Friday, February 27, 2009


I heard on the radio this morning that Americans now owe a cumulative $3 trillion ($3,000,000,000,000).

To get this into perspective, that's equal to the country's entire gross domestic product.

Only once before has the US national debt equalled GDP: in 1929.

Weights & Measures

Call me an ultramodern European metriphile, but didn't imperial measures go out with imperialism? Either way, try as I might, I simply can't get my head round American weights and measures.

The cup is a classic example. Up to now, I thought this was a receptacle for things like coffee or tea. Silly me. It's actually a unit of dry or fluid volume equal to 2 gills - no, not fish lungs - or 19 tablespoons (I just love nice round numbers).

Next up: the peck. Again, this is not a kiss on the cheek or what a bird does, but the equivalent of 8 quarts, a quarter of a bushel or 16 dry pints (which I always thought meant it's time to get another round).

Fahrenheit, a unit of temperature, is another great one. Water freezes not at a memorable value like 0° Fahrenheit, but at 32°F. And it boils at a similarly mnemonic 212°F. From this mathematically-oriented souls could probably deduce a formula for converting Fahrenheit to Celsius. But get this: -40°F equals -40°C.

Miles are another oddity. Rather than having a simple pattern like 1km=1000m, 1m=100cm and 1cm=10mm, a mile comprises 1760 yards - "gardens" to you and me - or 5280 feet of indeterminate shoe size. And a foot consists of not 10, but 12 inches. So there are 63,360 inches to the mile; another wonderfully round number. But that's not all: there are 36 inches to the yard, and inches are divided not into tenths or hundredths, but eighths.

Last, but by no means least, there is the gallon, a unit you are confronted with every time you fill up your American car at a gas (i.e. petrol) station. Luckily for New World newbies like myself, there is a very simple rule for this: there are very few miles to the gallon.

Odd Products

Why buy spray cheese when you can get "organic" spray pancake batter?

Continuing on the cheesy theme, some bright spark clearly thought it would a good idea to invent a sausage that tastes of cheese:

Incidentally, the label reads: "No artificial flavors or by-products. Ingredients: (...) sodium phosphate, sodium alginate, sorbic acid, flavor, sodium lactate, corn syrup, dextrose, sodium phosphates, sodium diacetate, sodium ascorbate, sodium nitrite."

I knew Americans eat Swiss people. Now it turns out they eat Asians too:

And finally, a great idea for couch potatoes whose pet is too fat: a treadmill for dogs.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gustatory Nostalgia

God, how I miss ripe, unpasteurised camembert (bien fait, sans blanc)!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Silly Statistics

I love daft statistics.

Although I could undoubtedly go on ad infinitum, this is just a sample of the America-based statistics I've uncovered at reputable sources:

  • New Yorkers have the country's longest mean travel time to work: 30.9 minutes.
  • Mormon state Utah has the country's highest birth rate, yet the lowest per-pupil spending on education.
  • 40.5% of adult West Virginians have no natural teeth.
  • 24% of Texans have no health insurance.
  • 21.8% of Wisconsinites consume more than five alcoholic drinks at a sitting.
  • Mississippi has both the country's highest teen birth rate and the highest death rate.
  • Exactly a third (33.3%) of Americans have poor mental health.
  • DC has a violent crime rate three times the national average.
  • Despite introducing the world to peanut butter, 3.2 million Americans are allergic to peanuts or other nuts.
  • 9.5% of American boys are diagnosed as suffering from attention-deficit disorder (ADHD).
  • One-third of Massachusetts children are born by caesarean section (the national average is 30%).
  • The national divorce rate in the US (3.6 per 1000) is almost half the marriage rate (7.5).

Mobiles and Accidents

Did you know that the United States is considering restricting the use of mobile phones and MP3 players by pedestrians because of the danger that this might distract them and cause accidents, yet drivers are free to use mobile phones to make calls and even send text messages in most states?


Without wanting to sound flippant, obesity is a huge problem in the United States.

Only last month, another worrying milestone was reached when the proportion of Americans who are obese actually exceeded that of those who are merely overweight.

According to, a staggering 60% of the American population is overweight or obese. The average weight of an adult woman is currently 163 pounds (74kg). Even young children are now routinely screened for cholesterol because 16% (more than one in six) of them are obese.

