Friday, November 23, 2012


Odd Products

Dog shoes: because paws weren't made to run on the ground

 Probably spinning in his grave at this juxtaposition

Those poor socks


"What do you mean, you don't have Thanksgiving in Europe?" an incredulous young man said to me this week. "Aren't Europeans thankful?" Well, yes we are, I assured him. Just not in the same way as our American cousins.

Thanksgiving is a near-sacred event in the American calendar because it pays homage to the fact that, were it not for the generosity of the native Indians, the colonisation of the New World would undoubtedly have failed before it really got started - and I would not be here writing about it today.

You see, those pious pilgrims on the Mayflower may have brought with them such essential items as vinegar and salad oil - and thus nearly everything they needed to make a nice Ceasar salad - they neglected some of the lesser ingredients for life on a strange and alien continent. Like experienced farmers. And ploughs.

As a result, about half of those brave transatlantic souls had perished within a year of setting foot on Plymouth Rock. You can therefore understand their gratitude that the locals, who had after all survived successfully on this seemingly inhospitable land for tens of thousands of years, took pity on their hapless European visitors,
giving them food, patiently explaining agricultural techniques and introducing them to such strange delicacies as potatoes, corn, beans, wild rice and tomatoes, as well as a pick-me-up subsequently known as "tobacco".

The settlers were so grateful to their gracious hosts that they returned the favour in spades, giving the native Americans decimating diseases and a taste for alcohol, hunting their almost innumerable bison to near extinction for fun and fur - killing eight million in one particularly grisly three-year period alone - and relieved the Indians of most of their land since it was in any case far too fertile and vast to be managed by people who had been living on and from it for mere millennia.

Today's Thanksgiving celebrations are rather more humane affairs, involving an annual family get-together on the fourth Thursday in November to overeat (ironically), rekindle long-cherished grudges, argue about politics and celebrate community by gathering around a warm television set to watch American football.

One central feature of the Thanksgiving gorge-athon is the turkey, which is typically baked though often deep-fried, leading incidentally to thousands of calls to the fire services, tens of millions of dollars in damage and several deaths year after year. No fewer than 45 million turkeys are culled every year just so that Americans can say "thanks", and even the president of the United States is presented with one or more live specimens of these creatures for preparation in the White House kitchen.

Despite what some hagiographers claim, this has led only relatively recently to a bizarre back-to-front practice whereby the president pardons his turkey (for what cardinal sin, one can only wonder). Although JFK allegedly said of his turkey, "Let's just keep him" four days before his own assassination (tellingly not at the hands of a turkey), it wasn't until 1989 that George Bush Sr. first expressly issued a presidential pardon to a condemned fowl.

Since then, the pardon has morphed into an official Thanksgiving Day event, but because obese turkeys are not the healthiest of animals, there is always a main turkey and a backup in case illness or, perish the thought, premature death should prevent the alpha bird from performing its ceremonial duties. If both turkeys are still alive and kicking come Thanksgiving, both are pardoned. The lucky turkeys are allegedly selected at birth and although otherwise raised completely normally, they are "trained to handle loud noises, flash photography and large crowds" - I guess through repeated exposure to loud noises, flash photography and large crowds. Meanwhile, their less fortunate siblings are probably "trained" not to worry about decapitation.

In another anthropomorphic twist, the soon-to-be pardoned turkeys are given names. Thus in 2003, George W. Bush pardoned Stars and Stripes. The following year, he spared Biscuits and Gravy. They in turn have been succeeded by Flyer and Fryer, May and Flower, Apple and Cider, Cobbler and Gobbler, and sundry others.

Most recently, these pardoned turkeys have been permitted to spend their few remaining days or weeks in the relative tranquility of Mount Vernon, the former home of the country's first president, George Washington. In the past, however, they were sent to Frying Pan Park in Virginia, where one must presume their lifespan was significantly shorter.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Election unwords

With the presidential election finally over, Chads throughout the United States are breathing a collective sigh of relief that they were not left hanging or even pregnant this time round. And although Floridians once again took three days longer than everyone else to count their votes, they did not hold the entire country to ransom as they had back in 2000.

