Monthly Archives: January 2013

A Year of Freelancing

I had previously written a 6 month retrospective of freelancing, and now that it has been a full year, it seems wise to re-evaluate. Generally, everything has been going swimmingly, and there’s not much news to report. However, a few things have changed:

Separating Business and Personal Logistics

While I was previously paying myself a flat monthly amount based on my budget, evaluating my personal finances was still confusing with the business income being tracked alongside my personal assets. I didn’t want months without business income to look like I had lost money, as long as I was able to pay myself from business savings and stay within my budget. As such, I’ve stopped including the business checking and savings account balances in my personal assets on Mint.com and wxBanker. Now all I see coming in each month is my payment to myself without large swings from inconsistent business income, and it is very straightforward to evaluate the sustainability of my personal finances.

I’ve also incorporated as an S Corporation (Michael Rooney Inc), as this allows significant income tax savings via disbursements, plus some great benefits including a medical reimbursement plan and a Simple IRA. Acting as a corporation also can make life easier for your clients, as corporation to corporation work doesn’t require them to file a 1099, and also makes it less likely that you could be reclassified as their employee by the IRS. Talk to your accountant to see if an S Corporation is right for you!

Finally, I’ve been heavily using Freshbooks.com to track time and set up automatic recurring invoices; I just input the hours each day, and Freshbooks handles sending the client a monthly invoice.

Time & Money

While my previous goal was to maintain my salaried income working ~20 hours per week and taking lots of vacation, I’ve found that this wasn’t a good fit for me for various reasons. First, my previous salary was an arbitrary amount, and I can thrive quite well on less while still maxing out a Roth IRA and having savings leftover. Second, I don’t feel a frequent need for vacation or “escape” as my current schedule feels very relaxed, especially as I can be pickier and choose the most enjoyable work when I need to find less of it. Right now, I’m able to comfortably support my budget with ~10-12 hours of work per week; anything extra is “work for work’s sake”.

Incubation and Recurring Income

A specific goal for this year is to develop a recurring stream of monthly income from clients and incubation projects. On the client side, this comes primarily from monthly hosting and support plans. These are currently accounting for about 15% of my monthly budget, and I’d ideally get this to 25% in this quarter.

I’ve also been spending some time on incubation projects with the goal of contributing beneficial software to the world, which can be optionally supported by small recurring donations of $3-$5 per month. I think it is really cool how a personal project with only 1,000 paying users at $5/mo would generate a very significant $60K/year.

I’d love to hear from others who have iterated on their self-employed life and made improvements, or from anyone with any suggestions or comments!

 

Why I’m Against Genetically Modified Foods

OR: Stop Defending GMOs Because You Love Science.

Recently I’ve noticed a lot of people frowning upon GM dissent, generally claiming that the science is sound and the food is not dangerous. However, the issues are significantly more complex, and saying GMOs are okay because they are perfectly safe to eat could be logically compared to saying that food made by slaves from stolen goods is okay simply because it is safe to eat; unfortunately, one merit does not cancel out other problems, regardless of how much we may love science.

A recent article I read on this subject criticized GM critics for being against science, while at the same time making large claims without citations, turning the argument into a straw man, and in general supporting itself with one man’s opinion. Excuse me, who is being unscientific here? Someone has to attempt to be rational, so I’ll give it my best shot. Keep in mind that what I’m not trying to say is that GMOs are inherently or theoretically bad; I’m proposing that the mainstream, industrial uses of them are actively harmful, and that supporting these in the supermarket contributes to this harm. Okay, here are a few of the main problems with GMOs at large scale as practiced today:

