The N.D.A. In Silicon Valley Real Estate

As an information technology (I.T.) worker in Silicon Valley, I’ve signed many Non-Disclosure Agreements (N.D.A.s) over the years to keep secret anything that I learn during the course of my employment. Due to the nature of my work in I.T. support, I seldom have access to privilege information that an outsider might find valuable. I’m not surprise to read in The New York Times that the N.D.A. culture has come to real estate in Silicon Valley, as newly minted millionaires—or billionaire, in the case of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—renovate their McMansions.

These powerful documents, demanding the utmost secrecy, are being required of anyone associated with the homes of a small but growing number of tech executives, according to real estate agents, architects and contractors. Sometimes the houses themselves are bought through trusts or corporate entities so that the owners’ names are not on public deeds.

Requiring construction workers to sign N.D.A.s raise more questions about who the owner is than it does to protect the owner’s privacy. Most N.D.A.s has a time limit. After several years goes by, nothing prevents a construction worker from revealing that the bathroom fixtures were solid gold, the kitchen counters were from handpicked marble slabs from Italy, and the multi-level garage has a car elevator. If wealthy owners want to maintain their privacy, they should dial down their public display of conspicuous consumption.

A 92-year-old Vermont man passed away recently, surprising family and friends when he left an $8 million stock portfolio to the local library and non-profit hospital. He drove around in a 2007 Toyota Yaris, collected tree branches for firewood, and held his winter coat together with a safety-pin. Because he lived a modest lifestyle that didn’t draw unwanted attention, no one knew he was wealthy.

My father built the planter walls for the million-dollar homes in the Silver Creek Valley area. The conspicuous consumption offended his Great Depression sensibilities with so much money wasted on so few people. That the city of San Jose spent $200 million to extend water and sewer into the arid foothills offended my own sensibilities. If you throw enough campaign contributions at city hall, you too can get taxpayer money to run water uphill. We both gloated over the news that the homeowner association nearly filed for bankruptcy after the Great Recession, as the million-dollar homes stood empty and the remaining residents balked at paying higher fees to maintain the common areas.

My brother’s in-laws bought a million-dollar home in the foothills of Gilroy, which I thought was obscene. The kitchen was larger than my studio apartment, and the wet bar was bigger than my kitchen. The in-laws bought the five-bedroom house to store family heirloom furniture that they couldn’t depart with but weren’t using anyway. Since they didn’t want to spend their retirement years cleaning a big house, they sold the house in a short sale and moved their furniture collection to a farmstead outside of Boston. The only cool thing I liked about that house was the 30-foot-tall wired fence that kept a prowling mountain cat away from the BBQ pit.

The Lessons of “I’m Just A Bill”

If you’re paying attention to the political shenanigans in Washington, D.C., you might be aware that the Republicans are aiming for a partial government shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in retaliation for the immigration-related executive orders that President Obama issued last year. Reading through the comments for various political stories, I see frequent calls to save the U.S. Constitution. It’s painfully obvious that some citizens—and too many Tea Party Republicanshave no clue how the government works. During the U.S. Bicentennial (1975-1976) celebration, ABC TV had a series of Schoolhouse Rock! cartoons on how the government works. My all-time favorite was “I’m Just a Bill” that explains how a bill becomes a law in Congress.

Education and civic responsibility still meant something 40 years ago. Not today. Too many people display their willful ignorance with pride, too many politicians lack courage to rebuke ignorance with knowledge. This became obvious after the House Republicans passed their bill to fund the DHS and reverse the executive orders, which failed four times in the Republican-controlled Senate to override the Democratic filibusters, insisting that they did their job and the Senate needed to do their job by rubber-stamping the bill.

That’s not how Congress works: the majority can cram bills through the House; the minority can halt bills in the Senate.

