Insomnia Log

This is what keeps me awake at night???

Who needs sleep? (well you’re never gonna get it)
Who needs sleep? (tell me what’s that for)
Who needs sleep? (be happy with what you’re getting,
There’s a guy who’s been awake since the second world war)

-- words and music by Steven Page & Ed Robertson

Location: Boulder, Colorado, United States

Everything you need to know about me can be found in my posts

Monday, January 28, 2008

Take a Hike

A friend of mine was bemoaning an extra 15 pounds, but said that he could easily lose it by going to Italy for six weeks. When he's there, he said, he walks everywhere, and the pounds just melt off. Dude, I said, do you realize that you live in Boulder, one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in this country? You're within an easy walk of downtown, and reasonable walking distance of just about anything else. Yeah, I know, but ...

Another friend of mine noted to me that nobody in this country walks anywhere. Even a quarter mile from the office to lunch, or whatever, people are just jumping in their cars.

Well, driving is such a huge component of the climate change problem that if you care about it at all you owe it to yourself to at least think about the alternatives. I've already talked about several other things you can do to help address global warming (don't buy carbon offsets, do compost, do buy local). But one of the simplest things you can do is get out of your car occasionally and use your own two feet to get somewhere.

Now, I'm not telling you to get rid of your car or fundamentally change your lifestyle. Having the ability to jump in your car any time and go anywhere has become a core part of our society. I don't want to take away one of your options. I want to give you a new one.

That's right, I just want you to realize that sometimes walking to where you are going is actually a better option. And that doesn't even count the fact that it is better for the environment, better for your health, and better for your sanity.

For example, my friend who pointed out to me that nobody walks told me that people in his office walk to lunch, even if the restaurant is only a quarter mile away. I have to admit this is also pretty much true at my office (except when people go to the deli in the same building).

Here's my suggestion. Find a restaurant you like that is a quarter to a half mile from your office. Just walk there one day. You'll feel like people are staring at you from their cars, but no matter this is just an experiment. Pick up the pace a bit. When you get to the restaurant, your heart rate may be up. Your metabolism will be revved. Have a nice lunch. Then walk back.

How was that? Not only did you get to spend 10-15 minutes outside in the middle of the day, you also burned 80 calories of your lunch and added to your energy level for the rest of the afternoon. Plus, when you exercise your metabolism increases for 30 minutes after you stop, so you continue burning calories.

Ok, then next week do the same thing, but invite one or more of your coworkers. That's right, I'm going to suggest making this a weekly outing. If you want to talk business, or if you want to just goof around, feel free. I guarantee, your interactions with your coworkers will be ten times better than if you were sitting in a car together. You're building teamwork. I'll bet that more people will want to join you as the weeks go by. And what did it cost? Ten minutes one time per week.

Can't afford ten minutes? Find a restaurant that lets you call or fax your order in ahead of time and have it waiting for you when you get there. Or be bold and actually schedule a meeting during lunch time and hold the meeting while you are walking.

Here's another example. Many parents drive their kids to school every day. They say it's just not safe to let their kids walk or bike alone. Well, how about walking with your kids one day a week? Make it fun. Or you walk and let your kid ride her bike. Get other parents in your neighborhood to join along. Spend a little research time up front and find the safest, most interesting route to school. Be creative. Find more than one route and let your kid pick. Create games or races. If you don't have time one week, I'll bet one of the other parents in your neighborhood does. And as your kids get older, maybe they can walk or bike with the group of other kids. Remember, this is not just transportation, it is also fun/play time. You get more fun time with your kids and they spend less time sitting and more time active.

Here's another idea, and it's one of my pet peeves. So many people drive to the gym to work out. And yet, if you walk or jog or bike to the gym you could spend so much less time there waiting for equipment, and more time outside, interacting with the world.

Suppose you live (or work) a mile from your gym. Try this experiment. Get your workout stuff together (backpack is best, but a regular gym bag is ok too). Even better, wear your workout clothes so you don't have to change when you get there. Then start walking, easy at first. Walk five minutes easy. Then pick up the pace for a minute and then walk easy again for two. Alternate one minute fast two easy until you get to the gym. Take a drink of water, get through the locker room as fast as you can, and get right into your workout. That's right, skip the warm-up, you just did it. When you're done, grab your gym bag and walk easy home. That's your cool down. Shower when you get home. So, you spent an extra 20 minutes walking rather than driving. But you also got to skip your warm-up and cool-down, so it didn't cost you even one extra minute. Plus, you got to do part of your workout outside, instead of on a boring machine.

