Tue, 19 Aug 2008

“Dad! You’re just crazy—and weird!”

Well, it wasn't exactly the endorsement I expected from the daughter I love.

She called just after 9PM thinking, finally—finally!—she would be able to catch me when I didn't answer my cell phone from my bike with the wind noise louder than my voice.

But she was wrong. I had just hung the halogen head light on my bike and pushed it out the front door for a short ride.

The temperature finally dropped below 70 degrees. Tomorrow's forecast is for rain—all day. With the near full moon rising in the east and the red lights gleaming on the radio towers to the west, stars in the sky, and quiet, empty roads, I couldn't think of a better time for a ride.

So, April asked a quick question and left her crazy, weird dad to his ride.

It was a beautiful ride. Quiet. I rode to the top of Belle Vista where I could see the city lights below me in the valley, and even over the ridge, downtown. I met only a handful of cars and they gave me plenty of room.

There was a little breeze and the only sound was its passing through the trees. A half mile from home a deer trotted across the road in front of me and I could hear the ting its rear hooves made strumming the wire fence it lept in the dark.

The only bad ride is the ride you don't take. Tonight's short ride in the dark was—perfect.

[/cycling] [link]

Fri, 15 Aug 2008

Serendipity

With all the news about car vs. bike violence, it's easy to forget the simple but great moments that don't warrant news coverage.

On our Wednesday night group ride from the local bike shop this week we experienced a moment of pure serendipity that couldn't have been choreographed better.

Our group of fifteen was headed out for a ride on lightly traveled, rural roads. We reached a three-way intersection where the roads meet at equal angles like a three spoked wheel. At exactly the same moment we made a right turn, another group of ten to fifteen cyclists, coming in on the third spoke of that wheel began making a left onto the same road as us.

The two groups merged together like two halves of a zipper. We shared the same route for four or five miles before diverging, again, enjoying conversation and camaraderie.

The view of cycling through sunglasses, with your hands on the handlebars, is certainly much better than the view through reading glasses, newspaper in hand.

[/cycling] [link]

Tue, 05 Aug 2008

Your LBS is important

Too often, I think people discount the importance of their Local Bike Shop (LBS). They shop the LBS for a bike, then buy it online because they can save a few bucks. But they fail to consider the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

I have an excellent relationship with my LBS and it has saved me hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. More importantly, it has saved me time, frustration, and effort.

When I ride into my LBS with any minor problem, it doesn't seem to matter how busy they are—they put my bike in the stand and take care of the problem while I wait. If I need a part that isn't in stock, they rifle through their scrap parts to find something slightly less broken or worn to loan me until the new part arrives. Failing that, they send me home on a demo bike. They never leave me stranded.

I do a lot of my own bicycle maintenance. When I have trouble diagnosing a problem or need some pointers on how to tackle some new task I'm not familiar with, they give me the straight scoop, free of charge.

When I have a friend or family member visiting and want to take them out for a two-wheeled adventure, the LBS sets them up with a top end demo bike.

They invite me on their group rides. They, many of them ex-pros or highly ranked amateurs, give me riding tips, share their favorite routes and trails, and offer encouragement and advice.

When I buy clothing and accessories, I get a discount.

When I have a warranty problem, they exchange the item across the counter and I don't have to hassle with shipping time or dealing with the manufacturer.

I'm sure not everyone who buys a bike at his LBS gets the same treatment I've just described. The level of service I've obtained is the result of a long relationship with the bike shop and the people that work there. I reciprocate as best I can.

I recommend my LBS to anyone who asks about bikes. I invite others to join their group rides. When I see another cyclist with a mechanical problem or changing a flat, I stop and assist. Often, that means using my own spare tube. When they offer me cash or ask how to get in touch with me later to replace the tube, I just tell them to stop by my LBS, purchase a tube and leave it in will-call for me.

I drop off a six-pack of beer once in awhile.

My LBS is so important to me that whenever I purchase a new bike, regardless of what the latest hot trend is, I buy what they carry. My LBS is a Specialized dealer. When I buy, I buy Specialized, or one of the other brands they carry. If my LBS was a Trek dealer, I'd buy Trek.

I've certainly heard the argument that the premium for buying at your LBS is worth it, for many of the reasons I've laid out, here. But in my experience, there is no premium. I'm getting a better deal, overall, than I would if I purchased online. In addition to the cash savings, I'm getting much more that simply isn't available any other way.

