Pinecone Research Western Union scam

First, note that this scam is not actually run by Pinecone Research, which is a reputable paid survey site. Did you receive an email that looks something like this?

I looked at the sender, and it was spoofed very well, as “”. I almost fell for it because I have been a mystery shopper in the past, and I’ve been offered what I thought to be ridiculous sums to do shops ($75 for a Greyhound bus shop, for example).

Here’s the tipoff though. When you click the link, it takes you somewhere other than the domain “”. In my case it was “” where the details were explained: classic check-cashing fraud. They’ll send a check in the mail, which I cash, keep some for myself, then wire the rest via Western Union to someone else. Sure. Here’s what that page might look like:

Below that you simply give them a mailing address and they send you a nice (fake) check to cash. But you’re too smart for that, you did a quick search before giving them any information and you found this. Good for you! Need extra proof that this “survey” is too good to be true? There’s a page on the real Pinecone Research website warning people about it. Sorry to be the bringer of bad news, but at least you didn’t lose any money, right?

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Perhaps there is an argument to be made that I shouldn’t encourage dirty engineers and dirty French people to be even dirtier. But the no-poo movement is too good not to share.

First, what is it? The theory is that shampoo strips hair of natural oils, making your scalp produce more oil than it otherwise would. Which makes it necessary to use more shampoo, usually in a day or two just to keep that oily, clumpy feeling away. To prevent this, the no-poo movement advises switching to baking soda then eventually washing hair with just water.

I was also skeptical at first. But let’s be honest: I’m lazy and the idea of washing my hair once every two weeks instead of every other day or so was extremely appealing. I didn’t want to mention it until I was sure it was going to work for me, and now I’m sure. I’ve been doing it for over two years and I usually go 3 weeks to a month between hair washings. No one seems to notice. My hair actually looks better, if anything.

If you want to give it a try, there are many tutorials online, but I find that it’s not a fussy regime. For example, I don’t even measure. I just scoop what I’d estimate to be about 2 teaspoons of baking soda into a handy wash bottle like this (available for about $6):

Fill it up with water, shake it well, then baste my scalp with the solution. I then use a shampoo brush to make sure everything is thoroughly distributed. Mine is shaped like an octopus, but one like this I’m sure would also work (you can get it for $5):

That’s it! A standard box of baking soda costs less than $1 and lasts me over a year. I don’t have to wash my hair more than once a month or so.

Oh, and I also have a bristle brush to help distribute the scalp oils to the rest of my hair. Mine is ridiculously expensive, but I love it. A much more reasonable alternative sells for around $7.50:

Really, none of these things are even strictly necessary. They just make the experience more convenient for me. There are many resources online, and entire blogs dedicated to it. But if you’re sick of feeling forced to wash your hair every day, this may be perfect for you. Just try! I’m sure you’ve got a box of baking soda somewhere in your kitchen…

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Kitten season at Animal Care and Control

I volunteer at San Francisco Animal Care and Control with the cats, and it’s like a free spa day. Nothing’s more relaxing than having a purring kitten in your arms. Interested? The next orientation is on June 14. More info on the SFACC website. It’s getting into the height of kitten season so we could sure use your help.

If you don’t have time or live far away, you can help out by donating something from their Amazon wishlist.

If you’re interested in adopting, you couldn’t have chosen a better time! Next weekend, May 31-June 1 is a special annual event in San Francisco: Maddie’s Pet Adoption Days, when all adoptions are free.

When I volunteer, I can hang out with fluffballs like this:



You may think that a volunteer has to do things like clean cages or mop floors, but it isn’t true. All you have to do is come in and cuddle with kittens like this:



Otherwise they just hang out in their cages all day and are very sad. And bored. Look at those eyes. How can you resist?



Many are cuddlebugs…





… who will literally fall asleep on you



And many are models, who like to lounge close by and bask in your company.

