Archive for June, 2005

Slightly resembling normality

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

The Comcast man came today and a very nice man he was. He turned up in his truck with a big reel of black cable. This cable brings TV. TV good.

But, not only does this cable bring TV, it brings the internet. All in a little cable. It's fantastic 🙂

After finding out that none of the wall sockets in the living room were grounded I was beginning to sink into the depths of despair because Sam's PC and the new TV both had grounded cables. Target (similar to Woolworths in goods and cheapness) had some adaptors that turn 2-prong sockets into 3-prong ones. I was concerned because I took the face plates off the wall sockets and there is no earth wire which meant that the adaptor would not be grounded when I installed them.

I mentioned this my US colleagues this morning and they told me that everybody has these adaptors and nobody grounds them. On the assumption that 100% of all sweeping generalisations are false I remain a sceptic but I can't do without TV or internet so we're up and running.

All the documentation seems to believe that we should be getting 3Mbps but I think I need to tune a few settings first.

Still, we're back in the land of the living and we don't need to talk to each other in the evenings anymore 🙂

Toys and more toys

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

Last night, we went to Best Buy in San Carlos.

I'd told Sam that we would be getting cable and internet on Wednesday which means that we'd need new equipment because I'd brought over my DSL modem and we can't get DSL here.

We also need a TV so we looked around the HDTV section and got a small 27″ LCD HDTV-ready screen. Some of the plasma screens were very tempting (and also very inexpensive) so I'll look to see what my next pay cheque holds in store.

We also bought a vacuum cleaner and a wireless router.

This purchase caused no end of trouble because, finally, Barclaycard realised that someone was making large purchases in the San Francisco area. The clerk at the checkout had to call Barclaycard in the UK to get the payment authorised and I ended up having to talk to them to verify that I was who I said I was and that all the purchases that were recorded were genuine.

Actually, thinking about it, I should have said that they weren't and got my money refunded 🙂

This took about 15 minutes because the line between San Carlos and the UK was really poor and, I'm sure, the call centre person at Barclaycard was whispering. It also didn't help that Best Buy were piping really loud rock music throughout the store.

This morning, I got an e-mail from a colleague to say that Barclays had also phoned up my old office number because they had noticed some irregular purchases.

It's fine that they do this but it's a pain when there's a long queue of impatient Americans forming behind you while you try to look natural and pretend that you're not having your credit card refused.

Aaaaarrrgggghhhh!!

Monday, June 27th, 2005

We spent this weekend in IKEA.

I've come to the conclusion that IKEA is just MFI with piped ABBA music.

Speaking to some people in the office, it sounds like most Americans in the Bay Area choose to walk around IKEA at the weekend, not buy anything apart from a drink at the snack bar and then go home again. It's a good place if you want the exercise. Just like the IKEAs in the UK, you cannot get out of the store once you are in. It all starts off pleasantly as you ascend the escalator the the showroom floor. You start looking around the sample bedrooms/offices/living areas commenting on how the decor looks or how a certain piece of furniture would look in particular rooms of your rental property.

You follow the circuitous (sp?) route until you get to the middle of the journey. By that time, you are a little jaded and your responses to your loved ones become more terse than they are used to.

At the end of lap one, you are snapping at each other and the children and you wouldn't dream of having any of the designs go anywhere near your walls whether you own the house or not.

That's just the showroom. The lower floor is the marketplace where you can buy glasses, crockery, cutlery etc. The least said about that the better. Suffice it to say, we were just about speaking to each other.

Finally, it's the warehouse. This is where you pick up what you looked at in the showroom direct from the shelves. That's if you can remember what you looked at in the showroom. At this point, communication is handled via a complicated series of tuts, grunts and very sharp stares.

I'd like to put it on record that I love my wife and daughters more than life itself and I apologise for any rude words that may have passed my lips. However, if we ever go near that shop again, I'll show them exactly what they can do with their Tromsnes and Bummerangs.

So, we have furniture that we can use while we're waiting for the ship to arrive (I'm still a little bit scared that there is no GPS data after Jun 21).

We got around to arranging a new cell phone from Sam. That wasn't without its own trials and tribulations. We went to Best Buy. It's the equivalent of Currys or Comet. They had cell phones which we liked the look of and we went with Cingular because they use SIMs for their phones which we can use in our existing ones. So, we chose a pricing plan and filled in the form. I used my SSN and also my new address. When I handed the form to the clerk, they said that I needed to show my driver's license because they needed a picture ID. I explained that we had only been in the country for a few weeks but I carry my passport with me. This prompted the clerk to call his supervisor which, if I overheard correctly, may have been on his wedding day to find out if the passport was OK. After about 5 minutes, they said it was. This allowed the clerk to phone Cingular for a credit check.

