Monday, December 08, 2008

Contractors -- can't live without them and cant kill them

Our contractor has postponed our bathroom remodeling project twice in the last 14 months.

I think contractors live in some kind of fantasy world. They are the stars. They are the talent. They have unlimited demand for their services. They can charge whatever they want. They are paid to play with cool power tools. They are paid to do what others do as an unpaid hobby.

Contractors and professional athletes -- they have a lot in common.

Here are excerpts from an email I received today from our contractor's wife / business manager/ agent. The wife's comments are in purple, the color of royalty. My comments are in black italics; the color reserved for peons.

We leave tomorrow for our four week vacation trip; it has been altered considerably due to civil unrest in Thailand.

Hhm... let me see.. my last four week vacation was in 1989, but the contractor and his family take one every year.

My goodness it was so thoughtless of the Thai People's Alliance for Democracy to demand an end to corruption and restoration of democratic rule by shutting down the airport. Obviously they did not realize that American contractors and their families had reservations for five star hotels in Bangkok. They should stop protesting and get back to work as maids and busboys for the multinational corporations serving American tourists.

We are now going to Mexico instead.

Oh my God... four weeks vacation in Mexico during the winter that is such a hardship. Damn those Thais.

We would like to meet with you on the morning of ---. to go over last minute details and drop off tools. Will this work for you?

Of course, I have been waiting only fourteen months so if --- is the date, I will drop everything to be the bag carrier for the contractor's tools.

Also effective at the start of 2009, his hourly rate is $45/ hr

So nice of you to give me notice of his 50% wage increase. Let's see I have not had a raise since 2001. The unemployment rate including those who are too discouraged to look is 12.5%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the lowest overall numbers for construction jobs last month in the past four years! But what the hell... raise your rates... enjoy your fantasy.

and we will need a 10K deposit before he commences work.

Hhmmm... well according to the California Contractors State License Board:

The down payment cannot be more than one thousand dollars ($1,000) or 10 percent of the contract price, whichever is less, for a home improvement job.

No, you don't get to bypass state law by calling it a "deposit" instead of a "down payment".

Also, according to the California Contractors State License Board pamphlet for consumers (page 16):

Scheduling the Payments
Make sure the payment schedule is based on the contractor’s performance. Never let your
payments get ahead of the contractor’s work, and make sure the contract provides for a
“retention” — a percentage of each payment or of the total job, ordinarily 10 percent, which
you retain until the job is complete.

So that is what the law says, but I am sure that plenty of people are lined up, panting, checkbook in hand, for these contractors.

What mystifies me is that the jobs for software engineers are moving overseas, but contractor jobs, which require skill, but not as much skill as a software engineers, remain wanting.

I get that athletes like Tiger Woods or Shaquille O'Neal are the best in the world and that the fans want to pay really big bucks to watch them play sports. But how does this work for contractors?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Men and Trains

The California Trolley and Railroad Corporation,, is having their volunteer recognition dinner this evening. I plan to attend (as a spouse of a volunteer).

This is a wonderful organization that is dedicated to restoring steam locomotives. I have attended some of their meetings. The meetings are usually all male, and the men are usually over 40 years old. They are really dedicated to their trains. They know a lot about them and they seem to be fascinated by their inner workings.

These men track the history of these trains. They know about the updates and retrofits. They spend weekends cleaning off layers of grease on parts and repainting them.

So what exactly is the appeal of these old trains? I think we live in an electronic age, but prior to that we lived in a mechanical age. Mechanical engineering is a wonder and that's what fascinates them.

The Diving Bell and the Buttterfly - a film about the Fabulous French Medical System

The idea of this film is much more interesting and beautiful than the reality of this film. It is not a very good story, although it has wonderful cinematography and Mathieu Almaric is an excellent actor with great allure.

So, how can the idea be so much better than the reality?

The film is based on the auto-biography of a well-known, successful French man who has a massive stroke and becomes completely paralyzed and only has the use of one eye to blink. He is only 43 years old and has three children. He never married the mother of his children and he seems to have lots of affairs. He is self-centered and kind of a jerk. His name is Jean-Do.

I have not read the auto-biography, but it apparently sold well in France. Assuming the book and film are roughly equivalent, then to what do we attribute the success of the book and the subsequent film?

The general public loves to see the high and mighty, the rich and successful, fall down. I think that's it. Jean-Do had everything; he lost everything. Most of us have a little and aspire to more; so we love it when the haves don't have it anymore.

Jean-Do provides few meaningful insights into his condition nor does he have anything terribly inspirational to say. What can you say when you have lived a life of selfishness? Well he does say "I screwed up. I was selfish and now I cannot make it up to anyone anymore." So he has deep regret. That's something.

Jean-Do decides to write a book, communicating letter by letter, with eye blinks, to an extremely patient secretary who writes it all down. At least near the end, he tried to do something productive and not abuse and belittle the staff.

