The California Community Colleges Crisis

When I went back to San Jose City College to learn computer programming ten years ago, I knew it would be tough. The dot com bubble went kablooey. Computers were out, health care was in. I couldn’t get the classes I needed in the beginning because there were too many students, and the classes I needed towards the end were cancelled for not having enough students. After five years of going to school on a part-time basis while working full time, I made the dean’s list  in my final semester for maintaining a 4.0 GPA in my major.

Unless I won the lottery and returned to San Jose State University to complete my bachelor degree in something (I was a mathematics major before they kicked me out in 1995), I wouldn’t dream of going back to a community college for classes. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the community colleges are so impacted from the Great Recession that many students are lucky to get any classes at all.

Frustrated students linger on waiting lists or crash packed classes hoping professors will add them later. They see their chances of graduating or transferring diminishing.

It’s a product of years of severe budget cuts and heavy demand in the two-year college system. The same situation has affected the Cal State and UC systems, but the impact has been most deeply felt in the 2.4-million-student community college system — the nation’s largest.

Taking forever to get a college degree used to be optional. Now it’s a requirement. If you want it, persevere until you get all your classes. If you don’t want it, work at Taco Bell until you retire.

Perhaps I was lucky to return to school when I did. Uncle Sam paid for my books and classes with a $3,000 USD tax credit meant to transition workers into a new career. Ironically, I never did get a programming job after graduating in 2007. The only programming I do now is for maintaining my websites.

I got a help desk job at a Fortune 500 company in Mountain View in 2005. Unlike finding and reporting bugs in video games, I was finding and documenting solutions for problems that users were reporting. The pay was better ($24 USD versus $16 USD) for fewer hours (40 hours versus 80 hours). I stayed at this job for nearly three years. Help desk, like becoming a video game tester years earlier, became my new career almost by accident.

The only educational opportunities I have is updating my tech certifications. The A+, Network+ and Microsoft Windows 2000 certifications that I got while in school are long in the tooth. The certifications that I need today are Microsoft Windows 7 and Apple Mac OS X. I can study for those without taking any classes. Between working help desk during the day and writing at night, I have very little time to sit in a classroom even if I could get classes.

The Silver Economy Is Ruining My Tech Career

Following the aftermath of the dot com bubble, I went back to college to learn computer programming. Most people thought I was crazy. Computers were out, health care was in. With baby boomers retiring en masse in the coming years, employers would find it impossible to fill so many open computer positions. Plenty of future opportunities for me. And then the Great Recession came along. Now baby boomers don’t want to retire from their jobs, which is ruining my tech career.

Baby boomers, I came to learn, are a very whiny bunch.

A typical sob story is a Baby Boomer couple who bought a house that they couldn’t afford at the top of real estate market (mistake #1). They borrowed the down payment from their retirement accounts (mistake #2), which has to be paid back or hefty taxes will be due, and took out an adjustable interest mortgage with low payments for the first few years (mistake #3). The couple needed two jobs to pay their bills and maintain their “affluent” lifestyle on credit cards (mistake #4). Everything was going good until Wall Street cratered the economy. The husband lost his job and the wife works fewer hours. Now they can’t afford to retire and must continue to work. Whining to me about their woes doesn’t help (mistake #5).

I’ve heard countless variations of this theme over the last few years. I want to shove a dead hard drive down their throats when they start going off on their spiel. Whine, whine, whine. I’m sick and tired of hearing how their version of the American dream got flushed down the toilet while their pants were down.

So what? Life sucks. Move on.

Their sense of entitlement is so out of whack with reality that they haven’t figured out that they need to make some huge adjustments. Like downward. All the way downward. They had the best life for the second half of the 20th century. Now that the 21st century is here, the economy is kicking their sorry asses. The party is over, the hungover is here.

As a Gen Xer who grew up in the shadow of baby boomers, I don’t feel incline to whine about my circumstances. (Unless it’s my personal blog here, which is read by two dozen spammers who leave interesting comments in the spam queue about my blog posts and their penis enlargement pills.) I’ve been unemployed for two years, underemployed (working 20 hours per month) for six months, filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and worked more jobs in the last two years than the previous decade. Not the kind of things you want to whine about at work.

When my father passed away from lung cancer this year, my baby boomer brother complained that he died in a “shitty little trailer” in Sacramento. But that trailer home was paid for. Born in the Great Depression and raised during World War II, my father knew how to live within his means. Something that baby boomers need to learn for the first time.