Credit check. The two words that, at the moment, strike fear into my very soul.

The response that I got back was unexpected to say the least. The credit agency have no record of my SSN and it can take up to a month for new SSN registrations to be picked up by the agency.

A month !!!!!!! With so many f*ing forms that I have to fill in on a daily basis, you'd think that they could use a computer once in a while. In the UK, you can't buy a television from Currys without the TV Licensing people hearing about it before you've even got the device back home.

Still, on the bright side, it wasn't a rejection :-S but it meant we had to go with a pay-as-you talk phone instead and I still don't have a monthly plan.

Today (Monday), we moved into the house properly. I took the morning off to arrange the services. Water was already done last week, today was telephone, gas and electricity and cable TV.

We'll leave telephone until last…

Gas and Electricity is handled by PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electricity). They used the “CC” (rhymes with Smedit Fleck) words but we were able to deflect that one by paying a deposit instead.

Cable TV (Comcast) was the easiest. I just gave them a list of the things I wanted and they'll deliver it on Wednesday.

Telephone with SBC was a little more convoluted. All I want to be able to do is to pick up the phone and dial people. It's not difficult is it ?

Apparently it is. The one thing that screws this up completely is that I have choice.

What area code will I be dialling most ? How the flip should I know. I've only been in the country for a month and my visa doesn't run out until 2008. How am I supposed to know if I'll be dialling a 415 number more times than a 650 one ?

Who do I want to be my long distance carrier ? Eh ? Don't I just dial the number and the phone company takes care of that ? No, I can chose whoever I want. I'll go with SBC. “Good choice sir”, the phone jockey reads from the script.

There's an old e-mail comparing HP's ordering process with a trip to the canteen here that was faintly reminiscent of the process I needed to go through with SBC.

She proceeded to break down the monthly cost into small $5 chunks about which service I'd gone for. Do I really care ? Maybe I should but I'm starting to get homesick for the UK and it's uncomplicated way of doing things. Even with multiple vendors, you don't get the sub-division of labour that you do here. That and they use computers.

Last night was fun as we picked up the keys for the house. The landlords left us to our own devices after showing us how to use the burglar alarm. We spend the next half hour working out how to turn off the blaring noise so that we didn't wake the neighbours.

I'm sure that the neighbours have phoned the landlords already to inform them that the new tenants are a little weird. We spend most of our time outside the garage door using the automatic opener. Door goes up. Door goes down. It's fantastic 🙂

The best thing is that there is a device in the rental car that allows you to teach it how to open your door. We've played with that too. Rachel and Joanna keep coming up with ideas as to how we could park outside the garage, go into the house through the front door, open the internal door to the garage, come out of the house through the front door, close the front door, open the garage door using the device, drive the car into the garage and then close the garage door. It's a tempting prospect.

On Thursday, I was thoroughly ashamed of myself. I found myself at lunch time telling the server in the deli that I didn't want any tom-ay-toes rather than tom-ah-toes.

I shall now fall on my sword.

On the move

Saturday, June 25th, 2005

This Wednesday, we signed the lease for the house in Millbrae and we get the keys on Sunday for us to move in on Monday.

When I say “move in”, I really mean that we arrange our suitcases into a pile in the new house. We're moving in to an unfurnished house with no other worldly possessions than the clothes we came with.

From what I can see, the Tokyo Express has reached the coast of Nova Scotia but they haven't updated their details since the 21st. I'm assuming that they're still floating and haven't broken apart after hitting an iceberg.

Thursday was a mad dash around a few other bureaucracies. We need to get the girls registered for school. In order to do that, we need to show proof of address that we lived in the local area. If we haven't moved in, how can we do that ?
It's actually quite easy. We went to Millbrae City Hall and registered for water and sewage services. For some reason, we didn't have to show any proof of address. I guess they think that only the actual residents will want to pay to have a load of brown liquid piped away from their house that it's enough to take the $50 deposit.

Once we had a receipt for the address, that was enough for the school to allow us to register the girls. Again, it was more forms. Unfortunately, the girls need to have a few immunisations before they can be accepted into the school. This means that we have to have our medical insurance. More forms.