The Republicans may have a majority in the Senate, but they lack the votes to override a Democratic filibuster (60 votes) and a presidential veto (67 votes). As the House Republicans demonstrated on Friday night, they don’t have the 218 votes to pass their own bills if the Tea Party Republicans votes no and the Democratic minority withhold their votes. Even if their bill did get rubber-stamped by the Senate, the House Republicans don’t have the 290 votes to override the expected presidential veto.

I was quite pleased to see that the Disney Educational Productions had uploaded new versions of the Schoolhouse Rock! videos on YouTube. While glancing through the comments for the “I’m Just a Bill” video, someone noted that Saturday Night Live did an updated skit of that video. President Obama comes out to push “I’m Just A Bill” down the Capitol steps and introduced “I’m Just An Executive Order” to run the government. The funny thing is, despite a Republican judge ruling that 26 states have legal standing to file a lawsuit and granting a temporary stay, the executive orders are constitutional and legal.

If the Republicans believe their own rhetoric that President Obama is the dictator in chief, they can always remove him from office through impeachment. They have enough votes in the House to impeach; they don’t have enough votes in the Senate to convict. With the Obama Administration being scandal free for the last six years, the Senate Republicans will have a tough time getting any Democrats to vote with them for conviction.

While the lowest voter turnout in 72 years gave the Republicans control of Congress, voters didn’t give them enough power to ignore the Democrats and President Obama. Until that painful reality sinks, expect two more years of political shenanigans.

Spaghetti-less At Costco

My barometer for when the economy is doing better is when I can afford to renew my Costco membership. This month I got the chance to do that and get some bulk items that I needed, such as the chocolate-chip muffins (dozen), garbage bags (90-count) and fish oil pills (500-count). The one thing that I wasn’t able to find was an eight-pack of spaghetti. The two local Costco stores had spaghetti sauce and Parmesan cheese, but no spaghetti to complete the meal.

My favorite Costco is on Coleman Ave in San Jose. Driving there is a bit tricky if you miss the left-hand turn off to the side street for the parking lot entrance. Miss the left-hand turn off and drive past Costco, you’re on the ramp to De La Cruz Boulevard that goes straight into downtown Santa Clara, where returning to Coleman wasn’t a simple U-turn due to the keeping driving straight signs. Getting out of the street maze of Santa Clara is a trick in itself.

Although I haven’t been at this location for several years, the store layout hasn’t changed much and I found the items I was looking for. Except for the spaghetti. I found the spaghetti sauce, Parmesan cheese, and the other pasta that goes better with Alfredo sauce. I walked up and down the food aisles looking for spaghetti.

Was spaghetti a seasonal item at Costco?

The Costco store in Sunnyvale is at the intersection of Lawrence Expressway and the Caltrain tracks that didn’t intersect. You have to make a tricky right-hand U-turn from Lawrence to get into the parking lot. If you want to practice your Christmas holiday shopping parking skills, come here as the parking lot is always full, the drivers are always ruthless and shoppers with their carts are always in the way.

I haven’t been to this particular location since my parents retired to Sacramento in the early 1990’s. The store layout has changed since then, and organized much differently than the Coleman store. Once I got into the food aisles, I found the Spaghetti sauce and Parmesan cheese. Still no spaghetti. There was an empty space that a pallet of spaghetti could go into. This store was so busy that I couldn’t find an employee to check the loading dock to see if such a pallet came in.

How can Costco sell Spaghetti sauce and Parmesan cheese without the spaghetti? No clue.

The BART Video Game Arcade (Circa 1976)

Gary Fong / The Chronicle
Gary Fong / The Chronicle / December 1, 1976

While at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple personality disorders), I had to trained fresh out of high school graduates on being video game testers. These youngsters didn’t believe I played video games in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. So I introduced them to a tester who tested video games for the original Atari in the 1980’s, and then introduced them to a tester who tested pen-and-paper games in the 1970’s. Their young heads often exploded in amazement that video games existed before the Sony PlayStation in 1995. As further proof that early video games existed, SFGate recently noted that the Powell Street BART Station installed video arcade games in 1976.

