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]

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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