Monday, January 30, 2017

The Next Mistake

My two weeks in Costa Rica are nearing an end.  I think I should start by saying I had a lot of fun, because I do need to mention the next mistake.  This one is my cousin's, who is traveling with me.  He wanted to rent a car.  I was against it, but agreed specifically to renting one on our way out of San Jose.  So of course he picked me up in an SUV from the airport on our way into San Jose.  And of course it got promptly broken into our first night.

The car was more expensive than we discussed, but the insurance was even more.  You may be thinking, “You’ve met with a terrible fate, Haven’t you?  Good thing you got that insurance.”
 Unfortunately it didn't cover “accessories” like radios, antennas, and windows.  You know, not a single thing that was damaged or stolen.  Here's hoping his American Express is more helpful.

Just the cost of parking this thing was more than it would have been to take Ubers around town.  And that's not counting the ticket he got for reckless driving.  In my opinion he should not have gotten a ticket for reckless driving.  He should have gotten many tickets for reckless driving.

We spent six days roaming the Costa Rican countryside, looking out on beautiful vistas, and swimming in the ocean on beautiful beaches.  The reason for much of this was the SUV.  I would have been able to get to any and all of these places, but the truth is I wouldn't have if my cousin hadn't wanted to, and the reason he wanted to was that he enjoys driving.

After six nights exploring Costa Rica, we arrived back in San Jose.  By then I had convinced my cousin to surrender the vehicle early.  He even got some money back for doing so.  The whole trip he had described the SUV as freedom.  What surprised us both is that after dropping it off, he too was glad to be free of it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A $367 Typo

Ever thought San Juan, PR looks a lot like San Jose, CR on an itinerary?  I did apparently.  I'm writing this from the airport, now waiting for the the plane that will take me to Costa Rica, but that wasn't true an hour ago.

To make a long story shorter, the airline rescheduled my flight.  I rearranged things to get there, missing a night off work, and sent my new itinerary to my cousin who's joining me.  He's the one who finally noticed my mistake.  I had purchased tickets to the wrong country.

I had a decision to make, and not a lot of time to make it.  I could open my wallet, or apologize to my cousin, and roll the dice on Puerto Rico.  I gave it some thought, and decided that under $200 would be easy to say "yes" to, and over $500 would be easy to say "no" to.

They came back with $367.  Part of that was for a second ticket on the same plane home from Florida.  They told me I couldn't use the ticket I already owned if I hadn't also used the first.

I did buy it, but I'm not happy about the situation.  I know this change was mine, unlike the first, but their policies and communication sucks.

In the end, $367 and a days pay down, I'll be starting my vacation eight hours early.  My next post should let you know how it went.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Political Meanderings

I have written previously about my concern for our Democratic Republic under the presidency of Donald Trump. Some post-election posturing interests me. Some post-election behavior disturbs me.

A member of the US House from my state of Minnesota chose to boycott the inauguration because of Trump’s attack on Representative John Lewis. I support, even encourage, this decision. 

But I do not support John Lewis’s assertion that the Trump presidency is not legitimate, and giving that as a reason for skipping the inauguration. Russia may or may not have interfered with the election; their interference ( were there any ) may or may not have had an influence on the outcome. That influence may or may not have gotten Donald Trump elected. Whatever the facts of those matters, Donald Trump got elected and was inaugurated on schedule. We have to deal with that.

Like it or not ( I don’t ), believe the Russians were involved or not ( I think I do ), the reality is we have Donald Trump as President and a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. While I definitely believe we need to resist him and at least some of his agenda, I also believe we need to stay on speaking terms. Getting in his face and calling him an illegitimate president gives him the rationale to tune out Lewis and his kind ... Patriots. Protestors. Civil rights leaders. Democrats. Blacks. People he dislikes.

We need all hands on deck; don’t disqualify yours.

A few disturbing things ... lots of room for pause
Meryl Streep’s, “When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose,” caused a Twitter outburst like that from a petulant child. The outburst reminded me of some of my childhood’s least eloquent comebacks, “Yeah … well, your mother wears combat boots.” The outburst included a denial of doing something that I saw done. President Trump appears to me to be petulant child, unable to even admit his behavior.

