn close to 10%.

But the thing I dislike about the California way is that they also charge this fee on second-hand car sales. When we bought our car (for $7200 or $7300, I forget which), I then had to physically go to the DMV (the topic of a future rant, possibly many) and pay them either $808 or $708 dollars. I remember that the car cost $8008 in total, even though the seller only got $7200.

(This nonsense explains why people tend to hang onto their cars more here in CA, why they have a different relationship to their cars to what I'm used to.)

Friday, 1 October 2010

Car "tags"

Every year here in California you have to get new "tags" for your car.

Your rear "licence plate" has two stickers on it: a month sticker and a year sticker. You have to get a new year sticker every year. The month sticker you keep pretty much forever.

You have to pay a registration every year to "renew your tags". This involves interacting with the DMV, which is a legendary pain.

I don't know how much it costs to renew your registration: we haven't done it yet. We bought our car a bit before the registration expired, but the seller had already renewed it. (If you don't renew it in time, there's a fine!!!)

Renewing your registration isn't hugely expensive: over $100, but less than $200. (ICBW!)

I suspect that to renew your registration you have to have proof of insurance and maybe also a smog certificate (analogous to the MOT cert at home, but far less thorough.) But you only have to start to even *think* about smog certificates when your car is a certain age.

This is all similar to the UK (and Ireland), but different: in the UK, you have to buy and display a circular tax disc in your windscreen. (Same in Ireland.) But in California, the cost of a tax disc isn't proportional to your engine's CO2 emissions in some standard test; it's a flat fee.

In the UK, you have to MOT your car every year after it's three or four years old .. in Northern Ireland, the MOT is due on the car's fourth "birthday". In Ireland (aka "down south"), you have to do the NCT every two years (I believe), once the car is over a certain age.

If you get your MOT done by the monopoly MOT testers in Northern Ireland, you get an MOT *disc*, which you are also required to display in your windscreen. (Like, WTF???) But if you get the MOT done in Britain (totally legit), you don't get such a disc, and therefore you don't have to display one. (Again, WTF??!)

In the south of Ireland, you also get an NCT disc (but I believe it's square shaped), which has to be displayed. Also, in the south of Ireland, you have to display an *insurance* disc (sic - again, it's square!) too. Thankfully in NI you don't have to do that. At least, not yet.

So cars in Britain have to display one piece of view-blocking paraphernalia: a tax disc. Cars in NI younger than four the same. Cars in NI older than four: two windscreen obstructions - tax disc and MOT disc. Cars down south: between two and three view blockers. Cars in California: none. It's better this way.