Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cruise Photos

I finally finished up the photos from our cruise. A few samples:

This photo most likely violates a dozen or so federal laws. This was some sort of chase vehicle that followed us out of port as part of the 9/11 10th Anniversary Celebration along with police check points and a bunch of people with Big Scary Guns who would probably kill more bystanders than terrorists if they ever opened fire.

Boat for sale.

Really expensive places for people to live in Miami.

The most interesting thing in Freeport, Bahamas: crumbling ruins.

James Bond lives here. (I saw it in a movie; it must be true.)

Our last night at sea.


Best at full screen and the highest resolution your connection can manage:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Starting Over

I finally got a phone call from the bike shop telling me my bike is ready. I've ridden once in the last 18 days; I wonder how many months of progress that will cost me. But at last I can stop going stir-crazy. Without my morning ride, I can't focus, have zero energy, and spend most of the day pacing around the apartment. It will be nice to get back at it.

And I'm still neck-deep in tax code. September is almost over which means I'm still behind (maybe even a little behinder) schedule. I did build in some slack, but that's now more or less gone. I'm hoping to schedule a test date during the second week of October. Assuming that goes as planned, I should be able to get my application into the IRS before December. It will be tight, but I think I'm still OK.

I'm still working through the cruise photos on my breaks from all things IRS. That little project should be done in the next day or so. We didn't take many photos because we hardly got off the ship, but we did have an awesome sunset our last night thanks to some droppings from Tropical Storm Maria.

I haven't really talked much about Greece and the whole European/Euro mess. The problem is in some ways quite simple. Greece has been on a borrowing binge that makes every other western country look like rank amateurs, largely because the citizens of Greece like to have lots of stuff, but aren't much interested in working for it, combined with tax evasion being the favorite national past time. There is no possible way Greece can ever pay all, or even most, of the money back even if the government completely shut down and all tax revenues went to debt relief. Greece must default. This is familiar territory; countries have defaulted before. The entire South American continent defaulted in the 1970's and the world didn't end. It wasn't pleasant for people living in those countries for a long time, and anyone foolish enough to loan mountains of cash to countries run by men with a passion for funny hats and military uniforms, insisting they be addressed as "General" when the closest they'd ever been to a battle was watching The Sands of Iwo Jima, saw their investments wiped out. But the world went on much as it had been going on. The difficulty with Greece is that so much of their worthless debt is held by banks in other European countries (something that wasn't supposed to happen under the Euro-zone treaties) that if Greek debt is written down even 50% (90-100% being more likely), the entire banking system would seize up. Today, the financial world celebrated the news that the fund that is supposed to prevent that is being increased from a paltry €440 billion to €3 trillion. Not to be the kid who points out that the emperor has no clothes, but just where exactly is this €2.5 trillion going to come from? Germany is tapped out, most of the rest of Europe is running deficits, England is already killing itself with austerity measures, we certainly don't have it, Japan is busted, Russia is East Timor with nukes. China maybe? Warren Buffet? Or will Europe simply wave a magic wand and "leverage" €2.5 trillion into existence? I'm betting it will be that last one, and that it will accomplish even less than our version of wand-waving has over the last three years.

One idea for lowering the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has been to use crystals called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) to absorb CO2 and lock it away. The problem has been that until now, MOFs were created using a lot of toxic chemicals and petroleum, making them expensive to create in bulk and a more-immediate environmental problem than the CO2 itself. College campuses are notoriously short on petroleum, so some students at Northwestern University used materials readily available in any dorm room, sugar, salt and alcohol, to create MOFs. The reaction takes place at room temperature and is easily reversible should our over-due ice age show up unexpectedly. The next step is for the global warming jihad to block further development because it doesn't promise to do sufficient damage to the US economy.

The internet is buzzing angrily like a hornets' nest that's been whacked with a stick because Facebook has made some tweaks to its interface:

It’s not hard to irritate people on a social media site, of course. The two easiest ways to do it are:

1. Change something.
2. Don’t change anything.

...Facebook, ever the traditionalist, prefers the time-tested approach of making constant changes that range from the inexplicably superficial to the confoundingly substantial. By keeping users in a constant state of agitation, and simultaneously providing them with a place to express that agitation, Facebook maintains its huge base of extremely unsatisfied users.

At least it gives people something more interesting to post about than what their last bowel movement looked like.

Everyone is pretty much aware that our medical system is broken. We spend more money per capita and have less to show for it than any other industrial nation. While there are a lot of ideas for how to fix it, I doubt any of them involve upping the number of ICD codes from the current 18,000 to 140,000 under the new ICD-10. As one would expect with such a change, its affect will largely be to increase costs while not providing any new useful information. Note I said "useful":

...a code for recording that a patient's injury occurred in a chicken coop. for injuries in opera houses, art galleries, squash court and nine locations in and around a mobile home, from the bathroom to the bedroom.

