Taking A Summer Break 2013

Las Vegas City SignLast year I took a three-month summer break to restructure the writing business where I didn’t publish any ebooks while writing a business plan (didn’t happen), re-branding existing ebooks (done), and filling up the ebook buffer (didn’t happen). I’m surprised that I got one out of three done, as re-branding the ebooks with updated cover art, internal navigation structure, and front/end matter got very expensive and time-consuming.

This year I’m taking another summer break by suspending the publication of new ebooks for three months. Here are my three new goals.

1. Fixing the Content Pipeline

I’ve spent so much time learning the ropes of ebook publication over the last few years, the content pipeline ran dry and nothing is available for first serial submission or ebook publication. What I had on the bottom of the barrel wasn’t worth my time and effort to scrape up for publication.

Being an ebook publisher is fun, but I’m a writer first.

I’m clearing off the back burner of manuscripts that I’ve abandoned after I started writing or stopped editing. The last time I did this was five years ago when I kicked everything out to face a cruel world of rejections in the snail mail slush piles. This week I wrote a new short story from beginning to end in a mad rush that I haven’t experienced in years. Between the old and the new, I’m hoping to find the right balance to fill the pipeline.

2. Building a New Business System

Like many small business owners, I have way too much stuff going on to think about the big picture and plan for the future. This was why the content pipeline broke down. After seven years of shoving everything into envelopes and hoping for the best, I need a new business system.

I recently became a fan of growth hacking, where you make a change, measure the result, and make more changes with the business processes to go from okay growth to exponential growth. This appeals to me because I have a testing and programming background. Being able to slice, dice and document a big problem into smaller, workable problem was second nature. I can’t fix everything at once, but I can fix one problem and move on to the next problem.

3. Going On A Real Vacation

After I got a new non-writing tech job this year, many of my coworkers started talking about their summer vacations even though spring hasn’t arrived yet. All this talk came about because HR changed the accrued vacation time policy to force everyone to take time off, as some techies never go home much less take a vacation. As a contractor, this didn’t apply to me. But, not to appear as another antisocial techie, I said I was going to Las Vegas for my birthday in August.

Why Las Vegas?

Besides the obvious fact that I have never taken a real vacation, I have never taken an airplane trip to somewhere far, far away from Silicon Valley that I couldn’t reach by car. That the world’s largest Star Trek convention will be in full swing while my roommate and I are in town is purely coincidental. This is also a research trip for future essays, short stories and maybe an urban-fantasy series about the erotic underworld of Las Vegas.

Which of these goals will get completed this summer? I think all of them are quite likely to happen. The first two are separate sides of the same coin and the Las Vegas trip ties everything together if I hit the jackpot. This summer break will be better than last year’s.

Scarlett Johansson Sues The Author Of Her Literary Doppelganger

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson

According to the Hollywood Reporter (via The Passive Voice), Scarlett Johansson is suing the author of her literary doppelgänger that appears in a French novel.

In the novel The First Thing We Look At [by Gregoire Delacourt], a woman shows up at the door of a mechanic in the northern village of Somme seeking help. At first the mechanic believes she is ‘Scarlett Johansson,’ though sixty pages later it is revealed she is not the actress but simply a doppelganger named Jeanine Foucaprez.

Maybe the publisher forgot to include this legal boilerplate:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Of course, it really depends on how the author wrote the character.

  • A passing reference to a character that physically looks similar to Ms. Johansson wouldn’t invite legal scrutiny, whether coincidental or not.
  • A character that is a precise clone in description, mannerism and history that readers can readily identify as Ms. Johansson would invite an accusation of trading off her name.

Ms. Johansson has personality rights on how her public image is use, which is halfway between a private citizen who expects privacy and a politician who gives up privacy. (With the recent spying revelations, no one has any real privacy.) If a character believes that another character was Ms. Johansson for 60 pages in a novel, Ms. Johansson has a winnable case.

From another paragraph in the Hollywood Reporter article, the author admitted that he compared his other characters to Ryan Gosling and Gene Hackman. If you need to invoke the names of famous people to prop up the description of your characters, you’re not a very good writer.

