Friday, September 15, 2017

Credit Cards

Well, folks, we got Equi-f***ed. I read somewhere that 130 million Americans' info was vulnerable in September 2017's data breach. SSN, addresses, names, the whole shebang. If the population is 330m, then maybe it's a time to revamp the system? A social security number is basically your national ID (since not everyone gets a passport) that has no photo attached, stays unchanged and has no letters or special characters to mix things up. Your email password is more secure, and you even give part of this number over the phone pretty often. My immediate thought was how ridiculous it is that we spend trillions of dollars on 'defense,' yet the average US citizen isn't protected from information security hacks. These thieves can do a lot with your SSN, name and address because of the convenience of electronic forms. Think about how many important things you've signed up for without a photo ID and it gets pretty darn scary.

What to do? The FTC says to check your credit reports for free, monitor your accounts, and consider a security freeze, which makes it harder to open accounts without your consent. Freezes for the big three credit report agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) will cost you up to $30 (fees depend by state), but you'll be that much more secure. As of 9/15/2017, the websites are overworked and I'm getting errors, but it's worth it to keep trying.

Now that we're all secure and confident to continue our lives (with a weekly check of our spending), let's talk about the borrowing part of credit. I know people that are super proud to always use cash, never have debt, and avoid loans like the plague. They are all super lucky but are missing out on a few major benefits of using credit cards.

The biggest and most obvious double-edged sword is the deferred payment: if you need a car/bike repair and payday is far off, you just have to wait. That might mean you can't get to work or school! (I can't use hospital emergencies in this case because even if our healthcare system is a crisis, it's pretty standard that they bill you after setting you right.)

Next obvious is that credit card companies protect you from fraud, and this is taken for granted until it happens to you. It's happened to me twice so far. I've had my card info stolen before and Capital One was on that ish like fur on a mouse. Credit card companies make so much money off people who neglect (or unfortunately can't keep up with) payments that they can afford to have our back at the drop of a hat. Those banks also often credit your account before they roll up their sleeves and go after the fraudster or company that shafted you!

Except when they don't. Story Time! A few years ago, I found a debit card on the street and called Chase customer service. I gave them the digits and told them I'd found a card on the street, and that they should close it because it's obviously not in the owner's position. Well, Chase bank, whom we so generously bailed out in 2008 asked my name, city and phone number in response. I got about 5 digits in when it occurred to me to ask why I was giving them my phone number. The associate told me that they were going to give the card owner my number and have me meet them to return the card back. This resulted in me closing my other Chase account and moving over to a credit union because of an absolute loss of confidence. Security means nothing to those people.

Anyway, it was a debit card that I'd found, and here's an important point about credit: since it's magic money, you're not completely screwed over when Klepto Chris cops your card. Cash can blow away in the wind, and debit cards are directly connected to your bank account. You might not be able to pay for your internet connection and read my blog if your debit card is compromised.

I hope I don't have to give a disclaimer that you should
do your best to pay the balance in full every month?
The last reason credit cards are dope is the permanent discount you get when you get cards like Capital One's Quicksilver that give you 1.5% cash back. Until they recently added a 2.5% charge, I paid my rent and utilities with this sucker, which was basically a free $100 per year!

So, while your peace of mind in not borrowing and always using cash on hand could be worth more than these benefits, think about each of these points and consider getting yourself a credit card. Check out for recommended cards.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

My first experience with Amazon Flex

Amazon Flex is when you deliver items for the retailer, using your own car.

My amounts were different
How it works: Download their app and consent to a background check; you're good to go in a few days. This isn't offered everywhere, but Amazon is expanding rapidly, and this works in a lot of major cities. The night before my route, I accepted a block of time for the advertised pay. In the app, it says "3 hours: 8:30 - 11:30 AM, $54." Next, I arrived to the pickup location at 815, started scanning and loading packages. This took me about 20 minutes trying to load my sedan and not thinking ahead very well. After checking out with an attendant, the app's GPS started me on the route, making it the most time-efficient.

