December 2010

Impressions after 11 months in the USA

As you know, it's been almost a year since I came to the USA, and as you may suppose, life here is a bit different in many small details from life back in Spain.

For example, treatment of personal data. Companies here assume that, if they have your personal data, it is theirs to sell, trade, etc. In addition, they have always been very careless with them (not so much today) and it was quite common for a credit card company to mail you a letter with a pre-filled request form for you to sign and mail back.

In addition, there is no single identity card system like in Spain, so companies have few ways to verify your identity, and the system all those companies have adopted consists of asking you questions only you can answer, assumedly. Some of those questions are your birth date, your mother's maiden name, or your current address. Of course, as every company asks you the same questions, all of them have that information. And as they mail you prefilled forms including most of that information, it is also available for anyone who gets hold of one of those mailings after intercepting your mail or searching your garbage.

As it is so easy to get one's information and verification systems are so lax, identity theft is an everyday occurrence. It basically consists in the malfeasant getting hold of your birth date and your mother's maiden name and then getting credits and cards and buying stuff in your name, and then not paying any of that, and you get hit with all the debt and fees and charges, and it's years before the problem is solved for good and in the mean time your credit history is hit very badly, etc., etc.

For this reason, something that must never be missing in any household is a document shredder. All letters I get from Mastercard or Capital One offering me credit cards, or from AT&T offering me Internet service, or, in general, anything carrying my name goes to the shredder instead of the garbage bin. In fact, almost all paper I receive goes to the shredder, so it will be all nicely mixed up and more difficult to reconstruct. Of course, my shredder is cross-cut so they won't do the same to me as they did to the US embassy in Iran (their shredders cut in strips, and after the islamic revolution the iranians managed to reconstruct several documents).

A document shredder is very easy to use:

  1. Put a piece of paper in the slot,
  2. look in fascination as the paper is being swallowed by the machine,
  3. look around for any piece of paper I don't need anymore to continue shredding paper.

Seriously, using a document shredder is super addictive. Now I know what the cat who flushed the toilet felt.

Another thing about americans is that they love choosing. For almost anything, they are going to offer you several choices. You go to buy a sandwich and they'll ask you if you want white bread, whole wheat bread, Italian, Indian, if you want jam, peanut butter, if you want coleslaw, lettuce, tuna salad, if you want fries, if you want fruit, ... They almost ask you to give them the recipe for the sandwich.

When I started working in the US I had to sign up for health insurance, and they gave me a choice between five or six options, which were basically divided in two groups: in one, you have to choose your doctor when you start the insurance, and in the other (more expensive) you can choose a different doctor every time. Hospital websites give lots of information about each doctor, with their degrees, professional affiliations, hobbies, etc., so patients can look at them and choose the one they like most. Myself, as I'm very simple, I go with more primal criteria:

“Hello, I'd like to set up an appointment to see a doctor.”
“Which doctor would you like to see?”
“Eh, the one who's available the soonest?”
“Wow, how original.”

And I think I have written enough for now. With a little bit of luck, 11 months from now I'll tell you more things about the USA :)

The Prop. 65 warning to end all Prop. 65 warnings

In California we have something called “Proposition 65” that mandated warning signs wherever there are hazardous substances. You'll get a big fine if you need a sign and you don't have it, but there's no problem if you don't need one but have one anyway, so as a result, you can see these signs everywhere and they've become absolutely meaningless.

Therefore, to reduce our visual clutter and make life easier on everyone, I propose to just put one of these in every port, airport and road entering the State, and get rid of all other signs:

Prop. 65 Warning: The State of California contains one or more chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.