Monday, June 19, 2017

Credit card churning, level 2

Ok, here the main game is:
- get a card with a sweet bonus
- meet the Minimum Spend
- get some bonus points
- downgrade it at the end of your first year
Who can do this? Anyone who can get approved for sweet credit cards. (if you can't get approved, then get some less-prestigious credit cards with no fees, use them for a while, always pay them off, and eventually your credit rating will be better and you'll get approved.
You might not want to do this if you're buying a house soon - it'll ding your credit just a bit. But that wears off.

1. Get a card with a sweet bonus.
You're looking for, ideally, 30-50k points/miles, and annual fee waived for the first year. Some of these that I've done include:
Barclay AAdvantage Aviator Red
Barclaycard Arrival Plus
Capital One Visa Signature
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Chase IHG Rewards Club
Chase MileagePlus Explorer
Citi ThankYou Premier
Citi American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum Select

Maybe check r/churning to see what's popular now. Sometimes there are particularly good deals (like the MileagePlus Explorer is usually 30k miles but sometimes 50k), so try to jump on those. The Chase Sapphire Reserved was even 100,000 miles when it first came out! 100k deals usually don't last long, though. If I see a 100k I'll jump on it; and usually a 50k is worth it too.
Note that, to me, hotel miles are worth about half of airline miles. So if you're looking at a hotel card, try cutting those values in half.

Ideally this will be in an airline/hotel you want to use, or use often, or a convertible rewards program. For example, Tati and I had our wedding planned at an IHG hotel in Pittsburgh, so I used the IHG points I got from this thing to book us some free rooms. And I fly United a lot, so those miles will get used.
Convertible rewards programs are stuff like Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi ThankYou. These are points that you can convert into specific airline/hotel miles, or sometimes use them for other things too.

2. Meet the Minimum Spend
All these deals will have some kind of minimum spend to get the big bonus, like "50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3000 in the first 3 months." Just start using the card for everything. If you wouldn't end up spending that much in 3 months, there are ways to spend a small fee to "buy" points - just look up "manufactured spend" on r/churning. For this reason, I usually don't churn more than one card at a time - it can be hard to meet the MS on all of them.

3. Get the points
They'll usually automatically post with little fanfare, and it's not usually as soon as you meet the minimum spend, so you might have to check on it a little bit.

4. Downgrade at 1 year
The CC companies are trying to get you to start paying the annual fee (after they waive it for the first year). You just have to remember to "downgrade" your card - roughly, trade it in for a "lesser" card with no annual fee. Like, I traded an AAdvantage Platinum Select ($90ish fee) for an AAdvantage Bronze (no fee). Course, the AAdvantage Bronze has no big perks... but that's ok, because at this point, you stick it in a drawer and don't really use it for anything.

To do this, just call them, at the number on the card or wherever. Ask them to downgrade this account to a no-fee card. They are usually more than happy to help. They'll often have a bunch of different ones - it doesn't matter which one you pick, because you're not going to use it anyway. You can usually do this a little after the 1 year mark; then they'll refund your annual fee. Sometimes they'll let you do it before 1 year.

An added benefit of this is you now have more credit available to you, which improves your credit score. If they won't downgrade your card, you could always just close the account. But I think I've only had that happen once.

Total benefit: ~50k points, up to 3-4 times a year. 1 point is worth roughly $0.01, so we're talking ~$500 each time.
Total cost: $0.
Total effort: well, nonzero. But it's not terribly a lot of work.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Credit card churning, level 0 and 1

Sometimes I play the credit cards game, to get a little bit of bonuses without paying money. I'm a pretty-inactive member of Many friends have asked me "if I don't want to think about it and just get a decent bit of credit card rewards what should I get?" Basically, what's the 80/20?

I tried to check /r/churning, but it's an insane mess, I think mostly because this question is complicated, because obviously that's the CC companies' game. Nobody will just make a card that is Strictly The Best, because they're all grabbing the tiny percent of edge from people who aren't quite using their cards to the max potential. So, everyone in /r/churning is trying to figure out how they particularly can get a tiny percent of edge because they always fly Delta or buy a lot of groceries or something. And it's the kind of nerds who love to get a tiny bit of edge.

So for me, there are a lot of answers, and I feel like I should have a good canned one. It depends on a lot. Let me tell you a few of your options, depending on how much you want to spend:
- Level 0: 40/1/$0. 40% of the benefits for 1% of the work and 0 dollars.
- Level 1: 60/1/$100. 60% of the benefits for 1% of the work and $100/year ish.
- Level 2: 80/20/$100. 80% of the benefits for 20% of the work and $100/year ish.
- Level 3 and beyond: beats me. I think I'm at about level 2.