Even though we live in the area (about 5 minutes walk away from the school) they can't guarantee that Joanna will get into kindergarten. This presents its own difficulties if both Rachel and Joanna need to be at school by 8:30 and Joanna is in a different school a few miles away.

Sam got her ATM card on Thursday. When we signed up for our bank account, we needed to have our photos taken for our cards. I'm not sure what the point of that is. None of the checkout operators have checked the signature on the card. Why would they look at the photo ?
Sam's card had a big sticker on the front saying that she needed to activate the card by calling a 1-866 number. The first thing they asked her for was her SSN. For flip's sake !!! How did she get the flipping bank account in the first flipping place ?

All that this means is that instead of draining our UK bank account, she can drain our US one.

Account draining begins in earnest this weekend as we head towards IKEA to buy some extra furniture. Joanna and Rachel want their own rooms so they need separate beds. Rachel wants a bunk bed with space underneath for a computer and Joanna wants a princess bed. It's highly possible that they'll get the best in inflatable blue vinyl that CostCo has to offer.

As well as furniture, we're going to need something to watch so we might have to go to Fry's again to buy a TV. I'm under strict instructions that if we come away with anything that has a screen size greater than 20 inches then I'm sleeping in the garage.

Important utilities are needed such as gas, electrickery, phone, internet and TV service. I'll let Sam deal with the less important ones and I'll sort out the internet and TV service.

Most tempting at the moment is DSL Extreme because they offer up to 6Mbps and DirecTV for satellite TV. DirecTV will fit receivers in up to 4 rooms for free and provide a DVR (like Sky+). I have to feel comfortable in a house for me to be able to call it my home 🙂

Play time

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

The other thing that I forgot to mention is that I finally got to play on the cable cars in San Francisco on Sunday.

I've been to San Mateo on about 6 business trips and I've never got around to taking a ride on the cable cars. Usually it's because the queues for the Powell-Hyde line are about a 45 minute wait and I'm a very impatient person.

We got a tip-off that going to the turnaround at Bay and Taylor is a shorter queue and they were right. We only needed to wait about 15 minutes. A one-way trip costs $3 per person and it's a bit of a free-for-all to get the best seats in the car.

The journey is interesting. The cable cars are a genuine public transport service rather than a tourist gimmick so they have stops on most street corners on the line.

There's a good description of them here and it puts things into perspective when you are facing a drop down the hill knowing that you're only gripping to a thin cable for support.

Anyhoo, it's another thing to tick off the list of things to do and good fun was has by all.

I exist therefore I am

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

Several things happened this week.

The first thing that arrived on my desk was a box of cheques from the bank. When we applied for a bank account, we were given a book of possible designs we could have for our cheques. There are sites that specialise in providing designs, e.g. CheckWorks. I wanted to write my rent cheques with a Spongebob Squarepants cheque book but then I realised that we get at least 150 cheques in a print run and I'd be paying for everything with Spongebob. Still, it would make paying the IRS fun (if anything can).

The most noteworthy event was that I now have my SSN !! So much importance is placed on this little number that I was expecting a grey-suited man, with sunglasses and a briefcase attached to his wrist with handcuffs, to deliver it personally but it came in a white envelope.

What a waste of time 🙂 It was a piece of card with a type-written name and number bearing the instructions that I'm not to give it out to anyone, I'm not to carry it around and I'm not to laminate it. How am I supposed to remember the number for the first few weeks if I can't carry it around ? I'm having to rehearse the number every time I go to bed so that I can reel it off whenever someone in authority asks for it.

The downside of having a SSN is that I get to pay tax. I informed the authorities at Scalix that I had this new identity and got a load of forms to fill in. It appears that America pays its taxes in April. Your employer will withhold a certain amount of tax (called withholding tax) for you but you have to file a tax return with the exact amounts at the end of March. You then pay the difference between what your employer has withheld and what the actual amount is. When you join a company, you have to fill in a W4 which gives them your SSN and address plus how many allowances (deductions) you want to claim, i.e. children, marriage etc. At the end of the financial year, you work out exactly how much those deductions are and pay the difference.

The first thing I need to find is an accountant to explain all of this for me because it involves me having to search out lots of different worksheets and forms to determine if I have to fill any of them in.

In other news, we may have found a place to live. We widened the search further up the peninsula to Millbrae. This is close to SFO so people visiting just need to get a taxi and can get there in about 10 minutes. The neighbourhood looks pleasant, the roads are quiet and the school is most definitely in walking distance. The school gets good test scores so we think it's a fit for us.

