An Obsession with Plastic – A tale of two cities

On the 5th of October 2015, all UK retail chains with more than 250 employees became obligated by law to charge £0.05 ($0.07) for each single-use plastic bag that a customer uses.


Because, on average, every single man, woman, and child in the UK were using 140 bags every year.  And usage was increasing.

For the most part, chains approached this problem by allowing customers to purchase either a cheap carrier bag at £0.05p or a re-usable bag at up to £0.20.  Chains also generally reduced the quality and size of the cheaper bags.

At first people complained and got upset when picking up a few things from their local shop.  5p is an inconsequential amount of money, but the fact that it was there and that it was explicitly called out in every transaction, evoked a fairly strong emotional response.

And then it became the norm.  People coped in different ways.  Some:

  • brought in their already-used bags;
  • purchased purpose-made bags which they could keep on their person;
  • carried their goods ‘au natural’ (which feels a little like shoplifting if you ask me);
  • bought the £0.05 bags and just accepted to cost; or
  • bought the £0.20 bags and stuffed them fuller than your uncle on Thanksgiving.

But did it work?  Did this almost irrelevant charge fundamentally change consumer and retail behaviour for the better?

You bet it did!

Plastic carrier bag usage then and now

The number of bags used dropped from 7.6 billion per annum to 1.1 billion.  That’s an 85% reduction in single-use carrier bags, with the remaining 15% raising £29.2 million for charities and good causes.

Now – New York.

Plastic.  Is.  Everywhere.

When you buy groceries, everything is double bagged by default (cashiers will pre-double bags in-between customers), and the bags are huge.

I’ve gone to the local supermarket for a small amount of stuff, and walked out with 6 plastic bags.

It feels wrong, and to put things in perspective this is how New York City’s carrier bag consumption compares to that of the entire United Kingdom.

UK and New York Annual Carrier Bag Usage

That’s right, the City of New York with a population of 8.5 million consumes more single-use plastic bags than the entire United Kingdom.  That’s 1,102 bags per person per annum.

Now, to be fair, New York knows it has a problem.  Mayor Bill de Blasio had tried to introduce a 5c fee in the City of New York, but this was blocked earlier this year by the state Govoner Andrew M. Cuomo.  Why?  Because:

  • it was seen as an unfair tax on the poor;
  • state legislators were unhappy that the 5c could be retained by the vendors; and
  • Cuomo wants a state-wide implementation.

There’s a deadline for the end of this year for a report and draft legislation for state wide implementation, but with politicians arguing about 3c versus 5c I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, we’ve taken a more active position on refusing baggage when not needed, asking for a single bag instead of double bagging, taking a re-usable bag when we’re going shopping, and using any single-use-bags we get as our garbage bags.

Marketing gone wild – Creepy Balloons and a Joke

On one of our wanders down-town we spotted this:

Netflix is a Joke

So either someone really hates Netflix, or this is the start of a viral marketing campaign.

Dissapointingly it seems to be the latter – they are going to evolve to promote Netflix’s comedic lineup.

Later that evening we spotted this:

Viral Marketing for Stephen King’s “IT”

Now that’s a creepy sight!

Night Sailing – Lady Liberty Awaits

On Friday DW and I had the pleasure of night sailing on the Hudson on the sailing yacht Ventura.  The event was organised by NYC Navigator, an organisation that helped us get up an running in New York, who regularly run social events for their customers.

We were out for about two hours, and had some fantastic views of Manhattan, New Jersey, and the Statue of Liberty.

Lady Liberty at Night

Pricing Transparency – the hidden cost of everything

Everything that you see in New York (and in most of the United States) costs more than the sticker price.  For goods and services this mainly comes down to sales tax, but there are some extra gotchyas.  Observe:

Total purchase price for a 12 pack of Diet Coke in the US and the UK

You walk into a store expecting to pay $7.99 for a twelve pack of Coke, and you walk out having paid $9.30.

Now there are a couple of subtleties here, namely:

  • For the most part, stores do not present the different state and city taxes separately (instead using a single 8.875% rate); and
  • In theory, you should be able to claim back the bottle deposit (this in itself will be a different post).

