Thoughts from an African in the USA

We’ve been in the US for quite a while now. And there’s so much I’ve wanted to write about, but a new article for each one seemed extreme. So after being a draft for about three months, I’ve finally been able to put together this mega-post on all the random things that pop into my head.

Take note that I am making direct comparisons to my experiences in California, and living in South Africa. California is not the US. Also these are not all bad, they’re just observations, some of them are even good. And in no particular order, they are:

Twisty light switches


I have an odd hate for these. All your bedside and desktop lamps have these twisty knobs on them to turn on and off. Why not a switch. I like switches. I know what to do with switches. And to turn these switches on or off, you turn it in the same direction. Surely it would make more sense to turn it on one way, and turn it off the other way? But no, turning it the other way does nothing.

Shower controls


To date, I’ve found shower controls around the world fairly standard. You have some control over how much hot water, and how much cold water you get. Not in the US. In the US you get X amount of water, and are only allowed to decide how hot or cold it is. So there’s no having a nice hot blast of water, or just dripping a little out. You get X. Come on man, where are we living?!

Smoke alarms


They’re everywhere, we have three in our house (and have only set one off, we’re not sure how)! The only rooms not covered are the bathrooms. I’m not sure of the exact reason why they’re so smoke-alarm happy, but it probably has something to do with all the very flammable gas being piped everywhere, and the heavy presence of wood in their buildings. The smoke alarms also detect carbon-monoxide.

But they’re seriously loud. I nearly had a heart-attack when our one went off by itself. I put earplugs in just to test the one in the above video. And we have three different ones. I was quite impressed to see that our Kidde Smoke Alarm talks to us.

The Coleman gas canister

I actually quite like these. They’re very popular. Much like Cadac is the go to brand in SA, Coleman has it sorted in the US. Any skottel, portable BBQ or other mid sized gas powered device makes use of these little canisters. They’re a set size, and work on anything. More than that you can buy them almost anywhere. No need to find a camping goods store, just go to your local Target, or corner cafe. They can be refilled from larger propane tanks too.

Electric plugs

okay it’s a little dirty

I’m iffy on these. They’re different, but I guess not bad per se. What I don’t like is their live and neutral pins are different sizes. Why?! Many small things like chargers are built the same size to avoid annoyance, but our lamps for instance only go in one way! Come on man!

Class action lawsuits

These come in the post, they’re advertised to you on billboards, on the radio, on TV. Everywhere. Law firm sues big company on behalf of 100 plaintiffs, then once a verdict is given, they are allowed to go find more people who may have been affected, and bring them in as part of the case. Law firm obviously gets a bigger settlement from it, and it’s right that people are properly remunerated if they are wronged, but often we’re talking about $10 or $20 per plaintiff. For example (source):

Consumers who received automated or pre-recorded call or text on their cell phones from Wells Fargo regarding overdrafts on a Wells Fargo account between April 21, 2011 and December 19, 2015 may be eligible for a pro rata share of the $30 million settlement. The company reached a settlement over allegations of violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Do I really deserve money because Wells Fargo phoned me. Sure punish them. But yeah.

Marketing

Marketing in general is huge. I regularly see planes flying overhead with banners advertising something. Billboards, benchboards, bus stop adverts are all updated with regularity, showing the latest movies and TV series. Adverts also regularly feature prominent movie and TV personalities.

Online, my twitter feed receives far more adverts than it once did. I assume just because less people are paying for adverts aimed towards people with location South Africa, than Los Angeles. I’ve also been doing a lot of writing, and researching online products. As such I’ve had to start using Incognito mode more, otherwise my Facebook, Twitter and YouTube just fill up with adverts for the products I’ve recently been browsing on Amazon

Then there are also the pharmaceutical adverts, they’re mainly restricted to TV (which we don’t have), but they are still odd to watch, where adverts for all kinds of drugs are placed, encouraging you to discuss these products with your GP.

Cellphone contracts

Prepaid packages are rare. Most of the big companies don’t offer a traditional prepaid package where you load $20 and pay per SMS and phonecall. Instead you sign up for a monthly contract, and just pay in advance. But that package is by default unlimited local phone calls and SMSs. It’s no wonder no one uses WhatsApp. Why would they when they can just SMS indiscriminately. The rate is also fairly flat between providers since porting gained public attention. Only price differences come in when selecting how much data you want. Discounts are also offered for family packages.