The Agony Of A Flu Shot

My full time non-writing job is replacing computers at a hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have zero contact with patients as I go about my rounds to replace dust bunny infested computers that are years past being replaced. But, because this is a hospital, I had to get a flu shot to protect everyone else. If I haven’t, I would have to wear a mask during the flu season—or risk losing my job. Until this requirement was imposed on me, I thought peeing into a cup for a drug test was bad enough.

The first time I got a flu shot as an adult was at a company sponsored event in 2006, where we were herded into a big empty room to stand in line, fill out a form, and sit down for the shot. I made a huge scene as I became indecisive about getting a flu shot, going back and forth like a drama queen. Everyone was or laughing or smiling,  telling me that it wasn’t a big deal.

Somehow I got the shot. Somehow I made it back to my cubicle without collapsing. Somehow I caught the shuttle bus, commuter train and light rail back home without puking. Somehow I allowed a needle to pierce my skin for the first time in years.

I was in the third grade when my back went out in the late 1970’s. For whatever reason, an ambulance wasn’t called. No school nurse available. My teacher drove me over to her family doctor. An old man who seemed to specialized in two forms of treatments: requesting blood tests from a lab and sticking his index finger up my fat ass. I sometimes caught him sniffing his finger. I was too young to know if this was right or wrong.

I threw a screaming fit every time I went to the lab. Two big guys dressed in white would hold me down on the examination table. Somehow I willed myself to stay still as my blood was drawn. Every. Single. Time. I’ve been skittish about needles ever since.

As for the doctor, he retired to Florida. Another family got wind of his preferred treatment for young children and threatened to call the police if he didn’t pay them off. He got out of town just before the district attorney’s office cracked down on paid referrals between doctors and labs.

I’ve been getting a flu shot every other year since 2006. Although I don’t throw a crying fit anymore, my legs still get rubbery and I’m on the verge of passing out. I usually end up with a sore arm and a slight fever after being inoculated.

The flu shot at the hospital didn’t hurt as much as the new needles are more smaller. I did experience a wider range of side effects—soreness, fever, chill and muscle ache—after I came home and went straight to bed. Unlike the $30 USD flu shots I got at CVS, I didn’t have to pay for this one.

Discriminating Against Recently Unemployed

Three Panel Soul Web Comic - On Solid Ground
Three Panel Soul

One of my favorite webcomics is Three Panel Soul by Ian McConville (artist) and Matthew Boyd (writer). This is the post-college version of their former webcomic, Mac Hall. A common theme is cubicle life at technology companies, such as Matt being overheard talking about buying a rifle, being let go for talking about said rifle, and being unemployed in 2007. (The Fleen interview with Matt after the FBI paid him a visit for making “terroristic threats” against his former employer.) Matt now finds himself in an uncertain job market that still discriminates against the recently unemployed who lost their jobs within the last 30 days.

Oh, crap. Here we go again.

As someone who was unemployed for two years, underemployed for six months (working 20 hours per month) and filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy before finding steady work, I don’t want to repeat that experience again.

I had numerous interviews that went fine until the hiring manager figured out that I had chronological gaps in my resume. Many such interviews ended shortly thereafter. I even had recruiters tell me that I was unemployable and shouldn’t be wasting their time. The worst part is that many companies are looking for people who they can hire without any job training. This kind of discrimination eliminates many good people who need help in getting up to speed.

My big break from permanent unemployment came when I started doing blue-collar tech work by physically replacing old computers with new computers. No comfortable sitting on your ass help desk support job. I’ve probably crawled underneath 1,000+ desks this year, including one cubicle where the carpets smelled like someone farted brimstone into them. Another cubicle had 40 cups of half-filled coffee with mold in various states of growth that most people would regard as a potential bio hazard.

With my current assignment ending this year, I’ll have to find a new assignment before the new year starts. Having worked for several different contracting agencies over the last few years, I know recruiters who are eager to get me back into the job market. However, since I’m not actively looking for a new job, my resume is being used as filler for when the recruiter has to submit five candidates for a particular position. Some things never change.

A New Pedestrian Bridge In South San Jose

San Jose Mercury News

A little boy died in November 2005 at the railroad tracks that separated a residential neighborhood from Monterey Highway (a four-lane expressway) and a nearby shopping center in South San Jose. After his the babysitter escorted him and his brother across the railroad tracks, he followed her back over as she went to fetch her own daughter in a stroller, and was hit by a passing Amtrak train. Although government officials made promises in 2008, the funding wasn’t authorized until this year and the new pedestrian bridge is opening this week.

