Major Media Food Writing Is Now Officially Dead. Here's the Guy Who Killed It.

Want to know what the labor market looks like for food writing? Have a good look at this job "opportunity" at Epicurious for an aspiring food writer:

So far, so good. But here's where it begins to get ... depressing:

...So, this is three jobs, then? Maybe four.
"Links to published work" ... for someone "who is at the beginning of her/his career"?

At this point, this poor un-self-aware gentleman and his "amazing job" began to receive severe blowback.
This tweet was particularly blunt:
And then... things got serious:

There's an old saying: "Never go inside a sausage factory, you might see how the sausage is made." Well, major food media is sausage--and now we've had a good long look at exactly how it's made: on the backs of people working "amazing jobs" like this.

This ought to shatter any serious reader's interest in Epicurious as a site, and perhaps also shatter any reader's interest in any of Conde Nast's publications.


Footnotes:
A list of Conde Nast publications:

Allure
Architectural Digest
Ars Technica
Backchannel
Bon Appétit
Brides
Condé Nast Traveler
Epicurious
Glamour
Golf Digest
GQ
Pitchfork
Self
Teen Vogue
The New Yorker
Vanity Fair
Vogue
W
Wired


You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Neomania


neomania [nee oh MAY nee uh] noun; An obsession with the new.

Neomania is disease of modernity. And in fact the most telling examples of neomania usually involve tech gadgets. Ask any iPhone owner, especially if when he's lining up outside an Apple store excitedly waiting to be separated from a thousand dollars.

But neomania exists in the world of food too. It appears in ingredient bragging, a topic we've discussed previously here at Casual Kitchen. It seems so cool to be the first food blogger to share some exotic-sounding ingredient with your readers. For example, ten years ago, if you were one of the early bloggers to offer a recipe featuring "garlic scapes" you were too cool for school! You were in the know, ahead of everybody else.

What about neomania in restaurants? I know I unfairly pick on New Yorkers all the time here, but New York City is simply loaded with people obsessed with going to the latest restaurant. And since restaurants in New York City have an 80% fail rate within five years, neomaniac New Yorkers always have an unlimited supply of the "new" to chase.

Travel? Yep. If you're the first person in your circle to go somewhere, you get tremendous status heirarchy points. First among your friends to visit Medellin? Check. First to Iceland? Check. Bali? Laos? Tibet? Check. Another bonus: trendy locations go in and out of fashion over the years, so when a hip tourist location goes from new to old to new again, you can say you went there before it was cool--and be right twice!

What's consistently depressing about neomania is how within months of a thing being new, it's quickly no longer new, and we contemptuously roll our eyes at things we recently thought were amazing. You might be too cool for school if you were early to the garlic scapes trend, but heaven help you if you were late to it. Borrrr-ing!!

Think about various trendy concepts in the restaurant industry: sea foam, lobster ravioli, avocado toast, or, for the beverage neomaniacs among you, overpriced "mules" served up in a distinctive copper cup. And think about how, if we look back honestly at the trumpeting of these experiences when they were trendy, how we all now feel vaguely sheepish having participated in the neomania when it happened: how we wish we hadn't written that me-too recipe featuring garlic scapes, just like everyone else did at the same time. How we wish we hadn't paid $15 for that mule in the trendy copper mug in that trendy upscale bar. And how we'd rather forget all about that time we paid $42 for an entree of "scallops and sea foam" at some restaurant whose name we can barely remember... that isn't even in business any more.

Neomania in cooking
There's one instance where I find neomania to be particularly offensive: when I see a perfectly perfect recipe appallingly butchered by neomaniacs. One example that comes to mind is taking a flawless, timeless recipe like apple pie or apple crisp, and using some abstruse, expensive neomaniacal new apple variety that nobody's ever heard of [1] when anyone with half a soul knows that in-season, traditional Macintosh apples [2] are the only acceptable variety to use for apple pies and crisps.

Finally, if we extend our time horizon a bit, we can see how neomania has caused us to introduce needless, even harmful elements to our lives. Consider the now-infamous government food pyramid, or worse, things like olestra, a new (and supposedly healthier) oil. I'm not sure which is worse: a set of food recommendations that were exactly, exactly wrong, or a new oil that became infamous for causing anal leakage.

Neomania is a type of infirmity, an illness, because it causes us to shun already-familiar things that work well and chase "new" things that usually don't work at all.