Also every, single, freaking, provider locks their phones to their network.

Internet

It’s wonderful. It’s fast. At home our flat came with included Wi-Fi, and although I’d like an ethernet cable, I’m not complaining:

Halloween & Thanksgiving

Halloween was fun. Everyone dresses up. Everyone. Even on campus during the days around Halloween people were dressed up. The 7-11s put up signs requesting people to remove their masks when entering the premises.

It was fun. People put a lot of effort into their costumes, have parties, and generally just have a good time. Trick or treating is apparently also still big, in the more residential neighbourhoods. Also pumpkin carving. That was fun.Thanksgiving was fun too. A few weeks after Halloween, things kind of just flow from one to the next. It’s a great friends and family holiday, full of traditional food, like mac ‘n cheese. And more traditional food like Turkey and Pumpkin Pie. And while people don’t dress-up for this one, marketers go crazy, and you get all the pumpkin flavoured coffees, beers and other paraphernalia emerging.

Live shows!

LA is great for this. There’s always something happening. And every time there’s a show on at one of the big venues (which is most of the time), it’s a band you know or recognise. Those odd bands and comedians you knew back home, who would never tour to SA, they tour to LA. Or they live in LA.

Now all we need is some more money to go to more events.

Helicopters

Normal day in LA. Two helicopters and the Good Year blimp. My eyesight is way better than my phone’s camera.

They’re everywhere. This is partially LA specific. At any single time, there are at least two police helicopters hovering over LA, ignoring news and personal helicopters. It’s the police helicopters that tend to fly lower and hover. While you’re trying to sleep. I think it’s started to blend into the background noise of the city, but every now and then I notice it and get annoyed.

ITAR

The American government doesn’t trust foreigners. Especially when it comes to anything semi-related to rockets, which includes the entire aviation field. As such if you’re not a US citizen you require a special ITAR clearance to work in the aviation, military, or space industry. This is a lot of extra work for a company, and many couldn’t be bothered. As such I’ve been greeted with many a job application, that on the first line, lists as a requirement, that you are a US citizen. This has nothing to do with work eligibility.

Petrol

Firstly their octane ratings are all wrong (more about that here). Secondly they sell at least three different octane ratings at every gas station. Thirdly they call petrol gas (-oline), when clearly it’s a liquid. Fourthly diesel is hard to come by within a city, like many gas stations don’t sell it. Fifthly fuel prices can differ by over a dollar per gallon within the same city. Sixthly you have to pump your own gas (I actually really enjoy this. It’s great)

Driving

Driving is fine. People in LA tend to drive fast and in a rush (compared to CT and EL). It’s not a problem (not like them driving on the wrong side of the road). However, the law states that you are allowed to pass a vehicle that is in the fast lane, by driving in one of the slower  lanes (pg38 2016 CA driver handbook). They do advise that if you are in the fast lane and being passed, you should move to a slower line, the phrasing being (pg65 2016 CA driver handbook):

the best thing to do is move into the right lane, when it is safe, and let the vehicle(s) pass.

That is an advisement. Not a law. There is a new law that says in a single lane road, a vehicle must turn out if a line of 5 or more vehicles forms behind them. As they don’t make use of the ‘yellow-lane’ to allow overtaking.

But basically a lot of drivers drive slowly in the fast lane which results in people in a hurry weaving through the 5 lane traffic, in and out, and people flying past on your right, because they don’t want to wait for the slow driver in front to pull over. This is contrary to many other countries where it is a law to get out of the way of faster moving traffic.

They have got the Right on Red thing going for them, which is great, and should be made law in SA as well. If you’re turning at a traffic light, and do not need to cross moving traffic to do so, you are allowed to turn against a red light, if safe to do so.

You can read more about this here, as I just got my CA licence.

Popcorn
You know like at the movies? They soak them in butter. Icky, oily, butter. I guess it tastes nicer, but now my hands are covered in greasy oil. Also, no salt shakers. Apparently that’s not how it’s done. They offer tiny little salt sachets, but you have to open like 5 or more to get any kind of taste. No other flavours either really. Just butter.

