Sunday, August 28, 2011

Danger - American Weather!

We couldn't resist the urge to talk about American weather, given what's been going on on the Eastern Seaboard:


I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s no great place to live in the USA, weather-wise at least. Think about it. We currently have Hurricane Irene lashing her way up the Eastern Seaboard and it’s not just a heavy storm. This stuff is of near - biblical proportions and there will no doubt be a lot of damage and destruction. Although this is the first hurricane to affect so much of the Atlantic coast line, it’s not unusual for the lower states (Florida and the Carolina’s) to experience hurricane weather.

As you travel into the Heartland (the middle of the country) you have frigid winters in the northern states, (where the temperatures plummet to below freezing for months and months), and sweltering heat in the southern states. Oh, and there’s Tornado Alley running vertically right through the middle and the New Madrid Seismic Zone from Illinois on down.

Out west, they’ve convinced themselves that California has the best climate but they’re all sitting on the San Andreas fault line, aren’t they? Not to mention the desserts in the southwest where many a lost soul has parched to death. If you like your ‘seasons’, San Francisco and San Diego apparently have the least variety in weather in the country. California is also prey to wildfires and mudslides, so not as attractive as one might think.

It’s quite amazing that so many people have made their homes here.


When I first moved to the UK, I had the idea that I was getting the short end of the weather stick—having fallen prey to the popular myth concerning the awfulness of British weather.  It did not take me very long to realize I had hit the climate jackpot, however.

Over the years, I have made much of the weather differences between here and home, so I won’t go into that again, instead I will simply agree with Toni that, in much of America, for much of the year, merely being outside is lethal, whereas in the UK, it generally is not.

When I visited Phoenix during July many years ago (if there was ever a city with no reason for existence, it is Phoenix; it’s in the middle of a desert, for chissake, and it was founded before they had air conditioning), I and some friends (also from New York) decided to take a walk after lunch.  Our hosts told us we could not go out without shoes as the pavement would burn our feet.  We took their advice and ended up walking from shop to shop down the street because we found we could not tolerate being without air conditioning for more than four minutes at a time, which is three minutes longer than you can tolerate being without central heating in Minnesota during January.

The idea that you can die from just being outside is a foreign concept to most of the people I know here.  In America—pick a section of that vast land, any section—and it is a common occurrence.  You generally won’t find “Being Outside” listed as the cause of death on the death certificate—that will be something more specific like, hypothermia, terminal sunburn, washed away in a flash flood, sucked up into a funnel cloud and not seen since, disappeared in a snow bank or ground opened up and swallowed him—but the common root of all these outcomes is, Being Outside.

I would not be surprised to overhear the following conversation in any Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks or Denny’s in any part the country at any given time of the year:

“What happened to Bob?”

“Oh, didn’t you hear?  He went outside!”

So, you in America, stay inside.

Especially if you live on the East Coast. 

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Show Me the Money

Show Me the Money

This week we're contemplating a dangerous trend that's crossed the Pond:


After last week’s horrific stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair (which killed 6 people), the first of the lawsuits is already in.  Janeen Beth Urschel lost her partner Tammy Van Dam and has hired a lawyer, claiming that more should have been done to get audience members to safety.

Since Indiana state can’t be sued for more than $5 million, the claim is against several companies believed responsible; a claim of $50 million is being sought on behalf of the deceased’s 17 year old daughter, and $10 million in punitive damages for her partner, Urshcel, who says her “emotional pain is indescribable.”

While most would not argue against a claim by the daughter, many balk at the amount. Fifty million? In my day, such claims were calculated based on the future earnings of the deceased. I know the cost of attending college here is ridiculous, but even with inflation factored in, it’s not going to cost $50 million. And ten million in punitive damages for her 49 year old partner, (who will first have to challenge Indiana State law barring life partners from recovering damages in wrongful death claims)? Seriously?

Yes, the pain of losing someone is hard to describe, but will ten million bucks ease that pain? And what the heck do people mean by “punitive damages” anyway.  I know, I know.  It’s intended to punish rather than compensate, but again - ten million? Really?

I also know that the numbers have to be initially high because those poor ambulance chasers lawyers need to take their cut, but does this strike anyone else as a tad greedy? 


One of the things that really used to frost me*when I lived in America was the way we would sue at the drop of a hat.  And I’m sure that, somewhere, someone probably did try to sue someone for dropping a hat, perhaps because it resulted in severe cocklaphobia.  (No, I am Not making that up.)

To my mind, litigationphilia (yes, I DID make that up) was something ugly and detestable that slithered into our national psyche when we weren’t paying attention.  Before we knew it, it had bludgeoned Rugged Individualism senseless, trussed him up and tossed him in the basement with his old friend Common Sense.  Suddenly, no matter what mishap befell anyone, someone ELSE was at fault and they MUST PAY.  Dearly.

