Wednesday, January 23, 2008

AAA Part 3

This is a continuation of the AAA series

  • Most food items contain some form of 'meat' content - e.g. animal fat. Since Americans have meat as a main dish and rice/others as side dishes unlike us, it doesn't matter to them. So this means if you are a pure vegetarian eating a packaged product isn't easy. Most items will have meat; if not then they will have it in other forms such as '..... and/or processed animal fat....'. You'd want to check the labels for the complete list if you really want to avoid all forms of meat. Also, everytime you order any food, it's always better make sure with the person behind the counter what you're going to have doesn't have anything you don't want to eat. However if, like me, you don't like cheese and cream and mayo, that pretty much rules out everything from the fast food chains.
  • American food is very bland. I once tried to make ready-to-eat soup, but it was just too awful. People here like sweet things a lot, and someone told me the Coke here is sweeter than what we have in India. Even if you order spicy-hot food, chances are it will just be mildly hot to our tongues.
  • Folklore has it that a desi (what we call our brethren outside our country. e.g. 'There's a desi!') told his parents, who were not-so-urban, and were concerned with his drinking habits, that when you open a tap in America, only Soda and Beer flow. His parents, who did not have reason to believe otherwise, kept cajoling him to go it slow on alcohol... This is true to some extent, because you will find soda-vending machines almost everywhere, either in bottles or cans or the soda itself. And beer is also very popular, associated with American football, although you need a state id to buy some - because rules are enforced strictly and underage drinking is prohibited(either 18 or 21, varying from state to state)
  • Americans like their drinks ice-cold. Everything, coke, pepsi, milk, tea, coffee, water, they will drink ice-cold. This means it is available ice-cold. Ice cubes are available in the vending machines itself, if they dispense the soda directly, and one lady filled her cup with ice cubes, and put a little bit soda. In the middle of winter. Water, is dispensed from water fountains, is free, and will spurt out when you keep a button depressed, and you have to catch it in midair. I took a while to drink all the water that spurted out, but water fountains usually result in wastage of a lot of water. And that too is ice-cold. This means you really can't get room-temperature water to drink from a decent source.
  • However, since all water supplied is potable, you can drink from a tap too. So, say you are in the shower and are thirsty, just open your mouth and quench your thirst.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Thermocol??

(Discussion with Prof)

Prof: So we can use this to find out that

Me: But the problem is it becomes bloated, something like thermocol... So I don't think this will work

Prof: Thermocol? What's that?

Me: :-8 (wondering if I would be technically correct to say if it was polystyrene, I was unsure, which it was as I later discovered)

Prof: Do you mean styrofoam?

Me: Yes, yes, styrofoam(correctly guessing it was something similar)... We call it thermocol in India

Prof: (chuckle chuckle)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

AAA Part 2

This is a continuation from All About America Part 1.

