Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Life Imitates Art Imitating Life

You may know the Idiotsofants' "wii breakfast" sketch, in which they poke fun at the way in which computers and computer games are simulating increasingly inane real-world activities in the virtual world. In case you haven't seen it, here it is:

Today my daughter came home with a catalogue of books, CDs and CD-ROMs that she could buy through her school with a proportion of the sales going to the school. One of these was the following:

I wonder if one of the 55 "real-world dishes" is an English cooked breakfast.

Price Labels

One thing that I always forget when I go shopping in the States is that - at least here in Michigan - price labels are a notable exception to the rule "what you see is what you get".

Time and again I have counted out my money while waiting in line, only to get to the checkout and discover that the price shown on the label does not include sales tax (i.e. VAT). Since I don't know what the percentage is anyway, and it's probably some round figure like 3.872%, I now don't even attempt to pay by cash anymore, and simply hand over my credit card instead.

Apart from the obvious inconvenience of not knowing how much you are going to spend, I am at a loss to understand why price tags can't simply show the total amount - unless of course it's a cunning plan to prevent having to handle cash or miscalculating change. The only other place I ever recall seeing this was at an office supplies store in France whose customers were mainly companies and therefore didn't have to pay VAT (or rather, they claimed it back). That clearly can't be the case at every store in the US, and yet all products - from sardines to sofas - are marked in this way.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Weights & Measures

This weights and measures thing is getting really ridiculous, and I have now officially thrown in the towel.

Get this: my wife wanted to give one of her recipes to someone here in the States, so she asked me to convert her units in grams to US cups. A quick search on the Internet pulled up a page on Gourmetsleuth.com which offered a handy conversion calculator based on the formula 1 cup = 229.92 grams.

This yielded the following results:

600g sugar = 2.6 cups
300g flour = 1.3 cups

Further down the page - luckily I looked - the site completely negated its own calculator by saying that actually the conversion factor varies depending on what you're weighing! As such, a cup can be as little as 120 grams or as much as 290!

From the examples given, a cup of granulated sugar weighs 200g and a cup of ordinary flour 125g. This means ...

600g sugar = 3 cups
300g flour = 2.4 cups

Compare and contrast.

Culinary Expertise

My neighbour gave me this interview from Family Circle magazine because she knew what I thought about iced water. I also find it interesting because of what it says about this person's culinary skills.

I'm no chef, but my kids love my ...
Ice water. They say I put in just enough ice, and they only want it when I make it. They do like my lasagna, but ice water is what I get the most compliments on.

I can just imagine those compliments: "Hey Polly, this iced water is awesome! It's so cold! What's the secret? Boy, I wish I could make iced water like this. You have a real talent there."

Thursday, March 19, 2009


The British robin is a loveable, unassuming little fellow with a red breast; the epitome of the plucky, minding-his-own-business, English underdog.

His brash New World cousin, Turdus migratorius (I swear that's its real name!), is not only the state bird of Michigan. The American robin is a veritable behemoth with a huge, rust-coloured beer-belly, weighing in at twice the size of its European counterpart.

Putting the two robins side-by-side is just like comparing an American footballer to a rugby player.

And do you know what they call our robin? An "Old World Flycatcher"!

Sports Clubs

I've already mentioned my brush with the authorities at my local sports club, but I've just realised that I have so far completely neglected to mention another unusual (for an old worlder, that is) aspect of American sports/fitness clubs, namely the changing rooms.

Although I have been to only two such clubs, and cannot therefore claim to have sampled the full gamut of US sport and leisure facilities, I did notice something that appears to be a common feature: apart from the usual lockers, benches, showers and toilets, the standard furnishings seem to include one or more huge flatscreen TVs (not necesssarily set to sports channels) and large leather sofas/armchairs, seats that are invariably taken by elderly men dressed not in sports gear but in their everyday clothes, men who spend hours simply chatting to fellow loafers in what is, after all, a horribly testosterone- and sweat-infused atmosphere, clearly with no intention of engaging in any sporting activity.

