Monthly Archives: February 2014

My phone is smarter than me

R.I.P. my dear Samsung.

R.I.P. my dear Samsung. You will be born again.

One day in London in September 2008 I walked home in the pouring rain, got utterly soaked, and chucked my jeans in the washing machine as soon as I got inside. The jeans, along with my cell phone in their front pocket, got a great wash.

The next day I set out to buy a new phone. My philosophy is usually “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and this time it was definitely broke. I went to Orange, a British mobile network operator, and bought a Samsung phone for £5 (about $8); it came as a cheap add-on to a monthly phone plan. It wasn’t even a flip phone – just an ultra-basic, tiny cell phone that fit snugly in the palm of my hand.

Now, fast forward some 5 years and 4 months. In that time, I  finished my Master’s degree, moved away from London after living there for nearly 6 years, spent a few months in Tunisia in late 2010 on the eve of the Arab spring, had a stint teaching in Somaliland, backpacked all through East Africa, moved to Liberia for two years, made numerous overland forays throughout West Africa, and circumnavigated the globe to visit far away friends before returning to the US.

In that period, I also dropped my phone countless times; broke it into a few pieces and reassembled it; moistened it in a few tropical rainstorms; shoved innumerable pay-as-you go SIM cards into it from countries ranging from Sweden to Swaziland and Bahrain to Burkina Faso; replaced the charger once or twice (or three times) when the wire wore thin; and even lost it in a Somali minibus once but later retrieved it.

It went through a lot of shit, but my trusty little Samsung stayed by my side the whole time, and never once let me down. I still have the little fellow, but he lives in a drawer now (it must be hard for him, after all his previous globetrotting).

When I returned to the US, my brother was so kind as to offer me his “old” iPhone, since he had recently upgraded to a “newer” version. He apologized to me that it was one of the older models; he said that he had tried to trade it in for some sort of credit, but he was told it was so worthless that he couldn’t get anything for it. Apparently it’s called an iPhone “3GS,” a model that is so high-tech it was discontinued in June 2010. Oh my God, 3.5 years ago. That was, like, a whole generation ago. I hear they are onto “5G” these days, whatever that means.

Well, this “old” iPhone is the first smart phone I’ve ever had, and to me it seems revolutionary, not retro. It’s like a whole new world has been opened up to me. A few points of comparison to illustrate my point…

(1) My Samsung had such limited storage capacity that it could only hold 100 or so contacts in the phone book, meaning I had to frequently delete the entries of people that I thought I wouldn’t need to call again (but not, mind you, the phone numbers of people who were likely to call me again and whose calls I wanted to avoid). Meanwhile, my iPhone seems to have synced with my Facebook and automatically populated my phone book with the phone numbers of all my Facebook friends. Should I be alarmed?

(2) My Samsung had that ORIGINAL default ring tone that you hear all over Africa, meaning I was never entirely sure if it was my phone that was ringing (hey, at least I fit in). The only way to change the annoying ring tone was to… put it on silent. My iPhone, on the other hand, allows me to stream music of any and every variety. (Although I haven’t yet figured out how to use it to stream the Samsung ring tone, for those days I’m feeling nostalgic).

(3) My Samsung had a choice of three or perhaps four possible background images for the main screen. For years, it was a stupid sketch of a boy catching a balloon which irked me every time I used my phone. I remember one day some random guy changed it for me to a much more attractive default picture (pixilated, of course) of a tropical beach. That improved my phone so much. I’ll never forget him, bless his soul. At the other end of the spectrum, my iPhone seems to also operate as a camera and let me take my own background photo. Mind blowing.

(4) The “space” key on my Samsung became stubborn in its old age, meaning I either had to press it repeatedly to produce the desired result, or simply send cryptic text messages devoid of spacing. Whoreallyneedspunctuationanyways? But this thing that they call the “iPhone” doesn’t even have a keypad. Can you imagine that?! A device without a keypad. You type on the screen instead. Astonishing technology.

Which leads me to my one question/complaint about the iPhone, after all my singing of its post-modern praises. With all this “touch screen” action, I find that the screen of my iPhone is just so… greasy. Am I missing something here? Or am I eating too much pizza by the slice? Or am I meant to be Windexing my iPhone? I went to Macy’s the other day to buy gloves before heading out east, and they were selling special “Smart Phone Compatible Gloves.” Maybe I should start wearing those, even in warm weather?