Now let’s go deeper.  Let’s say I need to get a haircut:

Paying for a haircut in the US and UK

Services are taxed differently to goods, as only the City Sales tax applies.  In the UK these services are charged at the same 20% VAT rate (which must be included in the sticker price).

To add further confusion, if you are buying clothing or footwear under $110, you pay no sales tax.  Bought something for $111?  Be ready to add an extra $8.50 to the bill.

Let’s also not get into what happens when you cross state lines (I’m kidding – I will!).

Learners Permit – Alcohol increases your ability to drive

When I moved to London, I was lucky enough to be able to transfer my Aussie License into a UK one.  This is fortunate, as I’ve heard the UK drivers test is quite hard, and includes the greatest hits such as reversing around a corner and reversing into a parking bay (the Brits really like driving in reverse).

Unfortunately this isn’t the case in New York – I need to start from scratch – I need… to get my Learners Permit.

The process is relatively simple:

  • Read and review the NY Driver’s Manual;
  • Take a test at the dreaded DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles); and
  • Pay your tributes to the NY State.

The manual itself was OK, although it’s a sloppy document.  Why, for example, would you provide an accurate visual guide for one sort of sign, and an inaccurate one for another?

Exhibit A : Visual representation matches description
Exhibit B : Why oh why aren’t these signs yellow?

It also includes mind-bending sentences such as:

“At an intersection controlled by a STOP sign, YIELD sign or traffic light, there can be a white stop line painted across the lane, and/ or two parallel lines or light, you must reach the stop line, if there is one, or the crosswalk. You need a stop line or crosswalk if required to by a light, sign or traffic officer, or to yield to a pedestrian, in-line skater or scooter at a marked or unmarked crosswalk.”

Once swotted up, I went to the DMV to take my test.  Everything I have ever heard about the DMV lead me to believe I was entering the seventh circle of hades, however I think it was closer to the second.

I was expecting a fairly comprehensive test.  What I got was basically this:

There were 20 questions.  At least 50% of the questions (and it felt like more) were on drinking while driving.

What really disturbed me was the time my fellow test-taker took on the test.  I got through the questions in about 5 minutes.  Let’s just say that by the time he finished the test I’d:

  • queued for and filed my paperwork;
  • taken an eye test;
  • queued for and was in the process of paying for my permit.

One other objective I had at the DMV was to clarify when I can and cannot drive without a “supervising driver”.  You see, the DMV website clearly states:

“If driver license from another country and I have a NYS learner permit [sic]. Can I drive without a supervising driver?

Yes. Your valid foreign driver license allows you to drive without a supervising driver. You can drive on any street, road, highway, bridge, or tunnel, except in a DMV road test area.”

I was nervous how this would translate in other states.  I asked the very friendly lady behind the counter:

“So, you know how you can drive unaccompanied if you have both a foreign drivers license and a New York learners permit…”

“Oh, you can’t do that.”

“… but it says so on your website.”



So, who’s got two thumbs and won’t be driving unaccompanied?  I’m sure the printed rules are right, but if the DMV don’t know their own rules, I just can’t believe that your local traffic cop will – and that’s not situation I want to be in.

Guess I’ll need to take the drivers test sooner rather than later.

The Frying Pan – a most relaxed evening

Last night DW and I had dinner at the Frying Pan on the west-side.  The Frying Pan isn’t really a restaurant though, it’s a 1930’s era lightship on pier 66.

The Frying Pan on pier 66

A lightship is a big, heavy, vessel that serves as a light house in areas where the water is too deep to construct your favourite type of illuminating-tower.  The Frying Pan was named for the Frying Pan Shoals just off Cape Fear in North Carolina.  It served there until 1965 when it was replaced by a light tower (now possible because of advancements and techniques in oil-drilling platforms).  It was decommissioned for about 20 years, until it accidentally sunk and stayed in its under-watery home for 10 years.  It was then restored (mostly on the outside, the inside is apparently still quite ‘sunkish’) and now serves as a restaurant / party venue in New York.