One nice touch for those like me who inevitably forget their toiletries is that sports clubs provide ample supplies of towels, shaving foam (though no razors), shower gel, hand cream and the like. Having said that, I have twice caught one old man taking one of these complimentary aerosol cans and liberally spraying the top of his head, the upper sides of both arms, his feet and his backside with what looked like deodorant, but may have been after-shave.

And these guys treat me like I'm the weird one!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


If only I had had a service like Carfax when buying my cars in Europe!

Carfax is an extremely useful and therefore almost essential tool when looking for a used car. For a small fee ($30 for one report, $40 for an unlimited number of reports within a 30-day period), you can find out more-or-less the entire history* of any car. Initial overview reports are completely free of charge.

You simply go to the Carfax Web site, enter the Vehicle Identification Number of the car in question, and you get in-depth information about:

  • The vehicle's age;
  • The number of owners;
  • Where it was driven and sold;
  • Its true mileage;
  • Its use, whether private or commercial (divided into leasing, fleet or rental);
  • All repairs undertaken;
  • Open manufacturer's recalls for repair;

and most importantly of all

  • All reported accidents and - crucially - their severity.

As such, what you end up with is a warts-and-all biography of the car you are considering buying, enabling you to make your purchasing decision based on objective facts rather than a dealer's or owner's patter, and putting you at a huge advantage when negotiating the sale price.

I used Carfax when buying both of our cars here in the States, and because I opted for the unlimited reports option I ran off scores of reports on advertised cars before finally narrowing my search down a few likely suspects. Armed with my Carfax reports and the True Market Value as assessed by edmunds.com, I was able to get excellent deals, even though I was buying from a dealer rather than an individual on both occasions.

Now I just need someone to introduce a similar service for when I return to Europe. Any volunteers?


* This is not completely true: the information is accurate to the date of the last entry, which could be several months or years back. Though here too, no news is good news.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Weights & Measures

By way of a follow-up to my earlier post on weights and measures, I have just learnt something new:

1 gallon = 231 cubic inches

No wonder I'm confused - I now realise I should be taking a ruler with me to fill up my car!

Friday, March 13, 2009


Letter From Teacher

This week I received the following e-mail from my 6-year-old son's teacher:

"Tom has been doing some kissing in kindergarten. I'm glad he is so friendly, but please let him know that we don't kiss at school."

When I passed this on, Tom asked why this wasn't allowed (he is part French, after all, so kissing is more-or-less in his blood).

What do I say to him?

Common Sense Note

We all remember the lovable film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from our youth, right?

By chance, I came across the following "common sense note" on Netflix to parents considering allowing their children to watch the film:
"Parents need to know that in the beginning of the movie, the Potts children are dirty and skipping school, which seems to be the norm. Although the single father played by Dick Van Dyke raises his kids loosely, he loves and cares for them and shares his abundant imagination with them (...) Violence: The Baron pursues Chitty and the Potts in a zeppelin and shoots at them. The Baron tries unsuccessfully to do his wife in, depicted comically."

Squirrel Away

As practical as it sounds, Squirrel Away patently does not prevent bushy-tailed rodents from raiding bird-tables, as it claims on the packet.

Either that or our squirrels are Mexican (a distinct possibility since they originally come from Spain) and therefore like their food a little spicier.

Naked Trucker and T-Bones

The Naked Trucker and T-Bones - I'll let you guess who's who in the photo - is a musical duo that lampoons white trash rednecks with hilarious songs like "My American Dream" and my personal favourite, "My Daddy is an Astronaut" (which you can also hear on their MySpace page).

Very funny, very poignant.

And before you ask: yes, the Naked Trucker performs completely naked, his manhood discretely hidden by his guitar.

Suburban Crime

From my local newspaper, the Beacon:

"Two back-to-back egg throwing incidents occurred in the same neighborhood, police said. Police suspect [!] that someone threw eggs at a 2002 Lincoln in the 3000 block of Green Oaks Drive overnight between Feb. 16 and 17. The next night, someone threw eggs at a 1998 GMC Jimmy in the 6000 block of [adjoining] High Ridge Road."

