Archive for the ‘Living in the US’ Category

Water flow: I need to know

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

So last time there was a major water crisis in the Cambridge area in which we had reduced pressure due to a water main leak, I noticed something cool: it seems that toilets (at least in this State, if not the entire US) – and presumably other non-essential water devices – have a special inlet valve that operates only when water pressure is above a certain level. The net effect (quite ingeniously) appears to be that, when the water pressure is reduced, the toilet won’t fill. Thus, the lesser available resource is better utilized helping people drink rather than flush toilets.

Anyway. My question is, who designed this? And how prolific is the adoption of this standard? And (presumably) did Cambridge intentionally reduce the water pressure today due to the hurricane in order to avoid sewers from overflowing as people used water in non-essential ways? Inquiring minds want to know.


Trying to understand US education

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

I’m overly critical sometimes, and it’s easy for me to think I have all the answers. So this is an information gathering blog post while I wait for something to finish on my computer. In short, I’m trying to figure out the difference in approach between US Middle and High School vs. my experience with British secondary education.

When I went to secondary school (age 11 – think combination of middle and high school), we had fixed class schedules for the first 3 years. In my case, it was required to study the following individual subjects from age 11 to age 14 (mostly determined by the National Curriculum):

  • Art
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Civic Studies
  • Design Technology
  • English
  • French (later German)
  • Games (outdoor PE)
  • Geography
  • History
  • IT
  • Math(s)
  • Music
  • Personal Social Education (PSE – sex education, etc.)
  • Physical Education (PE)
  • Physics
  • Religious Studies

Now, I was at a private school, and some of these topics differ if you’re not, but not many (Latin was dropped the year I started…sadly). Most of these are mandated at various “Key Stages” of the UK National Curriculum as required, even if only for a year or so. In some schools, for example, they combine sciences, but you still have to study science from age 11 onwards. Classes were divided into 40 minute “periods”, with a bell in between, and 5 minutes to get to the next class. There were no “hall monitors”, you just asked if you wanted to go to the bathroom and they trusted you. Also, we all wore uniforms (complete with Blazer and Harry Potter style ties with different School Houses), and (private school bit) were required to stand when a teacher or adult entered the room, as a sign of respect. There were no metal detectors, and the most violent thing I recall ever happening was someone stealing some Potassium from the Chemistry lab.

US secondary education is highly regional in nature, and there are very few national standards (No Child Left Behind, etc. don’t actually attempt to set a national curriculum), so what you learn in one state will vary wildly from another, even down to how the Civil War is described (and thus cannot be agreed upon) in history class. It is my understanding that high school here is a lot more like what would be called “college” in the UK (which is not a University, but is instead an alternative system available to 16 year-olds), and middle school is a half-way point. As I understand it, it’s not required to study science, history, or geography beyond a very elementary level. Classes seem to be longer in duration but focused on fewer topics of study, with a lot more choice.

I made no pretence that I disfavor the notion of allowing children to opt out of classes they don’t like. For example, I suck at German…seriously. I just can’t handle the different genders. I would get everything right, except I would be unable to get the right one of the three possibilities. But I’m glad that I was required to study German. I’m also glad that I didn’t have a choice about studying a foreign language, or art, or other topics I might have chosen to avoid if I had had a choice in the matter (I consistently got over 100% in Religious Studies due to a bonus points system, but I might have opted out – I even once managed to get everyone out of an 80 minute test by keeping the teacher side-tracked in a discussion/debate on cryopreservation as applied to the second coming of Christ). After the age of 14, it was possible to drop certain subjects, but not all. For example, German got dropped :) but a foreign language was required, as was art, both subjects I might have chosen not to pursue with a choice in the matter.

Anyway. If you have links/stories about how secondary education works differently in the US, I would actually be interested. I can hopefully convince myself with enough actual data that not all schools here are just maximum security facilities with metal detectors, cops, etc. and other notions I may have.


