Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It Continues

Tax season continues to drag on. I was talking with a coworker today and mentioned that working tax season is awesome because you know it isn't going to last forever like a "real" job; you have a definite date when it will all be over and you can forget any of it ever happened. Then after nine months, you've forgotten how horrible it was and are all teed up for another run at it.

The biggest challenge so far this year is that I never know how late I'm going to end up working. People show up whenever they want to for their shift (if they bother to show up at all) without any consequences, likely because the manager herself never gets to work on time. Nearly every day I end up running the entire office single-handed (or worse, my "help" is someone with zero knowledge of taxes, the software, how to use a PC...) because someone is late or a no-show. The first week or so, that was no big deal. Now it is. People are getting their W-2's and are pouring into the office in a steady stream.

Flickr has a photo set taken in Detroit that documents what catabolic collapse looks like. It's interesting to see people's reaction when other places in the country experience the inescapable results of 40+ years of economic mismanagement that have been life in the Rust Belt the whole time. Whenever a client who went from productive member of society to parasite (which is nearly every client I've had so far) starts whinging about how bad things are, all I have to do is mention that I'm originally from Flint and they immediately nod and say something about how I know all about it. Yes. Yes I do. Unfortunately, what could have served as a wake-up call has instead become the first over the cliff.

It's good to see that the battle for the hearts and minds in Afghanistan is going well:

After two failed attempts at clearing the village resulted in U.S and Afghan casualties, Flynn’s response was to take the village out. He ordered a mine-clearing line charge, using rocket-propelled explosives to create a path into the center of Tarok Kolache.

And that was for starters, Broadwell writes. Airstrikes from A-10s and B-1s combined with powerful ground-launched rockets on Oct. 6 to batter the village with “49,200 lbs. of ordnance” — which she writes, resulted in “NO CIVCAS,” meaning no civilians dead.

...As Broadwell tells it, the villagers understood that the United States needed to destroy their homes — except when they don’t. One villager “in a fit of theatrics had accused Flynn of ruining his life after the demolition.”

...“Sure they are pissed about the loss of their mud huts,” Broadwell wrote on Facebook...

How unreasonable of those goat herders to place more value on their homes than on over-grown children making things go boom. Towelheads are so ungrateful. And it isn't like we won't rebuild their stupid little huts. Someday. Maybe. If we get a round tuit. Don't they understand that we are building a Democracy one flattened village at a time? Graveyard of empires indeed.

Anyone who has played sports has been on both sides of this:

It's been called unsportsmanlike. It's been called ugly. The question now is whether Christian Heritage (Utah) High, which routed West Ridge (Utah) Academy, 108-3, in a girls basketball game last week, actually did anything wrong by blowing out an overwhelmed opponent.

The winning coach did what little he could. With only a nine-person team, he didn't have a full scrub team to put on the floor. He (rightly in my opinion) felt passing the ball around playing keep-away or intentionally tanking on defense would be more humiliating to the losing team than the wildly lopsided score. I'm not sure what the whiners expect. Play with only three players? Play on their knees? Would it have really made any difference if they had? Three points? Three points? No full-court press, no man-to-man defense and you can only manage three points? And you expect the other team to apologize? For what exactly? Having a pulse? Not tying their shoes together at half-time? Not forfeiting at the end of the first quarter to save the fragile egos of the losing team? (From the news story, it sounds more like the "adults" were the ones with the fragile egos, not the kids.) It's called competitive sports. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you win really big. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you get pounded into the floor. If you're afraid your poor little tykes can't handle it, don't have sports teams. And as always, the real entertainment is in the comments.

