Monday, June 18, 2007

Quicken? More like, uh. Slow-en

A while back (57 days, to be precise), I bought and downloaded Quicken 2007 Deluxe. I went through an initial flurry of importing all my information and figuring out how to use it, then several weeks of maintaining and updating it, and today I'm uninstalling and applying for a refund. It isn't bad, but it isn't what I expected. What follows is my sort of review.

But first: context! I like money. Not just having it; I enjoy planning and investing and researching. I'm far from a financial guru, but I follow the financial news and have a pretty solid idea of good personal budgeting. I think a lot of people might buy Quicken in order to get away from some of the aspects of money management, but for me, it was almost going to be a kind of entertainment.

That said, despite the fact I enjoy money, I've never, ever been good about balancing my checkbook. As an intuitive and abstract thinker, I'd much rather come up with goals, plans and models than make sure I know precisely how much money I have to the last cent. I tend to make sure that I have "enough" in my checking account, periodically sweep the surplus to an investment account, and otherwise don't worry about it very much.

I have a really good overall idea of my financial situation, but I'm not so clear on the particulars: how much I spend on food, whether my gas expenses go up or down in the summer, how important plane trips to Chicago are in the overall context of my budget. One of the most exciting thoughts of Quicken was getting this capability, so I could pull raw data into charts and graphs to see just where my money was going.

My parents had recently gotten Quicken and seemed fairly happy with it. I spent some time online looking at different personal finance offerings. There are some free options, most of which are extremely elaborate Excel spreadsheets. I'm also intrigued by GNU Cash, which has just recently added support for Windows; that said, they make it clear that the Windows version is still very much a work in progress. The only two serious contenders out there are Quicken and Microsoft Money. I wasn't about to fork over money for another Microsoft product, but I did do some research online, where I found that the two products were considered roughly equivalent, with a slight edge going to Quicken (mainly due to its longer period for free online access).

I was going to buy a discount version of Quicken 2007, but then I noticed that they offered a free 60-day money-back guarantee if you did an electronic download from their web site, so I went ahead and did that.

In summary, these are the things I liked about the product:
  • Memorized transactions - it can detect when you have a recurring payment or credit, and set up a rule to expect that in the future.
  • Reporting is actually quite good. After it gets all the raw data, you can quickly view all sorts of helpful charts, such as spending for a month divided by category, growth in net worth over the past year, etc.
  • Online update - automatically retrieve account information from your bank, credit card, etc. This is phenomenal - when it works!
And here is my long list of complaints, either things I disliked or, more often, should have been better:
  • Stupidity of the matching algorithm. Sometimes it's good - if you've manually entered a payment, then later on you download that payment's record for your account, it will know to replace the first with the second. However, it doesn't work in reverse; if you download a payment before you've entered a recurring bill, there's no way to indicate that you paid the bill. I ended up just clicking "Skip" on these, but it's still a pain.
  • Utterly bizarre lack of support for CDs. (That's Certificates of Deposit.) I can't believe that Quicken has been sold for, what, almost two decades now, and still doesn't really do CDs. After spending way too much time hunting around online, I found the "approved" way to approximate this: you need to act as if the CDs are bonds, set a bond price of $1, enter the actual amount as the number of shares, and input the maturity date. So you can do it, but come on, why on earth not just have a simple entry for CDs? This is one of the most common investment tools out there next to savings accounts.
  • "One Step Update", while a great idea, is semi-permanently broken. Some banks just don't support it. Others do, but in such a way that if the bank's web site ever changes, it breaks the update. I spent more time fighting with this tool than doing anything else - in all honesty, it would have been much quicker to just download the transaction information from each web site and insert it manually, but since I was paying for this feature I wanted to make it work.
  • Have I mentioned the dumb matching algorithm? I can't understand why, when I have a recurring expense for Rent for $1134, and I download a check transaction for $1134, it doesn't even occur to Quicken that this check might be for my rent.
  • Poorly integrated "Planning" feature. This is part of the reason why I opted for the "Deluxe" version instead of the basic one. You can theoretically use it to plan for retirement or other major events - I used it to "plan" my condo purchase. But it's basically a separate application which just lives within Quicken. It infuriated me to see that I'd need to manually enter my salary information again, when I'd already set it up in Quicken. And the planning itself isn't any better than the free tools you'd find online.
  • Initial setup is more complicated than it should be. The first step is to do budgeting - enter your expected recurring expenses for things like your rent, utilities, and so on. Which is all well and good, except that thanks to Quicken's idiotic matching algorithm, the very first time you download transactions, it won't have the slightest clue that they're for the expenses you spent so much time entering. Sometimes these are understandable. My utility bill fluctuates from month to month, so I can see how Quicken wouldn't necessarily know that my scheduled "Pacific Gas & Electric/$20" got downloaded as "PG&E/$17.87". But it should freaking give me some way to say, "Oh yeah, that recurring expense was actually paid by this line item. Please recognize these things in the future." What I ended up doing was deleting all my recurring expenses - the ones Quicken was so excited about me manually entering! - and having it re-generate them from the downloaded ones, so it would recognize them in the future. Which, once again, is dumb - since you can import the last three months or so when you set up, it should have done the monthly budgeting stuff after it got the raw data and saved me the hassle.
So on the whole, using Quicken was a frustrating experience. Not because it was a bad product, exactly, as because it has the potential to be such a great one, but has a few mind-numbingly bizarre oversights that keep it from achieving that excellence.