More fun with Asterisk (video)

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

So tonight I added some more database directories to my Asterisk server. For example, it now knows the numbers of most of my colleagues and will give them a special message (including internal contact information, etc.), has several databases for unwanted callers, specific greetings for others, and additional logic to handle various other fun. Here’s a video:


Some more fun with Asterisk

Monday, November 8th, 2010

So I moved to the US a while back. When I did that, I retained a mobile number in the UK that many people already had in their address books, and for those occasions when I might visit. For the longest time, I had it setup on permanent divert to a SIP trunk in the UK, that connected to an Asterisk server in Texas and then a SIP trunk in the US, out to my US cellphone. Callers never even realized that they were actually speaking to me on my US cellphone when calling my “UK” one. A nice hack for cheap roaming (I wrote an article on this some years ago now), and a great way to say “screw you” (but slightly more strongly) to the phone carriers who still overcharge for roaming. But we can do better.

Recently, I learned that A&A have started a UK mobile service that uses SIP extensions exclusively, basically giving you a SIP trunk into a cellphone handset. No more call forwarding. The phone is the SIP extension and can be configured just like any other (when will US carriers wake up? ever?). I’m hoping to get one the moment they can port my existing number (they’re still working on number porting), so that I can just have a UK SIP extension for when I am in the country. In the interim, I got another SIP trunk for playing around and forwarded my old mobile number to that one, with a customized message that will still forward to me after a delay. The message informs the caller that I am in a different timezone and since it now knows that calls to that number can only have come from the mobile, it can do some other nice things too. Ultimately, the call still winds up hitting my US cellphone, unless it’s from sales or marketing folks.

Anyway. While I was at it, I used what is commonly known as “ex-girlfriend logic” (someone once had to solve the “problem” of handling calls from their ex, so it became known as this, but it’s used for many different purposes!) to add special rules for all kinds of numbers. For example, I recorded special messages for organizations that routinely call to harass me and added rules to catch their calls through their caller ID (fakeable, but most organizations don’t do this today). These messages say things such as: “Organization A, your number has been recognized as belonging to Organization A. I have previously requested that you stop calling me with sales or marketing calls. If your call is not for sales or marketing reasons, please leave a message. If you are calling to sell me something, please also leave a message, explaining that you have heard this, have added me to a do not call list, and won’t be calling me again”. The messages vary, but the gist is clear. Then the call goes to voicemail and my phone never even rings.

A similar process happens when callers to my UK trunk need to be informed that I am not “Iceland Express”, the airline which has a number very similar to my own. Calls still reach me, but after a message explaining that I am not the airline they might be trying to reach. In due course, I would like to have the system record numbers that have already heard this message and don’t need to hear it again (if they aren’t exchange numbers – need a way to detect that also, maybe in the signalling data somewhere?). Conversely, the phone system recognizes my family and girlfriend and saves them from listening to my greeting every time, making their calls reach me a few seconds faster than some others, though with a funny message for fun.

At this point, I have a growing number of Cisco 7940 series IP phones around my apartment, as well as soft phones, and a number of trunks and mobiles that are all hooked together. When you call me, your call has all of the rich features of Asterisk. For example, you will (and have for years now) hear music on hold while the system rings all of my phones in unison, have a menu with various options, etc. I can easily record calls, transfer them between phones or countries, and I have speed dials configured for popular numbers that I need to reach (some of which will also setup pre-agreed recording, if it’s a conference). Oh, and I’ve been hooked into Fedora VoIP for a while now too, so that just gets handled like any other incoming call. My phone has a special dialplan prefix for Fedora, the same as how it also recognizes UK numbers and automatically dials the international bit and routes cheaply through the UK trunk without any need to do anything special.

What I would like to do next is to have a DNS service (perhaps RFC2916 compliant) that I could use my Asterisk server against in order to do anti-spam filtering of the form that I do already with spam-assassin. I would love to know if such a service exists, and if not, why not? I would love to be able to add wildcard rules to my Asterisk server to match on specific names of organizations, whose exact number might vary (but can be looked up in the database to find their name), in order that they will always get the special handling that I have deemed appropriate for them. With such a service, you could also easily and automatically exclude all known telemarketing numbers with a single command. Anyone point me to such a setup?