Level 0:

At this level, you basically never want to think about which credit card you have. I think that for you the Chase Freedom Unlimited is the way to go. Click a link here: (or if it's later than about July 2017, search for the new Freedom Unlimited Referral Thread)
Simple 1.5% cash back on everything, and $150 signup bonus. And Chase's web site is not as terrible as some others.
(I think this because I feel like I've heard about it on forums sometimes. so, confidence about 70%. also, I gave you the /r/churning link, b/c if you click someone's link there, they get $100 referral bonus, which doesn't hurt. I would give you my own referral link but I don't have a Freedom Unlimited so I can't, unfortunately.)

Level 1:

Here, you basically never want to think about which credit card you have but you are willing to spend about $100/year on it. Two options, and they both give you Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which you can redeem for a bunch of different mileage programs, or Amazon or whatever. They are pretty good points. Plus, on either of these, you'll get 50k bonus points after you spend $4k within the first 3 months - so get the card then use it as much as possible within that time frame.

Chase Sapphire Reserved

$450/year, but $300 of travel expenses (planes, hotels, airbnbs, etc) gets automatically refunded. So if you're using it, and you travel, it's effectively $150/year. Gives you a bunch of points and some other travelly benefits (some lounge access, reimbursement for TSA Global Entry).
(More info on this card, and the difference between it and Preferred.) No referral link for this one, but you can get there on that "more info" link.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

$95/year after the first year, gives you almost as many points. Good in-between if you don't want to spend quite $150, or if you don't think you'll spend $300 on travel in a year. Apply here (my personal referral link).

Just get one of these cards and then use it for everything. Then one day you will have a ton of points and you can book a flight or something.
(boy, this sounds like I'm paid by Chase, doesn't it? I mean, I'm not. They just do tend to have the best points for most people. Note that if you have an airline you fly a lot, especially Southwest, you might want to get the card for that airline instead, as long as it has a 30k or more point signup bonus.)

Level 2

I'm gonna leave this part of the guide for another day.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

fighting with the neural networks for very good jokes

I feel like neural network humor has gotten really good. This Tumblr seems to be the epicenter. Pokemon recipes paint D&D superheroes
wait, superheroes

Recently, in a silly mood, Tati and I came up with my own list of nonsense superheroes. They feel like they're in the same direction; this sort of uncanny valley of mostly following rules of normal logic, but not entirely.

Good King Wenceslas and Rice Dog
Wilson Trucker
Old Tom and his letters
The Knife Police
Red Skuldugger
Fastfood Wasteland
Church Guy Dot Com
Captain Franklefort
Roy Soulfish
Grape Dude
Wanda Pyramid
Kenny Growup
The Amazing Bat
Hurta Fly
Rock Dog
False Poster Boy
Westin Smasher
Murdu Man
Coconut Head
The Insatiable Dod
Donor 2 Drugs
Fashion Electric World Capt.
The Welsh Strider
Pop Brix
Vinnie Bitsandbeans
Dutch Melly
Iron Ludwig
Maniac Korliss
Sudan Stan
Guy You Got In Your Neighborhood
The Pharaoh Clooney

While we were at it, we came up with some names for a baby. (No, we're not having one. We just thought these should be available as a public service; feel free to take them for your own kid.)

But... not as good? I kinda want to Mechanical Turk test these, and see if I can humor better than a neural net. I'm not sure if I want to win or lose.

I'll leave you with a fairly dada short story:
Wandering underhill the goat farmer and his steel drum band. Lions escape faculty oversight while withdrawing from formal scrutiny. Yellow lollipop stick upended in a raised ball of fruit. Within the normal force field lies a smarmy alliaceous ball. Next to a frigid sound man, King Walrus rests upon his laurels. Beside him, the trained eye can spot kestrels yawning at the prospect of unparalleled masculinity. Feverishly sorted and left out to dry. What if by some strange stroke of luck, it so happened that a barreling freight train of good humor wound up dead? I don't know that we could stomach the loss. Later, now, the raven winds its way towards its everlasting home. You can't blame it. But under the watchful eye of the beholder, grains wilt and lie prostrate on the floor. An eager grammarian. Let yourself explore the expanse available to you; buy me an ogre. Willis had a necktie, and shouldn't we all? Fair to say, you won't find the Italian Mafia around this bean corn stand.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Changing your mind, takers, conformity, pirates and gold, concentration

"I Changed My Mind" award
I feel like, in online arguments, the thing I most admire is when people change their mind in the face of better evidence. And yet, sometimes that's seen as evidence that you were wrong, and therefore you "lost." F that. You should get an award for changing your mind.
See also: when you're meditating, and you realize your mind was wandering, you don't say "stupid mind! you're so bad! I am bad!" you say "hey, I found my mind again! awesome, welcome back!"