I'm saving off my data, uninstalling the product, and applying for that refund. I still like the idea of financial software, and may try again in a couple of years to see if they've gotten it yet. Until then, though, I'll be returning to my slightly fuzzy but far simpler view of my finances.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Sometimes I feel like the only reason I keep this blog going is to provide an outlet for my raging love of all things Civilization IV.

I'd previously reported my glee at learning that Fall from Heaven would be included in the upcoming Beyond the Sword expansion. As we get closer to the July release date, more details are seeping out, including this stunner: unlike, say, Civilization II: Conflicts in Civilization's "Best of the Net", they didn't just copy a zip file off the Civ Fanatics site to bulk up their expansion (though even if they had, the expansion is awesome enough that I would still cheer them). No, they actually got Kael and his merry band of misfits to craft an entirely new scenario that is based on the Fall from Heaven concept, but contains entirely different gameplay and uses unique features from the Beyond the Sword expansion. Heck, more than that: as this interview at IGN reveals, they even got Firaxis to add some features to the game engine to support what they wanted to do in the scenario!

If you're at all interested in Civ IV, that IGN article is well worth reading. I've gone from interested to excited; this information alone is now prompting me to pre-order this game. Once again, they've totally upended the existing Civilization engine to provide a new experience. The player controls one of three heroes at the start of the game, as he re-unites the scattered remnants of the tribe. There's a focused dramatic arc to the game: "Mulcarn, the God of Winter, reigns and the world is little more than a frozen wasteland ravaged by blizzards... the pieces of a legendary sword, the Godslayer, have to be found and numerous threats have to be overcome. These threats could be creatures that roam the wilderness, enemy civilizations or the power of Mulcarn himself. If the player reforges the Godslayer and takes it into battle against Mulcarn he can win the scenario and end the Age of Ice." In other words, it's an abrupt shift from the generalism of classic Civilization into an extremely pointed and goal-oriented game. More so than most scenarios, which use existing Civilization features to achieve unusual goals, this one looks primed to alter existing gameplay dramatically.

So what else is exciting? Blizzards sound cool. This is the Age of Ice, after all, and the God of Winter must make his presence felt. Blizzards will blow across the map, damaging units and changing terrain - for example, freezing a lake so your foot soldiers can cross it. They have retained magic from the existing Civilization game, but it works a little differently in the Third Age than the Fourth. The "Fire" release (which you can get for free from Civ Fanatics) is set in the Fourth Age, when magic is better understood and can be studied, allowing you to "build" adepts who can train to be mages or summoners. Ice's Third Age, by contrast, comes after a long dark age when much human knowledge has been lost, and so magic comes into the world unexpectedly as the rare child with power is born.

Perhaps the most encouraging thought is that this mod has gone through Firaxis's playtesting and QA process. Again, the public mod is really solid, but this sort of professional polish should make a great game even more amazing. If we're really lucky, we might even see some new video and other nice flashy media. All I can say is, sign me up, I'm ready for Ice!

Thank you, sir!

May I please have that day of my life back?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

So, now it's June!

I'd like to apologize to my regular readers - or, rather, people who are regular checkers but haven't found much to read here lately. The last few weeks have been pretty busy, but busy with stuff that I can't really write about, so I haven't had a lot to share. That being said, I want to ping this space occasionally, if for nothing else so that I don't forget my login password.

First: the observant will note that the "cycling accident" counter has finally been bumped up again. I actually hemmed and hawed a bit before deciding to increment it... I was involved in a collision with another cyclist, but there was no blood shed and neither of our bikes were hurt, so I'm not sure if it counts as an "accident" or not. I eventually decided that since I hadn't intended for it to happen, it was technically accidental, and so the counter increases.

