27 Banal Observations of a Recent Immigrant

Mar 20
2009


This post is in response to, and inspired by this fantastic article in the Guardian by Paul Carr.

As Carr did in his piece, let’s just get this over and done with. Here are the things I’ve noticed about the UK in the past seven weeks.

Please note that many of these are in jest, or at least are written with a love for all three countries I’ve lived in. There’s no need for the irate comments, emails or tweets I’ve received over the past few weeks (since this became popular on StumbleUpon again). Calm down, Internet peoples.

1) Everything in the UK can be accomplished via SMS, or text message. Government organisations don’t send you letters. They don’t even email. They bloody text you. It’s like this country is run by fifteen year olds, recently armed with pre-paid Nokia 5120s. It’s brilliant.

2) Brown sauce is, to the English, what yellow mustard is to Americans. Gratuitously added to everything and a complete mystery to most foreigners.

3) You’ll think you’ve settled in and have mastered the art of not saying bathroom, sidewalk, apartment or white-out, and then you’ll tell the woman at Farringdon station to put ten bucks on your Oyster card. She’ll look at you like you went to the bathroom on the sidewalk.

4) There is little more satisfying than a new £20 note. Something about the size of the note and the texture of the paper makes it blindingly obvious that it’s worth more than $20. Somehow, this isn’t so true for £10 and £5 notes. My favourites are the £20s. I would like to have lots and lots of them.

5) You really want to say quid, and when you do for the first time, you feel like a complete poseur. No one else notices.

6) No one in England can decide which side of the sidewalk pavement on which to walk. In America, we walked on the right. In New Zealand, we walked on the left. Here, it seems that a heavy European influence has confused everyone and everyone gets duly pissed off at those people not walking on the same side of the pavement as they are. I honestly don’t see what’s so difficult about the idea that one should walk on the same side of the pavement as one drives on the road.

7) When in Rome, jaywalk like the Romans. It’s illegal to jaywalk in Seattle, so I never did it, and I didn’t like it when other people did it, especially in front of my car. In London, jaywalking is a sport, based solely on survival of the fittest. You’re never going to get to cross the road if you wait for the lights to change, so you’d better be really good at running in your knee-high boots.

8 ) Anti-Americanism is far worse than I ever thought it was. I guess they don’t say it to you—Americans—but they say it to me. People here ‘hate Yanks’. I try to explain that there are 300 million people in the United States and that not all of them embody the negative national stereotype that seems to define the modern ‘Yank’. Some of my best friends are American. They’re great people. However, if I ever use an example of something specific to the United States, the opinion is met with disdain. I am considering replacing ‘America’ with any other country from now on, just to gauge the different reaction. For the love of Christ, England (and the rest of you): the United States isn’t a bad place and it isn’t filled with bad people. The ironic thing about this anti-Americanism is that it sometimes comes from people who also regard Americans as some of their best friends. This somewhat mirrors how Americans can see Brits as stuffy, humourless monarchists, yet simultaneously adore Eddie Izzard.

9) Just being away from the United States makes you skinnier.  Saturated fat appears to have escaped into the air in America. Here, you can eat fish and chips and pies and drink London Pride for days on end and wander around in skinny jeans. I have no other explanation for this besides ‘magic’.

10) Remember all those contracts everyone made you sign for absolutely everything in the States? No, we don’t have those.

11) Remember cheques? No, we don’t have those either. Because it’s 2009. For God’s sake, America. Keep up.

12) How to break up a phone number is a political issue. Whereas in the States, we’re all basically agreed upon (206) 555-1234, there is serious debate here over where the brackets should go and where the breaks should be. I assume that you have to have been born British to understand why this is important.

13) In the country that brought us Top Gear, there is no need to own a car if you live in a city. In fact, owning a car here in central London would be a burden. Owning anything more than feet and an Oyster card is superfluous when you live within ten minutes of High Holborn and eight-hundred metres of two tube stations.

14) The fact that the BBC has no ads is great, save for one thing: the toilet. Sixty straight minutes of Top Gear means that they better have a D-list star in the reasonably priced car, because that’s the only time you’re going to be able to sneak away to the loo.

15) Chavs. What’s that all about?

16) Any question regarding human nature can be answered by either:
1. That’s blokes for you; or
2. That’s birds for you
Nothing more needs to be said following either of those two statements. Everyone drinks beer.

17) Even though you feel like a dick for doing so, you smile a little every time Kanye West sings ‘we the hottest in the world right now / just touched down in London town’.

18 ) This is considered fast food. See: England making you skinnier.

19) The English never tire of hearing Americans (and New Zealanders) talk about their ‘pants’.