...R46.1 is "bizarre personal appearance".... R46.0 is "very low level of personal hygiene".

...W22.02XA, "walked into lamppost, initial encounter"

...W22.02XD, "walked into lamppost, subsequent encounter"

...Code V91.07XA, which involves a "burn due to water-skis on fire"

...72 codes about injuries tied to birds.

...There are separate codes for "bitten by turtle" and "struck by turtle."

And the literal money quote:

Some companies hope to grab business from the shift.

Imagine that. Anyone want to bet that the businesses in a position to grab the most were up to their necks in the creation of the ICD-10?

From the "Holy crap!" department, we have live video reconstructed from brain activity:

UC Berkeley scientists have developed a system to capture visual activity in human brains and reconstruct it as digital video clips. Eventually, this process will allow you to record and reconstruct your own dreams on a computer screen.

The entire process is fairly crude at this point, but the mere fact that it can be done is very cool.

We used to do the Netflix thing back when we lived at Arcosanti, but we stopped after getting tired of a certain individual stealing our movies from our mail slot. We've thought about restarting it several times over the last few years, but just never got around to pulling the trigger. Then the price went up. Then they lost their contract with Starz. Now they've split the company into two separate entities; Netflix for streaming content and Qwikster for the DVD-by-mail business. From the user's perspective, this is a disaster. Now instead of one account, one website, one catalog, etc. there are two of everything. Last I checked, there have been a million cancellations since this was announced and the price of Netflix stock has been cut in half. But there are good business reasons to do this. It's pretty obvious that streaming is the future of movies, and physical DVD's are going to the same place as CD's and paper books are going. Spinning off the DVD-by-mail business to sink or swim on its own is probably a smart business move. Also having people specifically subscribe to the streaming content gives Netflix a more solid figure to use when negotiating with the studios. However, smart business moves that are sprung on your customers with no explanation and look on the surface to be a ten-story middle finger directed at your entire customer base usually turn out to be bad for business. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out over the next several months. Meanwhile, we will continue to wait for a while longer and see how it plays out.

The TSA has always been a joke from day one, but now it seems like a test just to see how ridiculous they can be and still continue to exist. Now the TSA is at war with big hair and people who take too long to take a dump. It's tempting to just write this off as more of the typical government stupidity we all have to live with every day until you take a moment to consider what scrambling an F-16 escort means:

Let's just stop for a second, helpful passengers, and remember that the F-16s are not there to help you. They are there to shoot down the plane if necessary. What else could they do? So the TSA is out there scrambling armed fighters to intercept passenger jets out of "an abundance of caution," just because somebody reportedly spent too long on the john. Does that make you feel safer?

I know I certainly feel safer knowing the level of intelligence necessary to sic an armed F-16 on one of our own passenger airplanes. Ye flippin' gods.

Well, back to the tax code.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Your bike is a POS and you're fat."

After eating for five days straight, I attempted a bike ride on Saturday. I made it through my route, but I would have made better time walking it. I'm sure all the cruise ship food was part of the problem, but a bigger problem was the back wheel wobbling all over the place. Tightening it up didn't help at all, so back to the bike shop where my fears were confirmed: new back wheel. I asked the salesperson why a bike ridden as lightly as mine is blowing out bearings. The short version of her answer is the post title. I only paid $350 when I bought it new over ten years ago, and I'm fat, so I really shouldn't expect more than a couple thousand miles from a wheel. My $20 Schwinn I got when I was six lasted for three generations of serious abuse with nothing more than some rare oiling, but my "mountain" bike that has never been ridden on anything rougher than a graded dirt road needs a whole new back wheel once a year. Nice.

And don't even get me started on why I need to buy an entire wheel to replace the hub bearings. Good thing I took it to the "experts".

And you kids get off my lawn!

I'm not sure what's going on with our apartment. The three women that normally work in the office are gone and have been replaced by some clueless dweeb that doesn't seem to know his ass from his elbow. But everyone now has these really cool matching blue polo shirts, so there's that. As Debbie mentioned, the Blue Polo Shirted Dweeb working in the office seems to have forgotten all about scheduling our carpet cleaning while we were on the cruise. And we still don't have any idea who was in our apartment messing with the smoke detector. I cornered a maintenance guy this morning; he just repeated the party line about how they never enter an apartment without leaving a work order stating why they were there. When I pointed out that we were fully aware of what was supposed to happen which is why Debbie called the office raising holy hell because someone had apparently been in our apartment while we were out of town and didn't leave a note as to why, he responded that the people upstairs must have been jumping up and down a lot and knocked it off the ceiling. Yea. I'm sure that's what happened.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love our ghetto apartment?