If you don't already have it, you need the same relationship with your LBS I have with mine.

[/cycling] [link]

Tue, 10 Jun 2008

40 day bicycle only challenge successfully complete

Yesterday, I got behind the wheel of a car for the first time in 40 days. I drove to the airport to meet Jenny on her return from Switzerland and bring her home.

In Switzerland, 40 days without a car would not even be worth a mention. It’s a popular mode of transportation for all ages.

Bicycles in Switzerland

It was an interesting 40 days. There were many rainy days, but I only rode in a downpour once. The weather forecasters got it horribly wrong, that day. “Rain after 11 AM,” they said. So, I jumped on the bike and headed out to do my errands early. At about 9:30, 6 miles from home, the rain came.

Even that wasn’t a horrible experience. It’s good to ride in the rain once in awhile.

The funniest bike trip was to fetch gas for the lawn mower.

Gas Transport

It was a very enjoyable experience and I intend to continue using the bike instead of the car whenever possible.

[/cycling] [link]

Fri, 30 May 2008

Wimped out

Bike pulling refrigerator Earlier this month, when the refrigerator died, I shopped by phone and Internet and had the replacement delivered. Seems I wimped out. I could have hauled the refrigerators by bike.

[/cycling] [link]

Thu, 29 May 2008

Do cyclists pay their way?

Every Wednesday evening, I meet a group of fellow cyclists at our local bike shop for a ride. (We have a Facebook group. If you're in the area on any Wednesday evening, we'd love to have you along.)

Last night, as we gathered, we exchanged stories about some run-ins with motorists. Three or four in the group had ridden on the Palouse, Sunday, and encountered an angry, local motorist. He went off on them, red-faced, bulge-eyed, screaming, "You don't belong on the road. Cyclists don't pay their fair share of the taxes and fees!"

It's an argument we hear often, but before I address the validity of his assertion, let me address how I think it is best to respond. A heated argument with a motorist is probably counter productive. You're not likely to sway his opinion. An automobile is a lethal weapon when controlled by an enraged motorist. For your safety, you want to be as far away from him as possible and as soon as possible.

It is probably best to say, "I'm sorry to trouble you. I'll be on my way and won't be on this road any longer than I have to."

If you can safely and calmly say more, you might say, "I understand your concern, but you are talking about how things should be. Currently, the law gives me a legal right to ride on the road and I'm exercising that right. If you don't agree with the law you need to contact your legislators and lobby to have it changed."

This topic has been discussed at length, online, and a quick Google search will give you plenty of material to read. I found the exchange in the comments of this BlueOregon post interesting. TR, the anti-cyclist poster at least states his position articulately, so it is a good source for the argument that bicycles and cyclists should be taxed.

However, I think TR and the irate Palouse motorist my fellow cyclists encountered this past weekend are dead wrong. Cyclists do pay their fair share. The post titled Cyclists Pay Their Fair Share! on the Saint Louis Regional Bicycle Federation site is a thorough argument supporting that view.

According to the statistics cited there, 92% of the funds for local roads and transportation infrastructure come from property, income, and sales taxes. Cyclists are taxed no differently in that regard than motorists. The remaining 8% comes from user fees. Most cyclists own automobiles. So they pay the same vehicle registration and licensing fees all motorists pay. About the only fee they do not pay is the fuel tax.

Riding a bicycle reduces congestion. It increases the lifetime of existing infrastructure because it has a negligible impact on the road surface. It decreases demand on the fuel supply which directly benefits motorists with lower fuel costs.

And there are many indirect benefits. Joe Johnson, a very good friend of mine and an avid cyclist once told me about a discussion he had with a co-worker who was trying to make the case that cyclists don't pay their way. The co-worker was an overweight diabetic, his condition quite likely due to, or at least exacerbated by his lifestyle and lack of exercise. Joe is the picture of health.

Let's not talk about the gasoline tax, Joe said, "Let's talk about health insurance premiums. We both pay the same amount. Why should I pay the same amount you do when you refuse to ride a bike or do any sort of exercise to maintain your health?"

Cyclists not only pay their way, they reduce costs for other road users, too.

