Here’s an app that would have been worth a low-key post on @wisebread. It has a “Denomination Detector” (maybe for people with impaired vision?) and highlights security features you can use to check that the note is genuine, including a “Tilt Check Simulator” that reveals how the security features of banknotes function when in motion.

Source: Cash Assist Mobile App | U.S. Currency Education Program

News reports and social media have been full of posts alleging that enhanced unemployment benefits make it more remunerative to remain unemployed than to seek a job, and that because of this employers are having trouble filling positions. I want to make some suggestions as to how those positions could be made sufficiently attractive to employees. I will omit the obvious suggestion that employers could raise wages, because that’s the least interesting tactic.

I want to begin my analysis by suggesting that there are actually very few people who will choose to live on meager government benefits, even if slightly less meager than usual. (There are some, of course. I wrote about that in Find Work Worth Doing, back in my Wise Bread days.) Most people prefer the live at the highest standard of living they can manage. In fact, most people build an inflexible household cost structure that provides that standard of living, despite the obvious risk of financial catastrophe in the event of any glitch in income. But that too leads one to the obvious, and still not very interesting, suggestion that employers could attract employees by raising wages.

So, what are some other possibilities? How could employers make hard-to-fill positions more attractive?

Well, every job I ever worked offered a pension. That’s something that almost no private-sector jobs offer any more, so it could be a clear value-add. Related, every job I ever worked offered a retirement savings plan with a generous employer match. That’s something that’s only come back slowly since the end of the financial crisis, but it’s another possible value-add for employers seeking employees.

When talking about things like this in the past (usually about the difficulty of getting Americans to work the sorts of jobs filled by migrant labor), I always asked if the positions being offered to Americans offered health insurance (which of course they never did), and suggested doing so could be a way to make the jobs more attractive to Americans. Now that we have Obamacare that’s much less of an issue, but offering health insurance would still be a value-add.

There are many other ways a job and workplace can be made more attractive:

  • The physical space can be made clean, safe, and pleasant.
  • Managers can be courteous, kind, and respectful.
  • The position can offer paths toward better jobs (promotions, training, mentorship, money for education).
  • Allowances can be made for employee needs, such as time off to care for children or elders.

I actually wrote this post though, to talk about one specific way in which unemployment assistance and other government benefits are better than a job: They depend on the law, rather than on the whim of an employer.

The current state of employment law in the U.S. is such that having a job this morning is no assurance of having a job this afternoon. Your employer can change nearly anything about the job for nearly any reason—cut your pay rate, cut your hours, change your duties, require you to work in a hazardous environment, etc. (Of course you have the option to quit at any time, but see above about inflexible household cost structures.)

Only a small fraction of households can afford to live on unemployment insurance, even with the pandemic enhancements—but any household could rejigger their household cost structure to do so, if they cared to. But—and this is the point I’m trying to make here—an employer could easily adjust the conditions of employment that they offer so as to provide exactly the sort of certainty to an employee that government benefits do: They could offer an employee a contract.

In the U.S. almost no (non-union) employees have a contract. Instead they have a job, the terms and conditions of which are usually determined by an employer-written “employee handbook,” which has rules about procedures the employer promises to follow before firing or otherwise disciplining an employee. But they could sign contracts with their employees, committing to such things as minimum hours and term of employment.

They won’t, because they prefer to have maximum flexibility in adjusting their labor costs as circumstances change. But refusing to offer employees any sort of legally enforceable promise about the conditions of employment, makes saying “Nobody wants to work any more” mere spin.

Many people do want to work, and enormous numbers of people want to earn enough money to have a high standard of living. Employers are just playing to the crowd, hoping to maximize their flexibility, minimize their costs, and convince customers to blame “lazy workers” when the company fails at various aspects of providing good service.

Here’s a quote from a good post on the difference between “feeling broke” and “being broke,” that also touches on tactics for getting by when you’re pretty close to that latter category—topics I wrote a lot about for Wise Bread.

