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March 28, 2007

Left Hand, Right Hand

One of the ways you can tell something is wrong in government is when … well, when it does stuff like promote alternative fuels on one hand while with the other hand it clearly has no processes to deal with people who heed its advice:

The [government] agents informed the Wetzels that they were interested in their car, a 1986 Volkswagen Golf, that David Wetzel converted to run primarily from vegetable oil but also partly on diesel. [source]

The agents were "interested" in the car. That's a scary word when it comes from the government. They weren't "interested" in order to praise the Wetzels for being good citizens and taking initiative in energy independence. No, they had other motives. And I'll bet you can guess what they were.

"They showed me their badges and said they were from the Illinois Department of Revenue," Wetzel said. "I said, 'Come in.' Maybe I shouldn't have."

Gary May introduced himself as a special agent. The other man, John Egan, was introduced as his colleague. May gave the Wetzels his card, stating that he is the senior agent in the bureau of criminal investigations.

Mr. Wetzel didn't have a license to make biodiesel. He's a retired chemist; he knows what he's doing. But it's not even a safety issue, it's a revenue issue. The government wants its gas tax, and he hasn't been paying … because he hasn't been using gasoline.

I don't want to be misunderstood here — I'm no biodiesel booster. I think it's great for the few people who can take advantage of it, but from an engineering point of view it simply does not scale up to the volumes needed to make it a viable alternative to gasoline for the broad public.

David Wetzel, who has been exhibiting his car at energy fairs and universities, views state policies as contradicting stated government aims.

Indeed they do.

Read the story; it gets pretty outrageous. The government told him to apply for licenses as a special fuel supplier and receiver, but then Wetzel discovered that he doesn't meet the definitions of either, so he's not licensable anyway!

Mike Klemens, spokesman for the department of revenue, explained that Wetzel has to register as a supplier because the law states that is the only way he can pay motor fuel tax.

But what if he is not, in fact, a supplier? Then would he instead be exempt from paying the tax?

"We are in the process of creating a way to simplify the registration process and self-assess the tax," Klemens said, adding that a rule change may be in place by spring.

Broken. Broken. Broken.

The government just wants its money. As with the IRS having to lose a dozen court cases over the long distance telephone excise tax before finally giving up last year, this is another case of government going to absurd lengths pretending to be in the right in order to get every penny it can.

March 25, 2007

Museum Heist

Think museum heists are good fodder for good movies but outdated and unrealistic in the modern world?

Tell that to the Ohashi Collection Kan museum, where a 100kg gold bar was stolen in broad daylight. It was worth over $2 million.

"We were very shocked … but of course this was a big block of gold, and there was no security," Kurake said. "I suppose they could have been a little more careful."

Um, yes, they could have been a little more careful. <boggle>

The problem for the robbers is now how to spend it without getting caught. Eveyone involved with precious metals knows it's been stolen and will be on the lookout for it. Realistically, what can they do? Even selling it gradually as scrap metal would raise suspicions. If they had refining and minting equipment perhaps they could try to make copies of common 1oz gold bars. But that's a lot of equipment and a lot harder to keep secret.

Still, I'm amused.

March 21, 2007

The Phantom Refund

Storytime, crew! Gather 'round.

In tax year 2005 I had to file an amended return for various reasons (an HSA mixup that resulted in a corrected W-2, and several corrected 1099s) and on both the original and amended returns I owed money to the state of Oregon. My second payment was $90, consisting of $88 owed because of the changes in the amendment and $2 interest. That payment was made at the end of last May — approximately 10 months ago.

Imagine my surprise when today I receive in the mail a "Notice of Deficiency" from the Oregon Department of Revenue stating that I owe the state $94.06 for my 2005 taxes — $90 plus interest. No, hang on, that doesn't seem right…

I checked my records; I mailed the check. I have my checkbook carbon copy and the record of it posting in my bank statement. I've ordered a copy of the cleared check from the bank so I can mail it along with a dispute letter to the Department of Revenue.

And then I looked a little more.

The Notice of Deficiency contains a list of figures from my tax return in two columns, original and adjusted. The first line that's different is labeled "Income Tax Refunds Received" — they show $0 under Original and $90 under Adjusted. There's no record of the $90 I sent to them.

