Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taxonomy for Dummies

Conversation overhead in a café:

- Do you want to taste this broccoli?

- No thanks.

- Oh, I forgot: you don't eat vegetables, do you?

- No, I don't.

- Hold on: I thought you loved corn on the cob.

- I do. But corn on the cob isn't a vegetable.

- That's true.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Great American Inventions

Given the rapid onset of winter round here, it's hardly surprising that many people do their jogging on fitness centre running machines. At a local centre, all the treadmills face outwards towards the street, so as you pass by you are momentarily confronted by what appears to be 30 to 50 people running, rowing and Nordic skiing towards you - though like all the best nightmares, they never actually get anywhere.

Fitness fanatic and budding inventer Alex Astilean clearly thought it was boring running on the spot in a sweat-filled room (I must admit he has a point), so he dreamt up a mobile treadmill that you could use outdoors.

The SPEEDFIT Treadmobil combines two classic American passions: fitness and automotive propulsion. It's a "men-powered" (his words, not mine) treadmill on four wheels with a rudimentary handlebar, as the following video shows:

There's only one thing that puzzles me: why would anyone pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars on a Treadmobil when they could just go running?

Alex also has another invention: the "all-green, non-motorize" SPEEDFIT SpeedBoard, and an even more attractive video to sell it with:

Unfortunately, Alex was so keen to market the Speedboard that he didn't wait for Anke to actually lose those 100 pounds (on top of what she spent on the Speedboard itself) before releasing his video. So now we'll never know if she ever achieved her American dream.

I wish both of them success.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Odd Products

Shopping can be an eye-opening and occasionally bewildering experience in the US, as the following products clearly show. But before you start, don't forget to sanitise your trolley handle:

How often have you found yourself 100 calories short of your recommended daily intake value? Now there's a solution to this dietary conundrum:

Invited to a fancy dress party at your local church? How's this for a God-given disguise:

(Yes, it really is a Jesus costume)

We all know honey is basically just sugar, and sugar is bad for you, right? So pick up a jar of this:

Gone to the dogs? Feeling ho(a)rse, sheepish or moo-dy? Try the snack vets go ape for:

Don't know why this is defined this way. Don't all recliners have two armrests? Perhaps it's because you can hold two glasses of beer at once. Perhaps because that makes it "stereo":

Who needs a hot, wooden hut and sweaty, naked Swedes when you can have this:

Are you one of the 2 billion people on this planet who ruin their feet wearing Crocs? We have the perfect accessory for your mobile phone:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nuclear Herd

I found out today that my 8-year-old daughter is a mad cow. So is my 5-year-old son.

From trying to donate blood in France, where you can't give blood if you've lived in the UK for a cumulative year, I'd known for a while that I and even Laurence were mad cows, but this latest revelation did come as something of a surprise.

The problem is that here in the United States they are so worried about contracting vCJD, the human form of BSE, that you may not give blood if you have spent just 3 months in the UK or indeed a total of five years in one of the following European countries at any time since 1980:
  • Albania
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • The Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Kosovo
  • Liechtenstein
  • Luxembourg
  • Macedonia
  • Montenegro
  • The Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Serbia
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Turkey
(Have I missed any?)

That makes both Anna and Tom officially mad as hatters.

Ironically, the Web site of the American Red Cross - the organisation responsible for collecting blood - states the following:

"There is no evidence that CJD can be transmitted from donors to patients through blood transfusions. However, nobody knows for certain that this cannot happen."

By that token, I could claim that all Americans are stupid because they've had fully eight years under George W Bush. I know that there's no evidence that stupidity can be transmitted from the president to the people through citizenship, but hey, nobody knows for certain that this cannot happen.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Insta-heat and Insta-fire

All summer long, as you walked out of our local supermarket, you had to pass by a large and virtually unmistakable display of bags of charcoal. That's hardly surprising, since no-one - us included - needed much encouragement to have a barbecue on the beach. Yet this being the land that brought you drive-through funeral parlours and fast food restaurants, this was no ordinary charcoal, but Match Light briquets, a special form of reprocessed coal dust that is so drenched in lighter fluid that you simply pile it up, apply a burning match, step back swiftly to avoid the ensuing ball of flame, and in ten minutes hey presto, you're ready to cook your chicken 'n' ribs.

Now that the temperatures are below freezing and no-one (mad dogs and Englishmen included) would do anything outside, this pile of Match Light bags has been replaced by an equally unmistakable pile of Duraflame firelogs.

Firelogs are another wonderful American invention. Gone are the days when you had to scrunch up paper, carefully pile up kindling then balance coal and wood of various sizes on top in the hope that maybe - maybe - after about an hour's diligent tending you would a nice fire roaring in the hearth. Firelogs are made of compressed sawdust soaked in natural wax.

As a result, they not only light in about 5-10 minutes, but they burn for exactly 3.5 hours and allegedly produce less soot - and therefore pollution - than wood. Good, eh?

Of course, we don't need firelogs in our house. Not because we don't have a fireplace, though. Oh no, ours is a real fake fireplace (which I'm tempted to turn on for the first time tonight).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Me Too

I can see Russians from my window!

