Thursday, December 28, 2006

Up against the wall, Google!

A quick note for those of you who frequent Timmy's House of Incandescent Sprinkles: It's taken longer than I expected, but I've finally hit the limit of 250MB of storage for photos. I'm still too cheap to pay the $25 annual fee, but other than that I'm happy with the service, so I'm going to start clearing out older albums to give myself more room. I think I'll be taking down albums from my hikes older than a few months, since even more than other albums those are really created for my own edification. Over the long run I'll probably start taking down non-hiking albums as well, though I'll try to keep those on as long as I can.

I'm going to keep a single image from each album up just so I can easily remember what albums I have without opening Picasa.

I keep full-resolution originals of everything on my PC, so if you ever want to see something I've taken down or would like an image for a wallpaper or a print, just let me know and I'll shoot you a copy.

The Most Boring Blog Post Ever

Yesterday, I performed not one but two minor acts of near-handiness. It really doesn't take much at all for me to feel pleased with myself and start puffing up. I have (with good cause!) a very low opinion of my skill at accomplishing practical tasks, as opposed to, say, setting up a network. I almost never have occasion to do anything more complex than change a light bulb. When something does come up, I'll often spend an inordinate amount of time poring over any available reference material before I begin tackling it, and then will patiently work through the chore at the same speed we usually associate with glaciers.

So what were these tasks? Honestly, I'm embarrassed to even talk about them, not just because they're so simple but because their very existence indicts me. The first thing was replacing a windshield wiper blade. I should probably point out that my car is three and a half years old, and this is the first time I have ever replaced a blade. It has needed to be done for some time now. In fact, I actually bought a blade over a year ago, but it has been sitting in my trunk until I felt properly motivated. (It rarely rains in the Bay Area, and I make frequent use of the free windshield cleaner at gas stations.) I squinted and cursed at the unhelpful illustrations on the back of the wiper case, then scrutinized the existing wiper, carefully disconnected it, then snapped the new one into place. After a few practice wipes I declared success. I'm still a little concerned that some day I'll turn it on in the middle of a storm and watch the blade go flying off the car, but for now I'm feeling proud as can be.

I did this after coming home from work (after the Longest Day Ever), and when I walked over to my mailbox, I saw an enormous window screen lying on the ground. "Huh," I thought. "I hope that isn't mine." There was sort of a funky smell in my apartment when I got back from my Christmas holiday, so before leaving for work in the morning I had opened up all the windows. While taking my typical strolls around the building, I had noticed that it was unusually windy outside, and with the events of the previous 24 hours I thought it would be entirely fitting if the one day I had kept my windows open was the one day the winds were strong enough to rip the screens out of their frames. I went upstairs and found out that I was correct, although I'm uncertain whether that should make me feel smarter or dumber.

I grabbed the screen and brought it up. After only about 5 or 10 minutes of wrangling, I was able to mostly get it back into the frame. There's one particular corner which isn't very secure, and short of bringing up a ladder so I can force it from the other direction I think I've done as much as I can. Still, I'm going to call this a victory, since with all the torsion I was applying to it I should have permanently damaged the screen.

And so it continues. Small victories in fields where I make no claim to greatness give me enough confidence to keep on going, inordinately pleased at my range of abilities.

The Further Stories of Chris's Adventures in Transit

Have you ever had the experience of making a decision that you initially thought was smart, but turned out to actually be bad? Yeah? Me, too. The most recent example I can think of was planning my trip home over the Christmas holiday.

I had been hounding our HR person since August to find out what days we would have off. I fly Southwest and have accumulated some Rapid Rewards, and wanted to be able to use them for the flight before the rewards seats were all taken. Despite my repeated badgering, I didn't find out the time until October. By then I couldn't use my free flight, but I went ahead and booked immediately, because tickets only become more expensive with time.

Because of an upcoming vacation I wouldn't be able to take off any additional days, but I wanted to maximize my time home. Flying east is always a pain, due to the time zone changes, so travel generally eats up an entire day. I know from prior experience, though, that the day before Christmas vacation is generally slow, so I arranged to fly out that afternoon. On the return, I wanted to squeeze in one more family meal before coming back, so I picked an 9PM flight that would get me back to Oakland around 11:45.

