Thursday, May 28, 2015

Before May is Gone...

Not sure where the month of May went to, but I thought I'd post something here before we slip into June.

The primary reason it's been quiet on the blog is that we've busier than one-armed paper hangers for some reason. I seems like every time we think we have some spare time, something comes up that we have to head out on some errand or take care of some emergency or another. Even when we do get a day to ourselves, we're so far behind on the normal household crap that our "day off" winds up being consumed with dishes, laundry and other such fun tasks.

Most of the busy has involved the Moose Lodge. As I mentioned last post, I went and got myself elected Treasurer, so now I'm working in the office for a few hours in the morning one or two days a week, plus meetings, meetings and more meetings. As well, there are various expectations made of all elected officers to show up at certain events, volunteer for this, that and the other, etc. On top of that, we've had a pretty significant dry spell this month. Other than a couple sprinkles that didn't even get through the leaves on the trees, it didn't rain from April 29 (the day I headed out for Michigan with my parents, natch) until Tuesday evening. That means that for the first time since I've been on the Moose landscape crew, we've been able to get out into a large, overgrown area between the lodge and the highway. So lots of fun stuff there cutting neck-high grass and pulling out scrub and trees that have been growing since the last time anyone bothered to cut out there. It doesn't help that in Florida, any area with tall grass is assumed to be a public landfill; we've pulled truck-loads of garbage, broken concrete, chunks of asphalt, steel posts, you name it. We are making some serious progress, but I'm also spending about twice the usual time on the job. The hope is that with all the vegetation cut back, the sun will dry things out between rains instead of the water just piling up all summer. We're also working on drainage issues, like a blocked culvert, so all the runoff from two miles of highway will go down the ditch instead of flooding the front yard. We'll see if any of it does any good once the rainy season finally gets here.

One thing I did get to do was play with the new mobile hotspot while I was in Michigan. I did all the driving, so other than an hour or so during our stop in Alabama, I didn't get a chance to mess with it until we were in Kalkaska. After we stopped at G's for lunch, I let my dad drive out to the house and I crawled into the back seat and jumped online. I wasn't sure what sort of coverage I would have in northern Michigan, but it worked great all the way out of town, was still going good on the two-lane county road, even kept working on the dirt road. Then about halfway up my parents' driveway, "BEEP!" No signal. It's like my parents' place is a little cellular back hole. But at least I had something to do while I was sitting at the Traverse City airport waiting for the flight home, then sitting in Detroit waiting three hours for my connection to Tampa. I've also been using it on-and-off here at the trailer. The data is use-it-or-lose-it after 60 days, so I may as well burn it up. Besides, Brighthouse is trying to say that the reason that Debbie's work phone (an IP phone) works like crap is because I'm sucking up all the bandwidth reading blogs on my Kindle. Of course the real problem is that IP phones SUCK!! Businesses get talked into the things because they are so much cheaper than traditional phones. As with nearly everything in this universe, "cheap" and "works" rarely go together. So I get to listen to Debbie spend an hour asking some poor sot how to spell their last name over and over and over and over because their voice keeps cutting out or there is so much line noise she can't hear what they are saying. It doesn't help that the person she is talking to is usually on one of the New and Improved smart phones, which are neither smart, nor are they intended to ever be used as a phone. Our ten-year-old flip phone has ten times better voice quality than any "smart" "phone" on the market. Add in that the moron she's talking to is invariably driving down the expressway while trying to book a cruise. With the radio on full blast. And kids in the backseat watching a movie with the volume cranked even louder so they can hear over the radio.

Yea, I spend a lot of time at home with my headphones on trying to drown out the endless stupid with something soothing like System of a Down's Chop Suey so I don't go postal.

One of these days, I need to do a post on our attempts to grow small bits of food here in the Land of Poisoned Soil, but that will have to wait for next time. Right now, it's time to start getting things ready for tonight's stir fry chicken.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Recovering

I'm still recovering from one of the busiest tax seasons I've seen in a while. Our numbers at the Walmart location were completely off the charts this year. But it's finally over, and, like I say every year, over the next nine months, I'll forget the hell of the 2015 tax season and eagerly sign up for 2016.