Self-Checkout Terminals

Yes, yes, yes. Saving me so much time (and some awkwardness). There’s always an open terminal at the self-checkout aisle in the grocery stores. They’re wonderful. I don’t have to stand in queues. Don’t have to interact with the admittedly very nice cashiers. I can just do my thing and be on my way.

Apparently PnP in Ottery are running a trial with these. Last I heard it wasn’t going too well.

Money

I’ve never been a fan of cash, not at home, not anywhere. But the Americans confuse it all by making all their notes look almost identical. That is, similar size and same colour. When you do find ones that are different colours, they’re just different prints of the same note. And don’t get me started on their coins. Although I like quarters. They’re pretty cool as far as coins go.

Then Credit-Cards. You want to pay with a CC at a restaurant. They bring you the bill, and tell them you want to pay by card. They take the bill and your card away from you, then come back later, return your card to you, and you leave you with a slip on which to write the tip. Then once you’ve left, with your card, they go back to the terminal and add the tip into the final amount that gets debited. This is normal. This is standard.

And don’t get me started on EFTs. Such a thing does not exist. If I owe my friend John $20, I either have to give it to him in cash, or write him a cheque. Or use one of many online, non-bank affiliated services to send him money (such as PayPal). I can do a wire. But, the bank will usually charge me $10 per wire. Many companies will at least pay employees by Direct Deposit, which at least avoids any fees, but this seems to not be in the domain of the average Joe. Or John. Or John’s friend who just wants to pay him.

Buying Alcohol

The drinking age in the US is 21. This is not a problem as I am 27. What is a problem is that everyone asks for ID. Everyone. Buying wine from your local supermarket. ID. Going into a bar. ID. Sitting in a restaurant. ID (well they’re a little more slack). So this is not a problem in and of itself. What is a problem is that they don’t like SA driver’s licences, or even our fancy new ID cards. No. If you don’t have a US government issued ID, you need to show them a passport. Which means I have to carry my passport around with me everywhere. Which I don’t like doing, and its big and bulky, especially if you’re heading out to for the night. I also often forget it at home, and then am left unable to purchase alcohol.

This was only part of the motivation to get a CA driver’s licence. Some licences even state the year the person turns 21 to save the bouncer some effort.

End

That’s all I can think of at the moment. I won’t even get started on the politics. I added an extra five points to this yesterday, so feel it’s time to stop. I’m sure I’ll start another article and build it up over the next few months for a part 2.

But in between all the complaints, and differences, it’s very similar to home. We haven’t experienced in kind of culture shock, and are enjoying ourselves in the very fair LA.

I don’t like Verizon

Goodness, I’m not sure exactly where to start. My cellphone screen on my Galaxy S4 got damaged in July to an extent that it was unusable. For the last month or so I’ve been using an old Galaxy Trend which while doing the job, does it in a manner that frustrates me, slow, laggy, crashes etc.

Now in the US I figured I’d be able to pick up a cheapish 2nd hand S4 and perform a motherboard transplant. Looking around Ebay, I found quite a few phones. Almost all of them were 16GB versions (as opposed to my 32GB) and many were CDMA (although including GSM). From this I thought there might be some problems with a direct motherboard switch, but if it looked like it wouldn’t work, I could just use the phone as it came and not do the transplant.

Additionally to this, most of the phones seemed to be carrier locked. A google search showed that this is relatively easy to disable however, so I thought nothing more of it. Cue me buying a Verizon Galaxy S4.

IMG_4304It arrived, I put my T-Mobile SIM card in and booted up. The phone notified me that an invalid SIM card had been put in, but still allowed me to make phone calls. Time for the heart transplant.

The phone opens up easily enough, at first glance the boards look like direct replacement, but I noted several small differences. As such I decided to rather try get the Verizon phone to work with my T-Mobile SIM.

It should be as simple as going into a ‘secret‘ menu and changing a setting. Problem one, none of the ‘secret’ codes did anything. Even typing *#06# (which should bring up the phone’s IMEI number) did nothing. Verizon had the secret menu blocked.

Then I tried a bunch of other things, firstly trying to create a shortcut to trigger the secret menu. Which failed. Then trying to send commands to the phone via USB debugging and the Android Development Kit. Eventually resigning myself to rooting my phone. Kingo works like a bomb by the way. This allows you to edit a file in the system to make hidden menus visible.