[/cycling] [link]

Tue, 27 May 2008

A small dose of bigotry

Sunday, I ran several errands on my bike. The weather was nice and I felt great. I even used the drive up window at the pharmacy and when they told me their printer was down and it would take ten to fifteen minutes, I rode the two miles home to let the dogs out and play ball with Jake instead of waiting there. Riding was much more enjoyable than waiting.

On my way back to the pharmacy, two lanes in each direction, a small pickup passed in the left lane with the passenger shouting, Faggot! Faggot!

It wouldn't have matter much what he was shouting. My blood boiled instantly. Here I was, enjoying the day, feeling strong, riding fast, and someone decides I shouldn't be allowed to do so in peace.

The anger made me ride a bit faster, perhaps. In fact, I passed the truck at the next light. The passenger, a young man perhaps twenty years old, continued his insults, this time whistling and cat calling as they passed a second time.

I passed the truck again at the next light, and would have been right with them at a third, but I'd reached my destination and left the street.

It puzzles me. What is it about riding a bike that makes me a faggot? Is that just the worst insult he knows or does he actually think a cycling jersey and shorts indicate sexual preference. Is riding a bike unmanly? Does he think Lance Armstrong and Mario Chipollini are sissies? Would he shout insults at me if he didn't have the protection of his steel and glass cage?

If I felt the need to shout insults at someone, I don't think I'd pick someone fit enough to keep pace with auto traffic on a bike.

Thankfully, incidents like this are rare, but they are maddening, frustrating, and sad. I feel exposed, vulnerable, and helpless. I feel angry—very angry. The attacks aren't provoked. The attackers don't know me. Yet, it feels so personal.

I'm a white, middle class, heterosexual, American male living in a predominately white community. Racial persecution, any kind of persecution really, isn't part of my personal experience. Moments like this give me a small taste of what that must feel like.

So, unknown to the bigots shouting insults and making fools of themselves, when the anger of the moment subsides, I emerge a stronger, more understanding person. They've done me an unwitting and very unwelcome service. I understand more about who I am, what I believe, and certainly what I do not ever want to be.

[/cycling] [link]

Mon, 19 May 2008

Lost and found

Before yesterday, I'd never found anyone's drivers license before. In the past 24 hours, I've found two!

While riding the Centennial Trail east of Spokane, I nearly ran over a driver's license, face up, on the trail, just past one of the trail heads. Looking back, I couldn't see anyone in the parking lot. It couldn't have been there long. The first person to happen upon it would certainly pick it up—and that was me.

After mentally noting the name and taking a close look at the picture, I tucked it in my jersey pocket and continued on my way.

About a mile later, I glanced over at a cyclist I was overtaking—he certainly looked like the photo. Are you Richard E.? I asked.

Yes, he said pulling to a stop.

You dropped this, I said, handing him his drivers license.

I have truly never seen anyone so grateful. He was amazed that I'd found it and returned it so unexpectedly. With a trip to Canada planned for this week, he would have been greatly inconvenienced if he hadn't found it.

Richard told me he lives in Liberty Lake, gave me his address, and offered his private beach any time I want to go swimming. I almost took him up on the offer on the spot. It was nearly ninety degrees.

It felt great to have made someone's day. I almost felt a bit guilty, though. There was almost zero effort on my part. His gratitude outweighed the good deed.

Having never found someone else's drivers license before, imagine how surprised I was this morning when I pushed the lawn mower out front to clip the grass before the heat of the day and found one laying in the yard. There was eighteen year-old Brena H. looking up at me.

The license was punched to indicate it had been replaced. But just a few feet away was the temporary license that had replaced it. Strewn along the edge of the street in front of our house and our neighbors' were a dozen or more receipts, paycheck stubs, and business cards.

The temporary license had expired over a year ago. Nothing I examined was current.

Using the white pages tab on Dex Knows, I found a phone number with an address and last name matching Brena's drivers license. The number has been disconnected.

I called the Sheriff's Department and not long afterwards an officer arrived and collected the items a neighbor and I found. It's probably the contents of a stolen purse, dumped on the street after everything valuable was taken.

The second find was certainly less rewarding. Hopefully, Brena H. suffered no great loss.

[/cycling] [link]

Wed, 14 May 2008

14 days down

I've completed over one-third, 14 days, of my 40 day challenge of bicycle only transportation. I have 26 days to go.

For the most part, it's been easy. I love cycling.

