Thursday, January 31, 2008

Just war in Henry V

We went to a panel discussion on Monday about Henry V which had been billed as exploring the notion of a just war. It was really a discussion about how the concepts of king and war are constructed in the play, but things really got fascinating when an audience member who had been a trained actor in London and was deployed last year to Afghanistan in the British military took the floor and gave everyone a serious dose of reality. He loves the play, and he talked about English military and political history as well as theatrical history, but mostly he talked about how true the play is to various experiences of a soldier, particularly before battle. Much of the audience clearly wanted to quietly digest his observations, but he was unfortunately followed by a noxiously self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing local poet who went on a lengthy anti-American rant to nobody’s illumination.

The evening really made me wonder at how thoroughly Shakespeare presents the war as unnecessary. The crowning moment comes in the wooing of Katherine, Henry’s “capital demand” in France’s surrender. He has won her through the war, but then starts over and wins her through wooing. Why not save 10,000 lives and try wooing first? Would I have had an easier time wooing Lisa if I had first conquered JP? Well, maybe, but would it have been worth the cost to the good people of JP?

I’d like to see the panelists discuss just war as we were promised, but I suppose you go to a panel discussion with the panel you have, not the panel you wish you had.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

TurboTax 2007 bug list

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a TurboTax 2007 bug list? A list you could check before you sent in your taxes? Intuit refuses to make that list public (or identify specific bug fixes in their updates), so here’s my contribution to what will have to be a vast distributed bug list instead.

TurboTax 2007 Federal and State Deluxe, Mac

Printing bug: Program crashes when trying to print line details for lines 35 and 41 from Schedule C. Program version: all updates as of 1/30/2008. Temporary fix: take screen shots of these line details, one screen view at a time, and print those screen shots.

Import bug: When Schedule C, line 35 details are imported from a 2006 return, the descriptions are incorrectly imported from the 2006 Sch C line 35 while the amounts are correctly imported from the 2006 Sch C line 41. The descriptions should also be imported from line 41, because your opening inventory for 2007 is supposed to match your closing inventory for 2006 (not your opening inventory for 2006). Program version: all updates as of 1/30/2008 and at least one earlier version. (Note: an update will not be able to correct this problem unless you re-import from the 2006 return.) Temporary fix: retype or copy all descriptions one at a time if the descriptions matter.

Monday, January 28, 2008

TV drama: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll on how you like to access television dramas (if at all). Do you like the time-shifting of Tivo, or the commercial-free marathon possibilities with DVDs, or the shared culture (same time, same commercials) of traditional broadcast television? Are you sold on HD? Or is the Internet penetrating enough that televisions are going the same way as landlines?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What I’ve learned about SeaWorld

1. There’s a lot to see, even if you don’t go to the rides or gift shops. Our first day, we didn’t quite get to everything during the 9 hours we were there.

2. Some of the shows are definitely worth seeing. The dolphin show is marvelous. We went back to SeaWorld primarily to see that again. Their Cirque-like show is fun, with beautiful sets and cool acrobatics. The Shamu show is extremely manipulative, but the killer whales are fascinating if you can get past them being part of a 40-minute beer commercial.

3. I don’t know how most of the food is, but the vegetarian sandwich at the “healthy alternatives” cafeteria is dreadful. However, they didn’t hassle us at the gate about bringing in some of our own food and a bottle of water. And you’re allowed to go out to your car and re-enter the park, so you can always have lunch in your car.

4. If you don’t want to pay $3 for a bottle of water and don’t trust the water fountains, there are a couple of good alternatives. The guest services office that we went to had a free water bubbler. Or you can sit down and look approachable, and a SeaWorld employee may come over and offer you 2 bottles of water if you’ll answer a few questions about your trip to SeaWorld.

5. Some of the staff are really knowledgable, friendly, and happy to answer questions. We learned about the manatees (skin feels like a basketball), the penguins (a couple of the 4-month-old king penguins were losing their down), and the egrets and wood storks (not an official part of the exhibits).

