I Am That Girl Now

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I feel so famous now

Ladies and gentlemen, the CEO of Wesabe personally replied to my last post. This was so totally not what I expected. I'm kind of wigged.

Um... hi? ::waves to Jason Knight:: Welcome! I like your service. I like the blog. I like the attitude. I am utterly terrified of the fact that I was noticed with such great speed and actually responded to. I have mentioned many products and services on my blog and this is the first time anyone related to 'em has popped up to chat, much less the CEO.

Ah, intarweb.

I kept working on creating a good reply for his reply, and then I discovered that this was getting way too long, and besides, it really deserved its own post. In my last post, I said:

...if the returns for all one's hard work is to maintain the status quo, it's quite discouraging, and any bump in the road becomes a justified reason to throw up your hands and say "to hell with this, I would rather go broke/be fat/lose the game than have to spend all my time doing this shit."

To which Jason replied:

I disagree with your closing comments about people abandoning projects because of a "bump in the road." It is actually the road that causes them to abandon the goal.

I sat here thinking, "Well, that wasn't what I meant," and feeling rather misunderstood, until I went back and realized that what I was thinking in my head and what I was typing with my hands were kinda different. So, let me try this again.

First of all, I meant to say that the "bump in the road" is not the real reason for quitting a self-improvement program: it may be the reason given, the rationalization, or the excuse, but the underlying cause is going to always be the crushing amount of work that it takes to keep up the program. On that, I believe Jason and I are in agreement.

I believe we are also in agreement that this is a fault of the self-improvement program and not the person. A program that can be adhered to and kept up only during the best of all possible circumstances is not a practical plan.

I think that what I was taking for granted, at that moment, was that I was writing purely for a fatblog audience, and I forgot to include something that we all know, but don't talk about: we never say the diet was too hard, we always say it was the bump in the road, and everyone will assume it's our fault anyway.

There are three pieces of common knowledge, things that EVERYBODY knows are true, that come into play here.

1) Fat people are LAZY.

2) Losing weight is EASY.

Beautiful stuff, here, because the one proves the other. Losing weight is easy, and since it's easy, the only reason that fat people are still fat is because they're lazy, and weak, and other things meaning that they don't want to work hard or can't handle working hard.

(I could have sworn that I saw something in, or linked to, the Wesabe blog that glanced off of this topic, but I can't find it for the life of me now. Rest assured, Jason and Marc and all you adorable folks, I believe you know this stuff. I'm just bound to pontificate when given the chance, and here it is.)

The thing here is that these two things are bullshit. First of all, people say "it's just a matter of eating less and moving more" all they want, but the results that such a (very wise) plan would result in would be very, very slow results. Which, in a perfect world, would be what everyone meant by losing weight. In this world, though, the yahoos who point fingers and say "shut your pie hole and move your ass!" are not talking about slow results, they're talking about fast ones.

Back to what I was saying before, about how we don't like to say that the diet was too hard. Since everyone in the world tends to think it's their business how much we eat and weigh (sweet holy pancake stacks, the amount people have gone on about how "fat" Britney Spears looked at her Video Music Awards performance... seriously, put me on the record as wanting to look that "fat", albeit not that drugged and brain-dead and completely out of it), we are exquisitely sensitive to things that will play into those two "common knowledge" memes. We sense them coming, and try to avoid them when we can. In this case, we don't say that the diet was too hard, because we know how that'll make us look. Instead, we point to what was happening in our lives when we bailed on the diet.

I will bet that everybody who's ever bailed on a diet was running on empty for that last stretch, slogging along, and the "bump in the road" that throws you completely off the program just happens to coincide with the time when you take a look at what you're spending your time on and say, "Something's gotta give, here."

Let me stress that by "bump in the road", I mean big things like buying a house, selling a house, moving, getting fired, starting a new job, having a death in the family, having a new baby in the family, planning a trip, going on a trip, having the car break down unexpectedly, having a real jerk of an ex-boyfriend keep calling and calling and CALLING, getting married, having the basement flood, going back to school, declaring bankruptcy, getting divorced-- things like that, which are universally admitted to be stressful. These things happen. Big, time-consuming, labor-intensive self-improvement projects are going to seem a little pointless at times like those... but small daily things that are a part of your life, like brushing your teeth, you keep. In order to survive the stressful points of life, a self-improvement project must therefore be small and unobtrusive. Name me one commercial diet program that's designed to do that. And if you do, be prepared to bring statistics, because if it has a 90% failure rate within the first five years-- or an 80% failure rate, or a 70% failure rate, or anything over 50% which is still freaking ridiculous if you ask me-- then it is not a small, simple, unobtrusive program.

