Monday, October 02, 2017

How to place a freeze on your credit reports

Sharing a PSA that may help some American readers. In the wake of the massive Equifax security breach exposing the personal information and social security numbers of most American adults, consider ordering the three main credit agencies to place a credit freeze on your information (required by state law upon request).

The contact numbers are listed below, and it takes less than 10 minutes per person, per agency. Freezes will prevent most types of credit-based identity theft, although you will need to lift the freeze when applying for loans, mortgages, or credit cards.

Note that if you do have your identity stolen, it is a mess to clean up, taking lots of time, bureaucracy, inconvenience, and costs, including potential legal problems or extra airport scrutiny. Most victims say it takes YEARS to clear up.

The process of freezing your credit takes about 20-30 minutes for one person if you use the automated online or phone systems offered by the three main credit reporting agencies (see below). DO NOT BE FOOLED by other services they offer, such as "credit monitoring" - Trans Union is particularly bad, exploiting the Equifax breach to sign people up for "True Identity" which is a paid premium service that offers limited protections.

Have your credit card number and social security number ready to use the following systems (you can also do it by mail, but it's slower and requires additional paperwork including a scan of utility bills and drivers' licenses). All services will send you a PIN to use later if you want to lift the freeze.

Please share this with friends, family, or colleagues.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Chinese as a world language?

There's an interesting article in LitHub by Tom Mullaney titled TO ABOLISH THE CHINESE LANGUAGE: ON A CENTURY OF REFORMIST RHETORIC. A couple of thoughts to share, as someone who studied Mandarin in Taiwan the 1990s, encouraged his kids to learn Mandarin here and in Taiwan, and still loves to study 4-character colloquialisms:
  • "Chinese is a world script" - The author notes the rising popularity of Chinese classes in schools all over the world. I love the challenge of learning this beautifully complex system of communication, but I think Chinese script is actually holding back Mandarin (and other Chinese dialects) from becoming more widely spoken. It's difficult to write properly, and adds another layer of complexity to remembering vocabulary. I think it's much easier for people to learn a language that has an alphabet-based script, and it's possible to go further with such a language in a given period of time. For students in the West, the prospect of gaining a little proficiency in Spanish in two or three years' time -- not to mention being able to read and write a fair amount of Spanish -- seems very appealing. I don't think that's possible with Chinese, unless the student makes a significant effort and/or endeavors to do an immersion program in Taiwan or China. (One interesting exception: Japanese students have very little trouble with written Chinese, thanks to their own use of kanji, a set of 1,000 or so Chinese characters used for place and personal names and certain vocabulary).
  •  The rise of software to write Chinese characters has really made it much easier to write. I say this as someone who learned in the dark ages before such software was widely available. If I had to write a sentence in Chinese using a pen and paper it would be painful for both myself and the reader ... but on my phone or using a laptop or desktop computer I can manage social media, email, and other lightweight uses thanks to easy pinyin input systems. It's improved my reading ability, too, because now I am interacting in Chinese on my devices using written language that's more like spoken Mandarin, whereas 20 years ago most of the printed materials I encountered tended to be written in more formal style.
  • Mandarin as a world language. The increasing importance of the Chinese economy is becoming a big driver for spoken Mandarin in other parts of the world. I've encountered Thais and Vietnamese who can speak it quite well (but not write) in order to do business or interact with Chinese tourists. A friend who recently visited Italy saw the same thing in high-end shops with young Italians behind the counters being able to speak proficient Mandarin.
  • I disagree with the idea that the lack of spaces between words are a problem. Chinese grammar is very straightforward, and once you have sentence structure and a large enough vocabulary it's not hard to figure where words start and end (even if you don't know a specific term).
  • There are interesting examples in Vietnam and Korea of societies that abandoned Chinese characters in favor of their own alphabets. It's true that cultures lose the connection with ancient literature and older historical documents ... but not their history, thanks to the spread of literacy and public education combined with a strong interest in history and famous people from centuries past.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Amazon KDP survey: the improvements I suggested

So I received an email from Amazon's KDP program, asking me to take a short survey about the program. I've been using KDP for years, but in the past few months the Amazon self-publishing program has gotten a lot of grief from participants for rampant scams, ranging from ebook box set trickery to make money and establish "bestseller" status to bogus borrows and fishy promotions  gaming rank and revenue. The scams take money from readers as well as honest authors trying to play by the rules and publish good books.