Aha! I see what happened. When I sent them $90, they recorded it as them sending me $90! They got it backwards. (But not completely backwards, because they're only asking for ~$90, not ~$180…)

Naturally, this has some cascading effects. Oregon sent me a 1099G for the 2006 tax year that showed a $90 tax refund. I didn't think anything of it at the time, of course, because I didn't check it against my previous year's tax returns. But this creates a problem for filing my 2006 taxes — my 1099G is wrong, showing $90 of phantom tax refund. I don't want to get taxed for money I never received!

Why do they wait until the following year's tax season to mail stuff like this? They should've done it, oh, let's be generous and suggest six months ago. I've been hoping for a long time that I would have an uneventful tax season this year, because both 2004 and 2005 were complicated and involved amended returns. I didn't want to go through that again. Sigh.

… but wait, there's more!

The Oregon Department of Revenue's error isn't quite as straightforward as it sounds. They said I owe $90 plus interest, but they curiously gave me a $2 credit in the mix. Somehow they managed to turn my $90 payment into a $90 refund while also crediting me for the $2 of interest owed on my original $88 due!

It would appear that they got my money, and even applied a portion of it correctly, but then they blew it and got everything else wrong.

Obviously no human being has reviewed this situation; I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of circumstances under which that $2 credit would make sense to any person. This was the result of some software doing the best it could with bad data.

I went to see my tax preparer about the matter and we ended up laughing and telling each other it shouldn't be funny.

March 19, 2007

The "Tar Baby" Tar Baby

John McCain has become the latest politician to be criticized for using the phrase "tar baby":

Later at a press conference, CNN's Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley asked McCain about his use of the phrase "tar baby," viewed by some as having racist overtones.

If you're unfamiliar with the term, here's a short explanation. I was familiar with its literary origins but was surprised to learn that some people consider it racist.

No, make that outranged. (Shocking! Outrageous!) When people think a phrase is totally innocent, and have to be told that some consider it racist, they obviously couldn't have meant to offend people by using it.

Amusingly, the Wikipedia entry for "tar baby" says "Specific reasons why the term developed negative racial aspects are difficult to identify." I have an idea. It isn't a racist term. I'd wager that the alleged racist connection was kicked up by people with a vested interest in racial tension.

More amusingly, since "tar baby" originates in African folklore, I humbly suggest that those who criticize people who use the term should instead praise them for their cultural awareness. After all, wouldn't that be the multicultural thing to do?

March 18, 2007

Mugabe Destroying Zimbabwe

The latest outrage from Zimbabwe is the beating of an opposition leader:

Tsvangirai, head of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had been treated for what his party said was a suspected skull fracture since Tuesday, two days after he and scores of supporters were arrested in an anti-Mugabe protest.

Mugabe has been gradually destroying the county ever since the country gained independence from the British. His government is authoritarian, violent, and routinely violates the rights of its citizens. Mugabe has overseen genocide operations ("ethnic cleansing"), wholesale robbery ("land reform"), election tampering, hyperinflation, and forceful suppression of dissent. At least.

Under his guidance the country has gone from a major food exporter to one dependent on international aid and where chronic shortages are the norm.

Mugabe, who frequently blames Zimbabwe's economic problems on sabotage by Britain and the United States, told his Western critics on Thursday that they could "go hang."

That's an interesting suggestion.

Images of a badly bruised and limping Tsvangirai entering the hospital earlier this week fueled international outrage and threats by the United States and other nations to tighten sanctions against Mugabe and other senior Zimbabwean officials.

Oooo... we've threatened to tighten sanctions! No, I think I prefer Mugabe's idea. I think it's long past time for an assassination. I don't even care who does it! Even if the country gets another strong-man dictator afterward, I doubt he could be worse than Mugabe.

I'm increasingly a skeptic of sanctions. Does anyone have some historical examples of when sanctions have worked well? What factors are predictive of the efficacy of sanctions?

March 13, 2007

Review of Zelda: Twilight Princess

As you've noticed by now, I haven't been blogging much recently. I got a Nintendo Wii and have been spending most of my spare time playing Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

I finally finished it. And since I've got nothing else to blog about at the moment, I'll talk about the game. I'll give my general comments first and leave potential spoilers for the end.

Let me set a little context. I played a lot of video games in middle and high school but didn't bring a console with me to college, nor did I have one after college until I bought a Nintendo DS last year. I've only played the first three Zelda games, missing everything else before Twilight Princess, so I can't make comparisons to the games I skipped.

The first thing to say about the game is its length. It took me over 60 hours to complete it, although I'm a very thorough player and completed almost all of the side quests. I'm sure the game could be finished significantly faster — perhaps just half that time — by ignoring side quests.