  • It is said America revolves around credit - I read somewhere that if all the debts in the world were settled, there would be no money in circulation.
  • In America there is something called 'credit history' which every single American is obsessed about. It is basically a record(score or number to be exact) which shows how well you are willing to borrow money(credit) and repay it on time. The more, the better. The highest you can get is 850(FICO), and this is determined by how perfectly you repay your loans, how much risk you are willing to take(for e.g. how many credit cards you have), how often you take it(uniform usage of credit cards), variety of credit you have taken(mortgage, car loan, etc) and many others. FICO,or Fair Isaac(Vetti Suresh is in that company), is one such company which calculates the score. Three other agencies also calculate this score.
  • What the basis of credit history is shown by a simple story I read on some financial site: A lender lends $100 to a beggar who has zero bank balance for a month. He also lends $100 to a millionaire with millions in his name for a month. Suppose, the beggar repays that $100 on time, and the millionaire does not, the beggar will have a 'good' credit history and the rich man will have a 'bad' credit history. So the money you have does not matter, it is your ability to repay in the future which counts.
  • Why this is so important in America is because buying almost everything which will need a monthly maintenance - your car, your house, even your cell phone - is affected by your credit history. A good history will get you a lower rate of interest and a bad one means your ROI will be higher. It applies to cars and housing if you take it on a loan, not outright buying. When buying a car or renting a car or applying for a housing loan the agency will check on your history and accordingly grant or deny the loan.
  • This forms the basis for the famous sub-prime mortgage crisis. Some time back, when the interest rates were as low as 1%, banks started lending out mortgages to families with bad credit history - mostly African-Americans - but soon rates started increasing, and since many couldn't repay their loans, there were many foreclosures - repossession of property - and soon the lenders started shutting shop. The problem didn't stop there - the banks had sold these mortgages as financial packages overseas - basically these were investments funding the mortgage - so when their value started declining, they were cashed in, reducing the value further. As of now most of the major banks have posted losses in their earnings including Morgan Stanley which posted it's first ever loss last year.
  • To help with identifying each individual there is an SSN - Social Security Number - which is issued to every born citizen when they are children and to non-immigrants like me when we start earning in some form. This SSN is unique and is sufficient, with your other personal details, to check your credit history. It also helps during tax payment and pension, known as Social Security(I am not sure about this; please help yourselves).
  • This leads us to identity theft - divulging your SSN and personal details or discovery of these to or by some crook - is a major problem in this land and in UK. With these details, anyone can open an account, apply for a credit card and spend as they like - bothering never to pay, because the bills will come to you.
  • An SSN is essential to get a credit card - mostly an unsecured credit card(unlimited spending) will need you to have a good credit history.
  • I mentioned earlier that a cell phone will need a credit history. The 'wireless' industry as it is called here is pretty funny and damned compared to ours. Most of the cellular connections are post-paid(contract) and few are pre-paid('Pay-as-you-go). Many plans exist where you can get a phone free with a post-paid connection - if you have a good credit history that is - but usually these are not the latest in the market. So since businessmen aren't running charities to give away everything for free, it can be safely assumed that the cost of the phone is included in the monthly charges you will be paying. These charges consist of a fixed charge(rental) and a charge depending on how much you speak/message/browse. Even then, there are a lot of 'free minutes', so if you talk within those minutes, you would be paying only the minimum charges. Again, we can assume these are factored into the charges we already pay.
  • You will mostly enter into a contract for a period of time - usually two years - when you take up a service with a wireless provider. The cell phone he provides is 'locked' - and cannot be used with any other sim card. The cell phone is 'unlocked' only when you the contract ends or you break it, paying a hefty fine, usually roughly 4 months-worth rent.
  • I think you can bring your own cell phones and buy a sim from the service provider, as my U of Florida friends have done, and I guess post-paid works out cheaper than pre-paid.
