Financial Preoccupations Insult My Intelligence

To close out this most materialistic season of the year, I would like to extend a helpful hint to all of you who are planning New Year’s parties:

Mother of Pearl spoons with sturgeon caviar an...

Mother of Pearl spoons with sturgeon caviar and salmon roe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You are wholly justified in worrying about what people will think about you if you do not put out expensive food.  After all, the party is designed to display your nonexistent wealth because that’s all your friends care about.  And they will never forget the deep fried caviar you serve up with tartar sauce to mask the slight char on the outside…

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Freshly Pressed Insults My Intelligence

(365+1)/365 - One Last Bright Idea

(Photo credit: djwtwo)

Here it is!  I have finally written the post that will explain how to improve your chances of being Freshly Pressed. Having recently noticed a blog being Freshly Pressed twice in four days, I was rather curious about how something so mathematically improbable could happen.  (In case you’re wondering, it was the Quartz blog.  One post covered the definition of cancer and the other dealt with Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post.)

I also noticed that the Quartz blog uses WordPress VIP, which means WordPress probably gets a lot of money from Quartz for various services.  I wondered to myself if VIP customers are permitted to buy a spot on Freshly Pressed.  I still wonder that.

This inspired me to perform a non-scientific study of the most recent 100 posts to be Freshly Pressed; this comes out to about 17 days’ worth.  I wanted to learn if a disproportionate number of selectees are paying for one WordPress upgrade or another.  I should warn you that there are limitations to this study: I could only count blogs that use VIP services, custom domain, custom design, or premium themes.  The other services and products WordPress sells are not immediately discernible from viewing a blog.  (I also failed to record one entry along the way, so I counted it in the “spends no money” category.  Because of how I collected data, this was almost certainly an accurate guess.)

And let me also remind everyone that WordPress is a business and therefore they would be justified in giving some extra preference to the people who keep their company afloat.  Those of us who spend no money are a financial liability to them.  Nevertheless, they advertise Freshly Pressed as something everyone can aspire to and they ought to be held to their word.

THE RESULTS:

Out of 100 blogs, 47 pay to use a custom domain.  Some of these may also pay for other upgrades; I didn’t check.  (Technically, there were 99 blogs because Quartz appeared twice.  However, I counted Quartz twice because they had two posts.)

Another 2 purchased the custom design upgrade.  (Overall, there may have been more than 2.)

Another 1 uses a premium theme.  (Overall, there may have been more than 1.)

Any VIP blogs in the lot were not noted because their custom domain already counted towards “pays money.”

According to these numbers…

WordPress is currently receiving (or has received) money from at least half of the last 100 Freshly Pressed inductees.  Although my study came out with an even 50-50 split, I would remind you that there are still VideoPress, Ad-Free, Guided Transfer, Redirect, and Extra Storage services that I could not account for.  Therefore, the percentage of Freshly Pressed inductees who are paying customers may be significantly above half.

It’s impossible to say with 100% certainty that there’s disproportional representation of paying customers on Freshly Pressed because we do not know what percent of bloggers purchase upgrades.  Based on anecdotal evidence, the 47% figure for custom domains seems awfully high, though.

So if you want to be Freshly Pressed, an effective first step might be to buy a custom domain.

And finally…

The tendency towards paying customers might partly explain why so many of us are often less than impressed with the results of browsing the Freshly Pressed selections.  (“Less than impressed” does not mean “we don’t like them.”  One can be impressed with something that does not suit one’s tastes.)

Facebook Insults My Intelligence

I don’t have a Facebook account and I don’t want one.  However, it amuses me to hear debates about how Facebook is destroying our privacy.

Let me explain: if you post things online and expect privacy, you probably don’t understand the internet very well.  If you put information out there, people will find it.  If you make your Facebook page (or blog or whatever) private, someone can still copy and paste anything you upload and post it elsewhere.

'No photos' tag at Wikimania

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Offline privacy has disappeared too.  A friend or family member can pop out a digital camera at any time and unwittingly shoot something that will get you fired or investigated or humiliated or divorced or disowned or sued or arrested or…

And then we’re all videotaped in gas stations and in parking lots and in department stores and even in department store dressing rooms.  Didn’t you ever notice the signs?