I should briefly discuss the airport as well. I prefer flying out of San Jose because it's closer, smaller, and best of all I can take public transit there and back. However, the last few times I've flown to Chicago I have travelled out of Oakland. Southwest offers several nonstop Oakland-Chicago flights as opposed to just one from San Jose, plus it is generally cheaper. Oakland is close enough to be a feasible airport for me, as is San Francisco. The system I have developed is to drive up to Fremont, park in the BART lot for a dirt-cheap $5 a day, then take transit in to the airport. All considered, this is a very inexpensive way to fly, but one that requires a fair amount of time.

I ended up having disappointments on both ends of the trip. On the way out, we were notified in late November that that Friday night would be the company's holiday party. I was pretty bummed by that... I'd had a wonderful time at the previous holiday party and had been looking forward to it. However, I wasn't looking forward to it enough to pay $600 to move my flight back to Saturday, so I reluctantly decided to keep my existing itinerary. Then we found out a few weeks ago that on Friday afternoon we would be having the white elephant gift exchange. Once again, that was something I'd enjoyed doing last year, and in retrospect I probably could have attended and still caught my flight, but with holiday traffic on 880 I was concerned enough that I skipped out early.

The actual vacation home was wonderful. This is a post about bad things, not good things.

Oh, another complaint: in both directions of my trip, I checked in for my flight about 22 hours before it took off, and in both cases I got a "B" boarding pass. I really miss the good old days of Southwest where this was a secret that not everyone knew about.

Now for the big one: right before leaving Chicago, I started to worry about my schedule for getting back home. When I'd originally booked, my thoughts had been along the lines of "Well, 11:45 is pretty late, but for one night I'll be good to drive it." I'd completely neglected to take into account the fact that I was relying on other transit to get back to my car, and a quick check online showed that the BART shuttle only ran until midnight. Suddenly things looked very grim. Even if I arrived on time I'd need to dash to make it outside before midnight, and the odds of the last flight on the day after Christmas arriving on time felt very slim.

Getting to the airport was a breeze. I started to worry when the flight before us was late leaving the gate, putting us behind schedule even before we were done boarding the plane. I needn't have worried, though, because even if we'd boarded on time we would still have been late. I love Southwest, but I have come to discover that they adhere to an iron rule of travel: "Never delay one flight when you can delay two flights." A connecting flight into Chicago was running late, and in order to help those travellers catch this flight, they held the whole thing until it arrived.

All that considered, I wasn't surprised at all that I was late arriving in Oakland. (The trip itself was fun - I created a few islands in Me & My Katamari and read an entire Terry Pratchett novel.) The pilot teased me by saying that we would only be arriving about 5 minutes behind schedule, but I eventually realized that he was talking about our scheduled flight duration, not the scheduled arrival time.

It was after midnight when we touched down, but I headed out anyways. I had an irrational (and doomed) hope that, what with It Being Christmas Time, BART would be running an unscheduled extended shuttle service. No such luck. I next thought of grabbing a taxi - it would be more expensive than my parking, but if I got to the station soon enough I could still catch the last train. However, there were about fifty people in front of me in line, and it was moving slowly enough that I could tell I wouldn't be able to make it in time. So, with heavy heart, I went back into the airport.

I actually had heard a story on NPR just the week before about an airport in England which is used by Ryan Air and has become an unofficial hostel. People arrive the night before so they can take the super-early, super-cheap flights. Like the reporter in that story, I needed to contend with the janitorial staff dragging belt sanders across the floor, tiny cushioned chairs, and other minor indignities. Obviously, I couldn't go through security again, so I spent the night in the area by the baggage claim. (And I was not alone - other flights, surely delayed, were still arriving as late as 3:30.) I can't sleep sitting up, so most of the time I read "Zodiac", but it got to the point where I was doing the little blackout-and-tip-forward-then-wake-up thing.

All in all, it was a pain, but not the worst night I've had.

