“Food” tax

I recently bought two boxes of protein bars from a store. The store doesn’t matter, and the product brand doesn’t matter, either. What matters is that one of these two nearly-identical products was food and the other wasn’t, so the two products were taxed differently. The “peanut butter” one was taxed at 2% because it’s a food item, but the “chocolate” one was taxed at the standard 7.25% (in North Carolina).

OUTRAGE.

OK, that was a very short-lived outrage.

I looked into what the laws might be in other states. Turns out each state gets to decide whether candy is taxable. In fact, each state also gets to decide whether food is taxable. There’s a state for every option: No sales tax at all, no food tax, lower tax on food, tax on food except non-food food, sales tax on everything including food (I’m looking at you, Idaho). And then there’s the local government and the exceptions: a minor tax decrease on candy, tax unless the candy is bought at a “retail food store,” tax unless the candy is consumed on-premises, lower tax unless you buy non-food items in the same transaction, tax if you buy online, tax unless you pay with cash, tax unless it contains flour or requires refrigeration, different tax rules if the candy is dispensed by a vending machine… Frankly, I’m not sure I could have invented all of these variations on my own.

But maybe I found another small reason to lay off the chocolate.

Source: https://blog.taxjar.com/sales-tax-state-candy-taxable/

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Anxiety of Hypomania

I have quite a list of short-term goals that I’d like to accomplish: learn drawing, calligraphy, woodworking, German, Chinese, and many career-oriented technical bits that I want to learn and know and use. In the meantime, I often have a sizeable list of chores that I simply need to get done: laundry, email, reading, etc..

Well, sometimes I get very excited and feel like tackling both of those list, at the same time, immediately. Naturally, there’s a name for it in the DSM: hypomania. Simply stated, it is a lesser form of mania without the functional impairment. At these moments the impossibility of accomplishing everything at once causes me to feel very, very anxious. You know those nightmares in which you are desperately trying to do something but inevitably fail? It’s like that. And it’s sickening.

This often triggers at night. Right now, in fact. One of my chores is to write a blog post, so here I am, feeding the beast and taming it at once. At other times, anxiety gets the best of me, and Impostor’s Syndrome kicks in: “look at all the stuff I don’t know! There’s no way I am going to ever catch up with all the real professionals who already know everything.” At other times I completely master the feeling, and I quickly return to normal: halfway through reading an amazing article, I just stop, breathe, remind myself that what I’m reading is an example of a very condensed summation of several months or years of effort, and carry on with the reminder that I will one day get there, just like I got to where I am now.

I’m now knowledgeable enough to notice and monitor what’s happening, but until fairly recently I had no idea, and the anxiety consumed me. Naming the beast is the first step to taming it; knowing that I’m experiencing an episode of hypomania enables me to remind myself that negative emotions, in particular anxiety, are a passing feeling, that everything is all right, and that I will feel better as soon as I calm down.

Rediscovering my roots, x4 combo

This is the fourth time in eighteen years that I return to my homeland and my city of birth. Each time I see and learn something “new” that was just long-forgotten. It’s so surreal to remember something that was buried for nearly two decades. Sometimes it’s big things, like people you once knew but never since recalled, or little things, like the pattern of the bricks in the sidewalk.

This time, I remembered some huge things. Where I grew up, where I went to school, and what it means to have a big Brazilian family.

Long ago, Grandma traded her old property for some new property: a house on a lot for a condo in a luxury apartment building (note: the level of luxury is relative to Brazilian standards in 1980). I lived there until June 30, 1999, the day I left Brazil for America. I saw it again yesterday.

It’s smaller than I remember. Pretty typical reaction, I guess.

IMG_20170816_161311.jpg
Condominium Riviera Village. Riviera is on the left, Village on the right. Pronounced “vil-AHJ”, as if you were speaking faux French. Or perhaps real French. I don’t know much about French.