In addition, your employer or potential employer can require an investigative credit report.  This resembles a government background check, complete with interviews of friends, neighbors, landlords, coworkers, and other people you’ve known.  Even if you and your friends remain prudent enough to keep certain information “private,” your boss can monitor you even when there’s no technology around.

Therefore, asking for your Facebook password only expedites a process that your employer could pursue in other ways.

And as we all know, these investigations always reach accurate conclusions.  For example, the U.S. government found Edward Snowden trustworthy enough to be given its secrets after researching his past.  Now imagine how negative results could wrongly damage a person being investigated.  I’m sure it happens regularly.  Facebook, Google searches, and most of the rest seem like they would provide insufficient context for the isolated data they uncover…

Unless the combined surveillance records everything you say and do.

So how else do people violate our desires for privacy?

American Express Advertising Cards

(Photo credit: The.Comedian)

Let’s start with the sale of your personal information.  Do you ever wonder why you receive special credit card offers tailored to your specific interests, or catalogs from shops you’ve never heard of?  Using your credit or debit card creates a sellable record for both the merchant and the card company.  American Express constantly sends me credit card ads that advertise plane tickets as rewards.  I don’t have an AMEX account, so they had to learn of my love for travel from somewhere else.  I doubt it’s from following this month-old blog.

And then we have the less obvious sources of information insecurity.  Did you go to college?  Many universities sell alumni data to companies that are itching to know who might have the financial resources to afford the newest products.  If you use a cell phone or GPS, your location can be pinpointed at any time.  Web search engines can keep track of what you look for and so can your internet service provider.

The NSA also watches you.

And speaking of drones…

But I am not writing this post to defend Facebook.  The whole debate over privacy strikes me as a giant distraction.  Of all the ways you’re being monitored, Facebook represents the rare instance where it’s all your fault.   You volunteer all of the information you put there and you’ve had ample opportunity to discover the consequences in advance.  Moreover, you’re not depriving yourself of anything critical by not participating.

So why does Facebook insult my intelligence?  Aside from the bells and whistles people love, it constitutes little more than a tool for businesses to conduct market research.

Money

(Photo credit: Adrian Serghie)

Have you liked a product  on Facebook lately?  Maybe you voted for your favorite reality show contestant or participated in a company’s online contest.  Because you did that, the sponsoring companies now have all of your data without having to send out a bunch of questionnaires.  They can track who uses their product, who isn’t satisfied, who their marketing influences, and where else they should be advertising.

Facebook doesn’t have to sell your information to businesses.  You’re giving it away for free.

And when you like a product on Facebook, the business receives the best free advertising possible: praise by word of mouth.  Businesses are getting more of this than ever before.  If you have 300 “friends” and receive updates on all of their likes, you’re exposed to more advertising than TV could ever deliver.

But that’s not all!  The folks at Forbes noticed that explicit advertising on Facebook vastly exceeds what you’ll find on other popular sites.  Of course, Facebook gears this advertising to the demographic information and personal interests you shared with them.  It all comes full circle.

Big Brother isn’t watching you.  You’re watching him and you’re so entranced that he picks your pocket without you noticing.  He’s the movie of the century that all the cool kids have to see.

Needless to say, my friends and relatives have tried to convince me to join Facebook.  The reason they offer always resembles 5th grade logic: “everybody else is doing it!”  And if all of your friends jumped off a cliff, you might be depressed enough to jump too.  Fortunately, you can remain sane and happy by remembering the ever-present alternatives to jumping.  That’s true online and in life.

Last I checked, I was not a lemming.

Everybody belongs to everyone else now, and “everyone else” is businesses.  Fortunately, businesses are people too.

Oh, brave new world!  1984 was almost thirty years ago.

Bank of America Insults My Intelligence

It may sound strange, but I like to pay my credit card bills by phone.  There’s none of the risk associated with online banking and no need to remember to mail off a traditional paper payment.  That’s right, I’m so lazy that I’d rather spend extra time sitting around and navigating automated menus.

