Scammers must really believe in the sentiment of “Work smarter, not harder.” As many of us work our tails off, scammers across the world are sitting on their tails, using technology to try to rob us of the money we trade our limited time on this planet for.

I just received an email in my spam folder, and it was automatically filed in that category for good reason. The email looked genuine and even included my first and last name, but it was from Paypall.com. That’s right “Paypall,” with two Ls. Of course, our lexicon is changing fast, with cute little portmanteaus like “pinterest,” “turducken,” and “Bennifer” being made up all the time. One thing I do know for sure is that Paypal hasn’t recently decided to fight against our society’s obsession with making words and phrases shorter by adding an extra, unnecessary letter to the company letterhead.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded… if there is something fishy about an email that shows up in your inbox, DO NOT click any links contained within the message. If it claims to be from your bank, utility company, or whatever, open a new window in your browser and type in that company’s website address directly to access your account.

Also, most – if not all – email service providers have an option somewhere to allow you to look at the “message source.” Looking at that initially looks like a bunch of jarbled, random code but, in most cases, it will show you the true source of an email. This “paypall” message originated from the website “paypal.com.d8kn4uztcel3gh5zl.12bjf74ku6v1v.com.” If that addy isn’t a weird one, I don’t know what is.

Breaking down that website address is slightly technical, so bear with me:

The website’s host domain is always what comes immediately before the “.com”. Everything before that is a subdomain. You can think of a subdomain simply as a folder for organizing a website, in the same way you keep folders on your computer to organize music, video, documents, etc. For example, yahoo.com has a ton of content, so they use subdomains like sports.yahoo.com, news.yahoo.com, and movies.yahoo.com.

So basically, the “paypal” part of that long address above has NOTHING to do with “paypal.com.” Rather, “paypal” is the name of a folder within another folder called “com.” The “com” folder is within a folder called “d8kn4uztcel3gh5zl.” That main folder is hosted on the website “12bjf74ku6v1v.com.” It’s difficult to find any reason why Paypal would own such a randomized website address like “12bjf74ku6v1v.com.”

Again, never, ever click on suspicious links or any junk email for that matter. In some cases, clicking “unsubscribe” is just a way to show spammers that your email address is active, which turns into an invitation to bombard your accounts with all kinds of messages you would rather not receive.

p.s. I changed a couple of the random characters in the spammer’s website link posted earlier. I don’t want anyone to even try to visit that link because it seems like a really, really bad idea.

A step back in time…

Buffalo Central Terminal

Oct. 1, 2009

It’s 2:13 AM, and I am trying to make my way through the darkness of the old train concourse with the silence of a ghost. It’s cold and lonely in this place, with the exception of flashlights faintly illuminating walls and pathways at the other end of a span that’s the length of a football field. The investigators are standing in one figurative end zone, and I, in the other. This is a ghost hunt, from the perspective of a non-hunter.

At this point, I have been on the road for 24 days, and our current stop is in Buffalo, New York. This is stop number three on a five-city tour. It’s exhausting, shooting at night, then turning around to capture daytime, b-roll footage of all these towns and cities. Cast interviews are also peppered in the mix when time permits. On nights like these, we sometimes nod off in the shadows, as our duty during filming is to remain quiet and out of sight. At the same time, we are forever on call. A live walkie-talkie feed intermittently buzzes directly in our ears with requests for fresh batteries, new camera tapes, and water.

“Exhausting” in this context means that we put so much time and effort into the work, and have such an inconsistent schedule, that it seems Casper’s evil twin could pick one of us up – and violently twirl the person around overhead – and hardly anyone would take notice. This is the life of TV production. Sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s extremely difficult. Sometimes it’s a bit of both. In this case, the big reward comes through getting paid to travel, making new contacts, and working with the hosts of the show again. And when it’s all said and done, it’s great knowing that this production will provide an outlet for some viewers and hopefully enhance their lives in at least a small way.

This is the second of a three-night investigation. I have really become keen at silently gliding through the darkness, despite wearing heavy, steel-toed boots. On a couple occasions now, I have unintentionally startled some co-workers by silently slipping into a room they are in, for them to realize my presence when turning on a flashlight for a moment. “How the hell did you get in here/How long have you been sitting there?” have earned me the nickname “Creeps.” It seems that, in most cases, such a name would be derogatory but, in this case, I take it as a cordial shout-out to my ninja-like attributes.