Well, that was interesting. We just experienced our first Florida squall line. I've been watching it coming towards us on the radar for the last couple hours. When it got here, it was pushing some sort of massive pressure wave in front of it that would have busted open our door if I hadn't had the dead bolt thrown. That was followed by a drop in air pressure that made my ears pop and... er... not sure what to call it. Saying it was raining would be like calling Niagara Falls a little water splashing on some rocks. But the whole thing was over in five minutes. Of course, the Energizer Weatherman was jumping around in front of his weather map showing how we were in for a rough night with huge storm after huge storm lasting until four in the morning. He must have access to some Sooper Sekret weather radar, because all I see is about three more hours of plain ol' rain followed by exactly nothing. I guess "five minute gully washer followed by a few hours of perfectly ordinary rain" doesn't sell ad time. [Update: Every single network channel has preempted regular programing to show a downed tree. Holy. Crap. Thank the gods for Hulu.]

Everyone knows that all of us fat people are destroying the planet. We eat too much, shit too much, take up too much space on the subway, reduce fuel economy on jets, and use too much health care with our diabetes and heart disease. Like so many things we all "know" the story proves to be a bit more complicated:

Recent estimates suggest that approximately one in three obese individuals remain metabolically healthy (displaying normal blood glucose, blood lipids, blood pressure, and a healthy cytokine profile) despite their excess weight. These same individuals may have a similar risk of developing heart disease and diabetes as their skinny counterparts and they may actually become less healthy by losing weight!

Every dataset has its outliers; if the story was "one in 1,000 obese individuals remain healthy" there wouldn't have been a story. But one in three? Sounds like over-simplified story-telling is getting in the way of reality. Again.

And from Information is Beautiful:

We already have computer generated nonsense getting published in peer-reviewed journals. I wonder how those same programs would do on horoscopes?

I guess I should go mop up the water leaking in the window. Love our cute little ghetto apartment.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


The in-laws are on their way over here today. Ric has another Saturday off from Liberty Tax, so we are all going to Blue Spring State Park to visit the Manatees. (Blue Spring is a designated Manatee Refuge and the winter home to a growing population of West Indian Manatees)

Of course, we are running around to do some cleaning before they get here! (Ya know: vacuum, dust the major surfaces, dishes from the last two days and the bathrooms)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Just Workin'

Yesterday was likely my last day off for the next 16 weeks or so. As of right now, I'm working six days a week on taxes and the other day at the library. I was hoping to be able to take a day or two off here or there, but a returning tax preparer that the owners have been planning on working full-time was a no-show on her first day. Why they continue to operate under the delusion that this person has any desire to work for them is beyond me. She has consistently ignored all attempts at contact for five months, yet hope still springs eternal. Of course, given the complete lack of traffic in the office so far, it may not matter that much. I think word is getting around the illegal immigrant community that we won't be violating Federal law this year. Nor will we be printing out documents you bring to us on a USB drive, allowing you to use our phone and fax machine anytime you want for free, or calling your bank to clear up all your bounced checks for you. (I had requests for all of the above, some multiple times, in the last week.)

Other fun stuff that comes with working in the ghetto: listening to the rats running around fornicating in the ceiling, cleaning rat shit and piss off every horizontal surface in an office that I was told had been thoroughly cleaned, watching drug deals going down in the parking lot, and trying to talk to a client while someone stands right outside the window next to my desk screaming "Fuck You!" for ten minutes non-stop into a cell phone. This place just keeps gettin' better.

Debbie's work has (thankfully) taken off; she is booking more cabins now in one day that she was doing in a week back around Christmas. It helps that her employer goes through employees like Lindsey Lohan tearing into a bag of coke. Another one bit the dust just this week, further reducing the competition for bookings.

Other than work, we haven't done a thing. We want to try to find a day we can take my parents up to see the manatees, but I'm not sure when that's going to happen, unless we do it later in the day after I get out of work. I guess there's always next year.