Of course, there are also older cats. They’re calmer, everlasting purrboxes. Here are a couple who wanted to curl up in my lap forever




And of course, I can’t forget to mention, my very own kitten came from SF ACC just about a year ago. The little weirdo purrs when she gets her nails trimmed and lays down only where it’s inconvenient for you. You want a cat just like her don’t you?

En bref:

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A life worth living

Believe me, I am not an expert on this. What I realised about  year ago while working for a startup was that somehow, despite earning more money than I ever had in my life, being able to buy just about anything I wanted and having plenty of opportunities to socialize with my quirky, crazy-brilliant friends, I didn’t really think my life was worth living.

Everything was a dark grey, especially on Sunday night. Worse on Monday morning. Dread filled me. But it was confusing. My income was above the 95th percentile for my age group. I had a boyfriend (a very good person!) I had been dating for a couple of years. Everything looked excellent on paper. Who was I not to be happy? On top of everything, guilt. So many people had it worse than me. What did I even want?

I wanted a life worth living. But I made the mistake of using everyone else’s definition. I never asked myself the question “what do I want” because I assumed that having what everyone else wants for should make me happy too. Wrong.

There is a story I’ve read in passing: a professor presents a container filled with rocks and asks his students if it’s full. “Yes,” they respond. He then pours pebbles in, until the spaces between the rocks are filled too. He asks again. They respond “yes” again. He repeats this twice more, with sand, then water. The point of his demonstration is that if he had done this exercise in any other order, not everything would fit. This story has been used as a metaphor for life: what we put in first should be of primary importance to us.

That was my mistake. The things I spent the most time on were the things I valued the least: my job, Tumblr, playing flash games on Facebook, watching TV shows. The latter 3 made time pass more quickly. But there was nothing I was looking forward to… I was squandering time until my eventual death, I suppose.

I hesitate to tell you my conclusions because I’m sure they won’t be yours. The point is that you have to ask yourself what the rocks are. What are the most important things in your life? It may be counterintuitive, but you probably don’t treat them that way. Suppose you’re a math graduate student (this was once my story) and you have obligations in decreasing importance to you: your research, studying for your quals, your homework, and your teaching obligations. However, the less important something is to you, the more urgent the deadlines are, so you spend time doing those things first and neglect the more important things.

Life is similar! It maybe be extremely important that you paint or write or travel, but none of those things have “urgent” deadlines. So you put them off, sometimes forever. Meanwhile, what gets your attention? That work email to fix a build. Doing the laundry. Once you’ve taken care of all the things you have to do now, you’re too drained to even think about reading Dostoyevsky or practicing Liebestraum on the piano, so you end up playing Candy Crush with the rest of your time.

tl;dr — the first step in having a life worth living is figuring out what is important to you.

North Beach at sunset, before cioppino at Sotto Mare

For me, of course, it’s the Bohemian ideals. Perhaps they’ll each get their own entry one day: Truth, Beauty, Freedom (and above all else) Love.

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How to get out of paying an auto-added gratuity

You and 5 of your friends go to a restaurant for dinner. Service is lacking: the waiter bumbles the order, 2 people go the entire meal without seeing their food, you wait 10 minutes just for your drinks, and yet the waiter has time to chat with his buddies. When your friend with nut allergies almost chokes to death at the table because there were peanuts in his dish even though he specifically said he was allergic to nuts, the waiter doesn’t even comp the meal.

Then the bill arrives and there’s an 18% gratuity tacked on. You try to complain to the manager about the lacking service, but all up and down the line you only hear “that is restaurant policy.” What can you do? I’ve done this, and it works.

1. Cross out the line with the gratuity

2. Pay with a credit card

3. Take a picture of the receipt

Of course, the service doesn’t have to be egregious. If you, for whatever reason, don’t believe that the server deserves an 18% gratuity, you can’t be forced to pay it. Why? Your credit card company owes no allegiance to the restaurant, but makes money off every transaction you make. Whose side will Chase bank take? Yours!