We may not have had a Sarah Palin or a George "Dubya" Bush to mangle their words, but this election cycle spawned its own set of neologisms and odd terms, which I would like to take this opportunity to share with you:
  • Job-creators: A euphemism coined by the right-wing Republicans to describe the rich in a more positive light;
  • Soon-to-haves: No longer is America a country of haves and have-nots. Republican spin-doctors also recast the poor in a bald-faced attempt to win them over to pro-business ideologies;
  • Historian: The job-description preferred by would-be Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich to refute claims that the millions he had earned from the pharmaceutical industry were the fruits of lobbying;
  • Clean coal: A tautological concept dreamt up by the coal industry to counter the backlash against fossil fuels and moves to search for cleaner sources of energy, the suggestion being that you could burn coal without producing all that environmentally unfriendly soot;
  • Caucus (v): I think this means to canvas for a caucus, though it could mean to hold a caucus. Confused? So am I;
  • Mainstream media (MSM) or elite media: A favourite expression of Sarah Palin back in 2008, this resurfaced again as a quasi-swearword to describe the non-conservative media - in other words, all media bar Fox News;
  • Washington insider: Another "four-letter word" used to dismiss any politician except yourself. Used, bizarrely enough, especially by those who have held political office for decades to put down their opponents. Although this expression was used more widely in '08 and by the TEA ("Taxed Enough Already") Party movement during the 2010 mid-term elections, it featured particularly during the Republican primaries.
  • Forcible/legitimate rape: Terms used by senatorial candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who vehemently oppose abortion, even following incest or rape. Makes you wonder what the opposite is - consensual rape? Their controversial views on the topic resulted in both men being soundly defeated at the polls;
  • Romnesia: A neologism coined by Barack Obama (or his speech-writers) to describe a person's ability to forget what he stated one day and espouse views often diametrically opposed to these when seeking the backing of a different group of voters. Think Mitt Romney's "flip-flopping" on abortion, gun control, coal, immigration, healthcare reform, welfare, the auto-industry bailout ...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Eating Out

Waitress: Can I take your order, Sir?
Tom: I'd like the fish and chips, please.
Waitress: Would you like fries with that?

Thursday, September 6, 2012


Yesterday I got the weirdest e-mail.

As a subscriber to, the online public lobbying site, I received notification about a new petition. In this e-mail, a mother described how loopholes in Food & Drug Administration guidelines allow manufacturers to use poisonous chemicals called phthalates to make lunchboxes, even though they are not permitted in toys. She was apparently so "horrified to learn that lunchboxes emblazoned with Cinderella and Spiderman could actually make her kids sick" that she decided to start an online petition.

Did she call for an FDA amendment to include lunchboxes in the phthalates ban? No. Did she call for an outright ban on the use of phthalates? No.

She wants Disney to "stop allowing its characters to be printed on toxic lunchboxes".

Monday, August 20, 2012

Odd Products

 Who, mi?

As drunk by Lawrence of Arabica

It's win or get eaten, I guess


 Made in Chin, I presume

Lost and found

Look out: he's behind you!

State Mottos

Road trips are a long-established American tradition immortalised in films from 'Easy Rider' and 'Thelma & Louise' to 'National Lampoon's Vacation'. And even though most workers get very little paid leave (rarely more than two weeks a year), families will routinely travel long distances by car to their holiday destinations. By this I don't mean three to four hours, as we Europeans might drive. I'm talking ten hours, two days, even three - in each direction, of course.

Whenever we visit a tourist hotspot like a national park, my kids therefore like to play a game that might be called "Where Am I From?" This involves combing through parking lots checking car number-plates, which are issued individually by each state, to see which vehicle came from the furthest away.

The results of this game can be amazing: on a recent visit to Yellowstone in Wyoming, we discovered a car registered in New York, a state some 2200 miles away.

Another interesting aspect of US licence plates is that they almost always feature a slogan designed, presumably, to entice tourists to that particular state. Because these are so interesting and sometimes intriguing, we have begun collecting these catchphrases too.

Some slogans tout the relevant state's geographic features. This is the case with number plates from Arizona ("The Grand Canyon State"), Michigan ("Great Lakes Splendor"), West Virginia ("Wild, Wonderful"), Vermont ("The Green Mountain State") and Minnesota ("10,000 Lakes"). Others are less subtle in their bid to woo visitors: Louisiana, for instance, claims to be "The Sportsman's Paradise", Utah purports to have "The Greatest Snow on Earth", and Maine manages to top even that, declaring itself simply "Vacationland".

