Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The week it all hapened

Brace yourself because this is going to be a long one. In difference to the last post where nothing had really happened, a lot of stuff has changed since last week. First of all I managed to keep the deadline last Wednesday. I was even a day early. I don't think that has ever happened... ever in the IT industry. I'm pretty sure I have never been so fortunate though. I also got a standing ovation from marketing when I gave a walk through of the product for them (Quote: I'd give you a hug if I knew it wouldn't make you uncomfortable). So basically everything is going really well at work so far. Was out having a beer after work with some of the people I work with too on Thursday to celebrate meeting the deadline.

The as it seemed never ending story of the SSN took some more twists during the previous week. First of all I called them on Tuesday and they finally said that it was sent through the mail on Monday. Yes, success! Didn't get it on Tuesday though. Then when Wednesday pass, still without any card I called again and lo and behold. They now told me that my application had been processed on Tuesday so I should have it within 2 weeks... What? A week earlier it was within 10 days, and now it's up to two weeks? Being thoroughly confused I decided that this warrant another visit down to the actual social security office. Trying to miss as little work as possible I went down there half an hour before they opened and I started third in line, not too bad. By the time they actually opened there were at least 50 persons behind me. Once I got to the teller they told me that yes it would be around up to around 2 weeks before I would get the card. But, apparently they had already assigned me the number so the person behind the counter asked me if I wanted the number. So finally after only 5 weeks and 6 days I finally got my SSN. Pretty close guess by the original teller saying that it would be around 6 weeks, however if I hadn't been calling them every other second and going down there no less than 3 times I would still not have gotten it (Still waiting for the mail with the actual card).

Once I returned to work I immediately called the DMV and tried to book an appointment so I could get started with the whole buying a car thing. First of all they told me I first had to get one appointment to do a theoretical test and then schedule another appointment to do a drivers test. The first available appointment within a 20 mile radius was on April 23:rd. Yeay, we're really cooking now! But fortunately, except for the driving test you can just go down there and stand in line. So since work has slowed a bit since Wednesday I decided to take Friday morning off from work and get it over with as soon as posible. Having been warning that the DMV is the pinnacle of American bureaucracy I got there 40 minutes before they actually opened (I was there at 7:20 in the morning). By that time there were around 100 people before me in line!

As if that wasn't enough they sorted us into different lines depending on the errand we had. I off course got into the line where they pretty much didn't let anyone in. It wasn't that bad though, they let me into the building at around 9 o'clock after only one and a half hour wait. When they let you into the building you also got a queue number and it only took around 30 minutes more before I went to the first teller which checked my vision, got my thumbprint and charged me for taking the test. Then I got to stand in the next line to get the test administered. I took the test which had 40 questions. You are allowed to have 6 wrong answers. I was not sure about 12 questions after finishing the test. Then I talked to some of the people as we waited (Again) for them to check the responses and realized that a question I was pretty certain I had the correct answer for (Not one of the 12 I was uncertain about) was wrong (I thought the alcohol limit for driving was 0.05%, when in fact it is 0.08%). Well, then I really started doubting myself and thought about having to miss one more day of work just to stand in all those stupid lines gain. However, when I got the test back I had only 1 wrong answer, and yes off course it was the drinking question that I had discussed earlier. A nice surprise though was that after I passed the test they gave me a temporary license valid for 2 months under which time I need to schedule a driving test to get my real license. So at around 10:30 after only 3 hours I was finished with my first visit to the DMV, and I even left with a temporary driving license.

Since I had thought to be there pretty much the entire day I decided I might as well keep going so I went to the closest Bank of America branch to where I live and set up a bank account. Everything went incredibly smooth with that part. Having heard from some of my friends who moved to England I was expecting some major troubles here, but they were very polite and explained everything really well. I'm guessing that most people who open bank accounts don't need such a long explanation how to use a checkbook as I did. To be honest, I'm not really comfortable with how it works yet anyway. Given my initial ineptitude to everything in banking they proceeded with describing how the internet bank worked which was pretty primitive to what we have in Sweden. And the security is leaving something to wish for I think. You get to choose the log in and password yourself to access it, and there are no certificates or code boxes or anything. They had one really smart way to handle payments here though that I was quite impressed with. You can pay any bill payable with check through the internet. If the company who should receive the check is registered to receive payments electronically there is no problem. However, if the company can only handle mailed in checks you can still pay them through the internet and the bank will print a check and mail it to the company. Really clever solution to a backward system I had to say.

