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Over the last few weeks, we’ve been doing our grocery shopping more and more at our local co-op, and today we decided to officially become members (it’s just $15/year). Going local is becoming ever more important to me, glad to have taken this step.

Dark Patterns and Monopoly

I’ve recently taken to reading Matt Stoller’s BIG newsletter, and given my recent forays into figuring out things for my businesses, I’ve been thinking a lot about how QuickBooks has become less and less effective and more and more confusing. I keep seeing descriptions of it as being the “industry standard”, but despite having used it for about five years now, it’s not gotten any more user friendly for my purposes. If anything, it’s actually gotten worse.

While thinking about how QuickBooks holds something of a monopoly in the accounting space, I also found myself thinking about Intuit, the parent company of QuickBooks and TurboTax. ProPublica has done some extensive reporting on Intuit’s lobbying efforts to prevent the IRS from allowing citizens to file their tax returns for free, with efforts to not only prevent the IRS from developing that software, but also by using deliberate design and search-based tactics to ultimately force users to pay for the service when it should remain free. I first encountered this reporting from an episode of Reply All last summer.

What’s notable from my own experience is that despite using two distinct versions of QuickBooks (the Simple Start Online for one, and the Self-Employed for the other), I’ve found that the supposed integration of the Self-Employed version with the Self-Employed TurboTax to be largely unreliable, meaning that the supposed benefit of simply hitting “send to TurboTax” for a Schedule C has never really worked for me.

What does monopoly positioning have to do with this? I’ve stuck with QuickBooks as long as I have in part because I thought it was the only option for me. I selected it in part because it was supposed to integrate so well with TurboTax. As with so many other giant corporations in today’s landscape, the only way to vote is with my dollars (and perhaps some thoughtful reasoning on the Internet, should others find themselves asking similar questions), and it’s time my dollars found better use in more ethical companies.

I finished reading reading My Brief History this afternoon, and after a trip to two local book stores in two days, have found myself picking up a used copy of what seems to be an original eduction of Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money Or Your Life. I was first introduced to this book from The Billfold, but this is my first time picking it up to give it a read. It’s already different than I expected, in a good way, indicating right out of the gate that consumerism is not only a big part of our collective financial struggles, but of significant environmental impact.

I have found as I have been focusing on paying down student loans and thus cutting out most non-essential purchases, that I not only save money, but I find less desire to then purchase things. It’ll be interesting to see where this book goes, and also if I at some point find myself wanting to read the updated edition to see how it has evolved.

I’m currently reading Stephen Hawking’s My Brief History, and found myself surprised, then not surprised, when he noted that people reacted negatively to the cover of his mass market book, A Brief History of Time, because he was a person with a disability writing it:

“The book was intended as a history of the universe, not of me. This has not prevented accusations that Bantam shamefully exploited my illness and that I cooperated with this by allowing my picture to appear on the cover. In fact, under my contract I had no control over the cover.”

What’s so interesting about this seemingly thoughtful concern is that it presumes that a person who presents with the appearance Stephen Hawking did was, as a result of their disability, incapable of making their own decisions on the matter.

As if I needed any more reasons to be making the switch away from Gmail, it turns out they also track and every single search you make within Gmail itself. Recent searches include looking for a receipt, an email address, etc. It also logs ‘viewed Gmail ads’; I never actually click, them, I just delete them so they’re out of my way. Evidently that’s what counts as a view and is then tracked, so it’s time I stopped doing that now.

I found this simply by going to my Gmail account settings, clicking on ‘Data & personalization’, and then click on ‘My Activity’ under the ‘Activity and timeline’ box. I can think of no valid reason this should be saved, even if it’s ostensibly “Oh, I forgot what I was looking at earlier, let me check.” I don’t do that, and can’t say I know anyone else who actually does either.

The Great Email Migration

I’ve been talking for a while about moving away from Gmail as my primary email provider. I’ve used it since the earliest days, when an invite was required, and what really started to seal the nail in the coffin was learning that Google keeps an entire purchase history, separate from your email, that it gleaned based on email receipts.