The shuttle starts up again at 5AM, although it only runs every 20 minutes until 6AM. I headed out there early, because (1) hope springs eternal, and (2) I am a fool. I figured that maybe they started the shuttle early at the airport so it could get to the station by 5AM, and I was in a hurry to get home, and I didn't want to wait 20 minutes if I missed the first pass.

So, I ended up waiting 30 minutes - as I should have anticipated, the shuttle starts at BART (there are more people flying out at that unpleasant hour than arriving), and doesn't arrive at the airport for a while. Which wouldn't have been bad, but Wednesday was an unusually cold, blustery day. I started off in just my jacket, but by the time the bus arrived I was decked out in full Chicago regalia, including scarf, gloves, and hat, physically shivering in the cold (though I guess my lack of sleep may have just been giving me shaky legs).

I boarded and went back to the station, and felt grateful that I had spent the night in the airport instead of this open brick sculpture. I went to the platform and discovered - surprise! - that there had been an accident and my train to Fremont was delayed. I sat down on the cold bench and briefly lost consciousness a few more times.

In the end, the train did come, and I had enough time to go home and shower before driving in to work. I usually don't drink coffee, and an advantage of that is days like Wednesday. Two cups kept me going throughout the entire day until I went home, went to bed, and slept the sleep of the dead.

I want to end with that note, but I won't. Closing thoughts:
First off, I'm still astounded that, with the general high quality of public transit in the Bay Area, only one of the three airports is directly on a rail system. The other two are so close to a station that I can only shake my head in wonder and frustration at why they were passed over. I think this is one of those classic things where even if it only saved a few minutes off a trip, the psychological impact is so great that far more people would take advantage of transit to the airport.

Second, I really want to see BART come to San Jose. After a night like that, I'd like to just ride all the way home instead of squeezing behind a wheel for part of the time.

Third, I need to be a better planner. I'm generally good, but I just dropped the ball on this one. (On the bright side, I know I won't be making this particular mistake again.)

Fourth, I'm kind of impressed at what a huge cheapskate I am. At no point during the night did it even occur to me to take a taxi back to San Jose. (I'm also incredibly shy. It didn't occur to me to give anyone a call at 3 in the morning to see if they would give me a ride.)

I guess that's it for now.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Shaking all over?

So I apparently had my first Northern California earthquake last night. Only problem is, I didn't feel anything. Don't know if that's a product of me living on the second floor of a building or what. I have to admit that I feel a little bummed... I've been living here for almost a year and a half, and feel vaguely cheated that I still don't know what an earthquake feels like.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Give me some credit

I first got credit reports back in the ancient, pre-free-annual-report era. I was planning on buying a car after graduation, and knew it would be a good idea to make sure my credit was clear before applying for the loan. I hit up all the credit agencies separately. Where they offered it, I just got a report without a score; for at least one of them, I needed to get the score as well.

I realize this isn't a contest, but I was a little pleased to see how much credit history I had, considering I was just 22 years old. I had a single credit card by that point and a line of credit from my bank, plus some history from a Best Buy finance I had done for my PC. My Fair Isaac score fit into the "good" range, which made me happy.

That car was the biggest purchase I've made to date, and while I've continued to be interested in my credit, it's more out of a concern about identity theft than needing to worry about my score. I don't see any major finances coming up until I buy a house (which should occur sometime around the year 2060), so I can afford to relax about it.

That said, I'm fascinated in looking at stuff like this, and when Congress mandated the free annual credit report, I popped online the first day it was available in the Midwest and got all three. Or at least, I tried to. The Equifax and TransUnion ones came through like a dream, all pleasantly delivered online; it was interesting to see how some items would only show on one report, it was a little like getting two different witnesses to the same series of events. For some reason, the Experian report couldn't be delivered online; they asked me to send in a printed request for the report, but I blew it off. If there was any problem with my history, I knew it would've shown up in one of the other two agencies' reports.

After reading an article later, I came to the conclusion that I had probably made a bad choice by splurging on all three reports at once. You're entitled to one free report a year, but nothing says that all reports need to be retrieved at the same time. If you space them out four months apart, you can monitor your credit throughout the year, and get a bit more advance warning if any suspicious items start appearing.