Next on my list is applying for a credit card. This has so far not gone as smooth as I had hoped. I applied for an American Express card through the internet, finishing the first application screen and expected a second screen which I could fill out some more info. More specifically a comment field where I could enter that I have had an American Express card in Sweden for years and am a good customer to them. They have really weird phone in times since they are on the east coast so I haven't been able to call them yet while there is someone actually answering the phone. I'm going to call them tomorrow morning though, so hopefully it will all be worked out. I can see right now that they have already made a decision on my application... I am pretty sure that it's denied for now since I have absolutely no credit history whatsoever in this country.

The whole concept of credit history is a really ass backward way to decide if someone can pay for stuff or now as far as I can tell. Credit history is only based on actually using credit. So if you have money and don't like loaning you will never get a credit history and will look like a vagrant when they check you. Even if you have tens of thousands of dollars in your account you still can't do anything since you don't have a credit history. I talked to the bank on how I was supposed to get one of them credit histories. What they said was that I should put some money in escrow as security for a credit card in the bank. I should also make sure NOT to pay the bill in full every month, but keep some balance on the card so I show that I can actually pay a bill on time. It's not at all as in Sweden where they measure your ability to pay for stuff on what you actually make. Here they base it on how much you have borrowed in the past. So pretty much, the worse you are at handling your money here (IE the more you need to borrow), the more they are willing to lend you. Please someone explain to me that I have understood this wrong, because it seems almost surreal.

After this I finally got back to work, and among other things I managed to get parts of my first paycheck. So after work I went back to the bank and deposited my checks. Again I needed a short course in how to deposit the checks (Given the amounts on the checks I am amazed the even let me cash them as clueless as I was). They were really nice at the bank this time too and even cleared the checks straight away so I could start using the money on Saturday even if I wanted to. I only have 3 checks to access the account with so far though, it will take around a week to get a debit card and my real checks. Still haven't used the money though except to pay some of my bills. I have to say though, that for the first time in my entire life I actually feel almost wealthy. It's not going to last though as I am buying a car in a few days and by then the cash will be gone.

After the bank I went to the car dealership to test drive the different cars I have been looking at. I have pretty much narrowed it down to a Mustang Convertible. The only question was if I was to go with a 6 cylinder or a V8 engine. To be honest, the test drive didn't give me that much more information except perhaps that the V8 made a little more notice. Can't really say I noticed much difference between the power of the engines. After having talked to Stefan, Johansson and my father I decided to go with the V8 version though. Mainly because if I bring it back to Sweden the difference in the second hand value between the V6 and V8 is way bigger than the difference in the purchase price of the new cars. On Saturday morning I called the dealership and said which car I decided on. I'm hoping to pick it up on Friday after work as my parents are here to drop me off to pick it up. I still need to get the last part of my back pay to be able to afford the car though. I'm less than $1000 short, kind of irritating to that close and still no cigar, and since I have no credit rating I can't borrow it either for about a week. Hopefully I will get the last chunk of money any day now so it's not that bad.

The next challenge is getting car insurance which I have also been able to fix. I have finally managed to find one which is around $180/month. Quite a difference to the bizarre amount of $3000/month I got when I first tried getting a quote (I didn't manage to fill out that I had actually had a drivers license for 12 years). The good news for all you people who are coming over visiting is that the insurance is also valid if people borrow the car from me from time to time. So when you come over you don't need to get a rental as long as you don't mind dropping me off work in the morning and picking me up when I finish. Other things I managed to get done during Friday afternoon was to find a doctor and dentist (Although that one was simple since Eriko, Magnus wife is a dentist assistant) and applying for medical insurance. Don't know exactly when it starts to be valid, but at least I've applied for it now. One more thing to check off the list.

Another thing that happened during the week was that I talked to the moving company and apparently the ship with all my stuff on it passed customs Wednesday morning so now they just have to get it from Torrence (Around where LAX is) down to Newport. Hopefully I should get it tomorrow or Wednesday. Can't wait to finally get all my stuff. Not a moment too soon either since my parents are coming on Thursday. Friday evening I had a dinner with "Fröken Fredag", a Swedish group that meets once every month. It's actually just for women, but they didn't mind if I joined them when I showed up. Really nice group of around 7 Swedish girls and me.