I went out with a woman (for a, thankfully, short time) who told me that the only way to get rich in America was to inherit, win the lottery or sue someone.  (Really?  What happened to the Protestant Work Ethic, and exploiting the masses?)  Not having much hope of the first two, she was actively pursuing the final option against an unfortunate woman who had bumped her car from behind at a traffic light.  At the lawyer visit I accompanied her to, I heard tales of whiplash, pain and suffering, unspecified fears and debilitation.  Her litany of agony caused the lawyer’s eyes to glow with dollar signs.  Never mind that all of it was rubbish.

This belief—that hurting yourself was the ticket to untold riches—had the effect of practically wiping out things like church picnics, town fairs and the like due to the rising probability that someone might stub their toe and sue the pants off of the organizers.  And I found that very sad.

It was a relief, therefore, when that attitude did not appear to be as prevalent over here.  Sure, there was the odd frivolous lawsuit, but for the most part, people seemed content with the idea that they were responsible for their own actions, and their consequences.**

However, over the years, the Health and Safety laws (and legends) have done a fair job of producing similar results without the help of pesky lawsuits.  Instead of becoming a litigious society, we have become a “risk adverse” society, where every action—no matter how benign—is subject to scrutiny.  This has led to the cancellation of pancake races, forbidding the childhood game of “Conkers” and the abolishing long-standing traditions, such as The Annual Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling Competition.

Organizations, large and small, can find their plans for a benefit concert, church fete or company picnic stopped cold by those three little words: “Health and Safety.”  If you do this, someone might get hurt, and we can’t have that, can we?

Different attitude, but the same result.  And I find that very sad.

* Another thing that used to frost me was spending the night in a walk-in freezer, but that’s another story.

** That said, there is an appalling sense of entitlement developing within the younger generation but, that too, is another story.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

The London Riots: Is Revenge a Good Idea?

Is evicting convicted rioters from council housing and revoking their benefits really a good idea?


There’s talk of stripping benefits from anyone found guilty of the looting and rioting in England last week.  Given that most of the feckless individuals were too busy stealing Sony TVs and designer jeans to even care about larger societal matters, few of us probably have any initial objections to this suggestion.

It’s not quite as easy as that though.

From the photos that have been circulated, a lot of these thugs weren’t even teenagers at all.  If they’re older and on benefits, they might well have dependent children.  What happens to them?  These kids aren’t exactly born with a silver spoon in their mouths as it is.  Should the sins of their fathers be visited on them?  If you’re of a mind that the kids shouldn’t be punished for their fathers’ crimes, it means they the government has to find another way of supporting them.  That, in turn, means a whole new layer of bureaucracy to fund.

Plus, think about it, removing benefits, especially in the form of housing, will simply result in hundreds more homeless people on the streets. While they won’t then be living off taxpayer money, it’s not exactly the result England needs is it?

Removing benefits is a knee jerk reaction to a horrific recent event, but in its simplest form, that’s probably not the answer. 


Oddly enough, I am taking the liberal view precisely because I am not a liberal.

Simply put: turfing these people out and taking away their benefits sounds satisfying, but it is revenge pure and simple.  And revenge is never a good idea.

It is also totally unnecessary: there are laws on the books (and have been for hundreds of years) to handle assault, vandalism, robbery and murder—use them!  On the numerous “Cops With Camera” shows , we see criminals captured after:
  • smashing shop windows
  • looting stores
  • assaulting people
  • leading police on wild, destructive and dangerous car cases

but, as the program wraps up, we find that they were given a two-week suspended sentence and 2 point on their license.  (This is the sort of thing that makes me start shouting at the telly.)  Why weren’t these people locked up?

I’ll tell you why (soapbox level 3): the same hand-wringing do-gooders who are now whining about “disenfranchised youth” and our “broken society” are the same people who have been—for the last twenty years—systematically stripping police of their powers and blocking courts from handing out just punishments.

So why did these people destroy property, loot stores and assault passersby?  Because they have been taught that it is acceptable behaviour.  They have been doing it for years and have never received anything more than a slap on the wrist, so why would they hesitate to join in?  (/soapbox level 3)

And taking their housing away?  No surprise that this was the first revenge tactic the MP’s thought up; after all, when they were caught looting the public, the punishment they suffered was having to pay for their second homes themselves.  So being revealed as a common thief relates—in their minds—to having your housing benefits taken away, and it’s too bad that they are unable to think any further ahead than that, because when they start throwing innocent people onto the streets along with the guilty, I am afraid the politicians, and the people hounding them for revenge, are going to be the ones looking like the villains.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Child-like Wonder?