But those aren't the only problems. When I was prompted with the following question, I had five specific suggestions:

Survey question: What would you like us to work on next that would improve your KDP experience?

My response:
  1. Get rid of transmission fees. This made sense when people downloaded books to their Kindles over 3G. Now that most downloads are wifi, it's a bogus charge that cheats authors and publishers.
  2. Stop using a misleading UI that tricks people into signing up for KDP Select.
  3. Please stop constant needling to lower prices.
  4. Please do a better job of screening out bogus authors using Wikipedia, Fiverr, or illegally copied sources to "write" books.
  5. Please find and punish people who are outright ripping off readers and other authors with scams and other tricks. It's not enough to remove their ranking. Kill their account and prevent them from opening up a new account tied to the same bank account. Money spent on these scams is not fair to readers or authors who are playing by the rules.
Did I miss anything?

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Visiting Taipei with kids: 4 places to go/things to see

A friend recently asked me about places to go in Taipei during a family visit. Here are my recommendations based on my own experience living in Taipei with my kids a few summers ago:

Taipei Maokong Gondola

Maokong Gondola (貓空纜車) -This is a fun little trip, a small cable car that goes up some hills with the last stop being a place where you get tea or some refreshments. Getting tickets they have English speaking people to help. Go on a weekday as the weekend it's packed. There's also one day it is closed for maintainence every week (maybe Monday or Tuesday) so check before you go. It's located at the last stop of the Taipei Muzha line, which is also where the Taipei Zoo is located (that's better for little kids, but this zoo also has a panda which may be interesting to adults as they are so rare). An image from the inside of the cable car is shown above.

Ximending (西門町): This is kind of the outdoor shopping area that a lot of young people go to. They have shops for hats, cute tchotchkes, souvenirs from Taiwan, and other stuff. There's also a very interesting minimall in Ximending at the Wannian Building (70 Xiníng South Road), close to Exit 6 of Ximen Station. It's 5 stories tall, and it's a warren of weird little shops selling everything from puzzles to military surplus to Japanese robot toys. The top floor is an arcade which is a good place for a 12 year old to kill an hour — the games are mostly Japanese, which are seldom seen outside of Japan.

Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) - this is a fantastic dumping restaurant, world famous! They have English menus. It really deserves its reputation. There are a bunch of them in Taipei, the ones I recommend are the original on Xinyi Rd or the Nanxi branch in the basement of the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store. There's also one in the Taipei 101 building (tallest building in Taiwan). Addresses are on the Din Tai Fung website.

Traditional night market - there are a bunch of them accessible from the subway or taxi. It's a great place to try different food or get cheap clothes although I have to admit if you don't have a Chinese-speaker with you it may be tough! A small one that is easier to walk around and has a small temple to visit is Raohe Street Night Market (饒河街觀光夜市) - directions here.

My Quick Taipei video from 10 years ago, introducing people to the city and surrounding hills:

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Henry Rollins on creativity and writing

There's an interview with Henry Rollins that writers and other creative people should read right now. If you were into punk and underground rock in the 1980s and early 1990s, you know Rollins from Black Flag and Rollins Band. Others might recognize him from a string of bit parts in TV shows and movies including Heat, The Chase, Johnny Mnemonic, and Sons of Anarchy.

In this interview, he mainly talks about writing. He has produced poetry, spoken word, and a memoir in the past, but it's not the content he's talking about, but rather the process of getting it out. It's very inspiring, and worth quoting here:

Rollins on writer's block:
if somebody ever says, “Well, what do you do about writer’s block?” I’m like, “I don’t think I’m a writer.” I don’t put any of those titles on myself, so I don’t acknowledge those pressures. Some days I got stuff, some days I don’t, and some days I write about the fact I got nothing to write about. But, I do try to write 1,000 words a day. It’s just like going to the gym. Some workouts are better than others. I think the less pressure you put on yourself, the better. In my opinion, it’d be hard to sit in a room and go, “Okay, damnit. Be creative.”
On sleep:
The power nap is very instrumental in what I do. I take like one or two four to seven minute naps a day. I can sit in the chair in my office right in front of my computer and knock out for a solid four to six minutes and then wake up like “boom!”… Usually at the end of the day, I’ll do another one of those right before I work out. I can skip it, but I feel groggy on the treadmill if I don’t.