F'ing Takers
A bit of Magic slang, maybe, or that's where I got it at least: "taker." Someone who rules-lawyers or otherwise does whatever they can to get ahead, at the expense of being nice or the game being fun. Like, what they're doing is legal, but it sucks.

Why I bring it up (tl;dr: small-time landlord woes, you can skip this section, basically the landlord's a Taker): when we rented our apartment, we were offered it for $3150/month including garage, or $3000 without. We said, ok, we'll take the garage, it's good for storage and bikes. I think the renting agent (call him E) said "sure, that's fine." (it might have been our agent. I think it was E.) The landlord, A, has been a shadowy figure to whom our money goes. A month after we moved in, they hired a property manager, K, so A doesn't have to deal with us anymore. K basically parrots whatever A says. They had to do some seismic retrofitting in the garages, A noticed that some people were storing things and not cars in the garages, A gets worried, A tells K to tell us that no "storage" is allowed in the garages. We say, wtf, we rented it with a garage for storage! K says "well, let's check your lease", and sure enough, it says "no storage." And like, I know, get everything in writing, I goofed, I tried to check every other dang thing, but I guess I missed this one. So we say "Ok, K, we'll give the garage back. It's now worth $275/month on the open market in our neighborhood, so how about you give us $200/month off our rent? That gives you a nice little profit margin to re-rent it." A counters with "you can have $50/month off" and won't budge. Even to $150, the original price of the garage.

Letter of the law, A is right! She got us good! We're really not entitled to anything here, because by the rules of the game we mistakenly agreed to something dumb. But come on, can we be reasonably nice here? I'm sure some of you are rolling your eyes here: you want your landlord to "play nice"? That's like asking a rules-lawyer to ask you to take back that mistake you just made a half second ago. Of course you're not entitled to it.

Or, to put it another way: we work in different modes. When you're programming a computer, everything is letter-of-the-law. But when you're paying for your food at a restaurant, there's people involved, so you switch to a slightly different register in order to recognize the humanity of everyone there. (I mean, you tip, at least.) Life is better when you're not going to court over every last minor gripe. And that only requires everyone to be just a little bit not-a-Taker.

Scarcity Breeds Conformity
One response to our landlord being a Taker is to say, bye, we're renting from someone else. Sadly, we're in a scarce market. (I could go on about how SF housing policy is terrible, but that's another conversation.) So we're encouraged to just suck it up. Now, one thing I liked using the garage for was building bikes. I was learning a skill, having fun, doing something productive and creative. Now I can't use the garage for that. I guess I better just go to work and come home and drink beer and watch Netflix. (but not too loud.) Those are all within the rules. This is one argument for owning, and therefore for moving back to Pittsburgh. Hell, I think we're not even supposed to be hanging pictures on the walls. Ugh.

Chasing the "Pirates and Gold" High
When I was still deciding where to go to college, my friend Bill who was doing computer science at CMU sent me one of his homework assignments, from 15-251, "Great Theoretical Ideas in Computer Science." In it was the following problem:
"There's a pirate ship with 100 pirates, all ranked in fierceness from 1 to 100. Whenever they find gold, they distribute it like so: Pirate #1 proposes a distribution. (like, "10 gold pieces to everyone" or "I get all of it, you all get nothing", or whatever.) All the pirates vote yes or no. If at least half of the pirates vote yes, then they distribute the gold like that. But if more than half the pirates vote no, then they kill Pirate #1 and Pirate #2 gets to propose a distribution, and so on. The pirate just found a treasure chest with 1000 gold pieces, and you are Pirate #1. What distribution do you propose?"
You might think the answer is something like "10 gold to everyone", or "20 gold to the first 50 pirates, 0 gold to the last 50 pirates", or something, but there's actually a very clever solution that lets you, Pirate #1, keep about 95% of the gold. No spoilers (but if you're interested, I'll explain it).

This was awesome. And I thought, wait, you can do this for a job? That plus the little programming glee when something works made me think, yep, this is what I want to do.

Unfortunately, it's hard to get back to that high :-/ Software engineering is more quotidian. Usually you don't get too many "pirates and gold" problems. Think of it like building houses: Frank Lloyd Wright gets to build crazy houses over waterfalls and stuff, but most architects probably spend most of their days drawing up the same blueprints for the next McMansion. (Not to knock architects; I bet most of you would love to do Fallingwater but keep getting paid for dumb stuff. Apologies if that's not true.) Plus, most architects don't often, or ever, get the little hit of joy from screwing boards together.