The new is rarely better, but it's always designed to seem so. And it certainly tricks enough of us as we scramble from vacation spot to vacation spot, from ingredient brag to ingredient brag, from new restaurant to newer restaurant, from tech gadget to tech gadget, constantly straining for more, when what we already had worked better all along.


READ NEXT: Is Organic Food Healthier? Or Just Another Aspirational Product?
AND: A False Referent


[1] The new "Jazz" apple variety comes to mind, itself ironically a cross of two other neomaniacal apples: Royal Gala and Braeburn.

[2] Okay, maybe Cortlands in a pinch.




You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

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Should I Be Vegan or Vegetarian? How to Resolve the Question

"No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people."
--William Howard Taft

"It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many things have a logic we do not understand that is smarter than our own."
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

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Should we all be vegans? Or at least vegetarians? We're fed all kinds of reasons for it: to save the planet, for ethical reasons, because it's supposedly healthier, to help the Green New Deal, and so on.

One way I address the question of whether to be a vegetarian or vegan is by first understanding that I am part of a system that I do not fully understand. I certainly don't know all there is to know about the human body and how it responds to dietary inputs. In other words, I begin from a place of epistemic humility. I know lot less than I think I know.

Second, I'm not in the business of "laying down rules of conduct" for others. On the contrary, in the business of sharing how I think, how I try to play chess rather than checkers in the various domains discussed here at Casual Kitchen. But you should eat how you want to eat! I don't want to tell you what do to when you're fully capable of deciding for yourself.

Unfortunately, we also have an oversupply of health and diet experts who, in stark contrast, love to tell us how to eat, and they do so with a total lack of epistemic humility. A few blatant examples: It was only a decade or two ago that the medical establishment realized that dietary cholesterol does not equal blood serum cholesterol, which made laughably incorrect the overconfidently dispensed 1980s-era dietary advice that eggs were unhealthy. Worse, our government went so far as to recommend carbs as a preponderant element of our diets. And to top it all off, they still haven't admitted that the horrendous, totally upside down food pyramid was utterly wrong from the start.

One shudders to think how many other things our expert community currently believes to be right, but will later discover to be wrong.[1]

All of this is to say that even if I were to learn as much as I possibly could about veganism and vegetarianism, even if I were to learn all the latest, most rigorous science behind it, it's still enormously likely I'll arrive at errant conclusions, basing those conclusion on soon-to-be-debunked dietary "science." Even more embarrassing, because I "know" so much about all the latest "science" about it, I'll be more confident than ever that I'm right! [2]

Now, humans have been eating meat and animal products for millennia, and our ancestor species likely consumed meat for millions of years before that. So, one possible decision framework in deciding what to eat would be to let "what has worked well in the past" guide your decisions in the future. This is a heuristic, an imperfect one admittedly. But using it in the dietary realm will help you avoid recently-invented foods (Velveeta, hydrogenated oils) and stick instead to foods that have been around for, say, several centuries at a minimum.

Second, I can try to back up this initial tentative choice by carefully observing the results of people around me. Are the vegans and vegetarians that I know healthier and fitter than an equivalently healthy meat-eater? What of my vegan friends who decided to resume eating meat: why did they do this and what are their results? Readers can observe their circle of friends and acquaintances and copy the most effective behaviors.

Now let's go one step further. Let's say that despite this "what do humans historically eat" heuristic, I still want to consider veganism or vegetarianism because I'm persuaded by the various reasons given in this posts' first paragraph. So, knowing that meat and animal products are historically part of our diets, I could make an epistemically humble choice to experiment with the quantity of meat or animal products I eat, and keep that quantity low. This would be a partial-measure solution that would still provide the nutritional inputs that my species historically appears to need without overtinkering with a complex dietary system that I cannot fully understand.

Essentially, this is how we've thought through this issue. It's why we've embraced what we call partial vegetarianism here at Casual Kitchen, where we eat animal products like milk, cheese and eggs and some meat. And it's why we're unlikely ever to be vegans or vegetarians.


READ NEXT: The 25 Best Laughably Cheap Recipes at Casual Kitchen
AND: You May Now Ignore All Scientific Studies





Footnotes:
[1] What's even more offensive to me is that nobody ever seems to apologize when a major medical, dietary or psychological claim is later debunked. "Oops, sorry about all those statins we put you on, our bad."

[2] A naive reader easily persuaded by cheap rhetoric might interject here, claiming I am "anti-science." Not in the least. What I am against is when experts use the patina of science to justify epistemically arrogant claims and to tell us what to do. And this goes double when what they tell us to do later turns out to be wrong! Further, calling something "science" does not make it so, which is why I use the (deliberately condescending) phrase "studies show science" to distinguish domains like psychology, nutrition/diet, healthcare, sociology, economics, etc., from genuine sciences like physics. Finally, readers can also use this expression as a reliable rule of thumb: Studies show science is not science.

