Tax-time thoughts: now with slightly less incompetent accounting!

I have survived, I think, another tax season as a self-employed individual, and I’m increasingly convinced that if I keep doing this I will someday know what I’m doing.

Misc. incomeOnce again, my worst enemy was my inattentive and sloppy accounting. I was still forgetting to tag some expenses as business transactions in Mint until last spring, and It took me until mid-September to lock in the habit of logging every cash expense within minutes of it happening. Memo to Google: This would be easier if the Google Drive app could edit spreadsheets offline.

For cash transactions not properly noted at the time, I had to recreate records months after the fact. That involved the tedious, time-consuming routine of cross-referencing my calendar, e-mail and Foursquare check-ins.

Importing the credit-card purchases that Mint had recorded automatically was the same as ever, which is not good: Intuit’s site still provides no way to limit a transaction search to a date range short of hand-editing a Web address. Intuit, this is idiotic. Try spending some of the money you sink into astroturfed lobbying into adding this most basic of features.

Last year also saw client income (Sulia and WordAds) arrive via PayPal deposits, a first for me. I liked the invoice-free convenience of those payments, but I made two rookie accounting mistakes. The big one was not identifying all of the subsequent PayPal transfers to my bank as freelance income; the little one was using some of a freelancing-inflated PayPal balance to reimburse my share of an Airbnb apartment rented for Mobile World Congress instead of first moving the sum of those freelance payments to my bank, then covering the lodging expense with a separate withdrawal from my bank.

The fact that I realized most of these errors in late March by itself represented my single biggest accounting failure–I spent too much of 2013 in a financial fog, which is stupid. So after cleaning up last year’s records, I set aside a couple of hours last weekend to do the same for those from the first quarter of this year. Like I said: I do learn, just not quickly.

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Reader suggestions for fixing an iMessage mess

Sunday’s USA Today Q&A about getting one’s mobile number untangled from Apple’s iMessage service looks to be one of the most-read columns I’ve done there. It’s also drawn more than the usual amount of reader feedback–including two reports of remedies that I had not discovered during the week or so I spent digging into this issue.

iPhone Messages settingsOne came from an AT&T subscriber in Minnesota:

A few days before the article I had the same problem and called AT&T.  They had me text the word ‘stop’ to 48369, to which I got the response: “FREE MSG: Apple iCloud ID Verification: You have been unsubscribed and will no longer receive messages. 1-800-275-2273″

I’ve since found one confirmation of that fix in a Reddit comment and a posting on Apple’s tech-support forum. There’s also an Apple tech support notice… which only describes this procedure as a way to stop Apple from sending AppleCare identity-verification messages to a wrong number.

A reader in Washington who said he works “at a major phone retailer” sent in a different suggestion that he said “always” works: Reset your Apple ID password.

Go to https://iforgot.apple.com/password/verify/appleid Enter your Apple ID in the space and just reset your Apple ID password. Even if you don’t have access to that email or security questions, it will remove all Apple registered devices from iMessage instantly.

In case you were wondering: Neither suggestion came up in the background conversations I had with Apple PR, even though one is allegedly endorsed by Apple support.
But that’s not nearly as important as whether either cure can earn an endorsement from you. If you’ve found either one successfully exfiltrated a number from iMessage–or if you have a different fix to share–please leave a comment with the details.

I don’t like sketchy ads either

Almost two years ago, I got invited to join WordPress.com’s WordAds program, and for the most part it’s worked well–aside from these advertisements failing to earn me truckloads of money, as opposed to enough for a nice dinner every now and then.

Walmart voucher adBut a week or so ago, a few of the ads sent here by this program started looking distinctly sketchier. One made diet claims unlikely to survive scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration, while another made the economically implausible offer of a free $1,000 Walmart voucher. And sometimes the appearance of these ads was followed by one of those spammy pop-up ads for the MacKeeper app–also served by the same Tribal Fusion ad network.