Certain states, like Illinois ("Land of Lincoln"), Delaware ("The First State"), Tennessee ("The Volunteer State"), Oklahoma ("Native America")
and Connecticut ("The Constitution State"), trumpet their historical significance, although for some reason both North Carolina ("First in Flight") and Ohio ("Birthplace of Aviation") appear to lay claim to the same achievement. While the likes of Alaska ("The Last Frontier"), New Hampshire ("Live Free or Die") and Texas ("The Lone Star State") bluster about their rugged independence.

California and Colorado apparently need no introduction whatsoever because their number plates feature only their name. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, New Mexico ("Land of Enchantment"), Missouri ("The Show-Me State"), Massachusetts ("The Spirit of America"), Indiana ("The Crossroads of America")  and Arkansas ("The Natural State") seem to have no real claim to fame, which is presumably why they've opted for a vaguer, esoteric slogan.

With all these grandiloquent slogans gracing the cars across this great nation, you can't but feel sorry for the poor motorists of Idaho, a state roughly the size of Britain. What battle cry did their legislators pick to encapsulate this state's wide-ranging attractions and bring the world's tourists flocking to Idaho's glorious vistas?

"Famous Potatoes".

Monday, July 30, 2012

Upstairs, Downstairs

One of my neighbours has a dog-walker because she's too busy not working to take her own mutts out for a pee. For similarly valid reasons, she has several gardeners to tend to her playing card-sized front yard.

Today she deigned to accompany her dog-walker down the road, but instead of helping her, she simply commented "There's a good girl!" as the walker scooped up the pampered pooch's poop.

I do hope she meant the dog.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Canada Joins the EU

Yesterday someone said to me, "My son can't study in Sweden. You can if you're Canadian because that's part of the European Union. But not if you're American".

Perhaps now that it has joined the EU (albeit secretly), Canada can help bail Greece and Spain out.

Doubling Down

America isn't exactly known for its haute cuisine. Indeed, as regularly readers of this blog will be aware, its culinary innovations - viz deep-fried butter or Paula Deen's Heart Attack - are more likely to trigger head-shaking than salivation in those of us who didn't grow up over here.

Being the country that gave the world convenience and junk food, much of the developments by restaurants tend to be related to fast food. So it is with two recent novelties that even go one step further by cannibalising (if you'll excuse the pun) on the fast food concept and could therefore be termed autophagous.

The first such aberration comes from Pizza Hut, a chain that could charitably be considered the second-lowest common denominator in Italian food in the US (outdone only by the Olive Garden chain). Clearly eager to muscle in on the gustatory heights attained by McDonald's, Pizza Hut has taken a leaf out of the hugely successful burger joint's book to create the Crown Crust Pizza.

This may sound harmless enough, suggesting that the periphery of said oven-baked delight has somehow been embellished, perfected
, anointed. But it ain't.

What Pizza Hut has actually done is threefold: Firstly, they've liberally sprinkled a pizza base with small meatballs. That's slightly odd for a pizza, but not entirely alien since America  also invented the "authentically Italian" spaghetti-with-meatballs that is available only in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

Secondly, Pizza Hut has clearly taken a side salad and emptied it slap-bang in the middle of said pizza. Stranger still, sure, but not completely off-the-wall since this is also practiced by "fusion" restaurants such as California Pizza Kitchen.

Finally - and this is the crème de la crème - they have studded the crust with a dozen hamburger patties ... topped with melted "plastic" cheese. The net result: a cheeseburger-and-salad pizza.

Meanwhile, Taco Bell - which probably did for tacos what Pizza Hut did for pizza - has hit upon a similarly noteworthy concoction. Painfully aware of the irresistability of Doritos chips (a fact that I and my bulging waistline can attest to), this pseudo-Mexican fast-food chain has hit upon a way of making its supremely resistable fare somewhat less unpalatable: the nutritionists at the Taco Bell development lab have jettisoned their boring, Mexican-tasting hard tortilla, and replaced it with .... you guessed it ... an oversized Dorito.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Taco Bell christened its new fast-food-meets-comfort-food "Locos Tacos" - i.e. mad tacos. I concur: it is mad (not to mention daftly plural for a singular noun).


 Haute cuisine à l'Amèricaine

Odd Products

Wash before use?

 I wonder if it includes the ferret seeds too.

Don't want it tasting too venisony, do we?

Just what I've always wanted!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Health Insurance

The US healthcare system is a mess.

Not only is per-capita spending by far the highest of any developed nation. Some 30 million Americans don't even have health insurance, either because their employers don't provide it (they aren't obliged to, so most don't) or because they simply can't afford private insurance.

