Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Use of "km" in car ads

Something I find amusing to see in car ads here is what "km" means. If you see a car with "47km", it means it's got forty seven thousand (k for kilo) miles on it. Funny, huh?

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Winter in California

It's late November in California. (In other places too.) And winter is here. It rains a bit, it's unpleasantly chilly. We put the heating on sometimes. I only wear shorts when I'm cycling (which I don't do anywhere near as much.) I'm thinking we should buy a second car so I can drive to work without haggling.

Contrast this with Ireland where it's below zero for *way* too much of the time. And people get up before the sun does. I don't miss that so much.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Car rant

Our Mazda MPV annoys me. We've flattened the battery maybe five times now. It's starting to get silly.

It's always something we've done wrong: like leaving an inside light on, or not closing a door properly or something. But ... but, between us we've got, like, well over thirty years of driving experience, and we've had more flat batteries in the past three months than in all that time. It can't *just* be us, can it?

And while I'm on the subject, bottom-of-the-range cars in the US really do lack the most basic things: our car doesn't even have a trip counter. It just has one mileage display. One. That's it. I've never owned a car that didn't have a second, easily resettable one. Now I do. I like it, it's a nice car, and in the US it's fairly small (at home it'd be pretty big though!), but it's kinda basic.

(Update 2012-08-14: the battery thing was easily fixed by just replacing the battery. And the car does have a trip counter. I just needed to press a button. Duh. It's still a pretty basic car, but we like it more and more as time goes by.)

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Netflix changing their pricing model

Netflix are changing their prices. Our $8.99 a month (I know!!!) service is going up to $9.99 a month. That gets us unlimited streamed videos and one DVD at a time.

At the same time, though, they're introducing a $7.99 streaming-only service.

About. Time.

We'll probably watch a few videos from DVDs, then go streaming only. (Alternatively I'll figure that $2 a month isn't totally off the wall to get hold of those movies that I really want to watch but that aren't available for streaming yet. And so many really, really good movies aren't. The Godfather movies. Anything with Matt Damon in it. Disney stuff...)

Wednesday, 24 November 2010


It's Thanksgiving on Thursday this week. We have some friends coming round - all with children - so it should be good fun. One of them is American, so she can tell us what we're doing wrong!

We're going to cook a Turkey. Stuff it. Make gravy. Cranberry sauce. They're going to bring all sorts of interesting things too. Should be great...

Once I figure out what Thanksgiving is, I'll post about it here. Needless to say, nowhere else in the world knows what Thanksgiving is: it's a US-only thing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Return addresses

I was in a US post office for the very first time today. Something I noticed was a sign on the wall saying "Your letter must have a return address." The word "must" was underlined.

Now, I've always found it slightly odd that folks here in the US like to write their address in the top left corner on the front of envelopes when they post them. I don't much like the convention that you are *expected* to do it: I like privacy. But it doesn't bother me hugely. I still do it. But I always thought it was optional. And the internet thinks it is. But not this post office: that word "must" was underlined. How odd.

I should have asked about it!

Instead I just posted a letter, bought some UK stamps (for 98c each) and some US stamps ... they must've been about 50c each, maybe a little less. (I don't have the receipt handy.)

They call them "forever" stamps: they're first class stamps that don't have the price on them, so they don't "expire". We've had them in the UK for, like, forever.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Amazon and sales tax

One of the (many) reasons people buy from Amazon.com is that they don't charge sales tax.

It's a feature of the US tax systems (and interstate commerce in general) that a state can only collect sales tax from companies that have a significant presence in their state.

Amazon mostly studiously avoids having a presence in states with a sales tax. The upshot is that for residents of California (ie. me) if you buy from amazon, you save 10% over buying in a shop. Obviously other considerations will often apply: convenience; whether amazon actually *is* cheaper; etc. But isn't it neat?

In the EU, on the other hand, companies that sell above a certain threshold (about a hundred thousand euro, possibly only to consumers) into any EU countries have to register with the VAT authorities in that country and collect VAT in that country for stuff sold into that country. BUT, if you sell to a vat-registered _company_ in a country you're not vat registered in, and they tell you their VAT number, you don't have to charge them [your country's] VAT. If you're registered in their country, of course, you charge them their country's rate. (They'll "claim it back" (or, rather, deduct it from the payment they make of all the vat they in turn charged) anyway, but they get cashflow advantages this way.)