20) The washing machine is in the kitchen. I’ve had a washing machine in my kitchen for six weeks now, so it no longer seems odd to me; however, upon arriving in this country, the idea of washing my clothes next to my dishes was very strange. The washing machine usually goes in the bathroom or in a room of its own in the U.S. Don’t try to debate the issue with people of either nationality: the argument is about as intelligent as the one about where breaks should come in phone numbers.

21) Jeep Cherokees are the largest cars on the road. The smallest cars on the road are smaller than American motorcycles.

22) As appears to be the case across Europe, asking for water in a restaurant is not enough. You must specify whether you want bottled or tap water. Despite London water tasting like liquid magic, somehow asking for tap water sounds like you’re going to get something warm that smells of chlorine.

23) After six years in the United States, I still feel the need to affect an American accent when on the phone to strangers, or whilst ordering things in a loud restaurant or bar. The latter situation came about after years of being misunderstood when I ordered a drink of ‘wortah’. The former has me rolling my ‘r’s on the phone, sounding like a cross between Madonna and Anna Paquin.

24) Mobile. Fucking. Broadband.

25) People in the UK who don’t live in Seattle think that the skyline from Frasier is real.

26) Despite a close proximity to Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is far less annoying in England because everybody doesn’t think they’re Irish.

27) Both here and in America, things go tits up and it’s bad. However, in the UK, things are the tits and it’s good.

Tower Bridge by chelmsfordblue on Flickr

Illusions of Popularity and the Waitrose Token Effect

Mar 17
2009

thumbs up

At Waitrose, a British supermarket chain, three clear plastic bins sit at the front of the store, in which there are varying numbers of green plastic tokens. As customers pay for their groceries, they are given a couple of tokens to place into the bin of their choice. Each token adds to the amount of money Waitrose will donate to the charity indicated atop each bin: viable candidates include Age Concern, children’s health initiatives and food drives. It’s a simple, effective way to let customers choose how a small percentage of their grocery spend will be donated to charity, but it is also an exercise in psychology.

Last weekend, standing in line at a Waitrose in Surbiton, I watched how people dealt with their tokens. No one wants to stand and ponder a decision such as in which bin to place a couple of pieces of plastic for too long: one, everyone knows that their token alone adds up to pennies, not pounds; and two, choosing carefully between a soup kitchen and an old people’s home would mess with your head.

Despite the theory that Brits enjoy cheering on the underdog, people most often placed their tokens in the bin that already contained the most.

Surely, I thought, the most popular bin must be inherently superior to the other two. Perhaps the emptiest one was a beer fund for Kingston University students. However, as it turned out, the charities were very evenly matched. There was no reason whatsoever why people should choose one over the others. Apart from how popular one appeared to be.

A relatively basic rule of marketing, played out in an English supermarket. It’s typical human nature, when faced with a fast choice, to go with the one others appear to have made before you, and yet a lot of people in marketing appear to have forgotten this.

Instead, many people have become interested in conversations, a word meant only to test who has the weakest gag reflex.  Companies are now advised to converse with and empower people instead of appealing to their primitive instincts. It’s cute and it makes you feel less like joining groups like this one, but it’s also less profitable.  In addition, less-obvious forms of marketing fly so far under the radar that even marketers fall for them.

One could fill libraries with blog posts and articles about marketing tactics, and the illusion of popularity is just one of them. People are taken in by this every day: take Naymz, a social connection site a la LinkedIn, which has been around for years. I’ve received dozens of Naymz connection requests in the past two weeks because some genius in the SEO world decided that it was important. The cumulative effect of receiving more and more connection requests is that people think the service is important. The more people fall for this, the more new people receive invitations and requests. And the more important Naymz seems.

Offline, people line up outside bars with the longest lines. Does it ever occur to club owners to hire thirty people to stand outside their doors on a Friday night in order to make the place look more popular than it really is? Is this perhaps a relatively standard practice?

In my time at SEOmoz, I noticed that posts receiving an initial rush of ‘thumbs up’ would invariably receive more over time than posts whose initial rate of upward votes was lower. Two posts of equal quality that received the same number of comments and similar feedback could receive vastly different numbers of votes. The same was true for thumbs down: a downwards vote in a post’s infancy paved the way for more in days to come. I wondered what the result would be given two different tests:

  1. Artificially inflate the number of up-votes on a new post that was deliberately mediocre in quality. Test 1.1 could involve artificially thumbing-down a very good post, but creating mediocre content is generally easier ;)
  2. Keep the voting system, but remove the cumulative votes on a post so that people were essentially voting blindly.

Of course, we never did this: the effort involved would probably have only led to more theories about a theory. However, the initial test of inflating perceived popularity would be quite easy to implement and quite difficult for a reader to detect.