His nominee for Department of Energy made a real suggestion in 2012 or so to eliminate the Department. I heard him, during the hearings, say he did not know what the Department does and he regrets the suggestion.
So … he didn’t know what the Department does but was brazen enough to seriously suggest eliminating it; this is demonstrably terrible judgment.

The nominee for Attorney General included, in his list of cases best demonstrating his qualifications for the job, four cases for which he was, at the very best, supportive of the attorneys who pursued the cases. He may have been dishonest in the way he represented those cases to the hearing; in any event, this is thin evidence of experience recommending him for the job.

The nominee for the Department of Education is unfamiliar with the raging education debate about standardized testing’s measuring a student’s growth versus proficiency. I am unaware of this specific controversy and don’t know what the correct answer is. But I’m not seeking approval to manage the department. I am unqualified; I suspect the nominee is, too.
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Monday, January 16, 2017

Consumer surplus

A while back the Freakonomics podcast brushed upon the subject of Consumer Surplus.  I had never heard of it before, but when I did it was one of those "aha" moments.  Consumer surplus is essentially the amount you would have paid for something, but didn't have to.  The concept is so simple, and it had been on the peripheral of my understanding for years.  Now that I've heard it stated so clearly, it's influenced everything I've purchased since.

For example, in the past I've seen things for $2, and didn't buy it because I could get it for $1 at Walmart.  But the fact is, I'm not at Walmart, and having it now might we worth two dollars, or even $3.  An even better example is Uber.  Paying for a ride seemed so frivolous to me, I rarely did it.  Recently there have been a couple of weeks were I put in twenty additional hours of overtime.  In the past this was rough.  This time I just asked myself, 'Is going from five to seven hours of sleep worth $20?"  It was probably worth $40.  That's not frivolous, that a heck of a deal.  Uber's low prices and great service didn't hurt either.

Another interesting way the concept has affected me is when I've ended up paying too much.  Maybe something had cost me more than I expected it would, or maybe I just hadn't thought it through.  In the past if I had ended up paying for something, lets say $40, and was disappointed, I'd kick myself, and mope over having wasted $40.  Now I ask myself what it was actually worth to me.  I mean, it's never really worth zero.  Maybe I decided it was worth $30.  Okay, I wasted $10.  Not great, but not nearly as bad.

What got me thinking about this is my pending vacation.  Airfare and hotel stay will be under $1,000.  That's a great price to see the world.  And experts will tell you that money spent on experiences are almost always worth more than money spent on things.  You pay once, receive the experience, but also receive the memory of that experience over and over.  It's the ultimate consumer surplus.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Visceral Reaction Concerning Money

You’ve been robbed; fraud!

The first indication of trouble was a seeming off-hand remark in a phone call with Loretta’s nephew, “You know, my ( inheritance ) check was not cashed, and I just saw online a couple days ago it’s been returned to the bank.” He felt he was unable to pursue the issue because he was out of town.

Ellie and I looked at each other, “What the … ?” Upon completing the call, we penned an email to our lawyer, who interfaced with Loretta’s Estate Bank for us, asking him to look into it.

He got back to us quickly. “I spoke with ( not real name ) at the bank; all is fine on their end with that check.” This was woefully bad information.

We e-mailed that information to Loretta’s nephew, thinking this would likely all work itself out if nobody did anything more. This was a woefully bad prognostication.

The very next morning I got a secure message from our bank; the
( inheritance ) checks I had deposited six days earlier were being held
( i.e., the funds are not available to me ) and the checks may be returned to the owner. Ellie and I now had the same problem Loretta’s nephew had.

I immediately went to the branch office in our neighborhood and had a uniquely unproductive meeting. “So you are telling me there is a problem with the checks, some person noted this problem and flagged the deposit, and nobody in the bank can say what the problem is until we read a report that will be posted tonight?”

“Yes, that is correct.”

“That’s absurd,” I said, struggling to keep both my demeanor calm and my wits about me.