90% failure is not considered acceptable. If a game is designed so that 90% of people can't play past the first level, it's a bad game. If a diet is designed so that 90% of people fail, it's because they're bad people. What other business can get away with this and still make so much money? What other business has, as a central if unstated core of its business model, a dependence on people hating themselves as they are and blaming themselves if that business' product doesn't work for them?

We're all so ridiculously caught up in this that we see people going back to Weight Watchers, for example, over and over and over again, always thinking that it was some sort of problem with them, not that the program is flawed. When you're on Weight Watchers, it's even worse; check any WW board, anytime, and if somebody tearfully blurts out that they're just not losing weight, everyone will ask if they're eating inside their Points range, if they're weighing and measuring precisely, if they're exercising hard enough, because the assumption is that if it's not working, it's your fault, 'cause you're doing it wrong. Not that the diet is hard. Not that any maintainable weight loss is going to be slow, and that a lot of times when your body stops losing weight it's because an inner alarm bell has gone off saying "oh fuck, we're starving!" It's not because living on a diet is insanely difficult shit to pull off.

I do not have a good answer to this, except that as far as I can tell, constructed diets are just no good. I do not, as of yet, have a working alternative. All I've got is that fat (and by that I mean any weight above the happy normal spot your body really wants to live in) shouldn't be treated as a punishment, or as a disease, but as a symptom of something else in life that may need to be changed. It's going to be different for everyone. Eating only fast food? Eating too much? Stress eating? Not enough sleep? Not enough movement in our lives? What fixes it will be different for everyone, too. Meditation? Church work? Vigorous sex (Hallelujah!)? Running? Yoga? Only you can figure out what fills the need. Do that. Bring something to your life that makes you feel happier, not more righteous. It's not the fat's fault that our lives lack things, and losing the fat won't mean that we get those things. In the end, improving your life-- not your waistline-- is going to be a lot more important than weight loss could ever be.

...Okay, I'm just gonna shut up now. Suffice it to say that I wish we had a program like Wesabe for weight loss, but at the same time, I am convinced that the reasons people have extra fat are so varied, and the best ways to improve their lives are likewise so varied, that I don't know if that would be humanly possible.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Some stuff we already knew

I mentioned Wesabe in my last post, and I may or may not have mentioned the blog that goes with it, Wheaties For Your Wallet. If I didn't, I apologize, because these are some chipper, delightful folks, and they've introduced me to a new brand of geek: the social-software creators. These people don't just use stuff like Flickr and del.icio.us, they make it, and they love it, and they think about how it works and why it works a lot. Which means that they talk about, and link to, some real brain-bustingly awesome talks on the natural behavior of groups on the internet (I knew groups operated that way, but it never occurred to me to actually think about it, you know?), and-- this being the whole point of the post-- the role of self-awareness and monitoring in staying engaged in working toward a goal.

The post in question (which was off of 43 Folders, a life-hacking site) says some things that I think we can all relate to:

...Any idea that helps you to become more self-aware can usually help you to reach a goal or affect a favorable solution. That’s pretty much the entire bag of doughnuts right there.

Self-improvement juju works not because of magic beans or the stones in your soup pot; it works because a smart “system” can become a satisfying cipher for framing a problem and making yourself think about solutions in an ordered way. Systems help you minimize certain kinds of feedback while amplifying others.

Also, when you’ve undertaken most any kind of program, there’s usually a built-in incentive to watch for change, monitor growth, and iterate small improvements (think: morning weigh-in). While I don’t doubt that some systems empirically work better than others, I suspect that success with any of them has much to do with how we each think, behave, and respond to our environment.

His basic guide to having a good operating system for self-improvment:

  • action almost always trumps inaction

  • planning is crucial; even if you don’t follow a given plan

  • things are easier to do when you understand why you’re doing them

  • your brain likes it when you make things as simple as possible

  • I read that and thought, "Dude. He has just given us a roadmap to success."

