Notes from America

By | June 10, 2011

General observations and notes from Day 1

Good things: OMG Food. Central markets was like a candy shop, packaging supplier store and nergasm at once. So much food, so much food I could eat, and such an epically brilliant concept of component driven fresh food choices (pre-measured and pre packed ingredients including oil, condiments, noodles, pizza bases, sauces, fresh vegetables) plus a “top up” section to add additional fresh components.

Good things: OMG Warm. 30 degrees at 9pm. Okay, admittedly, I was wearing a jacket on the first night because it was only 25 out ;) but y’know, it was warm enough for this cold blooded lizard to feel happy.

Houston: apologies to everyone in Brisbane, because you know how annoyed the city got when I stayed at the Gold Coast? Yeah, we may have some issues when I get back, because Houston’s doing quite the effort to seduce me.

Mixed things: One thing I’ve noticed in the USA is odd levels of structural ineffectiveness and inefficiencies that we’ve long since dealt with back in .AU. Stuff like designing decent queueing systems. The best way I can describe it is to consider that when you first meet a country, it’s at 72 dpi (looks good on screen), and then when you print it out, America seems to cap out at 150 dpi, and Australia’s around 300. Check out visual impact screens in Houston for more information. There’s crisper resolution, cleaner lines, and just those little effectiveness hacks we’ve developed over the years simply because at 20 million users, we don’t get a lot of room for slack. Plus, y’know, we cope with the idea the country is going to try to kill us if it gets the chance, and compensate accordingly. Here, it just seems that little things haven’t been picked up, and that the country has idled along okay, but things are starting to collectively add up to create problems

Two things spring to mind – first was a comment from the conceirge at the Hotel when I asked if I needed a room key to operate the lights (y’know that mostly standard issue swipe card activates the lights / switches the room off when you leave deal?). He remarked that “America is so behind the times on these things. I mean, we’re quite backward about it.” Although he was surprised to hear Australians were up with Europe on the whole “Keycard required?” question.

Second was the shopping experience. I mean, I loved the store, the range of products, but hell, when I hit the check out, then it broke down again. Queuing was random again, and the checkouts were sort of designed in reverse – the grocery conveyor led away from the cashier. So… you slowly load, and then they scan, and put the stuff on a belt away from them, and then leave the register and walk around the counter to pack the groceries… and I couldn’t help but thinking Coles/Woolworths seriously need to licence their checkout design over here. Or, the system could benefit from a few more staff in the mix – packers + check out would create a structural effectiveness that employed more people, sped the process up a little bit, and just upped the resolution and crispness that little bit further.

Mixed: Crossing the rail way line in Houston felt palpable. For me, the other side of the track was just a metaphor. Here, it’s quite obvious. It was a lot disturbing, because I crossed from good (hotel precinct) to better (luxury shopping). I wonder about further down the road/line.

Unsure: The deep embedding of the military complex here is really noticeable. At LAX airport, every fourth announcement was for the USO Bob Hope. Similarly, Houston airport has USO clubs as commonplace parts of the fittings. It just says “We expect constant en-masse troop movements”. I should point out that my family are members of RUSI so I’m no stranger to the military (having a father who ran the Aircrew Association meant getting calls from high ranked military officers to the family home number. Air Vice Marshall Commodore Commander Captain Whatsits speaking [or Jim, as my father knew him}.

Definitely sure: This country needs some self confidence therapy. It’s the only way I can describe it – all around me, the external trapping feel like overcompensating. You’d like to sit the nation down, and let them know that if they tried less hard, we’d like them more – particularly if they could just accept themselves as themselves and stop trying to put on such a false sense of bravado.

Things I like: I have to admit to feeling comforted by the multilingual signs, and the multiple language announcements. It feels reassuring in a manner I can’t fully articulate other than to say that it actually made me feel more welcome.

Cultural Note: Realised that I walk on the wrong side of the road by default (cars to the back is the cultural norm. You walk with the traffic coming up behind you). Noticed it when I walked to the shops, and corrected it on the way back (wheels to the back was the internal note).

Cultural note 2: What is it with this country’s obsession with cheese? There are no pre-packed salads that don’t contain cheese – including several where it’s not labelled because “Salad” apparently implies lettuce, cheese, carrots and onions. I joke about Bacon as a vegetable, but this place takes cheese as a vegetable seriously.

Notes from the Conference: It’s a remarkable event in the fact there’s no keynote address. No single one-point, all in, everyone hear the same session as a central start point. I’m intrigued by the concept, and may try it out a later date in an Australian conference context.

Catering is rubbish – although the morning tea was scrounger friendly (he said, sipping the Sprite Zero he borrowed), the rest of the food has been hopeless for me. I think the caters can’t be bother with alternate diet arrangements. The lack of special settings for vegetarian / GF / lactose free etc was noticeable when compared to Australian catered events. At ANZMAC, there’s usually a table of 20+ meals at the lunch break for diet restrictions. Here, even after I had to ask, the food was a chef’s insult (grilled eggplant, grilled bell pepper and grilled squash). It’s called the chef’s insult because when the chef cares, you get something customised from the same parts consistent with the other meals in the room (chicken salad if everyone’s having chicken sandwiches). If the chef don’t care, it’s the grilled vege medley.

General impression: LAX + Houston: It’s strange land, and whilst I speak one of the languages, I am definitely a foreigner here. And that’s before I switch on the TV set and watch in amazement at a world that makes no sense to me.