Granted, I learned about this last spring, and have since then only thought about how to transition away. In part, this is because I overthink things, which then leads to decision paralysis (by way of fatigue), and ultimately I get caught up in everything else life throws at you. The only one laughing here, of course, is Google.

This weekend, I finally started to make some changes. I’ve long used Fastmail to host my email for my various websites over the years, and I recently realized it can be used to create email aliases with their @fastmail.com address. This meant I could come up with any necessary email addresses for whatever I want, all while keeping my personal email private; and unlike past me, current me is also making judicious use of plus addressing, which makes search and automatic filtering a lot easier.

What’s been fascinating about this endeavor, and maddening, is discovering just how ubiquitous email has become. We don’t think about it, but it ties to so many aspects of our lives now. Personal correspondence, work, travel, insurance, shopping (and hordes of marketing emails as a result of said shopping, and also travel and almost every other category here mentioned here), banking, newsletters, and on and on.

Switching email providers is a time-intensive task, especially if you use your provider’s ‘@‘ email address. It’s making me consider establishing a domain (that isn’t a website) just so I can take better ownership of my email all around, and so that should the need arise, I’ll be able to transition my email a lot more easily to another service at any time. This is step one, certainly, but I think it’ll be in hopefully short order that I get my own dedicated email domain for the future. I’ll have to do a bit more legwork to update what I’ve already done, but since I’m simultaneously using this as a process to decide what emails to keep (and their associated online accounts, if any), it probably won’t hurt to do this more than once to simplify.

New and Unimproved

I’ve written before about the growing pains I’ve been experiencing with running each of my two businesses. I’ve stuck with Quickbooks Self-Employed for one of them for the time being (the other I use the more robust Quickbooks Online), in part because the added value of TurboTax being included was a nice perk.

Yesterday, I received an email that the price for the Self-Employed version is going up once again, by $8 (a 47% increase over the previous price). Intuit casually mentioned some “new features” in their email to justify the increase, but oh wait! Those new features they cited included automatic mileage tracking and the abilty to pay estimated taxes from within their dashboard, both of which are features they’ve had pretty much since I started using the service in 2015. They even include the same nonsense line in their FAQ page here.

In the past, I’ve requested the ability to keep track of mileage based on odometer readings, citing privacy and confidentiality for the services I provide, and it’s been crickets. I’ve also suggested having even single entry bookkeeping (rather than the ‘ledger’ they provide which shows only amounts spent or earned, and not an account balance for reference) in order to more accurately reconcile. Again, no response.

I get that a company has a right to raise prices, but it’s nonsense to declare that features that have been in place for years are the reason why. The service has essentially remained unchanged in probably about two years now, with the only real improvement being the addition of invoices/payments in 2017. (Interestingly, they neglected to mention this in the current trumpeting of “new’ features.)

At this point, I’m at a bit of an impasse. I manage my books best through good old-fashioned spreadsheets, but it’s nice to have an invoicing system that also has the ability to manage payments. Is it worth the price any longer to leave it in the hands of the biggest fish in the pond, or is it time to move on? Ideally I’d like to move on, but now just to figure out where to go from here.

Just in case we weren’t sure where extreme capitalism is taking us, this week I got a birthday email from the credit account we used to buy our bed last year inviting me to spend more money. Which furthers my resolve to stick to cash as much as possible from now on.

Something that I’m especially mindful of right now is decision fatigue, coupled with feeling that in some ways, I have simultaneously too many choices and also not enough options. A precarious place to be right now, as someone who is a chronic over-thinker.

In addition to reducing lobbying, the current reporting on quarterly fundraising for presidential candidates reminds me that stamping money out of politics should also be about not allowing paid advertising for anyone running for office.

The Data Mine

Here’s an example of a way data gets used in seemingly innocuous ways, but is concerning for privacy nonetheless: Years ago, I had a Mint account, which I’ve long since abandoned. I still get periodic emails from them, and yesteday I recieved a “year in review” style email. In it, it referenced the following:

Streaming services spending:

  • $314M to Netflix
  • $166M to Hulu
  • $47M to Sling TV

It also broke down how much Uber was utliized compared to Lyft, and which food delivery services were used the most (Grubhub, Uber Eats, Doordash), also with their respective totals.

