Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Local restaurant web sites

I don't know about the restaurants themselves, but I like their web sites:

Stephanie's on Newbury
Craigie On Main

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hot cocoa, the way it used to be

Dear Big Train,

I've been a huge fan of your hot cocoa, which used to be made with sugar, milk, and cocoa. I was extremely disappointed when you changed the ingredients to add maltodextrin, salt, carrageenan, natural flavor, guar gum, and xantham gum. Adding those ingredients means that many people with food allergies, including my wife, can no longer drink your hot cocoa.

When your ingredients list was simpler, I served your hot cocoa to friends, gave boxes of it away, and praised your product to anyone who would listen. I no longer do that, and I wish I could. I hope you'll consider going back to the simpler recipe, and I hope you'll let me know if and when you do, so that I can go back to buying cases of your hot cocoa.

P.S. I'm posting this here because your e-mail addresses won't accept this e-mail, claiming that it's spam. I'm hoping you have a Google Alert set for Big Train.

P.P.S. Does anyone know of a hot cocoa mix that is still made with just sugar, milk, and cocoa powder? I really liked having a hot cocoa that didn't require keeping milk on hand.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The New Yorker's mother dresses it funny

Actually, The New Yorker just smells bad. The fragrance strip ads are back, and their subscription department says they no longer honor subscriber requests to receive unscented issues. In fact, The New Yorker couldn’t even be bothered to tell subscribers who had standing requests to receive unscented issues that they would no longer honor those requests.

I’ve been a subscriber for a very long time. I read every issue, though I usually skip or skim the short story near the back. And I’m going to miss the magazine.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Interactive Health Solutions guts a hippo HIPAA

From terms and conditions that are only revealed (and must be agreed to) after a patient has provided their name, address, phone number, e-mail address, birth date, and employer:

"I understand that the information attained through this Health Profile will be held confidentially. However, I give permission to Interactive Health Solutions to share my medical data with a third party for the purpose of my disease management and health improvement."

I'm confused: will the information be shared or not?

IHS says that the information will not be shared, but that they will only screen patients who agree to give permission for the information to be shared.

If IHS shares my medical data with a third party, are there any limits on what the third party does with my medical data?

There's no substantive limit on the reasons why IHS would be allowed to share my medical data. If IHS decides that the purpose of my health improvement would be best served by making my medical data public (to obtain as broad support as possible for my health improvement goals), or by giving my medical data to a drug company (so the drug company can contact me about wonderful new targeted drugs), or by giving my medical data to my employer (so my employer can revise their health insurance plan to better accommodate people with my health condition), or by giving my medical data to Geraldo Rivera (so Geraldo can focus an expose on getting me treatment), I've given permission for any or all of those disclosures.

Why is the first sentence there at all? As I understand it, my medical data won't be held confidentially at all. Employees are offered $300 to do this health screening if and only if they are willing to give Interactive Health Solutions permission to share their medical data with third parties.

This is making a mockery of HIPAA. And it's underpaying me for my medical data, which is currently getting bids of $500 and up on ebay.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

NSFB: Not Safe For Brain

Thank you, Google Reader Pheedo, for this ad juxtaposition. Dentists don’t want you to know about this teeth whitening secret. I’m going to guess that dentists are not the only ones who feel this way.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Comcast should stop interfering with elections

A few months before the 2008 national election, Comcast removed MSNBC from our channel line-up. Of the three 24-hour news networks, MSNBC was the only one at that time that did not appear to be a full-time propaganda arm for the Republican party.

Shortly before the 2009 local elections, Comcast removed our public access channel from local subscribers with TiVo service. At that time, our public access channel was running content about the candidates for local office. Now that the election is over, Comcast has restored our public access channel.

What’s next? Selective elimination of televised political ads? Only showing C-SPAN when Republicans are speaking? An emergency alert saying that Republicans should vote on Tuesday and Democrats should vote on Wednesday?

I have other criticisms of Comcast for their lousy service, price gouging, utterly incompetent employees at every level of sales and support, and fraudulent business practices. I’m unhappy that they bought my mayor, with the result being that we can’t have FIOS here. But it seems like interfering with national and local elections is an entirely new level of evil, and should be punished harshly. It’s a shame that nobody actively regulates either elections or cable providers.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Borromean Rings

Sculpture by Bathsheba Grossman

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What are you, 8 years old?

We went to a discussion panel on The Taming of the Shrew last night. Most of the discussion presumed that everyone is an adult: the characters, the actors, the playwright, and the play’s intended audience. Maybe the play is more palatable, though, as a young child’s imagining of courtship and gender roles. Kids naturally play at adult situations and adult experiences, and we don’t expect them to be an accurate mirror (though their inaccuracies sometimes illuminate and frequently entertain).

One person at the discussion related his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small African village, having teenaged students tell him that their culture’s family structure entailed complete subservience of the wife to the husband. The teens were completely consistent and, unsurprisingly, wrong. The striking mistake is that the adult believed the teens, even if only for a while. We make a similar mistake when we treat the play as an adult representation of adult relationships.

Monday, September 21, 2009

This year’s addition to Tashlich

Our hearts and minds are each unique. Just as we each understand God differently and we each understand ourselves differently, we also each understand the rituals and purpose of the High Holidays differently. With conversation and with patience and respect for each other, those differences can give us strength.

We can reflect on three types of sins: sins against God, sins against ourselves, and sins against other people. God can forgive us our sins against God, and we can forgive our sins against ourselves. The hardest part of teshuvah, of repentance and change, is dealing with our sins against other people. That is why we are called to do Tashlich with other people, and why Tashlich is best done early during these Days of Repentance. We symbolically cast away our sins with other people to remind us that none of us is perfect, that we all must seek to change, that we all must seek forgiveness from others.