    In the post on the Wesabe blog, Marc linked that post to a number of other things:

    Cars equipped with displays that show gas mileage, when compared to cars without the mileage display, get better gas mileage. That little bit of knowledge helps the driver drive more economically. More visible energy meter displays in the home have a similar effect... people use less energy when they’re often reminded of how much energy they use. Weighing yourself daily or keep track of everything you eat, and you’ll find yourself eating less. In the same way, using a program like Quicken to track your finances might compel you to spend less, at least in areas of your life where you may be spending too much.

    Which, yeah. Where things diverge between the gas milage meter and a diet or Quicken, however, is what Marc calls "Tamagotchi Software" syndrome: you work on this thing, and you get changes and results which are cool, BUT a) to keep things moving, you have to expend an excruciating amount of work, b) after a certain amount of time (longer for the stubborn and bloody-minded), the reward is not enough to convince you that doing this excruciating amount of work is worth it, and c) if you stop doing the work, your Tamagotchi/personal finance/diet will fall over and die. He doesn't add what dieters would automatically add as d) once stopped, it's even more painful to get back on board than to start in the first place, because OH MY GOD ALL THE LOST EFFORT FROM LAST TIME.

    I'll add another geek note: anyone else play Animal Crossing on the GameCube? When we first got that game, my Hub and I played it for hours every night. We built little houses, made animal friends, planted trees, collected fruit, fished, saved money, traded codes online for new fun things at the store, and breathlessly awaited the nightly arrival of the little dog with the guitar who would sing a new song every night. There was a certain point at which the game sort of peaked, though; there was no new world to conquer, no new rewards, BUT, as we discovered, if we didn't keep working in our little Animal Crossing towns, we'd lose our stuff because it knew how long we'd been gone, and it would punish us. Grass would grow, mail would stack up, food would go back, houses would fall to ruin, animals would be mad because we hadn't been around to talk to them in forever. We felt like we were just being forced to do upkeep, in spite of the fact that our interest had flagged. This was no longer fun. And, in the era before pretty much everything game-wise was online and would eventually offer more content for download, there was nothing coming down the line except more work. We abandoned the thing.

    The main point here is that as time goes by, the higher the workload, the more likely people are to abandon the project. This can be cancelled out if the returns continue to be high (results, money, pounds lost, compliments gathered) or even increase, but if the returns for all one's hard work is to maintain the status quo, it's quite discouraging, and any bump in the road becomes a justified reason to throw up your hands and say "to hell with this, I would rather go broke/be fat/lose the game than have to spend all my time doing this shit."

    So, to review: Anything is better than nothing. Simple is better than complex.

    It's nice to know that weight-loss is not unusual in this, you know?

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    Thursday, September 06, 2007

    And now, some actual weight-type news.

    I continue to eat only when I'm hungry (next step: figuring out how to stop when I'm full, which I'll get to as soon as I can figure out how to tell when I'm full), to calm myself down via other means, and to dutifully log my weight every morning. I'd been kind of worried that this would turn out to be an exercise in futility, but on the other hand, if it's gonna work, it's going to be slow and long-term, right?

    So, as of this morning, I've been doing that for two weeks. Not counting the short time that went totally whackjob via my period (having never recorded my weight daily before, I'd never realized that my weight goes up a good five pounds the day before my period starts), the results are in: it appears that I'm losing about a pound every week.


    Well. I hope it keeps up. I suspect that I may have to battle my two other behavioral issues with food, "eating more mindfully" and "stopping when I'm full", in order to keep things going, but right now my body is responding peaceably enough to my switch from food-as-stress-relief to relaxation-as-stress-relief. All I'm doing besides that has been a moderate amount of exercise, three or four times a week. Haven't gone back to sugary soda (never intend to), but I'm pretty much eating whatever I want to. Bacon has occurred four times in one week. (PMS, what can I say?) I'm trying in a vague way to get healthy meals on the table, but I'm not stressing about it, I'm not measuring portions.