If the restaurant runs the bill through with the auto-added gratuity, simply dispute the charge with your credit card company and email them a photo of the receipt. You can also elaborate on the circumstances, but the credit card company cares about your happiness. The merchant won’t stop taking Visa, but you have dozens of different banks eager for your business, so you are at an advantage.

I think too few people know about this, and they think they have to pay up because it says so right there on the menu. Waiters may also tend to neglect bigger groups because they have a guaranteed tip. Don’t be bullied by restaurant policy: the automatic gratuities can’t be enforced. More importantly, they won’t be enforced by your credit card company.

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BMR and the paradox of “low income”

Let’s start with what BMR is: it’s a requirement of some new housing developers in San Francisco to rent or sell 12% of its units at below-market rates. This creates perverse incentives as I’ll show in the following example of below-market rental units at Rincon Green Apartments.

A one person household’s income can’t exceed $23,310.00 [1], or else they don’t qualify for the BMR units. Let’s take a look at the market rates of the units that a one person household would qualify for.

According to Rincon Green’s current leasing/floor plans page, studios go for $2,395 – $2,950 per month [2]. By [1], the BMR rate for these same units is $550, giving a savings of between $1,845-$2,400 per month.

On the low end, a person who makes $1 over $23,210 would have to pay an extra $22,140 in rent to live at Rincon Green. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to make an annual salary between $23,211 and $45,350. But the max salary is, in practice, even higher than that: the difference in federal income tax (assuming use of the standard tax table [3], and filing status single) is $4,220 in 2013. So, for it to be worthwhile you’d have to make more than $52,623, and that’s not including the taxes on the extra $4,220, and not including any state/local taxes.

This is just the low end.

One bedroom apartments with the same floor plans as those available through the BMR program range from $2,796-$3,470/month at market rate and $581.00/month through BMR.

On the high end, you’d be paying an extra $34,668 in rent. Meaning that it wouldn’t make sense for you to make between $23,310 and $65,348 — again, probably more than this to account for differences in taxes on the extra money and state/local taxes.

With programs like San Francisco’s inclusionary housing, I’ve found one example where it doesn’t make sense to earn between $23,210 and $65,348 per year. All of that extra money would be going to rent that would otherwise be swallowed by the housing developers. And I’m sure it’s not an isolated example.

Should we really have programs that encourage people to work part time at Starbucks rather than get a job that requires them to actually think?

[1] Mayor’s Office of Housing and Development page on BMR units at Rincon Green
[2] Rincon Green floor plans
[3] IRS 2013 Tax Tables

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Tipping: let’s not

This entry was inspired by Wait But Why’s unsurprising blog post on the necessity of tipping (linked below). In the lead in on Wait But Why’s Facebook page, he says

Tipping is about making sure you don’t mess up what you’re supposed to do.

I call his blog post unsurprising because he admits to having once been a server. He claims he was “undertipped” — but I disagree that undertipping is a real thing. I disagree with the tipping system in general, but we’ll get to that. Lots of things make no sense:

Pricey restaurants

When I was in grad school, a fellow grad student told me that he had spent years as a waiter at a high-end restaurants making $100K per year (tax-free). He reported only enough of his tips to make it appear that he was making minimum wage. It was hard for him to leave that lifestyle behind — he only worked dinner hours and was free to party and sleep in the rest of the time.

Sure, he was providing a needed service. But was his work really of more value to society than, well, that of most people? The median income of an American worker is far below $100K, after all. And if your meal at a cheap restaurant costs $10, but a meal that took similar efforts on the part of the waiter cost $100 at a fancier restaurant, does the fancy waiter really deserve 10x the tip?

Claims that waiters rely on tips

According to US Federal law on tipped workers:

If an employee’s tips combined with the employer’s direct wages of at least $2.13 an hour do not equal the federal minimum hourly wage, the employer must make up the difference.

Though the rest of his article seems … if not well researched then at least researched … his claim that in the case of some tipped workers, “customers are in charge of paying the professional’s salary”. He even goes on to emphasize that for waiters and bartenders:

Your tips are literally their only income.