Continue reading “Rediscovering my roots, x4 combo”

Professional Persuasion

 

Communicating information to others has always been challenging to me. I’m pretty decent at understanding, but rubbish at making others understand. That lack of skill compounds the natural difficulty of persuading others to adopt your viewpoint, making me horrible at convincing anyone of anything. Throw in the minefield of the political landscape of most corporations, and I am truly in trouble.

I was lucky to receive some impromptu mentoring on this topic by a senior member of my company. He told me something I have long known, but rarely practiced: the best way to convince others to do what you want, is to make them think that it was their idea all along. In practical terms, this means I should bite my tongue, swallow my criticism, get off my “expertise” soapbox, and present my challenges as questions that will hopefully lead to the other party arriving at my own conclusion. His own experience proves to him the efficacy of this persuasion strategy, and I also acknowledge it.

But then we had a philosophical moment, discussing whether this strategy was merely pragmatic and effective, or manipulative and conniving. The phrase “shades of truth” came up, and while I tend toward a black-and-white worldview on most things, I couldn’t quite advocate for the moral virtue of persuasion of this kind without running into ethical issues. When I was younger, I viewed people as valuable only for the utility that they provided me. Only later did I come to believe that people have intrinsic value and despise my previous belief. So it will take some thinking for me to come to terms with that approach to persuasion and avoid mental dissonance.

Alternatively, I could not think about it. That’s how most people avoid mental dissonance. An unexamined ethical concern could possibly have zero impact on my psyche. Then again, I empathize with Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I can’t help it.

In the meantime, while I resolve the moral dilemma, I’ll practice biting my tongue.

2016 in review: the year of loss

I started 2016 with a brand new job that I love, in a field that I really enjoy, with my own office (huge windows!), and pretty decent coworkers. The year 2016 was a big, successful step in my career. I bought a house, too, and locked in a low rate just before the Fed (et al.) finally raised the interest rate. It’s a nice little home in an established neighborhood near an area of excellent development, so I’m reasonably set to enjoy rising property values. I completed some courses and finished some books that had been on my list for a while. I even did a bit of art.

In many ways, this year was a success. But other things happened that left permanent scars. These marks are now, irrevocably, part of who I am. But don’t think that I end the year with a gloomy disposition and a bitter heart. Mingled with the sadness there is a greater hope.

The first half of the year was spent agonizing over my decision to separate myself from friends who had been a huge part of my life in the previous year. I formally left their fellowship because the leadership was engaging in behavior that would have been construed by unbelievers as sexual immorality. Although this knowledge was public, it took me a long time to consciously acknowledge that the situation was so reproachable. I think this was due to confirmation bias: I was refusing to believe the evidence that there was a serious flaw in my group of friends. I really, really loved my time with them. I didn’t want to believe there was an issue so reproachable that I might have to separate myself from them. It took many months, but eventually I did come to terms with what I had to do for the sake of the name of Christ. With guidance from my church, I made the decision to leave. Some civil conversations were had, and I am happy that I don’t regret how I conducted myself (if you know me, you know how I tend heavily toward harsh words). But I do regret that nothing much came of it. My friends acknowledged what I saw, but they didn’t call it sin, and they wanted me to have forbearance and stay. This was in May.

I spent the second half of the year in a strange state of limbo, neither in denial nor acceptance of what had happened, trying to make sense of what I was feeling. The fact of the matter was not difficult to understand: I lost most of my friends, by my own choice. But I didn’t understand how I felt about it. In this confusion I acted strangely and felt horrible. I told my friends that I wanted to remain friends, and we really did try. I invited them to things, they invited me to things. I discovered, disturbingly, that the mere thought of meeting them made me feel dread. I was so confused! These were the people I had loved seeing. We had texted every day. They had been a Godsend to me: many friends in a city where I had so few. Well, maybe they were just tired of someone that was always unhappy to see them, but they stopped contacting me. But by November I finally found words to describe what I felt.

