Sunday, March 21, 2010


All households in America got their census forms this week. Not only is it the shortest census in US history - at just ten questions - but it has a number of interesting quirks:

Firstly, the accompanying letter asks us to return the form by 1 April 2010, yet all questions relate to who stayed - past tense - at the address on 1 April 2010.

Secondly, and extremely tellingly, having enquired about the name, sex and date of birth (and age!) of each resident, you are asked about whether they are of Hispanic origin, with the opportunity to stipulate Latino, Spanish, Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Argentinian, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran or Spaniard. The rest of us may answer "No".

Only thereafter are you asked about your ethnicity from a list that includes Negro and ends with the wonderfully vague "Some other race".

Most amusingly of all, the final question is "Does person X sometimes live or stay somewhere else? If yes, mark all that apply". The list of alternative abodes includes college housing, the military, a second residence, a nursing home and "jail or prison", which makes me wonder whether people might think, "Uncle Jeb is always in trouble with the police. Better put him down as 'Sometimes in prison'".

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Invisible Fence

One nice thing about most gardens in the US - whether front or back - is that there are no fences separating properties. Although there's therefore nowhere to kick your football against (and probably explains the local penchant for basketball, baseball and American football), it creates an openness that is at first slightly unnerving for habitually hemmed-in Europeans, yet ultimately liberating.

However, this creates a problem if you have a dog, especially one of the more ferocious kinds. There may not be any postmen to bite, (since they don't leave their Grunman LLVs), but other passers-by are more at risk by such an open-plan setup.

For precisely this reason, many suburbanites have what I first considered to be a placatory ruse: a so-called "invisible fence". From walking around the neighbourhood, we had seen plenty of Invisible Fence signs in gardens (I mean "yards"), but it wasn't until very recently that I discovered how exactly they work.

Each Invisible Fence system consists of one or more zones at the outer perimeter of which a wire is buried in the ground. The dog is then fitted with a special collar. When he tries to pass the wire, he gets an electric shock through his collar. And, as every budding Pavlov knows, give a dog enough "learning experiences" like these and he'll instinctively stop trying to leave his allotted zone.

Comforting as that may sound, I still wonder how effective the system would be in stopping a running, aggressive Alsatian in its tracks or whether, having lunged through the unseen boundary, been zapped and finding itself on the outside of the barrier, this dazed and smarting domesticated wolf might be even angrier and eager to take revenge on poor, defenceless primates like yours truly.


Today I was treated to a trailer for a television series billed as "the best show on TV".

Given that the series only premieres next Sunday, I'd say that was a tad presumptuous.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Good News, Bad News

Good news: spring is here.
Bad news: the crazy woodpecker is back.

Pampered Pets

Some Americans take the idea of convenience a little too far.

When a fellow runner enquired about a kennel to put his dog in while he went on holiday, he was asked whether he wanted the TV option. Apparently couch potatoes who fear their pooches will miss their favourite series in their master's absence can actually have televisions put in the kennel with them.

I suspect they are shown 'Lassie' and 'K-9' on a continuous DVD loop.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Code Red

I've already raved about Mountain Dew. What I haven't told you about is my latest discovery and new soda-of-choice: Code Red.

Now I usually detest cherry-flavoured drinks of all kinds because they're generally sickly sweet. Code Red, however, although billed as cherry-flavoured Mountain Dew, doesn't taste anything like cherry, but is slightly tangy with an aroma that's a cross between cinnamon and vanilla (probably both). It's still got the same ridiculous amounts of sugar and caffeine as regular Mountain Dew and looks dangerously high on cochineal red, but hey, who's counting when it's this good?

Thanks to my neighbours, who drink Mountain Dew instead of coffee and actually start their day with a can or two and can thus safely be described as MD aficionados, I have also been introduced to a wonderful new mixer: Bacardi and Code Red.

No prizes for guessing what's standing beside me as I type these words.


Having dropped my daughter off at gymnastics, my son and I went across the road and ordered ourselves a ham pizza to collect later. As the man was taking down the order, my son kept pestering me about getting extra cheese because he had loved that when we'd had a plain pizza the last time, while I desperately tried to explain that the Monday and Tuesday night special offer only covered cheese and one topping, and that extra cheese would cost us a lot more. 

Once I had ordered and paid, I asked the man if he needed a name. "No, that's fine," he said. "I'll recognise you."

When I collected the pizza an hour-and-a-half later and glanced at the receipt, I realised why he knew he'd remember us: the customer's name was given as "Mr Red Hat and Extra Chz".

Friday, March 12, 2010


I'm sorry, but I really must inflict a rant on you.

As you may know, President Obama has decided that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, should be tried in a civilian court in New York rather than facing a military tribunal. What is frankly frightening in my view is the backlash that this has provoked in both the political arena and the media.

The argument being put by many otherwise rationally-mind people is that if any alleged terrorists are tried in a civilian court and subsequently acquitted, they would be released onto the streets of cities like New York, where they would be free to act on the anti-American tendencies they were always suspected of harbouring.

What no-one is mentioning is what exactly the subtext of this argument is: that what they are demanding is a system which guarantees that anyone who is tried is indeed convicted. In other words, that all those sent for trial are found guilty.

This is a gross violation of the principle of justice and the notion that, no matter how much damning evidence there may be against someone, they are presumed innocent until proven guilty. What is being suggested here is that simply because these people have been detained in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, they must perforce be guilty.

The 9/11 attacks were cowardly and deplorable. But the desire for revenge or retribution should not tip the scales of justice one way or another. I have little doubt that prosecutors have enough evidence against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to lock him up for all eternity. What I want is a fair trial which shows that America truly believes in justice and the rule of law.

And that means the theoretical possibility that a defendant is found not guilty.

Sauna à l'Américaine

Although they have become fewer and farther between as I have got(ten) used to the American Way of Life, I had a rare WTF, shakes-head-in-amazement, must-write-that-up moment this morning.

After almost two years in the New World, I hardly bat an eyelid at the neo-puritanical obligation to swim in knee-length shorts that would be banned in Europe as patently dangerous. I no longer try to kiss even close acquaintances, and automatically confine myself to loose, no-frontal-contact back-slapping hugs. I even oblige my children to close their curtains when undressing lest the sight of naked prepubescent flesh sends a neighbor rushing to call the cops. But I think what I witnessed today pushes the boat out way further:

Coming out of the shower in the men's changing room at my local gym, I glanced back towards the sauna to see a man sitting inside wearing - and I kid you not - a T-shirt, shorts, an elbow support, socks and trainers!

I'm too flabbergasted to even attempt to analyse this further, though I might start wrapping my towel around my waist again when I next visit the sauna - or invest in some Wonder Sauna Hot Pants:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Odd Products

Why bother with all that flickering flame nonsense
when you can melt your wax electrically?

(For very lonely people?)

Wasn't that the difference between Edam and Gouda:
that the latter had yellow wax?

Good on cakes?

There's nothing like encouraging healthy eating from an early age.


I didn't know there was another way.

Does the shrink have heated and cooled chairs?

The legal drinking age has apparently gone up from 21 to 40.

Local Crime

My daughter claims that I am the criminal in this story. But I have an alibi: I would have eaten the entire packet of Reese's.