Luckily - or unluckily, depending on your standpoint - people are guaranteed emergency treatment even if they are uninsured, though insurance companies pass the cost of this is directly on to the insured.

Part of the problem is that there are no fixed fees for medical treatment, so doctors charge as much as they want. For instance, I recently heard of a not uncommon case in which a simple broken leg generated healthcare costs in excess of $100,000.

Another problem is that insurance companies can determine what they will pay for specific treatments, allow you to use only approved doctors, set massive copays (i.e. deductibles) and even refuse to insure people for what are known as "pre-existing conditions" - a catch-all that effectively means they can cherry-pick the healthiest patients and then decide not to reimburse treatment if an insured person does eventually need it. As a result, people are often saddled with astronomical medical bills and must take out huge loans to pay for treatment for themselves or their loved ones.

I never thought this would affect us because we are fortunate to have relatively generous company-sponsored health insurance. But that hasn't stopped me becoming entangled in several bizarre Catch 22-like situations in my few direct dealings with our health insurance company.

To give you an example, our daughter needed braces. But because I wasn't sure how much we might have to pay ourselves, I called the insurance company and asked them.

"I'm sorry, Sir, but I can't tell you how much is covered," the lady on the phone said.
"Why ever not?" I said, somewhat taken aback.
"We don't release that information, Sir" she replied.
"But why?" I said, feeling like a belligerent child.
"Because if we did, people would use it all, sir."
"Then how can I know what I can afford?" I asked.
"You can't," the woman said flatly. "You simply submit your orthodontist's invoice, and we determine your copay."
"So are you telling me it's a secret?" I asked, the adrenalin rising.
"If you put it that way, Sir, yes," she answered.
"But I'm the customer! Surely I have a right to know what I am entitled to for the money I am paying," I almost screamed.
"I'm sorry, Sir, there's nothing I can do about that," the woman replied.

And that was that.

Luckily for me, the orthodontist we chose finally managed to find out what we were eligible to - after three phone calls.

Tepid Praise

Walking along the road this afternoon, I passed a group of young girls heading in the other direction. 

"Are you Tom's dad?" one of them asked. When I replied to the affirmative, she said, "Cool!"

It's odd being considered cool by association with a 9-year-old.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Lost in Translation

I had a rather Kafkaesque experience this afternoon at Staples, a stationery superstore.

Having hunted in vain for rulers throughout the shop, I went up to a sales assistant and enquired where I might find one.

"Roo-ler?" the woman asked, rolling the R as if to emphasise my bizarre request.

"Ruler", I confirmed.
"Roo-ler?" she echoed with a look of complete incredulity.
"Ruler", I repeated.
"Roo-ler?" she asked a third time.
"Yes, ruler!" I said, somewhat exasperated.
"Oh," she replied. "Aisle 11 on the right."

What luck we were speaking the same language. I can't imagine what might have happened if we hadn't been able to understand one other.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Hand Signals

Don't ask me how I managed this, but it wasn't until this weekend - almost four years after we came to beat-around-the-bush America - that I had cause to explain the meaning of the word "euphemism" to my son.

Although premature Alzheimer's appears to have robbed me of the ability to remember what exactly triggered this teaching moment, I distinctly remember launching into my well-rehearsed lecture on bathrooms entirely bereft of tubs, restrooms that are more about unclenching than R&R, etc.

"That reminds me of something we do at school", my son replied.

Apparently, when children in his class want to ask or answer a question, they are told to raise one finger - the index, I should add, not the middle one, which has an entirely different connotation
. By contrast, if they have to go to the toilet (see above), they are supposed to put two fingers up in a kind of V-for-victory salute. And if their need is urgent, they must put up three.

He didn't say, but I do wonder if four fingers means "Too late".

Pink Slime

Enjoying that hamburger? You may want to finish it before reading on.

The picture on the left is not, as you might think, of a strawberry Mr Whippy. In fact it is what the meat industry calls "lean, finely-textured beef" or more blandly scientific, "LFTB". A less euphemistically minded food inspector dubbed it simply "pink slime".

When butchers cut away all the tasty bits from dead cows, what is left over (aside from skin and bone) is scraps, gristle, sinews and connective tissue. However, waste not, want not, so these leftovers are ground down, heated up and centrifuged to spin out any fat. And because at least some of this slurry is likely to have been in close contact with the myriad germs of the cow's typically poo-caked skin, the resultant sludge is sprayed with ammonia to kill off bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. It is then flash-frozen and labelled "beef".