Three Great Typewriter Movies

The “10 Memorable Spy Novel Film Adaptations” appeared on the Huffington Post. Glancing through the article and the related video, I noticed one glaring exception on this list. “Hopscotch” by Brian Garfield, which he adapted for a 1980 comedy movie with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson, was missing. I posted a comment protesting this oversight with a link to the trailer. The comment never got past the moderator. The few comments that did appear weren’t very enlightening. On that note, I decided to put together my list of three great typewriter movies.

Yes, Virginia, typewriters.

Those ancient devices that writers slaved over in isolation before the invention of word processors and laptops made writing in coffee houses fashionable again. A great typewriter movie appeared every four years from the mid-1970 to the mid-1980. As the typewriter became less ubiquitous in society, its starring role in the movies declined over the years. If a typewriter does make an appearance, it’s always tucked away in a corner to gather dust.

1. All The President’s Men (1976)


Set in the newsroom of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, typewriters were everywhere as Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) unraveled the criminal conspiracy that forced President Richard Nixon to resign from office in disgrace.

When I wrote my still unpublished first novel from 2007 to 2008, I had “All The President’s Men” playing in the background as I sat at the typewriter. The constant rhythm of the click-clack kept me focus, especially when my typewriter fell silent from figuring out what to do next with the novel.

2. Hopscotch (1980)


After an old CIA agent, Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau), gets punished with a desk job for letting his Russian counterpart go free in West Germany, he plots revenge by writing his memoirs to expose the CIA’s “dirty tricks” division and mailing each chapter to all the intelligence agencies. With the assistance of his Austrian girlfriend, Isobel von Schoenenberg (Glenda Jackson), and her manual typewriter, he stays one step ahead in a Cold War game of hopscotch.

I recently read the novel for the first time. The major change between the book and the movie is keeping Isobel as a central character in movie and eliminating the one night stands as Kendig slept his way through the novel. Having seen the movie years before I read the novel, I enjoyed the movie better than the novel even though they are both similar.

3. Romancing The Stone (1984)


A lonely romance writer, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), receives a treasure map in the mail and a phone call from her kidnapped sister to come to South America, beginning a romantic adventure where she meets jungle explorer Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas) and together they search for the stone.

I was always fascinated by the opening scene with the sexy hero freeing the sultry heroine in an Old West bodice ripper that transitions to the writer weeping over her typewriter as she types THE END on the last page. I too have wept over my typewriter, usually on a blank page. This movie always gave me hope that being a writer can lead to having larger-than-life adventures.

When Your Debit Card Travels To London Without You

Internet CheatIf you want to stay on top of your finances, you need to spend ten minutes every day looking at your account balances. This little habit can help you spot problems before they get out of hand. I got a nasty surprise last week when I found two unauthorized transactions pending on my personal checking account. The timing was terrible. The rent check was coming in and I didn’t have enough in savings to cover it.

I called the toll-free number for my credit union to report the unauthorized transactions and cancel my debit card. I asked the woman assisting me how my debit card could be used if it never left my physical possession. She told me that my debit card information could be copied by a waiter at a restaurant, from a hidden card skimmer at a gas station or a spyware-infected computer watching a legitimate Internet purchase being made.

I haven’t visited any restaurants where the waiter could disappear with my debit card. The gas pump I usually use was down for maintenance several days before the unauthorized transactions appeared. When I came back the following week to get gas, all the gas pumps had inspection stickers from the county weights and measure department. No way to know if that was the source. As for my computers, I run anti-spyware and anti-virus scanners on a regular basis and avoided questionable websites.

The affidavit form to dispute the charges never arrived at my personal email address. I went down to my credit union on Saturday morning to talk to the branch manager. He confirmed that my debit card got cancelled, flagged the unauthorized transactions as being fraudulent, and printed out the affidavit form for me to fill out. I withdrew some cash since the new debit card won’t arrive for two weeks.

An Internet search on the two companies for the unauthorized transactions revealed that they were cosmetics companies, which is a product category that I have little use for. I filled out the “contact us” form to request the identity of the person who placed the orders and threatened to file a police report against the companies if they don’t comply.

The first company based in San Francisco told me that their privacy policies prevented them from revealing the identity of their customers, and, besides, the transaction never went through on their end. The pending hold on my checking account fell off a few days later. I didn’t pursue the matter with them any further.

