Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Soda Stream: Back from the dead

Last week I wrote a blog for Chow.com about an exciting new product called Soda-Club that adds carbonated sparkle to tap water. It's a great idea if you like fizzy water but don't want to buy it bottled. But what I didn't mention in that piece is that the reason the Soda-Club machine I saw it at a friend's house first caught my eye was because the same product used to be popular in the UK back in the Seventies and Eighties under a slightly different brand name: Soda Stream.

Back in those innocent, pre-Perrier days, these magical machines were used to make DIY soft drinks. You would fizz up some water, then add some sweet syrup flavoring of your choice. The problem was that the results always tasted really crappy compared to real Coke, Fanta, Irn-Bru or whatever, and so the machines eventually fell from fashion. Seeing a brand new, silvery Soda Stream pop up in a hip San Francisco apartment was an unexpected turn of events.

Of course, no discussion of the Soda Stream would be complete without mention of the weirdest fruit of its loins. When you bought a Soda Stream machine, you would always get a few free bottles of soft drink syrup along with it, one of which (for some peculiar reason no one has been able to explain) would be "Dandelion & Burdock" flavour. This strange concoction can best be described as some sort of ancient, mythical British soft drink: think Moxie combined with Dr Pepper, but much weirder and made by witches.

No one ever drank it, so anyone who owned a Soda Stream would find themselves stuck with an old, yellowed, sticky plastic bottle of the stuff, lurking menacingly behind their shiny modern soft-drinks maker. In fact, lots of forgotten, nearly full containers of this peculiar potion are probably still hiding in the darkest reaches of kitchen cupboards across Britain, ready and waiting for the unlikely revival of home fizzmaking.

Be quiet, strange syrups, your time may come again ...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Last of the summer beer

It's a shame that American beer has such a poor reputation abroad. Budweiser and its ilk have a lot to answer for, because one of the most pleasant surprises about moving to California has been discovering the high quality and wide variety of the local brews. This came as a particular delight after so many years of drinking flat, lukewarm lager in London pubs.

Sure, the names Bud, Coors, and Miller can still be spotted in most places where drinkers gather here (and the dreaded word "lite" is rarely far behind), but almost every local bar and corner store will also sell at least a few far superior all-American alternatives. Some of these lesser-known beers are made locally, while others are shipped in from neighbouring states, but almost are made by small-scale, microbrew-style operations.

In fact, sometimes the choice can be quite bewildering. The bar closest to my work offers 17 different beers on draft, and is by no means an exception. To make room, bars will often mount taps on both the front and back of the bar area (which can make it tough for short-sighted foreigners like myself to work out what's available). And, just in case all that choice wasn't enough, most local breweries also produce a few seasonal beers to spice things up a little at different times of the year.

Which brings me to the sad news that the beer which has become my favourite since arriving on these shores is currently nowhere to be found. Skinny Dip, made by the New Belgium Brewing Company in Colorado, is a summer beer and therefore unavailable for the next few months. I had my last bottle (pictured above) a few weeks ago and now face a long wait until spring for my next.

Our time apart is going to be made even more difficult by the fact that I'm not a big fan of the winter beers now appearing all over town. Admittedly, these dark, spicy ales would be perfect to sip while sitting next to a warming fire on a nasty December night back home in the UK. But here in San Francisco, despite the grumbling of the locals, the weather never strays very far beyond a kind of half-hearted attempt at autumn, so fiercely festive winter warmers seem strangely out of place – kind of like Christmas decorations on palm trees (another fairly common sight around here).

At times it feels as if people here are actually pining for bad weather, just to make their winter experience more authentic. And maybe there will come a time when I'm one of them, but right now the only thing I'm missing is my summer beer.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Storm in a BBC teacup

I was trying to avoid writing about the tedious "Sachsgate" saga that has been dominating the British media for the past few weeks. So why now? Well, for a few different reasons, but mostly because the NY Times has just done a piece on it, therefore saving me a lot of the work of explaining the whole sorry tale to American readers.