The first time I ever played a video game was Atari Pong in the basement of the Sear’s building in downtown San Jose—where the Midtown Safeway is today—during the Bicentennial (1975/76). I was five- or six-years-old at the time. My mother was returning something at the exchange desk. My father slipped a quarter into the arcade machine and we played a short game. Several years later I got a TV pong game for Christmas, the first of several early video game consoles that would prepare me for the working world.

Most arcade machines were hidden away in pizza parlors, bowling alleys and public venues like the BART station throughout the 1970’s. Arcades with wall-to-wall machines didn’t happen until the early 1980’s. The arcade that I grew up in was at Oakridge Mall in South San Jose. A dark hole in the wall that sucked in kids and their quarters like nothing else, and quickly doubled in size after taking over the storefront next door. This was my favorite after school activity.

My parents didn’t approve that I split my weekly allowance—a princely $30 USD that I didn’t know was a small fortune for a teenager—between the arcade and the bookstore. Video games were much worse than the pinball machines that they grew up on. Reading inspires all kinds of subversive behaviors, such as being smarter than anyone else. On the bright side, I wasn’t buying drugs like so many of friends who got stoned out of their mind in class.

After the Atari E.T. cartridge scandal killed the video game revolution, the wall-to-wall arcades started fading away in popularity. Newer video game consoles and PC’s brought the video games back into the home. Arcade machines are still tucked away at various locations today. The only real arcades left in Silicon Valley are Chuck E. Cheese’sDave & Buster’s or Nickel City. I don’t play arcade machines anymore, as any five-year-old youngster can beat my sorry ass with faster reflexes.

Rent-A-White-Man Super Bowl

I found the 2015 Super Bowl commercials somewhat lacking in the humor department. Nothing made me barked out aloud in laughter. (Although the Kia Sorento car commercial with Pierce Brosnan, who imagines himself being pitched for a James Bond-style car ride with snipers, missile launchers and explosions that became rather uninteresting, made me smile.) A Satire Bowl commercial that most of America and the world haven’t seen was “Rent-A-White-Man”, where black people can rent a white man to act on their behalf in post-racial American society without getting shot by the police.

Unless you’re living in a cave and watching Fox News TV, this is really funny. If you understand the irony of white privilege that is, which most white people can’t comprehend because they’re never judged by the color of their skin, have to think twice while walking down the street, or followed because someone think they’re up to no good. Being a native Californian with redneck parents from Idaho and living my entire life in the multicultural San Francisco Bay Area, I can appreciate—and laugh at—both sides of the racial divide.

And rent a white man is also a fantastic idea.

As a white man in my mid-forties with graying hair at the temples, I’m deeply concerned about being aged out of the tech industry that favors younger foreign workers over older American workers. That was obvious at a job from several years ago where Indians made up the majority of the workers and only vegan pizza got served at company events. I’m transitioning my career from general information technology (I.T.) into information security (InfoSec) that requires 10+ years of general I.T. experience to get into, a difficult hurdle for anyone from India or fresh of college to overcome. If I do get aged out of my current career, I can always rent myself out as a white man.

Rent a white man isn’t all satire. Chinese companies routinely rent white men in business suits to present their operations with American faces from a non-existent U.S. company and project an international aura over the local competition. Who knew that white privilege was a marketable skill?

Riding The Hotel 22 Bus

When I started my new tech job six months ago, I initially took the 522 from San Jose to Palo Alto that ran the same route as the 22 and makes 75% fewer stops to get across the valley faster. This portion of my two-hour trip each way to work took 45 minute. As the weather got colder, the presence—and the overwhelming smell—of the homeless became more prevalent. Although I knew that the homeless rode the 22 around the clock, I didn’t know it had the nickname of “Hotel 22” until I read The New York Times op-ed piece by Elizabeth Lo on her new documentary by the same name.

