The Hidden Costs of Things (Total Cost of Ownership)

Determining the total cost of any thing isn’t something that we, as human beings, are automatically good at being able to figure out.

At RailsConf 2012, Rich Hickey is recorded saying that:

Programmers know the benefits of everything and the tradeoffs of nothing.

This is a reconstruction of the Oscar Wilde quote but as applied to programmers.

Lord Darlington. What cynics you fellows are!
Cecil Graham: What’s a cynic?
Lord Darlington: A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Cecil Graham: And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.
Lord Darlington. You always amuse me, Cecil. You talk as if you were a man of experience.

  • Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

As programmers, we do get excited by technology and conventions and ways of doing things. And we are really bad at considering the total cost of the things we put into practice.

Hickey’s talk is about simplicity and complexity... not prices and total cost. He describes complexity as things being interwoven and simplicity as things being independent of one another.

We are staring at some universal truths here: Total cost is harder to determine when things are interwoven.

What follows is a collection of vignettes (or drive-by-shootings if you prefer) on examples of hidden costs I notice when I look around at my life.

Credit Cards and Cash

Total Cost of Ownership is behind my reduced use of credit cards.

The 2-3% transaction fees are really hard to perceive. They are built into the prices of everything these days. Because it is built into the price, people who pay cash end up paying toward those expenses even when they use cash (exceptions go to those places that post a different price for cash transactions).

Part of the cost is also in habit-formation. Rewards programs want you to swipe as often as possible. And rarely do we stop and ask questions like these:

  • Do I spend more carelessly with a credit card?
  • Am I less able to notice how quickly the total grows?
  • Is it easier to notice how quickly my wallet shrinks if I use cash instead?

And, finally, for those of us who use credit cards to borrow money. OH. MY. GOSH. Paying the finance charge each month is loss of money for no reason and if you don’t pay enough to reduce the principal balance, your debt will grow and compound.

Here is an attitude to internalize: You don’t have to borrow money from credit card companies. EVER. If you’re carrying a balance month-over-month, you can be certain that your life would be improved if you cut up your credit card and pay down the balance as quickly as possible.

Cash is simple. It is crude. And it will help you to manage your money better. And it will never become a compound debt.

Vehicles: High Price, Tendency to Rot, Maintenance Cost, Societal Cost

Vehicles rot when they sit there. They bake in the sun. The batteries die. Water separates from the gasoline and the tank may rust out. Tires may become warped from sitting too long.

The cost of a car (or motorcycle), especially any vehicle beyond a single car, is that you must operate it from time to time.

The total cost also includes paying insurance premiums, property tax, registration fees, and the costs to keep inspections current.

Depreciation is a cost we know well but spend a lot of time trying not to think about. It only matters when you try to sell the car so people who drive a vehicle until it is not maintainable have an advantage.

The cost to maintain roads and parking lots and to police the streets is a huge hidden cost that we don’t think about very often because it is something that is “provided” by the government. There are economic costs and ecological impact that are difficult to fully comprehend.

The Free Internet’s Costs: Time, Privacy, and Fraud Risk


Oh, Facebook. We spend so much time on you. We feed you. And you give us less and less and less.

We pay nothing for Facebook. So it seems like it’s free. But it takes enormous amounts of time and entails large-scale habit formation.

Like Google, they have gotten into the business of selling our attention in a very targeted way with an understanding of our likes and interest. Free isn’t free. It never was and never shall be. It’s either paid for by you or paid for by someone else. There are NO exceptions.

Google and Facebook are paid for by advertisers. Wikipedia is paid for by donations. Advertisers seek to modify your behavior for their profit. Which of these will do less harm to your long-term interests?

The question is whether you want to accept the trade when you consider the total cost.

Some free services from Google have also been phased out. You may spend a lot of time to adopt a free service only to find out that the service provider is not going to provide the service any longer. Free isn’t free. It never was and never shall be. offers you deeper insights into your finances. The price is "free" but they use your financial information to sell you financial products. It also requires a login to all of your online financial account so that they can acquire your monthly statements. Part of the total cost is your increased exposure to risk of having your accounts compromised by others.

Applying This Broad Mind to Everything

Getting yourself into a practice of seeing what is not easy to see is a hard trick. Not only are there hidden costs to things, there are hidden benefits.

Things That Have Hidden Layers of Cost

Really, just about anything we can look at has a hidden cost to it.