But the presence of other people should be a positive reminder as well, a reminder that other people can help us to change. We are members of a community, and we have an obligation not just to help others in our community but also to accept help from others. Our friends and family can forgive us if we let them, but they can also support us if we let them.

With that in mind, let us begin our casting away together:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Our first photos of Dobbie

Photos by Michael

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Our first group encounter with a skunk

The skunks in our neighborhood have, for 10 years, sprayed anything and everything with complete abandon. They walk down the street spraying cars and houses. They don’t posture first, they don’t appear to have limited reserves, and they are clearly seeking revenge against the entirety of the animate and inanimate world. Luke was sprayed far too often, and we got used to washing him down in all sorts of weather.

So I was unhappy when, on our walk tonight, Dobbie and Lisa and I suddenly came upon a skunk in the grass right next to the sidewalk where we were walking, less than a foot away. Unhappy may not be quite the right word. More like enveloped in a sudden overwhelming sense of doom and despair and terror.

We ran away. And thankfully the skunk did not spray any of us. That’s how it should work, though it’s not how it has worked around here. I’m not sure Dobbie got a good sense of what I was so scared of, but if she decides that skunks are appropriate to run away from, it may save us many unpleasant nights in the future. But I wish I didn’t still feel so unsafe.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Our first full night of sleep

Just kidding. But uninterrupted all the way from 1:30 a.m. to 6:15 a.m. is a definite improvement. And she was willing to sleep in the upstairs hall (with our door open) without checking on us constantly.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Our first doorway gate

Until we’re sure that Dobbie won’t turn on the gas range again, we’ve installed a doorway gate (pet gate/child gate) to the kitchen to try to keep her out. I knew this day might come, and I know that we need to add at least one more at the bottom of the stairs, but I dreaded this day. I’ve always found doorway gates nearly impossible to open, confusing and constricting, and painfully ugly. And obviously necessary in some circumstances. The fact that they destroy the traffic flow of a home is the precise point of them and a huge deficit in a home.

Even with the extra-tall 36" gate, I’m not convinced that the gate will keep Dobbie out. We blocked off the kitchen with two dining room chairs last night, but she leaped over them. We blocked the staircase with chairs at the base and boxes on the steps, and she was up the stairs a few minutes after we went to bed. She opened the gate to the neighbor’s yard this morning as if she had been practicing.

We’re hoping that she’ll settle down, overcome her perfectly natural separation anxiety, and learn our expectations. The onus to teach her our expectations is on us, and that’s mostly psychological. But we also need to make sure that we can physically confine her to our property and confine her travels within our house.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A new dog, Dobbie

Her racing name in West Virginia was UMR Rochelle. She was born August 15, 2006, and arrived in Massachusetts on September 2. If everything goes well, she’ll be taking a little medical tourism trip to Hopkinton to be spayed in a week or so, and then she’ll come back here after she recovers. Right now she’s sacked out in the front hall.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A day making eye charts

The most familiar eye chart is the Snellen eye chart, and a few years ago I made a reproduction of it and a number of variants. Today I finally started redoing the charts using InDesign using fonts of the optotypes that I created myself following Snellen’s original principles of equal stroke and gap widths.

There are a lot of variables: letter design, letter spacing, line spacing, letter sizes, size labeling, bar colors, etc. The original Snellen eye chart was not entirely precise or consistent, and the typical medical eye chart is a rather mediocre reproduction. I’m sympathetic to the goal of clinical accuracy, but I really want to balance a few other goals: honoring the design archetype of the original Snellen eye chart, improving the precision and consistency of the chart, and simplifying production of the chart by reducing the traditional 11" x 22" chart down to 11" x 17" without making the chart look too crowded.

When I’m done, I’ll have many of the traditional charts—Snellen, tumbling E, Landolt C—as well as variants for non-Roman alphabets, abstract patterns, and more. Then I have to figure out what to do with all of them, aside from a short run book of the full set.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A day at the end of the Cape

Lisa and I went to Provincetown yesterday. The ferry only takes 90 minutes from Boston (though if you sleep for 20 minutes on the way over and 60 minutes on the way back, it feels even faster). I had been joking before the trip that we would see whales from the boat, since BHC also runs whale watches. We saw two, as it turns out, close enough to see their backs as well as their spouts. Humpbacks, probably.

Nature was on full display in the morning and evening: great blue herons flying in front of us, and a spectacular moonrise over the harbor with the huge full pale red moon slowly becoming a bright peach.

We spent the heart of the day trawling for art along the full length of Commercial Street (East End first, per Carl’s advice when we ran into him on Macmillan Wharf) with frequent breaks for people-watching. Some of the highlights:

Full-screenProvincetown Art Association & Museum’s small sculpture garden
Charles-Baltivik Gallery (paintings, metal sculptures)
Rice-Polak Gallery (kinetic sculptures, paintings)
Sarah Jessica Fine Arts (prints, etchings, glass, and ceramics)

as well as Impulse gallery with an impressive collection of art kaleidoscopes, a gallery of Philip James photographs which we could only peer into from outside, id with wonderful sculptures of human figures in motion, and more.

There were tons of fun shops as well, and more homemade ice cream than you could shake a stick at. We had an elegant lunch in the Waterford Inn and Cafe’s garden, and a stunning dinner at Victor’s. In a town with many great-looking restaurant options, I suspect the only reason we’ll ever try somewhere else for dinner is if we cannot get a table at Victor’s. Not worth missing the return ferry for, but, well, probably worth missing the return ferry for.