On distractions:

if I’m awake, I need to be doing something. Even if it’s nothing, I’m working in that nothingness. I usually have a notepad on any flat surface where I am because there’s always a note to take down, an idea to come up with, a thing to do later. I’m rarely doing nothing.

That’s why I don’t have a TV. Because I will watch it. I know I’m susceptible....
I think it’s important if you’re a creative person, or aspire to be, that you don’t spend too much time aspiring or asking advice. Just get going and address what’s roaring inside you.

On his own work:
When something’s done, I’ll go, “Okay, cool,” and I’ll shelve it, and I’ll rejoice that the damn thing is done and my desktop is empty so I can fill it with the next project. I’m a shipbuilder. I don’t want to sail in them. I want you to sail in them. I’m just happy that they leave the harbor so I can have an empty workplace. And the glee of getting the component parts and starting from scratch starts all over again, and we build the next ark.

On aging and output:

Someone once said that when you buy a book, you’re not really buying the book—you’re buying the time you think you’ll have to read it. It’s like all those records you say you’ll listen to some day, but that day never comes. 50 finds you real fast. Like, you’re 28, and all of a sudden, you’re 50. It happens so fast. And that “woulda, coulda, shoulda”? You better do it while you still have knees. You better do it before you start getting up and everything pops and clicks because, man, it changes....

I always have like five books going at once. That anyone will read them, that’d be cool. But I’m not making them to get read; I’m making them to get them out of me. You gotta do something with your life. You can watch TV. You can inhale cocaine. Or you can sit down and write, or sing, or jump up and down, whatever it is. It’s all just choices. So much of this is just committing to the time and the discipline and the agony of creativity—because it turns on you all the time.
What a great interview. It's long, but it's worth reading through and savoring. I especially like that "shipbuilder" quote. But I hate to say that I don't know much of Rollins recent work. My main touch points for Rollins are his music and some of his spoken word stuff from the 1980s; I did not know he has continued his high rate of creative output to the present time (I had a vague idea he does radio stuff but I don't follow it). I will try to make a point of reading some of his books in the near future (if I can make the time ...) (Edited to add: He has literally scores of books on Amazon. Incredible!)

One point of context that's worth mentioning: In the early 1980s he was part of one of the most prolific small teams that ever existed in the music industry: Black Flag (Rollins, guitarist Ginn, drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Kira Roessler) and their producer "Spot." From 1984-85 they released four full-length albums and toured incessantly. Even after the band broke up the individual members continued to produce, produce, produce. Rollins started Rollins Band and did poetry books and spoken word tours as well. Ginn ran SST records and did some other bands. There's a documentary about Bill Stevenson which shows how he kept up this crazy pace with ALL and Descendents and other recording projects to the present day. Roessler was part of a sound editing team that won an Oscar for their work on Mad Max: Fury Road. These people are incredibly prolific and creative in their own right, and when they came together it was a very intense period of output.

Anyone who is interested in the history of Black Flag and other seminal creative teams of the alternative/underground music scene of the 1980s (Minor Threat, Mission of Burma, The Replacements, Fugazi, Minutemen, Big Black, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Butthole Surfers ...) should read Michael Azzerad's Our Band Could Be Your Life. He conducted some solid research and got many of the key players to talk to him, and the book is a great read. He made an observation that these bands were in many respects entrepreneurial ventures, albeit operating with only creative capital and bootstrapped energy. Quoting from Azzerad's interview with The Paris Review:
The most lasting significance of the eighties American indie scene might have been the way these bands conducted their careers. The point wasn’t to play loud and fast; the point was to make the music they wanted to make, without compromise, to find and cultivate an audience for it, and to live within their means so they could continue to do exactly what they wanted to do and not be beholden to anyone but themselves. That’s really what the best indie bands today are emulating.

Also, much of what the bands in this book did was to make very unconventional music that attracted unconventional people—or maybe even showed conventional people a different mode of thinking. Not necessarily because of anything in the lyrics, but just because of how challenging and unorthodox the music was."