The overall pacing of the game is good. I was overwhelmed in the very beginning by the number of things I'd have to do (and characters to remember) but those early threads all wrap up fairly quickly. I was relieved when I got to the first dungeon; then I knew I was in the game proper. But at the time I didn't know that there would be nine dungeons. In retrospect this makes perfect sense, because there were 9 dungeons in the original Legend of Zelda — and many were similarly themed! Despite being surprised by the length of the game, I never felt either rushed or bored.

My biggest complaint about the game is that the dungeons are too linear. Not only are you forced to complete them in order, but there is a definite path through each one. It's never possible to get too far off track because a locked door will block the later sections of the dungeon. There's too little opportunity for free-roaming exploration of the dungeon. Your freedom to go the wrong way is limited to just a handful of rooms.

Linearity aside, the puzzles in the dungeons are excellent — inventive and often difficult. They made very good use of elevation; in many dungeons the rooms are actually giant caverns with multiple levels where you can fall from a higher to lower level. That said, there's entirely too much plummeting-to-your-doom in this game. I want more challenges where failure means I'm set back a litle bit, not all the way.

As I progressed through the game I often felt like there was too much money in the world (my wallet was always full) and combat was too easy. I never used a healing potion of any kind before reaching Snowpeak. The prominent exception to easy combat was in the Cave of Ordeals, which I was not able to complete on my first attempt (although I did reach the last room of combat).

The funnest regular combat was on the approach to the Arbiter's Grounds (the sand dungeon) where a seemingly endless stream of enemies come at you and often surround you. They're easy to defeat, but the sheer number of them was very amusing.

Boss combat is often too easy. Observe for a little while, determine how to attack — usually by using some item just gathered in the same dungeon, which is too obvious for my taste — and then fight until you win. You often have to be patient to wait for your opportunity, but if you defend well you won't be in serious danger of losing.

The most audacious boss fight is at the end of City in the Sky where you fight an actual fire-breathing dragon. The sheer scale of it is impressive; the camera zooms way out and you're a little speck traveling from one floating creature to another, hundreds of feet in the sky, while a giant dragon is flaming at you. That's the kind of thing that makes you step back for a moment and think, "Awesome."

I haven't said anything about the wolf transformations yet. It's certainly an interesting game dynamic, and I enjoyed the idea of following scents in the various places where it was used. However, I was a bit put off by having Midna lead me through a series of jumps. Zelda's roots are in being the anti-platforming game; Link can't jump. (Ignore Zelda II, which doesn't count anyway…) Jumping as a wolf didn't seem right. And having Midna supply the path felt too guided.

Speaking of animals, I was impressed by how well combat on horseback worked. That was fun, and sometimes I rode around Hyrule Field west of the castle engaging enemies just for fun. On the flipside, calling hawks for assistance was only used a few times early in the game. This idea didn't seem well-integrated.

I wish the game music had been orchestrated. It sounds all MIDI — albeit good MIDI.

Possible spoilers below.

The generally low amount of backtracking necessary in the dungeons mislead me a few times by making me believe I could reach something that actually wasn't reachable yet. For example, in the Lakebed temple there's a chest on the highest level near the origin of a waterfall that I couldn't figure out how to reach, and I worried after I turned the waterfall on the chest would become totally unreachable. It can be reached easily once you have the clawshot. You're supposed to give up on that chest. I would have saved a lot of frustration if temporarily unreachable items were a recurring theme, so I would've expected it.

My favorite dungeons were Snowpeak and the City in the Sky. Both were long and thought-provoking. I screwed up in the City in the Sky by missing the control to turn off the floor fan in the room where you pick up the boss key, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I was supposed to reach the control to turn on the horizontal fan to reach the boss. I eventually realized that the solution must have been in that room, and had to make the difficult trek through most of the dungeon again, where I suddenly noticed the "obvious" control. Then everything fell into place.

The Palace of Twilight was a disappointment. Being chased by the giant floating hands was fun, but otherwise the dungeon was entirely too small and it made the twilight realm feel like a tiny suburb of Hyrule rather than, you know, an entire realm.