  • Any kind of financing
  • Gmail / Facebook / Blogs
  • War
  • Chinese Manufacturing
  • Anything You Can Buy
  • A Desk Job
  • Eating Out
  • Exercise or Sedentary Lifestyle
  • Torrenting Copyrighted Materials

Types of Cost

  • Price / Maintenance / Depreciation
  • Habit formation (especially habits that don’t serve you)
  • Time / Opportunity Cost
  • Money
  • Space (in your house)
  • Presence
  • Connection
  • Awareness
  • Capability
  • Rot/Deterioriation
  • Optionality
  • Underpaid and Discouraged Artists

Types of Benefit

  • Money
  • Automation
  • Skill Development
  • Discipline / Practice
  • Convenience
  • Consistency / Uniformity / Standardization
  • Insights and Analytics (think
  • Novelty / Shiny New Things
  • Opportunity to Connect/Reflect

Speaking Softly About Rape

A woman has been raped. Everyone knows the name of the assailant: Brock Turner. And the discussion following has been touching and shocking all at the same time.

What follows are my thoughts about what I have seen online.

In case anything I write below creates a doubt, and I wouldn't write that unless I have seen some serious grandstanding and moralizing (and un-friendings) going on, lets establish some of my positions:

  • Brock Turner is a rapist and he should be going to prison for as long as the law permits.
  • The fact that the victim got so drunk that she became unconscious doesn't justify any part of his despicable action, no matter how many minutes were involved.
  • The Victim deserves no shame at all for what happened.

Okay... let's talk about this.

A Measured Voice

One voice that is measured is the voice of the victim, who has elected not to have her name splattered all over the media. I respect that decision. I'll humanize her by calling her "Victoria".

I have read the full text of Victoria's statement to the court and to her assailant. I was moved by its graphic visuals of the scene in the hospital following her shocking awakening to discover that her head was strapped to a gurney and she had no idea where she was or why she had pine needles in her hair. What followed was the alienating indignity of having her body further probed for documentation.

And as if all of that isn't enough, she has to deal with the aftermath of all of this in her head. And she has to figure out how to continue living her life without breaking down and without flying into a rage. And she and her boyfriend have to deal with an alien new reality.

When it comes down to it, there is no price that can be paid to settle this debt by the rapist, Brock Turner. There's no way to get square again. And frankly, he owes her a serious apology and one that is not diluted by the long filibuster that is in his full statement.

What You Are Not Permitted to Mention

I read the Victoria's statement and I think I "get it". I think she used every bit of her will to summon love in her heart to have written so patiently. I am moved and inspired to the full possibilities of the best version of myself.

But then I open the BookFace and I find I am assaulted repeatedly by reposts and words from people I know which seek to impose constraints upon what we are allowed to say aloud and what certain words mean. It's feels like I am being shouted down when I haven't even said anything.

And the conclusion I am left with is that I am someone who doesn't "get it".

We are apparently not allowed to talk about how it is inadvisable to get drunk. Don't even think about it, the assailant named it as the primary contributing factor for him. The fact of a woman being drunk, even to the point of passing out, is not justification for rape, says practically everyone knowing fully that they have the truth on their side.

I don't disagree but that doesn't mean we aren't talking past one another here. If we consider the many factors that are ingredients in this terrible, horrible, unspeakable incident there are two that things that specific people could have done differently that would have changed the situation:

  • Brock Turner could have acted like a gentleman
  • Victoria could have consumed less (or no) inebriating substance

One might be tempted to make the case that I am a heartless and cruel human being who is giving moral shelter to the assailant and re-victimizing the victim if I mention the second point.

But if there are multiple factors that could have been changed to nudge the situation, why not permit ourselves to reconsider them all? After all, any incident is a function of its contributing factors.

This is an idea that is hammered in motorcycle safety class. They present to you multiple scenarios where a crash occurs, and in each one you are required to identify the reasons a crash occurred. The object lesson is that most crashes happen because of a complex of reasons and rarely because of one single cause.

I think we are doing a disservice to Victoria and to this entire discussion if we choose to ignore that "opportunity" is a contributing factor to crime. And the rapist Brock Turner would have had much less opportunity when faced with a sober woman with her full wits about her, resisting with everything she had.

I wish so much for her that she could have resisted. And for this reason, I wish that people didn't drink when they party.

I don't think it justifies Brock Turner's act of rape to say that. I don't think it has to mean that we hold him with any less blame.


But as you can see, I have to speak very carefully in order to say that.

There is something going on in the broader culture around rape. I would call it a campaign to educate except for the sensation of being SHOUTED DOWN BY PEOPLE YELLING AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS!!!

From what I can gather, the shouting is way of reacting meaningfully in the aftermath of a senseless tragedy that we do not wish to compound by minimizing the victim's choices as well. The shouting is a ham-fisted attempt at unequivocal expression of solidarity with Victoria and vocal opposition to the tendency to blame the victim and to show them less support than they deserve.

I think the motivation is noble but the methods are off-putting.

It feels to me like we are trying so hard to control the thoughts of the people around us. We are telling the others around us what to think, and in what exact words. And more importantly, we are making decisions about what must NEVER be thought or said following a rape incident and that we will bring shame down upon anyone who dares to use the forbidden words.