Each day, I've made a point to do at least one trip, somewhere on the bike in addition to my training rides. One afternoon, I rode to the video store and rented a couple of DVDs to watch. Another evening, I met friends for dinner at a restaurant about 7 miles away and rode home in the dark (properly lighted, of course). Last Friday, I made a stop by the grocery store, then rode to my oldest son's apartment where he prepared dinner for me and his fiancee. After watching a movie with them I made another after-dark ride home.

On Sunday morning, May 4th, I rode downtown and watched some of the Bloomies finish. The first friend I recognized was Steve Waco. He finished with just one second to spare to secure a second seed start, next year. That was an amazing finish considering the injuries he suffered almost 2 miles from the end.

Then I saw Joe Johnson less than a minute behind Steve.

After that, the swarm of Bloomies started the thicken and it became more and more difficult to scan all the faces passing by. But I did see my son, Christopher. I shouted and he gave me the thumbs up. I checked the time and was concerned he may have beaten the family record for Bloomsday held by yours-truly. I hope I can get trained up for Bloomsday next year without injury, because Christopher is gunning for me and I need to be prepared to defend my title.

I've done my banking and shopping by bike. I can fit the equivalent of two, full, plastic grocery bags in my bicycle messenger bag (it's bigger than it looks). So far, that has been sufficient.

There have been some minor challenges, though. I'm training for a 100-mile mountain bike race, the Cascade Cream Puff. As much as I enjoy cycling, I don't particularly care to ride my mountain bike on the road. It's half as efficient as a road bike on pavement, so riding the 10 miles to the trail head, then 10 miles home after an exhausting workout on the cross country course is not entirely fun.

Last Saturday, after riding 30 miles on the cross country course and making the 10 mile slog home, I arrived completely exhausted to discover the refrigerator was emanating death rattles. By the time I realized it a hopeless cause and was no longer cooling, it was too late to call neighbors looking for some extra freezer space.

Fortunately, almost everything stayed frozen overnight. Our next door neighbor had a nearly empty chest freezer. He let me throw my frozen goods in while I found a replacement for the twenty-plus years old unit that had died. We have a mini-fridge in the garage. Between it and an ice chest I was able to find a place to stash the refrigerated goods.

I wasn't looking forward to shopping for a refrigerator on a rainy Sunday on a bike. Thanks to the Internet and the telephone, I didn't have to. I called a couple of local appliance dealers, found out what they had in stock that matched my specifications, reviewed those units at the manufacturers' web sites, and placed an order.

The new refrigerator was delivered Monday and they hauled off the old one. Hopefully, the new refrigerator will be worry free for the next twenty-plus years like the old one was.

Jenny likes to bag the grass clippings and haul them to the dump when she mows the lawn. I raised the mower a bit and mulch instead of bag so the trip to the dump isn't necessary. That's supposed to be healthier for the lawn, anyway. I probably only have enough gasoline for one more mowing, though, so I'll have to figure out how to get gas home by bike. I'll probably just bungee strap the can to the rear rack of my old mountain bike which has been converted into a wet weather commuter.

I declined an invitation to attend a Spokane Shock arena football game with a friend. I had planned a long training ride on the mountain bike the day of the game and knew I would be exhausted. I've gone to a game with him before after a long ride like that and sitting in the arena seats that long with sore, tired legs is uncomfortable. And to adhere to the rules of my self-imposed challenge, I would have to ride my bike to the arena and back. That's about a 30-mile round-trip. It wouldn't be a bad ride under normal circumstances, but in the dark, after a grueling training ride earlier in the day it probably wouldn't be much fun. So I stayed home and went to bed early. Sleep after a long training ride is delicious.

I'm looking forward to the remainder of my challenge. It has been fun and rewarding, so far.

[/cycling] [link]

Thu, 01 May 2008

Two moose and a turkey

Two moose near the trail

I rode the cross-country loop on Beacon Hill tonight. Between the two peaks, I saw a wild turkey. She disappeared before I could get a picture.

On the way back, just east of the west peak, two cow moose were eating bud laden shrub branches beside the trail. I passed within about 15 yards of one of them.

Since moose are big, unpredictable, and sometimes aggressive, I gave myself some distance before snapping a couple of pictures with my cell phone camera.

[/cycling] [link]

Wed, 30 Apr 2008

Day 1 of 40

After dropping Jenny at the airport, I parked the car. I've begun my 40 day challenge: no automobile transportation. My bike and my own two feet will be my only transportation until June 9th when I drive to the airport to pick Jenny up on her return.