  • It also has interesting situations for the mobile phone-manufacturing companies - since switching phones is unviable because of the contract, mobile phone companies have to approach the wireless companies to release their phones - so the wireless companies dominate the proceedings. This means sometimes you can't have your choice of phone and network - because either will be from rival networks.
  • Hence some phones are exclusively part of one network, like the iPhone from Apple, Inc. If you want an iPhone, you will have to buy the phone for $399(as of date of this post) and take a 2-year contract with AT&T with a minimum of $59 monthly charges. Apple allegedly arm-twisted AT&T into an agreement skewed in favour of themselves, but that is a story worth of another blog post altogether. This why some predict this business model to fail in India - but they will simply do what they did in France - sell it for regular price bundled with a post paid connection and sell it for a much higher price for use on any other network. Let's see how this 'prediction' ends up.
  • Most Americans love flip-phones(just an observation), the Motorola Razr is a very popular model.
  • Of course, the Apple range of products are very popular here, almost every fifth person will have his ears plugged with an iPod. The Apple enthusiasts seem to be a bunch of ultra-loyal people, they look to have such undying faith and hope in Steve Jobs they would be ready to hunt down the other bad boy Bill if needed. It's also a wonder, how, Apple has maintained such a large 'fan base'.
  • I got to know that Americans don't save money as much as we do - they spend for today and worry about tomorrow tomorrow, which works hand in hand with the logic of credit history. I believe that is the strength of the American economy - instead of stashing away the money earned, they spend it - they buy today and repay it slowly later. So while we have black money, in America that money circulates within the economy, and this has 'a feel good' factor about it, as economists bank on it to make predictions and project sales. Americans just keep spending - new, in-fashion clothes for Christmas which are dumped by next Christmas, electronics, cars..... We don't care much about branding, but that is seen as a status symbol in business circles - you have to have branded, in-fashion gear and clothes on yourself or else you end up at the sidelines.
  • The consolidation of American companies has led to an unfavourable situation - a few market leaders manipulating and dominating the market. I seem to get the impression that the companies look not at serving the consumers but their stockholders, which is very dangerous, because the common man doesn't gain a thing from this.
  • The highest denomination of the dollar is $100. But if you withdraw money from an atm, the highest denomination you will get is $20. This is because many many establishments do not accept $50 and $100 notes - change may be harder to get, but another reason I guess is to avoid possible burglary. Robbing shops and eateries is big business, guessing by the number of video seen around the world. Given the fact that guns are easily available, burglaries(hold-ups) seem to be common. Maybe due to the fact that shops are spread over a large area, far from one another, and also because they are open late and dotted with customers.
  • Observing closely, you can notice various steps taken to catch burglars - video cameras in the establishment, notices saying : * "...we do not accept or keep $50 and $100 notes...."(which can thwart a potential robber because he will have to haul more), '... you are being watched on a video camera....', '...say cheese, you're on camera!', '......this keep more than $50 in our registers after 6pm..', in case of delivery boys, the pizza box has this printed: '... the delivery person has no more than $50 with him...' One other thing is that the exit doors will have a sticker indicating height in feet on their frames - obviously to guess the height of the robber as he exits the place.
  • And most transactions are cashless - credit cards or through university id cards - which have a magnetic strip and can be loaded with money for sake of transactions.
  • Internet banking is awesome - you can even set your ATM preferences via the your online account. Cheques(Checks, they are called in this crazy country) do not carry any charges, you get a certain number of check books free, they have multiple security features making forgery very difficult(as a result of years of experience at the receiving end of forgers...e.g. Catch Me If You Can)
  • For this post's final fact, what we call a rubber in India should be called eraser here. Because, here, if you ask the person behind the counter for a rubber, he'd give you what you wanted if you and your partner wanted temporary bliss but not a 'bundle of joy'.
More coming soon.