The real story of this film is the fabulously fantastic French medical system. Jean-Do had excellent medical care. He had specialists, neurologists, physical therapists, speech therapists. The hospital is in Calais, on the French coast, with its stunning views. No one in his family is on the phone to Aetna, Humana, Healthnet, arguing over the bills, the copayments, the mistakes, and so on. He had his own private room. After his stroke, he only lived two years, and with all the doctors and staff attending him, the cost must have been close to $3 million.

Go France! Show us all how universal medical care can work!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Respect for Hillary

I am disappointed that we will not have a female president in the near future. This is what I told my 81 year old father who asked me how I was doing.

My father laughed.

I do not feel that was an appropriate response. It was disrespectful. It was unsympathetic. It was tasteless.

My father is supporting John McCain. I respect my father's right to vote for the presidential candidate that he feels will be best.

If and when John McCain loses the presidential election, I am sure my father will be disappointed. He might express his disappointment that a man who served his country honorably in Viet Nam and was a POW for more than five years will not become president.

I will not laugh at that. I will say that, yes, it is disappointing that someone who suffered so much for his country was not judged by the majority of Americans to be the best person to be president.

I respect John McCain. I respect his contribution to his country. I respect his patriotism. It is my personal judgment that he is not the right person to be president of the U.S. But I will not laugh at those who think he is.

I do not understand this lack of respect for Hillary Clinton. She is a very well-qualified, accomplished woman. She is a U.S. Senator. These are the facts.

I do not understand how Hillary's detractors could show up at her public events with signs that say "Iron My Shirt." Presumably the sign meant that Hillary should "know her place" and not be an "uppity woman" and focus her attention on housework, like ironing. The detractors are ignorant of the law since the 1964 Civil Rights Act guaranteed women equal employment, allowing them to become U.S. Senators and run for President.

The issue of equality and respect is an important one.

Did Barack Obama's detractors show up at his public events with signs that said "Shine My Shoes, Boy." No they did not. We would have been appalled. That would have been racist. We are better than that. We respected Barack Obama. So, why isn't Hillary entitled to the same respect? Why is okay to be sexist, but not okay to be racist?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Not a laughing matter - Hillary Clinton's Presidential Candidacy

I recently spoke with my 81 year old father who asked me how I was doing.

I told him I was disappointed that we would not have a female president for the next four years.

My father laughed.

I do not feel that was an appropriate response. It was disrespectful. It was unsympathetic. It was tasteless.

My father is supporting John McCain. I respect my father's right to vote for the candidate that he feels will be best.

If and when John McCain loses the presidential election, I am sure my father will be disappointed. When we talk again after that event, my father might express his disappointment that a fine and noble man who served his country honorably in Viet Nam and was a POW for more than five years will not become president.

I will not laugh at that. I will say that, yes, it is disappointing that someone who suffered so much for his country was not judged by the majority of Americans to be the best person to be president.

I respect John McCain. I respect his contribution to his country. I respect his patriotism. It is my personal judgment that he is not the right person to be president of the U.S. But I will not laugh at those who think he is.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Oh the Joys of Being an American Express Merchant

I am sure that the presidents of large corporations like American Express do not lay awake at night figuring out how they can undermine and depress the presidents of smaller corporations like InterWorking Labs.

I suppose, like all of us, it is a real challenge for American Express to recruit, develop, and retain capable staff.

It would be nice if they could correct their mistakes in a timely manner, though.


April 21, 2008

Mr. William H. Glenn


Establishment Services North America

American Express

P.O. Box 53601

Phoenix, AZ 85072

Dear Mr. Glenn,

Thank you very much for your letter of August 3, 2007 welcoming us as a new merchant for American Express cards. After six months, we have found that our customers prefer to pay with American Express and our business has increased as a result of this.

We are having a little difficulty with your staff in determining best practices for reconciliation of our American Express account. Specifically, we are having a difficult time matching up the transactions from our online Wells Fargo bank statement with each American Express transaction in our online store/backend.

When reviewing our online bank statement, we see entries for "American Express Settlement". Each of these entries has a date, an amount, our American Express merchant number and another mysterious number that is unique for each transaction. The mysterious unique number is six digits long and starts with 08.

We called American Express Merchant Services. We talked to "Kimberlin" at 800.528.5200 option 1, then 1 again.

Kimberlin advises that it is up to the merchant to keep track of his own transactions. We thanked her for that information and told her that we, in fact, were keeping track of the transactions. We further advised Kimberlin that we were trying to figure out how to match up the information from our online store/backend processor with what appears to be a unique six-digit American Express number on our Wells Fargo bank statement, and that we could not find any connection.

Kimberlin advised us that American Express would not disclose its customers' credit card numbers. We thanked her for that information, and told her that we, in fact, were not asking for customer credit card numbers, nor were we recording those numbers, and that we were simply looking for a way to reconcile the bank statement information with our American Express credit card transactions.

Kimberlin advised us that it was not possible to match American Express transaction information with bank statement information. This time we did not thank her for that information, but told her that we were positive that she was wrong. We pointed out that in Venice in 1494, Luca Pacioli, introduced the concept of double-entry accounting, which was widely adopted by all of Western civilization and is incorporated in GAAP and FASB in the United States.