That’s not the “high quality” content WordPress promised when it launched this partnership with Federated Media. So I posted a cranky tweet about it and then followed up with a complaint sent through the appropriate form, saying that “If you don’t kick these garbage advertisers out of WordAds, I’ll drop out of the program.” (That was an easy threat to make, since I don’t have that much money at stake.)

I got a quick acknowledgment saying that my gripe was legitimate, followed the next day by a report that the advertiser had removed the offending items and pledged to clean up its act.

I haven’t seen any objectionable ads since; it appears the system worked. But if you see ads making a pitch that looks dodgy, let me know about it. Bad ads are a Web-wide problem, and the least I can do is not have my little corner of the Web contribute to it.

More questions answered about my role at Yahoo Tech

LAS VEGAS–My involvement with the new Yahoo Tech site hasn’t been a secret since the holiday preview posted in December, but with yesterday’s launch at Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s CES keynote it’s a lot more public. Following, answers to some of the questions I’ve gotten since then.

Yahoo Tech languageQ. Is this your new job?

A. No. Writing a weekly “The Rules of Tech” column is my new freelance gig. I will continue to have the pleasure of making four large estimated-tax payments to the IRS a year.

Q. What about your other work?

A. My assignment at Yahoo is to cover tech policy (not just laws and regulations, but the boundaries and limits set by corporations and each other). So don’t expect to see me getting into that area of technology elsewhere–that’s why I had to bid farewell to my tech-policy blogging at the Disruptive Competition Project.

But outside of that, I can continue to write elsewhere. Further, I should continue to write elsewhere–staying current with people’s tech frustrations in my USA Today column and reviewing gadgets elsewhere will make me a more informed tech-policy writer. That outside work can also let me indulge my wonkier instincts instead of plunging into the weeds in every single Yahoo post.

I may, however, have a little less bandwidth in the near term for other assignments as I work my way from “conscious incompetence” to “conscious competence” in this new role.

Q. Where are the comments? Why no RSS feed?

A. Shocking but true: Sometimes sites launch without every intended feature. I’m told those things are coming, so please keep clicking refresh at least once a day.

Q. Are they hiring? Taking on other freelancers?

A. Too soon to say, and those questions are also kind of above my pay grade. I can say that it’s been a busy few weeks; right now, I think we’re all dreading the fact that we only have [checks watch] maybe another hour to sit and admire our handiwork before getting back to it.

Q. Are you worried about being associated with a Web property that’s made so many technological missteps in the past?

A. That’s not a very nice way to talk about the Washington Post. (I kid, I kid! Just judge me by my work, okay?)

2013 blogging stats: You still hate Lotus Notes, and I guess I should still miss Google Reader

At the end of every year, WordPress.com automatically generates a nifty presentation about this blog’s readership statistics. To view it, click the fireworks graphics below; for some of my own takes on these numbers and others not included in that infographic, scroll past it.

To start, I had slightly fewer readers than in 2012, at 84,411 versus 89,639. That’s mainly because I didn’t have any one post blow up from a link at a widely-read blog. Instead, the most-read post was my 2011 rewrite of a cheat sheet I wrote on the Post intranet about forwarding Lotus Notes e-mail to Gmail–followed by two other how-to posts, one on my cure for a runaway OS X “CalendarAgent” process and another about places where T-Mobile can provide 3G service for older iPhones.

(I’m going to ping T-Mo PR for an update on that data; if people are relying on me for help, I might as well deliver something current.)

As for what sites sent traffic here, “Search Engines”–by which I mean “Google and then trace elements of Bing and Yahoo”–led the list. WordPress.com set them aside to highlight human-curated sites: first Twitter, then Facebook, then USA Today.

The dearly-departed Google Reader also got a shout-out in my blog host’s presentation. Its sort-of replacement Google+ did not; by WordPress.com’s count, Google’s social network sent less traffic than a single reader comment at the Post’s site. Will my activating the new option to have posts automatically shared on G+ change that? Look for an answer in the 2014 version of this post, coming in about 365 days.