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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

The Jackass Detector

A little story about a friend from back in my corporate years who gave me a major insight, one that I didn't really appreciate until much later. [1] Ironically, I bet he doesn't even remember this conversation.

He had just had surgery to correct a lazy eye (strabismus for the eye geeks out there). The main distinctive thing about strabismus is how it can be… odd… to talk to someone and have one of their eyes tracking you--while the other eye points away in a different direction.

Now, remember, I'm married to an optometrist, so to me his strabismus was interesting more than odd. But for people unfamiliar with the condition it can take a little getting used to.

I asked him what it was like to grow up with strabismus. Did he get teased for being different? Middle school and high school kids can be pretty brutal. Did it interfere in his ability to make friends?

His answer surprised me. He told me a lazy eye was a blessing, because it was an extremely useful jackass detector. Anyone who was a jerk about his condition instantly gave himself away! Not worth bothering with, ever.

At the time, I understood what he meant to some extent, but it wasn't until years later that I realized that he had given me an enormous insight that I could apply far more broadly. To see what I mean, think of all the things we say, buy, do and demonstrate in our lives:

* Do we argue about politics and try to "win" conversations? Jackass attractor.
* Do we brandish brand names (on our clothes, cars, etc.)? Possible jackass attractor.
* Are we flashy, consumerist, status competitive? Probable jackass attractor.

And so on. Or, on the contrary:

* Are we honest, sincere and direct? Jackass-repellent.
* Do we listen, and I mean really listen? Jackass repellent.
* Do we offer help to others, when asked? Jackass repellent.

Just as a physical disability helps expose jackasses, the way you live your life may also do the same.


Footnote:
[1] I've altered some details to keep this person anonymous.


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

If Companies Can, They Will

A follow up thought from last week’s post, which I began with a truism: If companies can hike prices, they will.

We can extend and broaden this truism if we want to:

If companies can do anything, they will.

This includes irritating things like discontinuing or changing a product that you like, ending maintenance or support services for a product you’ve already bought, buying out a competitor’s product and discontinuing it, forcing product upgrades[1], and so on. They can do all these things… in addition to pulling typical garden-variety stunts like putting in stealth price hikes.

Average consumers[2] tend to have a common response to these things: they get angry, they complain, they shake their fists, and they whine about how greedy corporations put profits before people, etc. And then they call on a parent figure (usually “the government”) to “do something” about it.[3]

These reactions are understandable, but effete. Truly empowered consumers do not bother to ineffectually shake their fists at some company. Instead, they go Bill Belichick on that company! They get cold, rational, solution-minded and creative. And they beat that company at its own game by finding alternatives and substitutes for the products that these companies sell. Our goal here is to understand the greater chess game being played around us so we can navigate it as effectively as possible.

It’s a pointless, unprofitable and effete exercise to impotently shake your fist at whatever latest greedy thing whatever greedy company did. Stop buying.


Footnotes:
[1] Technology companies are the worst offenders here. A typical example would be Microsoft rolling out increasingly complex operating systems that slowed down computer performance, which drove consumers to upgrade to new computers, after which Microsoft would roll out a still more bloated operating system, driving yet another upgrade cycle, etc. In the 1990s, cynical computer industry observers used to say that Microsoft sold “bloatware,” not software. Fortunately, today’s computer buyer has more options, and can now choose among various free operating systems (e.g., Chrome, Linux), and this has devastated Microsoft’s formerly dominant market position. They had it coming.

[2] But not Casual Kitchen readers of course.

[3] Even worse, they do any or all of these things on Twitter, a place where no one has ever listened, ever. The online equivalent of screaming in your car.

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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Noticing and Optionality as Defense Against Price Increases

A truism about prices and consumer products companies:

If a company can raise prices... it will.

Companies are always on the lookout for circumstances where they can raise prices. And they especially like circumstances where the consumer:

a) doesn't notice, or
b) doesn't have a choice.

Doesn't notice
When I say "the consumer doesn't notice" what do I mean? I'll explain with a hypothetical price-hiking tactic. Consider your basic Kraft brand salad dressing at $2.49 for a 16-ounce jar. Kraft decides to roll out a new, "upmarket" brand extension (for example, an "organic" or "natural" salad dressing) at a price point as much as 30-50% higher than the regular product. They market this product aggressively, paying for prominent shelf locations, signs, special displays, and so on, as Kraft attempts to position this salad dressing as a high end product.