But, just in case you can't be bothered reading that in-depth article, here's the 10-second version: two well-known comedians did a radio show during which they left a few rather puerile messages on an aging actor's answerphone. Two listeners complained. Then a rabidly rightwing tabloid which happens to hate the BBC picked up on the "shocking story" and published a lurid account of the incident, creating a self-perpetuating media shitstorm.

Politicians get involved, people lose their jobs, angry villagers wave pitchforks.

The comparison in the NYT article with Janet Jackson's Superbowl titflash is an apt one. As well as highlighting a certain underlying prudishness on both sides of the Atlantic, both incidents are also excellent examples of the irritating power of a moronic moral minority. These self-appointed guardians of taste claim to protect us from depravity while taking a curious pleasure in revealing and lingering over every salacious detail.

I particularly enjoyed Charlie Brooker's recent account of the snowballing idiocy, which he describes as a "pitiful gitstorm". He also makes a sensible-sounding suggestion about creating anti-complaint hotlines for situations like this one, whereby reasonable people could phone in and cancel out complaints from hysterical halfwits.

If only it were that easy. Here in California we already have a similar idea in place. It's called the proposition system, and unfortunately sometimes there are just too many bigots and cretins to go round.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Dancing in the streets 2

UPDATE: My friend Michael G's video of the celebrations. It sums up the atmosphere of last night brilliantly. And he managed to capture the moment when the cheering hoards closed down Valencia Street, starting a street party that went on for hours.

Celebrating Obama. from Michael on Vimeo.

Dancing in the streets

I'm feeling a little rough this morning, so I'll keep this short. But last night was fun. Lots of fun. We went to a friend's house to watch the results come in and, after Obama's victory speech, we headed out onto the streets. It was like Italy had won the World Cup, only with less mopeds and more high-fiving. People cheered, car horns blared. At 19th and Valencia people started gathering on the street corners and then, suddenly, we were all in the street. People danced, and drank, and shouted quite a lot. The police stood by and watched. It was great.

And we weren't alone. There were other impromptu street parties at 16th and Guerrero, on Divisadero, in the Castro (despite the fact that the Prop 8 ban on same-sex marriage looks to have won), in Berkeley, Seattle, New York, Washington, Chicago... To see more, just go to Flickr and search for recent photos tagged with Obama and party. Yes we can? Oh yes we did.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama takes toontown

CORRECTION: It seems not everyone is as nervous about Obama's chances of victory in today's election as I thought. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau has already called victory for the Illinois senator in a Doonesbury strip he submitted to newspapers a week ago.

Citing figures that sound suspiciously close to those quoted by fivethirtyeight.com, Trudeau decided he was confident enough about Obama winning to predict the historic moment in a cartoon due to run in tomorrow. Unfortunately, quite a few of the newspapers who run his strip aren't being very supportive of his probability based news-gathering techniques (presumably they'd be happier if he just made stuff up instead).

I particularly liked the quote in the linked story above from a McCain spokesman who hoped the strip "proves to be as predictive as it is consistently lame." I'm no clairvoyant, but that doesn't sound to me like the confident boast of a campaign about to pull off the biggest upset in election history.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The only thing to fear is failure

Despite nearly every poll showing that Barack Obama is going be elected the 44th president of the United States in just a few days' time, no one I know is taking anything for granted yet. Even here in the Democrat stronghold of San Francisco, where I've only seen only one lonely McCain-Palin bumper sticker in months of looking, my liberal friends are more nervous than confident. After two disputed election losses, the blue half of the country isn't daring to believe that the dark days are over just yet. Instead, the atmosphere is a curious mixture of fear and hope.

And it's easy to understand why people here are scared when you read articles like this one. It quotes a Republican couple from Florida who think Obama may be a Muslim because: "He says he’s not, but we have no way of knowing." They follow this bizarre example of circular logic by suggesting that Obama's middle name was given in tribute to Saddam Hussein (it would be a surprise if this were true, considering Obama was born in 1961, a full 18 years before his middle-namesake come to power in Iraq). These people, and many more just like them, will be bringing the full force of their intellects to bear in voting booths around the country this coming Tuesday.