The second company based in Texas immediately gave up the identity of the customer and refunded the money taken from my checking account. Either I was dealing with an inexperienced business owner or the privacy laws in “no tax / low regs” Texas don’t exist.

The customer (a.k.a., the thief) had my debit card info and street address, used her presumably real name, listed a phone number for a storage rental place in San Francisco (50 miles north of Silicon Valley), and wanted the merchandise shipped to London via FedEx overnight delivery. Didn’t I read something like this in a Stephanie Plum novel?

I wanted to file a police report on the London Police Department website, but forwarded the information to my credit union to handle instead. I didn’t lose any money; my rent check went through. This has been another needless distraction in a long month of needless distractions that have taken me away from writing. Seems like it never ends.

Author Website Disappears On April Fool’s Day

internet error 404 - file not foundAn email arrived from DirectNIC with a five-day notice that my web hosting was moving to a new server with upgraded hardware on April 1st. Of course, by the time I got around to reading the email, the five-day notice was really a two-day notice. The timing was bad—and not because the deadline fell on April Fool’s Day.

My newest essay ebook, “The Apple Store Job Fair: Don’t Drink The Water, Don’t Use The Restroom,” was finally being published on March 31st. As Stephen King once said, “Non-fiction is hard because you can’t make [crap] up.” Working on an 8,300-word essay was more difficult than editing my abandoned 120,000-word first novel. With all my efforts focused on getting this essay done on time, a number of website-related tasks got postpone until the first week of April.

I logged into my DirectNIC account to open a help desk ticket to protest moving my web hosting to a newer server at this time. The last time my web hosting got moved to a different server because I needed PHP 5.3 for the content management system (CMS) back in January, my websites were off the Internet for three days. That’s the last thing I needed after publishing a new ebook.

A response to my ticket indicated that my web hosting was already on a new server. That surprised me. Moving my web hosting has never been that smooth. I’m pleased that DirectNIC finally got that process worked out. I updated my email and FTP clients to the new server settings.

The essay ebook got published late Sunday night (3/31) and the new website page got put up on Monday morning (4/1). Although I still had other website tasks like putting up the ebook preview and a Plan B Magazine anthology announcement, I took a short break to recover from working on the essay.

I noticed something strange the next day with my websites. One website was working, two websites were displaying a message that my web hosting account was either suspended on the domain or misconfigured on the subdomains. I immediately opened a help desk ticket with DirectNIC.

My own investigation revealed that the working domain and all the email accounts were on the new server, and the non-working domains were on a different new server with an expired trail version of the CPanel web hosting software. Talk about a half-assed migration job from DirectNIC. I fumed as three days went by without a response to my ticket.

I had abandoned a one-man ISP in 2010 that had my business for 15 years because the primary and secondary Internet links to the servers went down for a week and the owner was too busy making alternative arrangements to respond to user inquires. By the time the ISP came back online and I got a response to my emails, I had already relocated my websites to DirectNIC that held my domain name registrations.

As a small business owner, I can’t allow another company to interfere with my business. I started looking at alternative web hosting providers. The timing was bad. With the $800 USD franchise tax for doing business as a California LLC due on April 15th, I couldn’t afford to switch to another web hosting provider and spend a week configuring all the website. Except for these infrequent three-day interruptions, I’m quite satisfied with DirectNIC.

So… I complained to DirectNIC on Twitter with my ticket number.

Within an hour of posting my complaint on Twitter, my ticket got resolved. All the websites were working again and I got a three-month credit to my account, except my web hosting was still split over two different servers. That took another day to get my websites back on the same server that was working just fine on the morning of April Fool’s Day.

The Apple Store Job Fair eBook

The Apple Store Job Fair Essay eBookA preview of my newest essay ebook, “The Apple Store Job Fair: Don’t Drink The Water, Don’t Use The Restroom,” that is now available.

AFTER BEING OUT OF WORK for a year-and-a-half since losing my help desk support job on Friday the 13th in February 2009, an Apple recruiter offered me a one-on-one job interview at the Apple Store job fair being held at the main campus in Cupertino, CA, later that week. Having worked at a number of high-profile Fortune 500 companies—Fujitsu, Sony, Intuit, Google and eBay—over the years, I desperately wanted to add Apple to my resume as it has surpassed Google as being THE PLACE to work at in Silicon Valley.