6. When offered food, many animals exhibit startlingly similar behaviors. Including sting rays.

7. If you arrive a couple of hours before closing, parking may be free.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Snowy egret acting out

Photo by Michael

Monday, January 21, 2008

Free tickets: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. What live events would you like to see? Do you see as many live events as you’d like to? Are the biggest obstacles ticket price, free time, location, or babysitting?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

As the camera sees it

Photo by Michael

Friday, January 18, 2008

Indexing in Spanish

acortamiento: 160
anglicismos: 123-126
árabe: 146-147

It’s not easy to index a book written in a language you’ve never formally studied. Knowledge of a language is often described in terms of how well you can understand written or spoken forms and how well you can produce written or spoken forms. Should “indexing knowledge” join “reading knowledge” and “conversational knowledge” as a way to list language skills on a résumé? Does puzzling out lots of subway signs in Spanish as a child qualify me to index a textbook written in Spanish? Indexing skills can transfer, but this has definitely been one of the odder challenges of the past week.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

My favorite Orlando destinations are: comments

Comment thread for the current poll about Orlando destinations. Where would you recommend? My personal favorites have been Cirque du Soleil’s resident show Nouba and the main street through Winter Park (a neighborhood, not a theme park, that includes a great Tiffany museum).

If you were a work of art: comments

Results of the most recent poll:

If I were a work of art, I’d want to be a:
painting (1)
sculpture (2)
artist’s book (1)
film (1)
caricature (0)

I’m very curious whether this was an easy choice or a random pick. I chose artist’s book because of the interactive nature of the medium that draws in the viewer. Also, I really like many artist’s books. But I saw some at least off-the-cuff reasons to choose the others: a painting is accessible to many people, a sculpture can seem the most likely to have an animus or spirit, a film is modern and multimodal, and a caricature makes people smile.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Boston City Hall

Ever since Boston’s mayor proposed building a new City Hall in Rhode Island and turning the existing City Hall building into a giant fish tank, everyone in Boston has been treated to short architecture courses about why the current City Hall doesn’t work. The best explanation I’ve seen is by Walt Lockley, and it’s accompanied by some great monochromatic photography of the exterior and interior of the building.

It’s fun to take a break from the usual role-playing of residential designer and instead try a quick round of urban planning. I’ve never set foot in Boston’s City Hall, hardly even noticed it on the few occasions I’ve been at Government Center. I have spent a fair bit of time in my town’s City Hall and a number of other local government buildings. From a citizen’s perspective, they all have the same structural problems: lack of natural light, lack of artificial light, poor maintenance, poor signage, no comfortable waiting or gathering areas, and no Dunkin’ Donuts.

The best decision the RMV ever made was to scatter some local offices into area malls. Malls have tons of artificial light, food courts and restaurants, reasonable benches and chairs, and retail therapy. The RMV doesn’t have to provide any of that — the mall provides the amenities that make going to the RMV tolerable. And malls highlight one aspect of capitalism that really does work: malls try to be pleasant because they have a financial incentive to keep patrons coming back. That can’t be the full answer, though, because public libraries also tend to be far more appealing than city halls and courthouses. Do libraries have incentives to keep up patronage?

I’m sure that if Boston were to build a new City Hall, it would have lower ceilings, easier handicap access, and more windows. Those are improvements, but what’s needed is a broader examination of the purposes that a City Hall building can serve, and of the potential experiences of visitors to the building. It’s something I’ll be mulling over as I head over to my arts council meeting, which has been relocated from our City Hall to a local cafe.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

— Justice Robert Jackson, United States Supreme Court, 1943

This was written during World War II. I love the image of a constitutional constellation almost as much as the nostalgic image of a government interested in steering our ship of state by it.

The cult of the quarterback

Sure, I could talk about Tom Brady’s numbers this season, or in his career, or just in the game last night. I could analyze the media focus on quarterbacks, or the fan focus on quarterbacks, or the game’s focus on quarterbacks. I could, but I’m busy making plans for next week’s worship meeting.