In the meantime, we're trying to dig out of the accumulated chores that we've both neglected since January. It mostly involves sweeping, raking, mowing, trimming, weeding, planting, etc. Our dry season this year really wasn't all that dry, then summer showed up a month early and everything went kind of crazy on us. But we're slowly getting everything beat back into shape. Today should be the final push, then we can return to maintenance mode.

And because there isn't enough going on already, I'm now the Treasurer of the Zephyrhills Moose Lodge. There's some sort of installation thingy tomorrow, then another meeting on Monday. There's also the regular meeting on Tuesday, but I'll be missing that as I will be in a car with my 'rents somewhere between Florida and Michigan. With some luck, I should be back here by Saturday evening. We decided that it's OK for my dad to drive around locally, but the snowbird thing just ain't gonna happen no more. I'll drive them up in the spring and fly back, then fly up in the fall and drive them down. The male parental unit is gripin' about it, but it's happening anyway.

So yea, don't expect a flood of updates here. Or maybe there will be. I bit the bullet yesterday and ordered a mobile hotspot to cart around with me. It's all part of The Plan to allow me more flexibility doing taxes under my own EFIN, along with now being able to process credit card transactions, offering over-priced "bank products", and all the rest. At some point over the summer, there may be a laptop/tablet acquired and a digital signature pad. (Any recommendations appreciated for the laptop/tablet; keep in mind this will be used for data entry, so a good keyboard with ten-key is a must.) Printing is still a bit of a stumper. I understand that with all the other stuff, it shouldn't be necessary, but I know I wouldn't want my tax information being sent to my e-mail account as a PDF file, so I doubt many of my clients will either, even if the PDF is password-protected. I guess a wi-fi ink-jet running off an inverter plugged into the car is a possibility. Still thinking on that part. Anyway, if the hotspot shows up before Tuesday, I can at least use my Kindle on the trip up to Michigan to post updates here as well as keep up with my famous witty Facebook repartee. I fully expect that it will be delivered about two hours after we pull out of the park, along with the books I ordered so I would have something to read on the trip.

Well, need to get off my butt and go get stuff done.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Missing Everything

I missed that Friday the 13th was on a Friday in February.

I also missed that Friday the 13th was on a Friday in March.

And I missed that yesterday was π Day out to four decimals places, something that only happens once a century.

(Not sure what font this thing is using, but that's the crappiest looking letter pi I've ever seen.)

But I filed a lot of tax returns!!!

I've gone from crazy-insane-holy-crap-why-don't-they-stop-coming-in busy to just being steady at Ye Ol' Tax Booth. I think we've already beat the number of tax returns we did all last tax season and we're only about halfway through. Because "only" four or five people a day are sitting down to have their taxes done, I've been focusing on our "mail-in" clients; people who do contract work all over the country (mostly welders, pipe fitters and IT guys) and can't come into the office. I crank out half dozen or so of those on a typical day between walk-ins. Things will likely stay "slow" until the end of March or first week of April, then all the procrastinators will come flooding through the door in a full-blown panic because Holy Crap!!! April 15th is on April 15th this year!! WHY DIDN'T ANYONE TELL ME!!! And they will of course be missing some vital piece of paperwork that will prevent us from getting their taxes done on time. And it will be all my fault. Or the IRS's fault. Or Obama's fault. 'Cause ya know, we NEVER had to file taxes before that Filthy Muslim became president!

Ahem.

Yea, it's been one of those tax seasons.

Debbie is still kickin' it to the curb in the cruise business. And dealing with lunatics. The other day, she spent 20 minutes repeating to some lady, "Ma'am, if you didn't purchase the travel protection insurance, you can't make a claim under the travel protection insurance." I kid you not, she must have said the exact same thing to this crazy person 50 times. I finally had to snap on my headphones and crank some Sleeveless Meeks and the Right to Bare Arms so I wouldn't grab Debbie's head set and start screaming at Crazy Lady to go do something anatomically impossible to herself.