Because appearing to be popular results in being popular, people engage in low-rent versions of this all the time. The relatively annoying thing is that even pathetic moves often work well. Similar to the phenomenon I call the Emperor’s New Blog Post, convincing people that something is desirable is only about making it appear sought after. Even those of us involved in marketing seem to be way more susceptible to suggestion than we think.

Thumbs-up imagery from SEOmoz.

200 OK

Mar 09
2009

Whenever I listen to Jesus of Suburbia, I’m in a van travelling form San Diego to Irvine, California, at seven in the morning. It’s winter and it’s barely daylight. I’m pretty miserable. I’ve lost the will to do the only thing I really have to do and I’ve been uncomfortably cold for over a week. However, despite the discomfort, I have some hope. I only have to deal with California for twelve more hours.

That evening, I’d fly back to Washington, turn 21 and hopefully never see La Jolla, Irvine, San Diego or the greater Los Angeles area ever again. Especially not whilst wearing ever-so-slightly damp university swim team-issued clothes, eating nothing but bread and pasta for ten days straight, and drinking instant coffee early in the morning before another cold, stiff, painful training session. La Jolla, north of San Diego is one of the prettiest parts of the West Coast and couldn’t watch it disappear into the early morning darkness fast enough. But I still had to deal with Irvine.

And I dealt with it all right: I swam fourteen seconds slower than my best time in the 200 yard breaststroke, clocking in at an astonishingly slow 2:28. I think. I can’t remember what else I swam aside from the 50 backstroke, which was probably quite a bit slower than my best 50 breaststroke time. It didn’t hurt either, because I was far too cold to feel anything apart from the burning — freezing? — desire to quit swimming. And yet I still like Jesus of Suburbia and I don’t find the memory all that bad.

It was probably the knowledge that we were nearly—eight more hours—going home that makes the memory almost nostalgic. The swim meet was broken into two parts: regular events and long distance. In the break between the two, our coach told us that we’d not have to swim the distance events, as we’d not make our flight out of LA if we did. I was so relieved that I started crying. The number of times I’ve cried on the side of a swimming pool is probably less than four. That week, and especially that Saturday, was a lesson in sticking it out for something better.

Four years later, I’d put experiences like Irvine to use on far bigger scale. I moved to the UK six weeks ago, after deciding to do so in the middle of December. Moving was made bearable and sometimes enjoyable because I had a lot of help from some very wonderful people and to them, I’ll be forever grateful. Here are some of the very random things I’ve learned since I moved:

Changing jobs can be fantastic, no matter how good the old job was.

I left a great company in Seattle, but moving to a new company is still one of the most professionally rewarding things I could have done. I brought with me everything I had learned at SEOmoz, and immediately picked up a new organisation’s ideas, theories and beliefs. I don’t recommend everyone jump ship from their jobs right now, but working with other people in new circumstances is an exercise is diversification.

Apple is a beautiful, wonderful thing.

Isn’t it awful when people go on about their MacBooks and iPhones? I turned on my old Windows PC today… I have no idea why you people still use them. I do miss a few things about my BlackBerry, including its magnificent little keyboard, but the iPhone, given the right application, could probably do my laundry for me. Seriously, give the pretentious, unnecessary, overpriced Apple stuff a go. I’ll never go back. This may or may not have anything to do with how pretentious and unnecessary I can be.

Soundproof glass is made of happiness and magic.

I live in Central London, near two different types of business whose busiest time of day is the middle of the night. No, I live nowhere near King’s Cross, you dirty bastards.

God bless soundproof glass. I can’t imagine life, or sleep, without it.

You get over being a tourist really quickly.

I still marvel at Tower Bridge whenever I see it and I think it’s a sad day when you lose an appreciation for your town’s beauty or history. However, why the hell is it necessary to stand right at the top of the steps to the tube when you’re looking at your map? Could you move to one side? And have you noticed that the average tourist, no matter what his or her build, takes up twice the amount of pavement area as a regular person? Why is that? And is the ticket machine in the underground really that hard to work? And if the sign says “Leicester Square”, don’t you think it’s that way? Can you tell I’m enjoying this pretend-rant? I love living here.

Blogging is usually annoying and unnecessary.

Indeed, for a first blog post, that’s a great statement. Now that I no longer write blog-style content online as part of my job, it really strikes me how much total rubbish people create. A combination of thinking they need to write something and being full of shit to begin with, most “bloggers” constitute nothing but a waste of bandwidth. Notable exceptions exist: I used to work for one. However, I don’t think I’m ever going to be one of those exceptions and as a result, this domain is likely to be used sparingly and well instead of ad nauseum and badly.

At the very least, I finally have my own site… and can finally justify the .co.uk domain ;)

Los Angeles at night photograph by skalaskinc on Flickr.

Obligatory First Post

Mar 08
2009

You’re meant to delete this one, but I’ll leave it up because it received my site’s first real comment and it wasn’t even spam!