Pardon? Yes, of course I'll wait while you go and vomit.


Better now? Good.

Pink slime is illegal for human consumption in the European Union and even Canada. Many countries only permit it to be used in dog food. So what happens in the US? Over here the powers-that-be say it's fine for us to eat.

For about two decades now, pink slime has routinely been added to the minced beef sold in shops across this great nation. The meat industry has been happy because it can sell more of its slaughtered animals, shops have been happy because their beef may contain up to 15% pink slime, which is far cheaper than regular beef, and consumers have been none the wiser because pink slime isn't mentioned as an extra ingredient since it is technically 100% pure beef - albeit with a petit bouquet d'ammoniaque.

Jamie Oliver tried drawing attention to the problem in his Food Revolution TV programme a while back. But nobody in this regulation-hating country listened to this mad cow of a limey who was clearly out to interfere with Americans' right to choose. So it wasn't until a home-grown mother and blogger starting kicking up a fuss this March that people starting seriously thinking about what it was they were eating.

Indeed so great was the ensuing outrage that major supermarket chains began taking products containing pink slime off their shelves en masse. And even McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King decided pink slime was too low-quality to serve their famously nutritionally-aware clientele.

Meanwhile, in its infinite wisdom, the US Department of Agriculture bought another 7 million pounds of pink slime for use in the National School Lunch Program.

Packed lunches today, kids. OK?

Saturday, April 21, 2012


At least once a week, Mrs. Newby or I - and sometimes both of us - receive offers of loans, another credit card or a chance to remortgage our home. All this junk mail goes straight into our recycling bin, but we seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

There are about 610 million credit cards in circulation in the States - almost two for every man, woman and child. On average, cardholders have 3-4 credit cards each, and a large proportion seem to use them as an alternative to a bank loan, only ever paying off the bare minimum. As a result, they currently owe a total of $2.5 trillion on their credit cards, or $8000 per person.

Believe it or not, that's only the tip of the iceberg. If you factor in debt on real estate, Americans together owe a staggering $13 trillion, i.e. $42,500 each.

The recent US housing bubble was a stark reminder of how this debt system has spiraled out of control: because banks made a fortune bundling and then reselling loans, they offered more and more people ever larger mortgages. And when the greedy banks ran out of eligible customers, they gave 100% mortgages to increasingly unsuitable borrowers - eventually even those patently unable to repay them (these loans were called NINAs: no income, no assets). After all, they knew that if the debtors defaulted, the banks could seize the house and auction it off, presumably at a profit because house values had  increased steadily for decades.

When the bubble burst and house prices plummeted, thousands of people found themselves "underwater", that is, owing far more than the value of their house. So many did the unthinkable: they declared bankruptcy, handed their house keys back to the bank and walked away from their property. Some, like our own neighbours, simply packed all their belongings and disappeared overnight.

Suddenly, banks found themselves owning masses of property worth far less than they were owed and which they couldn't sell anyway because nobody had the money to buy them. "For sale" signs littered streets across America - ours included - as did empty homes with repossession orders pasted to their windows. Yet no-one ever bought these houses, so they stayed empty for months and even years.

Oddly enough, little appears to have changed. To prevent the banks collapsing, the government bailed them out, and now they are again offering 100% mortgages. And people continue to live from one month to the next, using one credit card to pay another off.

We recently came across a startling example of how insane this borrowing is allowed to become: last month, the 85-year-old father of a friend of ours had to sell his family home of half a century and move into a shared flat because he couldn't afford to continue paying off his mortgage.

He and his wife bought the house for $40,000 back in 1961. Having taken out a second mortgage and borrowed on his house repeatedly over the years, he still owed the bank $110,000.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Helmet Law Repeal

Hooray for freedom!

On Friday, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder at last repealed the state's motorbike helmet law, which had been flagrantly restricting the liberty of citizens and doing untold (albeit unsubstantiated) damage to the local tourist industry for 46 years.

Despite opposition from insurance companies, healthcare providers and other freedom-hating, big-government organisations, bikers in the "mitten" will once again be able to let their hair flutter in the wind, just as God intended.

Now I can't wait to win back the right to smash my face through my car windscreen and catapult my children to their certain death in an accident once that insane, draconian seatbelt law is repealed.

Las Vegas

"Sin City" is a crazy place undoubedtly modelled on Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. Not surprisingly, therefore, people say "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas".

