A few months ago I ordered something from… I can’t actually remember from where, but the sender used USPS (United States Postal Service). He provided a tracking number, which usually works great, and you can keep an eye on where in the world your package is. I always find this really interesting, especially when the item travels across the US via all those destinations you didn’t even know existed.
The big day came when the status update read “Out for delivery”, which usually means it’s on my postman’s van, and I can expect the doorbell to ring any moment now.
To my surprise, said event didn’t happen, and in the evening the status had changed to “Delivery status not updated”. No package, no tracking information. What gives?
I did some investigating, and there’s a relatively simple explanation for this. Let me share it with you. First of all, here’s a screen grab of the tracking history:
I’ve always liked oats for breakfast, and I was intrigued to find something in the US that I hadn’t come across before in my life: steel-cut oats.
They’re marketed here along the lines of “the real Scottish oatmeal”, yet it’s not a term used by the Scottish as far as I know. So I went forth and did some research on oats in all forms, shapes and sizes.
In the US we have three kinds of oats:
quick-cook oats (small rolled, much like the Oat-so-simple variety)
old-fashioned oats (rolled too, but much larger, these take longer to soak)
steel-cut oats (whole oats cut into pieces, obviously by steel blades)
According to one of those Wikipedia articles with “issues”, steel-cut oats are also known as pinhead oats in the UK – although I don’t recall this product in the oat isle at Sainsbury’s.
In the picture above you can see the difference between quick cook oats on the left and steel-cut oats on the right. The latter take a lot longer to soak up any liquid and are great if you don’t want your breakfast to get soggy because it takes you a long time to eat it (this happens rather quick with the rolled oats).
Steel-cut oats taste exactly the same as rolled oats but they have a much nuttier texture with more bite to it. I personally like to eat oats (steel-cut or otherwise) with cold milk and a bit of sugar, and perhaps with a selection of dried fruit and nuts – that’s what we do in Germany, where it’s not common to eat oats warmed up.
My wife on the other hand enjoys oats warmed up in the microwave, either cooked with milk or occasionally water (as porridge).
Steel-cut oats are offered at places like Panera Bread as part of the breakfast menu here in the US, also warmed up.
How to cook them
According to Bob’s Red Mill, all you need to cook steel-cut oats to perfection is
3 cups of water (700 ml)
1/4 tablespoon of salt (4g, or a couple of pinches)
1 cup of steel-cut oats (240g)
Bring it all to a boil, simmer for 10-20 minutes and enjoy. Makes 2-3 filling portions.
Bob should know how to do this, because he travelled to Scotland and won first prize at an oat competition, as it says on the packet of steel-cut oats we bought from him last week.
This year I’ve learnt two new things about Christmas I didn’t know before. Actually it’s ONE thing I’ve learnt this year, the other I got wind of last year from my barber at Super Cuts before I started “doing my own hair” thanks to a $25 Wahl Clipper Set.
The Christmas Gherkin
Allegedly there’s a German Christmas tradition called the Christmas Gherkin (pictured above). It’s a bauble used to decorate the Christmas tree and hides in plain sight because it’s green. Whoever spots the gherkin gets an extra present. Three sizes are available, with the smallest one being the most difficult to spot.
Readers in the UK or Europe may not have heard of this tradition which is known in the US as a German Christmas Tradition. I’ve spent many a Christmas in Germany and let me assure you we’ve never heard of it in Germany!
The Myth of Boxing Day
In Germany and large parts of Europe we celebrate Christmas on the 24th (Christmas Eve), followed by two bank holidays which we simply call the first and second Christmas Day. It’s a three day affair, even though most shops nowadays are open on Christmas Eve for last minute shopping. Present unwrapping begins in the evening on the 24th.
That’s different in the UK and Commonwealth countries, where Christmas Eve is basically nothing and totally ignored, followed by the two-day Christmas affair consisting of Christmas Day and Boxing Day. In essence, when I moved to the UK back in 1999 I lost a holiday.
Now that I live in the US it seems I’ve lost another one: because over here there is no Boxing Day. The 26th is the same as the 24th, namely nothing and completely ignored – at least according to the calendar. There’s still plenty of Christmas cheer and holidays over here of course, but those are voluntary and not bank holidays.