How it worked for me: My addresses were all within 2 square miles, but I wonder how much gas I burned up idling and running the AC. The current pay works out to $18 an hour if you complete the route in the allocated time. However, for my first delivery, I actually had until 9pm to deliver everything. I had a few issues so the actual delivery took me almost 6 hours, so I effectively made $9 per hour. My first issue was that I hadn't brought my car charger for my phone. Luckily my delivery route was only a few miles from my apartment, so I broke off and spent 30 minutes going to the house and rooting around in boxes to find it. My bad. The second issue was that I hadn't organized the packages when I received them. The attendees will tell you how to stack your morning stock so that the last items are packed in the furthest, but all bets were off when every package pretty much filled my sedan. The third holdup was a particular apartment complex spanned 3 different addresses, and had secured doors. I delivered 2 packages, waiting to be let into the buildings before remembering that everything for the complex was supposed to go straight to the rental office. Also, with 3 different addresses, that meant I circled back to it two additional times, wasting at least 30 minutes.

The final time-waster was that my morning scan was one package off from inventory. The attendees told me that was fine and that if I found out which package it was, I could manually add it to my route before delivering it. The kind people even showed me how to do it. Well, when I got to the end of the route, I finally realized which package was left over, but made the mistake of marking the last one I'd added as delivered, and the app closed the route. A closed route cannot be edited, and customer support can't be contacted except by email. So, I drove 30 minutes back to the warehouse to get an actual phone number to call for help, and made my final delivery.

My advice for Flex? Phone charger and extra battery. Next time, I will make quadrants where the passenger seat is 1st - 50th street, the rear passenger is 51st - 100th street, and so on. However, you'll have a different breakdown every day: maybe it makes sense to organize your deliveries by zip code. Lastly, get a help phone number from the attendees because the app either doesn't provide it, or only provides it while your delivery route is open. Unfortunately, I got a notice a few days later that a package wasn't received, but Amazon is open to letting me try again. All in all, I can recommend Amazon Flex as some great extra income that pays weekly.

Resources: I was worried about data usage, since my free phone plan ( limits me to 500MB per month. Luckily, one delivery route was about 40MB. My odometer says I used 60 miles, but the warehouse is 14 miles away, but I went to the warehouse twice. However, you'll use additional gas from idling and AC/heating. So, because of my mistakes and partially because of how the help/support function works (i.e. providing no phone number), I made out with roughly $9 an hour for delivery. However with this valuable experience, I will probably make closer to the advertised $18 per hour next time.

Ohh snap! I need money...

We've all done our best to avoid frivolous spending and to politely decline "sales" of stuff that was originally marked up 400%. Even with a few hundred in your savings account to maximize interest (my credit union gives 6% on your first $500), and hopefully the rest invested in a Vanguard ETF, sometimes you have emergencies.

Now, I am confident that any expensive emergency is going to be able to wait the week for you to cash out a portion (and not a cent more) of your investments to cover it. Right? No hospital on this planet is going to refuse to stuff your jutting bone back into place until seeing cash first. This is why I ignore the common advice to keep a big savings account; also, the piddly interest is insulting. Money is constantly losing its value: why the hell would you keep it around and not put it to work? Also, unless your jar of change has a specific goal like gas money or one month of health insurance at the end of the year, it's also uselessly taking up space. You can usually avoid the ~10% fee at Coinstars by getting a gift card for the local store or Amazon, which hopefully has something you need. However, whether it's unplanned dental work, a minor car accident, or Nintendo selling its limited edition mini classic system and their deliberate BS underproduction is causing the street price to quadruple, sometimes you need more money than you have that month, but not enough to disturb your investments.

There is a lot of advice on how to make money quick that depends on luck, unpossessed skills, or illegal activities. I offer two suggestions that can get you money within a month: Amazon Flex and Unclaimed Property.

Amazon Flex is when you deliver items for the retailer, using your own car. After you download their app and consent to a background check, you're good to go within a day. This won't work for every major city in the US, but Amazon is expanding rapidly, and this will work for Seattle and Everett. I wrote a separate article about my first experience Flexing.

My advice for Flex? Phone charger and extra battery. Also, your initial package loading is important. Next time, I will make quadrants where the passenger seat is 1st - 50th street, the rear passenger is 51st - 100th street, trunk is large packages, and so on. However, you'll have a different breakdown every day: maybe it makes sense to organize them by zip code. Lastly, get a help phone number from the attendees because the app either doesn't provide it, or only provides it while your delivery route is open. All in all, I can recommend Amazon Flex as some great extra income that pays weekly. Uber customer service failed me when I got an error after signing up that 3 emails later, they still couldn't solve for me. Door Dash wanted me to complete registration in a city 30 miles away, so that's why I can't personally promote those other options.