    My theory is that for some folks, like myself, weight gain occurs on a moderate scale because of the usual factors (portions too large, eating too much junkfood, beer & soda consumption, etc.), but the majority of the pounds are associated with stress. (Note, once again: SOME folks, not all.) Food = stress relief. Entering a traditional diet means not only depriving oneself of that stress relief, without finding any replacement, but it also means more stress on top of that because diets are stressful, for pete's sake. Lots of extra work, lots of new rules, lots of new activities shoved into an already-busy schedule, an overwhelming sense that if the scale doesn't move YOU HAVE FAILED; all of it, very stressful. It becomes a huge relief to cheat on or to outright dump the diet, just because of the extra stress it causes and the way that it blocks you from your one source of stress relief, the bastard thing.

    Therefore, in this case, I'm taking care of the first issue first. Make sure that I have a functioning non-food source of stress relief, solidly establish the new source of stress relief so it's not new and weird and untested, then switch over the stress relief to the new, non-food source. All of this before any futzing around with the food itself actually occurs, which, as we all know, is a stressful thing to introduce to one's life. And... so far, so good.

    Hilariously, I've also developed a weird new hoarding habit. It hurts my soul to give up free candy, and then watch it disappear without having partaken, so I will grab a mini-Snickers from the bucket in the mailroom... and then put it in my desk drawer. Haven't eaten any of it. I've got a little stash now, and in a strange way it brings me a sense of comfort and stability. I can have it if I want. I can have it if I get hungry. I'm just not hungry now. And, since I bring real snacks with me to work, I still haven't come to the point where I'm actually hungry and out of food and so must resort to the candy stash.

    I suspect this will come in handy as Halloween approaches.

    On the financial front: I know I've talked a lot about Mvelopes, but there are other programs out there. PearBudget is an Excel sheet thing-- they're working on a Web 2.0 verion-- and free. Expensr works in a similar manner to Quicken or MS Money (you know, the traditional options), but is online, and free. (Not my thing, 'cause the budgeting options it has right now don't, for example, require that all the money that you budget actually add up to the amount you take in, which I'd think would be required for a budget, but hey, whatever.)

    Most interesting of the non-Mvelopes options I've come across is Wesabe, which is to personal finance what Flickr is to pictures and what del.icio.us is to bookmarks. Very Web 2.0. Your personal info is personal, no question, but your participation builds the application-- de-coding your bank's cryptic "description" of a transaction to something that humans can use ("084 TRADJOE CHICAG IL 773549", for example, could be "Trader Joe's, Lakeview Chicago"), or tagging it with your rating for the company, or tagging it with your own notes-- into something that could eventually become seriously amazing. Think of it: you enter your own experience with a mechanic, and somebody else in your neighborhood who's looking for info on local mechanics can find it later. You put up your own helpful hints for lowering your grocery bill, and it goes up with a bunch of others so that you end up with a big page of helpful grocery hints, some of which may be dumb but others of which could be fantabulous. And the more people participate, the smarter it gets. It lets you-- nay, encourages you to-- put up your goals, with pictures, right there on a sidebar where you see them all the time. That, right there, is awesome. The creators of Wesabe have said in their blog that what they really want this to be is a way of letting people get the most from their money that they can-- the best quality, of course, but also a group support for paying off debts and starting to live inside the constraints of what you earn.

    And it's free. So... awesome.

    I'm kind of an early adopter on these things... not really early, but earlier than the other folks I know. Flickr, Gmail, Amazon, eBay, Netflix, Napster (the real version, back in the day), blogging; I tend to discover these things a bit after the real crop of early adopters has started to wax lyrical about them, and adopt them about a year or so before they become totally normal. The problem there is that some of them don't end up normal; my poor beloved Webvan went broke in 2001, and another dot-com startup, Kozmo.com, that would bring me food and a movie within an hour of ordering it on the web went belly-up around that same time (and since I was single and living alone at the time, Kozmo was very much missed every time I got sick and didn't have anyone to bring me hot food and fresh movies). So I could be wrong on this one, but so far I haven't seen it go wrong.