Silicon Valley has three different kinds of buses that get workers from the outlying areas of the San Francisco Bay Area to their jobs in Silicon Valley, the Peninsula, Oakland or San Francisco. I’ve ridden on all three buses over the last 15 years as a computer technician in Silicon Valley.

Local buses crisscross the county to connect people from their homes to the major transit centers and thoroughfares for local companies. Minimum wage workers, techies and homeless people all mingled together, the 22 being the most obvious example. A monthly bus pass for Santa Clara County is $70 USD.

Commuter buses connect major transit centers to job-concentrated areas that are typically inaccessible without a vehicle (i.e., no sidewalks back to civilization). Some commuter and express buses are WiFi-enabled to allow Internet access via cellphone and tablets. You’re less likely to find minimum wage workers and the homeless on these buses, as the fastest routes are twice as expensive. A monthly express bus pass in Santa Clara County cost $140 USD.

Tech buses stop at major transit centers and thoroughfares to take them directly to each campus building. These luxury buses features faster WiFi connections, comfortable seats and sometimes a restroom. Access restricted to workers with company badges. Free for full-time employees, and, depending on the company, a nominal fee for contractors. No minimum wage workers or homeless allowed on these buses. These buses made the news when protesters in San Francisco and Oakland rioted against Google buses in 2013.

After riding the 522 for two months, I switched to an express bus that cut my overall commute to an hour each way. I drove the 280/85 freeway route to Mountain View for many years, suffering 45 minutes in the morning and 90 minutes in the evening. Driving beyond the 280/85 interchange to Page Mill Road in Palo Alto is much worse. I’m happy to pay someone else to drive while I read an ebook, listen to an audio book or take a snooze. Yes, like many of my fellow techies, I don’t miss dealing with the homeless or their overwhelming smell.

Some people get outraged that Silicon Valley, being richest society in America, can’t take care of the homeless. As I pointed out in the comment on The New York Times website, Californians love to vote on initiatives and propositions that decrease their taxes and increase their services. This is true for most Americans. Everyone wants services; no one wants to pay for it. Until that change, nothing else will change. Something to look forward to as baby boomers retire and the workforce shrinks in the next quarter-century.

New Mail Carrier Didn’t Get The Memo

If you lived in an apartment complex for a long time, say, nearly ten years, you get used to how certain things get done. The mail carriers, for example, never deliver the packages to the door. Most people aren’t home during the day and packages left at the door tend to walk. Unlike the apartment complex I previously lived at for a brief period of time (six months), the leasing office doesn’t sign for packages. The mail carriers puts the package inside the lock box or return to the post office, leaving behind a lock box key or pick up slip in the mailbox. This month a new mail carrier who didn’t get the memo.

I’m in the process of rebuilding my FreeNAS file server by replacing parts round robin style. I started off with a NZXT Source 210 case that can hold eight hard drives, moving everything out of the old Dell Inspiron 570 that I inherited from my late father in 2012. This case had a single 120mm fan and mountings for six more 120mm fans. I subsequently ordered a pair of DeepCool 120mm fans for the front mountings to blow air over the existing four hard drives. Despite being in a roomier case with larger fans, the file server was unstable unless I laid the case on its side and took off the side panel for the heat to escape.

Earlier this month I ordered a CompTIA Security+ certification book and a bar of orange hand soap from Amazon. I got a text notification that the package got delivered but it didn’t say which carrier delivered it. After coming home from work that day, I found no lock box key or pickup notice in the mailbox. No package at my apartment door, which was more likely with Amazon and meant that the package had walked. I waited a few days to see if the tracking information was incorrect. Still no package. I notified Amazon early Saturday morning and the replacement package from Las Vegas arrived 12 hours later.

I ordered another pair of 120mm fans from NewEgg. Like the Amazon package the week before, I got a text notification that the package got delivered. Not exactly. The package got sent from the east coast via UPS and transferred to the post office for local delivery. (NewEgg normally ships my orders from their west coast location.) The website tracking showed no movement from the post office. For the next several days, I waited for a lock box key or a pickup notice inside my mailbox. Still no package.

