Billing and paying the bills.

I’m just a little conflicted about money. Perhaps a sheltered life has left me without clear guidance. I’ve always had ‘enough’, and often more. Less since I started working four days a week; still enough that I can set aside some savings, but little enough that the eventual demise of my car threatens that savings. Meanwhile, other people, many of them surely more dedicated and hard working then myself, starve or struggle to get to a place of equal safety and comfort.

There was a particular incident that triggered this latest reflection. Recently one of my fellows in the martial arts school asked what I would charge to upgrade her reality shows web site, and I wasn’t comfortable naming a price.

Some of it I’m sure stems from a weak self confidence. I’ve heard a number of high consulting rates thrown around. At work we price engineering projects based on $75 per hour, although we don’t then track hours. That’s pretty low compared to others I’ve heard. Even on the condo board, we can’t get much of anything done for less than $40-50 per hour.

All rather more than minimum wage. Is the difference skilled versus unskilled labor? The woman who cuts my hair charges rather less than $50. She told me a while ago about the tough parts of beauty school – cataloging individual muscles, sufficient grounding in chemistry to avoid nasty or even dangerous combinations of chemicals, and enough knowledge of ethnic backgrounds to predict how hair and so on is likely to respond to various treatments. Perhaps the price is set by the typically brief male haircut and widespread competition.

The different cases don’t offer much guidance. Even skilled gets called into question – while I have a long history taming troublesome pieces of software, I had no experience with the Xoops package in question. At an hourly rate, figuring out the thing would undoubtedly be a expensive process, but I don’t feel comfortable changing people for my own incompetence.

In the end I picked a rate closer to the landscapers, but capped the bill at four hours, which seemed more than adequate for someone who knew what they were doing. I spent rather quite a bit more than that setting up a test environment and getting a handle on things. I actually came to the conclusion that the originally requested version upgrade was completely orthogonal to the features she was hoping to achieve with it. We set up only those changes, and now it’s back to ambiguity: if she chooses to upgrade for future proofing, technically I haven’t finished was I was asked to do, but I have spent considerably more time than originally allotted. I also found out during the course of the work that my bill was considerably more than the trickle of ad income the site generates.

Of course it’s complicated further by knowing the person. I’ve passed over requests for web site help from less familiar people before. When it comes to a closer associate, there is question hanging out there of whether it should even be a favor. A lot of things in the world run by volunteer effort alone, and a world without community driven organizations might very well be worse off. One of the reasons that I often feel rushed is because I’m involved in a couple of volunteer organizations.

Condo board members may not be paid by law. Yet someone has to watch over the common interests of the association, and volunteers are perhaps predictably scarce. If it’s not me, then it might be no one, leaving things undone.

Then there is martial arts, where I spend one or two nights a week in unpaid instruction. The martial arts is immersed in a tradition of mutual obligations – as you were taught, so teach. But it’s still out there when I start counting up where my time went. I’ve actually been pulling back lately. I cut out one class, and I’ve been going to the board game design group again, which intersects one night every other week.

I confront valuation again in software. My lifetime earnings from personal software projects is $5. Not a single solitary soul has seen fit to make use of the Disk Clock donate button. I’m considering marking the next version shareware, while still avoiding nagware.

Software is a nasty problem. A program has a duplication cost which rapidly approaches zero. Copying is free and easy, unless extra non-feature-related effort is spent to put artificial restrictions in place. Even then, what software does software can undo, and we have the DRM arms race – more and more effort being poured into making thing harder for the customer, instead of adding value for the customer.

The costs of software aren’t in duplication, they are development. The only way to match price with cost is pay for the developers time and attention. Yet the only thing most people will buy is a proven working program, which we only know how to sell through the old physical-item model. The only reason this works at all is the legal fiction of software licenses.

So I’m sitting in the frying pan of being paid for things I wouldn’t be doing left to my own devices, staring uncertainly out at the fire of scraping by through intentionally crippled software.

I had a thought experiment, which I’m not bold enough to put practice. For a period, such a year, neither give anything for free, or take anything without paying for it.

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