Great. All done, but not actually. So I can bring up the hidden menu, but when I navigate to the correct place, the option I need to turn the SIM Lock off isn’t there. There should be 3 options: info, on and off. I have only info. Now I don’t know what to do. There are lots of people with lots of ideas. They mention installing other APKs, I install CWM recovery to support this, but whenever I try boot in to the CWM recovery, the phone decides halfway it doesn’t like CWM and loads the standard Android recovery menu (I assume this is also Verizon’s doing).

Image modified from

Image modified from Wonderhowto

I remember now that, although the phone tells me it has an invalid SIM card, I could still make a phone call. My data doesn’t work, but looking around, I was able to create my own APN which then got my data working. SMS however wasn’t working, and the usual menu item to change the SMS Service centre wasn’t there. There is apparently another code you can enter to bring up a hidden menu. But for whatever reason this did not work. Googling I see that others have a similar issue.

Unfortunately not everyone in the US uses Whatsapp or equivalent, and I still rely on being able to send SMSs. So I decide to cut my losses(?) and go for the heart transplant.

IMG_4303It went OK. Not as well as I’d hoped but OK. Took Verizon motherboard out, and put my 32GB motherboard in. So there are a set of cables down the LHS which plug into the motherboard. The cables are fairly rigid and the plug location slightly different on the two boards. There’s an additional brown wire that was not in my 32GB phone.

Circled plug in different place results in bulge in cables

Circled plug in different place results in bulge in cables

I removed this additional wire (as no where to plug it in) and went about removing some plastic structure of the phone to get the cabling to still fit in its new position.

Clips that I shaved off to make cables fit.

Clips that I shaved off to make cables fit.

Put everything back together and it works. However the bottom ‘back’ and ‘menu’ buttons don’t function. They light up occasionally but don’t do anything. At the moment I’m just living with it to see how annoying it is. I did find a workaround. Also the phone thinks its charging even though it isn’t :/

Coming from South Africa, where phones haven’t really been carrier locked since the late 90s, the amount of effort that has gone into locking the phones in the States is incredible. I’m truly impressed (albeit extremely frustrated) at the lengths I’ve tried to go through to unlock this phone. Verizon will apparently do it for a fee, ~$100. More than what I paid for the phone in the first place.

But I have a mostly working phone. And it’s fast and I’m happy enough for now :)

Also I realise Verizon didn’t do all this work themselves, and that Samsung developed the phone in this manner. But it was done because of companies like Verizon who believe that the phone should for some reason belong to them. And that is why I don’t like Verizon.

Mars Trilogy (timekeeping)

Look, I’ve only read the first book, well 70% of it, I’m still busy with the rest, but I’m sure the concept of time keeping is not going to change. I’ve mostly enjoyed the book (written by Kim Stanley Robinson), although it’s getting a bit long after the excitement of the first quarter. But anyway, timekeeping, it’s ridiculous. Red Mars is a Sci-Fi book based on the starting decades of populating Mars and making it habitable.

It starts focusing on the ‘first 100’, the first 100 people to arrive on Mars. They were all specially selected out of thousands of applicants to go to Mars. They’re mostly scientists and engineers with skills that they can use to develop Mars once they arrive.Screenshot_2016-05-14-18-16-45One of the early concepts introduced in the book is that of timekeeping. Something which, as they’re a bunch of scientists, I’d think would be rather important. Mars has this problem in that a solar day on Mars is marginally longer than a solar day on Earth. On average 39min longer.

This poses a problem when working on Mars, as how do you keep time? Do you have watches run an extra 39min? So after 24h00 is 24h01 up to 24h39? You can do this, in my opinion it’s a better solution than what took place in Red Mars, but it’s not what scientists do. Not the scientists at NASA anyway. No, they just redefined a second. Or rather gave the Mars Second a definition equal to 102.7% of an Earth Second. And it works! It’s good.

It means that any software can continue to operate on Mars, as long as the clocks they are set to work with are setup to a Martian clock. Well the time will work in any case, dates become a bit more complicated. But that’s not the topic of this article.

In the Mars Trilogy, the scientists’ solution in this situation was to run a clock at the same speed as an Earth clock. Then when 24h00 came along it would stop. It would stop for 39min, and then the clock would start again at 00h01. This time when the clocks were not running is referred to as the timeslip. And took on an element of meaning in the book, but egal.