We had a good plan. Take the ferry to Provincetown, enjoy the end-of-summer weather and the simple joy of traveling light and letting the world surprise us. It really worked.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Things I learned when I turned 40

1. Nobody shows up when you turn 40 to repossess your desire for fun.
2. Your telomeres are shrinking, but you do not instantly become infirm at 40.
3. The little red sports car does not magically show up in your driveway.
4. College students don’t know when you turn 40. Old is old.
5. Hey kids! Get off of my lawn!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go scold the mayor and the chief of police. Some combination of (1) and (5), I think.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Things I learned by calling

I use to host my web sites. They also receive e-mail for everyone at the domains I manage, all of which is forwarded out to the appropriate actual destination. Eventually.

Back in April, decided to add greylisting to all forwarded e-mail. Greylisting delays all incoming e-mail when it comes from an unknown source by pretending that the receiving computer is temporarily unavailable. If the sending computer tries again in a few minutes or a few hours or a few days, then the e-mail is accepted.

If you use for forwarding e-mail, you might think that you have greylisting turned off. After all,’s website says that you can control whether or not junk mail filtering is applied to your account, and that you can control whether greylisting is part of that junk mail filtering. Sadly, this is not true. Even if you have greylisting turned off for your account and you have all junk mail filtering turned off for your account and you have all junk mail filtering turned off for the specific forwarded e-mail address, will still greylist your forwarded e-mail.

Password resets from Delayed 30 minutes. E-mail from an anxious editor traveling in Africa? Delayed a couple of days. That was last week; who knows what this week holds in store.

First impressions matter, and first impressions are precisely what greylisting damages. Who might try to reach you by e-mail from an IP address that hasn’t sent you mail before? Your new manager at work? An unhappy customer fuming about how slow companies are to respond to problems?

What important e-mail would you be unhappy about receiving late? A professor telling you that class is cancelled because she’s in the emergency room? A stranger telling you that a loved one has died? A friend of a friend contacting you about a job opportunity? An adoption agency trying to reach you about a possible match?

My opinion: (1)’s customers should have a choice about how their e-mail is handled, (2)’s account management tools should not tell you that greylisting is turned off if it’s actually turned on, (3)’s support pages should not tell you that you have control over whether greylisting is applied when you don’t, and (4) if decides to unilaterally apply greylisting to all forwarded e-mail, this should be communicated to customers who might give a damn about how their e-mail is handled.

For anyone who does use to forward e-mail, here’s the notification they buried in their system notices page stating that filtering technology will be permanently deployed and turned on for all forwards. It may not be perfectly clear, and it may not have been sent out to affected customers, and their web site may be contradicting the notice in numerous ways, but rest assured that cares about your e-mail.

[Apr 3, 2009, 6:13 PM] E-Mail Filtering Upgrade

Beginning Monday, and extending throughout the week, we will be deploying e-mail and virus filtering technology for all e-mail forwarded through our e-mail system as well as for all e-mail sent to an e-mail address.

We are taking these steps to reduce the amount of junk e-mail that passes through our e-mail servers. When forwarded e-mail is left unfiltered, the receiving e-mail server can decide to block our e-mail server, assuming it to be the sender of the e-mail, even though that is not the case.

While there is a low likelihood that these technologies will falsely reject a legitimate e-mail, it may happen from time to time. Contact us if you experience any issues forwarding or receiving e-mail.

The technologies being deployed are:

The Invaluement DNSBL lists will additionally be used alongside Spamhaus for any customer who has enabled DNSBL Rejection in the Advanced Junk E-Mail Filtering section of the ACC. is also aware that some outgoing e-mails from their webmail system never actually get sent, even though they are marked as sent. But it doesn’t happen a lot, so it’s not worth fixing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Things I learned at the aquarium

  • African penguins will chase shadows at the bottom of the pool just like a kitten will chase a lure or a light spot. If you stand in the right place, you can actually play with the penguins.

  • Northern fur seals have an eerily human-sounding yell, and beautiful eyes.

  • As birth control, they give the female seals Depo and the male seals Lupron.

  • Fish swim in a counterclockwise direction in the big tank because it’s easier for them to breathe that way. This explanation from the aquarium staff seemed to be missing a key piece about the tank’s water circulation or the staff having glued the gills shut on the left side of every fish.

  • You can x-ray a turtle despite the hard shell.

    I had a very strange day at the aquarium.
  • Watch the savings add up!

    Andersen Windows e-mailed me a lengthy explanation of the trade-offs between their regular glass and their SmartSun glass, including a phenomenal example of math illiteracy:

    Single Pane Replacement
    % Winter Energy Savings
    % Summer Energy Savings
    % Annual Energy Savings
    Yes, boys and girls, if you save 37% of your energy usage in the winter and 55% of your energy usage in the summer, you save 92% annually! If you want to save more, take your percentage of energy savings every day and add up all of those percentages: you could save 9000% or more!

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009

    Do you care how you pay for things?

    Payment options are proliferating beyond the usual cash, checks, and credit/debit cards. I used PayPal in a face-to-face transaction to buy a couple of books recently, and I use Google Checkout online to shelter my e-mail address. In my typical shopping, I don’t really care if a business takes American Express, even though I personally have three American Express cards at the moment. (I needed some Hilton points.)

    The view from the other side is that over 95% of my customers who pay by credit card use Visa or MasterCard, and only a tiny fraction use American Express. Yet American Express tries to convince merchants that not only will their customers want to use their AmEx cards, but that a high percentage of AmEx cardholders don’t have any other credit cards. It’s certainly possible that American Express is lying, but what if they’re telling the truth? Are there really people out there with an American Express card and nothing else?

    I suspect that American Express is just desperately trying to stay relevant. Competition forced AmEx to start offering credit cards rather than charge cards that had to be paid in full every month, and then AmEx had to strike deals for affinity cards such as the Delta SkyMiles card, and then AmEx had to start letting other banks issue American Express cards in a rare example of vertical disintegration. On the merchant side, the American Express merchant agreement is full of language tying the terms to the Visa and MasterCard terms and preventing merchants from discriminating against American Express. That’s not the usual approach for a company confident in its value proposition.