    In OTHER other financial news, our car has gone wrong. I lost the battle of do-we-accept-your-mom's-old-car-or-not, and my Hub is sentimentally attached to the thing since it was his mom's, and so there's no getting rid of it. That said, I long for the simple days when we had no car. True, this meant a lot of walking in horrible weather, and true, this meant that we had to rent a car to get out to see the in-laws for Thanksgiving, and true, this meant that we didn't have the questionable luxury of driving to work and paying $14 for parking under Millennium Park. That said, not-owning is a simple state, one in which I understood what was expected of me, and one which brought few surprises to the table which could run us untold hundreds of dollars in repair fees. Owning a car, on the other hand, means taxes and insurance and gasoline and parking and new tires and repair work and a bloody city sticker which we must purchase annually to prove our right to park on Chicago streets, and we still use the El nine times out of ten, so in my mind we're paying for something that we don't need and making ourselves psychologically dependent on owning.

    ARRRRGH, cars.

    In other other OTHER financial news, we have a meeting next week with our financial planner. This should be fun. I'm in a much better mood now that I've publicly fumed and now that I feel in control of the situation; we're going to turn the variable universal life policies into term life, and drain the mutual funds in order to kill off half the student loans. That'll leave us with disability insurance, term life insurance, and Roth IRAs, all of which are good things, but which I'm going to start checking into to see if we could switch over to other kinds that a) aren't under the Ameriprise banner and b) might be more in tune with what we need. I've got another financial planner lined up, a fee-based one (and yes, referred to from Dave Ramsey's site) who would be unconstrained in choice of product and whose loyalty would not be under question; as time proceeds we'll move things that direction.

    Happily, we're not out that much money; we're not going to have to pay anything on my Hub's insurance policy even if we just drop it (yay) and for all things I seem to have caught it early enough that, at the most, we're $2K behind where we ought to be. That's a lot better than it could be, and a relatively cheap price for the resounding wake-up call that this has been. It could be much, much, much worse. I'm going to focus on that, instead of on the parts that make me very very angry.

    Also, a wee story that comforted me when I was in the midst of kicking my own ass over having not checked these things out before (yes, that was stupid; anyone who is not clear on the fact that I had already realized that, and who thinks that I need it explained to me again, or who wishes to rub more salt in my wounds, you may want to check that impulse rather than testing my dearly-won zen). Once upon a time, scientists hooked a bunch of people up to machines to scan their brain activity and then had them do a test. It was structured thusly: first, the question, then a space for them to answer, then an indication of whether they were right or wrong, and then the correct answer would be given. There was a space of time between each. They ended up having two distinct types of people: first, the people whose attention remained rapt up until the point where they got to find out if they were right or wrong, and then slagged off for the real answer; second, the people whose attention remained keen all the way through the process, because if they got an answer wrong they became really curious about the right answer. On a re-test, the people who were curious about the right answer were the ones who scored higher the second time around; the other folks just stayed static.

    Moral of the story: being wrong doesn't mean bugger-all except a chance to learn a new answer, and if you only care about if you're right or wrong, you're not learning. It's kind of a cold moral and ignores the fact that it sucks wretchedly to be wrong about something when you've stupidly put your trust in someone whose loyalty lies elsewhere (as is the case this time, and on lord knows however many other occasions, since I never lack for naive trust), but at least it's something.

    The other moral of the story, although not that story, is that although I always think I want more to eat after I get done with lunch, and always think I want a treat, within half an hour of lunchtime I'll end up with heartburn or other proof that my stomach has different ideas than my head, so it's a very good thing that I just hopped right on the internet and ignored the yen for a treat.

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    Tuesday, September 04, 2007

    Well, now I'm pissed.

    The lovely cliopatra mentioned, in response to my last post, that I should check out Dave Ramsey, his website, and his radio show. To which my initial response was something along the lines of "oh, fuck, not another quack," but after some research I'm going to say right now that for an opinionated, pushy, more-right-wing-than-I'm-really-comfortable-with, often cranky guy who is blissfully naive about what the housing market has been up to in some places (it's been wacky all over, but some spots it has been BEYOND INSANE and the concept of such does not apparently fit into his worldview), Dave Ramsey is indeed right on a hell of a lot of things. He is, in fact, a pretty smart guy, and has a clear concept of priorities, which as mentioned before is not something I've been good with. Reading his stuff was a much-needed thwap upside the head, so thank you very much, cliopatra.

    After voraciously reading everything on Dave Ramsey's site, I sat down and did some math on our current situation. And promptly got more than a little pissed off. See, in our current situation, we do not have a lot of disposable income. Some, but not a lot. What we need more than anything is to get rid of my husband's student loans (ARGH ARGH FUCKING STUDENT LOANS) as soon as possible.