P.S.: I'm not a very good economist, please excuse my crude explanations. I'd be very happy for comments on any of the posts.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

All About America (AAA) - Part 1

Starting with this one I will present America through the eyes of an F1 student from India. This will be a multi-part series.

  • America, though may refer to the continent, is referred to USA within the country also.
  • They drive on the right side of the road with left hand drive.
  • Most of the cars have automatic gears - so no clutch. This also means they consume a lot of fuel (a lot of energy is used up in the automatic gears). This also means that slamming the accelerator will not immediately increase the speed.
  • Public transport(inter-city) is almost non-existant(not that intra-city is great either, in major cities like NY & DC it's 'ok' but not every place else). The only pan-America means of 'public' transport are Greyhound(bus service) and Amtrak(rail). This is because almost everyone has cars(on average one household has 3 cars) and road services are excellent. Highways are awesome and you can get from point A to point B at an average speed of 50 miles an hour. Every city/town has a by-pass, and driving in a new area is just not possible. You have to plan which exits to take and where. This is aided by online maps like Google Maps, which will give you road-by-road distance, estimated times and exact locations as to where to take turns, etc. GPS handhelds are also very popular.
  • Each state has its own set of laws and can vary very widely when just crossing borders. Due to the history of the US, each state has its own liberty to a large extent. In conversation with an American friend I found that it is the responsibility of the town to fund and maintain a police force. So if a town can't afford a police force, there is no effective police.
  • Rugby as played here is called Football. Football as we know it is called Soccer. The irony is their Football doesn't involve the foot even as much as Rugby does. All the while, Americans are obsessed with sport. Football is most popular; Baseball is a favourite pastime; Basketball season starts when winter sets in, after the end of the Baseball season, mainly because it can be played indoors; Soccer has a good following too. They are very very loyal to their local teams. Local teams usually mean teams from a university and teams from major cities. eg: Cleveland Browns; University of Florida Gators, so almost all universities have their own team. Whichever sport, they don't mind spending some money to come out to support their teams.
  • This in turn means there is atleast one football match at any given time all weekend; there are football matches on weekdays too; so you can keep yourself occupied with football all the time. Also every university has its own grounds for all the sports.
  • There's lots of space in America, so instead of building to the sky, you might as well build on the ground itself. There are malls, some small(half a soccer field) to really big ones. Of course, this is the land of skyscrapers too... They stretch as far as the eye can see....
  • Pricing is a bit funny: 99% of the items in malls do not have the price printed when procured from the manufacturer; so if you search for a price on the product, all you will find is the retailer's sticker. I.e. there is no price printed on the product, which means the retailer is free to charge how much ever he wants for that product. So a loaf of bread can cost $1.29 at one store and the same loaf can cost $2.39 in another store. The consumer has no clue about 'cost effectiveness' by looking at the cost from one store. The only items to have prices displayed on them are <$2, like peanuts for $0.99 and Lays also for $0.99. A similar discrepancy exists for items such as cameras, laptops and almost everything. An example is though the 'suggested retail price' on a jacket was $100, the selling price was just over $50. So it's up to the store to make money as it wants. The price between stores can vary as much as 40%, online. And yes, a lot of things are bought online. Generally things are cheaper on the internet (because they don't include dealership fees, I guess). With Google Checkout and PayPal and eBay and Amazon.com items can be bought cheaply and quickly. Courier services, namely US Postal Service, FedEx and UPS are very good in service, helping fuel online sales further.
  • Malls, I noticed, have as much parking space as they have floorspace. I was later told there were laws requiring some ratio of area as parking space. Which means parking in these places isn't too much of a problem, but shows that there are so many cars around and land is aplenty.
  • There is a legal right(fundamental right) to own guns. It's as simple as walking into a store, paying money and walking out with your own gun. It does fuel violence, but this right is backed by a powerful National Rifle Association, which said after the Virginia Tech massacre, "...this could have been avoided if everyone in the university had a gun of their own..." Ironically though, it is illegal to carry firearms into most buildings. So basically that means you can own keep a gun inside your house and vehicle.
  • Going to jail is apparently no big deal: I once overheard a group of persons having this conversation: "... you ever been to jail?" "yeah, once, I was driving drunk..." "you know my brother was arrested for DUI(Driving Under Influence, i.e. drunken driving), and he cried the whole night!" Mind you, the first two were girls.

More in part 2.....

Monday, January 14, 2008

Static pisses me off!!

I get so infuriated with damn static. It's winter and sometimes things like sweaters are essential. And being such good insulators they generate SO much static, looks like you can start your own electric company or power your own house. DAMN! Everytime I am 1 cm away from touching metal equipment two things happen, a tiny crackle is heard, and the next thing you know is your hand is hundreds of feet away from that piece and you are in a daze wondering what just happened. It's not just once or twice or thrice. It's zillions of times. I even experienced discharges with cotton t-shirts(I can't work in the lab naked, can I? Hmmm... No cameras, nobody's around anyway... Could give it a try... But what if Prof comes in? I don't think 10 seconds is so sufficient.. Hmmm....) So I tried touching a metal spanner before touching the actual equipment. Guess what happened. I got zapped by the spanner too.