Trolleyway leading to the Frying Pan

This was my favourite excursion in New York so far.  From the wooden trolleyway that serves as an entrance, the gentle bobbing of the boat as you eat, through to the great views of the City and the sailboats (/jetskis) crossing the Hudson, this is truly a great and relaxing experience.

The food wasn’t too shabby either!

Picnic Chick’Wich and Old-Bay fries

My only gripe was that the bouncer refused to accept my ID (IDNYC) which is a tad perplexing as it’s a government issued document.

View of New York from the Frying Pan
The dining area on the Frying Pan overlooking NYC

Shitty user experiences – a New York speciality

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to rant about New York’s shitty user experiences.  My mind is blown at just how often in day-to-day life a poorly implemented or substantially antiquated user experience is foisted upon you.

I’m going to start with one experience (done two ways!) that makes me cringe.  The MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) administers all of New York’s public transport infrastructure: subways, busses, trains, bridges, and tunnels.  They also created this abomination:

Metrocard ticket machine

This is a MTA Metrocard ticket machine, where you can purchase or top-up your ticket.

The main use-case for this machine is topping up your Metrocard (they do expire, but they have a relatively long shelf-life).  To do so you:

  • Start on the top touch-screen and select top-up  (I’ll do a separate piece about that UX);
  • Insert your Metro Card on the right;
  • Go back to the screen and select your top-up amount;
  • Put in your credit / debit card on the left;
  • Collect your receipt (if you want one) from the middle.

What do I find so offensive about this?

  1. Normal workflow is left to right.  Here it’s Right to Left to Right.
  2. The vast majority of the population (90%) is right handed, yet the activity requiring the greatest amount of dexterity (using the keypad and “dipping” the credit card) is on the left.
  3. There are too many transitions from the touch screen to the physical interface (You need to press start > top-up, then insert your Metrocard, then select a top-up amount.  You can’t just insert the Metrocard at the start of the process).

Now, this is poor design, but is it truly shitty?  I think so, but if you need to be further convinced…

MTA Metrocard to paper-ticket conversion machine

The purpose of this machine is to take your metrocard (that you’ve already topped-up at another machine) and to dispense a paper ticket for the bus.  Yes, that’s right, it takes one form of ticket to create another form of ticket.

So I question the need for this machine at all and, in fairness, not all bus routes need them as some busses have Metrocard readers in them.  This does create additional confusion though, as you need to scope out the bus-stop to verify what form of ticket you will need.

That aside, the process starts off well on this machine.  The instructions are clear on the left-to-right chevrons:

  1. Press the start button (left, blue)
  2. Insert your Metrocard (middle, yellow)
  3. Get your ticket (right, red)

Simplicity itself.  Wait?  WHAT‽‽‽‽ The actual execution is then

  1. Start (middle, blue)
  2. Metrocard (right, yellow)
  3. Ticket (left, red)

What on earth were they thinking!  In addition to the above, I again question the need for a start button, and despise the fact that the most dexterously challenging activity is in front of your left hand (pulling out those tickets is a PITA).

Coney Island : Hot Dog heaven

Coney Island isn’t a “real” place for me – it’s a fictional place where on the 4th of July thin people try to cram as many hot dogs into their gullet as they can, and Podcast hosts skive off for the day.

Except it is real, and with much improved weather this week DW encouraged myself and one of her friends to head south and check it out.

I’m fortunate to live on the Q-Line, which goes straight to Coney Island – not having to change lines makes the Subway a tad more bearable.

The first thing you see when leaving the Subway Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, home of the aforementioned July 4 ‘dog eating contest (NB:  Winner this year ate 72 hot dogs in 10 minutes, or 1 dog every 8.3 seconds.  I can’t even THINK of a hot dog in 8.3 seconds).

Nathan’s Famous Hot Togs

It’s worth pointing out:

  • “Nathan’s Famous” is actually the brand name of the restaurant, which I find cheekily clever; and
  • Every single hot dog vendor in Coney Island claims they are “the original”, which I find logically dubious.