This is probably due to Thanksgiving which has just finished a few weeks before Christmas, and that IS a major event and a bank holiday in the US – while completely ignored in other parts of the world. Associated with Thanksgiving on a Retail Mayhem level are Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a major sales event that’s comparable in madness and price reductions to the Boxing Day Sales.
Let me leave you with some impressions of Christmas in Miami Beach. I’ve taken these in the neighbourhood and on a cycle along the North Bay Road, where the ultra rich people live – those with houses by the water. It’s a lovely road, very quiet, and one resident had a Tesla delivered on Christmas Eve! I guess someone’s been really good this year…
We have something here in the US that most Europeans don’t know about: a nationwide weather radio service called NOAA Weather Radio. The service is broadcasting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it has been around since 1953.
Transmitting from over 1000 towers across the US, they have 7 frequencies just above the FM band. Those can only be received with special radios. I was very excited to find out about it!
We recently bought such a radio because we live in a hurricane prone area – and because I’ve always liked broadcast technology.
Canada have a similar system called Weatheradio Canada which uses the same frequencies to broadcast and the same devices work with both services.
NOAA’s National Weather Service
The NOAA Weather Radio sounds a bit like a numbers station, probably because it uses computer generated voices instead of “real people” – which I understand was the case many years ago. By using computer speech the service can be highly targeted to very small areas.
Here in Miami Beach I can hear three towers, and even a fourth one at night:
KHB43 on 162.550 MHz (for Miami and Fort Lauderdale)
WNG663 on 162.425 MHz (for South Florida and the Upper Keys)
WWG60 on 162.425 MHz (for the Florida Keys, I can only hear it at night)
The service gives detailed weather forecasts and descriptions, including tide times and what the waters around us are like (such as “bay water is a moderate chop”). It’s all quite pleasing to listen to, and very educative.
We have three voices here: Tom reads the main bulk, and he sounds a bit like the “classic British Siri” voice, or the voice from the Kindle Keyboard. Then there’s Donna, his female equivalent, who reads sunrise and sunset information as well as tides and maritime things.
Before these two were introduced, the first electronic voice was called Tom – but most audiences didn’t like him from what I understand. Rather than ditch him completely, he’s used to read the Station ID every 10 minutes (like “This is the voice of the NOAA Weather Radio, station XXYZZ, broadcasting on a frequency of xyz”).
Showbiz is tough! I personally enjoy all three voices they have, but from what I read other counties have different voices (mainly pitch variations of the existing ones), or hold votes as to which voice the audience prefers – which then gets to read them.
Weather and maritime news aside, the service may also broadcast other warnings from time to time, such as national security emergencies, natural, environmental and public safety announcements.
NOAA Weather station radios have an option that leaves the device in standby mode, and if something drastic happens a special 1050 Hz tone is broadcast for 10 seconds, at which point such devices kick in and switch themselves on. Allegedly there are tests once a week but sadly I’ve not managed to get one of those transmissions yet.
Some devices can even tune into a subset of the area served by a frequency so that a very narrow part of the country can be alerted. This is done using something called SAME Technology (stands for Specific Area Message Encoding). Fascinating stuff!
So which radio did you get?
You can’t pick up the weather band with standard radios, so we needed a special one. This seemed a great idea anyway because we neither read the papers or watch TV – so if anything drastic is happening in the world we’re probably the very last people on earth to find out (we sleep extremely well at night by the way).
Julia did some research and decided to buy the excellent Ambient Weather WR-335 with Solar Bag, also known as the Adventurer 2. It’s exactly what I would have picked too. Not only does it get the weather band, it also has an FM, AM and Shortwave Tuner and so many charging options that even in the biggest time of crisis this thing isn’t going to run out of juice:
rechargeable Li-ion battery, replaceable
charges via micro USB from anywhere
comes with a standard mains charger
built-in mini solar panel for self-charging in sunlight
larger solar panel bag for full charging
also takes optional AAA batterie
a then there’s a hand crank if everything else fails
The device can even charge other devices like mobiles and tablets. It’s very rugged and comes in a rubber casing – it even has a flashlight and a siren to attract attention. In a nutshell: your best friend if the rest of your neighbourhood lies in ruins and batteries count as currency – which could happen at any moment.
