American vs international units

One of the things you notice when moving to the US from another country that America uses its own units of measurement for everything, e.g. miles and feet for distance and length, pounds for weight, Fahrenheit for temperature, instead of the metric units used almost everywhere else. According to Wikipedia – Metric system, the only remaining countries that don’t use the metric system are the US, Burma/Myanmar and Liberia

Metric system adoption map

Green: Countries which have officially adopted the metric system. Grey: countries which have not (US, Myanmar, Liberia)

People often make fun of Americans for being almost alone using its historical legacy units instead of using the system that is accepted by the scientific and international community. To their defense, there is actually nothing wrong with their units, they are well defined and serve them well for decades (centuries?). Just like it’s annoying for people who’s never been in the US to use the US units, it’s also difficult for Americans to use the metric system, so why switch?

All this aside, do American or international units have advantages over each other, other than just being more familiar in their users’ mind? Here’s what I think

 Fahrenheit vs Celsius

This is probably the hardest to adapt to, because the conversion involves both addition and a multiplication, e.g. to get the Celsius representation of 70F, you need to subtract 32 then divide that by 1.8.

Ont the other hand, this is probably the easiest to pick a winner. For expressing indoor or outdoor temperature, I think Fahrenheit definitely wins. We can think of range 0-99 as the prime range, because you can use two digits easily in conversation without resorting to decimal points. In Fahrenheit, this range almost map perfectly to the range of possible temperature, 0 being as cold as it can normally get and 99 being the upper bound. Firstly, this means you don’t have to resort to negative numbers or 3 digits. Secondly, it optimizes the resolution. 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, all have their own feel. Compare with Celcius, saying 10’s or 20’s is not specific enough, while saying 18, or 27 is too specific to say without basing on accurate info.

Miles vs kilometers

Miles and kilometers are easier to convert than Celsius vs Fahrenheit, they have a constant 1 mile = ~1.6 km proportion. Which one is better I think depends on the way you travel. For example, in the Bay Area (except urban area like SF), driving on freeways is the most popular way to get between places. The freeways have 65 miles/hour speed limit, so 1 mile/minute is a good approximation of average speed. This means mile is a nicer unit to have because it can be use to directly estimate travel time, so when something is say 40 miles away and you get there using freeway, 40 minute would be a good estimation. On the other hand, in places like Sumatra, Indonesia, for intercity travel 60 km/h is a decent average speed, so probably kilometers would be better. And most trips will be within city anyway and your speed is normally somewhat less, dictated by traffic condition and stuff like that.

Kilograms vs pounds

I don’t see any clear advantage. They both convey their meaning, e.g. saying something is x kg is as clear and useful as y lbs, as long as you’re familiar with it. Probably pound is a little bit confusing because it’s subdivision is not decimal (1 lb = 16 ounces). Also there are competing systems of mass with the same terminology (e.g. troy pound and troy ounce), with somewhat different definitions. But you rarely encounter this in daily life.

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Buying a car from craigslist – noob style

In the Silicon Valley, a car is a necessity, not a luxury (the opposite of Singapore). One of the main tasks for many people who arrived in Silicon Valley is to buy a car. One can buy a new or used car from car dealers. Alternatively, you can also buy from a private party seller. Craigslist has a popular listing to find such seller.

craigslist

I had never own a car before, I had very little understanding about cars in general.  Having to spend a 4 or 5 figure amount on a complicated machine that I know very little about and will be using for years, to a total stranger from an anonymous website, made me a little nervous and feeling clueless at first. I guess many first-time buyer feels the same too, so here is my experience, as reference.