But the one thing that everyone seems to be agreed on is that, no matter what the end result, this election will come to be seen as a historic moment for this country, for good or ill. I'm not so sure. I feel as if things won't be quite as bad as some fear should Obama lose, and perhaps more importantly considering the likely result neither will things be as wonderful should he win. After all, I remember the euphoria surrounding Tony Blair's election landslide in 1997, and look what happened after that.

And this is what scares me. If, as he should, Obama wins, and the Democrats maintain control of both houses (with a far more effective majority in the Senate), then expectations are going to be sky-high. But the reality remains that we are in the early stages of a global economic crisis that is going to get much worse before it gets better, which means rising unemployment and falling incomes for some time to come. And the US remains embroiled in two messy wars, neither with any real end in sight. No matter what Obama's stated intentions, extricating America's forces from Iraq isn't going to be easy, nor is it likely to be pretty. And even with the increased military resources at his disposal that would follow any successful pullout from Iraq, bringing meaningful peace or stability to Afghanistan will be as difficult as ever.

In these circumstances, it seems right that people should feel cautious right now. I just hope we all remember to keep our expectations in check after Tuesday, too.

File under: I wish I'd thought of that

I'm officially in love with fivethirtyeight.com, the presidential election website run by baseball statistician Nate Silver. Operating under the tagline "political polling done right," he has applied a fantasy sports enthusiast's love of number-crunching to the upcoming ballot, examining the various polls and statistics, and arriving at some interesting conclusions.

In particular, his thoughtful, intelligent analysis of why the various polls are wrong (and let's not forget that to a greater or lesser degree they are all wrong) makes you wonder why we pay attention to any of them in the first place. For example, there's the simple fact that most modern polling companies don't call cell phone numbers, despite the increasing numbers of voters who don't have a landline.

Even better, the site is about much more than mere stats, and includes some excellent on-the-ground first-person reports from campaign battlegrounds around the country. Because these stories aren't the site's main feature (and because this isn't a traditional news website), they tend to be more anecdotal, subjective, and, frankly, interesting than much of the coverage coming out of the traditional news media that I've seen. Just read this provocative story about a racist couple who say they are voting for Obama if you don't believe me.

Best of all, it's all put together by just a handful of people (there are only two credited writers -- even if there are more "backroom" people involved now, I'm guessing there's probably no more than about five total). Note to self: must come up with an idea like this one...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

There's only one Barack Obama

Hurrying home after work tonight, trying to get back before the third and final Obama-McCain Presidential debate started, I saw this sign outside a pub in downtown San Francisco.

I love the idea of screening political debates in bars, but I can't quite imagine the same thing happening in the UK. Of course, it helps that San Francisco is a fiercely liberal Democratic heartland, so the kind of dissenting views that might lead to bar brawls are unlikely. Nevertheless, I think it represents something fundamentally different about the political culture here.

I'm just sorry that I won't have another chance to witness this part of the American electoral process in action (well, not in this election at least). The idea of it intrigues me. Is there heckling? Cheering and booing? Singing even? Well, probably not the latter, but it's fun to imagine all the same. All together now: Can you hear the GOP sing? No-oh, no-oh-oh.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

NBC is ruining my Olympics

Normally I love watching big sporting events on TV, but my first experience of an Olympic Games as seen from an American perspective has been a total washout.

It's not the bias towards Team USA in the coverage and commentary, as that's completely forgivable. The latent jingoism of almost every nation's broadcasters comes to the fore during the Olympics, and Britain was certainly no exception: it has just been a matter of replacing rowing and plucky defeats with more beach volleyball and high-fives.

No, it's the fact that NBC, the network which owns the rights to screen the games in the US, has decided to show virtually nothing live. Instead broadcasts are delayed until prime time, regardless of when they originally took place. This means almost a full day's cold storage for much of the footage.