Supersize Them

This weekend, Laurence told me about what some of her colleagues snack on: slices of apples smothered in peanut butter!

In an attempt to ascertain the dietary value of this healthy snack, we consulted my 48oz jar of Costco-brand peanut butter. This states - and I'm not exaggerating here - that a 32g (2 tbsp.) serving of peanut butter contains fully 16g of saturated fat. In other words, half of it is pure, unadulterated blubber. What's more, said jar reliably informs us that this corresponds to 25% of your recommended daily intake.

Given that Laurence is sure her colleagues put at least twice that much peanut butter on their apples, they must be consuming half (if not more) of their recommended dose of fat simply filling in time between meals!

Housekeeping Tips

One of our neighbours told us about a neat way to cut down on ironing and dry cleaning: you simply hang your suits and trousers in the shower and the steam presses them automatically.

That certainly sounds like a great labour-saving idea. I only wonder how you get rid of the water stains and dried-in shampoo afterwards.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Earthquake Preparedness

Some 5 million people are today taking part in the Great Southern California Shake-Out, a drill based on a pretend earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale.

In view of the number of fault lines and earthquakes in the region, it is undoubtedly a very good idea to prepare for the worst, and could potentially save many lives.

However, I do feel that the motto "Drop, Cover and Hold"

and the underlying message are reminiscent of the 1950s "Duck and Cover" campaign:

The latter may have been about how to react to a nuclear attack, but both suggest that cowering or hiding under a table is enough to survive the effects of such disasters - which perforce also include collapsing buildings. So unless tables are much stronger in the US than in Europe, I would guess that the practice is as useless a survival tactic as cowering in the event of a nuclear explosion.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Having lived in Germany (where virtually all your rubbish is separated at home and collected separately) and France (where virtually all your rubbish is simply thrown out), I was heartened to see that we have a recycling box, although I admit that I was a little sceptical when I realised that everything - from cardboard and paper to plastics and glass - was lumped together.

I was therefore particularly pleased to discover recently - having put them into the recycling bin for the past 3 months - that there is a 10-cent deposit on all fizzy-drink cans and bottles. Given my avid consumption of the aforementioned beverages, my shopping bag (yes I have one - it's even made of cotton) is now almost as full when I go to the supermarket as when I return.

However, as I heard on the radio this morning, there is an unfortunate downside to all this environmentally-friendly recollection of cans and bottles: because the deposit is only 5 cents in neighbouring states, Michigan loses an estimated $10 million a year because of people "exporting" their empties from another state.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Journalistic Endorsement

The guys at Newsweek magazine clearly read this blog. In fact, they appear so impressed with my political analysis that they put the headline of one of my posts on the cover of this week's issue.

Thank you, Newsweek.

I'm Dreaming of ...

... a white November?!

Barely a week after our second Indian summer and temperatures as high as 22°C, the following scene greeted us this morning:

Friday, November 7, 2008

First Puppy

According to the BBC, while President-elect Barack Obama is busy choosing his White House staff, the rest of his family is choosing the puppy that he promised his daughters in his election-night speech:

"Because daughter Malia has allergies, the Obamas may be considering a 'hypoallergenic' breed that sheds less hair. Options could include a labradoodle - a cross between a Labrador and a poodle - a schnoodle (schnauzer and poodle), or a cockapoo (cocker spaniel and poodle). Malia, however, is rumoured to favour a goldendoodle - a poodle crossed with a golden retriever."

Although I think the goldendoodle should have been called the poo retriever, I have a few suggestions of my own for the First Puppy:
  1. A German sausage (a cross between an Alsatian - aka German shepherd - and a dachshund - aka sausage dog)
  2. A spagbol (a cross between a spaniel and a border collie)
  3. A sheep poo (a cross between a poodle and a sheepdog).

Can anyone think of any other combinations the Obamas might choose?

Wassup 2008

Remember Budweiser's hilarious "Wassup" commercial from the year 2000?

Well, some bright spark has come up with a contemporary sequel using the same actors as in the original ad:

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Have trampoline, will bounce!

Downsize Me

I don't know whether it's all the Reese's peanut butter cups that I've been eating, the gallons of Coke I'm drinking or all the driving around, but rather than putting on weight, as I had feared, I've actually lost a tremendous amount in the three months since coming to America - and it's staying off!

As a result, I now look less like this

and more like this:


Laurence and I love cider, even though each of us prefers their national variety. Imagine our excitement then when we discovered that a famous producer of cider, the Franklin Cider Mill, was located just a short cycle away. Every now and again, the mill holds a fair, and people flock there to stock up on cider (half or whole gallons only - this is America after all) and freshly-baked doughnuts. 

On a recent fair day, Laurence took Anna and Tom down to Franklin to get us some of our adored tipple, but was somewhat taken aback when the man offered a glass to the kids. "Is that allowed?" she asked
. "Sure," the assistant replied. "All the kids round here love cider!"

It turns out that there is not a local waiver on the legal drinking age (21). American cider simply contains no alcohol. The only difference between normal apple juice and cider is that the latter is unfiltered and unpasteurised. Although I was heartbroken to discover this, I must admit that it really does taste delicious. And you can hardly taste the maggots.