Pros and cons of buying from craiglist

(+) Considerably cheaper than buying a new or used car from a dealer
(+) Many private sellers tend to be more honest and forthcoming about the car. This sounds counter-intuitive at first, but the reasoning is that professional dealers sell cars for a living, they know how to negotiate with you, and many learn how to hide problems in the car.
(-) You deal with people with unknown reputation. For instance here is no Yelp review for an individual Craigslist seller.
(-) You will have to deal with paperwork (tax, transferring title) yourselves
(?) The experience is a bit overwhelming (or adventurous, depending on how you look at it) for a nervous car-newbie

The meetup and the test-drive

After a while of lurking (and procrastinating) I found a reasonable car. It’s a 7-year old Corolla, with unusually low mileage. I set up a meeting to take a look and test-drive the car.  From the internet I figured that test-drive is super important, so that you know how the car rides and the basic functionality works. As I said, I knew very little about car, so despite reading articles from the internet[1], I don’t really know about how exactly to do it and what the important stuff are. Quite nervous due to my inexperience, I showed up at the appointment, tried to look like I know what I was doing. I drove the car in a relatively clear expressway, then some neighborhood streets, and try to simulate stop-and-go traffic. Note that I should have tried freeway driving with high speed as well. The car rode well, I didn’t notice any weirdness.

The guy who was selling the car was really friendly. He was a retiree who was selling his mother-in-law’s car because she was now very old and no longer could drive. This accounted for the low mileage in the car, because she didn’t drive very much or very far. He explained about the service history of the car; he said it didn’t have much problem, except that it was once involved in a collision. The accident was not so minor, but he explained it was fully covered by the other party’s insurance it was done in an expert shop with no skimping. He explained the details of the collision, repairs, showed all the service receipts/proofs. He said he’s selling the car at a nice discount on account for the collision.[2]

It is important to ask directly about the vehicle history, make sure the seller is telling the truth and verify whether the story add up (e.g. reason for selling, mileage, accident, service history). The seller seemed very honest and trustworthy, I wanted to trust him at this point but it’s best to not let my guard down.

After, I took the car to the mechanic for pre-purchase inspection. This is another important step before buying, especially since I obviously couldn’t check the car’s internals and what not on my own. I found a nearby mechanic shop (with a good rating from Yelp) and took it there.[3] The mechanic did notice the damage from the accident, and noted the repair was done perfectly. He did other checks and said it was mostly ok as far as he could tell. To my surprise, the mechanic didn’t charge me for this service.[4]

The transaction

At this point everything went well. The seller asked me what I thought. I should have given it more thought, consider the alternatives, etc. but his friendliness and how everything was going smoothly so far kind of charmed me, and I made him an offer. We quickly agreed to a price (only <5% less than his list price, in hindsight I guess I could have bargained more), and planned the next step: the transaction.

I’m still nervous at this point. My biggest fear from the transaction is that I would lose my money without getting what I want (like, getting scammed), and if he is a legit seller, he must have had similar fear of not getting the money. So the transaction must be planned in such a way to reduce this risk for both parties, while satisfying other constraints (e.g. the fact that I live about 15 miles from him). I searched the web a little bit about this (and it seems that he did too). One of the basic principles is that at no point should any party have both the money and the car, and critical exchanges must be done at a safe place.

So in the end, we agreed that on another day he would pick me up using the car in question. Then we both drive to my bank, get my bank to issue a cashier’s check[5] for me. Then we would drive to his bank, give him the check and then sort out the paperwork in the bank’s premises. Basically he had to sign and give the car’s title (and the key) to me. He would then deposit the check with his bank. Since this happens inside a bank’s premise with security and whatnot, this reduces the risk somewhat, and at the end I would have the keys and all necessary paperworks and he would have the money in his account. Then I would drive him to his house (with the car that’s now mine) and the deal is done. This seemed to be low-risk enough for both parties. Everything went well during the day, the people at the bank even gave me some cookies and congratulations for getting the car.

Aftermath

After this I still had to do some more paperwork, pay taxes, etc. with the DMV (the government body that handles vehicle registration in California). It’s just some minor hassle that can be done easily on my own. Even for a couple of weeks after this I was still (irrationally) nervous about the car, worrying that I would discover some hidden problem with the car or something like that, but fortunately no such thing happened 🙂

mobil corolla

I drove the car for several months now, took my family to many awesome places with it, and so far no problem with the car, thank God. Hope this article helps future readers.