    I’m trying to decide whether to continue accepting American Express credit cards for my business after their 34% increase in processing fees last month. Will the few customers who would pay with American Express really care if they have to use a different payment method? Could my business actually appear more contemporary if we switched over to accepting nothing but PayPal? When I first opened my credit card merchant account in 1994, accepting credit cards was a vital component of presenting the image of an established business. Now my business is part of the establishment, and I’m no longer sure that’s what customers are looking for.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009

    SmartSun, StupidLaw

    Looking through Home Depot last night, I saw that Andersen is now advertising Low-E4 SmartSun glass as the way to qualify for the 30% federal tax credit on energy efficiency improvements like replacement windows. See, the new IRS rules (as of June 1) require that the Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) on windows be 0.30 or less, even though that’s backwards for an area that actually has a winter (such as, say, the entire northern United States). Andersen’s regular Low-E4 glass in the windows we’re planning on has an SHGC of 0.31, so it doesn’t qualify. To get 30% back from the federal government, we have to buy windows designed for use in Arizona.

    Andersen touts that the SmartSun glass blocks 95% of UV rays, which sounds much more impressive if you don’t know that their regular Low-E4 glass blocks 84% of UV rays. And the SmartSun glass only transmits 7% less light than the Low-E4 glass, unless you think that going from 72% light transmission to 65% light transmission is more like a 10% reduction. (Aren’t numbers fun?) But the real silliness is that it’s far more energy efficient in the northern US to promote solar heat gain during the relatively long winter heating season, and use deciduous trees to reduce solar heat gain during the relatively short summer cooling season. The Efficient Windows Collaborative shows that choosing windows with a significantly lower SHGC and comparable other specs can raise your total energy bill by 5% or more in Boston. EnergyStar has been scrambling to reconcile their rules with the new tax credit rules, since EnergyStar has had a regional approach to certifying windows that takes into account differences in regional climate.

    Friday, June 19, 2009


    Photo by Michael

    Wednesday, June 17, 2009


    Photo by Michael

    Ducks, ducklings, and tribbles

    Photo by Michael

    Lobster boats at dusk

    Photo by Michael


    Photo by Michael

    Monday, June 15, 2009

    Great blue heron

    Photo by Michael

    Photo by Michael

    Going my own way

    Photo by Michael

    Rock climbing

    Photo by Michael, rock by Lisa

    Thursday, June 4, 2009

    Always stop to smell the lilacs

    From one of the hundreds of lilacs at the Arnold Arboretum in bloom last month:

    Photo by Michael

    Do you see what I see?

    Since I just posted several photos that have intense colors, this seems like a good time to mention that your web browser might be able to display colors in photos better than it currently does. For a good show-and-tell, see The summary is that if you’re using Firefox 3, you can download a Color Management plug-in that will tell Firefox to stop muting the colors in photos.

    Outside the garden wall

    Photo by Michael


    Photo by Michael

    Wednesday, June 3, 2009

    From our garden this evening

    Photo by Michael

    Photo by Michael

    Tuesday, June 2, 2009

    And they all look just the same

    Little boxes on the hillside,
    Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
    Little boxes on the hillside,
    Little boxes all the same.

    When I was younger, I used to visit MoMA on my own a lot. I was fascinated by the pop art, the sculpture garden, the luxuriant tropics in the Gauguins and Rousseaus, the cubist pieces and the surrealist pieces and the beautiful Water Lilies room. I loved the idea that all of these wonderfully different approaches to presentation and representation were art, and that they could all coexist in a limited collection unified only by their recency and their significance.

    MoMA was a relatively small museum in those days. The layout was quirky, but felt like it had been designed to perfectly fit and spotlight the art on display. It was easy to pop into for an hour to see all my old friends on the walls, or spend a little longer slowly losing myself in the impressionist paintings.

    10 days ago, on the 5th floor of the massive rebuilt MoMA, I wanted time and space to mourn the loss of that museum. It was an insanely crowded Friday evening, and the couple of hours we had allotted were clearly not going to be enough time to see more than a fraction of what was on display. And what was on display was no longer edited. Paintings were not arranged thoughtfully within most of the galleries. The galleries had no clear focus, organization, or progression, and the gallery spaces were just a series of impossibly dull rectangular boxes, all alike. The collection felt uncurated and the architecture within the galleries felt utterly inartful.

    Many of my old friends were on the walls, scattered around this ticky tacky maze. There were some new wonderful pieces as well—century-old Russian cubist paintings that I’d only seen in books, a new Sol LeWitt wall installation, plenty to please my visual palate if I didn’t mind the clutter of all the dozens of unappealing and uninteresting paintings. But I do mind the clutter. My favorite bookstore ever was Zembla Books, a tiny shop outside of Davis Square 15 years ago whose owner had filled the small space with books I wanted to read and almost nothing else. That was the MoMA I knew, and had hoped to return to. I found WalMoMArt instead.

    Monday, June 1, 2009


    If you live in Boston, please go see Pirates! at the Huntington. We went last night, and had a great time. The cast was superb, the choreography was creative, the live orchestra was versatile, and Ed Dixon as the Major-General was simply stunning. An hour after the show I was still bursting into laughter.

    The first Gilbert and Sullivan productions in the United States were unauthorized, a result of our nation’s proud pirate status in the world of copyright law in the nineteenth century. Our theaters are now filled with scruples when dealing with an in-copyright script, so starting from the public domain must be refreshing. The Huntington’s adaptation is joyfully free, and stands as a strong argument for radically expanding fair use and compulsory licensing. It’s also a strong argument for theater as message-free fun.