I can’t get enough of the soothing voices from the NOAA Weather Radio. I also enjoy discovering what’s happening on the local FM and AM bands, as well as the mysteries of the Shortwave Band.
In fact it’s so addictive that I’ve ordered two other radios specifically for Shortwave Adventures – but I’ll tell you more about those another time.
But I haven’t got a weather radio…
There are several online streams of many stations available here. These are not provided by NOAA and instead rely on some dude plugging his radio into a computer. I hear that some local broadcasters carry local NOAA audio when they’re not on air.
Someone even made an iPhone App that allows you to listen on the go (it wasn’t me).
I have eight bank accounts across three countries. They’re a mixture of personal and business accounts. So I know a bit about banking.
And after the last few months worth of experiences with US banks, I can tell you that banking in the US sucks. A lot. There’s really nothing more to say on that matter, nor will this change any time soon.
Imagine a quick transfer from my account to your account. In the UK all I need is your account number and sort code, quickly login to my online banking, and within minutes you’ve got my money – for free, even between banks. That’s the kind of standard that – in 2013 – we’ve come to expect.
A couple of weeks ago we’ve received two additional large rubbish bins. Haringey Council had given us 3 bins ever since I’ve moved in here 12 years ago. Now we have five, the additional two being “green bins” for anything that can be recycled.
This appears to be pretty much everything apart from maybe plutonium and mercury. Everything else (ie plutonium and mercury) still needs to go I the black bins.
Be that as it may, the new bins couldn’t have come at a better time: for the last five weeks we have been producing on average 5 black bags of rubbish every day! You wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff we’re carrying out of a one bedroom flat. Lucky for us we’re nearly finished.
I’ve never liked the winter. It’s not so much the cold that gets me but the disappearance of daylight. It has always put me in a bad mood, and learning to recognise this recurring pattern made me more aware of it – which in turn has made me even more miserable over the years.
Appropriately this phenomenon is called SAD and puts millions of people every year into varying degrees of depression by December. I feel it as a total lack of energy: all the things I can do in the summer are extra difficult and take twice as long in the winter, or in the period leading up to it. It’s like my body is going into survival or hibernation mode.
Fiddling with the clocks every now and again really does not alleviate this much.
Having said that, this year I have felt that the change from summer time to winter time was a godsend. I started getting up later and later ever since September, 9:30 or 10am wasn’t rare for me. In the summer I can rise at 5am or 6am without problems, but it becomes really hard in the winter.
Moving is always a pain. Moving cities is a bigger pain than just moving down the road. Moving countries however is another issue altogether. Believe me, I’ve done this before – and I’m about to do it again.
Moving cities involves packing boxes, loading boxes onto a van, unloading those boxes and carrying them upstairs, accompanied by too much furniture and a lot of stuff we’ve forgotten we’ve actually every owned.
It also involves painting and decorating, talking to people like estate agents, and worse of all it confronts you with having to make decisions that you’d rather not want to make.
Moving cities knows no boundaries – other than the space of the van or car you’re using to move. You can approach moving countries in a similar fashion if you ask an overpriced removal company to store and ship all the stuff for you.
I remember my mentally deranged flatmate did this, and I’ll never forget his face when 40 boxes came delivered some months after we had found a small house in Nunhead, South London. That little room was packed to the ceiling – and he looked as pale as the boxes. Classic!
Peter Casasola is my favourite dentist of all time. We had one final checkout with him today before we have to find us a new doctor in Miami Beach. Peter was my wife’s paediatric dentist in Harborne, Birmingham and she said I should check him out. That must have been in late 2004. I haven’t regretted it since.
Forming a relationship with any dentist is difficult: it’s based on a combination of trust, quality and affordability. Peter scores high on all fronts – especially compared to the other crooks I’ve been dealing with in my life.
The date of our flight is getting closer, yet so much remains to be sorted out. Finding temporary accommodation in Miami for example, before we can find a place to rent. Or getting one final visit in with our favourite trusted dentist in Birmingham.
Much more important things have been attended to today though: I bought a wireless keyboard for my iPad, complete with case that folds into a stand. Since there’s a lot of writing that needs to be done I thought this a worthwhile investment.