And not just that, but the few events which have happened at the right time of day in China to be broadcast simultaneously here are only shown live on the East Coast. Prime time starts three hours later on the West Coast, and so does the same, supposedly "live" NBC coverage. Of course, this doesn't stop the channel from leaving the word "live" in the top corner of the screen, as if they - and we - aren't aware that these goods are frozen, not fresh.

But in this world of instant online news coverage, I am aware of it; indeed, with an event the size of the Olympics, it has been pretty much impossible to avoid the fact. I can't go online to check my email without being bombarded with news and results from the games.

So I knew about most of Michael Phelps' gold medal wins before I saw them on television. I knew that China's biggest track and field star, 110-metre hurdler Liu Xiang, had failed in his quest for gold long before I saw him limp out of his first race. I knew that Usain Bolt had destroyed the opposition in the 100m final before I ever got a chance to see him start his celebrations well before he reached the finish line.

And now I also know that finding out the results of sporting events ahead of time makes them a lot less exciting to watch.

But there's always NBC's internet coverage, right? Wrong. Despite the fact that the channel's Olympics website features tons of awesome, high-quality streaming video (which could be shown at any time of day or night without interrupting their schedules), most of that is also delayed, presumably so that it doesn't interfere with those precious prime time ratings.

It's hard not to see this as arrogance. This is an event that is much bigger than any one TV channel, so broadcasters should bend to fit in with the Olympics, not the other way round. But, thankfully, it seems that not everyone who works in the US television industry is so dumb. Sports network ESPN is bidding for the 2014 and 2016 winter and summer games, and promises to show more of them live no matter the time of day or night.

Talking about NBC's Olympic performance, ESPN's executive VP John Skipper told the New York Times: "Our DNA is different than theirs. We serve sports fans. It's hard in our culture to fathom tape-delaying in the same way they have ... We did Euro 2008 in the afternoon. We've done the World Cup in the middle of the morning. We have different audiences."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

En fuego

Summer in California means wildfire season, and this year's is looking set to be one of the worst ever. A rare lightning storm last month ignited forest fires across the state, and the fire services have been battling ever since to get them under control.

The scale of the problem is hard to comprehend. California has huge areas of natural woodland, and recent winters have been drier than normal. All that dense, dry underbrush is just waiting for a spark, and once the flames take hold they're hard to stop. The recent fires have burned more than 1,300 square miles of land, an area twice the size of Greater London. At one point there were a total of 1,781 individual blazes, apparently a state record. That this total is now down to under 300 is partly due to the efforts of the 20,000 firefighters tackling them, but also because many of the smaller blazes combined to form larger conflagrations.

Here in San Francisco, the only sign of the fires still burning comes when the wind swings round to the wrong direction, blowing smoke over the city like a dense smog. The air becomes noticeably harder to breath, and sunsets take on an apocalyptic beauty. But earlier this year, during a visit to Tahoe, I went for a walk through the "burn zone" (pictured) which had been left near where we were staying by a major fire there in 2007. The ground was still scorched down to the dirt and, while the black stumps of some trees had been left standing, others had been consumed completely. All that remained of them were holes in the ground where their roots had continued to smolder down into the earth.

But, like earthquakes, the threat of devastating wildfires is just a fact of life in California. My wife and I visited Malibu for a wedding in October last year, and the rehearsal dinner was held in the groom's parent's house, which had a spectacular view over this celebrity-strewn stretch of southern Californian coastline. It looks like the safest place in the world, but the groom's father told me that the family's first home on the same spot had been destroyed by a wildfire a few years before. He was philosophical about it, saying that they had been able to rebuild and, while they had lost almost everything, at least they were all alive and well.

This was true, of course, but I was still surprised at how relaxed he seemed about it all. Then, just over a week later another series of fires broke out in southern California, one of which led to the evacuation of Malibu and the destruction of some homes there. And then the same thing happened again in November. With the help of good insurance, it's amazing what you can get used to living with.