“Maybe, but that is how it is,” he said. Lowering his voice, he added, “It’s likely got something to do with availability of the funds, … “

Back home I was close to an emotional mess; my wife was the only signatory on that account and it certainly had the funds to cover the distribution checks. However, picking up on what the banker had said in lowered tones, Ellie and I looked at the account’s most recent statement. There it was, a check number different by one from the check written to me, posted for the exact amount of the check written to me. It was the last check on the statement. My mind wondered, “Whom was that made out to?” My visceral reaction was, “You’ve been robbed; fraud! Your lawyer is stealing from you!

Keeping a lid on my visceral reaction, we penned another email to our lawyer; we asked to see, from the bank, images of all checks from the beginning of the prior month. The response was quick; “The last statement I have from the bank ( which, of course, was the same as ours ) lined up with my records; I put a question in at the bank and expect an answer shortly.”

Of course, you’d tell us the statement matched your records. Where are the check images?” I couldn’t get my mind off that check written for the same amount as my check.

Then, quickly as they had come, and as out of my control, all thoughts of fraud vanished. I realized there should be another check for the same amount as mine: there was another heir whose percentage of the estate was the same as mine. I breathed easy again, no longer convinced fraud was occurring.

Our lawyer wrote again, telling us the bank had erred, thinking it needed and didn’t have an image of Ellie’s driver’s license. As a result, the bank
( compounding the error ) put a hold on the account, but has now seen its error, removed the hold and all is well.

The bank may have corrected the error, but there are several lingering questions: When our lawyer first asked about this on behalf of Loretta’s nephew, why did ( not real name ) tell him all is fine on their end? Why did the bank fail to notify, as a routine matter, both Ellie ( the owner of the account ) and our lawyer ( to whose office correspondence to Ellie is addressed in care of ) that they had placed a hold on the account?

Good help is hard to find. Good systems must also be hard to find and implement.
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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Learning to Network

I've heard that learning to network is important to career advancement.  So I purchased the most recent CCNA study guide by Sybex.  Seriously though, I work in IT where certificates are king.  The number one cert I have a chance of getting is a CCNA.  Now that I'm thinking about moving in the next few years, it's definitely time to spruce up my resume.

I only ever got about a quarter of the way into my last one.  It's six years old now, and probably about 95% as relevant as the one I just bought.  Obviously that last 5% is worth much more than $33 though.  My plan is to read through chapter one before my vacation.  I don't want to get into the guts of it before I leave, because I know I won't be studying it while I'm there.  It's the kind of thing you want to read a little each day so it stays fresh.

Then I start reading, and while still on the introduction, I run into this line:
"Taking a Cisco class or spending months with hands-on experience is definitely a requirement to succeed when faced with this monster!"
Which raises a few questions.  What am I doing here?  I don't have access to lab.  And why read this book if I'm going to end up taking a class later?  Would the effort it takes to get this certificate be better spent on getting ten others?

The short answer is, "I don't know."  I don't think the ten other certificates I could get would add up to a CCNA.  And I have already taken classes geared toward getting my CCNA.  I've played with the lab equipment.  And the book does talk about using a simulator as the next best alternative to hands on experience.

If I stick with it, and put in the hundreds of hours it will take to read, and comprehend this book...  and still am not able to get my CCNA, it will not all have been wasted.  I won't look better on paper, but I will be better; more knowledgeable at my job.  I may also shoot for the CCNA, and fall amongst the Network +, which is another very relevant certificate in my field that this material should prepare me for.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Screw Facebook

I choose non-participation.

I do not “do” Facebook, never have and see no reason that I ever will. My blog partner and friend recently posted a piece, “Why you should join Facebook,” for reasons that only he knows but he told me he had me in mind when writing the piece.

When thinking about my post, which is not specifically a response to his, I thought about how to present my thoughts on the matter. A point by point commentary on his thoughts? A list of specifics on why I am not a Facebook participant? A mixture of the two? I am not sure how to label what I came up with, but here it is.

Pause … I have “always” said I am a “principled” non-Facebook user. That means my non-use is based on a set of principles ... well at least one principle.

( As a side-note, there was a suggestion, some time ago, that one of the volunteer organizations I am part of at my parish, which organization currently has a functioning Yahoo group, make a Facebook group. This is an organization whose work I value, to which I contribute virtually every week, for which I am the IT person, to which I have belonged for nearly four years. My response was, “Sure, that might be a good idea. But you can count me out, I am a principled non-user of Facebook.” The idea was neither implemented nor pursued. )

The principle is, on the issue of privacy, I want to believe that decision-makers will not screw me for a few bucks. I do not believe any of that regarding Facebook’s decision-makers. A secondary issue is the “feeling” of Facebook that the decision-makers have created.