See how easy it is to make walking into a positive option? And I didn't even have to bring up global warming to convince you. (Of course, I won't deny that's really my motive.)

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Friday, January 25, 2008

How Are You Going to Spend My Social Security Check?

Our government is working out the details of an economic stimulus package. But three things are clear already. One, lots of politicians are going to be claiming that they did something about the economy (ignoring the question of whether it was the right thing). Two, impacts will be small and temporary. And, three, the deficit will increase significantly, taking a bite out of our economy a few years down the line and seriously impacting our future ability to fund government programs (like paying my Social Security check some day).

Families are going to get checks, and will be urged to go out and spend them to spur the economy. But what will people actually do? And what impact will it have?
  • Some people will pay down their credit cards. So, now we are rewarding them for living beyond their means, and teaching people that they don't have to spend responsibly. Don't worry, go into debt, we will bail you out. And hopefully the paying down of debt will be temporary -- they'll go out and do extra stimulating as soon as the dunning letters slow down.
  • Some will add the money to their savings. Not much help for the economy, but if the ability to pay future Social Security checks is being raided for this, people are going to have to make up for it somehow.
  • Some people will do their civic duty and buy a big screen TV or take a nice vacation. But again, since this is coming out of my Social Security check, I'm going to have to put off my retirement for an extra couple months to pay for them all. You're welcome.
So, my retirement planning is that much more insecure, just so some politicians can claim to have done something, and so we can continue the enablement of people who can't seem to stop living beyond their means.

Thanks for the check. I'm pretty sure mine is going into my retirement account.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

What Do You Love and How Many Can You Kill Doing It?

The Daily Camera had the most horrible headline on a very disturbing story. It seems that three local kids (all in their early 20s) died after a spectacular one-car crash while driving over 100 MPH in Louisville. They were on their way home after a night of beer drinking.

It is tragic enough that they died in this manner. One of them was the mother of two young children and takes care of her father who has Alzheimer's disease. Another was the father of one with another on the way.

What really struck me was the quote from the sister of one of the boys killed. She said, "The thing that really makes me feel much better about this is they died doing what they loved to do -- they were drinking, they were going fast and they were together. It gives me comfort, it does, to know those three things."

It may give her comfort to know that these kids were out drinking and driving very fast on public streets, no doubt egging each other on to do more of the same. And the fact that her brother was recently killed in such a violent manner may excuse a certain bit of insensitivity. But they could easily have killed others along with themselves. The Camera certainly had no call to publish that quote as part of their sensationalistic headline: "Trio loved speedy cars: Families, friends remember three who died 'doing what they loved'".

Let me put this into a bit of perspective, perhaps with a bit of insensitivity of my own. Meredith Emerson from Longmont was murdered while hiking recently in Georgia, but at least she was doing something she loved at the time. There have been five deaths from heroin overdose in the past year in Boulder County, but at least we can be comforted by the fact that they all died doing something they loved. Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people before shooting himself at Virginia Tech last spring, but at least he died doing what he loved.

The folks at the Camera may love these attention-grabbing headlines, but the circulation of the paper may die as a result of doing what they love.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Addicted to Snap

It's all my fault. The debacle in the New Hampshire primary is just one symptom of the problem, and I'm taking full blame.

What happened? It's actually pretty clear. The public pushed the media for more information quicker. We need to know the results of the election as soon as possible, ideally before the election. Cable news now has several full-time channels devoted to feeding our insatiable appetite to absorb more of what we want at a faster pace. If they can tell us ahead of time how the primary is going to end, then who needs the actual election? And at that point the rest of the process is equally irrelevant. They might as well just tell us who is going to win in November, so we can get on with the business of minding Britney's business.

The only problem with this equation is that they haven't figured out how to get the outcome right in advance. At least not yet. But don't worry, it won't stop them from continuing to do it. And believe me, they will get better. How? By figuring out how their reports affect us voters, and shaping their reports to make sure we do what they just told us we were going to do. You won't want to, but you really won't have a choice.