(For the curious: it was probably technically my fault, although I will publicly continue to blame the guy who was riding his bike while his dog ran in the lane adjacent. Really, if all people and beasts would stay in their own lanes, there would never be any trouble.)

That little scare aside, though, I'm loving the cycling thing. The last two weeks I've done it every workday, which just feels great. I arrive at work feeling energized and refreshed, and it really helps my sleep patterns stay nicely regulated. My only real regret is that it makes me a serial moocher for lunchtime excursions. If and when our office moves, I really hope we end up somewhere within easy walking distance of lunch spots, or at least a decent set of picnic tables (i.e., ones that aren't within several yards of Highway 17).

I've been on a tear through Terry Pratchett's Discworld books lately. It's been a fun trip... they're quick reads, he has a great sense of humor, and there's enough satire and veiled social commentary to keep me thinking. I really love it when authors create worlds, which is a big part of the reason why I'm such a sucker for fantasy; much of the geography of the Discworld feels less well defined than, say, Tolkien's Middle-earth or Jordan's Randland, but the social structures in the world are vividly realized. In particular, the city of Ankh-Morpork, with its system of guilds and seething racial tensions, is a brilliant creation. While I've enjoyed all the Discworld books so far, the ones I enjoy the most are set entirely in this fantastic city.

It's taken me about a year to get this far, but last night I watched the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know, I know, I'm as surprised as you are. For years I've resisted watching the show, believing that it was a teenage soap opera with the gimick of vampires. My resolve began to weaken when I fell in love with Whedon's phenomenal Firefly series, and after determined lobbying from some friends I finally took the plunge and started watching it, starting with the (very bad!) 1992 movie, then the uneven first series of the TV show, before I started getting seriously hooked in the second season and then going straight through. I may do a full review at some point, but honestly, it all feels a little too big to me. I'll cheerfully admit that I was wrong; once the show hits its stride (partway into the second season), it becomes nothing less than a fantasy epic, and at its best it achieves an almost breathtaking ambition.

I'd foolishly thought that the human element would be the most tiresome part of the show, something that interrupts the fun fighting scenes, but the elaborate plot threads that Whedon creates over seven seasons are the true jewels of the show. He's a very brave author who is willing to experiment with the show's tone and format, and regularly challenges his audience to follow him in new directions. Ultimately, I guess I respect Whedon for the same reason as above: he has created his own world, with its internal logic and boundaries, and makes it seem more vivid than our own.

Pending a possible longer review, here are some MINI SPOILERS for the series, in the form of my opinion of each season.

Season One: I wouldn't have mourned the show if ended after this, but I don't actively dislike it either. I really enjoy Willow's character, and some of the high school scenes ring particularly true with me.

Season Two: Things really get cranking when Spike and Drusilla show up. Especially when the Master's heir dies; that became the first of many "whoa! I didn't see THAT coming!" moments that would follow me in the series.

Season Three: The Mayor is probably my favorite Big Bad through the entire series; he's such a phenomenal character.

Season Four: I may be more impressed with this season than any other; the layers of revelations and plot twists keep you constantly off guard. It also has two of my favorite episodes: "Hush" and "Restless".

Season Five: The series makes a sharp turn back towards the real world; I admire Whedon for making cancer and natural death a major part of the story. Dawn becomes the first main character who I actually dislike.

Season Six: An odd and wandering season, but ultimately one of the most interesting. No other series has worked as hard to deserve "the hero comes back from the dead." "Once More with Feeling" is another favorite episode. Evil Willow is amazing.

Season Seven: The greater a work, the harder it is for the ending to do it justice. How can the Battle of Endor compare to all that has gone before? Or the battle in Kefka's tower? That said, Whedon does a great job here as well, not being content to retread old ground and wrap up loose plot lines, he aggressively introduces new characters and plots to make an ultimately exciting finale.

Favorite main character: Oz when he's around, otherwise Willow.
Favorite supporting character: Jonathan.
Favorite Big Bad: The Mayor.
Favorite one-shot Bad: The Gentlemen.
Favorite episode: If I had to choose, probably "Restless."
Favorite opening credits shot: The one with Buffy twirling the ax.
Favorite location: The haunted frat house.
Favorite flashback: Spike in pre-vampire mode.
Favorite Slayer: Faith.
Favorite weapon: Xander's rocket launcher. (Runner-up: Goddess Buffy in "Primeval.")


I've been running through Angel concurrently, keeping more or less in sync with their original air dates. I'm almost to the end of Season Four of that show. Like Buffy, it started out all right and has gotten much better the further along it goes.