The big story of the last week was the shooting in Arizona. The politicians did (and continue to do) what politicians always do; use any and every tragedy for personal political gain. The situation is really as simple as it is tragic: Jared Loughner is criminally insane. It doesn't matter what nonsense he spouts on his blog or on Youtube, what excuses he cooked up in his deranged mind to justify killing other human beings, what political agenda the media can concoct from the rantings of a likely-schizophrenic. The. Dude. Is. Nuts. Full stop. No one of any political stripe or party affiliation is responsible for the actions of someone whose mind has gone off the rails. And as far as the "toxic political atmosphere" is concerned, I would love to know when this supposed Golden Age of civil political discourse existed. Politicians have always had the morals of junkyard dogs, since the invention of human government. Some of the cartoons from the early years of this country couldn't even be printed in a modern newspaper. In 1804, the Vice-President of the United States shot and killed the former Secretary of the Treasury. Compared to that, what exactly is so horrifying about the passionless nonsense bandied about on the 24-hours news networks and talk radio on topics of no importance? Has no one noticed that it is all theater? That once in power, every politician toes the same line? Does anyone believe the droll stupidity of Sarah Palin, delivered with less skill than that of a bad middle-school debate team, could inspire a murder rampage? Maybe it's best to mourn the dead, move on, and leave the politics out of it.

And forgotten in all the political posturing is what we really need to talk about:

Madhouses are expensive. Moreover, many were confined to them long after they were no longer dangerous to themselves or others -- "cured" manics and schitzes were very useful as trustees and unpaid orderlies in madhouses, and were often kept long after they legally should have been released, often because the doctors couldn't figure out how they would live outside the asylum environment. There was a wave of sentiment for letting the non-dangerous mad out into society, and this certainly resonated with legislatures since it would save a lot of money. In theory there would be "mental health" clinics for outpatient servicing of the recently released; in practice those proved to be too expensive and went away even as the number of clients for them increased by an order of magnitude.

Thus we had, and have, many who in earlier times would have been considered mad turned out on the streets. Others were released with medications that kept them calm, but the side effects induced many to go off their meds. We all know the results. Watch the relevant Law and Order episodes for more.

I haven't any profound observations on this dilemma: the price of liberty is that many who are considered mad are allowed to live their mad lives among us. Note that it was not all that long ago that many behaviors, including homosexuality, were considered treatable disorders. Note that there are very strange protesters who act in ways that others consider utterly mad. So there are counter protesters to the protesters, and sometimes one and sometimes another faction appears to be insane. Once in a while both protesters and counter protesters seem to be stark raving mad.

Allowing the non-violent madmen to live among us is a price of liberty; and allowing physicians and police to lock people away without judge and jury because they are mad is conceding a power to the authorities that often proves unwise, and sometimes is simply an adjunct to tyranny. 

The Enlightened used cases of abuse as an excuse to close the asylums while simultaneously discovering the right of the insane to live on the streets, defecate in doorways, bath in public fountains and eventually die a painful death by starvation, exposure or drug overdose. Not in the areas of our cities frequented by The Enlightened, of course. How dare anyone suggest they be daily confronted with the predictable results of their own actions. And yet, the abuses were very real; we all know what effect absolute power has on individuals as well as institutions.

Speaking of messes with no easy answers, Haiti one year after the earthquake is not much different than Haiti a couple weeks after the earthquake: masses of people living in tents; inadequate food, water and sanitation; bodies being dug out of rubble piles; roving rape gangs; ineffective foreign aid. Instead of worrying about someone else's mess on the other side of the world, maybe we should take care of the mess in our own front yard. A mess we played a significant role in creating. Oh! I forgot; Haiti doesn't have oil. My bad.

World food prices are up significantly. Good thing we don't include food in our inflation figures; otherwise everyone would realize they are paying more for their groceries. Anyone with an ounce of common sense and a calculator has been saying for 40 years that it is not possible for the entire world to live the American Middle-Class Lifestyle®. This is exactly what was predicted to happen if the attempt was made. Same story with oil. Which is also not included in government inflation figures. How convenient.

Elsewhere in the economy, don't expect housing or anything related to it to recover in 2011:

"2011 is going to be the peak," said Rick Sharga, a senior vice president at foreclosure tracker RealtyTrac Inc. The firm predicts 1.2 million homes will be repossessed this year.