Why is this all my fault? Well, the way I see it, this is one minor symptom of a much larger cultural shift in our country, one that has been picking up speed in the last several years. It seems that we Americans want more, we want it faster, and we want it on our terms. Anything worth waiting for is not worth getting.

Look at some examples. We can't watch TV on its own timeline, so we get our TiVos and video-on-demand. Radio? Forget it -- give me an iPod. Crack open a book or go to a library? Give me a break, that's what the Internet is for. Even email is now too slow. And so on. Why do you think people drive to the gym or refuse to take the bus or ride their bikes to work. It's because every second of our short, pitiful lives is critical and can't be wasted.

But it's never enough. Each increase in speed of product and information only makes us more impatient. We can't wait for the next version that will bring us what we want while we're on the go, without waiting, and at higher and higher bandwidths. And I guarantee that the next generation won't quite cut it either. Or maybe for a couple weeks, until we see our coworker's new iPod Next that supports smell-o-vision and connects directly to the brain.

And I've worked my entire career on creating and putting to market those very products that ramp up consumers' expectations. I take responsibility, but I refuse to change. Because I'm just about as addicted as the next person. When I have to wait two seconds for the video to start, or when I can't update my blog while I'm in another country, or when I actually have to go to the store and walk around in order to buy stuff, I get that rush of adrenaline, that urge to punch my computer screen. This can't be happening to me. Why doesn't somebody do something about all these problems.

So I do. As do my brethren in the consumer-feeding-frenzy-fulfillment industry.

So, please, take a deep breath. If it took an extra second to load this page, realize that it's not my fault.

And when it comes your turn to vote for President, remember there is only one critical question to ask of the candidates: Where do you stand in the issue of providing iPhones to every American?

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Be Prepared (for Coronary Heart Disease)

It's time for my annual rant against the Girl Scouts' sale of cookies with misleading health claims. I got the call from my niece today asking me to buy some of these cookies, and I can't turn her down. But that doesn't keep me from whining to my loyal readers.

As I've reported for the past two years, the cookies are advertised by the Girl Scouts as having zero grams of trans fats. But if you read the ingredient lists carefully, you will find partially hydrogenated oils in them all. This means they claim zero grams on merely a technicality -- the FDA's rule that companies can say they have none even if they have up to a half gram per serving. And they get to determine the serving size. This means that the typical real-life serving likely has a gram or more of trans fats.

Message to the girls: It's ok to lie to make a sale, as long as that lie is sanctioned by the U.S. government.

Trans fats are not in any way required or beneficial to health. They have been strongly linked by research to coronary heart disease. There is no safe level of consumption -- any increase leads to a corresponding increase in risk of heart disease. 30,000 people die each year because of trans fats. Therefore, the National Academy of Sciences has recommended that consumption be as low as possible.

In addition, trans fats have been linked to increased obesity, liver dysfunction, and infertility. Questions have been raised, but links haven't been proven, relating to cancer and diabetes.

Message to the girls: Making money for the troop is more important than the health of the customer.

Girl Scouts of the USA, I call on you to force your bakers to reformulate your cookies to actually and totally remove the trans fats from your cookies. Teach your girls that you don't have to lie to make a sale, and stop contributing to the heart disease and obesity epidemics in this country.

By the way, if you read the ingredients closely, you'll notice that partially hydrogenated oils are listed before cocoa, peppermint, and everything else other than flour and sugar. But they clearly don't advertising the cookies as having zero chocolate or zero mint.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

What Are They Thinking?

One has to wonder who is making the decisions for the Writers' Guild of America. All negotiations in their strike have ceased. You'd think they would be looking for all the good press they could get.

Instead, they are busy back stabbing one of their biggest supporters (and members). Jon Stewart very clearly spoke out for the WGA. He renamed his show to illustrate that support. He even, according to rumors, volunteered to pay his writers out of his own pocket at their regular salary for their creative efforts in writing pro-union slogans for their placards.

So, how do they thank him? By making a deal with Letterman that allows the Pants Man to go back on air with writers, and refusing Stewart's offer to match what Letterman signed. Then, by taking those (reportedly) well-compensated placards and marching with them outside of the Daily Show's studio.