  1. A lack of genetic diversity is fragile and dangerous. All species need genetic diversity to survive, so when a disease or pest comes along, ideally some are naturally resistant and can repopulate. This isn’t just a theoretical “nice to have” for our crops. Lack of diversity is why the fruit we all know as a banana today is the inferior Cavendish variety, instead of what our grandparents knew as a tastier and less bruise-prone banana, the once-predominant “Gros Michel.” We lost that superior banana strain to Panama Disease, because all the plants were genetically identical and thus all prone to the disease. (Not surprisingly, a new strain of Panama Disease is now threatening the also genetically identical Cavendish.) On the other hand, genetic diversity is why we still have wine despite Phylloxera; not all vines were susceptible to the pest, and by their genetic grace, to this day vines are generally grafted onto rootstock of resistant varieties that allow them to survive. What’s going to happen when the next disease or pest hits a global GM staple? I chose this point first as I think it is a great example of why we need to consider not just the direct but also the indirect and long-term consequences of GMOs.
  2. The modified traits are anti-consumer. The modifications that I’ve read about are generally for improved yield or stronger crops, which might be helpful to a farmer, but isn’t a reason for me to be excited about it in a supermarket. This is especially true as these traits often come at the cost of pro-consumer traits: “Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly,” reported Davis, “but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.” As that article points out, the vitamin and mineral levels in industrially produced food have been dropping significantly due to the selection pressures of industrial agriculture. Another troubling example is engineering herbicide / pesticide tolerance into plants so that farmers can heavily spray their plants. This causes pesticide poisoning and birth defects in workers and their children, and contributes to coastal dead zones.
  3. The beneficial traits don’t even beat small-scale, organic farming. While it may seem that increased yields and stronger crops is great for feeding the starving people of the world, we should consider a few things. First, is this even true? Well, “data compiled by the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) shows that…in every single category, organic farming systems proved to be far more viable and sustainable than any conventional or GM system. Initiated back in 1981, Rodale’s FST is the longest running, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical agriculture that has ever been conducted in the US.” In other words, just because GM crops can improve the yield of industrial crops, doesn’t mean there isn’t a more efficient way. Second, are farms sending any supposed increased yields to starving children in poor countries? Or are they using these advantages at industrial scale to lower prices and push family farms out of business?

All that, and I didn’t even have to touch on the evils of Monsanto, which simply can’t be ignored when they potentially control 98% of the US soybean market and 79% of the US corn market.

Primarily, I see the problems with GMOs existing at the industrial scale, which is precisely where the pro-GM campaigning is taking place in politics (see for example the dramatic campaign outspending for Prop 37 by industry). If there are scientists doing good things with GM that can address the genetic diversity problem, I don’t see anything wrong with that. However, it seems very irrational — and well, unscientific — to pretend that sound theoretical science in isolation is reason to ignore real-world negative consequences in practice. The question when buying a GM food in a grocery store should not be “is the science behind this food cool?” but “does this purchase and everything that entails make the world a better place?”

Making Raw Almond Butter in the Spectra 11 Melanger

spectra-11bspectra-11-hardware

I somewhat recently acquired a melanger, which is a stone grinder used for chocolate making. It has a motor which turns a belt, which turns a stone base and two stone rollers. It takes things like cocoa beans (in the form of nibs) and ground nuts, and liquifies them into cocoa liquor and nut butters, respectively.

I couldn’t find that many resources online about how to make either of these things with it, so I experimented and came up with some things that work. Before I start, for anyone reading this who is sad that they don’t have a melanger, you can make very delicious nut butters in a food processor by just processing the nuts for 5-10 minutes. My small $25 4-cup Cuisinart has made countless cups of almond butter. The results will be different, however, as I’ll cover at the end.

Okay, back to the melanger. Here’s a recipe that will yield about 4 pounds of almond butter. Feel free to substitute almost any kind of nut; cashew, walnut, hazelnut, peanut, and many more will work.