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Filed under Communications, Consumerism

Plus tax

I have exact change for you and Uncle Sam.

I have exact change for you and Uncle Sam.

Immediately after arriving in the US, as I was transiting from LAX airport to San Diego, I excitedly spotted an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels in the Los Angeles train station. I hadn’t eaten one of those salty buttery bundles of joy in years, so I made an abrupt beeline for the kiosk.

Since I hadn’t yet made it to an ATM yet, the only currency I had on me was the random collection of coins that I had transferred from my drawer to my money purse before heading state-side. It was like a pecuniary vestige of every country I had visited in the past two to three years: euros mingled with pounds, West African CFA francs clinking alongside Ghanaian cedis, and one Swiss five-franc coin standing on its own and giving you finger, silently saying “I’m a coin, but I’m actually worth $5.60, so you really should have bought yourself an overpriced coffee at the Geneva airport before you left, you idiot.”

And floating in among all that global currency were some good old American quarters, dimes, and nickels, which had evidently survived in those 2.5 years since my last visit to the US.  So I set about counting my coins, like the old lady that I secretly am, and found that I had a grand total of $3.51.  A pretzel cost $2.99. Perfect. I counted out the exact change as I waited in line to order my pretzel.

But when the sales clerk rang me up, she said “That’ll be $3.26, ma’am.”

Wait, what?

D’oh. I had completely and totally forgotten about the tax. And if there is one place you are going to notice the tax, its California: the golden state has one of the highest rates of sales tax in the whole country. In Los Angeles, the combined state and district sales tax rate adds up to 9%. Ouch.

The reason I had forgotten about the tax was because in most most other countries, sales tax is already included in the ticket price of the item. In the UK, for example, the Value Added Tax (VAT) is a 20% consumption tax similar to US state sales taxes. Unlike the US, however, all published retail prices include VAT. So, if an item has a price tag of £1.64, then you will pay exactly £1.64 at the till. The item in fact costs £1.37, and is taxed at a rate of 20% (£0.27), making for a total of £1.64. But you don’t see any of this, because the retailers have already factored it into their price lists and price tags. Now isn’t that convenient?!

I presume that the reason this sensible practice is not adopted in the United States is because it is a federation, where each state sets its own levels of sales tax, varying from 0% in Delaware to 7.5% in California (plus, there are also county and city level taxes levied on top of this). Since many large retail chains in the US span across multiple states and counties, it would be a logistical nightmare for them to produce hundreds of variations of price tags to stick on the same item in different counties and states; it’s more practical to just label items at their before-tax prices, and then calculate the additional tax at the register depending on location.

And if customers are expecting this, then that’s okay. But clueless foreigners, or equally clueless repatriates, may find themselves digging into their change purse to make up for the extra tax. Thank God I had just enough to buy that pretzel. Otherwise I would have been so disappointed that I might have joined the legions of beggars in Union Station to rustle up the extra $0.27.

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Filed under Money, Practicalities, Shopping

Size 6, my ass!

A 12 is a 10 is a 6.

A 12 is a 10 is a 6.

I went shopping today and I accidentally tried on a pair of size 6 DKNY jeans. I say accidentally, because I never would have intentionally picked a size 6 off the shelf, that not being my size. But, here’s the weird thing: they fit.

There is absolutely no way I am a size 6, not unless the definition of “size 6” has changed. When I first left the US in 1999, I was 18 years old, twenty pounds lighter than I am now, and a size 6. Ten pounds of weight gain is supposedly equivalent to moving up one dress size, so that should make me a size 10 today.

And that is the size I thought I was. After all, I usually fit a European size 40 or a UK size 12, which is equivalent to a US size 10. But there I was in he dressing room, second guessing my calculations. I even went and tried on another size 6 in another style, just to double check… perhaps there was a manufacturing error with that one pair? Nope: the other pair fit, too.

What was going on here? As soon as I got home, I researched it online and was relieved to find that I had not lost my marbles (or my butt). It turns out what I experienced is due to a well-documented phenomenon called “Vanity Sizing,” in which the clothing industry manipulates sizes – which used to be more standardized – to increase sales. Not surprisingly, women tend to feel better about themselves when they fit into a smaller size, and that increased self-esteem translates into increased sales for the clothing brand. No matter if it’s not a “real” size 6, she bought the jeans, didn’t she? (I didn’t, for the record, buy that size 6 pair… marketers, you can’t fool me!)