Once more into the opening night

We saw the latest Actors’ Shakespeare Project production last night in Harvard Square, a beautifully-spoken Henry V with a cast of five taking all the parts. They sold me. I left the theater convinced that this small cast is the right way to put on the play (at least if the cast is this good), and that Shakespeare must have written the script for a cast of five. The role of Chorus was taken by different actors at different times, highlighting the show-within-a-show nature of Henry V and allowing the joy of the entire company to shine through. This is a redemptive production for the ASP that showcases acting and the text. And, oh, what a text!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Interest from the IRS

We received a 1099 form directly from the IRS (whose Federal Identification Number is 38-1798424, not the more plausible 00-0000001 (or is that reserved for the President, like Air Force 1?)) for $11.00 of interest in 2007. It was a bit confusing, because the IRS didn’t pay us $11.00 of interest in 2007. Turns out this is for the interest component of the telephone excise tax refund that was part of last year’s income taxes. It’s amazing how much effort and money we expend in this efficient capitalist system to measure every last dime. Perhaps at some point it’s not worth the printing and postage to keep sending this money back and forth to the government? After I give them $3 out of this $11 that they gave me because of the $80 that the phone companies gave them because of the $1900 that I gave the phone companies, can we call it a day?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Medical billing

Someone I know (let’s call her Lisa) went to a walk-in clinic in December because she had a bad cough that wasn’t going away on its own. The nurse took her temperature and blood pressure (as they do for any patient), the doctor listened to her lungs for approximately 4 seconds, and Lisa left with two prescriptions. A pretty easy medical scenario. We’re grateful that the walk-in clinic exists a mere 30 minutes from our house, that the doctors there are reasonable and considerate, and that medications often help cure health problems. As health care goes, this was a success.

The billing, however, is the usual mess. I want the world of medical billing to be transparent, honest, fair, and comprehensible. Even if the notion that health care consumers can somehow determine the cost for health care from a provider ahead of time is terribly false, we should at least be able to figure out what we paid for after the fact.

In many apparently simple cases like this one, the facility and the doctor charge separately, so it’s impossible to see all of the charges for a single simple visit on one bill. So much for transparency. The bills are sent to the insurance company, who never verifies any of the charges with the patient. That encourages rampant overbilling. So much for transparency or honesty. The billing is done using a code system. So much for being comprehensible.

The insurer says they received two charges from the facility: one charge for $204 and one charge for $96. The charge for $96 was coded as lab work, but the insurer doesn’t know what kind. Today we received a more detailed itemization from the facility:


Ok, the facility double-billed us. But the obvious double-billing was hidden from the insurer because of the coding system. And pulse oximetry is not lab work, but the insurer was not told that the lab work charge was for pulse oximetry. (A pulse oximeter is the little sensor they clip onto your finger to measure your heart rate and see whether you’re getting enough oxygen into your bloodstream. You can buy one for less than $100 if you want your own. It’s hard to describe how ludicrous it is to charge separately for taking the patient’s oxygen level if you’re not also charging separately for using the thermometer or the blood pressure cuff or the stethoscope or the waiting room chairs.)

We pointed out to the insurer that the facility double-billed us, and that pulse oximetry (whether it’s $48 or $96) is not lab work. The insurer (a) has no way to verify any of this and (b) has no interest in verifying any of this. So I’ll have to ask the facility a few questions:

1. Will they fix the double-billing?
2. Will they resubmit the claim with the correct billing codes?
3. Can we save $48 next time at the walk-in clinic by bringing our own pulse oximeter?

Almost every single component of this billing system is designed to prevent the patient who actually knows what health care was provided from being able to understand or verify the charges. When it’s this hard to sort out the billing for a simple doctor’s visit, it’s impossible to sort out the billing for an actual hospital stay. Perhaps the in-pharmacy minute clinics that Massachusetts just approved will try a different billing system. They’d be hard-pressed to create a worse one.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Food! On a Plane! Who put that ....

The current poll is inspired by a similar poll at Accidental Hedonist.