It wasn’t always like this.  Many years ago, my bank (Bank of America) tried to start charging people extra for paying by phone.  Hmmmm.  Paying by phone means that no one at their company has to sort mail from me, no one has to open my payment, check to see that it’s the right amount, verify that the check is signed, and no one has to enter my payment into a computer.  And they wanted to start charging me for this?

Ladies and gentlemen, it has become fashionable in recent years to demonize banks for their outlandish extra charges and questionable business practices.  I assure you that these problems are nothing new.

Since, presumably, the attempted fee turned people away from paying by phone, they got rid of the charge after a while.  So now I’m back to paying by phone, but there’s still some obnoxiousness to speak of.

When I call in and enter the payment system, they first thing they tell me is my balance, my minimum payment requirement, and my payment due date.  And then after a few more menus they offer me the opportunity to schedule the minimum payment, which would be transferred from my checking account on the due date.  (Remember, the less and later you pay, the more interest they rack up.)  Just press “1” and you’re all done!

Then there used to be a convenient pause (perhaps so you’d think there wasn’t another option?) before they give you the opportunity to change the amount and payment date.   And then they’re kind enough to offer an example of what it means to enter a payment amount using both dollars and cents.  Of course, the payment amount they use in the example is the minimum payment. Power of suggestion, I suppose, or maybe the bank assumes (correctly?) that some people will interpret the example as “I must enter 1-5-0-0.”

Then the system does the same thing with the example for how to enter a payment date.

But I suppose I should be thankful.  I received a self-congratulatory letter from the bank a few years back telling me that they were innovating their payment scheduling.  That’s right!  The payment deadline was now going to be the same day every month instead of being shuffled around all over the place.  (Translation: they were getting rid of another cheap moneymaking tactic.  If you were paying late because the deadline jumped around and you lost track, they got to charge a penalty!)

And then they have another “service” for me.  Would I like to schedule any payments up to twelve months in advance?  Um, no.  If I set the amount too low, I’ll have a bigger balance to pay interest on.  If I set the prepayment too high, the bank will have the extra money to earn interest off of.  And I won’t.

When a bank calls something a “service,” it’s usually more of a service to them than to you.

And now I’m done with my rant.  I think I’ll go feed the birds.

College Fundraisers Insult My Intelligence

I finished my bachelor’s at a public university that has been experiencing budgetary shortfalls in recent years.  I did my graduate work at a fabulously wealthy private university and I haven’t found a job yet.  Although the poorer university has more legitimate reasons to doggedly solicit potential donors in the spirit of eternal friendship, the people working there clearly possess common sense and behave themselves.  Today’s post is a tale of the latter school.

So, my friends at the University of Money’s development office come calling again (and again and again) seeking funds.    Even though I’m unemployed, they seem to have this strange idea that I’m somehow a potential large-sum donor who just needs to be reminded of his alma mater’s glory to make the dollars flow.

Love is in the air and all that crap.

And so I mention that my undergraduate institution provides superior job search assistance to alumni while the wealthy school offers virtually none.  I’m told that the career office is understaffed at wealthy university and I could swear that a lack of funds was implied.  But later, I’m supposed to be inspired by the multimillion dollar student activity building (or something like that) they just built.  The building, from that I can tell, is fun and sexy and that’s why it’s important.  Everybody’s happy now on campus and that should make me happy too, I suppose.  The conversation closes with her commenting that “at least you got a first-rate education.”

Well then, please, let me bounce you a check, o mighty University of Money.

After all, your minion got her script right.  She mentioned important programs that need more money (which, to me, reflects misplaced priorities in allocating funds), the luxurious new building (which seems frivolous to those of us without jobs or with huge student loans), and the quality of education (which she seems to have forgotten because she’s treating me like a moron).

But I digress.  What we have here is a fundraising professional (not a work-study student) whose job is to convince the unemployed that their money is more appropriately housed in the university’s overflowing coffers.   Let’s review: if I don’t have an income, where exactly does she expect the donation to come from?  And how did she get a job that requires at least a second grade understanding of finance? 

“Little Johnny has zero dollars.  If he gives Mrs. Davis six dollars, how many dollars does Little Johnny have left?”  You never saw that word problem in second grade because even second graders know it’s idiotic.