The Nickel-&-Dime Business For “Other” Utilities

Upside Down Piggy BankWhen I first moved into my apartment almost eight years ago, I didn’t have to pay for the water, sewage and garbage. As the Great Recession lingered on, the new residents had to pay for those services and existing residents were “grandfathered” from paying. That changed last year. I wasn’t happy to pay an extra $60 USD per month, especially with a nickel-and-dime utility billing company (i.e., a $2.50 USD “convenience” fee for paying by credit/debit card).

I mailed a check immediately after receiving the bill in the mail because that was FREE. On the few occasions that my check was “late” (it wasn’t) and my account was hit with a $15 USD late charge, I talked the leasing office into rescinding the late charge. After the paper bill failed to show up in the mail for two months in a row, I sent off letters to start the document chain to file a complaint with the department of consumer affairs. I eventually gave in to paying the damn the convenience fee to avoid the monthly hassles I was going through with the leasing office.

These utility billing companies fall into a legal gray area where they aren’t regulated by the state and local laws, can nickel-and-dime consumers every which way, and use the threat of eviction to encourage prompt payment. The first time I saw the notice that I was behind on the utilities (the paper bill went “missing” in the mail) that threatened eviction taped on the door for everyone to read, I was pissed me off. The leasing manager promised to change the language of the notice since an eviction wouldn’t happen until after the second or third warning for non-payment. The notice was never changed.

I found a new notice on my door that the leasing office was changing utility billing companies. Tenants will no longer have to pay a convenience fee for using their credit/debit card, and can pay the utility bill with their rent at the leasing office. The new billing company wasn’t in the nickel-and-dime business. That was a good change for everyone at the complex. And then I read the next to last paragraph on the notice.

The leasing office reserved the right to apply payment to any unpaid utility bill balance first and the rent balance second. If your check doesn’t cover everything, the utility bill will get paid first, the remainder towards rent and a $150 USD fee for failure to pay the rent in full. This is the same tactic that the banks used to generate overdraft fees by paying the checks first and applying deposits last before Congress put an end to such abusive practices.

Unlike these utility billing companies, the leasing office does fall under state and local laws. I’ll see how this situation plays out before I start writing letters to elected officials and government agencies. This nickel-and-dime business to generate extra income at someone else’s expense has to come to an end.

San Jose Arena Renamed As The “S-A-P” Center

SAP CenterThe renaming of the San Jose Arena was made official as the HP Pavilion became the SAP Center. That’s pronounced as S-A-P (not “sappy”) Center. However, if the San Jose Sharks have a bad season, the informal nickname might be the Crappy Center. The sad reality is that the name for the arena doesn’t matter. I can’t recall ever telling someone I was going to the HP Pavilion for an event. It was always the San Jose Arena. I doubt I’ll be pronouncing the arena as “S-A-P” on a regular basis.

Crashing At SFO With Carryon Luggage In Hand

SFO Plane CrashThe Fourth of July weekend was relatively quiet in Silicon Valley. With the downtown San Jose fireworks show cancelled this year, no air cannons thumped the ground a few miles away to launch fireworks. No idiots shot fireworks from their balcony, and, despite a few M-80s going off, the apartment complex didn’t burn to the ground. The only major fireworks was an airplane crash landing at SFO on Saturday, especially this picture showing people exiting the burning airliner with luggage in hand.

I have never taken an airplane trip. That will change next month when I go to Las Vegas for my birthday. My roommate reassured that me that the 737’s that Southwest Airlines flies are older than the 777’s flown by Asiana Airlines. That’s reassuring (I think). If the airplane I’m on does a crash landing on the tarmac, the last thing I’ll do is haul out my carryon luggage from the overhead bin, blocked everyone else in the aisle from getting out, go down the emergency slide and drag it across the tarmac.

From the various reports that I read, first class passengers were able to grab their carryon luggage and head for the slides, business class passengers got stuck as the slides didn’t deploy, and coach passengers got screwed as the tail section hit the seawall and broke off. The more I read about this crash, the more I’m reminded of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912: first class passengers got into the lifeboats, business passengers grabbed whatever else that floated, and everyone else went down with the ship.

The stupidity of some people never ceases to amaze me.

I have to wonder what was so important in their carryon luggage that they couldn’t leave it behind. With airport security being the way it is, I doubt they were trying to smuggle anything valuable through customs like a pouch of diamonds, a stash of weed, or a flock of parrots. One pair stood next to two boxes of duty-free alcohol while watching the airplane burn, raising questions whether the boxes got smuggled on board or stolen from the kitchen area. Since a gaggle of Silicon Valley executives was on this flight, their most valuable possession was probably data on a smartphone in their pants pocket.