This inter-country VAT system, incidentally, is seriously abused ("carousel fraud", I think it's called) for some items like computer memory and mobile phones. So, of course, the system is constantly being tweaked to make life harder for everybody. (Because that's what governments *do*. Sigh.)

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Our bins (and rubbish in general)

We get our rubbish picked up once a week. We put the bins out on the kerb ("curb") on Monday night, and the bin lorry comes on Tuesday.

It's really cool: the driver doesn't get out of his lorry. An arm comes out of the side, picks up the bin, and empties it into the inside of the lorry. You have to leave the bins with the handle towards the curb, and a bit of space between them.

I think the same lorry takes both the recycling and the landfill waste. I'm pretty sure they go into separate halves of the lorry.

We have three bins: a great big recycling one (it's a bit bigger than normal-sized bins at home); a small landfill one (it's the same size as half-size bins at home); and a great big garden waste one. (I must find out if we can put food into the garden waste bin. And no, we don't compost. But the waste company surely does.)

In Northern Ireland, waste disposal is part of your rates (property tax).... every bi-week they come and take away one or other of your bins: recycling (and garden waste, during the summer) one week, and landfill the next week. The bins are about the same size (big, but not *quite* as big as big bins here.)

Bins here are wheeled, and the binmen in NI have to manually wheel the bins over to the arms at the back of the bin lorries.

One cool thing about NI is that there are lots of municipal dumps you can take arbitrary stuff to and dump it. They have lots of separate skips for different stuff (wood, batteries, paint, cardboard, metal, flourescent tubes, clothes, bottles, cans etc etc), and skips for just landfill waste. And they don't charge. It's a pretty great system. Also, if you've got too much waste than will fit in your landfill bin in two weeks (or if you forget to put your bin out!!!) you can just bring a couple of rubbish bags to the dump. Phew.

I don't know how people dispose of arbitrary stuff here in California. Mostly they have yard sales, as far as I can see, but ... they must have to go to the dump *sometime*. I must find out.

We pay about $30 a month for garbage charges. The company that handles it is called West Valley Recycles. They're a pleasure to deal with.

Friday, 19 November 2010


When you buy bottled water, or soft drinks, or beer in californaia, there's an extra tax you have to pay called CRV. Normal countries (and, indeed, many other states in the US) have a system of deposits.

If you're buying cheap bottled water, than it's a lot, proportionally. But if you're buying expensive beer, then not so much. It's *five cents* a bottle/can. (Apparently it's ten cents for big bottles, but I've never bought any of them, as far as I know.)

CRV is *like* a deposit, except you don't bring empties back to where you got them from. Instead you bring them back to these dedicated depots. And you queue for half an hour, and eventually they weigh your stuff and give you some percentage of what you're entitled to.

I don't actually know this first hand though: I haven't actually *been* to one of these places. I figure it's not really worth my while. I should go, but I don't. We don't use that much stuff with CRV, anyway: we don't drink much coke, I don't drink *that* much beer, and we don't drink much bottled water. So we just put all that stuff in our recycling bin.

Of course, the UK doesn't do anything like this. The US - California anyway - is *way* ahead of the UK and Ireland when it comes to recycling! (Assuming you think that recycling is a Good Thing - which I mostly do, even when it's economically wasteful. (What can I say? Green is the new religion.))


Oh, there's no CRV on wine. Result.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Sales tax (and VAT)

In america the price you see for things isn't necessarily the price you'll pay at the checkout. They almost always add sales tax at the checkout.

Plus, the sales tax varies depending on where you're buying from. There's probably a state component (most of it), plus a local component.

In california, sales tax is *about* 10%. I think it actually varies from, like, 9% to 9.75%, but I just figure it's about 10%.

It makes sense to advertise prices ex tax for several reasons:
1. A multi-outlet chain couldn't advertise prices if the prices would be different in all their stores
2. Taxpayers think it important that the sales TAX be as prominent as possible, to avoid people taking it for granted. After all, it's *them* taking *your* money.

This contrasts with the UK, where VAT (which is *like* sales tax, but not the same) is always included in the price for sales mostly to consumers. (Stuff that's mostly sold to businesses can be advertised with the exclusive-of-vat price.) The VAT rate is the same throughout the country, so the "don't know what the price will be" argument doesn't make sense.