So, I waited a whole year, and then started on the new system. First up in April was Transunion. Everything looked great. Next, in August, was Equifax. No problems there. Now, in December, was time for Experian.

Once again, I couldn't get the report online. All agencies work more or less the same - you fill in your name and SSN, then they challenge you with a few questions about your credit history. This is more challenging than it sounds, because the actual names of companies that you deal with are different than you might thing. For example, I had a "GM" credit card, but the actual bank name was "HSBC". So when I couldn't get my report online, I figured it was because I flubbed one of these identification things, but still went ahead and sent in the hard copy. It had been a few years since I'd seen Experian, and I wanted to make sure it was still in synch.

The report arrived last night, and my jaw dropped when I opened it. It was 18 pages long, and filled with item after item that I'd never heard of before. Kansas Credit Counselors? Affiliated Accep Corp? I apparently had a loan from Honda that was way overdue. I thought at first that I'd gotten someone else's report by mistake, but only because all the negative items were up front; once I got farther in I started to see familiar accounts.

The problem became a bit clearer when I reached the "Personal Information" section. Here too were many items that did not belong to me, but these made a bit more sense. Among my many aliases, apparently, are "Christopher S. King" and "Chris S. King". It listed two social security numbers that I've never seen before. Evidently I got married at some point to someone named "Danny." And there were a large number of addresses in Kansas and Missouri where I have never lived before.

At this point several things clicked into place: I had a doppelganger. This isn't exactly a new thing for me. There was another Christopher King who went to my elementary school in MN, was a grade ahead of me, and occasionally our information would get mixed up. At one point my medical records were swapped with another Christopher King. More recently, when I got auto insurance after graduation, I had to untangle the unpleasant fact that another Christopher King had stayed at my address before me and had amassed a bad driving record... untangling that mess was unpleasant. And for almost a year I was included on the FAA's No Fly List - or rather, someone with a name close to mine was, and I suffered the consequences. As my mind turned, I thought of credit rejections that I had never worried about because they were so minor - a card from Fry's and a charge card from Kohl's. When I had thought my credit was clear I was sure these were due to my recent move or some other external factor, but suddenly I realized that my pristine credit history wasn't so pristine.

While I like Christopher King, sometimes I'm not a big fan of Christopher King.

I was greatly annoyed, but once I figured out what was happening, it became easier to deal with. I was glad to discover that my identity hadn't been stolen, just confused. I'm by nature a problem-solver, so the question became, how to solve it?

Experian has a handy web site for disputing credit information, but it didn't really fit what I needed. The online tool is more oriented towards basically correct reports and allows you to challenge individual items which you believe to be inaccurate. In my case, I didn't think that the items were necessarily inaccurate, just that they didn't belong to me. As much as I dread using the phone, it seemed like my only shot at unraveling the tangled story of Christopher C King and Christopher S King.

I called soon after I arrived at work this morning - I usually arrive around 7, two hours before most people start coming in, and wanted to deal with everything while it was still quiet. Experian has an automated system that uses one of those annoying voice recognition things, where you need to actually speak in order to navigate through. My biggest complaint is that it doesn't work very well; even for simple things like "Yes" I often need to repeat myself. Even if the software got better, though, I'd still hate it because when I'm in an office I don't want to speak any more than necessary. It disturbs others, and I'd much rather press buttons than say my social security number out loud for all to hear.

Some of the stuff I could handle directly through the menu; it let me divorce my spouse and change my birth year. But for the crucial items - names, addresses and SSNs - I needed to speak to a live person. And - SURPRISE! - representatives are only available from 9AM-5PM local time. I cursed a little; since I figured the service representatives were probably in India anyways it seemed really arbitrary to not let me talk with them until business hours started in California. Still, whatever. I was in process now and willing to wrap it up.

After 9 rolled around I called again. This time the voice recognition was even worse than before, which ended up being a good thing - it got frustrated when it couldn't understand my inscrutable pronouncements ("Yes"), so it gave up and let me use the keypad instead, which is what I wanted in the first place. I raced through the same items as before, and ended up getting patched into their live support network.