The friends who were close to the leader displaying poor behavior did what they could to encourage change in the situation, but to me they ultimately seemed resigned to tolerate his behavior in their church. The church’s top leadership knew about it, and allowed him to remain in their fellowship without changing his behavior. I didn’t want Christian fellowship with them. I spent many months being uncertain because of the harshness of this judgment. But my church supported me in this decision; I did not take it alone or without many months of counsel. The reason at its core was simple: Christ did not die to harbor unrepented, ongoing sin. I personally did not want to be associated with it, and I did not want anyone else to think that I accepted or tolerated it. Maybe this makes me a hypocrite. Maybe I was free to leave their fellowship, but wrong to judge them for the actions (or, as I saw it, lack of action). Maybe my church leadership encouraged me to leave not because it was necessarily right, but because they thought separation was the best way to avoid adding fuel to the fire.

Confidence notwithstanding, the loss of friends made me depressed and angry for a long time. I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted at work because I couldn’t stop obsessively thinking and raging. I was depressed for five months. Only in November did I finally start coming to terms with these new permanent marks on my life, and I even began to forgive. Forgive the leader, forgive my old friends, forgive myself. I remember the first time it happened, too. It felt like a cloud had passed and the world became brighter. Life had taste again.

It’s still a work in progress. I keep having to forgive and move on, and often it has to happen multiple times per day. I saw a great deal of hypocrisy in me as well (as if someone’s open and willful sin were less offensive to God than my private, less obstinate sin). I was forced to come to terms with the fact that everything that had happened, including the pain, was in great part due to my actions and my failings; I was no innocent victim. Acknowledging my need for forgiveness toward the end of the year is what finally let me begin to forgive others. He who is forgiven much, loves much. Writing this year-in-review is a part of this recovery process; it’s part record-keeping and part confession. I’m looking forward to being done with it. I have most of the answers, and am beginning to feel no desire to think on them any more. I’m reminded of this whole mess of feelings when I think of custard, and white chocolate, and pickles, and cheese. When I think of the renaissance festival, and McDonald’s, and Cookout, and houses, and night shifts, and Japan. I remember everything when I notice it’s Tuesday. Tuesday! An entire day of the week, recurring for the rest of my life! I’d like to have all of those things back without having to suffer a sudden bout of guilt and a flash of pain. The events of this year are now so deeply a part of me because I shared so much of my life with these friends. Without a doubt, this saga has been one of the most significant events of my life, and this is what 2016 means to me. I want to move on; take what I learned from my hard-earned lessons and leave the rest behind.

The year 2016 was the year of loss, but my attitude is one of hope. The fact that I can look beyond this suffering is a huge victory. And this victory is won by faith that my Father in heaven works all things for the good of those who love him. It has always been true in my life. It is a huge encouragement that I can clearly see how all my past suffering has been worked by God to benefit me, both now and eternally. I can’t see it yet, but believe that this year’s events are the same. I’m not happy about 2016, but I am hopeful that the Lord has my life well in hand and is using this for his glory and my betterment.

I wish the year had gone differently. I wish there had never been cause for division. I messed up a lot, and I’m guilty of a lot. In this coming year I just want to do right, honor God, and not be stuck in the misery of the past. Through the awful experiences for 2016 I hope that I am being transformed into a better person because of it. I hope 2017 proves it.

This blog post was originally written on December 23, 2016 and updated on February 2, 2017 with confessions of my own failures to correct the perception that I view myself as blameless victim.

Lists and lying

I accidentally harnessed the power of lists to diminish my gaming habit. When Steam has a sale and I see a bunch of games I’d like to play, I buy maybe one and put the rest on the ol’ wishlist. We all know how wishlists work: It’s a list of things you want but don’t have. And yet, something else happened, more subtle and powerful than that simple definition could suggest.