Well, here's what I've learned after two nights -- The Daily Show may have excellent writers, but Jon Stewart seems to do pretty well without them. By their refusal to deal with Comedy Central, the writers are pretty much showing us how irrelevant they really are. On one of the few television shows that non-insulting writing, we now know that the people responsible for that writing are not the ones holding up the anti-Viacom signs outside.

I think it's time to bring in Monty Hall and Make a Deal. Pick Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3, but please pick something.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

It's Debatable

Mr. Bob Meighan of Intuit has challenged me on the facts of It's Deductible, so I thought I should state what has transpired over the past two years very clearly here for anybody who cares. Then you can judge whether I'm being unreasonable or whether Intuit is engaging in unfair business practices.

My wife and I have been loyal customers of Intuit for over a decade. Our Quicken records go back to at least 1996, and I have a copy of the manual (remember when software publishers included manuals for their products) for Quicken version 2. We just upgraded to the latest release of the most expensive version of Quicken. According to my Quicken records, I first purchased TurboTax in 1997 (for tax year 1996). I've purchased at least one product from them every year since, usually the "Deluxe" or "Premier" version. I've convinced more than one friend to switch to doing their own taxes using TurboTax, rather than paying an accountant.

I'm sure that our family is exactly the type of customer that Intuit wants to court. We take charge of our own finances. When they came out with It's Deductible, we bought it, one of the first years it was available (2003). We always bought the desktop versions of all the products. One, it gave us control over our data, and, two, online software just didn't provide the same user experience.

In 2006, Intuit changed the way they marketed their tax product line. They eliminated the product rebates, which effectively raised the price. But they included more things. One of the things they included was It's Deductible. I no longer have the product packaging, but according to (where TurboTax 2005 is still available), TurboTax Premier 2005 with State (the product we bought) "now includes ItsDeductible software to help you accurately value donated items (for a bigger deduction!)."

When we received the disk, however, It's Deductible was not on the CD. After querying Intuit, we found out that what they meant was that we could use It's Deductible Online. If we wanted It's Deductible Desktop, we would have to pay extra.

That was misleading promise #1.

Rather than falling for the bait and switch, we decided to give ID Online a try. So, for the rest of 2006, we entered our donation information into the product. Indeed, the online version wasn't as good as the desktop version, but it was usable.

So, 2007 came around, and we continued to log our donations online. Then we purchased TurboTax Home and Business 2006. Again it was marketed as coming with It's Deductible: "Includes ItsDeductible software to help you accurately value items donated to charity." The TurboTax box did not say what Mr. Meighan said in his comment: "TurboTax 2006 provided a free copy of ItsDeductible Desktop (that was included on the TurboTax CD) for use with the 2006 TurboTax software. Its use was for tracking AND valuing your 2006 contributions. That was the offer."

Go back and read that again. The tax product we bought in 2007 came with software for tracking our 2006 charitable contributions. That's nothing short of idiotic. 2006 had come and gone, and any tracking that was going to happen had already happened. We were already using ID Online and in any case weren't going to support Intuit's bait and switch by switching to the desktop version.

But then we went to do our 2006 taxes. And TurboTax would not / could not import the data from It's Deductible that we had spent 12 months entering. In fact, we had no way of going into ID and even seeing the data so we could enter it by hand into TurboTax. At some point, they had surreptitiously removed any display of valuations from any displays. Nothing we had ever seen or agreed to had ever prepared us for the fact that Intuit now claimed ownership of the valuation data and would not provide it to us except via TurboTax Online. We were floored. Obviously, Intuit was doing everything they could to get people off the desktop versions of their product, and customer expectations had nothing to do with it.

Selling us ID as a bundle with TurboTax and not telling us that the data produced was not compatible or even available to that application was misleading promise #2.

Obviously, we were not the only ones so affected. TurboTax had posted instructions on their support site for a workaround. This workaround involved starting a free tax return using the online version of TurboTax, loading the It's Deductible data into it, and them manually copying the data into the desktop version.