The clothing industry has finally learned the mirror image of the lesson the condom industry has known for years: don’t label any condom a size “small,” because no man is ever going to buy it. Call the regular size condom “large” and call the large size condom “XL” or “MAXX.” Yes man, you have a big penis, buy our condoms. Yes woman, you have a small butt, buy our size 6 jeans. And everyone lives obliviously and happily ever after. Until they read about “size inflation” in the Economist, which shows them in cold hard graphs how many inches have been added their “size 6” (and their waist) over the years.

To make matters worse, it seems that size inflation has not been consistent across stores and brands, so your size is changing all the time depending on where you are shopping (a website named What Size Am I? has even been developed to try and overcome the problem).

Another off-shot of size inflation is the creation of size zero (0) and even size double zero (00), both of which just sound so wrong. There has even been a campaign against the fashion industry’s use of models of that size, called “Say No to Size Zero.” Perhaps it should be more accurately called, “Say No to Size Zero, Because Size Four is No More.”

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How big is your paper?

European Airbus model A4.

European Airbus model A4.

One of the many items on my long and oh-so-exciting To Do List (which I’ve been steadily working through since returning to the US, thanks to the ease of getting things done here) is organizing my files. Fun times. While dutifully doing so, I was reminded of an American quirk I had totally forgotten about: so-called “US Letter” sized paper.

Every school child knows that the US uses the imperial system (e.g. feet, miles, pounds, and gallons), while the rest of the world uses the metric system (e.g. meters, kilometers, grams, and liters). But few people know that America’s stubbornness doesn’t stop there. In the same way that the US refuses to adopt the universally accepted decimal system of weights and measures, Uncle Sam has also given the finger to the international standard for paper size, as established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

All throughout Europe and in most of the rest of the world, the normal size of paper is called “A4,” which measures 210 millimeters wide by 297 millimeters long. In 1975, this A4 standard letter format was established as an ISO standard, and that standard has since been adopted by all the countries in the world. All the countries in the world except the United States, that is (and, ahem, copycat Canada). The US uses the “US letter” format instead, which is 8.5″ wide by 11″ long (measured in inches, of course, you metric morons).

The end result of this Yankee obstinateness is that you have two similar, but maddeningly different, paper sizes. The American “letter” paper is slightly shorter, slightly wider, and slightly more squarish than the rest-of-world A4 sheet. The technical term for the narrow dead space between the two sheets is “aggravating.”

Of course, American file folders, American binders, and American stationery supplies in general are all sized differently to accommodate this. So, if you find yourself trying to file your US-sized papers into your UK-sized binders or plastic sleeves (what repatriated fool would do that?), expect lots of funny bits sticking out. Argh.

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Pizza by the slice

The triangle of joy.

The triangle of joy.

Pizza is one of those foods that is available almost everywhere in the world (although to varying degrees of quality, for sure). But pizza by the slice, on the other hand, is one thing only America does well.

The last place I lived in the US, before leaving for nearly a decade, was New York City, in 2004. I can’t count the number of times I took comfort in a wide wedge of greasy cheesy goodness, served up on a paper plate and sprinkled liberally with crushed red pepper flakes and powdered Parmesan cheese.

The only non-American place where I lived and regularly ate pizza by the slice was Montreal, where I often found myself scarfing down a 99-cent pizza on the way home from a drunken night out. I don’t recall it being something I’d want to eat when sober. But, it always hit the spot at 3 am.

Once I tried eating pizza by the slice in London. It was at a place in Dalston called Voodoo Ray’s.  The pizza was tasty, but it just didn’t feel the same as home. One plain cheese slice served up by a hipster set me back £3.50 (nearly $6!) and I had to wait 10 minutes for them to heat it up. I missed my $2 New York slice dished up in 2 minutes by an Italian-American from the Bronx.

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Cards, not cash

Buying Guinean francs in Conakry to settle a hotel bill.

Buying Guinean francs in Conakry to settle a hotel bill. No plastic here.

I’ve only been back in the US for one month, and already I’ve been forced to upgrade to a larger and fancier wallet. In Africa, I didn’t even carry a wallet; I just kept my money (bills and coins alike) in a small money purse which could easily fit in my pocket (or even bra, if I was wearing a dress that had no pockets). It was a simple square sewn from African fabric with a zipper on one side.

