I’m (still) sorry about the schlock ads here

Yesterday’s announcement of a merger of Taboola and Outbrain–the dreadful duo responsible for those horrible “around the Web” galleries of clickbait ads tarting up many of your favorite news sites–provided yet another reminder of how fundamentally schlocky programmatic ads can get online.

But so did a look at this blog.

When WordPress.com launched WordAds in 2012, the company touted a more tasteful advertising system that bloggers here could be proud of. The reality in the seven years since has been less impressive.

The WordAds program features some respectable, name-brand advertisers like Airbnb and Audible, to name two firms seen here tonight. But it’s also accepted too much tacky crap–including some of the same medically-unsound trash that litters Taboola and Outbrain “chumboxes”–while struggling to block scams like the “forced-redirect” ad in the screenshot at right.

Over the last year, I’ve also been increasingly bothered by the way these ads rely on tracking your activity across the Web. I know that many of you avoid that surveillance by using browsers like Safari or Firefox with tracking-protection features, but I’d just as soon not be part of the privacy problem. Alas, WordPress has yet to offer bloggers the option of running ads that only target context (as in, the posts they accompany), not perceived user behavior as determined by various programmatic systems.

I do make money off these ads, but slowly. Most months, my advertising income here doesn’t exceed $10, and I can’t withdraw any of the proceeds until they exceed $100. I had thought that I’d see one of those paydays last month–but August’s addition to my ad income left me 28 cents shy of that C-note threshold.

So in practice, my major return on WordAds is the opportunity to have my face periodically shoved into the muck of online marketing. That’s worth something, I guess.

How I booked my CES lodging (and did not get ripped off, I hope)

No business-travel lodging decision is trickier than CES. The usual affordability of Las Vegas hotels evaporates as properties on the Strip send their rates into the stratosphere for this massive show, leaving budget-minded CES attendees scrounging for cheap alternatives that won’t be too distant or too sketchy.

Las Vegas Strip from the southHere how I managed that this year. I hope you all don’t need to book CES lodging anytime soon, but applying some of the same shopping practices might make your next non-work trip a little more affordable.

  1. Start at the show site’s list of official hotels. Conference hotels can be a grotesque rip-off, but the enormous scale of CES–175,212 attendees this January–means the endorsed-lodging list has to go beyond a handful of high-end hotels. The best deals left this week are in downtown Las Vegas, which I know from prior trips is an easy Lyft/Uber ride to the Strip and not much slower by bus, which in this case includes the show’s free hotel shuttle service. And by “best deals” I mean $500 to $600 and change for four nights–including resort fees, which the CES site helpfully includes in its nightly-cost estimates. That set an upper bound on what I’d pay.
  2. Check Airbnb. Airbnb is an essential part of my business travel–I don’t think I could do events like MWC or Google I/O without that source of cheap lodging–but in this case it didn’t pan out. Airbnb’s site didn’t show any affordable options near the Strip that either had accumulated enough favorable reviews or were offered by hosts with their own prior crowd-sourced approvals.
  3. Check Kayak. Kayak.com has remained one of my favorite travel-search sites for all the tools it provides to narrow down a search (with Hipmunk a close second) while still showing results from a wide range of booking sites. In this case, Kayak revealed another option in the low $500s near the University of Nevada at Las Vegas–not walking distance from the Strip, but a manageable Lyft/Uber commute. (Vegas taxis are dead to me, thanks to their adding a $3 surcharge for credit-card payments.)
  4.  Check Hotwire. This Expedia Group-owned travel-search site offers mystery deals on hotels that don’t have to be that much of a mystery. The trick is to see what “Hot Rates” look good, then check not just the TripAdvisor rating shown next to each but the number of TripAdvisor reviews. That second data point should allow you to identify the underlying hotel with a high degree of confidence. In this case, Hotwire showed some downtown-Vegas properties at about the same rates as the CES site–but without clarity on whether resort fees were included.
  5. Don’t forget esoteric or expiring discounts. My search ended with an app on my phone, and not one I’ve used to book travel before. The T-Mobile Tuesdays app, which historically hasn’t yielded much more than the occasional free Lyft ride, touted some subscriber-exclusive discounts at Booking.com this week. So I belatedly remembered to take a look Friday, which is how I found a DTLV property with solid TripAdvisor ratings and no resort fees for just over $500.

Will that be my most comfortable CES stay ever? Probably not. Will I care after spending 14 hours a day schlepping around my laptop? Probably not. Now to book my CES flights…

 

 

My continued struggles with quarterly accounting

Four times a year, I partake in a ritual that reminds me of my limited cash-flow competence–and of how a certain large personal-finance firm just doesn’t care.