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009

    Prop 8, diminished

    The California Supreme Court has upheld Prop 8, but reduced it to as petty a measure as possible. Under yesterday’s ruling, gay couples still have the constitutional right in California to form a state-recognized family with all of the privileges and protections afforded to married couples. The government just can’t call it marriage unless the marriage took place before Prop 8 passed. The state will have to maintain full parity between domestic partnerships and marriages. Further,

    any measure that treats individuals or couples differently on the basis of their sexual orientation continues to be constitutionally “suspect” under the state equal protection clause and may be upheld only if the measure satisfies the very stringent strict-scrutiny standard of review that also applies to measures that discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or religion.
    This is far more protection than most states provide, and this almost entirely Republican court is now united in upholding those protections. The court goes to great lengths to make it clear that Prop 8 is just plain mean, and denies the Prop 8 proponents almost all of what they hoped to accomplish.

    The court does leave the door wide open to embedding further rank discrimination into the state constitution, as long as the discrimination is done one small and hurtful ballot measure at a time. Hopefully the court will treat all future discriminatory constitutional amendments with at least as much hostility as they treated this one.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009

    Links for home and away

    Want someone to design and build a mini-golf course for you? Try Harris Miniature Golf Courses.

    Prefer traveling? Lots of ideas at I Will Teach You To Be Rich, including many that may give you a new perspective on reasons to travel.

    We’ll be up in Maine quite a lot this summer, starting in less than three weeks. Even in the areas that we know well, there are new places to explore like the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

    Wednesday, May 13, 2009

    The journey to Cambria

    After borrowing Jed’s car, we drove down the coast toward Cambria, our home base for the next week. We found a small beach just north of Monterey, where I figured I could finally dip my toes into the Pacific. After I sort of misjudged a wave and got soaked to the waist, we continued on to Monterey. Lisa picked up a couple of great wildlife guides in the aquarium gift shop after sweet-talking her way in. (The Monterey Bay Aquarium no longer allows you to visit their gift shop unless you pay to enter the aquarium, bizarrely. They may be confusing themselves with SeaWorld.) Then we had lunch at The Fish Hopper on Cannery Row, sitting on their outdoor deck over the water, soaking in the sun and watching the boats and seals and birds in the bay.

    View of the restaurant, photo by Kojak

    View from the restaurant’s deck, photo by Philip Venton

    No matter how many times I go to warmer climes in the middle of winter, I never get used to the idea of summer in January. The weather had been great in San Francisco and Mountain View, but for the next week on the Central Coast we had stunningly cloudless days and highs in the 70s. It wasn’t until the drive back up the coast on our last day that we saw clouds or fog.

    After lunch we drove to Point Lobos State Reserve. We were at last into the domain of the Big Sur guidebook, and into an area where the non-human world overtakes the human world. The ranger at the entrance told us that many of the Big Sur parks further south were closed because of the recent wildfires, so we spent a lot of time walking the paths at Point Lobos. There are several distinct areas in the park—we explored Whalers Cove and Sea Lion Point, and Lisa hiked out the Bird Island Trail while I watched the migrating gray whales in the distance.

    Mule deer at Point Lobos, photo by Michael

    Trunks gone wild, photo by Michael

    View near Whalers Cove, photo by Michael

    A perfect day for painting Granite Point, photo by Michael

    Seals sunbathing at Sea Lion Point, photo by Michael

    Stretching, photo by Michael

    Walking south from Sea Lion Point, photo by Michael

    We eventually tore ourselves away from Point Lobos and drove south through Big Sur. CA Route 1 through the Central Coast is a stunning coastal highway, and the ever-changing views start to feel like too much to take in. We stopped at the Big Sur Ranger Station for a brief break, and then at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park shortly before sunset to see its waterfall onto the beach. We stopped for the actual sunset along the side of the road about halfway to Lucia, watched the sky mock the limitations of Pantone into dark, and then pressed on to Cambria’s galleries and restaurants. A quick stop at Moonstone Gallery to buy a kaleidoscope, some groceries from Soto’s Market, dinner at Linn’s, and then we finally found our rental house and settled in for a blissful week.

    CA Route 1

    Photo by Michael

    Sunday, May 10, 2009

    Gerund or expletive, you be the judge

    The hundreds of lilacs at the Arnold Arboretum should be in full flower for another week or so, and are really stunning. We took Lisa’s parents and a picnic lunch yesterday, then came back here and barbecued in the late afternoon. Today we worked on our own garden, watched the Baltimore oriole couple flirting over our heads in our back yard trees for quite some time, barbecued again, and now we’re all set with lunches and dinners for a week or three.

    I’m settling into the Whole Foods wood charcoal, started with the chimney instead of lighter fluid. It burns rather hot and fast, but over the two days I still had plenty of time to grill steak, tenderloin strips, burgers, lamp shoulder chops, sausage, chicken tenders in two different marinades, zucchini, fiddleheads, and pineapple.

    It’s been a year since the Whole Foods opened nearby, and we still marvel at our good fortune. Friendly staff, a well-lit and well-kept store, and far more selection than we had before. We walk over several times a week when the weather is good, and usually come back with more than was on our mental list. Chatting with some of their staff today, we found out that they’re going to plant some of the area around their parking lot with native plants. An employee barbecue this week is going to include a management dunk tank to raise funds for the planting, and the store is hoping to earn some sort of certification when they complete the project.

    Lisa and I are both a little sunburned, a little tired, and far more relaxed. Updated: we’d thought about going to see Star Trek on the Imax screen, but it’s sold out, so we’ll be watching something at home. Looks like we’ll be here if there’s a repeat of the fucking skunks incident of Saturday night. Shoot. I wasn’t going to mention that. Really, except for a brief 12-hour period of hell, it’s been a perfect weekend.

    Thursday, May 7, 2009

    Wedding advice wanted

    A good friend has just gotten engaged, and is planning the wedding for this summer. Possibly an outdoor wedding. What’s your most important piece of wedding planning advice, from your experience either planning a wedding or attending weddings?