I contacted UPS, who told me that the package was no longer their responsibility after handing off to the post office, and NewEgg, who told me to wait a few more days for the post office to get its act together. A week after UPS handed off the package to the post office, I filed a claimed with NewEgg and requested a refund for the “lost” package. On the day I got the refund from NewEgg, I got a text notification that the post office delivered my package.

Still no lock box key or pick up notice in my mailbox. No package at my door. I noticed a NewEgg box sitting at the door down the hallway. This door typically gets Amazon boxes. I checked the address label on the box—and it was my package. Correct apartment number on the package, but left at the wrong apartment door. Now I had to go through the trouble of returning the refund to NewEgg, as I was keeping the package now that I got it.

Stepping inside my apartment, I noticed a pickup notice stuck to the backside bottom of my door. When I first moved into my apartment, the door had a half-inch gap at the bottom for envelopes and insects to come through. The electric company had an energy efficiency campaign a year later that got the leasing office to install weather-stripping on all the apartment doors. Somehow the mail carrier shoved the pickup notice through the weather-stripping. I came to the conclusion that the mail carrier was new to the job, and filed a complaint with the postmaster general.

As for the file server, I put the new fans into the top mounts to blow hot air out. Five fans didn’t improve things by much. The hard drive at the very bottom of the case was consistently overheating to make the file server unresponsive. This hard drive was also seven-years-old and overdue for replacement, which was the last thing on my to-do list. I moved the fan from the second top mounting to the bottom mounting to blow in cooler air. The hard drive stopped overheating. The CPU temperature ticked up a few degrees from the new flow of hot air. Another fan from NewEgg for the second top mounting should do the trick.

Not sure if the new mail carrier got the memo on delivering packages.

Coaching VTA Bus Drivers On Their Routes

VTAOne of the more curious sights at the start of the New Year was seeing VTA bus drivers studying a small handbook like monks examining scriptures. Whenever the bus pulled into a new stop, and the passengers finished boarding and departing, the driver pulls out the handbook to study the opened page for a moment. What’s the handbook? After several incidents where the passengers coached the drivers on driving their routes, the handbook listed the driving directions for all the bus routes. Some of those printed directions weren’t very accurate.

Since I started my new non-writing tech job six months ago, I liked my new commute of taking a five-minute local bus from my home, taking a 20-minute express bus to Palo Alto, and a five-minute local bus to my job. With 30 minutes of waiting between connections, it takes an hour each way. This is perhaps the most efficient route I have ever taken to work on the public transit.

The express bus had a new driver for Thursday and Friday afternoons. Like many drivers I’ve seen, he had a handbook nearby. He also had several 3×5 cards taped to the dashboard with handwritten directions. Leaving Palo Alto via Page Mill Road to southbound 280 was uneventful. When it came time to take the freeway loop for the Fruitdale Avenue stop, the driver drove past the southbound Meridian Avenue exit and took the northbound Meridian Avenue exit.

I leaned forward from my seat. “You missed the exit.”

“For real?” the driver said, dismayed. He glanced at his 3×5 cards. “The handbook says northbound exit.”

“Your handbook has a misprint.”

Everyone else in the bus became backseat driver and shouted directions at the driver. Most of those directions were wildly inconsistent for a confused driver unfamiliar with this part of San Jose. Being the closest person to the driver, I spoke up over the din behind me and directed the driver to take a loop-de-loop around the 280 on local streets to get to Fruitdale Avenue. The driver became more confident as the backseat drivers agreed with my directions and stopped offering alternative directions..

After the driver stopped at the morning bus stop for the express bus (the afternoon bus stop was across the street in the opposite direction), he crossed out “southbound” and wrote “northbound” for Meridian Avenue on his 3×5 cards. He hasn’t made that mistake again since learning his new route.