The first celebrity name I could think of. Sorry if I exposed anyone...

Unclaimed Property
 (via the WA State Dept of Revenue - search for your own state) is old bills and rebates that never made it to you because you moved or fudged the address. You enter your name, create an account, and upload some documents that prove you were at the previous address. Old driver's license, utility bills, old bank statements and tax documents are the most common types. For me, the addresses were so old that I had to use the comments section to appeal to them for having no proof I lived there. I'll let you know how it goes, but I should have a claim for ~$150 processing.

Think of these suggestions as the monthly equivalent to lifting the sofa cushions or raiding your car's ash tray (does anyone smoke anymore?) and scrounging for pizza.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Out with August!

It's been a while since I talked about good money habits, and school month looming is as good a time as ever to start preaching! A few months ago, I joined a gym, and it's been going really well. An ideal balance between frugality and practicality would be if you can work within walking or biking distance and get some good exercise every workday without thinking too much about it. The problem for me was that the work I've been doing since February changes location daily, and walking long distances got to be boring with the same starting point. That said, there are a few things to keep in mind when joining a gym.

Reading my kindle for an hour burned off that burger!
Math: My public gym charges $4.75 per visit, and most gyms (that arrogantly call themselves clubs) have an ugly, disgusting and painful $50-100 initiation fee. I hate this. This was the number one barrier for cheap ol' me. LA Fitness wanted that $100 startup, and $30 per month to use their gym. The monthly part is fine, but the rationale for the startup fee is completely unraveled when you take the option I took: 4 months for $129. While a yearly option would have been even more of a savings; I still pretty much dodged that silly initiation fee. Math tells me I have to go at least 27 times over 4 months to make it worth it. Luckily, I've used the gym 3-4 times per week and got my value about 2 months into the membership. I think I'm at the point of my life where the desire to stretch my dollar is enough to get me out of the house and into the gym, unlike previous attempts. Also, the gym is a 20-minute walk to and fro.

Guru of gainz: While I'm not an expert, I have some advice: slow the hell down! While there are dozens of techniques and workout plans, it's pretty universal that you need to wait between sets. Most of the advice points to a whole minute, but perception of time is funky. Setting a watch every time is a bit annoying, but a minute is longer than you think. A rule I use is the time between choruses of whatever song is playing. Most pop music is 3 minutes and has 3 choruses, and if you're listening to something more sophisticated *adjusts tie and brushes off shoulders,* the choruses are probably spaced even further apart, which is good for your resting.

Also, slow your rep roll. Quick, jerky motions don't help as much as long, confident, even strokes; I follow the advice to do one count up, two counts down on bench press, for example. Other than that, follow your plan to your heart's content!

This is all I need...substitute the gnarly sponge for a carafe and half and half, dho.
Lastly, since school is starting for some of us, let me remind you that your habits are about to change. Check those subscriptions before you start the next chunk of the year with a lot less free time and trim the fat! Game of Thrones is over, and that subscription is $15 per month that could go into something else. Well, make sure you've watched The Wire, first. Also, pumpkin spice lattes are around the corner: you've done without them for most of the year, why start this $5 per drink habit again? Now is a great time to grab a bag of beans/grounds (I prefer LaVazza), dust off your coffee maker or espresso machine, and wake up 5 minutes earlier. You're saving yourself $50 per hour of labor after cost of good coffee and your favorite accouterments (<--spellcheck told me its spelled that way).

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Pyre: Another SuperGiant star in the sky

I just completed Pyre and want to talk at length why this just might be my favorite game of 2017. There are minimal story spoilers coming, and there is a ton of things to experience about this game.

Some of your competition aren't bad guys.
You, the Reader, start out in the Downside, a dimensional prison that criminals are sent to for their transgressions in the Commonwealth. As you meet other friendly and less-friendly exiles, you learn that you can earn freedom through Rites, which is where teams of exiles try and extinguish each others' pyre flames. You start to learn that there is a bit of unfairness in how your party was banished from the Commonwealth, and that this world above is quite corrupt. As more of your party is freed from the Downside into the Commonwealth, they make plans to execute a revolution. As the matches continue on, you realize that the amount of chances to transcend are limited, and learn that your competition also has legitimate reasons to pass onto the land above and take their part in the other society. 