  1. First, you’ll want to measure 4 pounds of almonds. I’ve found that if you use much more than 4 pounds, the process gets rather slow and you’re better off doing a second batch after removing the first one.For the almonds, feel free to use raw, pasteurized, roasted, salted, unsalted; whatever makes your almond dreams come true. I use unpasteurized almonds, which are only legally obtainable directly from the farmer in the US, because it makes me happy to do so. Generally I prefer unsalted things as well because then I can choose the salt myself (in this batch, applewood smoked sea salt).
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  2. Next, pulse them in a food processor (likely in ~30 second batches) until you end up with something mealy / flour-like in texture.
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  3. Put this into the melanger slowly, 2 cups at a time. Adding it any faster will likely cause the melanger to seize and you’ll have to take some out. When it becomes smooth and butter-like, it is time to add another 2 cups.
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  4. Add anything else you’d like. If you started with unsalted nuts, I’d recommend 1T or so salt (to taste, try smoked). You can also add fun things like flax and/or chia. For 4lbs of almonds, I’d use about 4oz of each added ingredient that you want. It’s done when you want it to be done. I like it creamy, and if you do too, wait for a little gloss (1 to 2 hours).
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  5. Unscrew the top, lift up the bowl, and pour it into your favorite container. Refrigerate and enjoy for a long time.
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    Garlic for scale.

So there you have it! For what it’s worth, my personal experiment resulted in a 90% yield, such that starting with 4 pounds of almonds resulted in 3.6 pounds ending up in the final container. However, this didn’t include all the almond butter I scraped off with my finger for tasting and before cleaning, which my stomach tells me was no small amount.

Now, someone who has made nut butters before would reasonably ask: why do this in an expensive device when I could just use a food processor (and had to use one anyway)? First, almond butter made in a melanger will be much creamier and smoother than almond butter made a food processor; a blade and a stone are two very different tools. Second, and related to the first, you can very uniformly integrate ingredients like the flax, chia, and sea salt that wouldn’t achieve a small and consistent particle size otherwise. Third, I already had the melanger for chocolate making :) (Also, while not a big sell for me, raw foodies enjoy that the temperature can easily be kept sufficiently low by pointing a fan into the device.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Free Travel: A Goal for 2013

I generally enjoy travel, but it can be rather expensive. After taking a Skillshare class on “travel hacks”, I’ve been able to accrue many reward points and learned how to use them more effectively. As such, I think it would be fun to see if I can do all my travel this year free of charge. I’ll use a few techniques:

  1. Eliminate lodging costs whenever possible. I’ve had fairly good luck with this last year, by staying with friends when visiting places where I know someone (a great way to catch up as well), or piggy-backing on others’ vacations where accommodations are already paid for. I’m very fortunate in this regard as my parents travel frequently and typically rent a suite to have a kitchen, and these almost always have a second bedroom or at least a pull-out couch. If you aren’t in this situation, something like couchsurfing.org or caretaker.org can provide free accommodation.
  2. Maximize credit card / reward points. There have been multiple credit card offers recently that, as a sign-up bonus, each give around $500 towards airfare, on any airline and flight you choose with no blackout dates. They don’t typically have any annual fees the first year and don’t require paying a cent of interest. They get you with the annual renewal fees, so just set a calendar reminder to cancel. While it may sound too good to be true, I’ve done a bunch of these over the past few years, and the game really works, without even hurting your credit. After signing up for two of these recently, I’ve now got about $1,000 banked, which will cover 2-4 round-trip flights. Airline credit cards can also be a great deal; I just booked a free round-trip flight to Key West using 25K Delta miles received as a sign-up bonus on their Skymiles card. As an extra bonus, you also get free checked bags, priority boarding, upgrades, and more. Finally, many of these points can be redeemed for cheaper modes of transit like Amtrak. For the 40,000 points from a Chase Sapphire, you could make 5 round-trips within the Northeast region, instead of 1-2 round-trip flights. Or you could cash it all in for a coast-to-coast sleeping train and see many parts of the country, as they allow you to get off, stay for a few hours (or days), and get back on the next train.
  3. Tack on vacation to business travel. If you ever go to conferences, meetings, or otherwise, that are paid by your company or client, book your flight to return a week or two later than usual. If it is the same price, I’ve never had anyone mind; often it can actually be cheaper as you can come back on a non-peak day of your choosing. Use credit card points or any technique in #1 to avoid lodging costs.

If you have any cheap travel techniques, please do share them!