Investigations normally starting wrapping up around dawn. That should be the case tonight, as this place is surrounded by windows that would reveal a bluish sky and subsequent daylight beginning to peak through. In contrast, a couple weeks ago we were shooting two levels below deck on a battleship. The investigation was going really well and, with no way for the sunlight to make its way in, we continued to film until the team felt it was the right time to wrap things up. THAT was a long night.

The low temperature tonight is 41 degrees. We must have reached that point long ago. When we flip on flashlights, especially our headlamps, the warm air from one’s breath swirls around in the beam. And it’s especially blustery when you can feel wind gusting down the corridors.

There is a certain vibe to this place. It’s easy to imagine its former prominence, beginning in the late 1920s. You imagine these things – the bustling corridors, the vendors, the noise, the smell of food – and you open your eyes and nothing is there. It’s like the part in Forrest Gump where Jenny, dressed in all white, walks across the front lawn and eerily disappears.

It’s obvious that the giant train station has been slowly crumbling for a long time now, but a conservancy is slowly working to restore the massive property. I don’t know what the music scene is like here in Buffalo, but the main concourse would make for a really, really cool music hall.

Although this place seems so quiet and empty, we all know it’s not. People are around, somewhere…people that aren’t with us. Among the odd rooms downstairs filled with trash and odd, unrecognizable machinery, also strewn about are old clothing and a sleeping bag. The “KISS rules” graffiti adorning one wall makes me believe some parts of this building have been untouched for quite some time.

Eyes are growing heavy. Time to dream another dream, probably yet another about driving. It’s not escapism… rather, it’s just what I have been doing a lot of lately, more than ever. Signing off from the Empire State.

 
Buffalo Central Terminal

Buffalo Central Terminal

Updated (6/28/12):

Levitated Mass rock, LACMA, Los Angeles

Walking on the way to CBS last Friday, I noticed something – there sat the “Levitated Mass” rock all by itself, uncovered and alone, with temporary fencing still around the premises. I thought it odd that there had seemingly been no fanfare or updates about it lately. In order to not be late to my meeting, I planned on snapping some pictures of the exhibit on the way back home.

In the few hours that had passed, though, the giant rock had been covered back up by what was basically the biggest car cover you’d see ’cause, you know, it was customized for a boulder. At that moment, workers were tying up the strings at the bottom. “That’s so weird they’re covering it back up,” I thought.

I made another trip to CBS on Monday, and the temporary fencing and rock’s “car cover” were gone. People were happily walking down the slope, taking photos, and discussing Levitated Mass and all the challenges and criticism the exhibit brought.

Now having walked under it and checked it out, I still don’t get it. As you walk down the slope, it’s supposed to appear as if the boulder is floating. Well, that’s pretty dang hard to imagine, considering it’s supported on two sides. Maybe you can see it, but I can’t.

Anyway, I am happy to be so close to something that some people out there would like to see. I get the desire, but I advise against making a special trip to see the exhibit! Overall, LACMA is pretty lacking compared to the Getty Museum (which is free!), but LACMA sometimes does offer great exhibits, and the La Brea Tar Pits are also right next door. It’s free to visit Levitated Mass, and that makes it the best part.

Original Post (3/10/12):

Levitated Mass rock by J Kilmer
Levitated Mass rock, a photo by J Kilmer on Flickr.

Apparently some people still haven’t yet heard about this utterly chaotic display the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is working on. It’s a 340 ton boulder that, as of this morning, has just completed the 11 day, 100+ mile trek from a quarry in Riverside, CA to here – the Miracle Mile section of Los Angeles.

The move required a massive trailer contraption with 196 wheels, powered by three trucks, and was moved only during the night so as to not bump up L.A. traffic a notch, from really, really bad to really, really, really bad. Light poles and traffic lights had to be taken down along the way and certain bridges and roads had to be avoided since, of course, 680,000 lbs. greatly exceeds the weight a typical truck might be hauling on any random day.

Given the $10,000,000 price tag for the whole operation, the whole thing seems kinda….stupid. Thankfully, however, funding came from private donations, and I will give it a fair chance once the exhibit opens at LACMA.

What comes next is the rock will be moved parallel to the display and, somehow, will be hoisted onto its supports. “Levitated Mass,” as it’s to be called, will consist of the large boulder with a channel running underneath it, so that visitors can walk under the rock.

