Miami nice

Even when it’s a bit rainy, you have to admit Miami is still very pretty

The Doral Resort: a view over the golf course

Yes, I’m on another press trip.

I-visa done

Finally, it’s arrived. SMS delivered my passport with matching i-visa today. They didn’t text me, like they promised, but they did leave a note when they tried to deliver it last Friday and found I was out. Fortunately, I could use their lovely web site to reschedule a delivery for today – they even managed to miss all my interview times, which is a bonus with deliveries. The delivery guy was more interested in avoiding being clamped than asking for my ID, despite the great big “Identification required” sticker on the envelope, but you can’t have everything.

It looks the same as the last one, right down to the black-and-white photocopied passport photo look they gave that photo I’d spent ages trying to get. At least they’re consistent, hey?

Thankfully, I won’t have to do that again for another five years. Yey!

I-visa almost done

Finally, I’m almost there with the i-visa.

Yesterday, I made a brief trip to Passport Photo Service to get the much fabled 2“x2” photos of myself sorted out. The hardest part of that was finding the place: it’s nestled opposite Selfridge’s on Oxford Street, next door to Phones4u, I think.

You have to climb up 17 flights of stairs to get there, but once you’re in, everything’s very simple. You go in, say you’d like a US i-visa photo, they stick you on a chair, give you a minute and a mirror to prepare yourself, then take the photo. If you like it, they print out a couple (for £5.95; it’s £11.95 for four) and off you go. I reckon the whole process took about five minutes, including getting a receipt.

Today, though, was the date of the interview down at the US embassy. I set that up last week, so there’s clearly not much of a backlog.

At current exchange rates, the $100 fee for the visa interview will cost you £57 or so, but it’ll soon be heading towards a straight 1-1 $ to £ conversion by the time you’ve finished your premium rate call to set up the interview: looking at my recent Onetel bill, the call lasted seven minutes, for which I was charged £9.24.

The interview itself was remarkably easy. The hardest part was getting to Grosvenor Square by 8am. Read on for details of the interview itself.

Continue reading “I-visa almost done”

Train timetables on your Palm Pilot

FahrplanTransport for London used to have a nifty Palm OS app that allowed you to download train timetables to your PDA. It was a bit limited: you could only have a single route and a set range of hours, making it a bit useless in practice. No wonder TfL withdrew it.

So I’m delighted to discover [via Digital Lifestyles] Fahrplan, available from Deutsche Bahn. Type in as many routes into the web site as you like, for whatever time periods you want, and the site will produce timetables in Palm and other formats. Download the free viewer and you’re sorted. And yes, it works with UK train stations. Amazing.

I-Visa photos

Finding somewhere that could take a 2“ by 2” photo for my i-visa is turning out to be harder than I thought. The specs for how the photo looks are quite precise and you’re not allowed to tinker with an existing photo to make it.

Anyway, I’ve just found a place on Oxford Street that takes them: Passport Photo Service, which is a couple of minutes from the Embassy. I’ll let you know how it works out when I get back from them tomorrow.

Getting an i-visa

Nearly five years ago, I had to get an i-visa so that I could travel to New York to cover a one-day Dell press conference. It was an exciting tale of couriers, last minute dashes to the airport and the fear of a lost passport. I was sitting on a park bench in the middle of London, waiting for a call to let me know I’d been granted a visa and it and my passport were on the way to Heathrow to meet me for a flight a mere five hours later.

That time round most of the work was done for me by an agency. Now, I’m doing it by myself. It’s a right old pain in the arse, isn’t it?

First, there’s the fact that as a member of the media, I need the i-visa in the first place. What’s going on there? Everyone else goes in on a visa waiver, but journalists need to be vetted. How is that equitable?

Second, as a freelance, I’m in an interesting position. If I’m just going to the US on speculative work, I only need a B-grade visa. But if I cover something on behalf of a magazine, then I need an i-visa. But to do that, I need to have a contract and a letter from the magazine testifying to the fact. But if I have a contract, am I actually a freelance? And if I’m not, do I really need an i-visa instead of a b-visa?

Then there are the forms. Apparently, not only do I need to fill out the standard i-visa application form, as a male aged 18-not dead yet, I need to fill out a supplemental form listing every country I’ve ever visited, current employer, previous two employers, etc. No possible opportunity for error there then.

Then there’s the appointment for an interview at the US embassy that I need to set up.

Then there’s the $100 charge.

And lastly, there’s the 50mm x 50mm photo of myself that I need to provide. Is there anywhere that takes photos with these dimensions? I’m going to have to scan an existing photo, crop it, shrink it, and have it printed. How is that necessary?

If there are any problems I have with the process, I can always call the premium rate 09 phone number the US embassy has set up for the purpose.

And it’s all so I can go to the US every once in a while to cover US companies, out of which they’ll almost certainly get loads of free publicity for the stuff they’re trying to sell to us.

The odd thing is that I’ve been on numerous press trips with fellow journos who can’t be bothered with the i-visa rigmarole and go in under a visa waiver, despite saying their journos on business. Am I putting myself through all this for nothing?

Better safe than sorry anyway.

Economists: always surprising

I’m always surprised by economists and the things they come up with. If you’ve ever read Freakanomics, you’ll be aware of the exciting trends they can uncover (abortion as the cause of reduced crime in the US, etc).

But they can also devise some extremely clever ways of encouraging certain behaviours and discouraging others. Take carbon trading: it’s worth billions already and is encouraging industry to become greener using the motivation of large profits for those who are environmentally friendly. Carbon taxes, currently being argued about by all the main UK political parties, are a way of discouraging environmentally unfriendly behaviour.

The most clever green proposal I’ve seen is to discourage electricity suppliers from charging per kilowatt, but instead to provide a warm, well-lit house as a service, to be delivered in whatever way the supplier deems necessary:

“People aren’t fussed about how much power they buy,” explains Philip Sellwood, chief executive of the trust. “If energy suppliers sold a service – a lit and heated house, rather than units of gas or electricity – then they would face incentives to provide it as efficiently as possible.” In theory, such companies would even pay to improve their customers’ homes, cutting their own costs in the process. One is already operating in Woking, a green-minded town; another is planned to start in London.

See? That’s clever.