Pennies For Coinstar

All the pennies fit into a one-gallon sandwich that was roughly a 6″ x 6″ x 6″ cube.  I hauled that in a blue FoodMaxx canvas bag.  The plastic grocery bags that I had all had holes in them.  Even if I doubled up on the plastic bags, I didn’t want to risk the pennies from falling through and spilling out on the hot pavement outside of the store.  Knowing my luck, that would’ve happened.  No sense in crying over spilt pennies.

I lugged the heavy canvas bag into the store, ignoring the strange glances that people gave me.  No one walks into  a grocery store with a loaded canvas bag.  With my beard modestly trimmed, no one assumed that I was a terrorist planning to bomb the meat department and called the cops.  I’ve been shopping at this FoodMart since my college days in the early 1990s.  All the clerks know me as the guy who usually comes in with a gym bag after working out at the 24 Hour Fitness next door.  They didn’t give me a second glance when I made a beeline to the Coinstar machine.

This was my first time “recycling” pennies through a vending machine.  Whenever I had a surplus of pennies in the past, I rolled them up in paper rolls and took them down to the bank to deposit.  If you go into a bank today with rolls of coin, they may very well call the cops on you.  No one likes coins in the age of debit cards.  I followed the directions on the screen and started dumping the pennies into the tray.  I spent ten minutes listening to the rattle of pennies falling down into bucket inside the machine.

I’m a short story writer.  While waiting for the pennies to be counted, I imagined writing a scene with an old man, probably short and bald, hunched over the tray of pennies he hauled in on his hand cart like a paranoid gambler at a slot machine, watching people come and go through the nearby entrance, and then something weird happens.  I like to write about old people since I understand them better and they tell me interesting stories that no one else wants to hear.  I’m not sure what the weirdness would be if I wrote that into a story.  When I got home and took the elevator upstairs, I found a brown lizard blending in with the brown floor tile that hissed at me as I tapped my shoe next to it.  I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff inside that elevator over the years but that was the weirdest yet.  Maybe they’re connected somehow and someday I’ll write that story.

The Coinstar machine took everything except a Canadian penny that I put back in my pocket.  I had a grand total of 3,711 pennies, seven dimes and one nickel.  After a 9.8% service fee, I had $34.15 USD.  I thought I had like twenty bucks at the most.  That was more than enough for groceries.  I handed the print out to the clerk to pay for my groceries and received the remaining change.  I still have a smaller jar with bigger coins at home that I might bring in if I need the money for groceries next month.  As for the Canadian penny, I tossed that back into the empty penny jar.  I’ll see it again in another five years.


Driving Mister Dad – Part 3

I stopped the truck in the middle of the road.  “Oooo!” sounded liked I was going to drive his truck through the glass, nails and rocks to blow out all four tires.  “Oooo!” to him meant that I didn’t see the turnout and I needed to start making the U-turn. I blew up at him since he still didn’t trust my driving.  When I drove down the street and made the U-turn in a parking lot, he had the decency not to argue with me this time.

The common experience from my other relatives is that when a person reaches the age to be an Angry Senior Citizen, they loose the ability to ask for help and communicate verbally.  Seldom does Dad ever ask for something.  He wants me to read his mind and decode the various throat clearing, Morse code tapping and other noises that he creates to gain attention. When I don’t respond the way he wants me to, he gets mad at me.

After putting up with this for two months, I was going bonkers.

We had visited every Wal-Mart in the area except for the one in Morgan Hill that was smaller even by Wal-Mart standards. This Wal-Mart on Story Road turns out to be a short freeway hop from my place. I thought it was further out since it was on the east side of San Jose. According to expert opinions when I was growing up in the 1980s, east side is the wrong side of the railroad tracks (Mom at home) and the “ghetto side” (Geraldo Rivera on national TV). Times have change and the area looks better than I remembered. The store itself was cramped for space since it was being convered to a super store.  That’s good since the nearest super store is about 30 miles in Gilroy. I might start shopping here in the future when I have money to blow.  I usually spend $100 USD whenever I’m at a Wal-Mart. Dad was shopping to restock his trailer when he returns home.

Naturally, Angry Senior Citizen had to drive like a bat out of hell on the electric shopping cart.