A mere 400 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, the capital of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose followers, the Mormons, neither smoke, consume alcohol or even drink coffee, Las Vegas is like the Devil come to tempt Jesus. And as if determined to prove this analogy, the city is slap-bang in the middle of a desert: the Mojave.
In contrast to nearly anywhere else in the US, you can drink outside and smoke inside almost everywhere in Vegas. And true to its moniker, the city seems entirely geared towards entertainment of one sort or another.

In all, there almost 200,000 slot machines in the city, spread across 1700 licensed gambling places. There are 37 perfectly green golf courses (this was a desert, remember), almost as many bowling alleys and hundreds of shows to choose from every night, from magic to music, including no fewer than five different Cirque du Soleil productions. Vegas is also a popular place to get married and the nigh-obligatory destination for stag parties. Companies seem to like the city too, given that some 19,000 conventions a year take place there.

Vegas is a city of superlatives in other ways too. Aside from 122 casinos, most of which seem to be open 24 hours a day, it has 350 hotels with a combined total of more than 150,000 rooms. Not only is there a half-size, 165-metre replica of the Eiffel Tower and a two-thirds scale model of the Arc de Triomph. More than 1000 fountains outside the Bellagio Hotel "dance" to music every 15-30 minutes.

Another of Sin City's earthly delights is prostitution, or rather, "escort services", as they are euphemistically known, which are touted openly by groups of mainly Latinos. Any man walking along The Strip, Vegas' main street, is likely to get lurid calling cards thrust into his hand at what seems like 10-metre intervals. Since most of these cards are quickly dropped the moment the person realises what he is holding, the street is littered with thousands upon thousands of pictures of semi-naked women every evening.

When we went to Vegas, my then 7-year-old son was fascinated by these cards, pocketing a selection "for research", as he put it. We thought it was a bit of harmless fun (they weren't pornographic, after all). But when he announced his intention to take them to school for "show and tell", Mrs Newbie offered him a deal: if he threw the ten cards away, she'd buy him ten Pokemon cards in their place.

"But there are pictures on both sides of these!" my shrewd businessman of a son replied. "I should get 20 Pokemon cards."

Luckily for our reputation at school, he got his 20 Pokemon cards. And the more unsavoury ones stayed in Vegas.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Daft & Dafter

The long drawn-out battle to become the Republican Party's nominee in this November's presidential election (which the satirical Daily Show justifiably calls "Indecision 2012") has the would-be candidates falling over themselves to appear more conservative than their rivals. And the race has certainly provided plenty of grist for the comedy mill.

By now, most of the whackier wannabe presidential nominees have dropped out: After leading the media on a seemingly endless self-aggrandising campaign, including a reality show and an extended tour across the States in a coach emblazoned with the text of the American constitution, will-she-won't-she former Alaskan governor and failed 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin decided not to the throw her hat in the ring after all.

Pizza magnate Herman Cain, who didn't know China had had nuclear weapons for half a century and justified his lack of foreign-policy knowledge by referring to "Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" (sic!), was finally tripped up by his serial philandering. The spookily wide-eyed Michelle Bachman, the darling of the right, whose bizarre statements included demanding the closure of America's non-existent embassy in Teheran, also dropped out early. While Texas Governor Rick Perry, who proudly announced that his state had executed hundreds more prisoners than any other, couldn't remember the three government agencies he wanted to shut down, when asked about them during a debate. Perry's meltdown, broadcast live on national TV, was the kiss of death for his presidential aspirations.

Although he's trailing far, far behind the now presumptive candidate, Mitt Romney, the one crazy still in the running is perpetual also-ran Newt Gingrich, who has vowed to have a manned American colony on the moon by the end of his first term in the White House.

In their desperate attempt to woo supporters of the so-called "Tea Party", a radical though in part artificially engineered movement that has dragged American politics to the right for the last three years or so, Republicans have been making more and more controversial claims that would leave most Europeans incredulous.

You needn't even bother entering politics in the US unless you can prove you are avowedly religious. Now global warming is being disparaged as unproven. Evolution is increasingly dismissed as "just a theory". Environmental protection is decried as government interference that kills jobs in the US. Gun legislation, taxation, motorcycle helmet laws and even the right to healthcare are being routinely opposed, scaled back or abolished completely in the name of "personal liberty".