Oddly enough, obesity is not evenly distributed across the States. The District of Columbia is home to not only the nation's capital, but also the nation's slimmest people - though this too is relative, since fully 52.8% of its inhabitants are overweight. At the other end of the scale there's Kentucky, the home of Kentucky Fried Chicken (rebranded as "KFC" to shake off negative publicity about the poor quality of its food). Two-thirds (66.3%) of Kentuckians are overweight.

Poor nutrition is undoubtedly to blame, but so are huge restaurant portions which are often priced so low that some people rarely eat at home because it would cost them more to prepare their own food than to drive to a restaurant or order a takeaway and eat their fill.

Sedentary, car-oriented lifestyles don't help either: just 31% of all Americans exercise regularly. 39.5% never engage in any form of physical activity.

See No Evil, Speak No Evil

I nearly provoked a major international incident yesterday.

My children and I belong to a local sports club. After we had all engaged in our various sporting activities, and for lack of a family changing room, I innocently took my six-year-old and eight-year-old - one of whom is undoubtedly of the female persuasion - with me into the men's locker room, where they changed out of their gym trousers and t-shirts, and put their shoes and socks back on.

At this point in my tale I should point out that the aforementioned sports club has no fewer than four changing rooms: one for boys, one for girls, one for men and one for women. The door of the boys' changing room bears a large sign proclaiming that girls over the age of four may not enter. The girls' changing room door bears a similarly-sized edict relating to boys. Unbeknownst to me, the "men's locker room" and presumably its female counterpart are out of bounds to anyone under the age of 14.

Given that I had thus unwittingly contravened not one but several rules of this fine suburban establishment, how do you think its fee-paying patrons reacted to this scurrilous assault on their sexuality, this blatant affront to the carefully-nurtured puritan mores of an entire continent?* Did they come up to me and say, "Look here, old chap: I'm afraid this is the gents' changing room, and children are not permitted"? Did any of these upstanding members of male society tap me on the shoulder and say, "Excuse me, sir, but kids ain't allowed in the men's locker room"?

They did not.

Clearly intimidated by my British accent and aghast at my European pre-teens' wanton disregard for their hosts' sensibilities, one or more of them did what any man in their position would do: they "took the Fifth"**, crept out of the locker room and reported me to management.


* People in the US insist that the land-mass referred to as "America" is not one, but two continents, the northernmost of which they grudgingly share with the Canadians.
** Exercised their right to remain silent rather than incriminate themselves, as granted under the 5th Amendment of the American Constitution.

More Proof That AE Ain't BE

Going skiing on Sunday reminded me of how I'd made a fool of myself the previous weekend.

In an effort to cut the cost of equipment hire, my wife and I had bought ourselves skis and ski boots. However, when we first went out on the snow with our new gear, my right boot felt somewhat tighter than my left. Remembering that I'd seen a sign advertising a "free ski check", I went and asked if they could have a look at the binding on my right ski.

Imagine my embarrassment therefore when the young man explained that the complimentary service on offer was merely the ability to leave your skis and poles in a sort of outdoor cloakroom.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

It's All Relative

A winter storm warning is in effect today because up to two inches of snow an hour are expected, making driving conditions extremely hazardous. People are therefore being urged to travel only in emergencies.

When I told her about this, my wife replied, "I need to go to the hairdresser. That's an emergency, isn't it?"

Suburban Crime

The crime wave that has swept our corner of suburbia (see earlier posts) has now reached our very doorstep - that is to say our street - as this article from our local newspaper, the Beacon, clearly shows:

   Police received a report January 9 that a resident's vehicle had been stolen from XXX Drive after last being seen at 9pm January 8. The car, a 1997 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, was left unlocked with the keys on the front seat, police said.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sports Presenters

America has a black president and has had a black foreign minister (Colin Powell). It has black senators and congressmen, and there are blacks at every level of society in both the private and the public sector.

It is therefore rather strange that in basketball, a sport in which about 98% of the best players are black (everyone knows that White Boys Can't Jump), all the TV presenters are white, while blacks are merely invited expert guests or commentators.

It is not as if blacks weren't good presenters. There are plenty of excellent black talk show hosts and news anchors. So why, I wonder, is there this glaring anomaly in sport?