A tale of two magazine covers

While the New Yorker is known and respected for many things, the biting wit of its cartoons isn't one of them. Traditionally they span the spectrum from mildly amusing to vaguely depressing. But the magazine's latest front cover depicting Michelle and Barack Obama sees it plumb new depths in the humour department.

According to New Yorker editor David Remnick, it was intended to be a satirical statement about right-wing depictions of the Democratic presidential candidate and his wife, but it gets this horribly wrong: as a satire it is both cloddishly heavy handed and, importantly, not really funny. Sure, it will spark debate, but only in the same way your least favourite uncle might when he starts a joke during a family dinner with the words, "I'm not a racist, but..." I mean, even John McCain's campaign immediately condemned it.

When I first saw the illustration, I immediately thought of the Onion's front page headline earlier this year: "Black Guy Asks Nation For Change." Not only does this make me laugh pretty much every time I think of it, but it also nails the issue by making it crystal clear exactly who the joke is aimed at: us and our attitudes to race, not the candidate himself. New Yorker take note: leave the satire to the satirists.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

As others see us

Some American-Scottish humour, which I received in the post today courtesy of my father-in-law...

Maybe he wasn't listening when I explained to him that most of the kilt-wearers you see in Scotland are employed in the tourist industry - and that the rest are tourists.

The cartoon was drawn by Dan Piraro.

European soccerball

During Euro 2008, I couldn't help but notice that watching football at the pub here is, well, a bit odd. For a start, the time difference means that European football games kick off at any point from 4am onwards on the Pacific coast, and pubs seems to get progressively stranger for every extra hour before noon you visit them pretty much anywhere in the world (outside of Leith, at least). Then there are local peculiarities such as US broadcaster ESPN's regular commentary pundit Tommy Smyth, an eccentric Irishman who seems to have tricked the locals into thinking that "he's bulged the old onion bag!" is an acceptable euphimism for "goal". But, most of all, there is the solitude.

I'm used to football-watching being a communal activity. In Britain, even inconsequential mid-table, lower-league games featuring obscure teams will not only be shown in most pubs, but you can be sure that a large proportion of the drinkers present will be keeping at least half an eye on the action. Presumably this just in case that guy with two left feet playing up front suddenly blasts one into the top corner like Ronaldo. Or perhaps because watching Scunthorpe Utd vs Crewe Alexandria is a better prospect than staring at the flashing lights on the fruit machine - or, perish the thought, actually talking to someone. This meant that even on those rare occasions in London that I managed to persuade an unsuspecting pub to show a game featuring my home team, perennial Scottish underachievers Hearts, I could be pretty sure that I wouldn't be alone.

Things are different here in the US, where I have been relegated to a small, subversive minority of "soccer" fans for even the biggest games. We gather in carefully selected pubs at strange times of the day to huddle around the one television not dedicated to showing proper sports like senior tour golf, last weekend's Nascar highlights, or women's college softball.

But for the past few weeks, as the Euro championship progressed towards its conclusion, our small numbers grew a little. An Irish pub close to my work dutifully showed all the games, and the games that kicked off in the evening in Europe coincided quite nicely with my lunch hour here. During the group stages there were generally only a handful of us, and we would sit at one end of the bar, watching pictures without any sound, surrounded by indifferent locals. But, by the time the semi-finals came round, not only had the sound been turned up, but it was standing room only. Admittedly, some of the people present for those games were slightly confused locals who had stumbled in by accident, but most of us were there to actually see the match, and our numbers included both football-loving foreigners like myself, and that strangest and rarest of beasts: the genuine American soccer fan.

