Sunday, May 11, 2014

Niche Police

I often see police cars driving around the quite suburbs. The cities here are small, like local councils in most Australian capital cities, and each have their own police force. There are also county police, state police and the federal police - the FBI.

But I was surprised this morning to see a police car labelled "Foothill-De Anza Community College District Police Department". I knew Universities could have their own police, so was not surprised that the University of California, Berkeley had police - although it still seemed weird to an Australian. But community colleges? It seems a very small area to have its own police. And Foothill and De Anza College are over 10km from each other, so there are these little pockets of jurisdiction for this police force.

P.S. Looks like I never hit "post" after I wrote this two years ago (to the day!), so I've posted it now.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Magazine subscriptions in the US are insanely cheap. Once I realized this, I subscribed to half a dozen magazines within hours. Of course, US magazines are cheaper here than getting them in Australia, but its better than that. There are discount websites that sell subscriptions very, very cheaply. You wonder how they make any money.

Just search somewhere like and it's incredible how cheap they are.

National Geographic Kids is $15 for ten issues. You'd have a hard time finding two issues for $15 in Australia.
The New Yorker: $40 for 47 issues -- less than $1 an issue!
Mother Jones: $5 for 6 issues.
Rolling Stone: $20 for 26 issues.

There are a few catches. There are introductory offers, so they may not continue after the first year. But when it's so cheap you can try lots of magazines out for a year and then only renew the best ones. Which bring up the other thing to watch out for. Some of these subscriptions automatically renew at the end of the subscription period. I've avoided getting those, even if they are a bit cheaper to make sure I don't end up paying for a magazine I don't really want to keep getting.

Unfortunately, these crazy prices are no good if you want something that doesn't come from the US. You can't find the UK mag New Scientist, for example, on any of these sites.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


How riding a bike in the US is different to Australia:

* bike lanes on the road are much narrower, sometimes narrower than the bicycle

* people routinely ride the wrong way in bicycle lanes, forcing the rider going the correct way into the traffic (I have never had this happen in Australia, but twice in one week here.)

* cars can turn right on a red light, so if you are on a bike stopped at a red light you are where the cars behind you want to go to turn right. However...

* at least where I am, drivers are very polite and do not mind that you are preventing them turning right. Drivers stop and wave me past them at intersections where actually I should be giving way to them. The general courtesy of drivers to bicycles and other drivers is very different from big cities in Australia.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Seven business days

My US bank allows you to pay bills via the Internet. So I put in the details of my cable TV account, and then it said "payment will be sent by check, please allow 5 to 7 business days for payment". Unbelievable as it is, the US still uses cheques for a lot of payment. Even an automatic payment via Internet banking may very well be mailed by cheque and take over a week.

I found this hard to believe and have since joined a credit union which will pay many bills within a day. But even that has a strange twist. To pay off a credit card at another bank takes one day from the credit union "checking" account. However, to transfer money from my credit union checking account to my credit union Visa account takes three days for the payment to clear with Visa. It is quicker to pay my visa bill at another bank than make a transfer to the credit union Visa account.

Why does this all seem so old fashioned and really a bit ridiculous? Because in November 1997 all the Australian banks got together and agreed to introduce BPay. A single system for payments between billers and banks. A few years later it moved from phones to the Internet and means that Australians don't need give a minute's thought to how they will get money from one account to another or how they will get money to a biller. In the US you can often get by with credit cards, but for some things like rent and school excursions, you can only pay by cheque.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Cheese and Peppers?

Went to the Pizza take away last night to pick up a cheese pizza and some sort of combo pizza. The woman gives them to me and says:

"Cheese and Peppers?".

"Sorry?", I say.

"Cheese and Peppers?", she says.

"Cheese and Peppers?", I say.

"Cheese and Peppers?", she says.

I know I'm getting a cheese pizza and the other pizza does have capsicum on it, but I wouldn't call it a "pepper pizza", so I say:

"Cheese and Peppers? I'm sorry, I don't know what you are asking me."

Being in a fast food place she is in a hurry, so she just grabs two small containers of parmesan cheese and two of dried chilli flakes and puts them in with the pizzas.

Who would have thought that you could add parmesan cheese to pizza, which already has quite a substantial cheese base. Even more confusing when the menu charged $1.50 for adding any one of a whole host of specified extras.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

TV is Real

On the first visit to the Main St of my city I was struck by how much it resembled a movie set. The buildings were too bright and clean. The shop fronts looked fake. Smooth square buildings confidently asserting their business.

This was not seeing the unfamiliar as unexpected, but rather, seeing the familiar and not expecting it. Things I had seen before on TV but dismissed as totally unrealistic: too clich├ęd, too lacking in irony to actually be real. But no, that is how it is over here.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


When I filled out my social security application form it had spaces for my parents' social security numbers. They had spent some time in the States and I had a copy of their SSNs so I filled them in. However, after reading the page of instructions I found out that I didn't need to fill that out unless I was a minor.

So here is the big difference between US and Australian forms: NOTHING ON THE FORM ITSELF TOLD ME NOT TO FILL THIS OUT. The boxes were there on the form and looked like all the other boxes I had to complete.

The thing is, you are never supposed to just read a form and fill it out. In the US you must always read the accompanying instructions first.

Forms in Australia lead you through them. You read what you have to do as you fill them out. They tell you which parts to fill out, which parts to leave blank. You know when to skip questions and when to stop.

US forms are not like this. To someone from Australia, they can look deceptively simple. There is the temptation to just fill them in. However, this is foolhardy and will result in you doing the wrong thing.

After the form there are always instructions with way too many words in dense type. These instructions tell you which parts of to fill out and which parts to leave blank. Without reading these, you have no idea that often you are supposed to leave much of the form blank. It can be a challenge matching up the instructions with the questions. Maybe one day they will put the instructions next to the questions, like in Australia, but until then you have to play the game of matching the instructions with the questions.

At the end of all the forms is a section about The Paperwork Reduction Act telling you how long it should have taken you to fill out the form. If you find this number inaccurate there is an address you can write to. There is no form to complete for this.