We came across this quote from Bill Bryson, and it got us thinking.....
"I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything."


Having just spent a week in Ghana, where almost everything was brand new, I'm not sure I experienced "childlike wonder", but it was definitely interesting. Not being a serial expat (one who moves around the globe a lot), I had forgotten how mentally exhausting it can be to not have a clue what you're doing most of the time. The simple task of trying to remember not to use my left hand for waving to people, accepting anything that was given me, and obviously for eating, was a challenge, made worse because I knew how offensive using the left hand is out there. It wasn't even something I could laugh off.

For me, the child like wonder comes in when I return to England each year and experience new developments, many of which haven't reached the States yet. The hand-held credit card processor that is used in most UK restaurants still almost makes me applaud in appreciation. No fears about your credit card disappearing off to be copied by some ne'er do well in the kitchens. (BTW I am also still appalled at the lack of cross-checking that's done when you proffer a credit card in the USA. They usually return your card to you before you've signed everything. I quite often use my husband's, sign it with my name and nothing is said. How do they know I'm not a crazed ex-wife who is spending every unearned penny he has?)

I also often wonder at the reverse - things that still don't happen in the UK. Like petrol/gas stations that allow you to pay at the pump instead of having to go into the little shop (past all those irresistible goodies) and pay the sales assistant. Mind you, given the relatively mild climate in the UK, there's little danger of getting hyperthermia just by crossing the forecourt in the winter.

One thing I notice that's now all the rage on either side of the Pond, and equally as annoying on both sides, is the self check-out. Grrr. No matter how carefully I place items into the shopping bag, the bloody woman starts shouting at me, stops the entire procedure and tells me to wait for a sales assistant.

The only child-like emotion I experience at that point is the urge to lie on the floor and throw a gigantic tantrum!


Unlike Toni, I have never visited a truly exotic country.  All of my explorations have taken place in Europe, which, these days, hardly qualifies as exotic.  So, like Toni, most of my child-like wonder results from visiting my home country and encountering customs—both old and new—that make me scratch my head and wonder.

The anachronism that is a dollar bill, the quaintness of having to sign for a credit card purchase (coupled with the unease of seeing my card disappear into the back room with a total stranger) and the “this would never happen in MY country” outrage of having to pay a fee to the bank every time I wanted access to my own money.

The wasteland that commercialisation make of huge swaths of the landscape, the direness of cable television and the seeming addiction of the population to sugar and salt evidenced by the vast amounts of either (or both) ingredient in every consumable item also leave me wondering.  I also find myself hesitating when attempting to order certain item like a griddled egg or white coffee, knowing that this would likely confuse my waiter.

All of this inevitably leads me to the realization that, if I hadn’t moved to another country, I would still consider this normal.  And, as an American, I would view this behavior, not only as the correct way things should be done, but as the only way.  That insight, however, is generally followed by acceptance of that once-familiar phenomenon known as the American way of life.  And then, like becoming reacquainted with an old friend whose company you enjoy despite their flaws and peccadilloes, I settle back into the comforting routine and the wonder becomes the fact that I found it so foreign in the first place.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

MidWeek Mention - Dynamic Currency Conversion Scam

Toni explains why you should pay in local currency when vacationing to avoid this scam:

Last week I read in an English newspaper about a long-running currency scam often played on unsuspecting British tourists on the Continent and apparently also in the USA. Whether paying in cash or by credit card, tourists are asked if they want to pay in their own currency, which many people opt for. Trouble is, they usually aren't told the rate of exchange on offer until the credit card payment has gone through, or the anticipated change doesn't come back. (Obviously, if you get less cash back than you think you should, you can complain on the spot or ask to pay in the local currency.) The exchange rate is being decided by the vendor rather than the bank, and the rate is usually appalling. Sometimes the vendor processes the tourist's own currency on the credit card without giving the tourist any options.

This is called Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) and is perfectly legal. You are supposed to be given the choice as to the currency you pay in, but this often doesn't happen.

I'm here to tell you however, that it can happen to tourists in the UK too. While waiting for our flight back to Chicago, I took my kids for lunch in one of Heathrow's many restaurants. The bill came, and it listed the price in Pounds sterling, Euros and Dollars. Now, granted, I was given the option to pay in any of these three currencies, and since I was running dangerously low on pounds, I pulled out my dollars. And then I saw the price. Despite the exchange rate being about $1.60 to the pound that day, the bill (40 quid) was just over $80!

And apparently I'm not the only one. Here's someone else who was almost ripped off in Scotland.

So - to avoid arbitrary conversion rates, decided not my your bank or credit card, but by any Tom, Dick or Harry,- pay in local currency when you can.