The blistering pace of foreclosures this year will top 2010, when a record 1 million homes were lost, RealtyTrac said Thursday.

I'd like to know the rationale behind the 2011-is-the-peak hope-speak. Is everyone who still has a job in a year going to run out and buy second and third homes? Are banks going to simply forgive all their mortgage debt? Are those foreclosed on going to jump back into the real estate market next year? Are the banks going to stop closing long enough to start lending money? Are the all the states' Attorney Generals going to stop hounding the banks over mishandled paperwork? Or is this a back-handed prediction that the 5 million households behind on their mortgage will continue to grind away at the economy for the next four years or so instead of all going down at once?

Holiday spending hit a new record in 2010!! As long as you ignore inflation. And the extra 8 million people added to the US population since 2007. And the discounting. And the compression of the prior two months' spending (and likely January and February's as well) into the two-month Christmas Shopping Season®. Other than that, it was a great year to be in retail!!

And The Bernanke is hopeful! Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-LAAAAA!!!

Speaking of civil political discourse, someone is testing mail bombs in Maryland. These cannot be mistaken for serious attempts at blowing something up. I expect something big in a couple months after everyone lets their guard down.

And in climate news, the British government wants to know why it spends millions of pounds on weather predictions that are never correct while a couple dudes with laptops get it right year after year. I'd say it had something to do with observer bias on the part of the Met Office climatologists, but we all know those selfless public servants working inside the government bureaucracy would never allow politics to influence their work.

NASA has announced the next-to-last shuttle launch will happen on February 24, 2011, more than three months late. All the cracks are now thought to be related to a bad batch of metal. NASA is testing a repair to see if it actually fixes the problem or makes it worse. I'm not sure we should do this.

Well, time to hit the shower and go practice my ABC's.

Friday, January 07, 2011


It's official: Another tax season. I'm currently standing in as the office manager given that the person that was expected to do the job seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. I start tomorrow and as of right now will be working six 8-hour days a week. I'm sure that won't last long, but not a bad start. The pay sucks, but that's going to be the case no matter where I work. A real live job. For the next 16 weeks, anyway.


Not to get everyone excited for no reason (again), but I may have paying work starting as early as Saturday. Paying work: what a concept.

Not much else going on other than a tax class that is of limited utility given that the IRS has not finalized the changes Congress made to the tax code around Christmas. And from what I've seen of those changes, there will be some unhappy people when they see their shrunken refunds. Add in the doubling of the bank fees for refund anticipation loans and I'm predicting a very interesting tax season. We are already seeing a great deal of hostility from people walking through the door and no one has even done a 2010 tax return yet. Tings be gettin' ugly in da ghetto.

And that's all I really have time for. Off to day five of tax class.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Happy New Year!!!

It's 2011 and we find ourselves in Florida. It is currently sunny and 75 degrees outside with people outdoors enjoying the day off.  We are considering a trip somewhere today or tomorrow (when the temps are supposed to top 80), but given that today is pretty much over (it will be dark in a couple hours) and tomorrow I work at the library right during prime time (1:30-4:30), we will most likely stay home and do some cleaning and organizing, or maybe some shopping given that we only have chips and Klondike Bars for lunch.

So it's a New Year and everyone is supposed to give a wrap-up or a top-ten list or make some predictions and/or review how last year's predictions turned out.