It’s expected that the exhibit will open sometime during this coming summer.

LACMA
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Levitated Mass rock, LACMA, Los Angeles

The channel where the Levitated Mass boulder will rest

Levitated Mass, LACMA, Los Angeles

196 wheels and a whole bunch of axles

Computers Vs. Taxes

03/08/2012

$20 bills by J Kilmer

I almost bought a nice, shiny, brand new computer last night. Due to some shipping restrictions set by the retailer, this purchase has been in the works for quite some time now. I thought everything was finally squared away…until reaching the “purchase now” page and seeing that additional $78 tax tacked on to the price. Oh yeah, there’s that.

I live in Los Angeles. We have one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation. One of the security guards at work was recently telling me of a trip to Colorado and how the 2% sales tax was really conducive to spending more.

It’s all relative, and things are much, much different here at home. I moved to California from the Midwest a couple years ago and left the TV behind. Although it certainly made the relocation a little simpler, the 3.25% higher tax rate and eWaste disposal fee significantly added to the cost of the modest 32″ replacement TV I bought. By the way, you have to pay the disposal fee regardless of whether you are disposing of an old TV or not. Thinking about it, it’s rather interesting to consider how many different taxes and fees our (cash-strapped) governments collect from us. Here are some of the common ones I pay on:

-gasoline (county, state, and federal tax)
-electricity (City of L.A. Bureau  of Sanitation Charges, Energy Subsidy charge, City of L.A. Utility Tax, State of California Energy Surcharge, Multi-Family Bulky Item Fee)
-natural gas (State Regulatory Fee, Public Purpose Surcharge, L.A. City Users Tax)
-income taxes (local, state, and federal + Medicare, FICA and CA State Disability Insurance)
-groceries (local and state)
-property (built in to rent)
-phone (Utility Use tax, 911 tax, California High Cost Fund – A, California High Cost Fund – B, California Relay Service and Communications Device Fund, California Advanced Services Fund, California Teleconnect Fund, Universal Lifeline Telephone Service Surcharge)
-cable TV
-internet
-California Redemption Value ($.05 – .10 deposit on all drink cans/plastic bottles purchased)
-annual license plate renewal/registration (Registration Fee + License Fee + County/District Fees)
-smog check

Until last year, Amazon had been in a long fight with California legislators over collecting taxes. Too many “brick-and-mortar” companies complained that it’s unfair to compete with giant, online companies not required to tack on that extra charge in most states.

But don’t begin to think you are off the hook for non-taxed, online purchases. The slimy creatures in this state responsible for passing laws and regulations that ensure your freedom/rights (huh?) implemented a “Use Tax” in 1933, which makes consumers responsible for paying sales tax if the seller doesn’t collect it.

Some people may argue that this helps ensure people pay their “fair share” of taxes. But I guess what I am missing about what is “fair” is how we give and give and give and the money is misused and public employees game the system to ensure their own longevity. Some examples:

1) Some L.A. Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) auto painters are being paid $100,000+ a year (see L.A. Times link at bottom). According to the 2010 U.S. census, the recent, median HOUSEHOLD income in California has been nearly half that – $60,000.

2) “Any state or local government employee in California who commits a felony — theft, embezzlement, extortion, bribery — in the course of performing a public duty is still entitled to a pension.” (L.A. Times)

3) The public employee system is currently under fire because retirees have been found to be “spiking” their pensions. Unused sick days are being saved up and cashed in at retirement. When confronted, representatives of these former employees tend to always say the same thing: “Mr. So-and-so deserves the compensation.” Well guess what? I work in the private sector, so my bottom-line minded employer would never allow that kind of trade-off. Hell, I am officially “entitled” to exactly zero sick days every year. If I do get sick, we can work out some time off to recuperate, but it’s not set up that way. Paid sick days should be used to make sure employees can pay the bills if they get a cold, rather than being given as a bonus later on if they aren’t used up.

4) Another huge expenditure: The LAPD boasts having 19 helicopters and 1 airplane. Fourteen of those choppers are the Eurocopter AS350B2. An online search reveals that used AS350B2s range between $1.1 – 2 million each. The other four helicopters range between $325,000 – 750,000 each, also in used condition. In addition to the immense cost of owning these, it would be interesting to know how much the upkeep on a fleet of 20 aircraft costs.