Adding up my income and expenses after each quarter instead of at the end of the year is Accounting 101, but because I stumbled into a freelance existence it took a few years of struggling through tardy bookkeeping to get myself in the habit.

Several years of this practice have now streamlined this to a manageable level of drudgery, but the first step remains as irritating as ever: downloading records from Intuit’s Mint.com personal-finance app.

I know, I know; Intuit runs this free Web app so poorly that it still seems to require Adobe Flash to display investment charts. (I can’t confirm that at the moment because Mint’s investment page won’t load.) But for my limited expense-tracking needs, it functions well enough most of the time.

And then there’s the other four times a year, when I need to edit a Mint Web address to work around its bizarre inability to search transactions by date. Yes, to see only transactions for the second quarter of 2019, I need to edit this page URL:

https://mint.intuit.com/transaction.event

This address will cause Mint to show just Q2 transactions:

https://wwws.mint.com/transaction.event?startDate=04/01/2019&endDate=06/30/2019

Then I can search for those tagged as “Freelance journalism,” download the results as a .csv file, and import that into the Google spreadsheet I use to track my expenses.

There, I still need to piece apart payments, reimbursements and different categories of expenses. But in general I’m only looking at half an hour of copying and pasting to know how I made my money and where I spent it–assuming I didn’t forget to tag a transaction in Mint, which has happened more than once.

Whether the results make me happy is another thing entirely. In this case, my problem is a June that fell between too many clients’ payment timetables and also suffered from a snakebit May for story pitches… well, let’s just say the resulting paltry income might suggest that I got a lot more done around the house than I actually did.

Fortunately, I had two large checks arrive in the mail July 1, so Q3 is off to a fine start. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now.

A small consumer victory: exercising a Chase credit card’s trip-delay coverage

I got a giant financial firm to treat me to a nice dinner and a reasonably comfortable hotel room, and I only had to ask once.

But that is what Chase promised with the trip-delay coverage on the credit card I use for business (and also offered on the Sapphire Reserve card carried by almost every avgeek I know). I’d just never cashed in this feature before, and I’d thought they’d make the process a little more difficult.

Should you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s how it worked.

Step one: Miss a flight. In my case, a line of afternoon thunderstorms shut down the airport in San Antonio as I was heading home from covering the Geoint Symposium conference there. That ensured I’d miss my evening flight from Houston back to National Airport and would instead have to fly home the next morning (my thanks to the helpful SAT United Club agents for getting me a spot on the first flight to DCA when only first-class seats were left).

Step two: Pay for what you need. First I got dinner–I treated myself a little at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in terminal E–and then I booked myself a hotel. Knowing I could get that covered, I didn’t stress over my choices and chose the closest decent option Marriott’s app listed, a SpringHill Suites just outside the airport with free shuttle service to and from IAH. Having all these on the same card as my flight simplified things, but that’s also basic business accounting.

Step three: Get documentation. Keeping receipts for dinner and lodging was obvious, but trip-delay coverage also demands verification that you got those bonus hours away from home. At United, this involved sending an e-mail to delayletter@united.com requesting confirmation of my missed connection; two days later, an airline rep e-mailed a PDF outlining what weather did to my itinerary.

Step four: File your claim. After I got home and read One Mile At A Time blogger Ben Schlappig’s recap of exercising his own trip-delay coverage, I opened a claim at the Eclaims site that Chase employs. There, I plugged in the basic details of my travel–original flights, replacement flight, total resulting expenses–and uploaded PDFs of my dinner receipts (I scanned in both the itemized check and signed total), original flight booking receipt, hotel bill and United delay letter.

Step five: Wait for compensation. Nine business days after I submitted the claim, I got an e-mail reporting approval of it. The money should be in my bank account in three to five business days, which means I’ll have it before I need to pay off the credit-card balance.

That made me a satisfied customer… and one wishing I could jump into a time machine to tell myself to exercise this protection right after 2015’s weather-induced IAH overnight instead of waiting until after Chase’s 60-day window to claim my coverage had closed.

Okay, so I am on Patreon now

I launched a Patreon page Monday night, and as I write this, it’s attracted zero supporters. Which means it’s performing as expected—this post is my first attempt to publicize my experiment at this crowdfunding site.

I’ve been thinking of experimenting there since having more than a few people at the XOXO conference in Portland last October suggest I try it myself. Spending too much time checking out how creative types I trust use Patreon and some conversations with two of them (thanks, Glenn Fleishman and Mike Masnick) advanced those thoughts further.

But it took an expiration date to get me to proceed—11:59 a.m. Monday was my last shot at launching a page under more favorable terms than those now on offer under Patreon’s tiered membership structure.