    I’ll go first: if there are a lot of kids attending the wedding, set aside a separate space where they can run around when they get bored. Possibly with a babysitter to help out.

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009

    CafePress and marketplace forces

    CafePress is a print-on-demand service that allows people to upload designs and sell them on shirts and mugs and posters. CafePress has always allowed you to set the selling price for the objects you create. There’s a base price which covers the costs and profit for CafePress, and then you can add whatever you want to that and keep the difference. You can set up shops on their site, where you can organize a group of items you want to sell. A small shop is free, and a larger shop costs a little money.

    Some people use CafePress to create objects for themselves or for friends and family. Some use CafePress to earn small or large amounts of money, or to raise funds for an organization. And some just use CafePress for the fun of it. Personally, I’ve got a few hundred items on CafePress, and I’ve made some meal money that way.

    If you’re shopping on CafePress, you can search for items that anyone has created (unless they decided to keep the item private). CafePress calls this the Marketplace, even though it’s really just an extremely bad search engine. There are many reasons why the search engine is bad: the search algorithms are poorly written; results load slowly; the search engine depends on tags and too-short descriptions which frequently don’t accurately describe the design; it’s a little difficult to see more designs by the same person; it’s impossible to filter out designs or designers you don’t like; and the vast majority of the designs on CafePress are poorly done, so the vast majority of results for most searches are unappealing. But tastes vary, and there are many funny, unique, and attractive items on CafePress, so a lot of people do wander around CafePress, see something they like for themselves or for someone else, and order things. A Marketplace that let shoppers find things they like more easily would sell more—that’s why Amazon is so successful.

    Until now, it hasn’t mattered much how people found a CafePress item that they wanted to buy: they might have followed a direct link to an item or to a shop, or been searching on Google, or been wandering around CafePress. (The affiliate program might take a 15% cut of some sales, and you might earn a bonus if you sold enough items through direct links to your shop, but those were fairly small variations.) For shoppers, it hasn’t mattered at all how they found the item they wanted to buy. CafePress and item creators all wanted to make it easier for shoppers to find items, so there was a sense of cooperation.

    But starting June 1, CafePress has decided to pretend that the shops and the Marketplace are completely different. The same item will have two different prices, and the amount that the designer receives will be wildly different. Here’s an example:

    I created a Rorschach blot design last winter and put it up on CafePress, where you can buy a number of different objects with the design printed on them.

    Suppose you want this design on a tote bag. Right now, you can buy the tote bag for $16.99. If you do, I receive $4.00 and CafePress receives $12.99 (their base price). You might find the tote bag by following a link from here or somewhere else, or by searching on Google, or by searching on CafePress. The end result for you and for me will be the same in any of those situations.

    Starting June 1, some links directly to the tote bag will give you a price of $16.99, and I’ll receive $4.00. But if you search on CafePress or follow other links to the tote bag, the tote bag will be $15 to $20 and I’ll receive 10% ($1.50 to $2.00). CafePress says that they will continue to change prices in the Marketplace, so you might pay more or less than the shop price, but I’ll definitely receive a lot less.

    And CafePress says this is to make the customer experience more consistent, because they can set the price of all tote bags in the Marketplace to the same fluctuating amount.

    Suddenly the sense of cooperation between CafePress and the designers is gone. I have to compete with CafePress to try to get a customer to follow one link to the tote bag instead of another. If I have a direct relationship with my customers, I have to explain why the same item is appearing at two different prices on the same site, and why one of those prices keeps changing. And I have to accept that an unknown and unauditable number of sales will result in much lower revenue. Many designers are looking at a 75% or greater reduction in the amount of money they’ll receive.

    If I opt out of the Marketplace, then at least my items will have only one price and I’ll still receive the amount of money I set. But customers won’t be able to find my products using CafePress’ own search engine, even though my products will still be available on CafePress’ site if you come in from direct links or outside search engines. That’s bad for me (since customers using the CafePress search engine definitely won’t buy my products) and bad for CafePress (since customers who see a lot fewer items are less likely to buy anything). And it makes the search engine on CafePress completely defective.

    The result is that a lot of the best-selling designers on CafePress are moving to Zazzle or somewhere else. Those designers are, by definition, the ones creating the designs that customers want to actually buy. As they leave, the ratio of good to bad designs on CafePress gets worse, which means fewer customers buying items from CafePress and a more negative sense of the quality of CafePress items.

    My company has a CafePress shop to sell some light-hearted items. We can’t try to explain to our customers why a product is showing up at one price at and another price at People who suspect that Amazon or Expedia are showing different prices to different customers get really angry, and with good reason. We also don’t want to see our best-selling item (a classroom poster) change from a $15 profit to a $2 profit. So we’ll be opting out of the Marketplace now as the best way to both avoid those problems and not have to change every link we already have to our CafePress shop in our catalogs and on our web site.

    But that’s just the first step we need to take. It’s clear that this new approach from CafePress is unsustainable over the long term. The poorly executed bifurcation of their site and the deliberate crippling of their own search engine will generate massive confusion, resentment, and complaints. Since CafePress is far more likely to solve that by retaining only the Marketplace, we need to start moving our shop to Zazzle as well, despite the work involved and even though we don’t depend on the Marketplace for the majority of our sales.

    How sweet the sound

    So many oddities to air travel this weekend: a security breach at Dulles leads to the entire airport playing “freeze” for an hour but no explanation is ever given; some passengers are wearing medical respirators; security checkpoints are much more friendly and efficient; random extended searches are much less frequent; and the coffee on the plane is Starbucks. And the commute from Virginia to Lisa’s office in Boston on Monday morning only took a little longer than the usual commute from home.