In between all the work craziness, I've made a couple big steps in my personal tax preparation abilities. As of yesterday afternoon, I can now accept credit cards. I had bought a Kindle Fire a while back and Amazon now has one of those cool swipey thingies that plugs into the headphone jack. It's all set up and ready to go as soon as the physical swipey thingy shows up today or tomorrow. I'm also now set up with a bank so I can take my tax prep fee out of the clients refund, just like the big kids. That won't be "live" until Monday as I had to fax them some signatures yesterday. But it's getting there. I've already done twice the returns I did last year and may actually make money at it. What a concept.

[Update: Before I could hit the Publish button, I received notification that my signature form has been received and I am as of now live for banking products. Woot!]

[Update to the Update: My cool swipey thingy just arrived and I was able to charge myself $1.00!! Woot!! Woot!!]

And that is pretty much our life at this point.

Over the last month, I had accumulated all sorts of political and economic articles that I was going to post comments on, but I got tired of having 20 tabs open in Chrome reminding me that I hadn't posted anything here is weeks, and closed them all down. And it turns out that Wolf Richter pretty much summed it all up earlier this month:

The price of oil did today what it has been doing for a while: it waits for a trigger and plunges. As I’m writing this, West Texas Intermediate is down 4.4%, trading at $44.99 a barrel, less than a measly buck away from this oil bust’s January low. It’s down over 20% from the peak of the most recent sucker rally.

US oil drillers have been responding by slashing capital expenditures, including drilling, in a deceptively brutal manner. In the latest week, drillers idled 56 rigs that were classified as drilling for oil, according to Baker Hughes. Only 866 rigs were still active, down 46.2% from October, when they’d peaked at 1,609. In the 22 weeks since, drillers have taken out 743 rigs, the most dizzying cliff dive in the data series, and probably in history....

You’d think this sort of plunge in drilling activity would curtail production. Eventually it might. But for now, the industry has focused on efficiencies, improved drilling technologies, and the most productive plays. Drillers are trying to raise production but with less money so that they can meet their debt payments. Thousands of wells have been drilled recently but haven’t been completed and aren’t yet producing. This is the “fracklog,” a phenomenon that has been dogging natural gas for years.

So US oil production hit another record of 9.366 million barrels per day for the week ended March 6, according to the Energy Information Administration’s latest estimate.

In other words, expect low gas prices to continue for a while. If you work in fracking or anything related to it, expect a pink slip. And then we have all that fracking debt and derivatives piled up in everyone's pension funds....

Enjoy the Ides of March.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fingers Crossed...

...that the worst of tax season is over. We got our butts royally kicked for nearly four weeks straight. At this point, we've got to be a hundred returns past where we were last year. Even now that things have slacked off a bit, I'm still cranking out ten returns every shift. By this time last year, I was spending most of the day reading books, doing blog posts, checking up on Facebook, etc. If this keeps up, we'll be sittin' pretty come season-end bonus time, but getting there has been fairly grueling so far.

Not that corporate is making our jobs any easier with their Advances, Walmart gift cards, and every other gimmick you can think of to extract money from the clients for anything other than doing their taxes. Without all the "banking products" (every one of which is pitched to us as a way to "enhance" revenues), we could easily shave 20% off our fees. Worse yet, the code monkeys at HQ completely screwed the pooch implementing the stupid gift card thing so about one out of every ten people never get one. But the $50 is still being subtracted from our revenue by corporate. And we usually end up writing a $50 check to shut the customer up, who will likely never darken our door again. When you call the help desk, all they tell you is to talk to the local rep. Who has not one iota more control over the thing than we do, which is absolutely none.

In other news, there ain't much other news. Debbie is still cranking away for her busy season, which just got a little busier because one of the few remaining agents is "no longer with the company." For the entire five-and-a-half years she's been working there, the number of agents has steadily dwindled from 13 or 14 to six, with no plans by management to get anyone new anytime soon. And by the time they do, given their past history, another agent or two will become "no longer with the company."