I’m talking about it in the past tense, but I still have it. It’s just been relegated to my sock drawer, since there’s no way it could cut it here in America. I mean, I was loyal to my African money purse and I stuck with it at the beginning of my stay here in the US, but I very quickly outgrew it – or overfilled it, to be precise – as the number of cards that I had to carry mushroomed.

First it was only my debit card that I carried around. Even this took some getting used to, since in Liberia I didn’t carry any cards with me, it being an entirely cash-based economy (at the time I left, there were two establishments in the entire country that accepted payment by card, both of them expensive hotels). I paid for everything with cash all the time, no matter how big or small the payment. I paid my rent in cash each month, given to the landlord in a fat envelope. If I booked a flight to another African country, I paid for the plane tickets in cash at the travel agent’s cashier desk. I became proficient at counting out tatty, old series American hundred dollar bills like some sort of gangster.

Now, suddenly, in the USA I could pay for anything and everything with my debit card. Everyone ahead of me in the line certainly was, no matter how small the purchase, and no matter how much easier and faster it would be to just buy your $2.50 coffee with three one-dollar bills, rather than having to swipe your card, punch in your PIN code, and wait for the machine to print a receipt.   But, apparently in the 13 years that I’ve been gone from the US, cash has become an anachronism. Who carries that green stuff anymore? That’s so 1990s.

If it was only for the debit card, I could manage to fit that in my African money purse. And of course there’s my driver’s license, which I carry as identification. But with each day that passes, my plastic is proliferating. Every single store I go into seems to offer me a new card, be it a “rewards” card, a store credit card, or both. I bought a laptop, and I got a “My Best Buy” card; I needed shampoo, and I ended up with a “Walgreen’s Balance Rewards” card; I ate a bagel for lunch, and it came with a “My Panera Member” card; I stopped in the corner shop near my apartment to buy a bottle of wine, and I acquired a “Buy 10 bottles of wine, get 1 free” card (well, that last one might come in handy).

By the end of the week (yes, I acquired all these cards in little over one week), I realized it had to stop. At Old Navy, I insisted to the sales clerk (after two attempts on his part to convince me otherwise) that yes, I’d really rather pay in cash today, instead of signing up for an Old Navy credit and paying nothing today. “But, ma’am, you’ll also receive a 10% discount on your purchase.” The problem is, you see, I’ve just had to buy a new wallet to store all my new cards, and I’m running out of slots to put them in. And I assure you these pieces of paper in my hand are actually legal tender. So, please take them.

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Valentine’$ day

In all these years abroad, I think I had nearly forgotten about the existence of Valentine’s Day.  It’s just one of those non-events that doesn’t factor into my life in any way, whether I am in a relationship or not. It’s not a holiday I anticipate or plan around, and certainly not an occasion on which I spend money.

Well, I’m back state-side now, and Valentine’s Day is the first “holiday” since my return. I suddenly find Valentine’s Day accosting me everywhere and all the time. Clearly, I had my guard down and was totally unprepared for the full-on red assault of the heart-shaped marketing machine.  I feel as though every establishment I pass has launched some marketing effort in conjunction with this non-holiday: restaurants are offering Vaentine’s Day specials, bars are throwing Valentine’s Days parties, my local café has put hearts up on the wall, and of course CVS is a riot of red and tacky plastic expressions of love.  Even when I went to look up a word on Dictionary.com, the home page featured a slideshow on “slang for love and lovers.” I can’t escape.

Suddenly, I find myself “worrying” about what I’m going to do for Valentine’s Day. This, I acknowledge rationally, is absurd. But I’ve clearly been successfully pressured by the collective concentrated campaigns of every single business which stands to gain from me potentially acting on that nagging feeling that I should be doing something for Valentine’s Day. Shouldn’t I be going somewhere? Shouldn’t I be buying something? Because, after all, how does one celebrate Valentine’s Day without buying something? Is it even possible?

I appreciate that by writing this post, I am ironically contributing to the proliferation of Valentine’s mania. I was tempted to upload a photo of a white teddy bear holding a red heart. But I stopped myself. And on Valentine’s Day – otherwise known as Friday night –I’ll be hanging out at a friend’s place, eating and drinking, like any other night. Nor will I be wearing red. 

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Filed under Consumerism, Holiday