It was mostly sunny with some patchy clouds when we left for the airport. I watched the clouds build steadily on the way there and back. Now it's overcast with rain predicted this afternoon. Tomorrow's and Friday's forecasts look fair, then Saturday through Tuesday (as far as the forecast currently extends), it looks like rain and even the possibility of some snow. That should make it interesting.

The bike shop is less than 3 miles away. On the way home, I stopped there and had John Abernathy note the mileage on the odometer. When I make the return trip to the airport in June, I'll stop on the way and have John note the mileage, again. The guys at the bike shop will certainly hold my feet to the fire on this challenge.

[/cycling] [link]

Wed, 23 Apr 2008

An arbitrary and rigid challenge

On April 30th, I will begin an arbitrary and rigid challenge: forty days without driving.

I'm not doing it for my health, for the environment, for the financial savings, or for any other sensible reason, although I'm sure I will be rewarded to some degree in all those areas. I'm doing it just for the pleasure of accomplishing an arbitrary goal.

The challenge is arbitrary, because no one asked me to do it. It isn't something I have to do. There's no one but me to answer to. It's rigid, because there are no exceptions. I'll do my shopping, banking, and other errands by bike or on foot. I won't accept rides from others, take the bus, call a cab, or use any form of transportation other than my own two legs.

I have been thinking about this challenge for a few weeks. Jenny will be making a trip to Switzerland to spend the month of May with her youngest sister who is expecting twins any day. On April 30th, I will drive Jenny to the airport. When I return, I will park the car until June 9th when I will drive back to the airport to meet Jenny on her return.

This past Saturday at the barber shop while waiting my turn, I read an interesting article in an issue of National Geographic Magazine. A photographer gave himself an arbitrary and rigid challenge. Between the Summer Solstice and the Winter Equinox, he took one and only one photograph each an every day, for ninety days. In light of the challenge I had been contemplating for myself, the article was intriguing—the pictures were fascinating.

I wish I had made better mental notes so I could give proper credit, but I don't recall the date of the issue or the author's name. A Google search didn't turn up the article. Whomever the photographer, I owe him an apology for borrowing his theme and some of his words, and thanks for solidifying my own personal challenge.

[/cycling] [link]

Tue, 22 Apr 2008

Now that I have your attention…

Here's a frustrating anecdote demonstrating a simple principle of user interface design.

For the past 3 days, my LG CU400 cell phone has been relentlessly trying to get my attention. But why?

The first time I heard the tone, I picked up the phone and saw nothing of interest on the display. There was no message indicator. The signal strength was acceptable. I had no voice mail, new text messages, missed calls—nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Initially, I thought there must be some kind of signal interference and perhaps it was toning when re-acquiring a signal. Later in the day, I was mountain biking on Beacon Hill passing directly under cell phone towers and in line of site of nearly every cell phone tower for 50 miles. Yet, the tone persisted periodically.

I use my cell phone for its alarm clock feature, but the mystery tone woke me in the night and I had to silence it in order to sleep.

Monday (day 2), I made a note whenever I heard the tone. I wasn't near the phone all the time, and was in noisy areas periodically where I wouldn't have heard it, anyway. The three times I noted indicated a pattern, though: 11:37 am, 5:37 pm, and 11:37 pm. Monday night, I powered the phone off.

Today (Tuesday, day 3), I powered the phone on and heard the tone very soon afterwards. And again in 5 minutes. The phone toned every 5 minutes 3 times, then every 15 minutes twice, then every 30 minutes twice.

Then silence for just over an hour. At 1 hour 2 minutes, the cycle started over.

I had checked my alarm settings. I checked the memory—plenty used (I've got several photos and even a few videos saved), but still plenty free.

Finally a new clue. I sent a text message, which I do infrequently, but more often now that I've started using Twitter. The phone prompted: Send without saving?

Ah-ha! It must be unable to save text messages.

There were 196 messages in my Sent folder. That's probably every message I've sent in the 13 months I've owned the phone. I deleted all those messages and immediately received 3 new text messages that had been queued up. They were Twitter messages with time-stamps over the past 3 days.

So, I assume what happened was that each time a new message arrived, or when the phone was powered off and on, the out of text message memory tone started it's alert cycle. And even though the phone indicated I had plenty of memory available, that memory obviously wasn't available for text messages.