The doctor cancelled his appointment the next morning and he did what I’d been telling everyone for months what he would do: loaded up his truck and took off down the road.  He left behind trash and dirty laundry, and stiffed me on the rent. He claimed that paying $800 USD to fix my car was enough compensation to cover the second month’s rent.  I told him that those repairs were for pre-existing conditions that he should’ve fixed before he gave me the car.  Since he was tighter than Ebenezer Scrooge with money, he never gone to the mechanic to fix a problem that he could’ve gotten on by with. Never mind that I did his taxes to get an $800 USD return that covered the car repairs, and saved him $1,800 USD in car insurance when I help him switch to AAA.

Of course, none of that counted to Angry Senior Citizen.

That was two weeks ago. My place is finally back to normal after a thorough cleaning to kill all the dust bunnies and remove all traces of Angry Senior Citizen.  Except for the carpets that had dribbles from the wheelchair.  I don’t have the extra money to rent a rug cleaner yet. Meanwhile, I’m driving up to Sacramento every two weeks to make sure Dad is doing okay. The first time I went up to his place by myself was on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, he paid me $50 USD for gas and wanted the spare change back.

Some things never change.


Driving Mister Dad – Part 2

We also visited four different Wal-Marts (San Jose, Gilroy, Mountain View and Roseville).  The San Jose (Monterey Road) and Mountain View stores were smaller than average with a limited grocery selection.  The first time Dad and I visited the Mountain View store was 6:30AM on Black Friday after Thanksgiving in 2005 where 16 police cars were outside for a riot that broke out over a cheap flat screen TV. On these two recent occasions, he was able to drive an electric cart around the store.  If he was driving the truck, he would’ve been arrested for DUI because of his medications.  Although he managed to run over my feet a half-dozen times, he didn’t kill anyone despite all the near misses and plowing through the crowds.  He didn’t like the Gilroy super store because the grocery department was on the wrong side (left instead of right), selection was limited and prices were higher than the local grocery stores.  The Roseville super store was, of course, perfect.  Except he was mad that three electric carts were out of order and the other two were being used by people more mobile than him.  Angry Senior Citizen in a wheelchair was less frightening than Angry Senior Citizen in an electric cart on full throttle.

Last month I had to take my car to the shop to replace the vacuum hose, fix a ground fault and install a new Interstate battery.  I was able to take the old battery back to Kragen for a warranty exchange and the shop bought back the battery.   However, that wasn’t the end of my car troubles.  This month I started having trouble starting up the car.  Went back into the shop where all the mechanics groaned when I drove up.  This time the ignition switch and right headlight was replaced.  Dad took the ignition switch apart to confirm that the contacts inside were worn down, which might’ve been the cause of all the electrical problems in the car.  The brand new Kragen battery was diagnosed as bad—the third one in a year.  I bought an Interstate battery from the shop.  When the clerks at Kragen found no record that the recent battery was exchanged under warranty six weeks before, they took back the battery and gave me a full refund.  Dad paid $800 USD in repair bills to get my car up and running again.  Whenever he complains about that, I remind him that he gave me a lemon—or a lime, the car is green—for my birthday three years ago and the yearly cost of insurance, registration and smog is more than the blue book value of the car.

Dad will have his last doctor appointment next week.  Whether he gets a clean bill of health or not, I’m kicking him out.  After two months of putting up with Angry Senior Citizen, I’m looking forward to getting my own place back.  He’ll be happy to get his own place back in Sacramento where all the over-the-air TV channels are in English and his neighbors are white as slice bread.  (He’s not racist, just stuck in the 1950s.)  I’m treating his departure the same way I treated the departure of the bedbugs a few summers ago: renting a rug shampooer to clean the carpets, putting my dedicated office space back together, and cleaning the apartment from top to bottom. I’ll be driving up to Sacramento every week or two to visit him and make sure he’s doing fine now that I know how to get to his trailer park and have the endurance to put up with the long drives.

Fortunately, my car doesn’t come with a backseat driver in the passenger seat.


The Tax Man Cometh

For the first time in ten years, I was filing my own federal tax return on paper.  I entered all the numbers into TurboTax and then figured out where to put all the numbers on the paper form.  I owed the federal government $452 in taxes on my unemployment benefits.  I wasn’t going to pay $150 to file through TurboTax.  My tax situation is somewhat complicated by the business side of being a writer.  If I didn’t have that, I would’ve followed the same steps that I did with Dad’s tax returns.  Fortunately, state owed me $338.  With Dad helping out with half the rent and covering my newest car repair bill for a replacement ignition switch and battery, I was able to pay off the tax.  I filed my state return for free using CalFile.

