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.

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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.

Bookmarks for a Web privacy tune-up

I talked at length about privacy when I spoke this morning at the Washington Apple Pi user group’s general meeting–but I realized halfway through that I was keeping too much documentation to myself. As in, I hadn’t remembered to put together a set of links for the privacy settings I discussed.

That’s where this post comes in.

Ad preferences: If you don’t want giant Web platforms to target you with ads based on your browsing history–or if you want to correct some inaccurate targeting–these settings will let you do that.

  • At Amazon, selecting “Do Not Personalize Ads from Amazon for this Internet Browser” will stop the retailer from retargeting you across the Web with reminders of things you searched for. But you’ll have to remember to adjust this in every browser in which you shop at Amazon.
  • Facebook provides more control, allowing you to set “Ads based on data from partners” and “Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere” to “Not allowed.” You can also see what interests Facebook thinks you have and check which advertisers and businesses have targeted you on the social network with their own uploaded contact lists.
  • At Google, you can see what interests the Web giant has discerned in you and opt out of its ad personalization; taking that step will reward you with the image of the sleeping robot shown above.

Tracking protection: If you use Apple’s Safari, you’re already protected from ad networks’ attempts to follow you around the Web to build a model of your interests. New installs of Mozilla Firefox include a comparable level of default tracking protection, as I wrote at USA Today two weeks ago, but you may need to change these settings yourself. Select “Content Blocking” from the menu, click “Custom” and set it to block trackers “Only in Private Windows” and block only cookies identified as “Third-party trackers.”

You may also want to install the Facebook Container extension to shut down Facebook’s attempts to track you on other sites, although I’m not totally clear on what this adds over the newest tracking protection.

Limit Google’s memory: While Google’s ability to remind you of where you’ve been can be useful, that doesn’t mean it should have unrestricted access to that information. Fortunately, you can now set Google to automatically erase your Web and app activity after three or 18 months. You can also take advantage of the lesser-known of option of setting a sync passphrase for your copies of Google Chrome that will encrypt your browsing history, leaving Google unable to use that data in building a profile of your interests.

TV-shopping bookmarks for cord-cutters

I had yet another story about how to watch baseball games online this week, which meant I had yet another round of checking the sites of streaming-TV services to see which regional sports networks they carry in various places.

That should be easy, but some of these “over the top” video providers don’t let you do this right on their home page. They may not even link to the relevant channel-finder page from anyplace obvious, and in one case a channel-finder feature lurks on a tech-support page.

So I had to open last year’s version of this cord-cutting story to find all the links I’d gathered then. To save me from having to do that again, and to spare you from some extra clicking around, here are those local-channel-lookup links:

DirecTV Now

FuboTV

Hulu with Live TV

PlayStation Vue

Sling TV

YouTube TV

You’re welcome. As a bonus, two more links:

• The Streamable put together a chart showing which services carry the regional sports networks of which baseball teams, which would have saved me a ton of time in researching my own post if only I’d known about it at the time.

•  CNet’s David Katzmaier put together an enormous Google spreadsheet showing which services carry which TV networks (the big four of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC plus MyTV and the CW, with PBS stations remaining absent) in more than 200 TV markets. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since August of 2018… but I can’t blame the authors for not diving back into what must have been an exhausting effort.

Two sides of airline customer support

My trip home from SXSW Wednesday started with my first of two flights getting delayed by at least two hours, ensuring that I’d miss my connection in Houston–and I never worried about getting home that day.

That was because I had some of the best possible support in my corner: the agents at the United Club in Austin. Within minutes of the United app warning of a delay for my AUS-IAH flight–and the FlightAware site showing not just a delay, but the inbound plane for my flight returning to Houston instead of battling through a line of storms–they started lining up alternatives.

First they booked me on a 2:20 p.m. flight from Houston to Dulles, then they put me on standby on a 12:15 nonstop from Austin to Dulles. And after I asked about options in case my delayed AUS-IAH flight got off the ground even later and said I’d be fine flying into National instead of Dulles, they protected me on a late-afternoon IAH-DCA flight.

In the end, we got out of AUS a little after noon, allowing me to make that 2:20 flight to Dulles. My upgrade even cleared on both flights–something that hadn’t happened on a domestic flight since September.

That’s exactly the kind of help I’ve gotten at United Clubs the one or two times a year I have an itinerary go sideways. The agents behind the desks there are empowered to fix problems and bend rules if needed, and they seem to enjoy the challenge. As View From the Wing blogger Gary Leff regularly reminds readers, it’s that level of assistance–not the free cheese cubes and prosecco–that justifies the expense of a lounge membership.

(The cost for me is $450 a year, the annual fee for the lounge-membership-included United credit card I use for my business. I recoup most or all of that cost each year by using the extra frequent-flyer miles the card generates on free tickets for my family.)

Feb. 22, my brother had an entirely different experience on United. A late-arriving crew delayed he and his family’s flight from San Diego to Dulles, ensuring they’d miss their connection home to Boston. He has no status or club membership with UA, so he could only call the regular United line. From John’s accounts, this was pretty terrible all around; were he on Twitter, some epic Airline Twitter would have resulted.