The wrap-up is pretty easy: Personally, 2010 was another giant turd for us. Not as big a turd as 2009, but a giant steaming one none the less. At least we got out of the snow in time for winter. I think we are going to enjoy Florida; just not the particular part of Florida we are currently in. Don't misunderstand; I've spent my entire life living on the wrong side of the tracks (both metaphorically and, in the case of our place in Flint, literally), but this place is just, well, yeah. The problem is, as always, money. As in we don't have enough of it to live anywhere else except in the ghetto. That won't be changing until I find some kind of job. Just like last year, the only thing that seems to be working out involves tax preparation. Again. Same gig as last year only less money and probably not full time. Like most people south of the Mason-Dixon, the people in charge move slower than molasses in January, so no one has any idea what is going on in spite of tax season being two weeks away. Next week is the 2010 tax change class, so maybe I can get some answers then. After tax season is over, I have no idea. Every job here has hundreds of applicants, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Peaking outside of our little Ric-and-Debbie bubble, 2010 was a bad year to work in the energy sector. Things started with an explosion at a Middletown, CT power plant that killed five people. Twenty-nine miners were killed in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in early April, only to be pushed off the front page by the 11 killed in the Gulf oil spill. (The total coal mine deaths for 2010 hit 48, the highest in nearly 20 years, but they were virtually ignored in favor of dead shrimp and oiled beaches in the Gulf. The priorities of the news media are nothing if not endlessly fascinating.) All of these have been blamed on intentional disregard for safety due to constant pressure to go faster, better, cheaper. As everyone knows, you can't have all three; the energy industry defaulted to faster and cheaper with the expected result. We blame the usual suspects; greedy company owners/stockholders, short-sited managers engaged in ass-covering, insufficient/inept/corrupt regulators. Here's my take: look in a mirror. Those people died because we are a nation of wastrels.

As far as top-whatever lists, I don't have one of my own, so I'll just coast on the work of others. Gotta love them internets. The first goes along with the whole job-hunting theme that predominated 2010 for us. We've all been there: You're in an interview when out of left field, the interviewer comes up with the most ludicrous, off-topic, nothing-to-do-with-anything question. Well, the good folks at glassdoor.com have compiled a list of the Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions of 2010. If you want to know how people without the common sense to come in out of the rain ended up running our banks, one look at the questions they were asked in their interview explains it all. On a more positive note, we have the Top Ten Scientific Breakthroughs of 2010. My personal number one spot is a tie between water on the moon and knowing what color the feathers were on dinosaurs.

I'm not big on predictions because in a chaotic universe, being correct means that a) you made predictions so obvious or so general you have no chance of being wrong; b) you are good at twisting events to match your predictions; or c) you got lucky. In spite of that, I took leave of my senses last year and made some anyway. Let's look at how poorly I did:

Bachelor degree that cost 10's of thousands and took 27 years to finish helping get me a job. Um... yea. Parents; if your kid wants to go to college, encourage them to instead do something that may prove useful in their life. Like taking up curling.

The War Against All Rational Thought continues to be waged by the global warming hysterics against anyone who dares to question orthodoxy. The public seems to be taking note of the arrogance and lack of integrity among the politicized "scientists" that dominate the IPCC and the UNFCCC. My fear was that as awareness that political manipulations have trumped the science became widespread, the politicians would do what politicians always do: abuse their power to double down rather than change course. This is one case where I would have loved to have been wrong. Expect more of the same in 2011.

Obama: After signing two of the most disastrous pieces of legislation in the history of these United States then watching his own party gutted in the mid-terms, Obama seems to have withdrawn into some sort of shell. The good news: Obama is still on track to a one-term presidency. The bad news: two more wasted years that we can ill afford. Expect another year of inaction in DC in any matter that doesn't directly inflated the Swiss bank accounts of Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, et al.

Our personal and the national economy will pick up in 2010. Heh. Do I even need to go there? Sure; the fat-cats got fatter and the stock market, in response to direct manipulation by the Fed and the Treasury had a good year. In fact, stocks had a great year. Too bad every other indicator went nowhere or dropped in 2010. I predict that 2011 will be more of the same; the politically connected will do well while the rest of us struggle. Meanwhile the experts say that consumers will finally shake off their funk, quit worrying about that $800 billion in outstanding credit card debt and hit the mall. (When financial experts talk about "pent up consumer demand," what they really mean is "those idiot marks aren't borrowing enough money from us to buy crap they don't need.") My prediction assumes that people who have recently experienced financial near-death or complete financial death, will act in their own rational, short-term interest; while the experts' predictions assume that people are complete idiots. Early indications are that the idiots have it.