Doing my own taxes made me appreciate the small business angle that I haven’t considered before.  I’ve been writing in red for the last five years from buying all those red pens to revise my work.  I haven’t started making money until now and I’m hoping to break even this year.  After struggling to fill out my own tax return, I took some steps to avoid repeating this awful annual ritual.

First, breaking down the numbers on a quarterly basis.  Shoving all the receipts into an envelope all year long is the easy part.  Figuring out how to break down the numbers at tax time is very time consuming.  Doing that every three months will make putting the final numbers together a snap.  I also did my first profit and loss statement.  I haven’t done one of those since I took business courses in college.  I’m updating that every two weeks to keep tabs on my income and expenses.  Ideally, income goes up and expenses come down.

Second, I started filing estimated taxes for both federal and state.  Technically, I’m not required to do so.  This is a preventive measure on my part to avoid not paying enough tax when I file my return next year.  If you start making some serious money as a writer, you want your tax bill to be current at all times.  Since I’ve shown a loss on tax returns for five years with little income, I need to prove that I’m running a business.  Only an honest small business would fork over money to the tax man.

Third, if I do reach the break even point and make more than $400 in profits, I will have to pay a 15% self-employment tax.  At first, that made me mad.  Looking into this deeper, this is half of what I would be paying in a regular job plus the employer contribution.  This amount is then reduced in half as a personal deduction.  Doesn’t make much sense but that’s how the tax law works.

I’m hoping that this year will be very profitable indeed—even if I do have to pay more in taxes.


American Express Is Just Another Credit Card Company

When the credit card companies notified me that they were increasing my rates to 30%, they gave me two choices: I could accept this highway robbery or close the accounts at the current interest rates.   So I closed out the accounts.  Only later on did I learn that this is classic “damn if you do, damn if you don’t” situation.

I couldn’t afford to accept the status quo with the new rates.  Turned out I couldn’t afford the closed accounts when the interest rates stayed the same but the minimum balance payments doubled or tripled from before.  Paying these outrageous amounts wasn’t in my best financial interest after being out of work for a year and I no longer had any savings.  So I restructured my budget to pay my credit card bills 90% less than I was paying before the rate increases.

What comes around goes around.

After I closed out those accounts and started making reduced payments, I got an American Express card after I read that charge cards were coming back in style.  What did I use my charge card for?  Paying off all my monthly utility bills and expenses when they came in, and then paying off the entire balance a few days after the billing statement close.  This saved me some money since I wasn’t paying late fees because my cash flow often didn’t match when the bills were due.  Very convenient.

Unfortunately, American Express requested my credit score and canceled my card based on that.  Turned out that closing those credit card accounts and reducing payments by 90% had adversely affected my credit score.  I also spent twice my usual amount this month since my car needed repairs and I got some stuff for Dad after he was released from the hospital to stay at my place.  All of which I was reimbursed for by Dad.  I was now a credit risk to American Express.  Never mind that I had used my card responsibly and made prompt payments.  That doesn’t count.  Funny how I thought universal default was outlawed in the recent credit card reforms passed by Congress.

I’m not sure what I want to do next.  If I reapply for another American Express card and get approved, I would have to pay a $25 USD reinstatement.  Uh, no.  My card shouldn’t have been canceled in the first place.  I’m not going to pay an extra fee for the privileged of being screwed over.  I would’ve kept my credit card accounts opened if I wanted to be screwed over.  I’m still waiting to see if this same nonsense will happen with my business credit card that was opened under my Federal Identification Number.  If so, I will be out of credit cards entirely.  Cash will be king in my life.  Thanks to the Great Recession and the greedy credit card companies, that might be the best thing to happen to me.


Driving Mister Dad – Part 1

The moment we got out of hospital, he tried to assert his independence and insisted on driving to San Jose in his truck.  That was a scary ride with him straddling the lanes and nearly hitting some cars in a zero visibility rain storm.  My brother and I forced him to give up the keys at a gas station in Fairfield.  Only later when I went through the medication that he’s taking did I discovered that he was driving under the influence.

I drove his truck back.  A big Dodge Ram with a Hemi engine that my Dad was reluctant to let me drive.  I have never driven a truck before and never a vehicle with an engine that powerful.  However, I did followed my brother all the way back without incident and Dad fell asleep because I’m a careful driver.  My brother is the one who routinely gets tickets for speeding and tossing his cigarette butts out on the highway.  I went into computers and he went into cars, which I have to constantly remind Dad about when he thinks I’m driving too carefully.