Saturday evening I spent going out partying with some coworkers in Laguna Beach. I have never been to Laguna even though it is one of the closest communities to where I live and I have to say that I really liked it. It is more of a city, you can actually walk to the restaurants and bars if you live down there. Also the rent that at least my coworkers pay was about the same as mine, so I am definitely going to think about moving there when my 6 month lease is up. We are also moving our office a little bit to the south (Not until in about a year) so it will actually be closer to where I will work too. In the end I had a really fun night and got home at around 5 in the morning. I also finally figured out a good point of living on the top of the hill. You can drive your car to the party and then have downhill most of the way in the morning on skates when you go back to pick up the car. On my way to Laguna Beach I also recognized some of the footage from the beginning of the show "The O.C." which is supposed to take place down here in Newport.

I have also managed to break the record on needing to change wheels on my skates after having them for only 3 weeks. While I changed the wheels I also found out that I have been doing something wrong while changing wheels on my skates for all these years. To be honest I was kind of amazed. Normally I always change both wheels and ball bearings at the same time and so just throw the wheels away, well apparently you have spacers (I have seen them in stores, but never figured out where or why to use them) between each ball bearing in the wheels. This has been the reason why I always have a problem with not being able to tighten the screws without the wheels getting stuck (And thus leading me to not being able to tighten the screws and getting noisy skates). I know I'm an idiot for taking 10 years to figure this out.

Any one of these letters wouldn't be complete without a little complaint about something that doesn't work here. So here is the weird US thing of the week. They are really bad at lighting the streets here. That is why I run around once every other night instead of skating. Up where I live they have no streetlights at all on the main streets. They have some on the smaller streets though, but as soon as you move out on the major roads it's pitch dark. And since it is also very steep down or uphill not really that nice to skate on during the night.

Another thing that was revealed to me this week was the mystery of "The Toadman". This was a guy who was bought out by Quest pretty much the same way as I was, only around 1998 or something. Anyway, since then they have bought one more product and I have been able to talk to that guy (John Dorlon of EzSQL fame), but they have always been really evasive with the first "Toadman" guy giving something like "He is no longer with Quest, having put himself in a position where he could not work for anyone". So I had pretty much gathered that he had had a mental breakdown or being burnt out or something. I'm not really supposed to talk about what happened, but knowing what it was I understand why they try to avoid the issue as good as they can (I'll give you one hint, he is in prison... for a looong time).

One last thing I managed to also set up last week is to start donating blood again over here. I stopped for a while after they closed down the clinic right next to Spinbox in Sweden, but now I managed to find out how you donate over here so I'm all set up to go on Wednesday evening after work for the first time. Going to be interesting to see how it differs from how they do it in Sweden.

I'm sorry I don't have that many more pictures. The weather has been great this week and I have been aiming at taking some pictures of how it looks here outside my apartment, but I have always forgotten my to bring my camera so far. I'll do better for my next letter and hopefully I'll have some pictures of a furnished apartment to top it off with.

Anyway, take care everyone and have a great week.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Stupid f**king country...

I have just (or actually a few hours ago) had another run in with the wonderful American bureaucracy which has left me rather pissed so I'm going to start off by listing all the things I have found so far that works less well here than in more civilized countries :). Lets start with the event that left me rather breathless from the incompetence. As I keep complaining in all my emails I have not yet received my social security number. I was told that it was supposed to take up to 6 weeks, but I have been calling every week just to make sure. Especially now after I moved since I am not betting on the forwarding of my mail to work so I didn't actually think I would receive the card in the mail, but would at least have the number to go forward. Since I was really getting close to the 6 week deadline I was stepping up my call ins to bi-weekly, because it is really starting to be a hassle without one (More about that later). This time though the reply I got was different than before, since before they have simply said that wait the 6 weeks, nothing is wrong. This time they said something unspecified had gone wrong with my application and I had to contact my local Social Security office and was given a phone number.