What made me want to comment is a bit right near the beginning where the writer talks about the discontinuity in housing prices: Down to a certain price point you can pay a little less and get a little less space and slightly downgraded amenities, but there’s a breakpoint where that quits being true:

That’s the drop-off you experience at the lower price levels – there’s nothing between “This is a tiny but acceptable apartment” and “Slum apartments in stab-ville”.

On The Experience of Being Poor-ish, For People Who Aren’t – Resident Contrarian

The point I want to make is that this is only true in general. If you had to find 100 apartments that were cheaper-than-basic but not in a slum, you’d probably be out of luck. But unless your job is to find apartments for poor people, that doesn’t really matter. For your own household you only need to find one apartment that’s cheap but not in a slum, and across your city there’s probably several of those. (Maybe a small apartment building that’s not part of a complex, maybe a three-plex or four-plex, maybe a duplex owned by a retiree who is looking for a very low-maintenance tenant, maybe a big old house that was cut up into apartments, etc.)

The author is clearly aware of this—he goes into some detail on applying similar thinking to furniture (where you only need to get a great price on a great dining room table once and it’ll last the rest of your life). Applying it to apartments is different for various reasons (mostly having to do with urgency and risk—you can’t just wait indefinitely, because being homeless is different from eating off a TV tray table while you look for a great deal on a dining room table), but it’s not completely different.

For the first decade after my former employer closed the site where I’d worked, Jackie and I did a lot of that—looking to satisfy each need we had with one instance where we could get something of very high quality at an especially good price. It’s a tactic that works great, but only in a narrow range of circumstances. It’s not so good for people working long hours at a difficult job, because they lack the time and energy to do the search. It’s also not so good for people who are really broke (not just broke-ish), because these sorts of deals often require that you have cash on hand to close the deal immediately.

Here’s one of my old Wise Bread articles applying this thinking more broadly: How to have an above-average life for below-average prices.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

At some level, I’ve always understood deep work—the sort of work where you sit down and focus on your task for 20 or 60 or 90 minutes, long enough finish a difficult task, or make real headway on a big project.

Even when I was quite young I’d use it to get large amounts done on some big project I’d made for myself. Deep work let me create codes and ciphers for securely communicating with Richard Molenaar. It let me create maps of the wooded areas in our neighborhood where we’d play, and then assign fantasy or science-fictional elements to them. Once it let me write quite a bit of scripture for an imaginary religion. Deep work let me create maps and keys for D&D adventures I was going to be DM-ing.

I’ve never quit using deep work on my own projects. At Clarion writing a short story every week entailed a great deal of deep work. Writing an article for Wise Bread was best accomplished with an hour or so of deep work.

For other people’s work—in school, in college, and as an employee—I more often used it to enable procrastination: On any small or medium-sized project I knew I could sit down a couple of days before a task was due and crank through the whole thing in one or a few long sessions of focused work.

Given that it was such a useful capability, I’ve long thought it was kind of odd that I never really honed my capability for deep work. But through the lens of this book, I think I’m coming to understand it now.

I used to think it was because I was lazy. It was only when I quit working a regular job and started writing for Wise Bread that I came to understand that I was never particularly lazy. Rather, I just didn’t want to do stuff I didn’t want to do. Lacking that understanding I did a poor job of arranging my (work) life so that there was a lot of work I wanted to do and only a little that I didn’t want to do. Once I had work that I wanted to do, I jumped right into using deep work to get it done.

Although I take my full share of the blame for not doing a better job of maximizing the work that I wanted to do, my various former employers also deserve plenty of blame. They routinely deprived me and (most of) my coworkers the opportunity to engage in deep work.

First, they tended not to assign people a single top-priority task, but rather a set of tasks of shifting priority. (I don’t think they did it in order to be able to blame the worker when they focused on the tasks that turned out in retrospect not to be the right tasks, although that was a common result. Rather, they were just abdicating their responsibility to do their jobs as managers.)