He’s been getting better since I’m taking care of him now.  I used to take care of a roommate for four years who died from Lou Gerhig’s Disease.  All the old habits of denying myself to take care of someone else kicked back in.  Although I’m squeamish about needles, I got used to injecting Dad with insulin four times a day.  The swelling in his legs has gone down and the sores on his feet are healing.  A home nurse visits us once or twice a week and we been to Kaiser in Santa Clara for doctor appointments.

While I been driving Dad around in his truck to doctor appointments at Kaiser in Santa Clara, my own car ended up in the shop.  For the last two months, the engine been stalling out in idle every two weeks in the parking lot at my apartment complex.  Then it started happening more frequently at intersections and once on the highway.  When I drove back from seeing Alice in Wonderland at Oakridge Mall last Saturday night, I noticed the battery light flickering on the dashboard and told my friend that the engine would stall out a moment before it did at my apartment complex.  I went over to Kragen to have the battery tested and it appeared that the alternator was overcharging the battery.  I took the car over to the John’s Bascom Auto for troubleshooting and the mechanics couldn’t figured out the problem.

Then Dad mentioned a loose ground cable may be the cause.

My car used to be his car.  Unless I’m having a problem with the car, he never tells me what problems he had.  (After having the car for two years now, everything should be fixed.)  When I informed the mechanics, they fixed two ground faults, replaced a vacuum hose to the brake booster and installed a brand new battery.  Seems like I’m driving a completely different car and the brakes are no longer stiff.  I’m taking the old battery back to Kragen to exchange under warranty.  The mechanics said they would buy back their battery if I got mine replaced.  Dad is paying for the repairs since I been fixing all the problems that he had worked around to avoid fixing.

How is this affecting me as a writer?  A lot.  My dedicated office space was cut in half to make room for another twin bed.  Since Dad has the TV running 24 hours a day, he’s been respecting my privacy to work on writing after dinner.  I had submitted my short story collection to the Prairie Schooner Book Prizes contest last weekend after spending months editing the 28 short stories that I written over the last three years.  This week I’m finalizing my vampire novella to submit to an ebook publisher.  I had reviewed two-third of the current draft today while in a waiting room at Kaiser today.  Next week I start editing my first novel in earnest for the next nine months.  Plus being in a hospital environment is giving me a lot of useful medical information for future stories.  If Dad is going to stay with me for a while, writing is the only escape I have from the TV and his snoring.

Losing Interest On The Plain Old Savings Account

That’s exactly what I did with the savings that I’m rebuilding.

I opened a new stock trading account at ShareBuilders and pay a $4/month fee to invest my savings deposit into shares of iShares Barclays Treasury Inflation Protected Securities Bond Fund (TIP).  If I’m going to pay a monthly service fee for saving money, I might as well get my money worth.

Unlike a regular savings account, I’m extremely reluctant to move money out of a stock brokerage account.  A transfer usually takes three or four days to be processed and figuring out the capital gains for tax purposes takes that long too.  The quarterly dividend payment will be more than what I get in interest from the bank and is automatically reinvested into the fund.  A bond index fund avoids the complications that comes from directly investing in Series I savings bonds and safeguard my money from deflation and inflation.  Based on all the information that I read in recent months, I suspect inflation will be an issue in the future.

This works as long as the stock market doesn’t go belly up.  Unlike plain old savings account, there’s no insurance protecting a stock brokerage account.  If everyone cashed out their chips at the same time, my entire savings will disappear.  Considering that federal government had bailed out Wall Street once already, and the bankers are still gambling that the federal government will rescue them again, a total economic collapse seems unlikely.

A more conservative option would be to open an Orange savings account that pays better interest rates and doesn’t charge a monthly service fee.  I have a small savings account with them for leftover gas money from my budget to cover car expenses and save up for a new used car.  I could’ve opened another account with them.  That wouldn’t removed the temptation from periodically raiding the account.  A stock brokerage account forces me to consider the costs of moving my money around.


Steve Jobs Gave Us The iPad

The initial impression that I gathered from my Twitter feed of writers and webcomic artists was using the iPad for presenting content.  Most writers saw the iPad and the iBookstore as an ebook competitor and what it means for publishing as a whole.  Most webcomic artists saw the iPad as a platform to present their archives or put together 24-page comics at near full-size and in color.  I’m looking at the iPad as a portable writing device and a programming platform.

What I need the most was a mobile replacement for my aging Mac mini (PPC) that has grown long in the tooth since the hard drive was killed last summer by killer dust bunnies after nearly five years of continuous use.  I need Pages (wordprocessing) from iWork for writing.  Check.  I need a virtual and physical keyboard support.  Check.  The price had to be less than a replacement Mac mini (Intel).  Check.