That is literally not true, unless the businesses they work for are violating federal law.

In what sense can we agree that service workers “rely” on tips? Only in the sense that they are gambling on their salaries: counting on the tipping system to get them more than minimum wage. Because, I’ll say it again, minimum wage is guaranteed by federal law. Even if a tipped worker doesn’t receive a single cent in tips, he will make the maximum of federal/state/local minimum wage, and furthermore, it will be his employer that pays the difference, not the customer — as it should be!

The entitlement

Now that we know tipped workers are guaranteed minimum wage, let’s examine the entitlement. I’ve gone to dinner with foreigners here and let them refuse to tip. We’ve been chased out into the street by angry servers asking if they did something wrong. I’ve been told “the standard tip is 15%” when I had paid the check separately and was intending to leave the tip on the table. I’ve had discussions with people who have been tipped workers, and the attitude is that customers “owe” them at least a 10% tip — and that’s the low end that’s supposed to be reserved for totally crap service. The blog post below claims that it’s never acceptable to tip below 15%.

Why do tipped workers believe they deserve a certain amount? A simplistic answer is that the broken tipping system in America has given them that expectation. It’s the norm to tip. There’s social censure if you don’t. People call you cheap and waiters follow you down the street. But is it reasonable for a service worker to expect more than minimum wage? Most service positions don’t require much in the way of specialized skills or education. They are not any more demanding or dangerous than other minimum wage jobs (WalMart workers, for example). There isn’t a shortage of willing waiters. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems silly that they should expect more than minimum wage. And if they could get it with their skill set, I’m sure they would work elsewhere — where the salary was guaranteed. Yet, they willingly work for tips — probably because it’s easy to underreport them when it comes time for income taxes.

An alternative

Just don’t tip. There should be a business card that people leave in place of adding a tip. One that says more or less:

Your service was [Excellent Good Fair Poor], but in any case, I don’t tip because your wage should come from your employer, not the customer. If you believe your wage is unfair, you should take it up with your manager.

Maybe there could also be a link to some kind of Anti-Tipping Society with more info on politicians/labor unions/etc that they can become involved in to demand a fair salary that doesn’t rely on tips.

Remember: if you believe that it’s the restaurant’s responsibility to pay the tipped worker and not yours, then you shouldn’t tip – because the restaurant only has to pay $2.13 an hour if you decide to be Mr. Moneybags and leave a generous tip. That’s right — the restaurant paid your server $2.13 while you paid $20 for that $100 meal. Why on earth should you be paying 10 times as much as the actual employer? Why should someone with no special skills or education be making $100K/year, tax-free? Everyone who tips is contributing to the problem we have today. I think the only way to motivate anyone to change this system is to stop tipping.

Everything You Don’t Know About Tipping


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The sharing economy

In my closet, there is usually a box. In that box, there are more boxes, all nested in one another like Russian dolls, but with their tops open. The smallest box is stuffed with old air pockets, used padded envelopes, tattery tissues paper and druggie-sized ziploc baggies. Why? Why, you may ask. For just one reason:

I am a hoarder.

There. Now you know. The basest fear in a hoarder’s heart is that she will discard something and then need it later. It hurts even more when I can remember having once had the perfect thing and giving it away. The motivation to keep things is this:

I have it now. If I get rid of it and I need it later, I’ll have to find it AND pay for it. How inconvenient!

This mentality, in its extreme cases, leads to the homes you see in A&E’s Hoarders.