Do You Know The Way To Alviso?

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One of my pet peeves is how the national news media represents California in general and Silicon Valley in particular. When Los Angeles had a sharp four-point-something earthquake a few years ago, CNN carried on as if California slid into the ocean and ran a video clip from a grocery store surveillance camera that showed very little shaking going on. As for stories filmed in Silicon Valley, San Francisco is a convenient backdrop despite being 50 miles away.

While browsing Bloomberg BusinessWeek, I came across a video feature called “Welcome To The Ghost Town of Silicon Valley” about Alviso, a small town abandoned to the marshes and the residential area annexed by San Jose in the 1960’s. As I watched the video, I started moaning at the factual errors being made by the reporter.

Alviso is nowhere near Mountain View (Google) or Palo Alto (Facebook). What’s over there is the Shoreline Amphitheater built on top of a landfill. The early rock concerts literally went up in smoke as the grassy viewing area behind the seating caught on fire from the methane gas bubbling up from the landfill underneath. Pumping stations pump out the methane gas to make the grassy area safe. The only grass that goes up in smoke is the joints that concertgoers bring themselves.

The train tracks that passes through Alviso and the marshes doesn’t go to San Francisco. The northeast tracks follow the coastline of the east bay and the delta into Sacramento. After my parents retired to Sacramento in the 1990’s, I took the Amtrak Capitol Corridor to visit them because the fare was half the cost of gas for a car but took twice as long to get there. I didn’t mind since I didn’t have a car and loved to travel by train. This is the best way to view the ruined houses and boats left in the marshes.

If you want to travel through Mountain View and Palo Alto on the way to San Francisco, you take Caltrain on the northwest tracks. Board either train at the downtown San Jose train station. The tracks split into different directions in after the San Jose/Santa Clara border.

You would think that Bloomberg BusinessWeek could afford a few fact checkers—or consult an amateur historian who could correct their mistaken reporter.

The Men’s Wearhouse Guy Is Out Of The Job

When the news broke that George Zimmer of the Men’s Wearhouse—not to be confused with vigilante George Zimmerman who went on trial for murder—got fired from his own company, I couldn’t believe it. I practically grew up on his TV and radio commercials with his signature line, “You’re going to like the way you look—I guarantee it,” over the last 30 years.

However, this is a familiar tale of woe when the founder invites outside investors to put up money and eventually loses control over the company. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. I predict that Zimmer will get the board to pay dearly for putting him out to pasture, the board will give itself a raise for getting rid of a troublesome founder, and Wall Street will drive up the stock price.

As for the Men’s Wearhouse customers, there’s always Rochester Big & Tall Clothing.

Becoming A Registered Democrat Again

The American VoteI got a DMV notice in the mail to renew my California identity card. That’s weird. I surrendered my identity card to the DMV in 2007 when I got my driver license at the tender age of 37. (Yeah, I’m a late bloomer.) Both my identity card and driver license have the same identification number. When it came time to shop for car insurance, AAA charged me $420 USD per year for minimum liability and no collision because of my unblemished driving record that dates back to my teenage years.

No sense in renewing my old identity card now. Looking through the paperwork inside the DMV envelope, I came across a voter registration form. The last time I filled out one of those was when I moved into my apartment almost eight years ago.

I was a flaming liberal as a teenager, growing up on the various political scandals during the Carter and Reagan administrations to become a political news junkie in the 1980’s. If the Internet was available ten years earlier and I wasn’t 20 years behind the times, I would have blogged those Republican scandals to death.

My first election was in 1988. I voted for Governor Mike Dukakis (D) who lost to Vice President George H.W. Bush (R), which my mother cruelly jeered me because my “wasted” vote didn’t count towards the winner. But I also voted for a state-wide cigarette tax initiative that forced my father to quit smoking because he couldn’t afford to buy his weekly carton.

After becoming a Christian in college in 1992, my political views became more conservative and I eventually registered as a Republican. I voted twice against President Bill Clinton (D) after he defeated H.W. in 1992 and Senator Bob Dole (R) in 1996. Although the Internet came about in the late 1990’s, I was still 20 years behind the time and didn’t blogged those Democratic scandals to death.

I was working at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises) during the 2000 election, being the only fat white boy Republican in a QA department filled with Democrats. Everyone gave me a hard time for voting for the “losing” side. The mood turned ugly when the Supreme Court anointed Governor George W. Bush (R) over Vice President Al Gore (D) as president a few months later. No one was a happy, and, being a Christian, I couldn’t gloat about my “winning” vote.