I used to live down the street from this unofficial railroad crossing in the late 1990’s. While not as dangerous as the crossings next to the busy Caltrain stations in Sunnyvale and Mountain View, you still had to keep a wary eye up and down the tracks for a lumbering freight train as you clambered over the gravel bed. (Amtrak and Caltrain trains operate on these tracks today as Southern Pacific sold the right-of-way to Caltrain and commuter rail service was extended to Gilroy.) You couldn’t run across these tracks. Tripping and falling was more dangerous than being slow and careful.

Until the shopping center opened a few years later, I never had much reason to cross the tracks. If I had to go out to Wells Fargo Bank and McWhorter’s Stationers at Bernal Road and Santa Teresa Boulevard, I would hoist my bicycle over the tracks, ride south on the side of the highway—a four-lane express after the 101 opened in 1973—that went parallel to the tracks, cross the highway at the stoplight, and walk my bicycle up onto the Bernal Road overpass that went above the highway and the tracks.

Crossing the tracks became more frequent when the shopping center opened with a grocery store. Depending on what my mother needed, I would either walk over or ride my bike that had a large basket in front. Walking over with a few bags of groceries in hand wasn’t difficult. Moving my bike with a half-dozen grocery bags in the basket and a few plastic bags hanging off the side was more treacherous. On those occasions, I made damn well sure that I didn’t see the headlight of a train on the horizon in either directions before crossing.

During my first year as a college student, I had to cross the tracks to catch the bus on the Monterey Highway—or Monterey Road when it passed through the incorporated areas of San Jose—to get to San Jose City College. You had to be extra alert in the morning, especially if the weather was foggy and you had less time to see the train headlights coming your way.

Although I may never live in that part of San Jose, it’s nice to know that I could safely walk over the railroad tracks and Monterey Highway. Too bad that a little boy had to die and it took seven years to make this happen.

Adventures In Extreme Couponing (Part 1)

My roommate wanted to sign us up for a 90-minute seminar on Extreme Couponing at the San Jose Mercury News headquarters in North San Jose. Since he couldn’t complete the sign up form on his iPad, he sent me the URL and I signed us up for two tickets under my name on my MacBook. The website stated that the Media News Group, which owns most of the regional newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area, was the largest distributor of manufacturer coupons. I told my roommate to expect a hard sell for newspaper subscriptions.

I could never figured out exactly where the newspaper office was located. We spent 20 minutes driving up and down North First Street, and from the airport to Fry’s Electronics on Brokaw Road, but still couldn’t find it. A quick check of the iPad with the GPS enabled indicated that the freeway went over East Brokaw Road. Was that the 680 in East San Jose? We drove past Fry’s Electronics and discovered that the 880 has a Brokaw Road exit. No surprise that I didn’t know about that particular exit. The 880 is king of potholes from Silicon Valley to Oakland. (Now king of construction zones with Caltrans paving over the potholes.) No one takes the 880, if it can be avoided.

We drove around the San Jose Mercury News main building to follow the signs that led to a side entrance for employees. After walking past the security guard in his glass cage and down some long hallways out of the 1960’s, I handed over the printed tickets to a woman at a table. We entered a large room with a stage at one end, long tables folded up against the back wall, and plush office chairs filled with an audience that was mostly women. Not surprising since women have traditionally done all the shopping.

The seminar started with the door prizes, which alternated between a $20 USD gift card for Safeway and a $20 USD coupon book for fast food restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was surprised that my name was called out on the third draw to win a coupon book. I never win door prizes—or anything else. A nice surprise.

We saw several videos from the reality TV show with shoppers filling up their shopping carts with $1,000 USD of groceries, handing over a thick bundle of coupons, and paying $10 or nothing at all for the entire amount. A woman spoke on how extreme couponing works by collecting the coupon inserts from the Sunday newspapers, waiting for products to go sale, and buying five or more items to stock up.

As I suspected, the newspaper had a special deal of five Sunday-only subscriptions for $50 USD. I stopped subscribing to the newspaper years ago because the neighbors kept stealing the paper off my apartment doorstep if I didn’t get to it first. Despite my reluctance, my roommate signed up for the newspaper deal and began our adventures in extreme couponing.

The New Parkmoor Savers Thrift Store

Savers Thrift StoreAfter the post office moved around the corner for a much smaller storefront, the vacated interior was gutted out this summer to make way for a new Savers Thrift Store. I was surprised to see the parking lot full and people lining up to enter the store during the grand opening weekend. The only time the Parkmoor Plaza shopping center ever gotten busy was when the Harley-Davidson dealership hosts an event next door that overwhelms the surrounding parking lots with motorcycles and leather-clad bikers.