Did I have to hold? Of COURSE I had to hold. But it wasn't the worst hold I've had... maybe about 20 minutes to reach the first tier, then another 5 minutes for the second tier. It did get me to thinking, though. For most companies out there, it's in their interest to provide at least a basic level of phone support. They need to balance that against expenses and as a result may have poorer support than one would prefer, but if it's very unsatisfactory people will ultimately take their business elsewhere. The credit unions are an interesting case, though, because they make their money from businesses, not the individuals who would call support. As much as I might like to, I can't cancel my Experian account; if I was on hold for an hour, I would be infuriated, but would have no tools at all to show my displeasure. So, why do they provide any support at all? As I see it, there are only two possible reasons: government regulations and the threat of government regulations. Either they are required (by the US government or perhaps by their corporate clients) to provide a certain level of support, or they are afraid that if they sufficiently alienate individuals, an outcry will erupt (much like that which led to the free annual credit report) and the clamps will come down.

Be that as it may. The first person I talked with was articulate and pleasant and on the phone for all of 30 seconds. I started explaining everything that was wrong, then she transferred me to someone who could process my entire report. The second woman wasn't quite as nice to talk with, but was extremely efficient, which I definitely appreciate. We spent about five minutes of me reading off addresses, accounts, and more stuff which I had marked off on my report. After each one she would say "I have removed that from your account. What is the next one?" I was half-expecting to need to challenge and explain each one, so it was nice to breeze through them. I guess that she could probably check them to see who they were opened by and see that it was the OTHER Chris King.

After that all went through, she sort of summed up what was going on. They had removed all the inaccurate stuff from my personal section. In order to avoid any problems in the future, she recommended that I always use my middle name when opening accounts. All of the bad credit items were instantly deleted, except for the Kansas Counselors one, which were opened by "Christopher King" without a middle initial. In that case they will contact the lender and hopefully that organization will shift it over to the real culprit.

I'm glad to see that it's mainly over now. Dealing with this is kind of a pain, but at the same time, it's kind of nice to have an explanation for a few things which hadn't made sense before. It also makes me a little curious and paranoid about the exact identity of my doppelganger. I sort of imagine that the bad information that I have is a composite of different mistakes, but what if they all fit one person? I am fascinated by the thought that there is a Christopher S King who was born on July 5, 1978, and who lived at 501 W 8th St #311. If that was the case, then I'm less upset at Experian for confusing the two of us, and correspondingly impressed with Equifax and Transunion for keeping us straight. And wouldn't it be wild if this was the same person who used to go to my elementary school, and who landed the two of us on the No Fly List?

Be that as it may. There are just a few small hurdles left to overcome, and I'm hopeful that once they're through, my record will have fended off the intruder and will once again be mine alone.

UPDATE 12/30/06: Huzzah! I just received mail from Experian containing my updated and corrected credit report. It looks good - all references to any negative incidents have been deleted, leaving only my pristine good name intact. There's one single thing that doesn't look right; it looks like they deleted my Kansas City address instead of his, so it still shows me as having lived in his apartment. Sigh. I need to decide whether or not to call them again about this, but I probably won't... it was far enough ago for both of us that I doubt it will cause more problems in the future. Anyways, it feels great to have my life back!

Monday, December 11, 2006

24 Hours in the Valley

I get to break two hiatuses (hiati?) within the span of a few days - the long gap in blog updates and the longish gap in visitors. In order to kill two birds with one stone, here's the quick story of Dan's Adventures in San Jose.

Dan is one of my good friends from college. We were apartment mates my senior year, but have shadowed each other since we were on the same dorm floor freshman year. Dan was unique in a lot of ways - a rare Mac enthusiast in our crowd, a scarily intelligent person even in our group of hyper-achievers, and one of the most athletically inclined among our crowd. He was accepted into the prestigious Wash U Medical School, and as a soon-to-be-graduate, is now making the rounds of respected hospitals for his residency program.

He is considering Stanford among the dozen or so schools he is looking at, and this past week came out for an interview. He stayed with a friend closer to the university earlier in the week, and apparently had a very successful interview. After some heated negotiations, I agreed to meet with his hosts over Dim Sum on Saturday for the handoff.