I'm torn: on the one hand, I like the convenience of the UK. On the other, I like the fact that Americans constantly bristle about tax. If you ask me, they don't bristle enough, but any bristling is good bristling.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Cheap wine in walmart

Walmart sell a brand of wine called "Oak Leaf". It is, of course, Californian. It tastes really nice. I don't know if it's on special offer or what, but it's $1.97 a bottle.

There's a Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Shiraz. Me, I prefer the cab sauv, but I suspect that I wouldn't be able to tell them apart in a taste test.

(I definitely wouldn't be able to tell all *three* apart in a blind taste test - three-way taste tests are practically impossible.)

(I also have a suspicion that they're all the same - just different labels.... ;-)

Local wine, tastes great, dirt cheap. Isn't that fantastic?

Oh, they have some white wines too, but I can live without white wine.

To be honest, I prefer to drink beer. But did I mention the wine is $1.97 a bottle? Decent beer costs about a dollar a bottle when on special offer, more when not. I mean, I don't want to sound like a student who has just discovered The Crescent, but ... well, I guess I'm a wine drinker now.

Oh, it gets better: there's no CRV on wine. I can think of lots of reasons why not, but my guess is that the folks who write the laws (and those who lobby for them) drink wine, not beer. Plus, wine is probably Big Business in california, and beer isn't.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Crisps v Chips

I think I'm just old, but I find it kinda cumbersome to mentally translate betwen "chips" and "crisps" here in the US. I have to really think about it every time.

At home, obviously, chips are potatoes sliced up and fried, and crisps are potatoes sliced up and ... hang on! No, chips are potates cut up into rectangular-ish chunks, and deep fried. And crisps are potatoes cut into wafer thin slices and deep fried.

Crisps are made by Tayto. (By law in Ireland, 50% of your crisp intake must be Tayto.) I like Cheese & Onion. Also Salt & Vinegar. I can't stand Ready Salted. There are all sorts of poncey flavours like "balsamic vinegar and dead sea rock salt from the time of Jesus". Nah.

There are also abominations (albeit very, very tasty abominations) like Pringles. They're not made from sliced spud. Rather they're made from re-formed mushed spud. Nice, but weird.

Chips are what you get in a chippie. With fish. Or in a chinese restaurant. (I know!!!) They're great with salt and vinegar. (Or mayonnaise ... I'm weird!) Again, they should be made from directly sliced spud, not reconstituted mush. Also, they should be fairly chunky. Not the skinny waif chips you get in McDonalds.

Anyway, here in the USA, crisps are called chips. And chips are called fries.

Chips (I'd call them crisps) are mostly similar, but there are much more of the re-constituted mush variety (like pringles) than "normal" crisps. There's a brand/company called Frito that does reasonably good crisps. (They call them chips.)

I haven't really had fries (I'd call them chips) here. Maybe with a burger sometimes. They're usually very good. They're often made from directly sliced spud. They're often reasonably thick.

Oh, sometimes you see places advertising "Fish and Chips", which is what you'd expect. Must try that sometime!

I don't eat much in the way of either chips or crisps, so I'm not bothered.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Range (petrol)

Something I find funny here is that cars have hardly any range.

Our Mazda MPV, for example, takes about $50 to fill up. And it'll do about 300 miles before it needs filled again. I don't know about you, but that seems crap to me.

I mean, it's totally logical: cars here are just less efficient than at home, but in general they have the same size petrol tanks.

My car at home - a petrol Stilo - did something like over 500 miles between fills. Our Alhambra the same, maybe over 600 sometimes.

Really efficient cars - like the Prius - get tiny fuel tanks.

It's probably a feature...

Thursday, 11 November 2010


Coupons are big here in the US. In the UK/Ireland, coupons exist, but folk as a rule don't use them so much. They're just not part of the culture.

In the US, it's quite normal to collect coupons too use when you do your grocery shopping. Stuff can be cheap, but name brand stuff usually isn't. If you just go into a random supermarket here and buy your usual stuff, you'll pay well over the odds. A membership card, coupons, and only buying things when they're on special offer all contribute *much* more to savings than they would at home.

I think there might be funny laws here in California about coupons. There are funny laws about everything else. (Honestly, it constantly amazes me that people start businesses in California!)

Saturday, 6 November 2010


In UK/Ireland biscuits are a national treasure. Readily available, cheap, flippin' delicious, varied, suitable for dipping in tea, and sweet.