I kept calling the phone number I got every 5 minutes for 2 hours without ever getting through so I decided, screw this I'm taking the afternoon off work and going down there. So I did, waited for a while, although the queue wasn't nearly as bad as the first time I was there. When I got to the counter I first got the standard reply I've gotten over the phone so many times before with a slight difference. No nothing is wrong, it has just not been processed by INS yet... IT CAN TAKE UP TO 3 MONTHS. A slight difference from the 6 weeks I had heard about before which I was as flabbergasted by when I heard it because I had heard it should be no more than 10 days.

I asked them how they thought I was supposed to live here for 3 months without being able to get a salary and they actually started to try to be helpful and figure out what was wrong. And after some digging they figured out the reason why my application wasn't proceeding through the system as it should because according to their checks I was already approved by INS. The reason was that my application had been lost. So as I stood there they had to resubmit my application into the system, so basically I am now back to square one where I was 6 weeks ago. There is some reason to hope for the better though. This time I was approved by INS which was the problem last time, so the time they said it should take now is the 10 days that I had initially heard about before I ever went there. Also I was able to refile it under my new address so that I will probably actually get my card. Still though, if I had heeded the advice of the first 5 people I talked to at the SSA regarding just waiting for the card to come I would probably never have gotten it. I thought we had bad bureaucracy in Sweden, but it has nothing on this crap. And this is not even something complicated, all I want is to be able to pay taxes. I can't wait to see what will happen if I actually need to get some kind of social benefit or such. Hopefully I will not need to find out how badly that works.

This brings me to some more problems of I have found out when you don't have a social security number. I have recently moved into my new apartment and have gotten a gas, electricity bill and off course cable TV and with them came some bills. Now in Sweden we pay bills through the internet or using "auto-giro". All in all it has never taken me more than a few minutes every month. Here you pay bills by sending in checks. Sometime you can pay by credit cards, but apparently not for my gas and electricity bill. Now the problem is, how am I supposed to pay something with a check if I don't have a bank accounts. And again to reiterate, I can't get that without a social security number. Usually it wouldn't be a problem since the bills doesn't become overdue until a month after they are sent out. But because I don't have a social security number I need to pay a deposit and that off course have to be paid straight away. I love the way they thought that little scheme up, I mean anyone who can actually pay the deposit shouldn't need to get it would they. Fortunately I have called them and managed to get a suspension on the payment so I don't have to pay until April 2nd.

Now I'm done with the SSN so now I am just going to do some random complaining, or pointing out stuff which doesn't work as well here as home. First of all, the way all roads here are littered with stop signs. I mean in Sweden when there is a stop sign you can be pretty sure that there is actually something to stop for, or at least a pretty tricky traffic intersection. Here they seem to put up a stop sign pretty much whenever they can't be bothered to put up traffic lights. Which is a problem, because you get the problem of the boy who cried wolf. Nobody actually stops at the stop signs here. They slow down a bit, but that is about it. Another traffic problem here is the logic behind the traffic signals. In Sweden they seem to have put quite a lot of thought behind how the traffic lights turn so that you usually get quite a good flow through them. And you very rarely have to stop at two signs in a row if you continue straight because traffic lights are controlled centrally and are synced together. Here they don't seem to have thought of that innovation and you can often need to stop at every single traffic light if you follow a straight road. It is definitely a noticeable difference, and both me and Stefan made note of it while he was here.

Next I'm going to go over to shopping. Here when you buy stuff you are not allowed to put stuff in your own shopping bags, there is instead a person who is supposed to handle this. Which I don't have anything in mind of except that they put no thought what so ever of how they pack your bags (Hard heavy stuff on the bottom etc). Also, the bags themselves are a joke, they break if you sneeze at them. Which leads to them packing about one item in each bag, which in turn sort of almost defeat the whole purpose of the bag. Going over to shopping a cell phone, which is something incredibly easy in Sweden. Here it is quite a problem though. I managed to break my phone during the weekend and needed a new one fast, since I am sort of isolated without one. I could off course not get the cellphone I already have since that is not available here yet (They seem to be around 6 months to a year behind Sweden in cellphone models), so I wanted the model I had before my current one. Then came the next problem of getting a phone that is not tied to a service provider so I can still use my Swedish SIM-card if I would travel outside the US. Walking into a phone store here and asking for a non locked phone and they don't even understand the question, the concept is simply not even known here. In the end I just gave up and got a phone locked to my current subscription and I'll have it unlocked the next time I go to Sweden instead.