    My financial planner's advice? Consolidate the loans and you'll save money! Reality? Consolidating the loans meant that we'll be paying off the fucking things for longer, with a shitload more interest going to the student loan company. 18 years and $24,000 in interest from now, we'd have them paid off.

    Keep in mind, we had a windfall which would have paid off more than half of the loans. Our financial planner's advice? Put it in mutual funds! No risk, and a better return than our silly ol' savings account! Reality? I don't know what the blue hell happened, but eight months later there's $600 less in our mutual funds than we gave them. By my conservative estimate, we would have earned $700 in interest in our silly ol' ING Direct savings account. So this is bullshit for two reasons: not only did she not tell us that we were cutting our own throats with interest on $40K+ in student loans by not paying off half of that, but she then put us into mutual funds which are apparently sinking slowly into the muck.

    For the third reason I'm furious right now, more than a year ago she convinced us to start up Variable Universal Life Insurance policies. The reason? Well, it's an investment! For our kids! That we haven't had yet! So basically I found out today that we've been throwing $300/month between the two of us into insurance policies, which aren't getting a very good rate of return at all, which won't do us a damn bit of good financially until fifteen years from now, which are yet another thing that are keeping us from doing the most financially responsible thing at the moment which is PAYING OFF THE FUCKING LOAN, and which, I might add, charge us more for the "insurance" portion (vs. the "investment" portion) than double the amount of term life insurance would cost us.

    I'm not sure if we're going to be able to get out of those. We might not. Right now the surrender value of my Hub's policy is in the negative, like by $1000, and I am not keen on the idea that we might have to PAY these fuckers to get out of this ridiculous thing.

    The long and the short of it is that our financial planner has been doing financial advice that's more useful for settled, rich 50-year-olds on us. What we needed was somebody to say, "Look, we'll get you set up with disability insurance, Roth IRAs, and life insurance, but right now we're not going to push 100% on those because your first step is to kill off that fucking student loan, and then your next step is to make sure you've got a good safety-net savings account in a mutual fund" (that doesn't SUCK, I would hope) "and THEN we will go full-bore on those other things, including the future education of your future children. First things first, though, because you're only around 30 years old."

    People, learn from my example. Only use fee-based financial advisors. Do not use the ones who are paid commission on the shit they sell you, because for instance they get a bigger commission for cash-value life insurance policies (Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman and many others, I have belatedly discovered, think that these things are a giant rip-off). And if your gut tells you, like mine told me, to keep a windfall check in a lovely ING Direct savings account (4.5% interest, I might add; I love these guys, and have used them for nearly five years now) or the proven stockpile of your choice, then go with your gut. Financial advisors work for you, not the other way around.

    Also: FUCK YOU, AMERIPRISE. I'm so mad right now that I can't see straight. Seriously, just don't go anywhere near those people. Ever. Our financial advisor is a lovely woman, and we like her a hell of a lot, but that doesn't change the fact that she did a horrible job with our money, doubtlessly because she's constrained by the people she's working for to only use the stuff they've got. FEE-BASED, guys. ONLY USE FEE-BASED. It's the only way to know who's paying 'em.

    Anyway, in other news:

    This minor catastrophe has, strangely, led me to realize that I might really like being what is called either a "financial coach", "financial counselor", or (my favorite) "financial guru". Not the person who sells the mutual funds and insurance products, but the person who sits down with you and a few months' worth of bank statements and credit card statements and helps you hash out what you're spending, and from there on, what you should be budgeting. Hell, I think I'd be happy as a clam if I could specialize in teaching kids just out of college how to budget, how to live within that budget, and how to pay off their almost-mandatory-these-days mammoth student loan and credit card debt. I would love that. I would do that for free. I spend all day at work shuffling numbers and data to help corporations in an industry that I very frankly don't give a rat's ass about, so the idea of having some kind of hands-on positive effect on someone's life is intoxicating.

    Granted, I gotta figure out what training and certification one needs to be a freelance financial helper-elf (and now I want to do this even MORE so that I can use that title), but I'll figure it out. If nothing else, I would like very much to be able to do this sort of thing on the side, so that I have something to look forward to while I'm at my useless job.

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