Except for one small problem: I had no retail experience.

The recruiter reassured me over the phone that a lack of retail experience wasn’t a problem. Many people got hired from a wide variety of backgrounds to become Creatives, Geniuses and Specialists to work at the Apple Store throughout the world. Someone with no traditional retail experience was preferable to someone who had to unlearn everything they know about retailing. Every new employee receives extensive training before being allowed to work at an Apple Store. Extensive training. The magic words I wanted to hear from any recruiter.

As the Great Recession begun in 2008, many employers lay off workers and hoarded cash as consumer demand dwindled away. The first thing to go—if the business hasn’t jettisoned it years before at the behest of Wall Street—was the training budget. If your job skills aren’t current and don’t fit the job description precisely (i.e., five years in a new technology that came out six months ago), don’t expect to get the job. If you need any training whatsoever to get up to speed on your first day (i.e., asking directions to the restroom), don’t expect to get the job. If you’re out of work for longer than a month, don’t expect to get the job.

Although I owned a first-generation black MacBook from 2006 at home, I had no troubleshooting experience with the Mac in general. The Mac OS X operating system worked so perfectly with the MacBook hardware that I stopped using my Windows Vista PC for everything except high-end video games. Using a Mac meant I didn’t have to become a Mac technician to learn how to use it well, unlike Windows where I did become a PC technician. The Mac worked and worked quite well for what I needed it to do. The idea of troubleshooting the Mac was almost incomprehensible to me.

The corporate environment was a different story. A co-worker would informally train me on the Mac computer, which often meant deleting a corrupted System Preferences file that prevented iTunes from working. (Most companies prohibited users from storing gigabytes of personal music and videos on their work computers, but PC technicians will often look the other way if a hard drive backup wasn’t needed.) Two weeks later I would get laid off from that job, as if I broke an unspoken rule that prevents an experienced PC technician from moving into the light.

A smattering of Mac experience on my resume amounted to nothing useful over the years. No matter how carefully I worded my resume and pitched my Mac experience to recruiters, many hiring managers in the follow-up interviews were often disappointed that I didn’t have the guru-level Mac experience that they were looking for. Never mind that neither the recruiter nor the job description mentioned anything about having guru-level Mac experience, especially for the less than guru-level pay rate being offered. If you’re applying for technical jobs directly at Apple, guru-level Mac experience is a requirement whether or not it’s in the job description.

Recruiters often make unwarranted assumptions about my resume, hoping that I’m a better candidate than what my resume actually suggests. Since I used to work at Japanese companies like Fujitsu and Sony, most recruiters assumed that I spoke fluent Japanese. One recruiter went so far as to arrange a phone interview with someone in Tokyo to test my ability to speak Japanese. Although I don’t speak in either conversational or anime Japanese, I’m well verse in navigating the cultural differences between East and West.

A newly appointed vice president from Japan took over the testing group of the WorldsAway virtual world division at Fujitsu. A Westernized Japanese who spoke fluent English and comfortable with talking to Americans, he took us out to lunch at the Jade Cathay Chinese restaurant on North 1st Street in San Jose, ordering the same hot-and-spicy dish for everyone. I ate everything on my plate as not to offend my host who sat right next to me, although I had no clue as to what I was eating. (My taste for Chinese food these days is steam rice and orange chicken at Panda Express.) The lunch weighed heavily in our stomachs after we came back to the office, like a bad omen of things to come.

He expressed disappointment that none of us were mainframe programmers, the division he previously led that needed more mainframe programmers than virtual world testers, and recounted his glory days of battling IBM for mainframe superiority. This struck the testing group as anachronistic thinking in the rising era of the Internet in the late 1990’s, when Netscape and Microsoft were still fighting for web browser supremacy that was far from over. But Fujitsu was a big company with so many divisions still fighting the last technology war while surrendering the future.

After the vice president declined to renew the contract for my six-month internship, my coworkers gave me a farewell party at the same restaurant. A bittersweet moment when someone wondered out aloud if farewell parties were the future of the division. The answer came a month later. Two-thirds of the division was laid off without warning and security guards escorted everyone out of the building. No farewell parties for them—or for those who stayed.