The morale of this story: It isn't enough to tell the user there is a problem. You must tell the user what the problem is!

[/programming] [link]

Tue, 15 Apr 2008

Geezeo responds

After posting my comparison of personal finance webapps, I received an email from Peter Glyman, Co-Founder of Geezeo.

Peter let me know changes are in the works that will address many of my concerns. I am anxiously awaiting them.

I'm very impressed with the fact that Peter took the time to write a thoughtful reply to my post. It demonstrates that Geezeo is paying attention to its users. Companies that listen to their users deserve success.

[/internet] [link]

Washington Mutual External Accounts

Washington Mutual online banking allows the addition of external accounts for ACH transfers. It is an extremely useful feature.

I recently opened an HSA at another bank. That bank is out of state. I wasn't looking forward to mailing checks to make deposits and writing checks on the HSA to reimburse myself for medical expenses. The external accounts feature makes that all unnecessary. I can transfer funds between my WaMu accounts and my HSA from the WaMu website without ever licking a stamp or signing a check.

To verify ownership of an external account, WaMu makes two small deposits of less than a dollar (then yanks them back out with a single withdrawal). When the deposits appear in your external account, you confirm the account on the WaMu website by entering those amounts.

I first saw this technique used by PayPal. Now it seems to be a standard account confirmation method.

If WaMu just offered OFX as one of the transaction download formats, I'd give them a perfect score.

[/internet] [link]

Mon, 14 Apr 2008

TurboTax for Linux users

Linux has been my primary OS for several years. I used to keep a Windows box simply for the purpose of running TurboTax once each year. Then Intuit began offering TurboTax online, and I was able to prepare my returns using my Linux desktop system and Mozilla browser. The Windows box went on the scrap heap.

In past years, I've always received a browser compatibility warning using TurboTax Online. I ignored the warning was always able to complete my return without any difficulties.

This year, however, the browser compatibility check page has no continue button. It is no longer a warning; it is a brick wall.

I found a reasonably painless way over the brick wall using the User Agent Switcher plugin.

When presented with the browser compatibility check page, I use the User Agent Switcher to lie to TurboTax, telling it I'm using Internet Explorer 6.0, then I reload the page. The compatibility check passes and the sign on page loads.

Next, and this is actually the most important step, I immediately set the User Agent Switcher back to default and reload the sign on page. Failing to do so results in a sign on page that doesn't work for my Mozilla browser.

After scaling the brick wall, it's clear sailing. I was able to complete my tax return without a hitch, including Schedules C and D.

I found a post on the ArchLinux BBS that was helpful, but using the alternative Start.htm link provided didn't work for me since I was initiating the process from a brokerage account that netted me a discount price on TurboTax Online. Using the simple URL bypass resulted in the full retail price.

It also failed to mention the need to set the User Agent Switcher back to default and reload the sign on page.

Intuit should really test their online tax filing application with Linux. With the exception of the browser compatibility check failure, it seems to work just fine. Surely there are enough Linux users to warrant some testing and a simple modification to the compatibility check.

[/linux] [link]

Wed, 09 Apr 2008

Twitter abuse

Yesterday, I got an email from twitter notifying me that I have a new follower. I checked the page to discover my new follower is a complete stranger. It was apparent she was following me and others simply to drive traffic to her website. I say her, but there's a good chance the account is just a front.

Twitter is an extremely simple, interesting, and effective tool. I've really enjoyed the updates my friend Joe has been posting while in China. But like almost every simple tool on the Internet, people find ways to abuse it.

I'm not sure what the best policy is, here. Block followers you don't recognize and who don't provide any reason for following? Ignore the notice? Turn follower notices off?

A Google search for twitter etiquette will turn up literally thousands of pages of advice. I'm happy to simply not follow people whose posts annoy me. What bothers me about the new follower notices is that I really do want to know who is following me and I don't see any reasonable way to know that without being subjected to complete strangers whose motive is driving traffic to their sites.

I'll just have to see how it works out over time.

[/internet] [link]

Tue, 08 Apr 2008

Geezeo, Mint, and Wesabe

I took some time over the weekend to experiment with the three personal finance web sites I discussed in my last entry. That changed my perceptions. Although I still have high hopes for Wesabe, I find that requires the most work to use, currently.