In spite of all that, we did manage to sneak away for an evening to go see Bob Seger at the Amalie Arena in Tampa. As usual, trying to get anywhere in Tampa while an event is going on was a bad joke, aided by the fact that the Tampa police were a complete no-show. The concert was on a Thursday evening, meaning we had the twin joys of dealing with daily commuter traffic, which by itself completely gridlocks the mess the city "planners" have made of downtown, combined with an extra 20,000 or so people trying to get to the Amalie.  But the concert was well worth all the grief of getting there, and, for a few hours at least, we were able to forget all about taxes and cruises and old-people park drama and the Carefree RV Resorts corporation and its ass-hat CEO, Nancy No-Nuts. It was a very pleasant few hours. The trip home was easier than the drive in (no thanks to the still-non-existent Tampa police) because by then, the commuter traffic was gone and everyone was more-or-less going the same way.

And then it was back to the same-ol' same-ol'.

Speaking of which, I see that ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh released a video of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were in Libya, which, thanks to the tender ministrations of the US military, is now a part of the Caliphate. As they were Egyptian, the Egyptian military responded with air strikes inside Libya with which is shares a long border. This is an entirely logical response. I'm sure the US will be equally logical and will strongly condemn the killings, offer condolences to the families of the victims, and let Egypt handle its own affairs.

Heh. Yea. Right.

I'm sure it's just a matter of time before, as the Joker said, "everyone loses their minds," and we stage another of our ISIS recruiting events. The Forever War must be perpetuated.

Meanwhile, our "leaders" have been so lost without the Cold War that they seem desperate to start a hot war with Russia. I can't for the life of me figure out what we hope to accomplish by getting into a shooting war with a major, nuclear-armed military power, over who gets to claim the complete basket case of a country that goes by the name "Ukraine". This won't be like any of our recent wars with such military non-entities as Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan. Not that we've been exactly decisive in all of those, but they were a cake-walk compared to what going head-to-head with Russia will be. Unless the goal is to eliminate a sizable fraction of the US's 20-something population, I can't see what we hope to gain. (Other than the obvious benefit to the military-industrial complex, of course. But that goes without saying.) Why would NATO or Europe want a corrupt, bankrupt country without much in the way of oil or gas? It currently serves as a pipeline route for Russian natural gas being sent to Europe, but how is destroying that infrastructure while simultaneously pissing off the Russians going to benefit Europe? Are our heads of state beginning to believe their own bullshit? That the US can supply all of Europe's natural gas from our non-existent surplus (The US is still a net importer of natural gas) converted to LNG in non-existent facilities, and shipped aboard a fleet of non-existent LNG-capable ships?

Have we gone stark raving mad?

OK, that sort of answers itself.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

It Begins

I'm three days into another tax season sitting in Walmart, and I'm ready to start punching people. Things did not get off to a good start; on my very first day, as I'm walking into Walmart, I get smashed into by a People of Walmart type going out the entrance. She looked drunk, stoned, or possibly both, sporting some serious bed-head, and was dressed in pajamas, a bath robe and bunny slippers.

As I walked in the door. On the very first day. Not good.

Our tax booth is located in the same prime real estate: across from the bathrooms. That's good, because bored men waiting for their women to emerge from the restroom are easy sales targets. It's bad because it seems every woman in Pasco county turns into a screaming harpy every time Walmart tries to clean the bathroom. Understand that, thanks to the lawyers, they have to close everything down anytime they mop until the floor is completely dry. Do the screaming harpies care? Nah. So the entire time (we're talking 15 to 20 minutes), they stand outside the restroom, sometimes alone, sometimes in a giant harpy chorus, screaming profanity three feet from where I'm trying to do people's taxes.

FYI, ladies; when you act like that, this is what every man around you is seeing.
Lovely. Simply lovely.