Now, you can certainly go another direction, and go for Real World Impact instead of the fun programming puzzles. I think that'll serve you much better in the long run, and it's what I'm trying to do now, and what I've been trying to do for the last 5 years. I just wish someone had told me that ahead of time.

Imperceptibly Small Benefits
An idea I'm puzzling over involves social media, little hits of dopamine, and concentration. On one hand, concentratiophiles will tell you that each bit of social media you read will entrench this pattern of quick hits and no deep concentration. On the other hand, you learn stuff from all these little distractions? I could walk to the store, or I could walk to the store while listening to a podcast and pick up a lot of information about some topic I don't know about. (Or just listen to a funny thing and have fun.)

Both sides are adding up small benefits. I guess some anti-social-media person can probably concentrate way better than I can, and they might argue it's because of tiny practice times a million. Some super-social-media person, too, probably has a ton of friends, deep connections, and lots of knowledge about what's up in the world, because of tiny knowledge times a million.

Wish we could measure either of these claims so we'd have some kind of idea about the veracity and the size of both of them :-/

Monday, May 01, 2017

find a city, find myself a city to live in

two mostly-unrelated thoughts about cities:

1. when I was moving back to Pittsburgh, I thought about "the Aikido test": say I want to take up some new hobby, like Aikido; will I find a local community that I can do that with? can this city help me become who I consciously want to be?
I'm not sure that's the right way to think about it. a new test, call it the "Denver skier test": what will this city help me to unconsciously become? (I don't know if you can live in Denver/Colorado front range and not become a skier, at least a little bit.) Similarly, Seattle got me addicted to coffee, but also got me to ride bikes for 200 miles the first time, so that was nice. (I mean, the coffee's nice too.)

and what is San Francisco helping me unconsciously become?

2. why the hell is it always gentrification? why can there not be techy businesses without gentrification? is it just that "tech" is shorthand for "nouveau riche"? (the fact that Juicero is considered a tech company is evidence for this.) but even if that is so, why can't we do a couple things: why can't we have jobs that are not disappearing, grinding, or tech? why can't we tax the few that are feasting to cover the many who are famining? and why can't cities build up to accommodate the faminers as well as the feasters?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

There's an emotions-Wookiee riding shotgun in your head

We teach kids (intentionally or not) that they are a "self."

Let's leave aside the question of how to teach them that there is no "self" - what about teaching kids that they have two selves?

Specifically, there's the driver (which is the "you" who you think you are, the cold logical one) and the emotions passenger. They are constantly talking to you and affecting what you do - sometimes indirectly ("pull off at this exit, I'm hungry", "turn the AC onnnnn!!!", "I'm playing music now"), sometimes directly by grabbing the wheel. They are a large, powerful person, can overwhelm you if it comes to a fight, and are sometimes very wise; ultimately you're in charge, but the two of you are a team. I'm calling the passenger a Wookiee because Chewbacca seems to fit all of these pretty perfectly.

When you are born, they speak a different language than you. Your happiness, success, and sometimes survival depends on your ability to learn to communicate with them. This is what "emotional intelligence" and "soft skills" mean.

So many things, especially interpersonal conflicts, would be so much easier to explain if you had this framework. Instead of saying "I ____", replace that with "My emotions/Wookiee _____". Learn when to take the Wookiee's advice into account, and when they don't know what they're talking about. Learn when to tell the Wookiee to quiet down because you've got to drive for a while... and when to let the Wookiee win.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

A few short cranky thoughts

1. Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse. I'm enough of a hippie to think you should actually just pay them without measuring them. Or maybe measure them once per decade or something. I've never met an academic who was anything other than suuuuper driven. These aren't the people you need to be micromanaging.

2. Every time you say "just" (as in "just one thing" or "can you just do this for me"), an alarm bell should go off in your head. (kind of like the bell that should go off when you say "well, actually...") What it often sounds like you're saying is "I want you to do this thing, but I don't want to be indebted to you for it, so I will minimize it. I want it to be easy. I'm going to act like it's easy, even if it's not."

3. As your job gets more intelligible to outsiders, it gets easier to connect it to some values in your life. That is nice. Doing user research is often more intelligible than software engineering, and as a result, it's usually easier to say "yep, this will actually help people." However, it also means other people think they know how to do your job too. See also: bikeshedding.

4. In SF (/the Bay Area, and other large metro areas), you can have anything. Restaurants, bars, shops, coffee, parks, weather, theater, arts, interactive theater, escape rooms, talks, Burning Man hackery, etc. On the other hand, no one human can possibly take all that in, so it sometimes feels a little immature to live here. Like, you haven't figured out what you want and what you don't care about, so you just want it all. There's some maturity in knowing what things you want less than other people.
On the other other hand, you can't say "well, I only care about theater, so I'm going to move to Theater City." Fair point.