When I see a game that I think is terrific, I want to acknowledge it as such. The obvious way to acknowledge (and enjoy) is to spend time and money on it. But spending time and money… costs time and money! I want to agree that the thing is worth time and money, but I don’t want to actually pay the cost. Putting the thing on a wishlist is, superficially, to make a promise that you will eventually get to it, but it is an empty promise.

  • I recognize this is good and I want to enjoy it (but not now)
  • I’ll do it when I have time (and I don’t fill it with something else)
  • I’ll read it when I’m done with my current book (unless something else comes up)
  • I’ll buy it when there’s a sale with a big discount (unless I want a different game)

I was able to put a bunch of games on my wishlist and never actually play them. By merely making a vague promise of playing them someday, I greatly reduced my desire to actually play them! Self-improvement via lying to yourself!

I’ve also experienced the same phenomenon at the grocery store. I’ve often craved candy, but merely walking down the aisle and looking at all the options satisfied me. I think that by acknowledging the part of me that wants candy, I was able to act on the other part of me that wants to avoid it.

To use an information science word, I satisficed my desire to eat candy and play video games, either by acknowledging that those things are good in some ways, or by acknowledging that I have those desires. I’m not sure which.

But this phenomenon cuts both ways. Lists of goals have been very helpful to me, but they have also be harmful. I literally remember the day when I stopped reading like I used to: it was the day I bought two books. It was no longer “I am reading this book,” but rather, “I will read this book someday.” The former mental model precipitated ongoing present action; the latter made a weightless promise of eventual future action. The promise of future action kept me from making the effort to take present action. The attitude of “I’ll get to it… but I don’t want to decide when” exerted a negative force on my will to actually read that book.

I suppose this phenomenon can be either good or bad because humans have conflicting desires. I am a complicated person and I don’t really know how my desires work, but typing this out helped me think about it more. I theorize that if I were more conscious of how it works, I could use this phenomenon like a tool to exert greater control over my desires. I’ll have to think about it more.

Shelter

Renting is a waste of money. Mortgages make you pay twice as much as the home is worth, and your first several years are purely paying off the interest, but after those many years you eventually start to stop wasting money. So we’ll do that.

Buying an old house is fraught with peril. Could be a good purchase. Could be rotting and the inspectors never noticed. Could be a great price, or it could be overpriced; you won’t know until the market sinks and/or explodes.

Renting out a room is dangerous. People with limited liability could cause more damage than their money can cover. They’ll almost certainly generate wear and tear that you must fix. But renting out is how you turn a big house from a money pit into a money maker. So we’ll try to do that. At least until I can’t stand it any more.

What about a tiny home? I could afford to buy an expensive tenth of an acre near the middle of the city, if I could spend a mere $50,000 on the house itself. And it’s mobile, meaning I could relocate without selling the house. Not to mention, since the land is small and not worth much, there wouldn’t be a huge pressing need to sell the land in order to buy the next plot. Alas, city governments still aren’t sure whether tiny homes count as houses, so you may not be able to legally live in one. Unless I put it on a foundation, in which case it’s just a small house and not a tiny home.

Look at houses = Too big, expensive and needy.

Look at townhomes = Waste money on HOA every month like a renter. Still too big and expensive. Share walls with neighbors.

Look at tiny houses = Legally not a house, so I can’t live in one. They don’t resell. Neighbors will think I’m weird. Will probably need to trade in my car for a truck.

Look at renting = An utter waster, and expensive.

Look at room shares = Need to move my junk every year, unstable conditions, limited freedom, not attractive.

—-

If I could either find an inexpensive house or make tiny homes legal, my problems would be solved. I’m unlikely to change laws, but an affordable house is palatable, so that’s what I’m trying to do. Townhomes are not a great deal, even at a cheap price, because of the stupid monthly HOA. $180 per month is ridiculous.

Alternatively, I could reduce my junk to nearly nothing and continue room sharing forever. The moving wouldn’t be an issue any longer, and there’s a lot to be said for a $500/month rent that includes utilities.

This stuff is annoying and complicated and tiring.