Now I'm done complaining. I have had a pretty busy week. I think I had just gotten my new apartment last week and done some work on assembling the bed. During Tuesday I made the first attempt at cutting my hair here. A friend of a friend here had turned out to be a hairdresser so I gave her a shot at cutting my hair. She wasn't as good as my old one in Sweden, which those of you who have heard me talk about know I really like, but it didn't turn out too bad. She was actually between jobs right now so I had to cut my home over at her place (Since I didn't even have chairs at my place yet) which was down in San Clemente, so that pretty much took that entire evening with all the getting lost and all.

Wednesday I spent actually moving. All in all it took two trips in the car to move my stuff. The heaviest bag was the one with the stuff I had in my fridge. For some reason I had managed to get around 30 bottles of bear, a few bottles of liquor and some bottles of whine not to mention half a gallon (2l) of juice, a quarter of a gallon of milk and generally a whole lot of stuff to drink. I think the bag probably weight close to 30kg. I also had to try to find comforter and other linen to put on my bed to be able to sleep in it. After all of that I finished assembling the tables for the bed. In the end I didn't get finished until almost 12am in the morning. I also had a whole room filled with trash from all the cartoons from IKEA and such. I also got all the stuff I had ordered via mail this day, both TV, grill and skates. Although I didn't get a chance to try the skates until Friday.

Thursday I had to go up to LAX and change rental car since the time when Quest didn't want to pay for it anymore. Since I went up there anyway I stopped by at Magnus's place and had dinner and said hello to Erico (His wife) who had just had surgery the Monday before. Friday I finally got a chance to try my new skates and as always they take a few days to get used to (The phrase from Wayne's World by Garth regarding new underwear comes to mind: "At first they are strange and constricting, but after a while they become a part of you"), and I also realized that I am going to get in really good shape from living here since one of the other new toys I got was a training GPS I know that I started the trip with a 4 mile long downhill slope to the ocean followed by 3 mile long hill without downhill interruptions. I don't think I have ever been so exhausted from such a short trip in my life as the 8 mile trip.

Saturday started up really nice. I had made plans to go out and celebrate St Patric's day (I know a few days early, but who cares) in Santa Monica with Magnus and spent the day with getting showed some of the finer points of Santa Monica and Malibu. Once we started partying things didn't turn out too good, not having eaten enough during the day and starting straight away drinking shots the whole thing soon went overboard. To make a long story short this is where I broke my phone, it is also where I managed to loose one of my credit cards (Thank god for having a spare, otherwise I would really be in trouble). I see it as a short refresher course in why I should not drink shots... EVER! Which I usually don't either, and I'll stick to it even better after this I'm sure. This followed off course by not exactly much getting done the entire Sunday and it wasn't until well in the evening that I even dared to drive home.

At work we are really getting close to as the really like saying here "crunch time". Next Friday I have a deadline. And unlike most other deadlines (Douglas Adams said about deadlines: "I love deadlines, I like to sit and hear the swishing sound they make as they go by") this one is real in that if I miss it they wont have time to print up the CD:s which Quest is supposed to hand out at the conference in mid April. So the next two weeks it is going to be a lot of work. I have already started going on close to 10 hour days, and it is probably going to get worse for a few days. After next Friday I don't think there is going to be that much to do for me until the fair. I'm sure I find something to do though.

Otherwise this week is surprisingly uneventful except for work. I have nothing really planned so far, though next Friday I have a party with some kind of Swedish "Fröken Fredag" society, don't really know what it is, but I am hoping to be celebrating being able to keep the deadline then. Next Thursday my parents are coming for two weeks, and before they even leave I will leave for this conference in Orlando that I keep talking about. And what do you... It's summer. Although the concept seems kind of irrelevant here since it is pretty much always good weather here (One of the things I keep getting back to that is actually great with this place), although it isn't as bizarrely nice as last week. So all in all, I have to end with that I don't really have as much of a problem with this place as you might think when you read the beginning of this mail. I actually really like it here, although the SSN thing is really frustrating. Hopefully it will be resolved soon. Take care everyone.