Second, they were (especially during the last few years I was working a regular job) constantly interrupting people to ask for status updates. (One randomly timed query along the lines of “Are you going to have that bug fixed by Thursday?” which from the manager’s point of view only interrupted me for 20 seconds could easily undo 60 or even 90 minutes of stack backtrace analysis.)

At some level it was clear that the managers understood this, because there were always a few privileged engineers whose time for deep work was protected. The rest of us resorted to generating our own time for deep work by coming in early or staying late or finding a place to hide or working off-site—all strategies that worked, but not as well as just being able to close the door of our office and focus.

It wasn’t all bad management though. There were times when there was no external obstacle to doing deep work, and yet I’d not be highly productive. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve come to understand what was going on here: When I suffer from seasonal depression I find it very hard to do deep work. As a coping mechanism—as a way to keep my job when I couldn’t do the deep work they’d hired me to do—I started seeking out shallow work that I could manage to be productive on.

It’s from that perspective that I found Deep Work even more interesting than the book that lead me to Cal Newport’s work, his more recent Digital Minimalism (that I talked about briefly in my recent post on social media).

The first part of the book is about what deep work is and makes the case that it’s valuable—things that, as I said, I understood. The rest of the book is largely devoted to teaching you how to arrange your life to maximize your opportunities for bringing deep work to bear on the work you want to get done. That part, in bits and pieces, helped me understand myself in a way that I really hadn’t before.

Deep work is the way to get a big or difficult task done, but everybody has some small or easy tasks that also need to get done, so there is plenty of opportunity to make effective use of shallow work as well. Newport lays out the distinction well and provides some clear guidelines as to when and how to use shallow work to do those things where it makes sense, and in a way that protects time for deep work. He also talks about the appeal of shallow work—it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s “productive” in the sense that a large number of micro-tasks can be quickly ticked off the list.

It’s been very good for me to be reminded of all these things, because it’s easy to fall out of the habit of using deep work to do big or difficult things. The sort of rapid-fire “productivity” of shallow work has its own seductive appeal, especially in the moment. It’s only after a week or a month of shallow work, when I look back and realize that I haven’t really gotten anything done, that I tend to remember the distinction—and then pointlessly feel bad that I haven’t made any progress on the big things I want to get done.

Deep Work by Cal Newport is a great book for anyone who wants to do big or difficult things. (Also for people who manage such workers, although I don’t expect they’ll want to hear the message.)

I’ve read several novels lately with characters engaging in the sort of OPSEC that you need to do nowadays if you’re undertaking activities the federal government would consider nefarious—beginning with not carrying your smartphone around everywhere you go.

Of course you wouldn’t want to leave your phone behind only when you were doing something nefarious. To do that would be like announcing “Nefarious activity beginning now!” Instead, you need to start playing at going off the grid now for no particular reason, so that when you go off the grid for reals it won’t be so obvious what’s going on.

The necessary OPSEC is hard to get right. One of the novels I mentioned, (The God’s Eye View by Barry Eisler) has as a significant plot element how easy it is to screw up. In the novel a character’s actions are discovered due to her turning on her burner phone at a point close in time and place to where she turned off her regular phone.

As a slightly more sophisticated example, the NSA is known to have a system for “fingerprinting” burner phones, which works by spotting when one cluster of related burner phones all go dark at the same time, and then a similar-sized cluster, with a similar pattern of connectedness, starts up right after.

Just spending some time out and about without a cell phone is probably a good start. Establish a pattern of turning your phone off (or leaving it at home) for a couple of hours every day. It might make sense to establish a regular pattern of doing so, but one can easily go awry trying to set up false patterns. Perhaps it would make more sense to have no particular pattern of when the phone might be on or off.

Purely whimsically, I’m inclined to do this.