What has helped me immensely in the last few weeks is the discovery of the sharing economy with sites like Yerdle.  (No, I don’t work for them. I’m just a rabid fan.) It’s very reassuring that if I give away, say, my old jewelry box, then I one day desperately need another, I can probably find one on Yerdle and “pay” for it with the points I’ve accumulated. It’s also a nice idea that something I like but never use could be very useful right now to someone else. It isn’t pure altruism though. Far from it. Here are some things I’ve managed to get for free (and their retail prices):

Crate and Barrel down queen duvet insert ($259)
Apple 85W MacBook Pro charger ($79)
Farberware roasting rack ($38.88)
Stainless steel compost pail ($22.99)
Fashy warmflasche/hot water bottle ($18.95)

I almost feel bad because the things I’ve given away were largely worthless. Like old clothes, toys and costume jewelry. I’ve always found it funny that those things cost so much at the store, but have so little value on resale. Even a $200 cashmere sweater won’t fetch more than a few bucks at a garage sale. I’m not going to bother with buying things at full retail price anymore when I can avoid it. Clothing, utensils, bakeware, dishes — most household goods, and even some nice furniture can frequently be found for free. Why spend money to make retailers even richer? With all the money saved on these items, I can feel better about splurging when it matters to me. Like on travel or Apple products.

I also attended a Peerswap the other evening. While I did bring a sack full of old clothes to give away, what I came home with (a North Face jacket, a J. Crew blazer and button down, 2 H&M sweaters, etc) was worth a lot more. More importantly, I’m sure I’ll get more use out of my haul than the items I gave away.

I guess that’s part of the point: we have limited storage space, and limited time to use all the things we own. So why not try to give our unused things a better life? I like to imagine the rainbow slinky I know delighting a child again, like it once delighted me.

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I like to tell people that I’m a lucky person. The most common response to that is “I don’t believe in luck” or Ben Franklin’s quote

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”

Okay, cute. So if I work really hard at a job, I increase my chance of winning the lottery? That’s the sort of luck I’m talking about: something improbable but good that happens to to a person by chance.

Things like finding a DSLR or a twenty dollar bill in the street. But I’ve never won anything on a large scale. Maybe I should prove that I am lucky? Should I buy a $150 raffle ticket for the house shown above?

I mean, the expectation value would be zero with a ticket price of $44.44 if the house (valued at $4 million) were the only prize and if 90,000 buy tickets (that is the upper limit for the number of tickets sold). But the math is more complicated because there are 1800 prizes total, and you can purchase multiple raffle tickets for a discount (3 for $400, 5 for $550). The website says there ends up being an at least 1/50 chance of winning something.

Okay, tell me what to do.

Photo credit: SF Dream House Raffle


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In defense of Abercrombie & Fitch

The internet was outraged at a few comments the CEO of A&F made in 2007 about wanting to sell his clothes to thin people. His comments fall under the category of things which are logical to think and act on, but taboo to say. Of course he wants the thin/popular kids to wear his clothes: that’s basically free marketing. But America is currently on a “love your body” and “fat acceptance” kick (understandable, given that 70% of American adults are overweight or obese) so he should’ve known it’d be naughty to say it.

Me? I’m not thin. I’m not tall. I do not, in any way, resemble an A&F model and I never have. Except maybe the hair. But still, A&F has been one of my favorite clothing brands for more than 10 years. Here’s why:

1. Soft — whatever their ethics or lack of them, the clothes they make are soft. I like the feel of their fabrics against my skin. Sometimes, they sell cashmere. And it was some of the best cashmere available at that price point.

2. Fit — I’m Asian. I don’t really have breasts. A&F makes clothes for people without breasts. Most of their tops look downright pornographic if you’re larger than a B cup.

3. Attention to detail — It isn’t only the fabric and the cut, but even the tiniest details like the ribbon lining the collar on the inside look like they’ve been carefully considered. And the buttons and ribbons. And the colors. The colors are divine. No one does pastels like A&F.

But even the rest. A fat blogger (I think she identifies herself as such) did a photoshoot of herself in the style of A&F ads [linked below]. It was meant to show that fat people are attractive too, but I don’t see why this assertion matters. Some brands do target fat people. Others don’t. It seems like a deep insecurity that fat people, especially fat bloggers have. They bristle at the thought that anyone might find them unattractive. Rather than trying to contradict, it seems better to just accept that some people don’t think they’re attractive and it doesn’t matter.

You tell me — do her photos ‘prove’ that fat people are attractive too?

‘Fat’ Abercrombie Ads

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