Things a freelance writer can be thankful for

Clients who say yes to your pitches–or at least politely say no and explain why they didn’t work for them.

Thanks

Clients who offer you unexpected assignments, preferably near a dollar a word.

Clients you don’t have to invoice twice–better yet, who pay before you can get around to sending an invoice.

Contracts that don’t have work-for-hire or indemnification clauses. (How often does the latter form of legalese save any company from legal trouble?)

That moment when a crafty lede pops into your head, fully formed.

The state of flow in which words seem to fly onto the screen by themselves, and you only need to keep your fingers over the keyboard.

Having your reporting lead you in an unexpected direction, in the process reminding you that this profession should be roughly equal parts learning and teaching.

Catching a stupid error that you were thisclose to sharing with the world.

Discovering that you’ve written a phrase in a headline that Google has never seen before.

Editors who ask good questions that reveal flaws in your argument, or at a minimum don’t edit in mistakes.

Anybody on a copy desk who quickly fixes the mistake you discover after publication or posting.

Readers who appreciate what you do.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

My wavering definition of “weekend”

By the middle of this Saturday morning, I’d already written one thing for work, sent a couple of pitches to one editor and had begun working on this post.

iPad weekend calendarThis was not unusual. What may be odd is that I don’t mind doing work-like things on the weekend.

At one level, I have no choice about it. That part of work-life balance began eroding years ago; first not reading work e-mail became unwise, then not replying to at least some messages got to be too risky. The arrival of RSS and Twitter further escalated my occupational Internet use on weekends.

And as a work-from-home freelancer I’m rarely entirely off the clock but also have the liberty to shift my work hours around–which in practice often leaves tasks like, say, writing a post a week here that’s not completely self-promotional undone until Saturday. That should further blur the distinction between workdays and weekends.

But another level, Saturday and Sunday remain the days when work is something I do between other things, the alarm isn’t set unless there’s some special event, I feel zero guilt about throwing on an old pair of jeans and a t-shift, and it’s fine if I spend a few afternoon hours biking or gardening. Let’s try to keep those distinctions around, okay?

(There’s one other thing that can make weekends feel like workdays: parenthood. As much as we love spending time with our adorkable toddler, the advent of Monday morning doesn’t seem so bad when it means professional help with child care will once again resume.)

When do you decide it’s time to fire an app?

I guess I don’t have to drag the icon for Apple’s Mail program out of the Dock after all.

Mail iconAn update shipped Thursday fixed the ugly Gmail-synchronization bug that I had been displeased to confirm in OS X Mavericks. Until then, I was about 90 percent sure that I’d have to dump the e-mail app that had been my daily driver since abandoning Eudora on the Mac at least a decade ago.

The likeliest replacement was Airmail, except its lack of support for the nifty data-detectors feature that lets me create calendar events from mentions of dates or times in messages had held me back.

Also, I’m really slow to move from one app to another, to the point that seemingly minor feature requirements like that become an enormous obstacle.

I still have Safari as my default browser in OS X, even though Chrome does a lot of things better–aside from automatically filling in contact information from my Contacts entry. And I continue to use iPhoto for my pictures, despite its glitches and Apple’s apathy about fixing them (although with 55 GB of photos, moving to a new photo-management app would be a non-trivial endeavor).

About the only major app that has exited my workflow in recent years is Microsoft Word. But since I’d have to pay for a no-longer-so-current version of that–while either Google Docs or TextEdit augmented by WordService provide all the tools I need for my formatting-free writing, leaving Apple’s Pages sufficient for the occasional venture into graphic design–that was a much easier call to make.

What was the last program you fired for cause? Tell me about it in the comments.

Why Web-mail alone doesn’t work for me

I installed OS X Mavericks on my MacBook Air Wednesday, and now I can no longer use my Google-hosted work e-mail account in my laptop’s copy of Apple’s Mail–an undocumented change in how that client treats Google IMAP accounts has made them borderline unusable, at least if you want to move a message out of your inbox.

