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Trustworthy Sites Are Worth A Mint

Trustworthy Sites Are Worth A Mint

Mint\'s login screen

    The internet is full of lies. Without plenty of effort, you can’t even prove my name is Thursday Bram. So why should you hand over your bank account numbers, passwords and other financial data to me?

    That’s essentially what Mint and other money management sites are asking you to do. These companies have many benefits for those of us focused on productivity and, for some of us, those benefits have outweighed our healthy senses of paranoia. I’m not saying that money management companies are all out to get us (and some of them are actually very good), but it’s worth taking a very close look at what sites you trust.

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    I realize it may not seem fair to be so suspicious — after all, these sites never did anything to me. But pretty much everything on the internet is a matter of trust. Consider Mint’s “Privacy & Security” page: in 20 minutes I could have an identical page up on my site. Merely posting a page isn’t enough to win my trust — although the information Mint has posted is very convincing.

    What is enough to win my trust?

    I think a video of Bruce Schneier pronouncing a site’s trustworthiness would be enough to convince me — but only because I already trust Schneier as an expert on security.

    Beyond that, it’s a matter of finding some very specific facts that will help me to decide on whether to trust a given site.

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    Where is a company based?

    Most folks running websites have the best of intentions. The country they’ve set up their servers in, though, can have some extensive effects on who gets to see your information simply by asking. In the U.S., there are certain laws meant to prevent companies from passing around your private information. But in more controlled societies — think China — certain government officials can access secure information with no intermediary steps.

    Knowing location is also important in case something goes wrong. I know I’d rather use a money management site based in my own country in the event that they did distribute it to someone with nefarious plans. At least, in that case, I could take the company to court.

    What does the privacy policy say — and is it enforceable?

    Who reads all those user agreements and terms of use anyhow? Isn’t that just a box to click through so you can start playing with the nice shiny web application? Mint devoted a major chunk of its terms of use to discussing a comprehensive privacy policy.

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    Reading this policy is a fairly good indicator of Mint’s trustworthiness — and therefore its success as a money management application. The key is the inclusion of a way to address security issues through a third party organization with a reputation for trustworthiness. It’s easy to scoff at using such third party organizations, and listing links to their sites on your own, but those seals are actually a good indicator, if you can confirm that they are correctly displayed.

    Mint’s partnership with TRUSTe is a great example. TRUSTe has been around since 1997 and was founded by, among others, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That sort of history and such well-known associates make for a good indicator of trust.

    What are other people saying about the company in question?

    Beyond fancy logos, though, a real indicator of whether a website is worth trusting is the buzz around the web. Just Googling a site’s name can get you a whole load of information, though you might consider adding words like ‘security’ in your search. A surprising number of people don’t do even this basic level of research before handing over details like the password to their email — I can name a half dozen social networking sites that ask for exactly that in order to import your contacts. It’s nice that we have such an environment of trust online, but we’re just asking for problems when we give away such information willy-nilly.

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    Such due diligence can be enough to warn you off of releasing your information, though. At the very least, it can give you a head’s up of security issues that might make you want to wait before signing up for a service.

    Unfortunately, buzz doesn’t always help early adopters. If you’re always the first person into the private beta, you may not have heard about any bugs or problems that a company has experienced, let alone if other people have some questions about trust.

    How much time should I spend on research?

    I don’t necessarily delve into the technical security specs of every site I sign up for, and I wouldn’t even argue that there is a need to. But before handing over information like your bank account numbers — or the password to the email account where you’ve saved those numbers — it’s worth spending 15 or 30 minutes to make sure that your sensitive information isn’t going to take a walk after you’ve entered it.

    After this sort of review, Mint has all the elements of a reliable site. They’re able to earn trust, rather than rely on people looking for a quick fix and ignoring a few warning signs. Yes, Mint solves some significant productivity and money management questions, but it does so in such a way as to reassure users.

    I do still have a few concerns, of course. Any site known to save financial information on numerous people is going to be a target of all sorts of malicious attacks. And no site is going to take users on a walk through of the exact protections and vulnerabilities of their system. Aaron Patzer, Mint’s CEO, has discussed the site’s security on several occasions, and in general, it seems like information submitted to the site is fairly secure. I’m willing to roll the dice and take a chance on Mint — especially since none of the early adopters have gotten burned yet.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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