I voted for Senator John Kerry (D) in 2004 after W. ignored the real war in Afghanistan and dragged the country into an unnecessary war in Iraq. I voted twice for President Barack Obama (D)—the best conservative president that the Democrats ever nominated—after Senator John McCain (R) in 2008 and Governor Mitt Romney (R) in 2012 led the Republican Party down the rabbit hole into political extremism.

With the registration form in hand, I filled it out to become a registered Democrat again to match my recent voting record. I still consider myself a moderate conservative. This comes after the Supreme Court announced their 5-4 decision to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protects all Americans.

The Slick Willie-Moonbeam Jerry Bay Bridge

Bay Bridge Western SpanWhen politicians have nothing better to do, they love to rename public buildings and infrastructures. The U.S. Congress, for example, made renaming the local post offices a top legislative priority that such bills constitute 20% of their “do nothing” agenda. California state legislators are getting into the renaming frenzy by proposing to rename the western half of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after “Slick” Willie Brown. As for the scandal-plagued eastern half that connects to Oakland, they should rename it after Governor “Moonbeam” Jerry Brown.

On the bright side, they’re not selling the naming rights to the highest bidder.

The public naming convention for the person being given the honor of having a local landmark rename after him—almost always a man who gets this honor—should have been dead for at least five years. Not anymore. At least, not in Silicon Valley.

The San Jose Convention Center got renamed in 1991 after Tom McEnery, a former mayor of San Jose who spearheaded much of the downtown redevelopment that included the convention center and the arena.

The downtown San Jose train station had many names over the years as ownership changed from Southern Pacific to Caltrain. The most recent name change in 1994 was after Ron Diridon, a former county supervisor who spearheaded the renovation of the station to become a future transportation hub for the light rail (done), high-speed rail (someday) and BART (when hell freezes over).

The San Jose International Airport was rename in 2001 after Norman Mineta, a former mayor of San Jose who went on to serve as a congressman, commerce secretary for President Bill Clinton and transportation secretary for President George W. Bush.

Notice the general trend here? If you can spend a substantial amount of taxpayer monies on facilities and transportation networks, you too can have something rename after you without being buried in the ground for five years.

If we have to rename the bay bridge after the Browns, let’s use their political nicknames to sum up the absurdity of the situation: The Slick Willie-Moonbeam Jerry Bay Bridge.

Another Ho-Hum Name For The San Jose Arena

HP_PavilionBefore the the arena opened in 1993, the San Jose Mercury News held a contest for readers to name the new public facility. THE EPICENTER was the winning name, which meant being the middle of things and shaking up the world that represented both California and Silicon Valley. The newspaper incorporated the name with a cool earthquake circular pattern and seismograph line logo.

Alas, the city council ignored the naming contest.

For the next seven years, everyone called it the San Jose Arena. When selling the naming rights to public buildings became vogue for cash-strapped cities to do, Compaq bought the naming rights and renamed the arena as the Compaq Center in 2001. After Hewlett-Packard bought Compaq in 2002, the arena became the HP Pavilion.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, the arena will become the SAP Center in 2016.

But a city description of the upcoming agenda item described it as a deal between Hewlett-Packard, San Jose Arena Management and the city to terminate the current naming rights agreement and approve a new five-year deal with SAP Global Marketing Inc. to rename the San Jose Arena SAP Center at San Jose. The city would receive $1.675 million annually for a total of $8.375 million over the term of the deal.

Why the SAP Center? The founder of SAP (a German-based business software company), Hasso Plattner, is the majority owner of the San Jose Sharks. As Mayor Chuck Reed explained to KGO Radio, SAP does a lot of advertising at the arena and it made sense for them to put their name on the arena.

My first visit to the arena was a Bruce Springsteen concert in 2008 after my friend won tickets to the mosh pit. A very memorable night: the number “666” was on the wristband I wore to get in, a pair of Christian fundamentalists stood on the sidewalk with a megaphone to denounce rock and roll as Satan’s music, and a young woman rub her ass against my crotch for two minutes before she realized that her boyfriend wandered off for a restroom break.

Since then I’ve been to several Shark hockey games, another Bruce Springsteen concert, a San Francisco Bulls exhibition game, and a Harlem Globetrotters game.

As for the San Francisco 49er’s new stadium in Santa Clara, no one bothered with a naming contest. Levi Strauss & Co. is paying $220 million USD over the next 20 years to call the new stadium the Levi’s Stadium. With Super Bowl 50 on deck for 2016, scoring a pair of tickets will be a seat of the pants affair.