Mint appears to be the most useable out of the box. It did the best job of assigning useful names to the transactions I downloaded and giving me some immediately useful information.

Geezeo had support for more of my accounts than the others. My biggest complaint about Geezeo should be easy to fix on their part: all the transaction names are in UPPERCASE. Yuck!

None of the sites handled all of my accounts. I use thinkorswim for stock and options trading and was unable to add it. Mint actually had an entry for thinkorswim when I searched for it using the Add Account feature. However, after providing my thinkorswim username and password and watching the connection progress, Mint gave me the disconcerting error message:

This just isn't going to work.

I have access to three checking accounts through my bank's website: my personal checking account, my business checking account, and my daughter's checking account. Of the three, I only want my personal checking account aggregated. Only Wesabe allowed me to make that selection. Mint lets me hide the other two accounts, or mark them closed, but not until it has downloaded transactions. Geezeo let me delete accounts after the initial import.

Here's a short list of pros and cons as I see them:

Geezeo

Pro

  • Supports the most accounts and account types. Only Geezeo allowed me to aggregate my mortgage account, student loans, and all my credit cards.
  • Does a fair job of naming and categorizing transactions, automatically.

Con

  • Transactions are named in all UPPERCASE.
  • I found the site navigation a bit counter intuitive.
  • Unable to select specific bank accounts for aggregation.

Mint

Pro

  • Clean, professional looking design.
  • Transactions automatically renamed appropriately.
  • Very nice graphs and charts.
  • Relevant and timely email notices.

Con

  • No support, yet, for mortgage accounts, student loans.
  • Unable to select specific bank accounts for aggregation.

Wesabe

Pro

  • Very open communications between company management and users.
  • Most customizable.
  • Allows selecting specific accounts from a single bank.
  • Social integration, such as user tips.

Con

  • Requires a browser plug-in to manage bank account connections.
  • Managing account connections can be difficult.
  • Does not rename transactions out of the box. Once you've renamed a transaction, the name is applied to similar transaction on subsequent, similar transactions. However, manually assigning names to each new, unique payee is time consuming and cumbersome.

Security

It's worth noting that Wesabe has a very different security model from the other two sites. All three sites claim they do not store your sign on credentials for the various accounts they integrate. Mint and Geezeo don't store them—they pass them to a third party that does store them. Mint uses Yodlee and Geezeo uses CashEdge. Wesabe provides browser plug-ins that let your PC establish connections to your banks then feed the data to Wesabe—your credentials are stored on your own PC.

Since Mint and Geezeo ask for your credentials and pass them to a third party, you have to first trust Mint and Geezeo to abide by their security policy and never save or use your credentials. You also have to trust the third party providers they pass the credentials to, Yodlee and CashEdge. The security policies of all involved are disclosed and explained. I have no problem trusting them, but it does require trust.

The advantage of this approach is that it makes features like Mint's email notices possible. Mint can access your bank data even when you're not logged in. Getting notices about transactions that have cleared the bank when credit cards payments are due, without signing in, is a useful benefit.

With Wesabe's approach, you need to trust the plug-ins they provide. For the truly paranoid, and technically capable, that should be possible. It would require monitoring just what gets passed to Wesabe. I'm willing to trust their security policy and believe they aren't capturing my sign on credentials. On the other hand, I'm not sure having my credentials stored on my own system and using a plug-in is any safer that passing them on to Yodlee or CashEdge. It just seems more likely to me that some browser bug or flaw in the Wesabe plug-in might eventually be exploited, than Yodlee or CashEdge being hacked.

This is still a new application area and there's no clear winner, yet. If we could pick and choose the features of these three sites we would have a very attractive application. I'm sure we'll see a lot of progress with all three in the near future.

[/internet] [link]

Wed, 02 Apr 2008

Personal finance management

My exploration of social networking software lead me to some interesting applications for personal fiance management:

These applications let you import data from bank, credit card, and other accounts and manage them in a central place. They provide help with budgeting, graphs and reports of spending, and tips and advice on spending and saving.

I haven't explored any of these applications in depth, yet, but Wesabe, initially, appeals to me most. The company seems extremely open and interactive with its customers. The CEO, Jason Knight, is available by phone seven days a week! Have a problem or concern? You can pick up the phone and talk to the CEO.

Wesabe also has an API. As a programmer, that appeals to me.