Here's where the game really starts to shine: the story progresses whether you win or lose any of the Rites, and the amount of story options and paths opens greatly. In my experience, every other non-linear game I've played has Game Over screens, or progress is otherwise halted if you can't get past a certain point. While I only continued through defeat a few times, I'm pretty sure you can complete the story without winning anything. There's also an incentive to lose every chance to escape because your group makes meaningful connections to one another, and sending them over means you break up friendships.

Always count on ol Bertrude for sentimentality.
Even the Slugmarket is delightfully weird.
Supergiant games always deliver audiovisual masterpieces that set you in worlds with unique characters and engaging gameplay. The bright visuals and art are augmented by a quality musical score that is pretty organic. Occasionally, the guitar or percussion will be muted when a character says something important, and the tracks each have a spontaneous finish when a particular scene or piece of dialogue is over.

This becomes especially apparent at the end of the game, where you read a bio about everyone you've encountered. You're accompanied by a bard, who has a unique role of keeping morale, knowing the rules of Rites, and has a special relationship with the Gatekeeper that hosts the Liberation Rites. These two end up singing a duo at the key battles of Pyre, and impressively sing about each character's epilogue in the game's final song. Based on my choices, I think the lyrics can change, having at least 2 possibilities, and that is something I've never seen before. I'll confirm this on my next playthrough, but details like this kept me covered in goosebumps during many parts of the story.

Ultimately, Pyre is unlike anything I've ever played, though it keeps Supergiant's signature features of games: great color palette, interesting characters, an eccentric narrator, an emotional soundtrack worthy of listening to separately, and well-tested, bug-free gameplay. Play it now!

And this game has passed my test, as being awesome.

Friday, August 18, 2017

August ventures in Controllerville

Between now and my last game-related post, I have gone to Korea, suffered 90-degree summer weeks, and started about 10 games. Summer is my least favorite season by a long shot. Spring brings enough warmth and a reason to go outside, but has these things called wind and rain to cool stuff down. Summer is just a miserable 3 months, and considering I've been in Asia for almost half the summers in my life, I know miserable weather intimately. That said, a couple fans and cold drinks kept me in the chair, gaming on.

First up is Until Dawn, one of PS+'s free July games, and a playable movie in the slasher horror style. The game is exciting enough, and the writing is pretty average; your 8 characters have a few good lines, some bad jokes, and some questionable relationships. The worst part about this game, and the horror genre in general is two particular tropes; jump scares and illogical eyesight. The game takes place in snow-covered forest, and I've jumped out of my chair half a dozen times from crows and caribou - two things that I am absolutely not afraid of. Also, like movies of the genre, there are parts where a character is scared because they can't see what the camera can't see, as if they have no peripheral vision. I think these two features undermine the genre and cheapen the experience. If you want a good movie within the genre, you'll just have to watch Get Out, by my man Jordan Peele. Also, this game has one constantly-overwritten save file, meaning your consequences are permanent. This is a neat feature that would be neater if I weren't trying to get trophies with minimal playthroughs.

Shovel Knight is a 16-bit style platformer that was developed by Yacht Games, who is clearly a fan of the genre. The rockin 8-bit soundtrack that is among the greatest OSTs out there, the gorgeous 2d sprites and the legit challenges via enemy AI and tightly controlled and timed jumps make this game one of the best in its genre. My only issue is that to get all the trophies, you have to beat the game a total of 7 times, with 3 of those times being without dying. However, you can restart the entire level and try again if you do die, so it's not sadistic, just a bother.

Died? Rewind!
Mm...that's one Doomed space marine!
Duke Nukem 3d: World Tour
is exactly what you'd expect: a bawdy, wise-cracking smartass hero who knows he's the man. This game translated very well from the PC to the controller, and you can even use cheat codes and still get trophies. However, that's not even necessary, as there is only one difficulty-based trophy.

Can't tell if that's the monster's nads or its heart.
It's a great example of a trophy list where the devs just want you to enjoy and finish the game. Duke Nukem still holds up because the weapons are fun: you'll pretty much use the chaingun and shotgun the whole time because anything with explosives will kill you, and the other novelty weapons like the freeze and shrink rays have limited effectiveness. This was the only game I platinumed outright.