In fact, I’m going to have to: Next month I’m on jury duty for a week and cell phones aren’t allowed in the courthouse. I’m sure most people leave their phones in the car, so they can return to them over their lunch break, or at least get back to it as soon as they’re released at the end of the day. But the courthouse is in downtown Urbana, a place that’s easy to get to by bus, so I’m disinclined to drive there. But without a car in which to leave my phone, I’ll probably have to leave it at home.

That might mean 8 hours or more being out and about without my phone, which seems like a great opportunity to establish a pattern of my phone being left home while I do something else—serve on jury duty next month, but who knows what the month after? Nothing nefarious, of course. I’d never do anything nefarious.

Even places where cell service is spotty, such as this spot on the trail in Kennekuk Cove County Park, having a smartphone is completely normalized for me. I expect to be able to just take a picture like this. (And the idea that I might instead bring a camera almost doesn’t fit in my brain any more.)

As an aside: I wrote a couple of articles about going off the grid back when I was writing for Wise Bread. One was a book review of a rather interesting book titled Off the Grid. The other was an article about the trade-offs in choosing to live “off the grid” in the broader sense—not just off the surveillance grid, or even the power, gas and water grids, but more broadly the globalized economy, industrial agriculture, consumerism, etc. I can’t remember what I called the post, but Wise Bread published it as Going Off the Grid Is a Lot Harder Than You Think.

My writing this year ticked along at a low level, so low I was almost tempted not to bother reporting on it.

I continued to work on fiction by fits and starts, but I don’t think I finished a single story.

I want to be sure to thank Elizabeth Shack whose Thursday evening writing group, even though I didn’t make it as often as I meant too, still got me writing more than I otherwise would have. (It’s not a critique group at all. It’s a way to make writing a little bit less of a solitary activity. We gather in a coffee shop and spend a couple hours quietly working on our own stuff, with a few minutes of conversation at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. It’s all very companionable and I miss it when I don’t go.)

I can’t even say I’m disappointed in myself for not writing more (which I used to be): Every day I get up and do exactly what I want all day. Sometimes that’s writing, and when I write I really enjoy it. Other days it’s something else, which I usually enjoy as well.

I used to put a lot of effort into arranging my life with writing in mind—making sure I had large blocks of time to write, making sure I had time to write every day, making sure I could get started writing early in the day. I think that worked after a fashion, perhaps more so for the non-fiction than the fiction, but I have largely given up on fussing about that stuff.

Along about the middle of the year I got email from the admins at Wise Bread saying that they were “switching gears” and would “no longer be commissioning articles” as they had been.

Once again, I’m not really disappointed. I was much more suited to their old model where I wrote whatever I wanted and then posted it. There were good reasons for them to hire editors—and the editors they got were great—but the way you have to work when you have an editor didn’t suit the way I wrote. (If I wanted to pitch stories and work on deadline I could make a lot more money writing for magazines.)

Before that shift I did publish two stories at Wise Bread:

I also did a ground-up rewrite of my old post “Treasury Bills for Ordinary Folks,” which they published under the old URL but with inexplicable title Why Treasury Bills Are Always a Worthwhile Investment. (I say inexplicable because the whole reason it was worth a rewrite is that, after 10 years during which Treasury Bills were a terrible investment, they were were finally once again paying a competitive rate.)

I have one more post that they bought, but which hasn’t gone live yet. They say it’s currently scheduled for early January, so I guess I’ll be able to include a Wise Bread section in my 2019 end-of-year post as well!

One place I have been writing pretty actively is here on this blog. A quick count just now found 67 posts published in 2018, and I may post another one or two before this post goes live.

Some of that number are trivial status posts—for which I have the glimmerings of plan. I’d like to post everything which goes to social media here first, and then share it on social media. Working out the logistics has proven problematic, which gets me discouraged. (My glimmers of a plan involve my microblog at micro.blog, but I don’t quite have everything working yet.) When I get discouraged, I go ahead and post stuff on social media—but almost always I end up regretting it. That’s when there’s another small flurry of status posts here.

Besides those, there are plenty of more substantial posts here as well. Since you’re here reading this, I assume you don’t need me to link to those.