From user comments, it appears Mint may have some better graphs and reports and has a more business like demeanor. All three, in fact, have their particular strengths and weaknesses. Wesabe's open dialog with users leads me to believe they are likely to add missing features and incorporate feedback quickly, so I've decided to invest some time with it before pursuing the others in depth.

So, what's the social software tie in? These sites provide a variety of ways for users to interact with each other, from sharing tips and advice to comparing spending habits against averages. The social aspect is context sensitive, so, I might learn about a zero interest balance transfer option while dealing with my credit card bills.

Wesabe is on twitter, so you can keep tabs on some of the news and happenings at Wesabe by following along in twitter.

I used to meticulously enter every receipt in GnuCash. I still use it for business. But I've done little to manage my personal finances for the past 2 or 3 years outside of quick online reviews of my bank and credit card accounts, periodically. Perhaps Wesabe will help me be a bit more proactive.

[/internet] [link]

Mon, 31 Mar 2008

Twitter, the simplest thing that works

The past few weeks I've immersed myself in some of the web social networking applications: LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Twitter, my most recent plunge, is conceptually the simplest and may turn out to be the most useful.

One of the tenets of good software programming is "Do the simplest thing that works." Twitter seems to epitomize that concept.

Twitter is simply a message routing system. Send a short message and Twitter rebroadcasts it to your followers. Unless you have opted out, the message is also dispatched to the public time-line.

Prefixing special commands can alter the message routing. For instance, prefixing a message with d someuser dispatches the message to someuser, only. Twitter calls it a direct message, thus the d command.

What sets Twitter apart from IRC, email, IM, and other message dispatching systems is it's simple message routing control and its ability to work across devices: web, IM, cell phone.

You receive messages from those you are following. As your family and friends join Twitter, you can follow them. When I'm at my computer, I receive Twitter messages with my instant messenger. When I'm away from the computer, I receive them as text messages on my cell phone. I don't receive cell phone messages between 10pm and 7am—I'd rather sleep. In the morning, I can check my Twitter web page to see any messages that arrived overnight.

This simple messaging framework supports some interesting applications. (Applications, here, meaning use cases rather than software products, although it does provide opportunity for those, as well.)

I'm an avid cyclist. I don't mind riding alone. In fact, I do most of my riding alone. But it's nice to have companions to ride with, sometimes. Meeting up for rides with friends can sometimes be a bit problematic.

Imagine all my cycling friends and I using Twitter. No planning necessary. Joe sends a message:

Headed for Beacon with Bobby for a couple hours.

A few minutes later, Steve says:

I think I'll try to catch Joe and Bobby at Beacon.

And Cathy says:

Mark and I are going to ride to Rockford and back.

Great! I've got 3 options: head to Beacon for a mountain bike ride with Joe, Bobby, and Steve, do a road ride with Mark and Cathy, or neither. Since Twitter is a low expectation interface, neither Joe nor Cathy is expecting a reply from me. Whether I show up or not is immaterial. They've simply notified the rest of us of their intent so we can join if we want to.

I think I'm up for a mountain bike ride:

@mtnbk1 Watch for me on Beacon, I'll head that way soon.

Joe may or may not see my message; he may already be away from his computer and he doesn't carry his cell phone when mountain biking. The @mtnbk1 is mostly convention. It indicates I'm replying to Joe, using his username. The message is routed to all my followers, so Cathy knows not to expect me. If Steve sees the message, he'll be watching for me on Beacon, too.

Joe and I are training for a grueling mountain bike race in June. We do most of our training alone, but meet for a couple rides together each week. Joe's job will take him to China for a few weeks, soon, where he'll be running to keep in shape and may not have access to a bike. And he'll be 15 or 16 hours ahead of me on the other side of the globe.

Yet, keeping in touch with Twitter will help us both keep motivated to keep up with our own training. I look forward to messages from Joe, like:

8 mile run on the beach; running in sand is exhausting

And I'll be sending updates that will let Joe know I'm on track:

Finally cleaned the entire climb on Tower.

Now, I just need to get Joe, Steve, Cathy, and all my other cycling friends twitterized.

I found these articles on Twitter useful:

[/internet] [link]

About this weblog

This site is the personal weblog of Marc Mims. You can contact Marc by sending e-mail to:
marc@questright.com.

Marc writes here about cycling, programming, Linux, and other items of personal interest.

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