My worst fear about the new store was that the floor layout would be narrow and cramped like the Big Lots! store at the opposite end of the shopping center. Although the floor was packed with books, household items and clothing, the store appeared much bigger inside. The donation center took up the back half of the store. If you want to donate stuff, there are red bins for dropping off stuff during business hours at the side entrance of the building.

The only thing that caught my interest was the shelves of paperback books that you can see through the windows from outside the store. If you’re into fantasy and science fiction, like the really old stuff that most bookstores don’t carry, browsing these shelves to find something unexpected will be a pure pleasure in. Unless the spines are color-coordinated (i.e., plain white for a romance series), nothing is sorted in any particular order. Prices are $1.99 USD to 2.99 USD, with the cover price of $7.49 USD being the dividing line between prices. If you buy four books, the fifth book is free. A great deal if you’re a reader.

When the billboard went up announcing the new store, I was quite certain I haven’t heard of Savers before. I did shopped at the old location on the corner of Bascom Avenue and Stevens Creek Boulevard, which is being gutted out and has a “for lease” sign up. Looks like the new store has doubled the floor space from the old store..

As brand new Christian in the campus ministry in 1992 (20 years ago!), the church was having a great banquet dinner in the basement of the San Francisco Marriott Marquis and I needed some fancy threads for my date. With the help of the campus brothers, we found an ill-fitting dress coat and a holey pair of slacks for $12 USD. With my slicked back hair, I looked somewhat decent for a former “pagan of pagans” (my nickname before I became Christian). My date looked splendid in her beautiful emerald green grown, outshining the other campus sisters and making me look fabulous as well.

I doubt I’ll be shopping at Savers on a regular basis. I may become a regular donor as I sort through, organized and discard stuff from my cluttered life. I’ve already donated three paper bags worth of old clothes and shoes. Savers appears to be a much better fit for the community than the post office as evident by the now busy parking lot.

Help Save The Hacker Dojo In Mountain View

Hacker Dojo, a communal space for entrepreneurial techies to start their next company away from the crowded coffee shops and technology incubators around Silicon Valley, is  facing closure by the city of Mountain View if their stained-glass factory warehouse wasn’t brought up to code to accommodate more people for conferences, classes and work areas. The price tag for the retrofit is $250,000 USD.

Even in the land of venture capitalism and million-dollar homes, a quarter-million isn’t exactly spare change. Although Hacker Dojo have already raised $185,000 USD through various fundraisers, a Kickstarter project that’s ending today is still looking for more backers. Steve Wozniak chipped in $666.66 USD, which was the original price for the Apple I computer.

Micro Center Store Closing At The Mercado

A late Monday morning email announced the immediate closing of the Micro Center store at the Mercado in Santa Clara, CA, as a new lease couldn’t be negotiated. The sudden and surprised closing of Micro Center’s only store in Northern California—the other store is in Southern California—leaves only Fry’s Electronics and Central Computers as the biggest computer stores still left in Silicon Valley for building your own computer system from scratch. No word on if and when Micro Center will re-open their store in a new location in Silicon Valley.

As for building a computer system from scratch, I won’t need to do that again for a long time. Computer power is so cheap and plentiful that programmers are struggling to write software to absorb all that excess. The race to upgrade hardware to make the software—*cough* Windows *cough*—run faster is long over. The hardware is good enough to run current and future software for years to come.

The only hardware that might require frequent upgrading is the video card. Something I found out after updating the Blu-Ray player software that refused to work with my legacy Sapphire ATI 3870 video card. Micro Center had an XFX ATI 6790 on sale for $127 USD with a $20 USD mail-in rebate. Since the new video card had HDMI out and my 19″ Samsung monitor was long in the tooth, I also picked up an Acer 23″ monitor with HDMI in for $159 USD. Now my Blu-Ray discs play at 1080p in full detailed High Definition. (Too much detail since I can tell which male actors have too much makeup on.) If I need to order parts, I’ll go online through either Newegg or Micro Center for the best deals.

Losing Micro Center will be a big blow to Mercado. The biggest draw for that shopping center is the AMC Mercado 20 Theater. The only place to kill time before or after the movies if you’re weren’t hungry enough to visit the surrounding restaurants was Micro Center, which had a large selection of computer parts, consumer electronics, books and magazines, and everything else in between. When Borders went bankrupt and closed the stores at Santana Row and Oakridge Mall, my friend and I stopped going to the Century theaters at those location. Without a favorite hangout spot, I’ll be less inclined to visit the AMC Mercado. (The saving grace may be AMC’s discount card that returns $10USD for every $100USD spent.) As Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, there is no there there.