I still look at visitors as a great excuse to get out and hit more restaurants, and it was nice to find another place to add to my list. I don't even remember the name of this one, though I think it was something like Pan Tao; it's on the opposite corner as Cupertino Village, an impressive Asian mall that includes the other Dim Sum restaurant I've eaten at. I managed to embarrass myself slightly to the three Chinese people at my table - first by failing to properly eat a fried chicken foot, later when I couldn't even pick up a broccoli spear with my super-slick chopsticks - but it was tasty, so I wasn't complaining.

Dan and I had been looking forward to hiking, but the forecast that day called for lots of rain, so we had to find another plan. We decided to do the trip over the Santa Cruz mountains to visit the ocean. I took the more scenic Highway 9 on the way down, and we got to enjoy equal portions of nature and mountain civilization. One of these days I'll actually stop in Boulder Creek and see what's there.

By now I've pretty much settled on that one beach my mom and dad found as my showcase, so I headed directly over there once we reached Highway 1. I just really like it... it's private and secluded while still feeling impressive. The water level was higher this time than on any other trip I've made, with all the sand in the cove wet and the rocky outcropping surrounded by water. So that was cool; an entirely different look for a very familiar location. It was also a very windy day with choppy waves. I scrambled up the rocks and we spent a good amount of time staring at the encroaching waves and chatting. Once we were almost frozen through, we went up to the headland to check out the ocean from higher up. The crops had been harvested, so the field was more barren than I remembered.

After a quick trip back up on 17, I did the speedy driving tour of downtown San Jose, including my first-ever circumnavigation of the SJSU. I learned that it's much less attractive from the east and south than it is from the north and west. We also got stuck in traffic around Plaza de Cesar Chavez; the holiday extravaganza was in full swing and spilling out onto adjoining areas, so patience was required to get through.

We briefly recuperated in Casa de Cristobal by catching up on the previous night of Battlestar Galactica, which we had both missed. It's always fun to share some camaraderie with a fellow fan. So say we all!

Dan had eaten at a ton of Chinese restaurants by now, and we decided to experiment with some non-Asian cuisine. I took him out to Rico's in downtown Campbell. This was my second trip there, and I was as impressed as before - really fresh-tasting food, pleasant atmosphere, prompt service, all you could ask for. I decided that from now on I'll always order a taco al pastor for all of my visitors. It's so amazingly tasty, it is a revelatory experience. I went seafood this time with a shrimp platter, while Dan found the beef in carne asada. An excellent meal, and enough for me to decide that Rico's will be my go-to restaurant for guests.

That night was Video Game Madness. Dan, while a very intelligent person, has been sadly deprived in his video game exposure. I broke out Rez, and he enjoyed it even more than I expected. From here we continued the music theme with an introduction to Guitar Hero. Dan just blew me away - I had to ask him a few times if he had played before. He played all the way through the first two venues without failing a single song, and managed four stars on most of them. I was quite impressed. Next we went old-school with Ico, where Dan experienced anew the wonderful experience of running around a room for five minutes while trying to figure out how to open a door. The night ended with us both staring bleary-eyed at Civilization IV.

Dan's flight left on Sunday morning, but there was still time for a trip to Southern Kitchen, the one absolutely obligatory item on my guest itinerary. He had Eggs Benedict for the first time in his life and apparently was quite taken by them. I feasted on the weekend special of Kiwi, Strawberry and Banana Waffles, one of the most decadent-looking dishes I have ever seen, complete with a separate pot of whipped cream. I concluded with a super-compressed tour of Los Gatos (just the Silicon Valley Auto Group and my office), and then we were speeding northward to the airport.

Dan isn't even to the halfway point yet for interviews - he does University of Washington today, travels to the East Coast on Wednesday, and has even more later on. Still, he seems to have liked what he saw of Stanford and the Bay Area. Needless to say, I am pleased - while I love playing host, I think it'd be even better if all my friends relocated here. More fun for me, a better life for them - everyone wins! I'll just keep the California Love growing until my dreams come true.