So, in summary, Intuit had made a bad mistake, but they had provided customers with a workaround. Plus, they fixed TurboTax the next year so that it would be able to read data from the online version of ID. A bit reactive rather than planning their products, but at least they were responding. They've been there before, one year with reports that they included spyware as part of TurboTax, another year with reports that many people couldn't install without disabling their firewalls. But I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Which brings us to the present day. We've been using It's Deductible for another year. I'm thinking about doing our taxes. But now, our tax situation has become complicated enough that we can't use TurboTax. TurboTax is apparently the only way to unlock our donation data. And this time no workaround has been offered.

So, to summarize: We felt screwed by Intuit last year, but I was willing to forgive them, since they provided a workaround and since I understand how hard it is to release a new complex consumer product every year on a tight, non-flexible schedule. However, now I feel like Intuit is abusing their position of power. Nothing in any It's Deductible document I've ever seen has or agreement I've ever made has said that I have to use the next year's version of TurboTax to extract the data. No, implicit in the providing of a product to value donations is the promise to actually provide that data.

In a comment a couple days ago, I suggested that Intuit's actions might be a violation of federal antitrust law. In fact, I'm not an attorney, but look at the facts. I am being forced to buy a second product in order to enjoy the benefits of the first product I bought. In fact, this is worse than the standard tying or bundling. Customers who buy the first product don't know they have to buy the second product until they have invested a full year in the first product, and the information that went into that product is irretrievable. Who remembers what that sweater looked like that they donated eight months ago, or could even guess what it might be worth after that amount of time had passed?

I'm not asking for much. I just want the information that Intuit has promised me. And I don't want to have to shell out money on a product I can't use just to get it.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

It's Detestable

It's the New Year, and what does that make you think about? Well, taxes, of course. And, specifically, tax avoidance strategies.

One thing we've always done is donate things around the house we no longer want to charities, and deduct the value of those donations from our income when doing our taxes. We win by getting rid of stuff and decreasing clutter, plus by getting a tax deduction. The charities win by selling what we donated.

A few years ago, we started using a program called "It's Deductible". It's created by the same folks, Intuit, that create Quicken and TurboTax, both of which we've become addicted to. You simply enter in each item being donated, and they miraculously figure out how much it is worth, so you can figure out your deduction. Easier, and more defensible to the IRS. It worked out pretty well, and its data was importable into TurboTax when we did our taxes.

Well, in the last couple of years, Intuit has changed their marketing strategy on this product, and in the process completely screwed over their current customers, including us. First, they started packaging It's Deductible with TurboTax. Buy TurboTax and get It's Deductible for free. Sounds like a good deal, and we fell for it.

We bought TurboTax, but there was no It's Deductible. It turned out, even though we bought the desktop version of the tax software, the free product was the online version of ID. Not what we expected, but ok, we'll try it. We can use it, even though it's not as convenient as having the software installed on our home computer and having the data right there.

Then the end of the year came up, and it turns out that TurboTax desktop cannot read the data from ID online. Get this. The product that was given away for free with TurboTax was not compatible with that very same product. Not only that, we could not even go into It's Deductible and get a report of the value of the items we gave away. You could not extract (or even just view) that data without loading it into a tax return prepared by TurboTax online! So, we created a fake return in TurboTax online, imported the ID data, and then manually typed the data into our real return.

That was last year. For some silly reason we decided to try it again. Surely, they would get it right this year.

In a way, they did. You can now load It's Deductible online data into the desktop version of TurboTax. But now our taxes have become complicated enough that we are hiring an accountant rather than using TurboTax. It feels good to tell Intuit that their stupid business practices are driving us away as customers. However, they have our data about donations trapped on their servers, and we have no way to get it out.

That's right. Intuit has created and marketed a product that let's you enter and track a year's worth of data. At the end of the year, they hold your data hostage to using their product. If you don't use their tax preparation software, you can't get your data back. Sounds like blackmail, false advertising, and other things that I won't print here (and I don't censor my blog).

I think Intuit is counting on the fact that a class action lawsuit is too costly and won't get us our data in time to file our taxes. But clearly as consumers we shouldn't have to take this kind of abuse by a company that we have patronized for many, many years.

If anybody has any ideas on how to deal with Intuit and get our data back, please let me know. In the meantime, I highly recommend that you don't start using any of their products, as they clearly don't put any value on protecting their customers' data.

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