So, back to that “fair share” thing again… we should all pay equally to support excess and bloated, self-serving payrolls? We should all evenly contribute to much-higher-than-average salaries and what amounts to bonuses for not getting sick twelve days a year? The thing is, even if a “fair share” could be justified logically, we all earn and consume at different levels. Thus, by nature we all contribute different amounts monetarily to the government. The rich are able to mitigate part of the income tax rates the middle and lower classes pay, so the only thing that can be fair is a flat tax rate for all.

At the same time, governments must certainly be aware that historic tax revolts have considered to be a contributing factor to the downfall of the Roman, Egyptian, and Aztec empires. So there may actually be a danger in leveling the playing field because everyone paying the same tax rate opens the door to transparent accountability.

Another issue to consider is utility rate increases used to supplement shrinking pension funds. If I make bad investment choices and the value of my portfolio falls, who is going to bail me out? NO ONE! Not that we should be putting people out on the streets, but some other agreement needs to be reached. We all know that stock markets have ups and downs and that the downs might last a long time. Raising utility rates to pay retirees, because some investment choices didn’t pan out, seems a little something like “taxation without representation.”

I have been paying taxes on a lot of things for a long time. It simply wouldn’t be to such a degree if those individuals voted in to represent the people, you know, represented the people. When it comes down to it, unions are “special interest” groups. They don’t represent the will of the majority. Their power comes from strength in numbers so, unfortunately, they can strong-arm city commissioners and councils so that auto painters, carpenters, and cabinet makers can all make in excess of $100,000 a year. Why does the Department of Water and Power have auto painters and carpenters to begin with? Don’t those seem like jobs that can contracted in a competitive bidding process?

As for this computer purchase discussed so long ago, I am off to visit Craigslist. Hopefully there I can find a nice, gently used computer with an included warranty… and no included sales tax.

L.A. Times – “L.A. catching up to Chicago in sleaze”
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-0226-lopez-roundup-20120226,0,5730418,full.column

L.A. Times – “Commit a crime, collect a pension”
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-cap-pensions-20120213,0,2131610.column

Ron Kaye – Why Your DWP Bills Keeping Going Up and Up
http://ronkayela.com/2012/02/carpenters-dwp-102732-general.html

Tonight was “game night” at a friends house. Everyone invited was to B.Y.O.B. and a game. Scattergories is always a favorite of mine, so we packed that up and headed out.

Arriving fairly late in the evening, the partygoers were trying to finish up one of those games that just last forever because they aren’t so fun, so everyone gets caught up in conversation instead. Upon our arrival, they decided to put the ongoing game away and move on to something else. One guy knew of this game with the generic title “The Celebrity Game.” Each player is given eight small pieces of paper to write on. You then jot down the name of a celebrity or well-known fictional character on each sheet. Each sheet then gets folded in half and put in a hat.

Next, you form two teams, preferably with each having the same number of participants. Flip a coin or play rock, papers, scissors – do whatever you’ve got to do to decide which team will go first. The team that goes first has 60 seconds to guess as many of the celebrities or characters drawn out of the hat, based solely of verbal descriptions given by one player to the rest of the team. If you are stuck/your descriptions aren’t working out so well, you can put the sheet you are stuck on into a “pass” pile. You may pass a maximum of three times in each 60 second round.

Once the 60 seconds is up, you then count how many celebrities/characters your team was able to name, and that number is your score for that round. The “passed” sheets go back in the hat, and the names successfully answered go into a pile off to the side.

Each team takes turns until all the sheets from the hat are used, and then you figure up the score from round one.

————

ROUND TWO:
For round two, start by putting all the sheets back in the hat. This is similar to round one, with the exception that each person pulling the name from the hat is only allowed to give ONE adjective to describe the celebrity or character on the sheet.

Just as in round one, each team is given 60 seconds per turn, and the teams takes turns back and forth until all the sheets have been guessed. Once this round is done, again put ALL the sheets back in the hat.

————–

ROUND THREE:
In this final round, the player pulling from the hat pantomimes something that represents the person/character on the sheet.

Once the sheets are all gone, the game is then over. Tally up the total scores for each team to determine the winner.

The game may (though I hope not) sound complicated, but it’s really very simple. If you have any questions about playing it or having any suggested revisions to make the rules more clear, please let me know. Otherwise, have FUN!