Friday, December 29, 2006

Going Underground

The New York subway is a remarkable piece of engineering. It was built about 100 years ago and seems to have benefitted from lessons learned during the construction of systems in other parts of the world. Most notably London.

Price. New York wins hands down with a paltry $2 to ride anywhere in the system. And it's a big system. London prices for Zone 1 are heading up to £4 in the New Year. Ouch. Although London does have the advantage of the Oyster Card which can be conveniently tied to your credit card for auto-top-ups, and caps the fare at one-day travelcard prices if you travel enough that day. New York definitely needs one of those.

Speed. Contrary to popular belief, London trains do occasionally hare around the network. Early in the morning and towards the extremes of the system, trains can get up to an impressive 60 m.p.h (allegedly). New York trains don't travel quite so fast between stations, but they do have the remarkably neat Express Line concept - tracks that run parallel to the Local lines, but skipping all the useless stations that you don't want to visit. This makes it a breeze to travel the length of the New York Island, you just have to remember to get off at the right place, or you'll end up a long way from your desintation.

Buskers. London Underground just recently made busking legal, and even then only in designated places, and according to a strict rosta and licencing requirement. The New York Subway swarms with buskers - and they seem particularly fond of 14th St Union Square station. We've seen midget Michael Jackson impersonators, tap dancers, 14 piece swing bands in black tie at 7am and the ever present Ubiquitous Peruvian Band. It all makes for an enternaining (if noisy) experience when you're trying to get from A to B.

Claustrophobia. New York Subway trains are pretty wide, they're very long, and don't run very far underground. London Underground trains are the complete opposite. New York does benefit from being sited on some pretty tough bedrock which means the tunnels don't have to be quite so deep, and it makes a tangible difference.

Cleanliness. Travelling in London recently reminded me how much I appreciated a system that didn't smell of wee, didn't have so much litter flapping around, and wasn't so generally run down.

Other observations.
The New York system runs 24 hours a day. That's pretty convenient.
London station turnstyles are cleverly set up to allow traffic in or out of that particular gate in one direction only. This seems to lead to a lot fewer fights and delays.
Rush hour in both locations is a deeply unpleasant experience.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Strange Fruit

Following years of procrastination I have finally hauled myself into 2004 and am now in possession of a corporate Blackberry.

It's a neat little device that allows me to remain smothered by the email asphyxia that grips my company, even when I'm not actually at my desk.

But, contrary to popular belief, it does appear to have its uses. I find it very helpful to be able to see my Outlook calendar as I hurry from meeting to meeting, floor to floor, and building to building.

It has a pokey little web browser that can come in handy when I absolutely must find out "who was in that movie", "where that little restaurant was", or other such trivia.

It's also pretty useful on the subway where I spend the mornings deleting the chaff that has arrived in my electronic post bag overnight. (The downside is that this has disrupted the age old routine of deleting them when I get to work, and now I find myself staring blankly at my screen wondering what to do for the first half hour of the day.)

And there's that crappy little Arkanoid-style game that is strangely addictive.

Addiction! That's the overall problem with the pesky little things. Previously I've enjoyed scoffing as I've sat in meetings with 75% of the attendees fiddling with their fruits - "that will never happen to me!" I secretly thought.

But now I find myself teetering on the brink of that precipice. It takes a great deal of willpower to keep the thing in my pocket and not give my thumbs a workout.

I can't really explain the phenomenon. It's either my prolifically short attention span, my low boredom threshold, or my love of gadgets.

Either way, it would be interesting to hear of the watershed lawsuit involving Blackberry induced RSI. It can't be very far away.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Give it Away

People have always assured me that food in Manhattan was much cheaper than the equivalent in London. Up until now I'd never really been able to verify this fact; but maybe that's more due to the sort of establishments I'd eaten in on typical weeks and weekends away to New York, than any lack of truth in the story.

Of course there are some ridiculously priced establishments. Take Masa for example. This is a very exclusive Japanese restaurant that charges upwards of $500 a skull for an omakase meal that will blow your mind (as well as your wallet), that is prepared in front of your by none other than Masa Takayama himself.

It's the most expensive restaurant in New York.

But the good news is that on the other end of the spectrum things do seem to be much more in the "pound for dollar" realm.

Dinner for two in a buzzy, interesting, local restaurant will normally involve a good bottle of wine and exciting food for around $100. What's not to love?

I could get used to this far too easily: I had to check myself tonight as I cursed that the sushi bento box I picked up cost a whopping $14. Four-teen dollars! Daylight robbery!