I also fully expect, sometime before the end of tax season, to have my lifeless body pulled from the rubble that was once our tax cubicle. I can't go five minutes without some blind old dude smashing one of those electric shopping cart things into the walls, or a texting hipster walking into the side of the thing. Listen up, people; it's a temporary structure and ain't exactly what I'd call sturdy.

[As a side note, a little tip for purse and/or baby snatchers: outside your local Walmart's women's restroom is a target-rich environment. And Walmart even helpfully provides comfy benches for you to sit on that have been placed in the most advantageous spots for you to ply your trade. Better yet, they don't seem to mind if you camp on one of them all day. You can even bring drinks and snacks if you wish.]

As far as actual tax preparation, we got off to a bit of a slow start, but yesterday things seemed to pick up. I managed to complete a half dozen returns over my eight-hour shift in spite of constant glitches. That whole "we can download your W-2's" thing is an even bigger fiasco than in prior years. For example, the only way to download a Walmart W-2 is to type in a special code. That is only printed on the employees W-2. So we still have to have the physical W-2 to download the electronic W-2. So what is the point, exactly? It doesn't save me any time. After I go through all the crap to download the electronic W-2, then type in all the numbers to confirm that the W-2 downloaded correctly (which means I also need the physical W-2 to do that step), I've spent more time than it would take me to type in everything manually from a physical W-2. It doesn't mean that clients can file their taxes earlier. In order for electronic W-2's to be available for download, the employer has already done all the necessary year-end work and has likely printed the physical W-2's. Which I need in order to download your electronic W-2 anyway. The whole mess sounds like yet-another rent-extraction scam by outfits like W2Express that "facilitate" (for a fee, I'm sure) all this unnecessary "work".

Sort of like the tax preparation "industry".

Anyway.

Speaking of beginnings, I'm going to call it. The fracking bubble has popped:

Layoffs are cascading through the oil and gas sector. On Tuesday, the Dallas Fed projected that in Texas alone, 140,000 jobs could be eliminated. Halliburton... axing an undisclosed number of people in Houston. Suncor Energy... will dump 1,000 workers.... Slumberger... will cut 9,000 jobs.
...
Larger drillers outspent their cash flows from production by 112% and smaller to midsize drillers by a breathtaking 157%....
...
California Resources... watched [shares] drop to $4.33 by today....

Its junk bonds... were trading at 79 cents on the dollar today....
...
Samson Resources... junk bonds... traded at 26.5 cents on the dollar today....

Halcón Resources... saw its shares plunge 10% today to $1.20.... Its junk bonds slid... to 72 cents on the dollar.

Hercules Offshore... [is] trading for $0.82 a share.... In mid-October, its 8.75% notes due 2022 traded at 66 cent on the dollar. Yesterday they traded at 45.
...
Today, Paragon’s shares trade for $2.18.... Its junk bonds are now down to 58 cents on the dollar.

Swift Energy... stock, now at $2.37... saw its junk bonds shrivel another eight points over the week to 36 cents on the dollar.

Now you're probably saying to yourself, "Self, it's OK. I don't own any of that stuff." Don't be so sure. For example, it's a safe bet that your pension fund has some of this crap, or derivatives based on it, just like it had bunches of derivatives based on crap mortgages back in 2008.

And although you would never know it from the media, this isn't just about oil:

On Thursday, the Swiss franc rose a staggering 30 percent against the euro, and the Swiss stock market plunged by 10 percent.... Meanwhile, the euro is in greater danger than ever.... With this move by Switzerland set off a European financial crisis?
...
And one of these days, another extremely important currency peg is going to end.  Right now, the Chinese have tied their currency very tightly to the U.S. dollar.  This has helped to artificially inflate the value of the dollar.  Unfortunately, as Robert Wenzel has noted, someday the Chinese could suddenly pull the rug out from under our currency, and that would be really bad news for us…
...
So keep a close eye on what happens in Europe next.

It is going to be a preview of what is eventually coming to America.

Hong Kong is also pegged to the dollar and they may become impatient with us more quickly than China.

Are we having fun yet?