They are still a minority among their own countrymen, but their numbers are growing - and, thankfully, I'm friends with quite a few of them. The fascinating thing for me is the way this small splinter group of American sports fans, and the game of football itself, are viewed by the majority here. In the UK, football supporters are stereotypically thought of as boorish, uncultured lager lads, but here the opposite is true. To have even noticed the sport tends to take a certain cosmopolitan outlook, and the game also has a reputation in the States for being effete, certainly in comparison to the home-grown brand of football. One of the most common criticisms I hear about the round-balled version of the game concerns players "flopping", or diving, which seems to run counter to two of the most fundamental doctrines held dear by most American sports fans: masculinity and authenticity.

(Ironically, foreign football fans also have a reputation in the US for hooliganism, fighting and general thuggery, but we'll ignore that apparent contradiction for now)

These are generalisations, of course, but it's probably no coincidence that the only mainstream American celebrity I can think of who has also come out as a football fan is every liberal intellectual's favourite comedian, Jon Stewart from The Daily Show. Well, him and NBA star Steve Nash, but he's a Canadian who was born in South Africa to British parents, so he doesn't really count.

But, now that Euro 2008 is over, the television in my local pub will have little to offer but a steady diet of baseball for the next few months. Well, that and the fruit machine in the corner.

Oooh, pretty flashing lights...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Please type or print in black ink

... or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Form.

Almost exactly a year after I first landed in the USA, I have reached a momentous milestone: my first complete set of official documentation. It has been a long, slow, arduous and predictably tiresome slog through more bureaucratic inanity than I ever thought possible. But now, at last, I seem to have made my paperwork peace with pretty much every agency and organisation of any importance.

The paper trail started as soon as I stepped onto American soil, first with US customs and immigration, then straight on to Verizon to get myself a mobile phone. Since then I've had to open a total of five different bank accounts, gone through the surprisingly difficult process of getting a credit card (a simple process made awkward by my complete lack of US credit history, good or bad), queued up for a social security card (twice), registered with dentist, doctor and health insurance, got married (which sent my wife into a similar bureaucratic tailspin as she sought to change her name everywhere), applied to rent countless houses, then finally filled out a lease for one of them (which then had to be connected to all the utilities, as well as damn cable), started a business and registered it at City Hall (it turns out that you need a licence to work as a freelancer in San Francisco), filed my first U.S. tax return (which is fiendishly complicated here at the best of times and, surprisingly, not made any easier when you turn up in the country part way through the year), filled in more tax forms for new employers than I can shake a shitty stick at, dealt with various shipping companies to have my stuff sent here from the UK (and negotiated its passage through US customs), and even picked up loyalty cards for my local supermarket and hardware stores... And each of these individual tasks presented their own unique, unfamiliar, irritating challenges.

Of course, all of this doesn't even include immigration and the Green Card application process, which thanks to the ever-watchful Department of Homeland Security is its own enormous scary maze of crazy paperwork. Rather than detailing the whole process, I can only suggest you download form i-485 for yourself and check out the awesome list of questions that fill page three. Have I ever committed any crime of moral turpitude? Probably not: I had to look up a dictionary to find out what it was . Needless to say, the one piece of advice I'd give anyone, ANYONE, embarking on the same journey is this: Get A Fucking Lawyer. Really. Trying to do this alone would be like trying to traverse the Amazon without a map, blindfold. With one hand tied behind your back. Extremely difficult, basically.

But, after a year of checking boxes, printing answers legibly in ballpoint pen, and being fingerprinted more than can possibly be healthy, I saved one of the best bureaucracies until last. The local DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles, the US equivalent of Britain's DVLA) has a special place in the heart of almost all of the Americans I have spoken to about it. People here are forced to enjoy its unique charms every time they buy or sell a car, move state, or need to obtain or renew a driving licence (which, unlike in the UK, is surprisingly often).

And it isn't just drivers who end up there either, as the DMV is pretty much the only place you can get an official US identification card without going through the even more arduous, and expensive, process of obtaining a passport (and, considering the amount of time you are asked for proof of age or identity here, particularly in bars and shops, having a separate, credit-card sized ID is pretty much essential).