Footnotes

[1] By the way here are some good tips Edmunds.com’ How to Test Drive a Car and CA DMV’s Used Car Work Sheet
[2] I know he was telling the truth about the discount, because you can check the expected price for used car in any area in the US in websites such as Kelly’s Blue Book (KBB)
[3] I found the mechanic from Yelp listing and phoned them to make sure they can check the car I want to buy, and they were available during that time. Another option is setting an appointment with somebody YourMechanic.com, which will quote you and come at your place. To prevent collusion, avoid asking the seller’s recommendation for this.
[4] Initially, I thought this was kind of fishy, because I was expecting a professional service, and somehow the fact that this was free confused me. But on the other hand I don’t want to look like a jerk and ask the seller to take the car to yet another mechanic.
[5] Cashier’s check is issued by the bank (rather than by me), with funds drawn from my account. Compared to a normal check, it greatly reduces the risk that the check would not be honoured (good for seller) and compared to cash, it reduces the risk of carrying a large amount of cash around (good for payer).

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Silicon Valley – first impressions

So, it’s been around 2 months since I arrived here in the Silicon Valley. As I start to adjust to living here and many friends keep asking what it is like to live here, let me share some of my first impression here.

What is the Silicon Valley, exactly? It is an area – subset of San Francisco Bay Area, where high-tech American companies are heavily concentrated. Geographically, let us see this map:

Image

This map shows a small part of Northern California. The blue region is the SF Bay Area as defined by Google. Silicon Valley is not formally defined, but roughly it covers the area that I circle with the red pencil. It consists mostly of several small cities, except San Jose which is the biggest one. I live in Santa Clara (at the moment), and the office is in Mountain View. They both are small cities, located in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Some of my first impressions:

First major impression: This is no big city. Only after moving here, I realize that having lived in Singapore, I am used to live in a “big city” settings. Most of Silicon Valley and SF Bay Area are by no means big city. SF bay area has ~7 million people in an area 25x as big as Singapore, so it’s way less dense. Even Pekanbaru, Indonesia (my hometown) is ~<5x denser than SF Bay Area. It turns out, this low density means that the way of living is very different from the living in Singapore. For example, the area is less walkable, public transport is less useful, and a car is almost a necessity. There is also fewer places to run errands, eat, or get entertainment, and they tend to be far. I am particularly surprised how primitive is the public transport in the area, given that this is one of the most high tech area in the world. On the plus side, moving with a car is normally faster than public transport, and with the low density there is a lot of space, e.g. for parks and other interesting places.

The next impression is most people are very friendly and well-educated here. People often greet strangers, say thank you, engage in friendly conversation, etc., way more than they do in Singapore. I once was sitting next to some guy on a bus for an hour and we talked about several topics, including the history of Indonesia, during the ride. There is a high diversity of people and culture, and people are very tolerant to diversity. There are people from almost every race on earth, with their different languages, religions, and customs. For example, I once seen a Muslim couple prayed in an open area in a mall. With praying mat, hijab, and everything. I didn’t see anyone giving them any suspicious look or calling the security.

The next thing is that it is surprising that this area has many beautiful natural spots. As a high-tech area, it is often associated with computers, nerds, offices, and high-tech industries. In addition to those, the area is very beautiful. It is between several mountain ranges (hence the name Silicon Valley), and there are many nice hike spots, even for beginners. Here is a picture from the top of the Mission Peak, a peak near Fremont, with a stunning view of the Valley. Yes, I made it to the top!

Image

Other than hikes, there are numerous parks and wildlife area in the valley itself. It is very close to the beach (~1 hour drive). The beach in Northern California is not very warm, so it’s not for swimming, but they offer very nice views on a sunny day. San Francisco is considered one of the prettiest cities in the US, and within ~1 hour drive from the valley too. The Silicon Valley is also within driving distance from national parks and ski spots for people who enjoy those kind of things.

A not so pleasant first impression is that administrative matters in the US is a monstrosity. During the first weeks I had to fill a bunch of forms, visited different offices and websites to set up Social Security Number (a kind of ID), driving license, and also figure out the best way to get insurance for a bunch of things, optimize tax and other financial matters, getting a credit card (which is important in the US even if you don’t plan to spend money from debt), a whole lot of things. At the first weeks I spent countless hours trying to navigate these. It also didn’t help that the first few days was when the US federal government was shut down.

I hope this post gives you a useful insight about the Silicon Valley at first glance, and especially the first experience coming from my backround. Thanks for reading!

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