On the gaming front: I played, enjoyed, and beat the "Omens" scenario in Civ IV: Warlords. If you have the expansion and haven't tried the scenario yet, I highly recommend giving it a shot. It's a very different and interesting twist on the standard game.

In case you haven't heard yet, there's yet another expansion coming: Beyond the Sword. It sounds really cool. The most intriguing additions to the core game, in my opinion, are the Corporations (which spread like religions, and allow you to convert one type of resource into another: for example, Standard Ethanol lets you turn surplus Corn into Oil) and also random events, which will add quest-like elements to the game. For the latter, I'm imagining it'll be a little like the throne room interludes in the old "Castles" DOS game. There are also some cool sounding scenarios, including a space colonization game and - huzzah! - the Fall from Heaven mod. If you're a nerd like me and demand as much information as possible, the place to go is Civ Fanatics.

Beyond the Sword isn't coming until July, so in the meantime, I'm keeping myself occupied - and terrified - with a blast from the past. After many years on my wish list, I finally started playing through System Shock 2. It can be found on most "greatest games of all time" rolls, and for good reason. I'm guessing I'm a bit less than halfway through, and will do a full writeup when I'm done; I will say that it might surpass the original Half-Life as my favorite first-person shooter.

This is sort of old news, but I renewed my apartment lease here at Creekside. I've been pretty happy here, and while my rent's going up, it's going up all over the Valley. Along with worse traffic, that's the price we pay for economic recovery. Anyways, I love the location (a block from transit! a block from the Los Gatos Creek Trail! easy driving to Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Rotten Robbie's and other essentials!), the people are nice, and, frankly, I've gotten a little tired of moving. So I'm content to stay here for another nine months or so, and then we'll see if it's time for a change.

I've started getting and reading the New York Review of Books. It's good, but also kind of overwhelming. I don't see how any adult, other than professional critics or the unemployed, could possibly keep up with all the amazing books out there. I mostly muddle through with my favorite genres and authors; it's always an exciting, liberating experience the first time I "discover" a phenomenal author who becomes a favorite, like Stephenson, Saunders or Murakami. Do you ever fantasize about quitting your job and doing something else with your time? I actually like my job, but if I ever quit, I think I could be very happy just reading books all day long. The Review is well-written and fascinating, but at the same time it feels like it's teasing me with a world I can never inhabit.

I am such a lamer: I have not seen a single new movie all year long. No summer blockbusters, no art-house fare, no early-year dreck. What's funny is that I still read movie reviews and know what I do and don't want to see; I just never get around to seeing any of them. Maybe this will change some day.

By now you have probably heard the news that Battlestar Galactica is ending next season. I'm kind of bummed. It stinks that my favorite show is going off the air, but at the same time, I really admire them for going out when they're at the top of their game. That show will be remembered as one of the all-time best, and this will cement its legacy before it has a chance to lose its way.

Thoughts on other shows: here are MEGA SPOILERS for House and Lost.

I've already bragged to most of you about this, but I figured out the twist in the Lost season finale very early on: Jack is using a KRZR cell phone, which of course wasn't released until 2006, well after their plane crashed in 2004. Anyways. I dug the finale, and felt that as a whole, season three was far better than the second. I felt like the second season got all wrapped up in coming up with "logical" explanations for everything as a reaction to complaints about how mysterious everything was, so we were regularly tormented with explanations of, "Oh, there are huge magnets here that make everything act all weird!" This season they became more comfortable returning to the mystical aspect of the island, which in my opinion has always been its strength. Also, I think that Benjamin Linus is the best thing to happen to the series for a while.

I'm really happy that they've set an end date for the show, although plenty of snide people are saying that this is more cocky than anything else. Frankly, they haven't demonstrated the same consistent excellence that Battlestar Galactica has - I can only thing of one bad BG episode right off hand, and quite a few more bad Lost episodes - so I'll cheer this decision and the discipline I hope it'll bring to the show.

The finale of House was pretty cool, wasn't it? I really hope that they have the guts to stick with it next season: give the ax to half the cast of a very popular show. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them came straggling back, but we'll see. Still, if they move ahead, it could be a great shot in the arm to the show - I'm regularly impressed at how such a formula-driven show can continue to deliver, and radically altering its DNA should give it more years of good drama. I enjoyed all three doctors, but in all honesty, the only one I'd really miss is Foreman.

Here's hoping that next season, House gets paired with a cheerful homosexual doctor from England, and... what's this? Why, look everyone! Stephen Fry has joined the cast! Let's see if the man with two limps can change Doctor House where everyone else has failed!


I guess that's it for now from San Jose. I hope you and yours are doing well!