    We had a great time in Virginia visiting Jen and Peter and their three wonderful kids. Played Fluxx, Rat-a-Tat-Cat, rope tug with the dog, and Wii Tennis (which Jed had introduced us to in January). After working 14 hours on Friday, a real weekend of games and socializing was just what the doctor ordered. When I last saw William, he was a babe in arms. Now Jack is that age, and William is running and talking and practically self-sufficient. Katie is in first grade, speaking and writing Japanese, and alternately fascinated and frustrated by Fluxx. But the best part of the weekend was seeing how happy Jen and Peter are through all the noise and chaos and obligations. I long to approach my life with more of the emotional grace that they show.

    Tuesday, April 21, 2009

    If this is Saturday, it must be intermission

    Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests are playing on Broadway, and if you devote a Saturday you can see all 3 plays of the trilogy in one long day. Guess where we’ll be on May 23!

    Then we’ll go see Mary Stuart on Sunday. But we’re not going to West Side Story on Friday night, because seeing 5 shows in one weekend would be silly.

    Saturday, April 18, 2009

    Can you pay me now?

    Today’s Globe article says that Beth Israel Deaconess (our hospital) has stopped sending insurance claims data to Google Health to use as medical records. A patient finally pointed out that it could be a problem when his medical records falsely claimed that he had an aortic aneurysm and cancer in his brain and spine. I know that I was surprised to receive a postcard saying that I had multiple sclerosis a couple of years ago due to a similar misunderstanding of insurance claims data.

    Medical providers want insurance companies to pay claims, because otherwise they don’t get paid. And insurance companies set up huge and complicated sets of rules that say that they’ll only pay for certain tests, procedures, and medications if the patient has certain conditions. So the medical providers routinely lie get creative with the billing codes. I think of it as insurance fraud, but medical providers and insurers think of it as just the way the system works. What’s the harm in telling the insurer that the patient has brain cancer if that’s what it takes to get the medically necessary MRI covered?

    Apparently, the harm comes when a hospital forgets that their insurance claims are spun out of a fine blend of whole cloth and necessity, and starts conflating the deliberately false insurance claims with the only somewhat error-filled medical records. Then patients get outraged, and the media sees a fun story, and the hospital ends up admitting that they shouldn’t have pretended that their insurance claims were true.

    I hate the resolution of the story. I hate that everyone accepts the idea that insurance claims should be filled with false information. The Globe and the hospital have used this story as an opportunity to explain why medical providers lie on their insurance claims, and to explain why insurance claims contradict medical records, but not to advocate for truth in billing. We don’t need an insurance system that practices medicine by spreadsheet, and we certainly don’t need to train yet more generations of health care professionals that lying is a core component of patient care.

    20 windows to go

    We have an old house with old windows. Many are single-pane wooden replacements on bad aluminum tracks, and many are 130 years old with wavy glass and proper sash weights but with laundry cord instead of sash chains or sash rope. The windows are 2 over 1, which isn’t a particularly interesting style. Still, I was excited when I found out that there was someone in the Boston area who restored and repaired old windows. Restoration seemed like a more thoughtful approach than replacement. Then we got the quote accompanied by a laundry list of tasks that we would have to find someone else to do, such as weatherstripping and refinishing. We also discovered that several (most?) of our storm windows were installed incorrectly, we had a number of very damaged sills, and replacement became the clear choice. We’re very happy with the 3 replacement windows we had installed last year, and I’m glad that the federal government is willing to chip in $1500 towards doing a bunch more this year. But I’m also glad to discover that there’s someone else in Boston now who restores old windows for the houses where that makes sense to do, and who takes a more full-service approach: Window Woman of New England.

    Monday, April 13, 2009

    This post is derived entirely from natural ingredients is a good start towards making it easier to shop when you have food allergies or food restrictions. makes laminated cards listing food allergies in multiple languages that you can take with you when you’re traveling. And Wikipedia still wins for clearest and most comprehensive explanations of ingredients like guar gum (which is kitniyot, in case you’re wondering).

    Sunday, April 12, 2009

    This post is five days too late, or 352 days early

    For those who feel overwhelmed by the obligations of preparing for Passover, a voice of reason. For those who do not attempt to rid their house of chametz before Passover, perhaps a different sort of voice. Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz explains why various aspects of Passover cleaning are important, and makes the task seem less overwhelming.

    My idiosyncratic approach is to use Passover plates, but not Passover cookware or serving pieces or silverware. I follow the ingredient restrictions that are specific to Passover, from chametz through derivatives of kitniyot, but not the year-round rules of kashrut. (So a cheeseburger is fine for me, as long as it’s on matzah instead of on a roll. Corn syrup and soybean oil are right out, though.) And I try to ignore the box of Bisquick that somehow got left behind in the kitchen when we cleared out such things before Passover, because moving it is more likely to wind up with chametz in my food than leaving it in place. I’ve followed basically the same set of rules throughout my life, so it works for me. And even though my set of rules for myself is different from Rabbi Berkowitz’s set of rules, I think his reasoning works well applied to a different set of rules.

    Monday, April 6, 2009

    Politics and chainsaws

    A couple of days ago, we received notice that the city is going to cut down the three remaining large trees on our street. They’re reconstructing the street and sidewalks after doing gas main and water supply trenching, and the city engineer’s office wants to take the easy approach rather than work around the larger trees.

    The tree warden’s public hearing about cutting down our trees is scheduled for Passover seder, which isn’t an entirely convenient time for us to go. So yesterday I sent e-mail to the tree warden saying that I object to cutting down the trees, and asking whether the e-mail would be given equal weight to showing up at the meeting.