As for the WorldsAway virtual world, it became the Dreamscape virtual world at Vzones [http://www.vzones.com]. After looking through the website, the underlying technology haven’t changed in the last 15 years.

Recruiters stopped calling me about the Japanese-speaking positions after Fujitsu and Sony fell off my resume as I acquired new work experience at other Fortune 500 companies. I sometimes wonder if I should remove all my less than guru-level Mac experience from resume to avoid doing the dog-and-pony interviews for Mac jobs that I wouldn’t get anyway.

The Apple recruiter reassured me again that my technical background—five years as a help desk support technician and six years as a video game tester, including three years as a lead video game tester with responsibility for ten titles—made me a perfect fit at the Apple Store. What he didn’t tell me was not to drink the water or use the restroom.

Some Things Never Change At The Local Post Office

Post Office Mail BoxAt the height of my snail mail submission days, I would go to the post office every six weeks to drop off 18+ envelopes containing my short story manuscripts. (I often had 50+ manuscripts circulating in the slush piles.) With email submissions, I seldom go to the post office anymore. That changed recently when I decided to pursue the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification for my non-writing tech career.

Although it’s possible to pass the CCNA without any Cisco hardware by using a software network simulator, I chose to build out my testing rack by acquiring three routers and two switches from Cables & Kits. That’s $400 USD in hardware for a $400 USD certification that could double my yearly non-writing income from $50,000 USD to $100,000 USD. If you have limited hands on experience with Cisco equipment, building out your own testing rack is the way to go.

For smaller stuff like interface cards, memory modules, network cables and tools, I turned to eBay to find cheaper deals. I discovered that I could buy these items for a few dollars above wholesale prices without paying the 50% markup at Cables & Kits or Fry’s Electronics. Everything I bought from eBay got shipped through the post office.

I noticed two things about mail delivery at my apartment complex. If the package was small enough to shove into the mailbox or a package lockbox is available, I’ll find either my package or the lockbox key in my mailbox. If the package was too big, I’ll find a yellow pickup slip to pick up my package from the Willow Glen post office. The postal person never bothers to see if anyone is at home to take the package. As a friend who worked at the post office once told me, the postal person has two hours to deliver mail to 300+ mailboxes and delivering packages to the door wasn’t part of that.

This pickup arrangement with the post office works fine for me. I cringed whenever I see an Amazon box being left out in the hallway, knowing how easy someone can walk by to steal the box. A San Francisco woman got so frustrated with her Amazon boxes disappearing that she chased the thief with a wooden sword and bear spray.

This week I went down to the post office to pick up several packages before going into work. One person stood at the package counter, three people stood at the retail counter. A wall separated the two counters. I stepped in line at the package window. The voice of a woman having a very intimate cellphone call drifted through the wall of mailboxes to my left. I don’t think the postal employees realizes that people can hear them talk from the other side, or they just simply don’t care.

The elderly man in front of me said that no one was around to help him. With the cellphone conversation still going on, I took several steps back to look at the other line and went to the retail counter. The postal clerk berated me for being in the wrong line, but, since there were no other customers in line behind me, she would get my packages anyway. We got into a spirited argument about whether being in the right line was more important than my limited time before going into work.

When she brought my packages to the counter, she said that the woman in back was helping another customer. I noticed the elderly man leaving the building empty-handed, and pointed him out to her that he had waited 15 minutes without being helped. She muttered that he should have used the bell to summon someone. When I mentioned that there was no bell at the package counter, she muttered that I was still in the wrong line.

Some things never change at the local post office.

The Return of The Mobile Office

The Mobile OfficeThe manager at my non-writing tech job in 2008 did me a favor when he told me to walk away from my desk during my lunch hour. So I ate my lunch and listened to the radio in my car. One day I brought a clipboard and some pens to edit a short story manuscript. A year later I finished writing two-thirds of my first novel behind the steering wheel of my car, a 700-page manuscript that I haven’t figure out how to edit.

Those were the glory days of the mobile office.