One thing I love about the internet; I can always find someone with a darker outlook than I have. A flock of black swans....

I had expected us to stay in New Hampshire for at least all of 2010. That obviously didn't happen. We knew we wanted to go south and we were aiming to get close to some part of my family. We just didn't expect things to happen quite so fast. One minute we're all settled into our New Hampshire apartment, the next I'm loading up a Penske truck for the fifth time in four years. While we expect the move to benefit us financially in the long run (our Florida rent is just over half what we were paying in New Hampshire), in the short run, it killed us. But it is done and we have partially recovered already. I expect tax season should get us back where we started.

I said that in 2010, computers and the internet will continue to embed themselves more deeply into our lives even as we become less and less aware of them. This was certainly true in big ways and little ways, but this was pretty much a water-will-continue-to-run-downhill-in-2010 prediction. What I didn't predict was the first proven use of malware as a weapon. Stuxnet broke new ground in many ways, none of them good. It also showed that even scary-smart people, working in a secure facility where breaking protocol didn't just get you fired, but could earn you prison or even a death sentence, routinely violate basic computer network hygiene. And that should scare the frickin' pants off everyone.

As I expected, Spirit rover went silent during the Martian winter and has yet to be heard from. There is still a thin hope among the rover team that it will recover during the Martian summer (March 2011), but it's not a hope I share. Still, a 90-Martian-day mission that runs for 2,210 Martian days isn't a bad bit of engineering. Meanwhile, the Opportunity rover just keeps on rolling.

On the other, not-so-shiny side of the NASA coin, we have the sorry state of human space flight. The last Shuttle flight is currently scheduled for February 2011, but the next-to-last flight has been delayed, pushed back, then delayed some more due to structural defects where the external tank mates with the orbiter. I doubt this is anything new; rather I'm guessing that it is yet-another serious problem that has been reported repeatedly by the engineers doing the real work and ignored by the put-on-a-happy-face management. Just like the O-rings and shedding insulation that killed two other orbiter crews, and the gods only know how many other serious problems that have not (yet) caused catastrophic failure. If this is the best we can do, we don't deserve human space flight capability. Fortunately, the fine folks over at Space-X are doing great things with the Falcon Nine.

OK, enough of that crap. On to some 2010 numbers. Between the two of us, we read 138 books over the last year. That's an unexpectedly high number even for us, especially for a relocation year. Probably not a record, but definitely in the top ten. Unlike our reading, our blogging has slacked off with only 233 posts. That puts 2010 dead center of the pack; of the seven full calender years we've had this thing, three years had more and three had fewer. I expect the downward trend to continue with us settling somewhere between 50 and 100 posts per year. The number of visitors has also fallen off as well, which is totally expected. We've also lost the vast majority of visits from people hitting Blogger's Next Blog button. I expect Facebook, Twitter, etc. are to blame for that. People have only so much time and why waste it reading a complete stranger's opinion about Obamacare when you can read what people you actually know in real life are up to. Over 85 percent of our readers are running Microsoft PC's, and of those, nearly three-quarters are still on XP. It seems the adoption of each new generation of Windows takes longer with each iteration. That can't be good for Microsoft. Yet while Microsoft has had trouble getting people to upgrade their OS, the users have shown themselves more than willing to upgrade their browser. IE8 is the top dawg around these parts by a wide margin. Firefox is a distant second and Chrome is lost in the noise. It should be interesting to see what happens when IE9 (which only runs on Vista and Win7) and Firefox 4 (which as far as I've heard, will also run on XP) are released in 2011. Will this be the year that The Empire Strikes Back or the Return of the Jedi?

Anyway, that should be enough for a while.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year!

Make it a great one --- or at least a little bit better than last year.

Happy New Year to all!