Anyway. The cruise. We spent most of the time laying around in the sun on the pool deck except the one day we got off the ship to lay in the sun on the beach. The rest of the time we were in line for the buffet. We were generally disappointed in our first NCL cruise; there wasn't any major problems, just a lot of little things that left us sort of let down. Most of it involved the large number of crew standing around looking puzzled and not doing things that clearly needed doing. Things got better towards the end of the cruise making us wonder if there had been a major crew change when we left port. Debbie always tells her clients not to judge a cruise line by a single cruise and maybe we just caught NCL on a bad week. But even if everything had been perfect. I'm not sure I like NCL-style cruising. Being constantly assaulted by loud music and crew members jumping around yelling, "Let's party!" in my face everywhere we went isn't my idea of relaxation. The rarest of commodities on an NCL ship is peace and quiet. At times the intentional audio assault was simply ludicrous: we hit one of the twenty or so bars on the ship (because NCL is the partyingest cruise line so Let's Party!) late one night looking for something different for our second dinner (or maybe it was our 11pm snack), and they had four TV's, all playing a different station with the sound turned up and music playing over the PA. All in a space not much larger than our living room.

And you kids get off my lawn!

Now that vacation is over, it's back to tax code. I finished up the initial pass through the material for the second test. Most of the basic concepts haven't changed since I was doing this stuff in the 1980's, but there is a lot of little details that I've either forgotten or that have been added. One thing in particular has changed; back in the day is was standard practice to have the business on a fiscal year and the taxpayer on a calendar year so you could defer taxes by floating money between the two. Now there is a whole stack of rules specifically intended to prevent that which I have to learn. Woo. hoo.

Cruise pictures are still on the camera; I want to get to that this week. I also want a million dollars. We'll see. And Debbie is going to be home soon, so I should be looking busy when she walks in instead of sitting here blogging.

Friday, September 16, 2011

We're back

We made it back from our Bahama cruise -- now, we have a week of feeling ever so often like we are back on a ship!

Our biggest complaint coming back (as Ric will expound on later, I"m sure!) is our carpet never got steam cleaned while we were gone. Ric had walked down to the office to tell them we would be out of town from Sunday afternoon until Friday afternoon and to schedule the carpet to be cleaned sometime while we were gone. Before we left on our trip, we picked, moved and stacked as much as we could off the carpet and vacuum, dusted the whole place. Came home and NOTHING WAS DONE! We had to get some things back to their original places, so we could put the milk and insulin in the fridge. We grabbed the mail box key, picked up the mail and headed to the office. The guy working was new to me and apparently the guy Ric talked to about scheduling our carpet cleaning. He had no idea what we were talking about. Just keeps getting better and better here! (yeah, that was sarcasm!) We then came back and put most of the apt back together since they can't steam clean while Ric is here.

Then while sitting for a moment, Ric happened to look up and noticed one of our smoke detector was hanging by the wire. Guessing, maybe maintenance came in to check them and change batteries? Of course, no note that they came in our place. I called the office and said we thought maintenance had been in to check on smoke detector and left it hanging, even though there was no note that came into our apt. He said he didn't think they had. I said well then it magically "fell off the ceiling by itself" and they needed to come fix it. I can't wait to see when one of the "regulars" is in the office and we can let them know how things are!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Finally Got a Round Tuit

Photos from our day at the beach from the end of July. Cleaning off the camera in preparation for hopefully filling it up again in what's left of the Bahamas. At least Maria looks to make herself scarce before we get there, making a nice right turn out into the middle of the Atlantic instead of being in the Bahamas waiting for us. We still expect a rough ride; today Debbie picked up something called Bonine (which sounds more like an OTC version of Viagra instead of sea-sick pills) just in case. None of that stuff does much for me, but it seems to help her. I just need to be able to see the horizon occasionally, and I'm good. The real fun is when we get back on dry land; it takes about a week for us to quit grabbing onto the walls and furniture because the apartment is moving.

Well, we have to get our butts in gear and finish cleaning up and rearranging the apartment. The landlord gives every apartment a free carpet cleaning when you renew the lease, so we figured the easiest time to do it would be while we were gone, meaning we have to get as much off the carpet and shoved into the bathrooms and kitchen as we can. We figure they should be able to get to at least 80% of the carpet and the rest is places like under our bed that never get walked on anyway. At a minimum, it should knock down the worst of the dust in here. Florida is worse than Arizona in that department, which really surprised me. How there can be so much dust when it rains twice a day is beyond me, but we literally scoop it off everything in the apartment with a snow shovel every time we clean.