The most frustrating puzzle in the game for me was — and this is dumb — how to move the span of the Bridge of Eldin back to its proper location. I didn't know it was so straightforward as to simply tell Midna to warp when she flies up to it. When you talk to her she wonders what it is, so I thought I had to find someone at some point who would reveal what it was (even though just by staring at it it's obviously the bridge; it's recognizable from the pre-game cinema sequence.) I didn't try the straightforward route until after I had completed everything except Hyrule Castle itself and knew there wasn't going to be any in-game revelation about it. That made the piece of heart at the south end of the Bridge of Eldin the last one I collected.

Incidentally, if you're looking for pieces of heart, the fortune teller in Castle City will tell you where to find them. Unfortunately I didn't realize this until I had found all but a handful. She helped me realize I had missed three early in the game (one in Faron woods and both in the Lakebed dungeon).

I found all the pieces of heart, bottles, bomb bags, and quiver upgrades. I found all the golden bugs (although this took a while) but I only found about three-quarters of the Poes. It would be very difficult to find them all without a game guide. The only other side quests I know I didn't complete were getting extra lures at the fishing hole and playing all the rollgoal levels.

I enjoyed the many throwbacks to the early games in the series, which are probably a staple even in the games I haven't played. Familiar locations like Death Mountain, revealing secrets by lighting torches, Triforce symbols in many places (but oddly no explicit mentions of the Triforce), etc. The final battle with Ganon features special arrows ("light" arrows, alas, not silver…) and even the original Zelda overworld theme music makes an appearance, albeit only briefly and in the end-game sequence.

Overall? Yeah, I liked the game.

March 05, 2007

That Explains the Ribbiting

It was finally both warm and not raining at the same time this weekend, so I went out back to do my first lawn mowing of the year.

I found a frog. I named her* Hoppy.

My backyard frog, Hoppy

I almost killed her. I mowed right over her and the blessed creature had the presence of mind not to hop as gruesome rotating death roared overhead. I saw her when she hopped immediately after emerging from underneath the mower.

I've had frogs for years — I've heard ribbiting at night, at least. But this is only the second time I've seen one. The first time was last fall when I saw one hop underneath my air conditioner.

I don't know much about frogs, but this one seems pretty small, leading me to wonder how old it is and if perhaps I have a whole family of 'em somewhere. If I find more, I'll let you know. :)

*I speculate the frog is female because after hopping out of my hands the first few times I tried to take a picture, she soon realized that my hands are warm and soft and very pleasing, and then enjoyed the situation. I have observed this response to be typical of females.

March 01, 2007

Net Worth Report (and market commentary) - End of 02/07

This has been a fun week. I regret I don't have a good link to share with you about Wednesday's huge stock market decline, but business news services seem to be entirely focused on up-to-the-minute reporting and don't make it easy to browse yesterday's news.

But you all know the story anyway — a 9% decline in China (undoing only the previous several days' gains, it turns out) spread to other markets and caused worldwide losses. U.S. markets were down some 3% and change on the day. There were no safe havens; precious metals saw declines similar to equities (although gold ended the month up 2.9% while the DJIA was down 2.7%.)

Despite having a lot of money in the market, I enjoy declines like this. My immediate reaction upon turning on the news was " — yes!!" I know I'm going to be a net buyer for a good long time, so lower prices are to my long-term benefit. There's also something deep in my Austrian soul that's always looking forward to a credit crunch, so anything that has the whiff of money supply contraction is automatically cool. (That impulse might be unhealthy.)

I don't have any particular analysis to proffer about what caused the decline or what you should do about it. I'm taking no action at all; I'm a fairly passive investor. Perhaps lazy is a better word — I have some ESPP shares I've been meaning to sell for a month (because they've passed the holding period for maximum tax advantage) and haven't even gotten around to selling them yet. Oops.

My personal results for the month are skewed by three significant events; the first is a new batch of ESPP shares being purchased and showing up in my account. (I don't accrue for these so they show up all at once.) The second is that my employer pays its annual bonuses in February; the third is its contribution to employees' profit-sharing retirement accounts this month.

These three items account for all of this month's gains. I was otherwise flat on the month. There's a lot of "noise" in these figures due to large changes in home and auto valuations.

Net Worth Figures

Goal-Tracking Figures
Adjusted Net Worth$469,206.09$495,728.28
Next Month's Target$478,716.19$498,545.29
Estimated Contribution-$62.45-$200.24

Credit Card Arbitrage Figures
Balances @ 0% APR$24,868.60$35,406.84
Monthly Payment$497.37$708.14

You can keep track of other personal finance bloggers at NetWorthIQ. I've updated my entry there.

Tiny Island