Now, this creates a subtle "pricing umbrella"--for Kraft's regular brand, but for all other brands too. Even the store brand! Each of these brands now have room to raise their prices at least another 10-15%, to a point where they are still comfortably cheaper than the high-end brand.

Yet to a non-noticing, non-attentive consumer, all these products seeeeem less expensive, even though they're not. Voila! A price hike that consumers don't really even see. Because we notice relative differences much more easily than absolute differences, a new high-end or aspirational product can improve pricing dynamics for the entire product category. This is how pricing umbrellas work. And it goes without saying that consumers who "don't notice" don't even realize they're being fooled.

Doesn't have a choice
Let's move on to the second case: where consumers can't do anything about a price hike, even if they do notice. So, for the sake of argument, let's say (for some bizarre reason) you have undying brand loyalty to Kraft brand salad dressing. You simply refuse to buy anything else.

Well, you're pretty much screwed. And it's because of your "loyalty" to a brand that doesn't care about you, that doesn't even know you exist, and that sees you as a mere mark for future price hikes. You're stuck. You have to eat any increase in prices.

You can maybe hold off on buying until you see an attractive sale price (see last week's post for more on this), but you don't know when or to what extent the company actually will discount, if at all. At the end of the day, you're gonna eat a price hike. This is why brand loyalty is toxic to consumers.

Of course, I'm using salad dressing as an example in this post for reasons of rhetoric (and metaphor, as we'll soon see). After all, a flexible, empowered, open-minded reader who hears the words "Kraft salad dressing" and "price hike" in the same sentence will instantly begin reeling off solutions, substitutions and alternatives. To most readers here at Casual Kitchen the idea of buying salad dressing at all, much less a branded salad dressing (and much, much, much less an overpriced upmarket "aspirational" salad dressing) would be a ridiculous, even vaguely pathetic act. Especially in light of how easy it is to make inexpensive (and far more healthy) salad dressings at home.

Therefore, any reader here should easily be able to arrive at multiple solutions to subvert any price hike anywhere in this entire genre of products.

Okay. Salad dressing is easy. With other products it can be more difficult. Obviously. But the point is to try and think of any product, regardless of what it is, as if it were "salad dressing" in order to help your brain generate alternatives.

Really, it doesn't matter whether it's salad dressing, airline tickets, cars, houses or ...yachts. You want to make it so that all providers of all products have to compete--on multiple, multiple levels--in order to win your business.

And yeah, I know: one one level, salad dressing doesn't really matter. Nobody changes their standard of living by beating price hikes in the salad dressing aisle. But you will change your standard of living if you can employ these concepts in other life domains and with other, much bigger-ticket items.

If there are competing products in the same store, great. If not, make them them compete "temporally" by holding off on your buying until you see a truly attractive sale price. Invoke competition from other retailers, from online retailers, and so on.

Finally, when all else fails, make them compete with a truly out of the box solution. (Examples: make the product yourself at home, use the "don't want it" heuristic, find a truly original substitutive solution, etc.) Force these guys to compete for your business on multiple, multiple levels, and you will reclaim most of your power and resist any pricing games they play.

Remember: if you don't have options you are toast. You'll be beholden to some retailer or some company and all their sneaky, creepy pricing tactics.



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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

How Prices are Changing in Your Grocery Store, and Why This One Frugality Hack No Longer Works

Something has changed in the grocery store pricing environment. And it's not just prices rising (which they are, across the board in almost all food categories).

What we're also seeing is a fundamental change in the way things are priced relative to each other, and it's ruining one of the key grocery store hacks frugal shoppers have used for years.

What's the fundamental change? It used to be that store-brand products always sold at meaningful discounts to branded products. Not any more. And so, one of the easiest ways to save money food shopping--switching from the branded to the generic product--no longer works as well as it used to.

The backstory
Consumers were a lot better behaved twenty years ago. They didn't change brands often. So, to induce the typical consumer to even consider buying a store brand or generic product, the store had to offer a really juicy price. The price discount had to be huge.

Remember, this was back when companies actually made things, and when there (sometimes) used to be an actual difference between branded and unbranded products. Not so much any more. Furthermore, if you've read any of Casual Kitchen's posts on branding, you're well aware that, today, many consumer products brands don't actually make the products they're known for. They instead outsource it to other third party food manufacturers.

