Friday, September 28, 2007

Tonight's magic moment

was in the car, driving home at 11:30, listening to Snow Patrol's song, "Chocolate," a band and a tune that Sarah turned me on to. The air was cool, I put the windows down, and the music reminded me of all the passion and dreams I felt at sixteen--and still feel, at least at moments like that one, when I'm not working and not being a boss or a father or a partner or anything else, when it's just me, my thoughts, and the music.

Some will tell you to grow up, to abandon the dreams of youth, to let go of useless passions, to get over it all.

Screw them.

Cling tight to all of it, and never ever ever give up on any of it.

Three views of Japan

Summing up an entire country with a single anecdote is even more stupid than letting one story stand for a person, so I'm not even going to attempt it.

Sometimes, though, a single moment can serve to illuminate a country or person, to show some of the place's or person's complexity and character.

Here's a moment that did that for me in Japan.

Standing in the center of the overpass right behind the Harajuku station, facing the station, you can watch the famous Harajuku girls posing. Some stay in character through endless camera clicks; others huddle behind ropes and take their roles only if you ask and they grant permission for photos. You can't help but be aware that you're standing in the presence of manufactured culture, but there's also an underlying deep reality, that of teenagers everywhere struggling both to find and to hide from themselves.

Look to your left, and you can see the road leading to the torii gate that marks the entrance to Meiji-jingu, the Shinto shrine in memory of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, his wife. The forest begins just before the gate, stands tall and dark and cool on either side of it, and extends backward on either side of the main road for a very long way. The place reeks of power, calm, and spirituality.

Stare to your right, and the road extends up a slow rise and beyond the edge of your vision. Lining it on both sides are high-fashion stores boasting the names of designers who sell in only the richest cities around the world, high-end installations of American chains, and restaurants catering to hungry and thirsty shoppers.

And, making its way down the left side of that same road on the day we were there, a Sunday, I believe, was a shrine parade that featured drummers, chanting, and a large gold bowl riding atop poles carried on the shoulders of a couple of dozen people, mostly men but here and there a woman, too.

My camera's battery died before I could photograph all of this, and at the time I was annoyed at myself for not remembering to charge it the night before, but now, I don't care. I take photos with the small digital camera I call blogcam, and I am learning more about photography, but what I most care about, what I collect, are moments and the stories that surround them. I treasure this one.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Superhero stamps

They may be dorky, but the comic book fan in me can't help but recommend them: the new Marvel superhero stamps. They make a lovely package with the earlier DC superhero stamps. Buy 'em (I didn't have to, because Jennie gave me a set), enjoy 'em, and use 'em--or, if you're like me and can't bear to part with them, then just collect them along with all your other collectibles.

The drawings on the stamps are mostly from early renderings of the characters, but some appear to be later, slightly sleeker images. You get Spidey, the Hulk, the Sub-mariner, the Thing, Captain America, the Silver Surfer, Spider-Woman, Iron Man, Elektra (possibly the weakest drawing of the lot), and Wolverine.

As Stan Lee might have written, Excelsior!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

I hate E*Trade

I really do. Here's why.

Saturday morning, in the course of catching up with various bits of online business, I decided to see how my E*Trade investments had done while I was in the air Friday. I'd checked on them once from San Francisco and several times while in Japan, but a few days had passed since I'd last looked in on the account, and I was considering ditching one of my stocks.

So, I logged onto my account and found: nothing. My account was gone. No money, no account, nothing. Just an empty space and an alert to call security.

I'm not going into details, but the amount of money and stock in the account was, for me, very large. I felt sick at the thought that someone had managed to steal those assets.

I called customer service. After waiting on hold, someone finally answered. I waded through the usual rapids of annoying security questions until I finally earned the right to be me. I then asked after my money. The nice man explained that it wasn't gone, but that I couldn't see it or access it.

I was less than thrilled.