Thursday, February 19, 2009


We've all heard about the woes of the American car industry, brought on largely by the fact that Ford, General Motors, Chrysler et al continued to focus on making ugly, gas-guzzling SUVs long after consumers had  begun migrating in droves to sleeker, smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

Noting the steep decline in the fortunes of the "Detroit Three" (which it helped trigger by its own divorce from Chrysler), Mercedes clearly thought that it could corner a greater share of the American market. After all, Mercedes is known for making good-looking yet powerful cars.

So what did it do? It created this:

a 3.5-litre SUV every bit as ugly as anything the Americans could conceive, and with fuel consumption of 23 miles to the gallon.

A case of "Rücksprung durch Technik"?


Netflix is another great New-World idea that should be exported to the Old World, and just like many other convenience or labour-saving services developed on this side of the Atlantic, Netflix follows the Mohamed-and-the-Mountain principle that can best be summed up as "Why go out for something when it can be brought to me?"

In all fairness to my hosts, there are good grounds for starting up a DVD home-delivery service. In Europe, where space is a scarce commodity, your local video shop is usually right round the corner, i.e. within walking distance. By contrast, in spacious North America the nearest video rental store is several miles away at best. And I'm all in favour of any idea that prevents people getting into their car.

But Netflix is far more than simply a virtual video shop with a huge catalogue. Rather than renting DVDs one at a time, you create an online wishlist of the films you want to see, and these are sent to you in the order that you determine. Once you have watched a film, you just replace it in the envelope it came in, and pop this in your mailbox.
The moment Netflix receives it - usually the next day - they send the next one. As such you could get a new film every two days (in fact, many films can be viewed online, so you don't even have to wait for them to be sent to you).

Another difference to the conventional video-rental model is that you do not pay by the day. Because you take out a monthly subscription to Netflix, you can keep each film as long as you like - although that also means that you won't be able to get a new one either.

Having said that, subscriptions are also available for two or three DVDs at a time, a particular godsend if you have children or, as is also our case, your wife prefers love stories and you prefer science fiction.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Undoubtedly true: contents are jumbo size, sweet and tangy.
Undoubtedly false: contains pickle lovers, bread, butter and/or chips.


I'm gutted: had I only lived in Iowa, I could have claimed a calf-cow refund on my tax declaration!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Middle Names

Middle names are used completely differently in America - or rather, they are used on a daily basis rather than merely adorning your birth certificate. As a result, my daughter is routinely called "Anna Marie" by her teachers, and regularly has to explain that she only ever uses her first name. 

Things get more complicated if you have more than one middle name. In this case, the second and subsequent middle names are usually abbreviated for "daily" use, although bearers of just one middle name may abbreviate it anyway (e.g. George W. Bush) for clarity's sake.

Because people use either their middle names or abbreviations thereof whenever referring to themselves, they also do so on application forms. However, being New World newbies, we did not know this, so when we opened a bank account, my wife duly listed her three middle names as directed. Unfortunately, this meant that she was issued with the following card, on which the first and middle names took up so much space that there wasn't enough room for them all - let alone the surname!

Needless to say, as someone with a three-letter first name and no middle name whatsoever, I did not have the same problem.

Odd Products

Sounds tasty!

I hope this means something different in America

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Technology Meets Dentistry

Overheard at a department store:

"I want to get a bluetooth."

Winter Essentials

Forget snow-shovels. When it comes to getting rid of frozen precipitation, my weapon of choice is the ice scraper.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not talking about those pathetic little moulded plastic de-icers that you keep in the glove compartment of your car. Oh, no. I'm talking about a precision engineered tool with a three-foot steel core shaft and a flat, sharpened steel blade that will cut through any car-compressed or simply neglect-compacted ice sheets that are foolish enough to build up on your drive.

An ice scraper may not be as crudely efficient as my John Deere wishlist-topper, the snow blower, but there's nothing as satisfying as slicing through a bank of thick ice using nothing more environmentally damaging than Reese's-fuelled manpower.

