Spending time working from home and otherwise quarantining has me thinking a lot about the things I keep in my life, including the boxes that come with some of those things. More than just the boxes for my computer, I have boxes for my router, modem, some headphones, old cameras, and more, neatly tucked away in other boxes in my closet. “Maybe I’ll need this at some point” seems to be the most common reason that surfaces in my head when I ask myself why I still have said boxes. When logic intervenes and reminds me that hasn’t been the case for many years, the niggling thought “…yet” is quick to reply. While I continue to wrestle with myself over this idea, I did read this thoughtful post where a professional organizer suggests cutting off the portion of the box which might be needed for warranty purposes, and recycling the rest. That’s a step my rather stubborn brain seems willing to consider, so I’ll likely start there.

Sometimes, clearing up the state of my browser tabs help clear up the state of my mind. I don’t need them to be organized so much as I need there to not be so many of them.

A lof of folks are taking up Zoom for virtual meetings right now, but if you care about privacy, I’d look elsewhere. Zoom, in addition to doing egregious things in the past like installing a hidden web server to Macs to avoid requesting a user’s permission every time they wanted to join a conference, is also in the business of selling your data.

Recent Reads and Listens

Here’s a random list of some things I’ve been reading or listening to that I think are worth sharing:

McSweeney’s: No President Before Trump Ever Responded More Boldly, Swiftly, and Decisively in the Face of Criticism: This really cuts to the heart of this man’s character (or rather, lack thereof). It’s right there, with the frequent “That’s a nasty question” comment in press briefings. There is no empathy, instead just a blatant disregard for the very real consequences for his actions, not to mention his willingness to spread unconfirmed information about treatments for COVID-19.

Rework Podcast: Remote Work Q&A, Part 1: I watched a little bit of the video they did, but found the comments on the sidebar incredibly distracting. This is much better as a podcast, and has the benefit of a transcript plus relevant links. I like that they tackle topics not just about remote work, but about work philosophy in general. One of the more interesting points Jason Fried made was to take this time of self-quarantine as a time to learn how to communicate differently, and spoke to using writing to communicate rather than meetings. He mentioned off-handedly, “What if everyone came through this (COVID-19 pandemic) a better writer?” It’s certainly something worth reflecting on, and worth pursuing.

Planet Money: The CryptoQueen: This was a fascinating story. There’s a certainly a lot to keep up with now, especially with COVID-19, but I think reporting like this is just as crucial, since scams like this can perpetuate in stressful times, especially when the economy is yo-yoing the way it is.

Reply All Two-Fer: #158 The Case of the Missing Hit and #159 The Attic and Closet Show: These two are a bit opposites; The Case of the Missing Hit was a sheer delight to listen to, while The Attic and Closet Show is a lot more sobering. Both are good listens, and it’s fascinating seeing the sheer reach this show has across the world.

Margo Aaron at That Seems Important: Coronovirus is Serious, But Panic is Optional: I found this post via Seth Godin, who pointed to her post after comparing the relative spread of calm versus panic. Both posts are worth a read, and the only quibble I have with Margo Aaron’s piece is that I believe we have both a misinformation problem and a fear problem, when you factor in the sheer ease of spreading both misinformed and fear-based messages across social media.

History is a great place to look to learn about the world, how it works and why it often doesn’t, and how those who came before us sought to make it better. The Rework Podcast dove into the history of the 8-hour work day this week, but it goes much deeper. Bonus: read the show notes, there’s much to learn.

Your Money or Your Life (Review)

Starting and running a couple of businesses was my first foray into really learning about finance, and personal finance was a natural progression from there. Today, I finished reading the original 1992 edition of Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life. I’d seen it referenced on a number of personal finance blogs over the year, and when I found a copy at a local used book store, I finally picked it up and gave it a read.

I won’t comment here on the methodology, other than to note that the concept of trading “life energy” for money is an interesting one, and the philosophy around thinking about how you would live your life if you didn’t have to work for money are questions I’d never asked myself, and now am thinking about often. Others far more savvy have pointed out that the investment strategies from 1992 very much do not translate well to 2020, but that said, the most recent edition of the book may offer something different I’m not sure, as that’s not the edition I read.

What I find most fascinating about this book is just how far ahead of its time it was: issues the author’s were citing at the time are very real today. They emphasize a great deal how much consumerism and its focus on consumption can tax the planet. Certainly we can see the effects our constant use of resources has had in terms of climate change and its resulting swings, but if you look further, we have extensive issues right this very moment resulting from constraints of a supply chain that relies very heavily on China. As it turns out, much of what we rely on for cleaning and sanitation is manufactured in China, and at the moment, much of said manufacturing is currently at a standstill while the COVID-19 virus is trying to be addressed and contained.