The local bus in Palo Alto never has the same bus driver in the morning. My coworkers and I often have to coach the new driver on the route. The location of where I get off from the express bus to pick up the local bus in Palo Alto is at an intersection in the foothills, a middle-of-nowhere place filled with rich joggers and poor jackrabbits. Most drivers don’t expect to find people waiting for a bus out here in the morning, and, if running behind schedule, will bypass this leg of the route to make up time.

One driver tried to drive on without picking me up. After I got into the street with both hands waving (this typically happens during a rainstorm), and my coworkers from inside the bus shouted at the driver to stop, I ran down the block to get on the bus. The driver told me that she didn’t pick up passengers at that stop. I told her to look up the handbook. She discovered that my stop was a time-point stop listed in the schedule—and she was ten minutes late.

Despite each bus having a GPS system that list turn-by-turn directions for each route, the drivers consulted their handbooks at each bus stop for the first two weeks of the New Year. Except for the local bus in Palo Alto which always has a different driver each morning, the drivers know their new routes as coached by the passengers.

The Simpsons Does Star Trek

As a child of the 1970’s, I spent many Saturday afternoons watching “Star Trek: The Original Series” on TV. While each episode with Kirk, Spock and McCoy was fantastic, the end credits with the sweeping music and the iconic still scenes from past episodes made for a perfect ending. A recent episode of “The Simpsons” had an homage to the vintage “Star Trek” end credits, reproducing the still scenes with Simpson characters and adding a few still scenes from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (i.e., daughter Lisa as the Borg queen). Having spent my teenage years with my mother when she became a crazy cat woman with 91 cats (I counted them one summer), the tribbles replaced by cat heads falling out of the bin was very disturbing.

Recycling That Mainframe Computer

The leasing office occasionally sends out a missive that gets taped to the front door of each apartment in the complex. Sometimes this makes for interesting reading. One such missive a few years ago about what can or cannot be flushed down the toilets implied that recreational sex (condoms), having babies (diaper wipes) and being a woman (tampons) will no longer be permissible behavior. (I wrote a 500-word flash story, “Circling The Drain,” around that particular premise.) A recent missive had a list of recyclable items to turn into the leasing office for an e-waste recycling drive. One item popped out on the list: Mainframe computers.

When I worked as a quality assurance software testing intern at Fujitsu in the 1990’s, our virtual world division got a new vice president from Japan who previously worked for the mainframe division. He took our group out to Jade Cathay restaurant on First Street in San Jose to get to know us. When the hostess handed him the menu, he ordered the same stir fry with tofu dish for everyone. Somehow I ended up sitting next to him. Not wanting to offend my host, I ate everything on my plate even though I never had Chinese before. We all suffered a severe case of massive heart burn later on, as that dish was very spicy.

He asked me if I was a mainframe programmer, and became disappointed when I told him that I wasn’t. (I didn’t volunteer that I was only an intern.) He asked around the table if anyone else was a mainframe programmer. No one else was. He informed us that Fujitsu was always looking for mainframe programmers. That statement puzzled everyone, as our group had nothing to do with mainframes. A month later he returned to Japan to lead the mainframe group again and got replaced by a more Westernized vice president who wasn’t looking for mainframe programmers.

Despite the popular misconception that mainframe computers are obsolete and long gone, they’re still around for processing massive amounts of data that can’t fit into the cloud. One of the hottest I.T. job market is for mainframe programmers who know COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). With the previous generation retiring, and many colleges stopped teaching mainframe computers years ago, there’s an acute shortage of skilled workers.

Unlike other areas of I.T., you can’t simply download a mainframe computer to your desktop and grab a book to learn how to program it. You need the actual room-sized hardware to get any practical experience. Most large companies that depend on mainframe computers are training programmers in-house. There’s no practical way to learn mainframe programming on your own.

Needless to say, no one turned in a mainframe computer at the leasing office.