The uncertainty implied by the final sentence makes this a true gem:

"Police believe the incidents are related, though they had no information on how much damage the vandalism caused."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


An inconvenient convenience?

(Is this a war relic?)

Wednesdays now any direction!

Agnostics welcome

Monday, March 9, 2009

Coming Soon?

Two days ago I saw the first V of honking geese returning. Now I hear birdsong.

Could it be that the long winter is finally coming to an end?

Friday, March 6, 2009


From the Upcoming Events section of our children's school newsletter:

03/31   "March is Reading Month" ends


I had heard about America's apparent obsession with cooling even before I came to the States, although I wasn't aware quite how omnipresent it is.

For instance, people drive their air-conditioned cars from their air-conditioned homes to their air-conditioned offices. On the way back, they may stop to do some shopping at an air-conditioned mall, and in the evening they might drive to an air-conditioned cinema or pick up some food at an air-conditioned take-away.

Now don't get me wrong: I have nothing against a bit of climate control when it's baking outside and/or near maximum humidity. But the strange thing about air-conditioning is that whatever the weather, whatever the season, air conditioning units are always set to about 5°C cooler than is agreeable. As such, my wife had to take a jumper (sorry: sweater) to work all last summer.

Ice is another manifestation of this phenomenon. Everything that is not cooked is served chilled. At our local sports centre, the water fountain dispenses ice cubes.
Our fridge has a water inlet hose in the back so that it can make an endless stream of ice cubes all by itself. And when Hurricane Ike swept through Texas and Louisiana last summer, the emergency services handed out food, water and - you guessed it - ice.

In restaurants, drinks are always "on the rocks", and we've had to learn to make a point of ordering drinks without ice.
In fact, the first thing they bring you when you sit down is a large glass of iced tap water (usually at a ratio of 1:1, ice to water). And if you are foolish enough to reject your complimentary iced water, waiters give you a very pitying look as if you were doing something extremely unwise.

Sometimes, however, people go over the top even by American standards. A few weeks ago we went out for a meal and, to avoid the hassle of explaining that we didn't like freezing drinks in mid-winter, meekly accepted our iced tap water and refrained from pointing out that our juices had arrived ice-chilled after all. But then shortly after ordering our food, the waitress came and put a large bowl in the middle of our table. "Your ice," she said.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Start Early

From the 'Enrichtment Camps' section of our local community education brochure for summer 2009:

(Ages 10-14)
Do you want your kids to get excited about managing their money? Do you want your kids to understand the value of a buck? Do you want your kids to grow up and live the lives they dream of? At Camp Millionaire you will empower your kids with the knowledge that they are fully in charge of creating their own lives, and that includes how much money that want to have when they grow up. Your child will walk out of our program truly feeling like they can be a millionaire one day.

The cost of the one-day course: $230.


Without a shadow of a doubt, robocalls are the worst thing since the invention of the call centre. Barack Obama may have used them to great effect during the presidential election campaign, but I reckon that they must be the nearest you can get to telephonic purgatory.

So what are they?

Robocalls are like call centre agents, except that they don't get paid or take breaks. Just like with their human precursors, the telephone number is selected and dialled automatically by the system. But in sharp contrast to their flesh-and-blood counterparts, robocalls are just recordings that play back about a second after you pick up the phone. Perhaps there's even a clever voice-activated ("Hello?" = go) mechanism that prevents them leaving messages on your answering machine.

One distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis the invariably college student call centre agent is that the recipient/victim of a robocall cannot vent his fury in a way that will have any neurone-triggering effect whatsoever. If it annoys you that you get a robocall, tough luck. The system couldn't care less. Shouting, screaming, smashing your telephone or thinking up snide remarks will help you not one iota. Robocalls are impervious, unfeeling ... well ... machines.

After months of seething frustration at this most mindless of marketing exercises, I have now stumbled upon a solution (O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!): the moment the robotic voice begins its inane pitch, you hit the number "5" on your keypad. The result? Your telephone number is removed from the system's database.

And the rest is silence - at least until the next call centre robocalls you.