The first comment there is mine. Michael tells me I'm wrong and that Delta did actually serve us a sandwich on one of our outbound flights to Hawaii. No confusion about the "gluten-free" meals---we have photo evidence of at least one of those memorable meals.

Have you had memorable plane food?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Poste restante

Upgrade: Travel Better has posted a nice summary of some options for shipping items to yourself ahead of time when you’re traveling. I’ve shipped boxes to myself at hotels many times when going to conferences, and even had exhibit furnishings such as chairs delivered by Staples to a hotel room. The built-in tracking, insurance, and delivery date guarantee from FedEx Ground and UPS Ground are appealing, and overall a bit more reliable than checked baggage (more likely to arrive on time, with slightly less physical abuse and less theft). Shipping ahead also allows you to take care of some travel logistics ahead of time, rather than worrying about everything at the last minute. I’ve never used poste restante (held mail, or general delivery) at a post office, since FedEx and UPS don’t usually like to deliver to post offices.

I was amused to see that someone with my name had already posted on Upgrade: Travel Better what my comment would have been: be aware of hotel fees for receiving packages. When these fees became common 10 years ago, it was typically $3-$5 per package. The hotel that I shipped packages to last month: $25.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Genius at work

Daniel Pink wrote a year ago in Wired about David Galenson’s hypothesis that there are two types of creative geniuses: conceptual geniuses who peak early and experimental geniuses who peak late. This is a much more interesting hypothesis than the one that geniuses peak at different ages, or the one that simply defines genius as youthful hyperachievement and ignores those who peak late. Who among us does not wish to believe that there is still time for us to achieve fame and fortune, and who does not long for an excuse for not already having achieved both? The notion of the experimental genius, the middle-aged or older little engine that could, heralds plaudits that we could still receive. It drapes workaholics with a faint aroma of noble effort.

I appreciate the notion that creativity is not the sole domain of the young, and I absolutely agree that economists should follow business writers and business consultants down the path of encouraging and measuring creativity. One person’s creativity may be another person’s failure, or worse, another person’s inability to understand the task. But we are shifting, I hope, from an information economy to a creative economy. Galenson offers a reason to keep employing older folks in a creative economy.

Does creativity necessarily include actually creating something? If we remain near Galenson’s original focus on the art world, Geoff Edgers writes in the Boston Globe today about art created by museum employees or collectors rather than by the artist. A sculptor may not pour the metal for a casting of his sculpture, but we expect that he created the original and cared about the final result. Dale Chihuly can no longer blow glass himself, but he closely directs the glassblowers in his studio in experimentation with new techniques and execution of old techniques, and directs the details of his pergolas and other complicated installations. Conceptual artists like Tara Donovan, however, remove themselves much further from the process of creation, selling instructions and provenance to pieces they will never touch or even see. Pure creativity, unsullied by effort. I’d call that process design rather than art, but design is also a creative enterprise. A creative economy will inevitably lead to efficiencies that make us rethink what we value. Conceptual art has just been leading the way.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Through the branches

Photo by Michael

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Where’s my honorary CPA degree?

January: Federal employment withholding return. State employment withholding return. Federal unemployment taxes. State unemployment taxes. State wage reporting. Worker’s comp annual audit. W-2 forms. 1099-MISC forms. State sales tax return. Royalty statements. Annual insurance premiums for house and worker’s comp. Annual inventory count. And most of this needs to be done between January 1 and January 15.

Really, the 1040 in April isn’t so bad.

Much of this could be massively simplified. The various federal and state agencies already share information; a single unified return could take the place of at least 7 separate forms. I have seen two bright spots of hope: (1) Many employment-related returns can now be done on the web. (2) I saw a note on a tax form a few days ago that asked the public to suggest ways to simplify the form. I think that was in real life. I don’t think I’m far enough into this stretch to be dreaming about it yet.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


Photo by Michael

For the coming year: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. Do you have resolutions for the coming year? Have you ever kept a New Year’s resolution, or found it at least a useful tool for self-improvement?