I’m sure they’ll couch this as data being “anonymized”, so it’s “private” in terms of not being able to tie some data specifically to you the individual. All the same, these types of data mining show clearly that using certain services like this afford the companies providing the service to see just about everything you pull into the service.

Sure, a “year in review” is looking at trends and is trying to be cute about it, but this is almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg. Mint is a free service to users, and the service’s business model used to rely solely on affiliate links for services purchased from users within it. That seems to be still the case, on the surface, but it’s not a hard leap to imagine that plenty of large companies would love to know more about how they’re doing among competitors.

it’s exactly this sort of information that should be kept fully private. This sort of information has no business being aggregated when the service, ostensibly, is supposed to help an individual budget and get a clearer picture of their finances. This makes me happy that I pay for YNAB, who has so far sent only information about education they provide, and ways to learn how to more effectively use their system.

Happy 2020. Let’s make this a year in which we acknowledge our collective humanity, push back against turning everything into a data point, and place value on privacy and using the things in our lives thoughtfully.

I continue to love the writing experience in Micro.blog, with my main quibble right now being how it handles drafts. There’s no separate category for drafts in the “posts” section, which means having to navigate through all old posts in order to find a draft saved on a given day.

The more I learn about big data, the less data I want to be generating. Some of it is useful, but not at the expense of privacy and at the end of the day, it seems to add more complexity to life and I’m finding that more and more, I just crave simplicity.

The Power of Words

Watch the news, read social media, see behavior from real adults filmed at rallies, and it’s incredibly clear that there is a casual form of cruelty on constant display. Trying to score points by making fun of someone who stutters, then insisting the insult wasn’t about someone’s manner of speech, and then trying to walk it back by saying the “point” of said insult should have made respectfully. The whole point, in this case, was to bully someone based on how they speak.

I’m perhaps especially sensitive to this as someone who works as a speech pathologist, and sees the challenges people face day in and day out to communicate. It’s alarming to see how combative our everyday communication has become, and I’m not speaking just of political rhetoric here. To address said rhetoric though, I will say this: pay attention to how people hide behind faith and yet dismiss (and indeed, join in on) the cruel behavior of mocking a grieving widow or mocking a teenager, all behavior that is demonstrably uncaring and indecent. We can and should expect, and demand, better from each and every one of us.

There are no doubt many reasons we reached this point. Perhaps it’s the increasing booking of pundits, whose verbal sparring has turned news into an endless debate to garner more attention (to drive up time spent watching, to drive up ad sales). Perhaps it’s the temporal nature of social networks, who thrive on engagement and clicks and noise, so people post more and more in order to be seen and “heard”, and in turn who can be served more and more ads. Whatever the case, we’re spending more and more time staring at screens (TVs, phones, tablets, computers) and less time looking at one another, that it almost feels as if we’re neglecting our own sense of humanity. How else do we arrive at people who consider themselves moral and respectable defending concentration camps, forced separation of children from parents, smiling for a photo while holding a baby whose parents were murdered to save it from a man who shot up a store and targeted people of color based on the very ideas being spread by the person posing for that photo?

The cruelty starts with language, and builds into actions. It’s right there in front of us, and it’s gleefully retweeted and fed back on the news, and then promptly forgotten once the next highly objectionable comment or action comes along. Let us first stop feeding the machine. Stop fueling the fire. Stop shouting into the wind, and instead strive for calm conversation.

Reward love, generosity, and kindness with our attention.

Umair Haque wisely reminds us just how critically we need to be examining this impeachment process. Shady dealings for political points is wrong, to be sure. Human rights abuses need to be addressed, too.

Side note to my last post: That quote may have been Hendrix referencing either Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy or perhaps British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladsone. Or it could have been originally from a 1948 volume of The National Elementary Principal.

Whatever the case, it’s an idea worth remembering, and even more worth sharing widely. Also, it is worth recognizing that its history as an idea may date back to at least the 1800s, which shows us just how slow we as a species are to recognize and effect change, especially on a large scale. We can, and should, do better, for ourselves and for generations to come.

Impeachment feels momentous, and like the first just action in a long string of injustices. We have so far still to go, so many marginalized among us in need of support.