Not only that, but often those third party manufacturers make not only the branded item, but the store brand product too. Often in the very same factory. And those two products sit right next to each other on the store shelf, differentiated by absolutely nothing but price. [For a depressing and highly typical example, see CK's article on commodity canned tuna.]

Consumers, especially the ones who didn't enjoy getting separated from their money for no reason, caught on to this game. They stopped playing checkers and started playing chess. When you figure out to your dismay that the only difference between a branded product and a store brand product is a label and a 30-50% higher price, you won't just consider the store brand, you'll buy it. From now on. What kind of fool would do otherwise?

Add in some inflation
There's one more step in this discussion. We're now in a more inflationary environment than we were just a few years ago. Prices are starting to rise across many grocery store categories. But here's what's unusual in today's pricing environment: while many branded products have hiked their prices, store brands have hiked their prices even more. Now, the pricing differential between branded and generic items is a lot smaller than it was. Instead of discounts of 30% or more, you might see discounts of as little as 5-10%.

I'll share an example. Over the past couple of years, Planters brand nuts has put in meaningful price hikes to the point where (in grocery stores in our area) their standard 1-lb jar of peanuts now costs up to $4.29. The store brand in my store responded to this "pricing umbella" by raising their standard price to $3.99, a mere 7% discount. Yes, both have raised prices, but the store brand raised its price more, and now the store band offers far less of a discount to the branded product than before.

Another example. Store brand analgesics (aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen) now are priced at a smaller than ever discount to branded analgesics, with discounts of only 10-15%. Previously you could buy store brand painkillers for sometimes half the price of branded Tylenol or Advil. And because these products have to be identical in every way by law, this was the easiest, most entry-level frugality hack in all of consumer products.

As a matter of fact, with some products, the generic/branded pricing differential has gotten so tiny that you can sometimes find a branded product offered at a temporary "on-sale" price that's actually less than the store brand product! Grocery store reality seems totally upside down when this happens. More on this in two paragraphs.

You can only push consumers so far
Finally, you can only push prices so far before consumers push back. In many food categories, companies and grocery stores are discovering to their dismay that they hurt sales by ramming through big price hikes, as consumers adjust by finding substitutes or buying less. Then, to win those buyers back, consumer products companies rely on discounting, sales and couponing.

Here's a somewhat ludicrous example of this from the packaged cookie aisle: after years and years of price hikes and stealth price hikes (keeping the price the same but offering fewer cookies per box, one of the most annoying tactics out there), it feels ridiculous to pay $6.00 or more for a box of some 17 Oreo DoubleStuff cookies, a quantity of cookies I could easily inhale in one sitting. Apparently many consumers agree with me (maybe not about the inhaling part, but definitely about the price), and in my grocery store, these cookies are frequently offered at half off. Half!

So, let me offer readers a thought experiment. What really is the price of Oreos?

Obviously, for a non-savvy, non-flexible customer who must have her Oreos on the exact day she happens to shop… that day's price is the price, however high it happens to be.

For the rest of us, however, we easily defeat these pricing games by shopping opportunistically, and never paying full price for anything, ever. Ever! Unless something is offered at a highly desirable, on-sale price, we. don't. buy. Here's where a savvy consumer separates herself from the pack.

Or! An even savvier, self-reliant consumer can always use the Don't want it! technique and not buy Oreos at all. After all, a batch of homemade cookies--made with love from laughably cheap commodity pantry items--will taste far better and cost far less.

And because learning to make delicious food at home is an inherently good skill, and because working on this skill improves your independence, flexibility and self-sufficiency, doing so will bring you far more satisfaction than overpaying for some flimsy, pathetic plastic container of 17 lousy Oreos.

So what's the takeaway here? First, all of this goes to show, yet again, who has ultimate power in this business environment. We consumers do. We are the ones who willingly decide whether or not to pick the product up off the shelf, carry it over to the checkout counter, and fish money out of our pockets to pay. By definition, companies cannot sell us products at any price unless they offer sufficient value to us such that we decide to buy.

The minute we say no and don't buy... they start discounting. Then we buy.

The consumer products marketplace is changing, it's evolving, as companies seek ways to maintain their profitability in an increasingly uncertain retailing environment. Some of our favorite frugality techniques still work, but some aren't working quite as well as they used to. We have to stay flexible, independent and opportunistic.


READ NEXT: Why Bad Blogs Get More Readers (An Accidental, Secret Recipe for Massive Web Traffic)
AND: Nine Terrible Ways to Make Choices

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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!