Full disclosure: I have not experienced Facebook, but I have read quite a bit about it, particularly as it relates to privacy. This is my take-away: there is no privacy. ( “Privacy is gone; get over it.” ) To this you can ( with seeming validity ) say, “Well set your privacy settings the way you want them.” Setting the privacy settings the way I’d want them is anything but easy. And the default settings are not only difficult to find and change, the default settings are almost all settings I’d want changed.

Think about that. Here is a tool into which I would put my heart and soul, a tool which could expose that tender part of me to every Tom, Dick and Harry Facebook user who chooses to look. This is a tool whose default settings do in fact so expose me. To top it off, the defaults change somewhat regularly and users must continually update settings to keep them from being at their defaults.

“Be careful about what you put into it,” you might say. If I must be careful about what I put into it, because it’s so difficult to shield what I put in from prying eyes, I ask, “Why I am putting anything into it anyway?”

I further ask myself, “Why do I have to be so careful?” The answer is I don’t know for sure how to tell who sees what. The system is rigged ( to borrow a phrase from our 2016 Presidential Politics ) against my privacy. Why? Because advertisers want to know everything; and the more they know, the more Facebook profits.

I have nothing against profit. I contribute to the profit of numerous companies on a regular basis. I know it, they know it. I know neither what Facebook is selling about me nor what its advertisers ( or Tom, Dick, Harry ) are seeing.

This leads to my second point. People dislike admitting to being Facebook users, saying that they don’t like Facebook, but are “on it just so I can keep track of my” ( I believe some have actually used the phrase ‘spy on my’ ) children/grandchildren/sister/brother/estranged family member/etc. Attached to this is an undertone of and they will not know I’m doing this. This undertone, of course, is rarely spoken. The default privacy settings make this easy and, apparently, quite attractive.

The difficulty of finding/changing the settings, coupled with this kind of talk, create a tawdry feeling about the enterprise. 

I choose non-participation.
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Monday, January 2, 2017

New Year's Resolution 2017

I was reading Thomas Sowell's new book Wealth Poverty and Politics, which I would recommend, and before I finished, he died.  I always found him to be a voice of sanity in the field of economics, and we'll all be a little worse off without him.  But he did live a full life, dying in his 80's.  That was not true of everyone who died this year.

This year was rough.  Not for me, but the world at large.  I hope the next will be less so.  But it got me thinking about ways I'd like to improve my life this year.  I titled this post "New Year's Resolution 2017" because I think it might be worth starting a tradition.  Here we go, in no particular order.

  1. Spend ten minuets a day learning to meditate.  I really like the Headspace app, but I haven't been making the time to use it.
  2. Read my CCNA study guide for at least ten minutes every day.  More about that in in a later post.
  3. Stop eating in bed.  When I'm at home, I'm usually in my bed.  I think I'd be happier using my table as a table and my desk as a desk, and the need arise.
  4. Prioritize sleep.  I'm often dragging because I didn't get proper sleep.  Maybe I didn't go to be early enough.  Often times I did, but didn't sleep well because it's a particularly bright day, or because the little girls I live next to were playing loudly.  I bought myself earplugs and a sleeping mask, and I plan to get in the habit of using them.
  5. Eat out less.  I do it because I'm lazy.  I've been successful at making the couple of things I tried.  I could have better and cheaper food if I put in a little effort.
  6. Be cleaner.  I spent an hour sprucing up earlier this week.  If I did this every week, I'd live in a presentable place.
  7. Fix up my credit.  I don't just mean I should pay off my credit card.  I should.  But I also need to fix a couple of errors, and try not to encourage any more.

I plan to move very close to my work within a few months, with a roommate.  That extra time should help with 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6.  And there has actually been talk about looking into a maid.  It shouldn't be very expensive for two people in a small apartment.

The last day of this year is a day for me to post.  Expect a new list by then, and a review of how well I did this time.