There’s a lot of issues at play here, certainly, but it’s all undoubtedly connected. I remember foreign exchange students in college remarking about how cheap things are to buy in the US. And while that’s true to a degree, what’s likely more true is that that cheap price drove up consumption while also driving down working conditions in the locations where said products were manufactured. These are externalities, and they’re becoming more and more expensive over time.

The other striking aspect of YMOYL is its focus on identifying what is enough, and uses an idea called a fulfillment curve (thoughtfully written about by Trent Hamm on the Simple Dollar in 2008) to help you visualize your own sense of enough. It’s 2020, and I know I have more than enough, and I know that many out there do as well. Where do I see this playing out? In social media and its heavy use of advertising, and even today’s concept of being an “influencer”. Through having the newest phone, tablet, computer. The myriad unboxing videos of gadgets and items. Targeted advertising which tracks your interests across the internet and “shows advertisements for things which might be relevant to you” (otherwise knowns as things they know you don’t have, but most likely would want if you’re shown it). The list goes on.

Finally, I loved how YMOYL places emphasis on finding what brings you fulfillment in life, and discourages our very real tendency (and very problematic cultural phenomenon here in the US) to equate our jobs/careers/professions as an inherent part of our identify. In fact, Suze Orman unintentionally spoke to this really well in a recent People article where her point of view was contrasted with that of the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement. Suze Orman mentioned the boredom that might come from retirement and cited an example of a friend who retired and missed working. That isn’t a problem with financial independence, or even retirement; that’s a problem with a culture obsessed with work, career, and growth at all costs. It’s simple: the US has a culture that lives to work, rather than embracing the potentially simpler life that could come from working to live. Her friend likely equated working with having a purpose and finding fulfillment, but as YMOYL points out, you can have a purpose while not needing to work; and what’s more, you can work if said work brings you that sense of purpose and fulfillment; you just don’t have to rely on it as your only source of income or even something necessary to your income, so you can exercise much more control over the work you do.

I know, for me, I realized last year that I’d forgotten what it’s like to have a hobby. Writing on my own website again has rekindled an old hobby that I long enjoyed, before life became graduate school, work, work, work, paying off student loans, and more work. As I think about my own student loan debt, I also think about how much the total US household debt has once again set a record by the end of 2019, totaling more than $14 trillion (if you follow that link, hit the ‘max’ button to see the astonishing visual showing growth of debt over the last 20 years). Given my student loan debt, I’m not currently in a place where I can stop the pace of my work, but it’s something I’m diligently working to improve, and this book has given me new insight and lots to think about. It’s also helped change the way I talk to friends and family, and do whatever small part I can to start changing the culture of this country.

Take some time to expose yourself to something outside of your usual routine. Read or listen to something that makes you uncomfortable. Learn about something you’ve never learned about before. You’ll grow from it and make more connections than you think you will.

I made a request to Intuit to delete all my Mint data on January 21st. I received an email today stating that they are “still working on my request.” Which means they likely aren’t working on it at all.

Monopoly Moves

Gilad Edelman, writing at Wired, makes a compelling case that Intuit’s intention to buy Credit Karma is less about owning a competitor and more about getting access to the significant amount of user data said competitor has collected over the years. Here again, we are seeing very clearly the cost of “free” (emphasis mine):

While those people don’t pay to use Credit Karma, they do turn over their financial information, as well as the kinds of behavioral and location data that other companies, like Facebook and Google, track. The platform’s algorithms then help lenders microtarget users with offers for credit cards, loans, and other financial products. Credit Karma gets a cut when users sign up.

Intuit makes it clear that they want to know users’ “complete financial identity”, and couches it as a way to offer “the best loan and insurance products for them.” It makes me sad to know that my steady use of Quickbooks over the last few years, even as small an amount as it is in the grand scheme, has helped fund this sort of behavior. I’ve noticed a conintued dark pattern in which indivdiauls, and especially small business owners, are scared into thinking that they can’t keep their own books via the tried-and-true spreadsheet. Even when we’re paying for a service so that a company shouldn’t have to sell personal data, the quest for constant growth in this land of extreme capitalism is too much, it seems, to handle.

In January, I was musing about how Quickbooks had largely stagnated, and was citing long-standard features (and I mean years-long standard features) of its own product as a reason to justify a sudden 47% price increase. I wasn’t thinking it then, but I’m definitely thinking it now: this is a monopolist’s move. It doesn’t matter whether your product or service is any good if you’re the biggest, and nearly only, game in town.

I’ve been thinking out loud here about my use of Quickbooks, and feeling like Intuit is becoming more and more of a monopoly, and lo and behold this week they reveal a plan to acquire Credit Karma. Definitely don’t like the direction this is going.

After a string of freezing days a few weeks back, I was pondering why a carport at a prior apartment prevented my windshield from frosting over, despite it not being fully covered like a garage. The answer is fascinating.

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.