Oh, hang on... that's about £7... and I had picked up two trays...

I suppose this might go some way towards explaining the epidemic obesity problem on these shores.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Money, money, money

American money has always baffled me.

I never flattered myself to think that I was the only person to notice that all the bank notes look and feel the same, and this suspicion was confirmed when I spied the following article:

Sometimes living in a litigious, politically correct, paranoid society has its benefits (apart from being generally humourous, that is).

I also have trouble with the coinage. For example, the 10c piece (or dime to those of us who are on the inside track) doesn't declare that it's worth 10c, you're just supposed to know. And I seem to accumulate much more schrapnel in my pocket than I did in Blighty. However, this might be a function of the sales tax which gets added to the price of the item in question only when you get to the till, generally leading to a distinctly un-round price. Gets me every time. Guaranteed.

And the gentleman on the $20 definitely needs a haircut.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Social Insecurity

One of the most important pieces of paper you can have in the United States is a Social Security number. Without a number, you practically don't exist: it's more difficult to get paid, you can't rent an apartment, you have some trouble opening a bank account.

Being issued with a number should be a simple matter of turning up at the local Social Security Office, taking a number and waiting in line, proving you have a right to work in the US and then waiting the standard two weeks for the documentation to be issued.

It should be that simple, but of course it's not.

I was advised to wait ten days after arriving in the country before applying, so that my visa entry details would have been sent from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Social Security. Even in this electronic age it takes a while for the data to go down the pipe, it would seem. Apparently if you get the Social Security office before your details do, the two bodies talk to each other on paper instead, and the whole process can take up to three months!

So I waited the recommended amount of time before wandering along to the relevant building. I skillfully negotiated the airport style security, and found myself waiting in a room full of New York's finest misfits for an appointment at a window.

My number was duly called, I presented my form and passport details, and the lady wrote down all my information as the computer system was offline. She informed me that the process should take two weeks to complete.

I waited by the mail slot for the magic number to arrive.

After almost precisely two weeks, a rather dishevelled letter arrived informing me that my application couldn't be processed as the Agent had failed to take copies of my documents (or more likely hadn't entered them into the computer once it came back online).

Back to the Social Security office, then.

This time round I had a little more time to observe the scene, as my number was considerably higher that the one currently indicated on the Laser Display Screen.

I noticed:
  • a sign banning firearms from the premises
  • a sign banning the use of cell phones
  • the security guard who had just told someone to turn off their cell phone looking around furtively and then covertly texting under his desk
  • another sign indicating that it was an offense to kill, kidnap, injure, or abuse an Agent whilst they were attending to your enquiry

They processed my application. Again. And I guess I'll have to wait two weeks to see whether I will eventually exist on American soil.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Ashes to Ashes

I'm not sure what's more depressing: watching Shane Warne route England on the morning of the 5th day of the 2nd test, or the fact that I was watching it in the only bar in the whole of Manhattan that is showing the Ashes series.

And it's an Australian bar.

Still, it was a friendly place and people were happy to chat. The beer and bar menu were good, and I'm probably heading back to try and catch some more cricket later in the series.

C'mon England!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Our House

As part of my relocation package I am afforded a month's accommodation in a corporate apartment. This makes the transition a little easier as it means you have somewhere civilised to stay whilst you hunt for a real place to live.

It's a little like staying in a hotel, only without the mini-bar.

The apartment itself is actually surprisingly nice. It's located right on Union Square which is very well connected for the subway. This makes the commute pretty straightforward, and trips out to see apartments or to have a martini a breeze.

We're up on the 17th floor (although Brits should note that the equivalent would be the 16th floor back in Blighty - Americans like to have taller buildings and having the first floor actually on the ground floor seems to help in this regard). The view isn't that inspiring, but it's perfectly pleasant. We have a 24 hour doorman. We can do the laundry. What else could you ask for?


An apartment that isn't so damned hot. With the heating turned off the place is rather on the warm side, and even if you could open the window properly you'd be greeted by the continuous grind of the City instead.

The other mildly amusing part is that as it's a corporate apartment there are certain corporate aspects that I wasn't quite prepared for. Two corporate-logo emblazoned mugs in the kitchen? That's just fine, after all I need something to drink my crappy Lipton tea from.

But two bath-robes with the corporate logo on the breast? That takes it a little too far. I know I'm supposed to live and breathe the Wall Street thing - but pressing the company next to my flesh first thing in the morning and last thing at night? Hmmmmm...

Whatever next? Branded bedsheets?

Maybe I'll suggest that in my feedback questionnaire.