Now, I thought my local Social Security Office offered a colourful cross-section of US society, but that was before I had the pleasure of visiting the DMV. All of American life is here, from the top to the bottom, and all the way across too. Forms are available in a dizzying array of languages, as are all the signs pointing out the various queues you're going to have to wait in. And wait. And wait. And... zzzzzz.

The first part of the licence test here, as in the UK, is a written exam. I gave the supplied California Driver Handbook a cursory glance, then aced the mock test at the back of it, so I felt ready. Unfortunately, the real test is four times as long and much harder. One of the questions I was asked required me to know the exact percentage of alcohol I am legally allowed to have in my blood while driving. What is the point in that? Sorry, I can't have another beer, my BAC is already 0.074%...

Anyway, thanks to the fact the test was multiple-choice (yay, guesswork!), I managed to scrape through.

Which left the behind-the-wheel portion. Of course, having already passed the famously difficult UK driving test, I should have been feeling pretty confident about my chances. However, that was the best part of 20 years ago, and I was driving on the other side of the road back then. How many bad habits had I picked up in the interim?

Quite a lot, it turns out. And this was despite the fact that I didn't have to demonstrate the dreaded dark arts of parallel parking, three-point turns or even that most mystifying manoeuvre of all reversing round a corner. In fact, the most technical task arrived early in the test: reversing in a straight line in the DMV parking lot. Put car in reverse, look over shoulder, don't turn steering wheel... Easy!

But maybe not quite so easy. You are allowed to make a few mistakes while being instructed to turn aimlessly left and right through the streets near the DMV, but each error carries with it a different points penalty. Reach the 15-point mark, and you fail. And I managed to get 13.

So now I am the proud owner of my first-ever US driving licence, a handy credit-card sized piece of ID that looks good next to my Green Card (which, naturally enough, isn't actually green), Social Security card, credit card, bank cards, health insurance cards, Bell Markets Club card... I'm almost starting to feel like a local.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Don't fire!

One of the companies that I freelance for announced some layoffs earlier this week: quite a few, apparently. So far, so normal. I've worked in publishing long enough to know that there are few businesses in the industry that don't spend large amounts of time and effort think up new reasons to get rid of their loyal employees.

What surprised me was the arrival of a new member of staff, who turned up at the same time the "workforce realignment" was announced. I only noticed him because of the odd way he stared at me just a little too intently when I arrived in the building the next morning. And the morning after that. He stares at everyone, quite a lot.

Loitering just behind the guy who normally mans the front desk, he looks like he's in his fifties, with lightly tinted glasses, neatly trimmed greying hair and a goatee beard. He fills his casual sports jacket with a casually held amount of muscle, and he has a small but noticeable bulge under his coat on his left hip. He looks a little like his last job may have been a freelance gig for a South African diamond mine.

I'm now desperate to find out if it is normal practice here in the United States for companies to hire an armed guard every time they make their staff walk Spanish. I'm also intrigued to know how long this new guy is going to be needed for. I mean, I'm guessing that the kind of person who reacts to unemployment violently can hold a grudge for quite a while - at least for the duration of California's 10-day waiting period.

For the time being, I'm making sure I have my hall pass on clear display at all times.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Small world

I love technology, and the fact that it never seems to lose its ability to astonish me. Webcams, GPS, the internet: they're all great. However, this isn't all about shiny digital newness, as the combination of a whole bunch of two-tonne metal boxes and a 100-year-old canal have just demonstrated.

To explain: when I visited the UK in January this year, I arranged to have what remained of my worldly belongings transported to me here in California. This turned out to be a painful process, partly due to how complicated and expensive it was, but mainly because of how important those things are to me. It felt plain wrong to hand them over to someone else, and then entrust a whole chain of random strangers to ship them thousands of miles across land and ocean to my new home. But let I go I did. Sort of.

The first stage of their journey took several weeks. First I dropped off the boxes with Meadows International Removals in Edinburgh, whose premises (a back street lock-up) didn't exactly inspire confidence - nor did the owner's insistence that the things they sent turned up at their intended destination "most of the time". From there, I was told that my belongings would be taken by road first to London, and then to Southampton on England's south coast. Once there, my 17 little cardboard boxes would be packed into a small corner of a much larger metal shipping container, which would then be loaded onto a sea-going vessel headed for Los Angeles.