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” -Jimi Hendrix

Kickstarter and FOMO

I’ve had mixed results of late with Kickstarter projects, but this Coffeejack looks interesting. Though I certainly don’t need any new coffee gear, I generally have a lot of fun with the gear I do get (I can think of only one exception to that), and this would be a nice solution to potentially improved coffee at a few of my work sites (I can toss it in my bag and take it with me). My current solution has been to use Mount Hagen organic instant coffee, which has also been a surprisingly decent solution and is much tastier than the burnt-plastic taste and excessive landfill waste that is k-cups.

Kickstarter leaves me feeling a bit of FOMO, which I believe is by design, but the good things usually go on for sale down the line. Even if they cost more later, sometimes it’s worth the wait to see. Plus, as any good budgeter will tell you, spending money you haven’t planned on spending in the name of “saving on overall cost” is a more expensive decision in the short term than it would be to plan for and pay the higher retail cost later. Plus, waiting allows for time to evaluate if it’s really something that would bring enjoyment and value to your life.

Either way, I’m glad to see these sorts of ideas gaining traction. Here’s hoping it succeeds, and perhaps down the line if I see one in person and feel so inclined (the best items usually end up at a few of my favorite local coffee shops), I’ll give it a whirl.

Baby's First Mechanical Keyboard

I recently got bitten by the mechanical keybaord bug, and for the last couple of weeks have been enjoying the clickety feeling of typing away with one. It’s designed for Windows, and while it was working well enough out of the box, the placement of the command key was giving me some issues. I finally got up the courage to try to program it, though, since I opted for that ability intentionally so that I could have some flexibility with it. This was a harrowing experience on first pass, as I had to removed its firmware in order to free up space to install my own custom firmware.

I consulted the internet, as always, and found two different methods to try since the instructions from the box required the use of a Flash applet (eek) and I also found (because curiosity of course took over) that the Flash applet in question is now defunct anyway. Of course, I didn’t learn that until after I’d removed that first set of firmware. And while I’d made a backup of the stock firmware as advised by various sources, I couldn’t get it re-installed. It turns out I was able to remove the file just fine from Finder on my Mac, but I couldn’t turn around and place it, or any new firmware, back on the drive. Wonderful.

I next tried using the simple configurator software I’d downloaded while researching this all, but it too was unable to do anything effectively. My last step was following instructions to work from the command line, but this too didn’t work (though mostly because I didn’t have the additional developer tools I needed). I finally tried plugging it in and following the same steps through Windows, which I have to use for some work software. Following the same steps from before just in Finder, I was able to easily flash the new firmware in all of one minute (total). Go figure.

In the end, I’m thrilled to have a functional keyboard that clicks away and has its keys programmed in a familiar layout. The little brains within my fingers are relieved that they can now go back to business as usual. Tactile memory is surprisingly powerful, it seems.

Speaking of student loans, students who received loans for functionally scam “colleges” are still unlikely to get relief from this current administration’s Department of Education. In fact, Betsy DeVos was just fined $100,000 for continuing to collect payments from defrauded students (including garnishing wages or seizing tax refunds). Betsy DeVos has a complex web of holdings, and her actions have made it abundantly clear that she does not have the best interests of student borrowers in mind. What springs to mind for me moving forward: really evaluating why higher education costs have ballooned, and encouraging better financial literacy before attending school. As I’ve noted previously, I “lucked out” and was able to take out fewer loans than many, and yet still I will be paying these for at least a few years still to come. And also, really holding these schools accountable to having to pay back the loans they accepted, rather than the students, seems like a really good place to start. If student borrowers have this complicated a process to get loan forgiveness in bankruptcy, for-profit scam schools shouldn’t have it any easier.

Every so often, I look at the total amount I’ve paid back on my student loans. As of now, I’ve paid back about $2,000 more than the amount I originally borrowed, yet I still owe more than half that original amount as outstanding principal. The word “oof” comes to mind…

For my first Micro Monday, I’d like to recommend Patrick Rhone (@patrickrhone), who has thoughtful perspectives on life and who helped (through no conscious effort of his own) bring me back to blogging; Miraz (@Miraz), who embraces age, isn’t afraid to ask questions, and takes great bird photos; and Bix (@bix), who helps me think differently about life through his powerful writing.