I am cautiously optimistic about how my page could work. I think the value proposition I offer—depending on what tier you pay for, you get content not available elsewhere and, more important, increasing access to my time—is both a fair trade and a reasonable way for me to monetize the scarcest thing in my daily routine, my attention. I also like the idea of having a bit of a sandbox to play in; while I’ve committed to write some patron-only posts and set up a Slack channel, maybe I’ll try doing short podcasts there? There’s nobody to stop me.

But it’s also possible that nobody will support me, and that other people will then point and laugh. That might be chickenshit of them. But it would certainly be chickenshit of me not to try this, not when there are so many things going wrong with the business of journalism.

My own business seems fundamentally sound—at least compared to the cratering existence Jacob Silverman describes in a soul-crushing article at the New Republic. But there’s no such thing as a permanent freelance client, and I would very much like to be less beholden to the tastes, schedules and budgets of my various editors.

So if what I have on offer to patrons strikes you as a good deal, I would very much appreciate your support. And maybe if everything goes well, this new venture will at least make enough to recoup the cost of the XOXO trip that lodged this foolish idea in my head.

Ugh, Washington Gas is the worst at customer experience

We got a message on our home phone yesterday from Washington Gas, and even by voicemail standards of annoyingness it was unhelpful: “We value you as a customer. Please contact us for an important message.”

Right, I’m going to listen to a voicemail and call a company back in 2019 to get a message that it could just put in my account online. Unfortunately, that is not at all out of character for how the D.C. area’s gas utility operates. Even when its customer site hasn’t been in the grip of a relaunch meltdown that left me unable to login for weeks, it’s mainly functioned as an exhibit of how not to run a payment portal.

The single biggest failing here comes if you choose to pay your bill via credit card–as you absolutely should, since there’s no surcharge compared to a bank deposit and you can make 2 percent cash back on each payment via a Citi Double Cash card. (I will set aside for now the fact that we’ve just had to get this card replaced for the third time in four years after some joker tried to make yet another fraudulent purchase on our number.) But clicking the button to pay via credit yields a dialog from the previous century: “A popup blocker is currently enabled. Please switch this to disable for Credit Card payment to function.”

Fortunately, you can disable pop-up blocking for a specific site in Chrome and Safari. Doing so will allow the Washington Gas page to launch a full-screen page from a service called Kubra EZ-Pay. EZ, this experience is not so much: It breaks the entry of your credit-card across two screens, which seems to stop Google Pay from auto-filling the second one, then asks for a phone number and e-mail when neither should be necessary in this transaction.

It’s all a pain, yet I keep taking this payment option because I don’t want to give Washington Gas the satisfaction of knowing that I gave up a 2 percent return because of its janky user interface. The only problem is that because I can’t automate a credit-card payment, I sometimes forget about this bill… which is what I suspect that call was about, not that the Washington Gas payment portal had any message of its own following up on the call.

Tax-time thoughts, 2019 edition

It looks like we didn’t get crushed by taxes this year, even if we did owe money to the IRS. That’s nice, since we skipped the one step we were supposed to take to avoid an April 15 financial hit.

2018 Form 1040I knew going into filing season that last year’s tax changes (I prefer not to call them “reform,” as that suggests progress unsupported by the evidence) would slash our deductions. In the bargain, I’d get a 20 percent break on my self-employment income, what the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 calls the Qualified Business Income Deduction; our rates would drop somewhat; and we’d lose personal exemptions but gain a child tax credit.

Which ones would outweigh the others? It appears that the rate cuts and the self-employment break made the bigger difference, leaving us paying just over 20 percent on our taxable income compared to the 24 percent we paid on a lower taxable income last year. And that’s even though my spouse did not adjust her tax withholding as recommended.

But without the self-employment deduction–be advised that tax accounting is not exactly one of my core competencies–it looks like we would have paid a higher rate.

(No, I won’t provide raw totals. I also use verbs like “appears” because once again, I filed for an extension: I caught some dumb oversights in last year’s return that should slightly lower our bill, but I won’t finish filing until that amended return clears.)

After spending seven years dealing with a tax code that treats self-employment as something to be fined, it’s nice to get a break for it instead. But I also know that the tax code continues to favor investment income over money made from actual work, I continue to resent how it’s gamed by people with the really good accountants and tax lawyers, and I can’t ignore that the tax savings delivered by this rushed bill are paid for by running up the national debt and having the lower rates expire after 2025.

Sorry, politicians: You’re not going to be able to bribe me this way. You know what sort of new tax regime would get my interest? One that didn’t keep me wondering how much we’d owe until I’d pounded through hours of punching numbers into a tax-prep program.