With none of the next day’s flights from IAD to BOS offering four seats open, United’s phone rep tried to ticket them on American. But apparently that didn’t take in AA’s system, and it took much longer for the rep to rebook the four of them on Delta–from DCA to LGA to BOS. The process took long enough that John was still on the phone when I landed in Brussels on my way to Barcelona–so I texted him from the lounge there and called United’s 1K line myself to make sure they’d fixed his reservation.

John and co. did finally get home that Saturday, and at least they could stay at my house Friday night for free. But his treatment didn’t make him want to fly United again, while mine did.

Unfortunately, a lounge membership doesn’t make financial sense unless your travel patterns justify consolidating your travel on one airline and building status there. So I can’t endorse that for everyone. Instead, I will repeat an earlier endorsement: FlightAware really is great for tracking the status of an inbound aircraft, and you should never take an airline’s word for your flight’s departure time until you check it there first.

My least-replicable travel hack: an Irish passport

Thursday, I wrapped up another trip to Europe that left me with zero passport stamps. I haven’t gotten any coming home since my Global Entry subscription kicked in five years ago, but I also haven’t picked up any arriving in the European Union since the spring of 2017.

That’s when I started traveling to the EU with an Irish passport. The backstory: As I’ve mentioned here before, my grandmother was born in Ireland, which qualifies me for Irish citizenship–and my parents did the extensive paperwork to secure that so I could work in my dad’s office in Paris in 1991 without getting a work visa.

The passport I got then expired after a few years of my using it only as an ID at bars on St. Patrick’s Day (bouncers were uniformly unimpressed), and I didn’t think further about it until being in Europe in November of 2016.

No, Trump’s election alone didn’t drive me to get a new Irish passport. The dreadful non-EU passport lines I saw at Lisbon’s airport did–on top of the even-worse ones I sweated out in Paris that summer.

Renewing a citizenship document that far out of date took exponentially longer than I expected. The post office somehow lost the certified letter with all the required documents–starting with my birth certificate and Irish foreign birth registration–for a few long weeks, leaving me worried that I’d wind up undocumented in two countries. But that envelope finally made its way to the embassy on Sheridan Circle in D.C., and at the end of April I had a passport in burgundy as well as one in blue.

The time savings since then have been enormous in some places. In Paris and Lisbon, I’ve easily dodged 40-minute waits; at Heathrow last summer, my wife and our daughter got to share this EU-citizenship benefit, avoiding what looked like an hour-plus queue for the “All Passports” desks.

At better-run airports like Barcelona, Brussels, and Munich, this passport has only yielded a few minutes that I could spend in a lounge instead of on a line–plus the robotic experience of having my passport read at an electronic gate instead of by a person–but that’s still quality time. In all cases, my Irish passport has gone unstamped, as per EU policy.

It’s not like I get a choice: I have to use an EU passport when entering and leaving the EU, just as I have to use my American passport when returning to the States.

(Yes, the Feds know about my international alter ego. I stopped by the Global Entry office in the Reagan Building not long after getting this passport to have it added to my file.)

There is, however, one country where I’ve yet to derive any benefit from my Irish passport: Ireland. Shamefully enough, I haven’t been back since Web Summit in 2015, and I should do something about that.

Why has Google News gotten so useless?

The one thing you should be able to count on Google doing–with robotic if not remorseless consistency–is finding things on the Web. But the Google News site it launched in 2006 keeps going from useless to more useless as successive redesigns purport to improve it, and I’m giving up on asking why.

First, sometime in the second half of 2017, the desktop version quietly dropped the “Search Tools” menu that lets you search by date. That right there is a dealbreaker in any newsroom: If you want to know which publication got to a story first, you must be able to limit your query to articles posted before a day, month and year.

Then Google’s mobile and desktop searches started not matching–at all.

Later, the mobile version of Google News went on the same feature-starvation diet as the desktop edition, leaving it just as woeful in everyday use.

More recently, Google News has stopped showing snippets of stories, as you can see in the first screengrab here. It only offers headlines–which, now that search-engine optimization has boiled much of the creativity out of that exercise in compressed prose, may not even be that fun to read.

The crazy thing is that you start a Google search at the company’s home page, then click or tap the “News” tab atop your first results for ad-free, news-only results, you will get the old version of Google News. That still lets you focus a query by date, still provides a preview of a story’s text, and still doesn’t make me long for the metadata that I’d get in an analog, paper-based library.

So why does Google foist this impostor news-search site on us and insist that we click to a second page to access a functional version of it? I have no idea. I’ve tweeted about this too often, including tagging Google’s news v.p. Richard Gingras, and I’ve personally lobbied Googlers (most recently at last year’s Online News Association conference) to fix the damn site, but nothing has changed.

I’m left to think that Google just doesn’t care to make a news-search site that journalists–or any involved citizen–would want to use. So I’ve been increasingly leaning on Microsoft’s Bing News, which does offer the minimum-viable-product functions of a date-limited search and story-snippet previews. I suggest you go and do likewise.