Who Knew We Were Playing Monopoly Wrong?!

Monopoly The GameAn old blog post about how everyone doesn’t play the Monopoly board game according to the official rules has gone viral on the Internet. (I first read about this on the Huffington Post.) We were all taught as children from our parents and friends that when a player lands on an unoccupied square, the player has the option to buy the property from banker at the printed price on the card. If the property isn’t bought, it becomes available for purchase to the next player who lands on the square.

According to the official rules, the banker has to auction the property to the other players if the player chose not to buy it. The purpose of this rule is for the players to complete the property sets to start building houses and hotels, reducing the amount of cash that players are holding—or hoarding—to bring the game to an end sooner rather than later.

I wished I’ve known that rule as a child when my father taught me how to play Monopoly. After spending two to three hours going around the board, someone would win and someone would lose. I seldom won—and left the kitchen table crying in frustration. Not because my father was being cruel (he wasn’t). I just hated the idea of investing so much time into a game that I ultimately lose in the end.

We eventually switched to the Yahtzee dice game, where the shorter rounds made losing more bearable for my father and the probability of the dice rolls made winning more likely for me.

The crying frustration of losing after a long game wasn’t beaten out of me until I became a professional video game tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises) for six years. My first assignment was testing a broken build of Test Drive 5 for the Sony PlayStation. Every game ended in a crash after the car cross the finish line. I played ~3,000 races for six long weeks. Race, crash, reset. The daily monotony was soul crushing.

Jonny Nexus, the author of the old blog post, has written a blog post about being part of an Internet viral sensation. A fascinating read about having the international news media bang down your door for pointing out the rules of Monopoly in an obscure corner of the Internet that someone else tweeted about.

The Damned At The World’s End

I heard about “The World’s End” before I saw the trailer, where a British group of middle-aged childhood friends return home to attempt a legendary pub crawl of drinking 12 pints from 12 pubs in one night and somewhere along the way getting ambushed by zombies. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost already did that movie, “Shaun of The Dead,” where all the characters are trap inside a pub surrounded by zombies. “The World’s End” needed a better premise than that if I was going to hand over my hard-earned money.

And then I saw the trailer.

The movie, besides being about a legendary pub crawl, is a remake of the “Village of The Damned” movies. The 1960 British version and the 1995 American version were based on “The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham, where a remote village undergoes a mysterious event for 24 hours and every child-bearing female becomes pregnant with alien children who are born with pale complexion, blond hair, glowing eyes, great intelligence and telepathic powers. Like the cuckoo bird that lays its eggs in other bird nests, the children become a threat to humanity.

With glowing eyes, robotic behavior and blue ink for blood, the damned at “The World’s End” is looking pretty damn good.

The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins By Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy sings a ditty about Biblo Baggins the Hobbit in the Spock vs. Spock car commercial. Since golf was a prominent theme, I thought this was a cute reference to “The Hobbit” movie about the ancestor of Biblo Baggins, Bandobras “Bullroarer” Took, who loped off a goblin head into a rabbit hole to invent the game of golf.

Not quite.

The song, “The Ballad of Biblio Baggins” was sung by Nimoy for a variety TV show in 1967, when “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of The Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien became popular with the baby boomers in the United States. As “Star Trek: The Original Series” was in production at the time, Nimoy sported his Vulcan haircut during this appearance.

The Spock Vs. Spock Car Commercial

The Spock Vs. Spock car commercial came out just before the release of “Star Trek Into the Darkness” in the theaters was probably more revealing about the movie than the worst kept secret about who the super villain would be. (The inclusion of Carol Marcus played by Alice Eve was a dead giveaway.) One of the best kept secret was a cameo by Leonard Nimoy, where the younger Spock (Zachary Quinto) called the older Spock for help.

I saw the movie twice in the same week. The first time was at a sneak preview showing hours before the official midnight showing at the AMC Cupertino Square, where the audience—some dressed in costume—were hooting and hollering whenever major characters introduced themselves and events unfolded. The second time was with a general audience at the Camera 12 Cinema that was less enthusiastic about watching the movie, perhaps overwhelmed by the stunning visual effects and convoluted storyline.

As for the commercial, I found it fascinating that Nimoy would drop an F-bomb when he discovered that his golf clubs wouldn’t fit inside the trunk. If he played golf on a regular basis with this car (unlikely since it had no license plate), he would have already known that the golf clubs wouldn’t fit in the trunk. His emotional response seems… illogical.