Common or garden-centre snow blower

Given the challenges of lots of snow and a lack of both fences and pavements (and therefore kerbs), another must-have winter product is the driveway marker. These brightly-coloured four-foot poles are stuck into the ground when the first flurries fall to prevent cars inadvertently driving across your garden, which is, after all, at the same height as the adjacent road, especially when thick snow blurs the boundaries between the two.

Because there are ditches along both sides of many roads and these are quickly obscured by the twin forces of snow and snow ploughs, driveway markers have the added advantage that they ensure you approach your garage along your drive rather than having to abandon your Hummer/SUV/4x4 (delete where appropriate) in the aforementioned ditch.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Greeters are quintessentially American; the epitome of the service-oriented culture. Their job consists entirely of standing at the entrance to a store and welcoming shoppers as if ushering guests into their own home. The warmth may be as genuine as a prostitute's kiss, but they must have a perceptible effect on sales otherwise shops wouldn't pay people to work as greeters.

Oddly enough for such a common sight in everywhere from Costco and K-Mart to Ikea, the word "greeter" is neither listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary (the Bible of American English) nor does it have a Wikipedia entry.

Benign and humdrum as the job may appear, it is not always without danger. Last November, a greeter was killed during a stampede on the first day of the post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" sale, when bargain-hunters who couldn't wait for a Walmart store to open broke down the front door, crushing the greeter in the process.

On a lighter note, there has been speculation that the people-handling skills and qualifications required of the greeter make it the perfect profession for at least one recently unemployed pre-retiree:


Our public library is exactly how I imagined the ideal library would be.

In France they would call it a "médiatheque", but the term doesn't begin to do our library justice.

Far from being a stuffy, poorly-lit place of hushed voices aimed primarily at adults, our anything but humble municipal library is light and airy, has no fewer than three play areas for children of different ages, coloured pipes snake along walls for playing whispering gallery, there are dressing-up costumes and dozens of cuddly toys, about a dozen computers with preloaded educational games and child-size mice. And noise is permitted (if not necessarily encouraged).

Then there must be about 20 terminals dotted around the library simply for the purpose of surfing the Internet or word processing, many of them with scanners, not to mention a dedicated computer room containing another 30 or so PCs, five group study rooms (each offering a table and seating for two or three people and several tutorial rooms for one-on-one work, free wi-fi access and electricity sockets throughout the library, magazines, newspapers and - my particular favourite - armchairs right in front of blazing fireplaces for extra-cosy reading.

On the purely lending side, you aren't restricted to books either, though there are certainly plenty of them, especially in the vast children's section. There are CDs, CD-ROMS and language courses for children and adults, lots of audiobooks, a vast and extremely up-to-date collection of DVDs and even MP3 audiobook players for borrowing - all free of charge.

One time I was there, I overheard a conversation between one of the librarians and an elderly man who had seen a reference to a biblical passage in a film he'd borrowed. The librarian not only scanned the entire DVD to find it, but wrote down the position (to the second) and printed out a screenshot of the relevant frame showing the passage in question.

If you can't quite finish your borrowed film or book within the permitted 2 or 4 weeks respectively, you don't actually need to come into the library to extend it, because everything can be reviewed and renewed online. You can even check what's in stock, order temporarily unavailable books and reserve study or tutorial rooms from the comfort of your home computer.

Add seven-day opening, often until 9pm, and you have a wonderful gift to the local community, and not surprisingly one that earned a nationwide top-ten ranking.

Spray Cheese

After six long months trawling the malls and supermarkets of America, my quest is at an end: I have finally tracked down spray cheese; a culinary abomination that sends chills down the spines of Frenchmen and was long considered so grotesque that it was thought mythical across the Old World.

Yes indeed, I am the proud owner of an aerosol can of Easy Cheese, a suspiciously bright orange sludge that looks like it was made by NASA for consumption in space and tastes like those slices of processed "toast" cheese that always manage to stick to the top of your mouth.

Now all I need to do is find a use for it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Fed up with all the screaming, the endless soiled nappies and sleepless nights?
We'll replace your child for another more user-friendly one!
(Only known drawback: it may resemble a marsupial and have flat feet, eight fingers and six toes)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Rule of Thumb

You know it's pretty cold outside when you can actually feel the hairs inside your nostrils freezing as you walk your children 100 metres from the car park to their school.

(-23°C this morning with a wind-chill factor of -31°C)