Well, I have to be honest: I shut down when I read words that come on too strong with the thought policing and shaming. And I don't feel good about these interactions. I think that online discussion has the capacity to make us better when we are able to put our ideas together. But it's not the case when faced with this ugly feeling of being shouted down. It isn't the online experience I want to have and it's probably not what you're after either.

Well... Part of the beauty of our age is that we each have our own space to write what we notice. We all have the chance to write the Internet we would like to read. And, hopefully I have written this without shouting and without giving moral cover to Turner.

Speaking Softly

Please take this to heart: When we say things softly and with a heart full of love, we can trust that we will be heard.

We have a term for the experience of reading or hearing something that makes sense: it "resonates". I like to visualize the words echoing softly in the heart and mind of the reader/listener.

We can choose unilateral disarmament. We can choose to speak softly and trust the echoes to make sensible new ideas a part of the way we think and live. And maybe if we do this consistently, we will finally get to have the online experience we desire: sharing ideas, connecting people, and changing things for the better.

Think Bigger

To Victoria

I hear you. I am so sorry for what has happened to you. And, I hope you know that you have touched me with your strength and your compassion.

You are connecting people and changing things for the better. Thank you.

Neil Tyson on Not Fighting in the Trenches on Sam Harris Podcast


I try to take the high road. I'm not interested in fighting in the trenches.

My notes from a fascinating chat between Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Sam Harris. I was struck with Tyson's extreme discipline for focusing on his fundamentals of education and finding playful ways to talk about science in the context of things people already care about (pop culture).

He's a man who has decided what he wants his contribution to be and seems really skilled at avoiding the rest of the BS. Following are notes that I took from a second listen to the podcast.


  • Tyson: People care about science when it is playfully folded into things they already care about
  • Harris: The boundary between communicating science to the public and doing science in the act of thinking out loud about data is very thin, if it exists at all


  • Scientific discoveries become public interest. Examples: "Big Bang", "Black Hole" - official terms that are strings of single syllable words to describe complex phenomena that become part of the lexicon. Fun for the public to follow. The idea is graspable because the words don't get in the way.
  • I was struck with how Tyson cuts through the bull and avoids controversy. "Call a climate expert. Don't call me.". I don't occupy any platform.
  • Skeptic vs. Denier defined: Skeptic: doubts claim and convinced by evidence. Denier: doubts claim and doubts evidence.
  • You don't see me debating people. I'd rather just educate them in the first place so that the debate isn't even necessary.

Tyson: Platforms and Training the Electorate

  • Tyson's fundamental position: There are objective truths out there that you ought to know about and I as an educator have a duty to alert you to those objective truths. What you do politically in the face of those truths is your business.
  • Defines someone with a "platform" as: trying to get people to see the world that they do. Including politically.
  • I never say anything against a politician. Why? Because they have electorates that support them.
  • My target is the population that are following statements that are objectively false. I see it as my duty to train the electorate how think about this information and once they are trained they can do what they want.
  • As an educator, it is a task to educate people so that they can judge what is true and what is not.
  • Harris: You're preserving your effectiveness as a communicator and educator. (Tyson: yes, that's an accurate statement)

Tyson on Religion/Politics

  • Your religion is a belief system and does not cue off of objective truths. Otherwise we would call it science. It's your right to hold religious beliefs.
  • However... Governmental Decision... Laws need to be secular in a country that preserves religious freedom.

Harris: Problem with Atheism

  • Atheism defines itself in opposition: We don't call ourselves "non-astrologers". And if it became ascendant, we would talk about reason, evidence, common sense, and science to neutralize those claims without ever defining ourselves in opposition to astrology
  • Atheism as a term has no philosophical content

Tyson on Label Atheist

  • I don't do anything to dodge the term
  • if you require that I give myself a label... closest is "agnostic".
  • would rather have no label at all
  • label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about someone than you actually know and therefore don't have to engage them in conversation.
  • Oh you're an atheist? And bam, in comes a whole portfolio of expectations on what you will say, what your behaviors and attitudes are...
  • dictionary definition is irrelevant... dictionary does not define words, but rather describes them as they have come into meaning
  • there is conduct that [outspoken atheists] exhibit that I do not... this captures the sense of what atheist is defined by those most visible
  • interesting: "Goodbye" an historical abbreviation of "God be with you.".
  • Uses AD/BC vs. CE/BCE.
  • Until he no longer hears, "I thought you were an atheist"... no labels.

  • Harris interjects with this insightful and humorous assessment: Atheist given meaning mostly in circles of religious dogmatists... they think they know a lot about you based on your admission that you are an atheist... It's almost like you're in a debate with someone and they draw the police crime scene outline of a dead body on the sidewalk and you just walk up and lie down in it... that you just conform perfectly to their expectations of how clueless you must be of their context.


Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) | Twitter