I asked why I couldn't see my money. He said he couldn't tell, because he was not in the department that had made this happen. So I asked him to transfer me to that department. He could not, alas, because the people in that department don't work the weekend.

I had now progressed from sick to my stomach to less than thrilled to downright furious.

I asked for someone who could help me, but the nice man--who, to his credit, did stay nice in the face of hurricane-level winds of anger from me--said only the department that was closed could help me, and then not until Monday.

I hung up furious.

I called back yesterday to the only number I had: the number of the department that couldn't help me. I got a less nice woman who offered to let me join the ten- to fifteen-minute-long waiting queue for the department that could help. I had to get out and exercise, so I demanded to speak to a supervisor, my fury now in full flight. The woman kept trying to avoid the request, so I began repeating it over and over, adding only the question, "Are you refusing to transfer me to a supervisor?" She eventually agreed to do so.

When the supervisor finally appeared on the phone, I explained to her that I wanted someone from the department that could help me to call my mobile or that my next contact with them would be via my lawyer. She eventually agreed to consider my request.

While I was out walking rapidly up and down our street with Allyn and Kyle, who was visiting, my mobile rang. It was indeed a man from the department that could help. Before he would assist me, however, I first had to jump new hurdles of proof of my identity. He gave me lists of cars and asked which, if any, I had ever owned or leased. He asked about my brother's son. He asked things I had no clue they knew--and don't like them knowing, though for no particular reason. I answered all the questions.

At which point, he declared I had failed to prove I was me.

I was now yelling. I asked what questions I had missed, because I was quite sure I'd gotten them all right. He told me he didn't know, because they contracted with a third-party agency that provided the questions and told them whether I was me. He wouldn't tell me the name of the agency. He would only say that its software had rendered its verdict: I had failed to prove I was me.

I then told him that I was fine with not seeing my account online. Instead, I wanted E*Trade to close it and mail me a check for all the funds in it.

He refused, on the grounds that I might not be me and that someone might be waiting to receive the check. I pointed out that the address on the account had never changed, nor had the name on the account, and that all I was asking was that E*Trade mail a check made out to the account holder to the account holder's address. He refused again.

He offered me the option of faxing a letter to a number he would post in an alert on my account and including in the letter the information the alert would specify--but I had to do so within one hour, no longer, or we'd have to move to new, yet more painful layers of identity verification. I fought for a while but ultimately agreed. I was late to work because of the time necessary to write and fax the letter.

The alert was downright stupid. It required that I explain the activities that had caused the problem--but no one at E*Trade would tell me what those were. It further mandated that I sign the letter and include on it a photocopy of my driver's license.

So, had I actually hacked someone's account, I would have known the name and the activities, and I could have used any third-class forged license--we're talking a fax of a photocopy going to E*Trade--and any signature that matched the forged license to get access to the account again.

I wrote the letter. I guessed in it that my sin had been checking my account from Japan and California. I faxed it in and stated that I wanted someone to call me as soon as they freed the money.

No one did, but late that day, the account reappeared.

I agreed with Kyle that removing the account was a geek solution to a human problem: the account might be compromised, so hide it entirely. A considerate solution would have involved freezing the account and leaving a prominent note that the account holder should contact a specific number, a number with 24X7 service.

But no, that would be too nice for E*Trade, a company that clearly has no notion of how to be considerate.

As soon as time permits, I'll be shopping for a new online trading service.

Draft one complete

Last Friday, on the plane home from San Francisco, I finished the first draft of Slanted Jack. The book weighed in at 115,034 words, which was about five thousand above the contracted amount--a good thing, or so folks tell me.

As I predicted, I grunted in satisfaction, then started setting up for pass two. I'm doing it now.

I am pleased, but the book's not done. Unless the book disappoints me, something I won't know until I finish this second pass, I'll be much happier when I've finished it completely--but then, of course, I'll launch into the third one.

On an unrelated note, I now feel almost entirely rid of my jet lag, so I plan to resume daily blogging again.



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