Growing Pains, Business Style

I’ve been working on getting a clearer picture of the finances for each of my businesses. I do a fair amount by hand, in part because it helps prevent automation from making me complacent, and in part because Quickbooks Self-Employed is less than reliable. I’ve used it for years, and while it’s taught me a lot, I’ve definitely outgrown it. But even though I mostly just use it for invoicing, TurboTax, and helping estimate taxes, it’s an exercise in frustration. It deleted transactions I’d sorted for business once I started using a dedicated checking account and stopped using my personal acount (and so stopped having my personal account transactions be pulled in for review). Today, it wouldn’t show any but the latest invoice, and required multiple refreshes before they finally reappeared.

I use the more robust Quickbooks Online for my second business, and it’s been generally better, having none of the issues I just described above.

Currently I’m on trying out Freshbooks and Zipbooks, but of course I got a bit swamped right after signing up, so both have just a few days left and I’m not as familiar with either as I’d like to be.

Basically, here’s the essential lessons learned: if you do any sort of freelance work, keep a separate checking account for it (even if you’re not a formally structured entity). Use it for all business-related needs. When considering options for accounting needs, consider reliability as much as you consider price.

Untabbed

Tabbed browsing is a mixed blessing. It allows me to focus on a variety of things more or less discretely, but on the flip side, it allows me to have my attention perpetually shifting. Here’s a small sample of what I have on just two devices:

Desktop: Work email, YNAB budget, trial web-based accounting System, an article on paying yourself when you’re self-employed, an article on owner’s equity vs retained earnings, a retained earnings formula explainer, another explainer on calculating retained earnings for a new company, an article about memory as part of research for one of my cognitive patients, an article on uninstalling Silverlight, a newsletter on Substack, an iOS-based alternative communication app I want to try out for a patient, an association for Deaf-Blind individuals, a YouTube video by Deaf and Deaf-Blind individuals, a website for a HIPAA-compliant web- and app-based phone service, an interesting eyeglass cleaning tool I found via Seth Godin I’ve thought about trying, Late Nite Harp podcast (highly recommended listening and great for both relaxing and for writing), Micro.Blog, and a GitHub page.

iPad: A website for an interpreter I met at a conference (in July), vicarious trauma resources from that same website, a reference site about SOAP notes I was referencing for something, a recipe for Mongolian beef, a New York Times article about slowing down in the age of TikTok, a site for reference on articulation of sounds and development, an article about the Moai, an article about styling links in CSS, an article about Frank Chimero’s site redesign, Late Nite Harp (again, highly recommended listening), Micro.Blog (I like using it in the browser more than the app, usually), an Amazon page with a USB-C cable.

That’s 18 open tabs on my desktop, and 12 more on my iPad. On my phone, the problem is even greater, as I frequently just open a new tab when I need to use the browser for something.

I’ve realized this before, and had focused on trying to reduce the number of tabs I have open at any given time. For about two months, I was able to manage with probably just three to four open tabs at any given time, on any given device. Obviously, that didn’t stick, but while I was able to manage it before, it was more calming.

The bounty of tabs I currently have open have made me realize that my thinking is more scattered, and as a result less focused, with so much visual input. The medical record system I use to run my practice is fully web-based, which I love, and it dawned on me last week that I should try using it as a stand-alone full-screen window instead of part of the sheer volume of tabs I had open. The impact was more significant than I thought it would be: without the address bar, or the increasingly busy bar below it, I was able to focus on what I needed right in front of me: writing notes, scheduling, billing, etc. Having one thing to do changed how I behaved.

I suspect that part of why I keep so many tabs open is because I want to use that information again at some point. Given that at least two of my tabs have been open on my iPad since July, that “some point” really should have an expiration date. I need to remind myself that if I need something, I should act on it sooner rather than later, and move on. If I need it later, I can either save it in some place for reference later, or just close it and check for it again later should the need arise.

Using tabbed browsing as a de facto memory tool is cluttering up my vision and making it hard for me to do what I need to do in the moment. Time to rethink and re-adjust my use accordingly.