But the most bizarre trend of all, at least in my view, is the renewed effort to undo "Roe vs Wade", the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalising abortion. In an effort to undermine this landmark ruling, pro-life conservatives are going to ever greater lengths to claim that this should be considered murder. And even Rick Santorum, the candidate who withdrew from the GOP race only this week, asserted that women should give birth to the children of their rapists, saying that they should "make the best of a bad situation" and "accept God's gift".

Proponents of the "personhood" debate, which revolves about the point from which a person rather than a blob of cells is being terminated, have long advocated that life - and therefore personhood - begins at the point where an egg and a sperm merge. Not to be outdone, the Arizona legislature has now passed a bill defining pregnancy as starting .... wait for it ... two weeks before conception!

Meanwhile, a last-minute amendment to a "personhood" bill tabled in
Oklahoma this week (which admittedly ended up getting the entire law thrown out) would have made it illegal to deposit sperm anywhere other than in a woman's vagina.

Forget the potential for convictions for such heinous crimes as masturbation, oral and anal sex. Had it passed, this law would have forbidden all forms of artificial insemination, thus inadvertently undermining the very thing it was supposed to support: the production of American babies.

Unwitting Imposter

On a visit to Washington, DC, I spotted a cap in a gift shop that I simply couldn't resist buying: on the front it sported the logo of Air Force One, the US president's personal airplane.

Since then, I have been jokingly telling my friends that Barack Obama gave me it for managing to land the 747 on the White House lawn. If you've ever seen the president's official residence, you'll know that this is completely impossible, since there's barely enough room for Marine One (his personal helicopter) to touch down, let alone a 70-metre jumbo jet.

I was wearing this cap when I took my car in for an oil change last week. As I sat in the waiting room steeling myself for the inevitable news that they had found innumerable faults with the vehicle that absolutely had to be repaired immediately, one of the mechanics noticed my cap.

"Air Force?" he asked. "Put it there!" And before I knew it, he had grabbed my hand and was enthusiastically pumping it up and down with a big smile on his face, proud to be congratulating a member of the heroic American armed forces.

Embarrassed by such unwarranted praise, I meekly pointed to the logo. "You mean this?" I said. "Actually, it only means I'm a tourist."

"Oh", the man replied, turning to go into the toilet, where I presume he washed his hands very thoroughly.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Saturday, March 31, 2012

"The Talk"

America is currently gripped by the case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old in a hooded sweatshirt who was stalked and then shot dead by a vigilante as he was walking home from a shop in Florida. Bizarrely enough, the boy's self-confessed killer, George Zimmerman, has not been arrested because the state has a so-called "stand your ground" law that allows the use of weapons in self defence, even outside the home.

Leaving aside the details of the case, which are still coming to light a month after Trayvon's death, it was in conjunction with this that I discovered a rite-of-passage that black parents across the US feel obliged to go through with their adolescent sons.

"The Talk", as it is known, is not a discussion about how babies are made. "The Talk" is a reaction to the fact that racial profiling is a reality in 21st-century America - an allegedly post-racial society which now even has a black president. It is an acceptance that African-American teenage boys throughout this "great nation" are routinely considered a potential threat.

As such, black parents have to explain to their children how they should dress and behave to avoid being seen as "acting suspiciously", the term George Zimmerman used when telling the cops why he was following Trayvon Martin against their advice.

As one of my wife's colleagues confirmed, black parents tell their teenage boys not to hang around on street corners, but go to friends' houses instead. They tell them to put the hoods of their hoodies down when going into shops, to always be polite to police officers and never raise their voice or get angry towards them, no matter how they are treated, and to keep their hands visible at all times.

Slavery may be long gone in America, but, sad as it may seem, kids of one specific ethnicity have to be taught by their own parents to be subservient to authority figures, even in the face of blatant injustice, simply because of who they are.

I am a big fan of hoodies. I frequently go out to my local shop at night wearing one. Yet nobody has ever confronted or followed me, let alone dialled 911 or accused me of appearing threatening or suspicious. I will never have to have "The Talk" with my son or caution him against playing outside with his friends. There is no need.

Why? Because we are white.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Colour Me Bland

As we were driving through our town one day, my son asked me why American cars weren't colourful.

Surprised by his comment, I looked around me at the other vehicles on the road. To my amazement, I realised that he was right: every car was either grey, white or black. It was like being in a cartoon in which the background had been painted, but the foreground had mysteriously been forgotten.