Anyway, later. Photos sometime after we get back. Hopefully less than six weeks after we're back, like the last batch, but no guarantees.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

One Down; Two to Go

I managed to get through the first section of the SEE covering individual taxes. The best part of the whole thing was the security; I thought for a minute I was going to have to take the test bare-asss nekkid. I had to surrender my drivers license, then empty my pockets of everything else and lock it in a little gym locker. I couldn't even wear a watch. I followed the lady who had my drivers license into the next room where my license was checked against the name on my registration, scrutinized under ultra-violet light, then checked a second time against the name on my registration. I had to stand on a tape mark on the floor, turn all my pockets inside out, get wanded front and back, and sign in and time-stamp my signature. I was issued a calculator, two #2 pencils and an eight-page booklet of scratch paper with the top third of every page filled with a heading informing me in 36-point bold type that it was an official piece of scratch paper, then was led into the test room. The mini-cubicle I took the test in was monitored and recorded in video and audio. I had to leave my drivers license on the desk while I took the test so the person watching the video could be sure I was at the correct computer. When I was done with the test, I turned in my pencils, scratch paper, calculator and drivers license. My letter certifying that I had passed the test was printed, checked against my drivers license, signed, dated, and raised-seal stamped by the monitor, then handed to me along with my license. After retrieving all my stuff from the little gym locker, I was allowed to leave. Missile silos have looser security. Holy. Crap.

The next test will be even more fun to prepare for; it covers partnerships, all three flavors of corporation, estates, etc., which I haven't done anything with since I worked in public accounting back in the 1980's. But before I dive into all that, I need to spend the next couple days getting ready for our cruise. I doubt Debbie will let me take my flash cards on the cruise with us, so it looks like I get a 10-day break from taxes.

We had a bit of a scare last night. While we were in the middle of watching the latest episode of Misfits, the computer did an emergency shut down and wouldn't fully reboot. It is an HP, so I wouldn't have been surprised if it had suffered a catastrophic hardware failure after a mere three years. I already had to replace the video card when it was less than a year old, and I thought that may be the problem again this time. When I could coax a bit of life out of it, the blue screen that flashed by as it powered itself back off had a bit about an invalid video mode or some such. It was late, I wasn't really in the mood, and I didn't have the brain power left after three days of non-stop tax code, so I left everything powered off and went to bed. Today when I came back from my test, I tore the whole thing to pieces and started cleaning out the major dust bunnies. And I do mean major. The heat sink on the CPU was completely clogged with gunk. I just cleaned everything the last time we moved, so Florida must have really gunky air for it to be that bad already. Bottom line is that after a thorough de-gunking and re-assembly, it seems to be working fine. Dodged that bullet. For now.

When I logged into Blogger today, I was greeted with a message asking if I would like to try the new, "lightweight" and "clean" version of Blogger. Because I enjoy pain, I agreed. I guess "lightweight" and "clean" are now synonyms for "butt ugly" and "grossly obtuse". I can only hope that it looks and works better on an iPad, because for the rest of us that still use old-fashioned PC's, it sucks dead bunnies. The good news is that I can switch back to the old interface, at least until They force me to use the "new and improved" one. What would be nice is if instead of wasting resources wrecking what works, maybe Google could fix the problem with the editor tossing the cursor randomly around the text in response to the cursor keys. In the process of fixing what wasn't broken about two years ago, that bug was introduced and has been a "feature" of the text editor ever since.

Well, brain is mush, so off to bed.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Little over a week

Next Sunday we will be heading down to Miami. We have a hotel to stay at, parking our car for the week free and heading to the pier on Monday. We are doing a 4 night cruise to the Bahamas on Norwegian Cruise Lines. (which I won in a contest at work -- not totally free, but close!) Side note, Ric was excited when I told him we both were going -- that it was NOT an agent only cruise!

This will be the first time I've been on NCL. They are the first cruise line to introduce the "freestyle dining concept" and the first time I will experience the "anytime dining". I like the idea of no set table number and set time and set table mates. Though, not too interested in so many "specialty restaurants" with a surcharge.

We've been to Nassau before, but not Freeport. Not sure if we will bother to get off the ship to check out either of those ports. But we will definitely be taking advantage of NCL's private island port of call. I love the to have lunch served on the island and we may be checking out cabanas to rent. One of the ports in the Bahamas did have a Segway shore excursion that sounded interesting that we might splurge on too.

Biggest thing will just to relax and enjoy ourselves. Hopefully Ric passes his tax exam test on Tuesday, so it will be a celebration week for him. He can take time out from studying and testing for a week, before starting on the next set of tax tests.

It will be interesting to see if Tropical Storm/Hurricane Katia tries to interfere with the cruise. Keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn't.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

City of the Future

"Detroit is the city of the future. Either it's going to rise from the ashes, or every other city is going to end up like we are. We get to decide."  -- Tony Barlow, New York Times.