Xenoraid was on sale for $2. I had such a great time with Xeodrifter that I figured games that start with X must be badass. It's true! This game is a top-down shooter with the gimmick that you have up to 4 different ships that have upgrades. There are a few hard trophies such as killing X amount of enemies in survival, but it's an enjoyable game overall with no major flaws.

Pyre has SuperGiant's usual glorious art. This locale is part of the overworld, which is basically purgatory.

Last, but very far from least is Pyre, by one of my favorite indie developers SuperGiant Games. I blindly preordered this game because I enjoyed Bastion and Transistor so much. Pyre is quite unique, but carries the dev team's signature beautiful graphics and amazing soundtrack.

The actual gameplay is split between a choose-your-own path and...street soccer. Pyre's setting is that you're stuck in some kind of spiritual prison, and the way out is to perform Rites before other wandering groups of people. A Rite is where your triumvirate (group of 3) use a celestial orb to extinguish the enemy team's pyre. Yep. I was pretty surprised to discover this gameplay, expecting it to be the isometric beat-em-up with leveling abilities that the last two games were, but am quite happy to have something as cleverly put together as this.

Monday, August 14, 2017

This 2017 administration is a giant mound of trash

2018 will be the first year will I will not hand over my income tax willingly. I think of the benefits I got from a public education, hospitals. More recently: the ease of voting and well-maintained roads. At the same time, between the local police being worthless and my 2 calls to our inept city hall to try and tackle my apartment's water issue, I have come to really resent paying both local and federal tax.

The events in Charlottesville over the August 12-13 weekend were a tear in American fabric. The President had an easy pitch to hit a home run and simply condemn the troublemakers and denounce the obvious evil at work. Instead, he screwed it up, as he screwed up his major platform promises of building a wall, restructuring healthcare, and making America great again.

Republicans and traditionalists like to look to the past for inspiration, usually while failing to handle the present and of course ignoring the future. Building a wall along the border of Mexico ignores the recent slowdown in immigration because their economy and quality of living are improving quickly. Repealing a past change that a nontraditional president (Obama) made, not giving a shit about the tens of millions who would lose their coverage. And obviously, Republican/nationalist/traditionalist slogans like "Make America Great Again," and "Take XYZ back," are calls that current conditions suck and going back in time will solve today's and tomorrow's problems.

You know what else was back in time? Blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious elitism. Obviously, the majority supporters of this won't come out and say they want this, and instead are building a backwards path that is super vague about the future. Under the elephant party's fetishism of the old days, they ignored the fact that a ton of corporations didn't really share their tax breaks with employees, and people were independently allowed to fall on their asses and spent generations trying to crawl out of the muck.

What I'm saying here is nothing new, but it obviously still works. The 2016 election was split pretty close down the middle, despite the vile collection of candidates that ultimately chose the "most successful" of them all to represent the party. But if that's the case, what the hell does success mean? #45 inherited wealth built on denying minority tenants, not paying people back, and lying out of his ass. He sure made a ton of money doing it, though.

And now a huge amount of tax-payers are hoping against hope that he gets nothing done, as his agendas are all crap. The alternative? If #45 gets impeached, we have to deal with a real Republican who will get worse things done. This. Really. Sucks.

While America holds its breath and keeps politicians busy countering the administration's terrible business and political ideas, we're completely blocked from progress. Every 6 months, these cockroaches try and slide in a business proposal that ultimately undermines internet - the sixth human sense - functionality. The Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is burning up resources for how people get into school, rather than focusing on making it worth going to school. The EPA is just a castrated, gutted, ineffective mess. The Department of State is being replaced by inexperienced yes-men, as the existing employees are cut off from advising Rex Tillerson. The list of crimes-against-Americans goes on and will keep coming. Just wait half a day and you'll find an article about who isn't doing their job, but still making more annually than what the average citizen makes in a decade.

#45 appointments have been highly successful at minimizing the government - the heads are all pretty much the antithesis of their departments. As a result, I don't want to pay taxes towards these government bodies that are just dismantling their ideals. These people do not deserve to be paid, and they are not working for the public's interests. Ultimately, I don't want to go to jail, so I will pay my goddamn taxes, but I will stretch that shit to the legal limit, so the money will have a chance to devalue and inflate. I'd love to pay with pennies, but that would have to be mailed, and postage would cost a grip.

Credit Cards