Here in the USA, those things are called cookies. They're ... different. It's not possible to go into a normal supermarket and buy a packet of e.g. hob nobs, or something like that. Cookies are ... well, they're lovely, but they're differnet. They have chocolate chips in them. They come in a bag. Or a see-through box.

In the USA, though, *biscuits* look a bit like mashed potato. And they're savoury. And made with flour. I have yet to try them, but I intend to the next time I see them on a menu.

Friday, 5 November 2010


It looks like the word "gravy" in UK/Ireland means something different in the USA.

At home, gravy is *brown*. It's usually thick, but might be a bit runny. It's made with the juices of beef (or chicken, or whatever) leftover in the pan, heated up, maybe with onions (aswell or instead), reduced, wine added, cornflour, that sort of thing.

Or you could just buy bisto granules. That's what I do. And add it to the juices. Makes it extra rich. Also I follow the directions religiously, so it's nice 'n' thick.

Here in the USA though, it looks like gravy means a thick, creamy sauce. The photos on the front of the packets looks like somebody poured cream sauce over their steak.

I'm sure it's lovely, but it's not what I'm looking for!

They also have stuff called "brown gravy", which is more like what I'm after. And in one supermarket I found some classic bisto, but it's powder, not granules, so it's a bit of a pain to make.

Thankfully the boys Auntie was visiting recently and brought us some bisto granules. Yay!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Duvets v Comforters

In NI/UK/Ireland, we call them Duvets or maybe Continental Quilts.

In California, they call them Comforters.

Funny, huh?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010


Recently the US has passed a healthcare reform bill. I can't claim to understand it, but from what I can tell, it makes a fucked up system worse, if that's possible.

One of the things it does is *forces* you to have health insurance. If you don't have health insurance, you have to pay an extra tax - several thousand dollars a year, afaik. That's just insane, but there you go.

One good thing (I think) it does though is make it illegal for health care providers to refuse you cover if you have pre-existing conditions. (I mean, who doesn't have pre-existing conditions?!) I'm not sure if it lets them charge you an outrageous premium for this.

(I could be totally wrong about all this. In fact, I probably am. If you can picture an authoritative source on all this ... I am not that.)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: one of the many absurdities of the american healthcare system is how it's all called "insurance", even for the most routine healthcare things. Do you take out "insurance" against having to service your car?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


As far as I can tell, there are two types of health insurance here in California: PPO and HMO.

HMO is most like the NHS - you have a GP, they are your gatekeeper for health care. If your GP approves something, they'll sort it out. If they don't approve, well that's too bad.

The alternative is the PPO. Here you don't have a GP, and you have to pick what doctor/whatever to go to whenever you need something. Roughly, you'll pay 10% of the cost (which will be expensive!) if it's "in network" ... that is, somebody approved by your PPO provider ... and 30% of the cost if it's "out of network".

There are other things that help make this work: you can set up a "Health Savings Account" and pay money into it before tax. Then you can use that to pay for the more routine parts of your health insurance.

Oh, of course, there are other possibilities. You could pay for everything out of pocket.

Generally it seems quite odd to me that everything to do with healthcare is called "insurance" here, even for stuff that is fairly routine. It's like your house insurance covering having to paint your house or clean your windows, or your car insurance covering new tires (sic) and even petrol.

Everything is in stark contrast to the NHS, which Just Works. (Except when it doesn't, or when it works slowly.)

Monday, 1 November 2010

Health Insurance - HMO

I'll hopefully end up writing dozens of posts on health insurance and how the healthcare system in the US (well, California) differs from the NHS, but let me start with this:

We're with Kaiser Permanente. It's called a "HMO", and an HMO is fairly similar to the NHS.

You pay yer money every month. (Mostly, my employer pays. It's, like, $8k a year or something for the family. Yikes.) You have a doctor, they're exactly like your GP. If you need something, your GP is the person you go to. If you try to bypass your GP, you'll have to pay for it totally yourself.

Of course, if you have to go to the ER ('cos that's what they call it here!), that'll be covered. Probably. We haven't had to yet. If we did, we'd probably go to the Kaiser ER, since it's not far away from our house.

In the UK, of course, the NHS is pretty much free, and you won't have any nasty financial surprises. I really love the NHS, I reckon it's one of the greatest things the British have ever built, possibly *the* greatest. It definitely has its flaws, but it's still amazing.