We're trying to tie up the details at the moment. I've managed to get a UK-based credit report from Equifax for £11.75 (£10 + VAT). Equifax are used by most of the UK lenders and credit agencies. It's nerve-wracking when you're waiting for your score to be revealed but it turns out that I'm above average. This means that people are more willing to lend me money and at better rates.

So, if anyone's got a few bucks to spare…

Father"s Day

Sunday, June 19th, 2005

Me ? A confirmed gadget freak ? Next to Fry's with confirmation that I can buy whatever I want as a Father's Day present ? With my reputation ?

To make up for the fact that our last trip to Fry's resulted in nothing for me, I've rectified the situation.

I now have a Creative Wireless Desktop 9000 Pro and a Zeus 22 2.2Gb USB Microdrive ($59 on offer from $129).

I like it when I can buy my own presents.

To make the weekend even sweeter, Sam was encouraging me to buy a Sony 42″ Wega TV. Sadly, it wasn't plasma so I couldn't take her up on the offer (that and we don't have a house yet).

House hunting was slow today. We saw a reasonable place in Belmont (which was really San Mateo) but the neighbourhood and school district get the thunbs downs.

A landmark date today: Christopher Eccleston regenerated into David Tennant.

Isn't the internet wonderful ?

Saturday, June 18th, 2005

I've found a site which can track the current location of the freight ship which is carrying all of our worldy possessions

Tokyo Express

They seem to be a long way from San Francisco. By zooming out to the widest possible view, it's put one question to bed. They go through the Panama Canal rather than round the coast of South America. That'll cut a few months off the journey.

Mmmm…donuts….droool

Friday, June 17th, 2005

Before I forget…

I took Sam and the girls to a Krispy Kreme restaurant yesterday.

THEY DO DRIVE THRU !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's a fantastic place where you get to see them pour the dough into a mixer and which extrudes small lumps onto a convoluted series of shelves. The lumps are passed through a warm-air compartment to allow the dough to rise and then they are dropped into a bath of hot oil. Halfway through the process, the half-fried lumps are flipped over so that other side is cooked. After coming out of the oil bath, they are passed through a curtain of molten glaze (basically sugar) to coat them. They give away free donuts from the fresh batch to any of the people who are watching the process. It's like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory but the Oompa-Loompas are Mexican.

Sam is a convert and I've pointed out that not only do they have a drive-thru window but they serve the donuts by the dozen and they're in pizza boxes.

Sadly, living next to a Krispy Kreme outlet doesn't override a good school district in the house hunt 🙁

Hunting high and low

Friday, June 17th, 2005

The search for Kelly Towers still continues.

The criteria we apply to the search are: good school district, affordable rent, decent neighbourhood, affordable rent, good size rooms, affordable rent, walking distance to local amenities, affordable rent.

Somewhere along the line, I think that the greater SF Bay Area has forgotten about the rent part. You'd think that they were out to make as many dollars as possible.

The search is getting a little frustrating. We've focussed on San Carlos as that has great schools and is a good neighbourhood. Sam has met a couple of the families from Scalix who live in the area so she feels comfortable about moving there. Problem is that there aren't that many rental properties available. We thought we'd found a good place but the landlord is undecided about letting us have the place for the rent we've offered even though she had a telephone offer for the same amount from another renter. We have to keep our options open so we're still looking. There were a couple of nice places in Mountain View that looked great from the outside but the second and third bedrooms were too small. Another place we saw in San Carlos had good size rooms with a fantastic kitchen and a little courtyard with citrus fruit trees. Problem was, the landlord lives in a small shed in the back garden and we have to share the laundry facilities. If I wanted to share a house with a complete stranger I would have become a student.

We've moved hotels to the Residence Inn. It's a nice place with a wireless networking so now we have both laptops and the PDA surfing the web. The pool doesn't have a deep end so Sam is able to take the girls during the day and they have fun. The room is now strewn with damp towels all the time.

The “master suite” is upstairs and Rachel and Joanna sleep in a pull-down bed downstairs. Their “bedroom” is separated from the living area by a curtain. It's funny in the mornings to see Joanna wake up and try to find the opening for the curtain like Eric Morecambe used to do in the Morecambe and Wise shows. She's not quite right until she's had her first coffee of the morning and then she joins the land of the living.

I have no idea what we're doing this weekend. House hunting I'd expect.