On US drivers

Monday, September 27th, 2010

So over a long weekend, I drove between 1100-1200 miles from Boston to New York, to Washington D.C., to Monticello, to Washington D.C., to Edison, to New York, and back to Boston. In that time, I saw all of the usual appallingly bad examples of driving common in the US. Let me itemize a few that particularly annoy me:

1). Separation distances aren’t known or understood generally. People seem to have absolutely no issue driving a mere few feet behind you when at speed on the highway, but then often drive with wider distance in urban areas. They often seem to have absolutely no comprehension of breaking distances, and so on. Trucks do the same thing, at speed, without engaging any intellectual thought.

2). The speed limit is viewed with the usual contempt, but it is miss-directed such that vehicles generally speed less than in Europe (where limits are higher anyway) but ignore construction speed limits and fail to slow at tolls and other places where safety limits have been imposed. The net result is that drivers react with incredible hostility toward those who slow down in such situations. The new law in Massachusetts (and many states) requiring drivers to slow down and move over for stopped emergency vehicles also seems to be widely ignored.

3). High beams (non-dipped lights) are frequently used indiscriminately on the highway with no regard for other drivers and the impact it will have on their ability to see. Some people do think to adjust their lights when there are oncoming cars, but not while sitting and tailing you (some of these lights are so unpleasantly bright that they can’t be mitigated through the mirror setting), or driving past you and hitting you with glare in your side mirrors.

4). Signals are generally taken as a sign of weakness. Many people never signal at all (their license should be revoked), many frequently change lanes way too often (recently attributed in a study as a significant cause of accidents – that should incur a fine), many trucks do the same (disgustingly dangerous – should result in criminal prosecution).

5). People don’t plan ahead. Rather than reading signs, they’re drinking coffee and juggling fast food without watching the road (probably talking on the cellphone aswell). Then last minute lane changes result in massive tailbacks while people try to get in the lane they should have been in ten minutes before.

Those are just a few of the things that annoy me about the non-standards of driving in the US. It’s not that Americans are bad people in any way, it’s that this country has no real national standards for driving, nor an adequate standardized national driving exam (“drivers ed” is typically non-compulsory for adults). Law enforcement often seem to convey a sense of caring less about things that actually cause accidents (lack of signalling, tailgating, etc.), preferring instead to generate revenue by meeting speeding citation quotas, and missing the point.


US/UK English translations

Monday, March 5th, 2007

So I’m thinking about putting up a proper webpage tracking some of the differences between US and UK English. Maybe a modified dict or something could be the appropriate solution. Until then, here’s a list (I’ll try to remember to update this article when I have new ideas):

  • Advert -> Commercial (Advertisement is not used for TV)
  • Aeroplane -> Airplane (obvious example there)
  • Bin -> Trash Can (more well known example there)
  • Cafetière -> French Press
  • Dressing Gown -> Bath Robe (don’t ever say Dressing Gown)
  • Gherkin -> Pickle (pickled cucumber, more generic than Gherkin too)
  • Glandular Fever -> Mono (full name (infectious) mononucleosis)
  • Hire Car -> Rental Car
  • Jumper -> Sweater (more well known example there)
  • Post -> Mail (more well known example there)
  • Spanner -> Wrench (don’t ever say “throw a spanner in the works”)
  • Trainers -> Running Shoes (or maybe Sneakers)
  • Trousers -> Pants (more well known example there)
  • Washing -> Laundry (though they’d guess)

Of course, I’m not addressing the pronounciation differences. There are obvious examples from popular culture such as Tomato/Tomarto, but then there are more subtle differences in words like vase (no “varse”), adver*tize*ment, and so on. Some of these are well known, others not. And then, of course, there’s a need to adjust general grammar rules for a US audience, too.

I generally modify my pronounciation, as well as my grammar and spelling, in business/consumer settings in order to avoid confusement/random giggling at what I’m saying. Though with friends, I often don’t bother to change how I say something (because it’s more amusing that way around) – but probably still consider it.


HOWTO: Write a successful US TV commercial dialogue

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

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