In our situation, double-entry accounting means that if we have 100 transactions on March 25 for $1527.00, and we have recorded this in our online store, THEN, we should be able to look at our bank deposit activity and also find 100 deposits on March 25 or 26 for $1527.00 credited to our account. We explained that double-entry accounting is a fundamental concept that allows checks and balances to exist, and helps eliminate accounting errors.

We asked Kimberlin to explain to us what would happen if we recorded 100 transactions on March 25 for $1527.00 each, but our Wells Fargo bank statement reflected 95 transactions on March 25 for $1527.00 each. How would we figure out what transactions were missing?

Kimberlin said that in that case we would call American Express Merchant Services and we would go through every single transaction until we identified, on the phone, the missing transactions.

At this point, I requested that Kimberlin have her manager call me. However, I felt that while I wait for the manager’s reply, I should contact you. The reason I am contacting you is that I would like to invite you to contemplate, along with me, some really large merchants with very high volume, for example, Do you think that, which might have, oh, 4,500 transactions for the same amount in a single day, and finds that their online bank shows only 4,439 transactions for the same amount in a single day, is going to call up American Express and go through each transaction, one by one, on the phone? I find that extremely doubtful.

Perhaps you could crack the code for us on how other merchants do this reconciliation? I am sure it has something to do with that six-digit number starting with 08.

Thanks for your help on this.

Sincerely yours,

Chris Wellens

President & CEO

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Yes... packs of Harleys *ARE* illegal in California

This morning a very large gaggle of Harley Davidsons roared past our house in our normally quiet neighborhood. The noise was deafening. About 50 motorcycles! It went on for several minutes. My husband called the police. This is the Santa Cruz, California Police (Telephone +1.831.471.1131).

My husband reached Bill, the police officer on dispatch duty. Bill listened to the complaint and said there was nothing he could do about it because "riding a motorcycle is not illegal". Just then another wave of 50 Harleys passed through, my husband had to speak more loudly and Bill told my husband to "stop shouting". Bill refused to give his last name. He just gave a number, #582, but he refused to explain what the number was -- his badge number? his employee ID number?

Bill is right that riding a motorcycle is not illegal.

But Bill is wrong in that the riders are engaging in an illegal activity. Specifically, they are riding illegal bikes and violating a city ordinance and a California vehicle code:

(1) The Harley Davidson motorycles they are riding are not lawful vehicles; they are modified to produce more noise, specifically 116 decibels. The noise exceeds the legal decibel level permitted according to California Vehicle Code 27202 (80 decibels). Therefore, they are not driving lawful vehicles.

(2) Santa Cruz Ordinance 9.36.020 Section B restricts the amount of noise a person can make:

"9.36.020 UNREASONABLY DISTURBING NOISES. No person shall make, cause, suffer or permit to be made any noises or sounds (a) which are unreasonably disturbing or physically annoying to people of ordinary sensitiveness or which are so harsh or so prolonged or unnatural or unusual in their use, time or place as to cause physical discomfort to any person, and (b) which are not necessary in connection with an activity which is otherwise lawfully conducted..."

The key point here is section (b). Riding a motorcycle is normally a lawful activity; riding a motorcycle modified to make noise that violates that California vehicle code is unlawful.

It is a $100 fine. With 100 Harley riders that would have been $10,000 in fines had the police been doing their job this morning.

Under another theory, an organized group of Harley Davidson riders occupying most of the street is a parade or an assembly, and that requires a permit, and while I am unable to check (since it is a Saturday), I am 99% certain that they do not have a permit.

So why doesn't Bill, the dispatch police officer, understand this? Did Bill get poor police training from the Santa Cruz police department? Did our California educational system fail him?

Since "repetition is the key to learning", please call the phone number above at the Santa Cruz police department, and ask the police what they plan to do about enforcing the law regarding these illegal bikes and the deafening noise they produce that violates both California law and the City of Santa Cruz ordinance.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

PG&E: Pathetic Gas & Electric

Supposedly I live in one of the most technically advanced nations on earth. I certainly pay taxes as if I do. So why is it that here in Santa Cruz County a mere rain storm with some wind knocks out the power? And, why is it that PG&E cannot restore the power within 24 hours?

My home has had no electricity since January 4th at 10 a.m. It is now January 5th at 3:30 p.m. That's 29 1/2 hours without electricity. YES, twenty-nine and one half hours! YES, a day and a half ! And it is still off!

My office was without electricity from January 4th at 9 a.m. until January 4th at 11:00 p.m. That's fourteen hours.

I grabbed my laptop and drove to the nearest coffee shop with wireless Internet access. The coffee shop was so crowded, it wasn't even standing room only. People were outside with their laptops under the awnings in the pouring rain, running off batteries trying to hook up to the Internet. I went to two other locations -- same thing. So I gave up.

By the way, I also spent $27,000 last year installing solar panels on my roof to generate electricity. However, for the last 29 1/2 hours the inverter cannot generate the power because it won't operate unless the power grid is up.

Here I am, a concerned citizen, using solar panels to generate my own power and provide the excess to PG&E, yet Pathetic Gas & Electric still cannot deliver the electricity.

I think it is time to organize a revolution.

Power to the People!