Gmail Offline app(Thanks, Apple! Really, you shouldn’t have.)

My complaint about this issue yielded the responses I should have expected: Why not just use only Web-mail? That’s a fair question. Here are a few reasons why I’d rather not:

Offline access. Google does provide a capable offline app for Gmail, and I use it all the time–but its Chrome-only Gmail Offline can only download the last month’s worth of mail. To find anything older, I need to get back online. It’s also easier to take my e-mail to another host if all my old messages are already synced to my hard drive.

A separate tool for a separate task. Because a mail client has its own interactive Dock or taskbar button, it can show in real time how many messages have arrived–and can’t get overlooked among 20 other open browser tabs. And without ads or a browser toolbar that doesn’t help with mail management, I can see more of my mail.

Message management. It takes fewer clicks to select a batch of messages and move them to another folder–especially if they’re not contiguous–in a local mail client than in Gmail’s standard interface, much less the simpler Gmail Offline.

Quick Look. If somebody sends me a Word, PDF or some kind of complex document, I can get an instant preview of it by selecting the document and hitting the space bar, courtesy of OS X’s Quick Look feature. In Gmail, I have to wait for the file to download and preview in a separate window.

Better calendar integration. Both Gmail and Mail can create a new calendar event if they see a date or time in a message, but Gmail insists on adding that to your default Google calendar. Mail allows you to add it to the calendar of your choice.

Individually, these are little differences, but they add up. And while a better Web-mail system could address them all someday, I can have these things on my checklist today with a functioning client running on my Mac. It’s too bad Apple chose to break its own.

So do I now switch to something like Postbox or Airmail–or do I get around Google’s wonky implementation of IMAP entirely by switching to, say, Microsoft’s newly IMAP-comaptible Outlook.com? That’s a topic for another post. But I welcome your input in the comments.

Follow you, follow me: Twitter and a scaleable attention span

A few days ago, I learned something new about the social network I’ve been using almost every day since the spring of 2008. As I belatedly followed somebody on Twitter whose input I’d been enjoying for years in retweeted form, it struck me how rarely I’d had reason to regret following people on the service.

Twitter follow buttonMost of my unfollows have involved read-only accounts that I found a poor substitute for RSS. As for actual people–and organizational accounts that interact as if there are actual people behind the keyboards–I have to discover that you’re a far more obnoxious or uninformative tweep than I’d thought to unfollow you.

(FWIW, I don’t think I’ve blocked anybody on Twitter for anything besides spamming and don’t quite understand “ending” an argument by blocking somebody who has remained civil throughout the debate. I suppose enough pointless jackassery sent my way could drive me to that step, but it hasn’t happened yet.)

And yet when I started out, I was unrealistically afraid of having too many people’s words cascade down the screen. Each new follow involved a careful consideration of how often this person would tweet, and how relevant those tweets were to my work.

I mean, I didn’t even follow the guys I shared a group house with at a NASA Tweetup. How weirdly snobbish is that?

That was dumb. I missed out on a lot that way.

I now follow more than 400 users–still far less than many other people I know–and don’t feel close to overwhelmed even though I have far more to keep up with. In retrospect, I seriously underestimated how my attention span could scale up.

It’s true that reading Twitter on the go on a phone has gotten more pleasant since 2008, and that this service imposes no visual penalty for falling behind–no messages piling up in an inbox, no RSS items asking to be marked as read.

But the most important change is in my own head. I’ve gotten better at reading Twitter quickly: recognizing the varying signal-to-noise ratios of people and skimming their output appropriately, noticing retweets from users with particularly good taste, ignoring waves of banter about pop-culture topics I don’t care about.

Twitter has become one of those specialized tasks–typing on phone keyboards comes to mind–that I’ve done enough times to have essentially reprogrammed my brain.

That could still turn out to be a tragic waste of cerebral capacity. But it is more fun to surround myself with more interesting and creative people, even if they don’t all neatly fit into a People Relevant to Tech Journalism spreadsheet.