So, a few weeks later, I was duly sent a "bill of lading" from Southampton, presumably to reassure me that all was going well so far. Unfortunately it didn't inspire much confidence, particularly as both my surname and street address in San Francisco were mis-spelled, and the point of origin was listed as Edinburgh, Fife. However, it did tell me the name of the floaty boat that would be entrusted with not getting my things wet on their way to America: the dashing-sounding Antwerpen Express.

Now, being the person I am, I immediately Googled the ship's name to find out a little bit more about her (size, weight, age, propensity for losing containers, that sort of thing). This led me to discover sailwx.info, a website that tracks the locations of ships all over the world, including the Antwerpen Express (updates are only made every 6-12 hours, and all times are GMT.)

So, for the past few weeks I've been following the steady progress of my brave boat as it crossed the Atlantic, made its way down the east coast of the US, and then traversed the Caribbean. Then, the day before yesterday, I noticed that it was nearing the Panama Canal, and I began to wonder if there was a website that offered more details on ships as they passed through. Which is how I discovered this page of webcams covering the main locks on the canal, and started to watch them obsessively in the hope of catching sight of my now-beloved ship.

You see, I really am very attached to the stuff I have on that boat (or, at least, the stuff I hope is on that boat). Before I left the UK almost a year ago, I had to get rid of the vast majority of my possessions (some of it via these very pages), so the things that are left are like a distillation of who I am. To someone else, they may just be a 92kg pile of crappy old records, CDs and books, but they mean much, much more to me. And it's those things which are hopefully still on the high seas, not in them.

So, image the thrill I felt just after 3.30 this afternoon, when a Hapag Lloyd vessel hove into view on the Milaflores Lock camera. Now, I can't be entirely sure it was the Antwerpen Express, as the combination of low image resolution, a slightly dirty camera lens and the curve of the ship's bow all prevented me from getting a good look at the name. But, the only other Hapag Lloyd ship in the area is already on the other, Pacific side of the canal, so I'm pretty sure it was my baby.

And, suddenly, the world seems a little smaller, technology seems a little cooler, and the idea that my precious cargo might actually get to me safely seems a little less remote.

Monday, February 04, 2008

On the eve of a Super Tuesday

It's around 5pm: I am walking down Market Street, the main thoroughfare that runs through the centre of downtown San Francisco, and I hear a crowd approaching. At first I think they are protestors, because of the shouting and placard waving. But I am wrong.

Numbering around 50, they carry homemade signs and placards bearing the name "Obama", and they are all chanting the same phrase, over and over: Yes We Can. The realisation they are shouting in praise rather than anger is strangely intoxicating in the fading light of this beautifully sunny evening.

Political energy is high in San Francisco tonight. Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, when supporters of America's two main parties in almost half of the country's states - including California - vote to choose their preferred candidates ahead of the presidential election proper later this year.

In this famously liberal city, the debates and ad campaigns are all focussing on the two remaining Democratic hopefuls: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

I can't vote, but I have been intrigued by the contest, especially because of the passionate debates it has sparked among my friends. Which candidate is best qualified to lead the country? And, perhaps more importantly, who has the best chance of beating the Republicans?

Hillary has the weight of experience and an impressive political pedigree. But Obama offers a heady mixture of youth, excitement and charisma. Sure, few people same able to say how the two differ in terms of policy, but to nitpick over that is to kind of miss the point.

Obama is new, he is fresh and he is exciting. Is that enough to get him into the White House? Should that be enough? Probably no more than the fact that Hillary is a woman, or a Clinton.

Perhaps unfortunately the desire for change here reminds me a little of the wave of optimism that swept Tony Blair to government in the UK in 1997. And that's the thing about change: you can never be sure exactly what you're going to get. But you can hope.