The main reason they chose to do this is because, as opposed to rovers etc., we actually have people living in this timeframe now, people who are used to the length of a second and whose delicate minds don’t need the extra strain of not knowing how long a second is.

I disagree. From a scientific perspective alone, how do you record things taking place in this timeslip? How do computers react, how much extra effort is it to work around this; when it would be much easier to just make the second marginally (imperceptibly?) longer.IMG_20160514_181814I saw a recent video on YouTube where participants were asked to count to a minute in their heads and say stop when they got there, with interesting results. Mainly supporting my opinion that no one’s going to pick-up a 2.7% difference.

But it’s a book, and maybe I shouldn’t take it so seriously, it’s a nice plot device, if in my opinion a complete bogus conclusion to come to for a bunch of scientists.

If you’re interested, you can view a NASA article on the topic of timekeeping on Mars here, goes as far to include things like timezones and dates. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on Mars timekeeping includes a mention of ‘timekeeping in fiction‘.

I was initially triggered to read the books after hearing in a podcast (I think it was Still Untitled) that a 10 part series was being produced based on the trilogy. According to Wikipedia it has however again been shelved.

Being legal is frustrating

Four years ago I bought a laptop on a student special with the local universities. Pinnacle were the local distributors and the laptop came pre-installed with Windows 7 and Office professional. Wonderful. But it didn’t come with installation DVDs. I queried this with Pinnacle and they said I should use the Lenovo software (OneKey Backup) to create a backup install which would then have everything ready to go. Fine.

A few months later I buy myself an SSD and now want to install Windows on it. Do everything necessary but the 36GB original install complains that my 120GB SSD is too small to install Windows on… So I repartition my original HDD to have an 80GB windows install. Create new backup install, and successfully install on my SSD.

Fast forward to 2016 and for several reasons I haven’t once reformatted my hard drive since original install. But now it’s time. Backup everything I need. Boot up my backup DVD and try and install onto the same SSD. It complains the drive is too small. This is the same drive I installed on four years prior. No other hardware changes have taken place. I spend the next several hours rebooting trying different types of things; use an Ubuntu live CD to format the drive and remove the extra 100MB partition that Windows makes. All efforts are unsuccessful.

I give up and decide to use a legit Windows 7 install DVD I have to just do a plain install. Alas after installation it doesn’t like my key (the one stuck under my laptop), as the DVD is for Windows Ultimate, and my licence is for Windows Premium… Windows used to have their install DVDs freely available through Digital River. But discontinued this service a few years ago. After some extended searching I get hold of an ISO that, after installing, seems legit and is happy with my key. Yay.

I spent more time trying to get an audible.com audio book playing than it took to listen to the book. I have lost every other piece of DRM-locked music I have paid for.

source: https://xkcd.com/488/

But now I don’t have Office. So I begin the same search for an install for Office. I had earlier run a program to extract the CD-Key from my installed software. Again the Digital River ISOs had been discontinued. MS does offer install files for download on their website, but you have to input a valid CD-Key, and the licence for my CD-Key apparently didn’t match any of the versions they had for download. I get hold of some ISOs through different sources, but none of them are playing ball with my CD-Key…

So what eventually happens? I break down and buy Office. Through all my searching, I kept on getting adverts for MS’s Home Use Program. Basically, if your employer has some deal with MS, you can get Office 2016 Pro for like R150. My employer had never advertised this to us (that I recall), but I typed in my work email address and the next day there was an e-mail at work stating that I am eligible. So R150 later I have Office 2016 installed. My biggest gripe (besides having to pay for something I kinda already had) is that it installs everything! Skype for business (which you can’t use a normal Skype account with), MS Access, OneNote and Publisher which I don’t use. There is no option to only install specific software. And no option afterwards to remove some of the software.

But at least I have a working computer again. And I’ve made copies of all the CDs and installs I used. Stuff knows what use the Lenovo OneKey backup DVDs are to be used for.

All of this boils down to DRM, and how difficult it makes people’s lives. Those who try to do the right thing get blocked at every corner. Whereas I could easily have downloaded a cracked copy and be done with all these hassles. Argh!