Local News (contd.)

Local crime reporter D.W. has outdone himself again:

Woman Reports Minor Cut After Traffic Accident
   A 30-year-old woman leaving her apartment was involved in a car crash at the complex's exit onto Drake Road. A man, also 30, rear-ended her vehicle.
   The man reportedly lost his temper immediately upon exiting his vehicle and ripped some paperwork out of the woman's hand.
   The woman reported to police that at some point during the incident she suffered a small cut to the webbing of her left hand. The cut reportedly was deeper than a paper cut, but required nothing more than a Band-Aid to treat.
   The woman wanted the incident documented, nothing further.

Ignoring the wishes of the intriguingly web-fingered victim, D.W. decided to give the story two inches in the Beacon.


I needn't tell you that Halloween is big in the US. But look at the size of the pumpkin one of Laurence's colleagues spotted on the highway:

Monday, November 3, 2008

President Obama

Well, the votes have all been cast and counted, and the results are clear: Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States by a landslide.

No, you haven't slept through the entire 4th of November. This was the outcome of the mock election held at my children's elementary school today.

The Sound of Silence

One of the disappointing sides of autumn and the onset of winter is that it has robbed me of one of my favourite pursuits.

Sitting on the kerb waiting for the school bus to arrive, I would close my eyes, filter out the everpresent background hum of cars and wallow in the chirping of the crickets, croaking frogs, chattering chipmunks and rasping cidadas. For me it is the sound of summer, and recalls holidays in the sun, and more particularly southern France; a meditative, soothing, almost primeval lullaby that I could easily immerse myself in for hours.

In August this chirping, croaking, chattering and rasping was sometimes so loud that were were convinced it couldn't possible be natural and could only be caused by the overhead power lines.

Now all I have is the occasional honking V of Canada geese flying past. The rest is silence - and of course cars.

Party Colours

I was recently surprised to learn that the American Democratic Party, the marginally more left-wing of the two major political parties in the United States, is associated with the colour blue, while the more conservative Republicans have red as "their" colour despite the fact that it is typically associated with socialism, communism and other left-of-centre causes.

I was even more amazed to discover this weekend that neither political party had a standard colour until as recently as eight years ago (indeed the colour-coding is still unofficial). It wasn't until the 2000 election that NBC journalist Tim Russert decided at random to refer to "red states" and "blue states" when talking about traditionally Republican and Democratic strongholds respectively - and the classification has stuck.

Ironically, therefore, there must be right-wing extremists across America who are hoping the country will go red tomorrow, while diehard Democrats live in fear of the red peril.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Local News

I know you can't wait for the latest news from the Crime Watch section of my local paper, the Beacon. So without any further ado, I give you the low-down on our crime-riddled community in the immortal words of ace reporter D.W.:

   A woman living at a home on (...) told police that she left home about 1pm Oct 15 and discovered a small amount of money missing when she returned at 3pm.
   The woman left a couple of doors open at the home. When the woman returned, she noticed that the doors were slightly open.
   Inside, she saw a kitchen drawer open and an air compressor moved from its previous location. The only thing she noticed missing was about $2-$3 in loose change that had been on a television set.

Car Alarms

One great thing about America - if you're a driver, that is - is that most cars have alarms, and most car doors are locked and unlocked by remote control. So when you get out of your car, you simply press the "padlock" button once to lock the car, and a second time to prime the alarm. Cool, eh? Well, not entirely.

You see, what they don't tell you at cross-cultural training (yes, I've done that too), is that whenever people prime their alarm, the car horn sounds briefly to confirm this. I can't tell you how often I've jumped out of my skin thinking some SUV was bearing down on me, when actually the driver probably hadn't even noticed I was there. Even my own car still gets me spooked about 6 times out of every 10 - and it's me operating the remote!

Having more or less got used to this car-horn-does-not-equate-with-danger scenario, I now face a far greater peril: getting run down because I ignore a polite appeal to get out of the way of a fast-approaching, four-wheeled gas-guzzler.

You Are What You Eat

Yesterday we all went out to celebrate our quarter year in the Land of Opportunity.

Food is always a wonderful gauge of cultural assimilation. I've seen sweet and sour frogs' legs on several Chinese restaurant menus in Paris, and you can get curried sausages at chippies across Berlin. I've even come across (no pun intended) curry- and rhubarb-and-custard-flavoured condoms in a vending machine at Gatwick Airport. Last night's trip to the California Pizza Kitchen was a superb example of such culinary eclecticism.

Although we did not have the classic spaghetti with meatballs which most Americans will swear is genuinely Italian, our exquisite meal was definitely a case of adapting foreign cuisine to suit local palates. All of us had a pizza; my daughter Anna had a Hawaiian, my son Tom a barbecue chicken pizza, Laurence's had a pile of guacamole on the top, while I had a Thai chicken pizza that featured the following classic Mediterranean ingredients: beansprouts, peanuts and sesame sauce.

All thoroughly delicious, but I do wonder what Italian tourists must make of it.