Ding-ding-ding! We got a winner!

As a writer, I can load up the iPad with my files and go anywhere to work with my manuscripts. Maybe the iPad will wean me away from yellow notepads and pens to finally embrace the paperless office.  Or someone will introduced a yellow notepad app with superb handwriting recognition.  Or, if the iPad ends up like my iPod Touch, it’ll make a great paperweight Kindle reader.

I’m also looking for a new programming platform.  If I had the time, money and motivation when the iPhone first came out, I might’ve gotten in early on the app store craze and become an instant millionaire.  I haven’t been enchanted by either the iPhone or Touch to jump on the bandwagon since then.  The one thing that I learned about being successful at anything is finding a niche that no one else wants and run with it.  I see opportunities to make to create applications that take advantage of the new iPad features.

I recently started reviewing the C programming language and plan to learn Objective-C programming language and the iPhone/iPad SDK.  My first applications will be similar to the Joomla! modules that I have done to pull pictures from various Twitter-based picture sharing websites.  If you look at Apple app store, you will find plenty of applications to upload pictures to these websites.  None, however, will pull pictures from those websites, present them in a slide show, and enable a user to set a picture as the wallpaper.

A more ambitious application is a kid-friendly turtle graphics with the LOGO programming language.  Why resurrect a near dead programming language on the iPad?

  • There’s nothing like that available in the Apple app store.
  • The perfect opportunity to create a virtual version of Big Trak programmable tank that I loved as a kid, which, unbeknown to me at the time, was a physical version of the LOGO turtle.  (When Big Trak is reintroduced this year, I’m planning to get one and may casually steal the keypad interface for my own application.)
  • The Berkeley LOGO (UCBLOGO) is a freeware interpreter with C source code that I can use in my own application without having to reinvent the wheel.
  • The iPad is the perfect platform for an application of this nature.

When I get this application done, there are several more ideas I would like to pursue.  Once upon a time, I wanted to be a game programmer.  The iPad might be my ticket — especially if I become an instant millionaire.

The Video Game Industry Sweatshop

I read over the weekend that Rockstar Games employees are badly overworked in an open letter from their wives.  This is the samedevelopment studio that made Grand Theft Auto into a $1 billion franchise.  They apparently have no extra cash to change the work environment for the employees working in the trenches by giving them raises, hiring more employees to reduce grueling work hours and letting them have vacations.  The situation is so bad that employees are exhibiting suicidal tendencies, their marriages are on the rocks, and the future of the studio is in jeopardy.  (Working for a drug-addled rock band would be easier in comparison.)  The executive management team, of course, blew off the open letter as “the opinions of a few anonymous posters on message boards[.]”

If you’re familiar with the video game industry, this won’t surprise you at all.  The trend over the last ten years is for the executive management team to emulate the Wall Street corporate model: squeezing the blood out of the workers in the trenches, boosting the short-term profits to keep the markets happy, and kicking the money upstairs as bonuses.  (This model replaced the Hollywood “content is king” strategy that failed miseribly after most of the development studios relocated to Southern California.)  Employees are “resources” to be used, abused and fired at will.  If this process ruins the lives of employees and destroys the studio, the executive management team can always bail out to find another studio to ruin.

The video game industry has become the sweatshop of the 21st century.

What did surprise me was that the Sony Playstation Network has a reality game show, The Tester, where the contestants compete for a video game testing position.  That’s pure fantasy.  The sofas are long gone to put in more cubicles in any studio that has embraced Wall Street.  Contrary to public perceptions about working in the video game industry, being a tester stops being fun and games after the first six weeks and becomes pure hell when crunch time is all the time.  The recent Penny Arcade webcomic reveals the stark reality for the potential winner: long hours of being in the same dim cube for days on end, testing an unplayable video game that no one likes, and eating a “nutrient-rich sludge” every eight hours (i.e., the roach coach or Taco Bell).

After having spent six years as a tester and lead tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises) that went from a family-owned company to a corporate hellhole, I’m using that experience as the basis for my first novel to reveal the truth about the video game industry and convey all the funny stories that I have witnessed, heard about or been involved in.  (More romans à clef than kiss and tell.)  The only major difference with reality is that my novel has a pissed off ghost with homicidal tendencies.  Considering some of the things that I went through, a homicidal ghost would’ve been a blessing.