Of course I tried the ‘dogs, and they were delicious (but I could eat, max, maybe 60).  I do, however, have an offer to make to Nathan’s Famous, Inc. – give me one day with your staff and you’ll double productivity or your money back.  I’ve never seen a process so in need of optimisation…

Oh – glamour shot of the ‘dog.

The ‘dawg

Coney Island is best known as a place of leisure – it has a very large and sandy beach, a boardwalk, an aquarium, and a Luna Park.  I was pretty amazed at the last part, because in my frame of reference Luna Park is an Aussie chain of amusement parks.  It turns out that:

  • the term “Luna Park” has become synonymous with fun-fairs;
  • there are (or have been) dozens of Luna Parks; and
  • Coney Island is the original.

Well that was a short-lived spout of excited patriotism!

Coney Island amusement parks and beach as seen from the boardwalk

The amusements are set over c.600m of waterfront, but the parks are not contiguous.  Luna Park is split in half by “Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park”, which I’m sure will confuse many as you transition from a place that solely takes Luna Park tokens to one that doesn’t (and isn’t afraid to say it).

Luna Park itself, with Deno’s Wonder Wheel in the back

The main attraction at the Coney Island amusements is the Cyclone, a 20’s era wooden rollercoaster.  It’s wondrous thinking of all the times this 90-year-old structure has seen through, and the vision of someone in the 20’s to manufacture something so tall and fast purely for the sake of amusement.  You immediately lose all sense of wonder when you’re at the top of the first dip, when you question your sanity for riding something constructed in the prohibition era.  I like rollercoasters, but I’ve since discovered I prefer new rollercoasters.

Rockaway Park : A ferry decent journey

My dear wife (henceforth known as “DW“) has insisted that one of the greatest advantages of living in New York is accessible, sandy, beaches.  Now that’s not to say that we couldn’t reach beaches from London, but the decent ones are a few hours away and tend to be covered in rocks & pebbles.  Oh, and the weather – don’t forget the 2 beach-appropriate days per year when the entire populace travels to said beaches.

On Sunday we journeyed to Rockaway Park,  taking the very reasonably priced  ($2.75) ferry from the Wall Street Pier.  This journey was probably the best value-for-money I’ve experienced in NYC so far, considering:

  • it’s an hour long;
  • you get a great view of NYC;  and
  • we didn’t need to subject ourselves to the dismal NYC Subway

I was also impressed that they happened to run two ferries for the scheduled time.  This made the world of difference as we weren’t high enough in the queue to get on the first ferry.

Rockaway Beach, NY

However, we didn’t count on two things:

  1. The disappointing weather which curbed our enthusiasm for beach-related activities; and
  2. A once-and-hour ferry service with an attractive destination means HUGE lines on the return.  My guestimate is that there were 4 ferries worth of folk waiting, and there was only one vessel in sight.

So scratch the “not subjecting ourselves to the NYC Subway” part for the return leg.


Hello World

If you have found this site, there is a very significant chance that you’re either a:

  • friend that I’ve spammed; or
  • family member wondering if I’m still alive; or
  • potential employer digging up dirt; or
  • by some miracle, someone who is moving to the USA that has been looking for other’s experience.

Let’s be clear – I make no promises about this site.  Updates are likely to be infrequent, the content sloppy and full of spilling mistakes, and the topics will be dull and/or unispiring.

Anyway – a bit about me.

I’ve recently (this month) moved to the United States of America, and this is my second stint as an expat.  I moved from London, England, where I had spent 14 years living in the centre of the capital.  I worked there, did my masters, and fell in love with an amazing American.  I was born and raised in Australia, where family still resides (Hi Mum!).

Why the blog?  I’m perplexed.  There are so many things that I see every day that make me wonder “how did this come to be”, “why isn’t this like it is in the UK/AU”, and “why didn’t I think of this”.  This site is my attempt to document the learning process of integrating into a new culture, and an impetus for me to actually research into why things be the way they be.

Tag along if you’d like, and comment if I get things wrong.  I’m here to learn.