Henry Ford, the man who revolutionised the automobile industry by introducing the assembly line, famously said that customers of his best-selling Model T could have their vehicle painted any colour they wanted - as long as it was black. The rationale behind Ford's decision to offer only one colour was that this was the cheapest and most durable to apply to a car. However, for some reason, Ford's monochromatic colour scheme from 1914 has remained in force to a large extent to this day, either because all auto manufacturers in North America have adopted it or because Americans simply like their cars bland.

Support for the latter theory comes from the annual breakdown of auto sales. As you can see from the table above, almost a quarter of the cars bought in the US last year were white. In fact, taken together, white, black, grey and silver account for seven out of every ten vehicles purchased in 2011.

Further still, judging by what I see in my neck of Suburbia, it seems as if most the 30% of seemingly colourful cars on the road aren't either, but rather the least attractive tones possible. The reds are more of a burgundy, the yellows a kind of mud, the blues look pale and watered-down, the greens are very dark - and the less said about the browns, the better.

More likely, however, manufacturers simply aren't giving their consumers much of a spectrum to choose from.

Take, for example, the vehicles in this household. The latest model of my car is sold in black, white, silver, "steel blue" and "sangria" (a darkish red). My wife's car is currently available in black, dark grey, silver, "steel blue" and "autumn bronze", a brown so dark as to be almost indistinguishable from black.
In other words, were Mrs Newbie to buy her car today in the land that gave us Technicolor and Disney Channel pastels, she could choose between black, almost-black, grey, shiny grey and watery blue.

It is therefore little wonder that the black-and-white movie 'The Artist' scooped so many of the Oscars at this year's Academy Awards.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bacon [Add Noun]

America has a strange relationship with the meat of the common-or-garden pig.

In contrast to their European counterparts, American sausages, for example, aren't made of pork, but rather beef, chicken, turkey or - in the case of the eponymous hot dog "frank" - meat slurry.

On the other hand, America is also the home of the rack of (spare) ribs, one of my finger-licking barbecue favourites, and one most definitely derived from pork, although beef is sometimes available too.

It is perhaps because of this predilection for the smoky taste of the sauce in which all grilled food is marinated, slathered richly with during cooking and then liberally doused with before (and sometimes after) serving that there is a parallel love of bacon.

Before I go on, I should perhaps explain that American bacon is not the same as British bacon. In the States, they look down on what they see as our half-heartedly cooked, wimpy-looking rashers. Over here, bacon is not bacon unless it is burnt to a crisp, barely recognisable as meat, and shrivelled up like a soft contact lens left overnight in the desert. I guess the British food that most closely resembles proper American bacon is pork scratchings.

Anyway, this week, fast-food chain Jack in the Box began selling a bacon milkshake, containing vanilla ice cream, bacon-flavoured syrup, whipped cream and a glacier cherry. A large, 24oz bacon shake has 1081 calories (the recommended daily intake for an adult is 2000-2500) and 37 grams of saturated fat (RDI: 20).

Gross as this may seem, this is only the latest incarnation of a long-standing trend started, if the legend is to be believed, by a young Jewish man who mused at a kosher dinner about a bacon-flavoured condiment. That idea spawned what is now called bacon salt.

Bacon salt is like garlic salt. Except that it doesn't contain garlic. Or bacon. In fact, it is both kosher and vegetarian. However, it comprises 24 different ingredients, including the gloriously all-encompassing "natural and artifical flavours", the mysterious "smoke flavour" and a lot of monosodium glutamate (MSG), the flavour enhancer commonly found in Chinese food.

Bacon salt has been such a huge success that the manufacturer sent some out to all the troops in Iraq and created a slew of follow-ups, including bacon-flavoured mayonnaise ("Baconnaise") and ketchup salt. But that was merely the pork snowball that triggered the bacon avalanche, as other manufacturers quickly sought to cash in on this bacophilia. And the products now on sale range from the tasty to the bizarre.

Aside from the predictable snacks, you can buy bacon beer, chewing gum, lip balm, toothpaste, mints, toothpicks, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Diet Coke, coffee, air freshener, chocolate and condoms.

But most frightening of all is bacon-flavoured powdered milk for infants (birth to 12 months).

Luckily the latter turns out to have been an April Fool's joke. However, as far as I know, all the other "baconalia" is genuinely on sale.

Get me a bucket!

Friday, January 6, 2012


(Cherchez l'erreur)


I can't believe that I actually congratulated my wife by giving her a high-five rather than a kiss.

This country is clearly getting to me.