After I got laid off on Friday the 13th in February 2009 (a memorable date the manager let me pick), I was out of work for two years, underemployed for six months (i.e., working 20 hours a month) and filed for a Chapter Seven bankruptcy. If I wasn’t interviewing for jobs, browsing the job board websites or answering arcane copyright questions from my bankruptcy attorney, I wrote and edit manuscripts from my home office.

Since then I held tech jobs that made the mobile office impractical, either the lunch breaks were too short or the parking lot was too far. I went back to taking lunch at my desk, using my work computer to write blog posts over the Internet. With my last job at the hospital, where my office was down the hall from the morgue in the basement and the scent of vanilla in the air meant a dead stiff wheeling by, daily blogging was a welcome distraction.

The mobile office returned this New Year after I started a new job with a long lunch break and a short walk to the car. I eat my lunch and listen to the radio for 15 minutes, and turn my attention to whatever I put on my clipboard that morning for the next 45 minutes. If I finish the manuscript early, I can start something new on the writing pad. This is the highlight of my workday.

Only once did someone thought it suspicious that I was writing on a clipboard in my car during the lunch hour.

An inexperienced rent-a-cop jerked open my unlocked car door and demanded to know what I was doing. I got out to confront him and he reached for his mace spray. Flashing my employee badge and explaining that I was on my lunch break didn’t satisfy him. What I wrote on my clipboard inside my car wasn’t any of his damn business, which is why I don’t bring my manuscripts into work. The rent-a-cop backed down after I threatened to call 911 to bring in a real police officer to resolve the situation.

What I found out from writing my first novel is that doing something small every day adds up to something big over time. (Or something so big that you don’t know what to do with it, but that’s a different problem.) Forty-five minutes per day can turn into 180 hours in a year. Some of my best writing got done in the mobile office.

Visiting The New Neighborhood Library On Bascom Avenue

Bascom Community Center & LibraryThree years after being built on the lot of the old Quement Electronics store, a Silicon Valley institution that served generations of ham radio enthusiasts and electronic engineers from the Great Depression into the late 1990’s, the Bascom Library finally opened its doors to the general public last month. This excited and disappointed me at the same time.

The money to build the new library branch came from a voter-approved bond initiative in 2000. After construction completed in 2010, the fences never came down. The City of San Jose cut the library budget every year during the Great Recession that there wasn’t enough money to keep the current libraries open for more than four days out of the week.

A budget surplus made opening of the community center possible last year. The fences came down and cars filled the empty parking lot, but the library was still closed. After the New Year, moving trucks showed up in the parking and workers pushed carts of books into the library. An opening date got announced for late February.

My roommate and I checked out the new library on a recent Saturday.

As I feared and expected, the 99-space parking lot was full. A quarter of the spaces went to the disabled, school buses and electric vehicles. Spaces for the disabled and school buses I can understand, but the Prius worship in Silicon Valley goes too far. The empty parking spots behind the adjacent funeral home had a sign announcing no library parking allowed. No parking on the neighborhood side was available. We parked on the Bascom Avenue side. A busy street that makes getting out of the driver side an adventure in timing.

My initial impression walking into the library that it’s very small. This was not the library I have envisioned as I drove by the chain-linked fences for three years. The new library that opened at San Jose City College in 2003 was larger than this. With the recent closing of Barnes & Noble down the street at The Pruneyard, I was hoping that the new library would replace it as a hangout spot. I doubt I’ll be allowed to browse the stacks with mocha in hand.

The sad reality is that the libraries never make money for the city. A councilman suggested replacing retiring librarians with volunteers to save money. Someone always call for shutting down the libraries because most citizens don’t use them. A community center has rooms for rent and a gym with membership fees that go into the city’s coffers, which would explain why the library takes up so little space in the 20,000-square-feet building.

We walked through the entire library in five minutes. The layout made every corner viewable from the reference desk. With a high school down the street, perhaps the layout discourages teenagers from finding a copy of “The Joy of Sex” by Alex Comfort and having illicit sex in the stacks. Not that the three-row deep stacks can conceal anything from the librarian’s eyes.

I found no writer-friendly cubbyholes. If I came here to write, I would have to sit at a table with everyone else and write like a performance artist. This library is a place to borrow and return books, not a writing haven to get away from everything else.