    This morning the doorbell rings at 7:30, and it’s the tree warden at our door. Even though more than 20 people reportedly got together on Saturday to complain to each other about cutting down the trees, I’m apparently the only resident who has actually filed an objection. The tree warden was very nice. He explained that my e-mailed objection would be just as objectistructive (obstructilicious?) as showing up at the meeting, and that by law if even one person objects, then only the mayor can authorize cutting down the tree. But he’d really like me to withdraw my objection on one of the trees, which has a rotted trunk and needs to come down regardless. We had a long arboreal conversation about the tree hearing process, about the zelkovas and ash trees in the playground next door to us, about Asian longhorn beetles in Worcester and ice storms and mutual aid.

    I’m stunned. The city has never welcomed public input, let alone engaged in an actual dialogue. Sadly, my lack of faith in the city was restored when I went to the city engineer’s office today to ask about the plans for the street and sidewalk reconstruction and about new trees. They claim to have held a neighborhood meeting about the plans at an unspecified time and date (and that nobody in the neighborhood ever heard about). They would never consider adapting plans to existing trees or to community input, they are actively seeking to eliminate all planting strips between sidewalks and streets, and they will not plant any public shade trees that will grow as high as the power lines. Their strong preference is for a monoculture of Bradford pears which stay small and break apart in winter weather as soon as they reach maturity, and there is nobody responsible for that policy to communicate with.

    In a closer to ideal world, the neighborhood would have an opportunity to get together and discuss various options, such as sidewalk width, adding planting strips or not, what sorts of trees to plant, whether sidewalk bumpouts would be useful for traffic calming or planting beds or trees or bike racks or benches, what our parking needs are, etc. The city engineer’s office could have material to review that applies in general cases, some preliminary ideas about the engineering plans, and then hold an actual two-way discussion. Once the plans are drawn, they would distribute the plans to the residents, preferably with a descriptive summary, such as “We’re going to repave large sections of the road, except at the most trafficked intersections where we want to leave the failing patches; we’re going to tear out the sidewalks and curbing and put in new sidewalks and curbing in approximately the same places; we’re going to cut down all large trees and allow the contractor to bill the city for trees that were planted two years ago as if they are new trees; and we will pave over any existing space around trees that allows rainwater to reach the tree roots.” Actually, I guess the plans are clear without a descriptive summary.

    It’s not the ultimate decisions that are the failure point. It’s not even the lack of imagination. It’s the lack of communication and the lack of care, as if the city is a slumlord and we are all just tenants. Local democracy doesn’t need to feel like that.

    And sometime in the next couple of days, I need to decide whether to make the tree warden happy, or hold a line against the city engineer’s office’s miserable attitude. I wish I could do both.

    In loving memory of my first crosscut shredder

    Since doing my taxes requires going through all the loose papers in the house first, my first spring cleaning task involves sorting everything not yet filed away in my home office. That always makes me more receptive to articles about organizing, and the best personal account that I’ve read in a long while is by Sara Rimer in The New York Times. The reader comments are great as well—full of suggestions, alternative viewpoints, and a sense of collaboration.

    Thursday, April 2, 2009

    Two Men and a Set

    Two Men of Florence, currently at the Huntington Theatre, has a stunning representational set. A rotating floor painted with an outline map of the world, a separately rotating small center, enormous surrounding walls filled with pillar candles, and a literally stellar backdrop. The curtain runs on a circular track that traces the outer edge of the map, and scene changes are generally accompanied by the curtain being drawn across our view and around to the back again to reveal our new location: an effective way to convey movement, distract the eye, and provide brief breaks from a very wordy script. The realistic and detailed costumes, furniture, and props are also beautiful; Francis O’Connor has done an incredible job as the designer, and I wish the theater offered tours of this set. Or home installations.

    The play dramatizes Galileo’s rise to prominence and his relationship to the Catholic Church, and sweeps us up in Galileo’s excitement over his discoveries. The putatively central conflict of the play between Galileo’s work and Pope Urban VIII’s concern for the power of the church and the need for mystery is muted, however, by Galileo’s certainty that the world will always welcome explanation and reason. As a modern audience steeped in science and reason, we are already in Galileo’s pocket. Because Galileo never seems to grasp the basis of Urban’s concern, neither can we. Indeed, Galileo’s devotion to the Catholic Church allows us to avoid any sense that siding with Galileo is in some way renouncing faith, and casts Urban in a comically evil light.

    The Inquisition, on the other hand, turns out to be downright friendly. Sure, they burn someone to start the play, and people express their concern when Galileo is summoned to the Inquisition, but the Inquisition was apparently run by concerned and reasonable men who are shocked, shocked to find themselves instruments of a vengeful Pope. And the Pope is not portrayed as wrong because he is suppressing reason or banning books or punishing faithful followers, but wrong primarily because he bans a book that he had previously granted license to publish.

    Jay O. Sanders is compelling as the alternately navel-gazing and star-gazing Galileo who has a gift for explanation and a flair for making fools of people. Edward Herrmann, who I adored on Gilmore Girls as the loving and prickly grandfather weighed down by responsibilities and an overly developed sense of propriety, is solid as the loving and prickly Pope weighed down by responsibilities and an overly developed sense of propriety. The side characters are mostly one-dimensional foils or stereotyped comic relief, which is a terrible waste of some great local acting talent from the likes of Jeremiah Kissel and Molly Schreiber. Dermot Crowley gets the only decent supporting role as Urban’s sympathetic sidekick who is also betrayed at the end of the play, just in case we aren’t certain that the Pope is no longer a likeable person.

    The flaws in the conceptualization of the play don’t interfere with it being an interesting and enjoyable 150 minutes of theater. The individual scenes flow well, the dialogue provides plenty to mull over, and the set, well, you can always just sit back and admire the set.

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009

    Let a hundred formats blossom

    My good friend Vardibidian has posted a thorough response to Mr. Schnittman’s inane meanderings through a fraction of the problems facing trade publishing. Mr. Schnittman posits that trade publishing is a Ponzi scheme, where advance sales of new titles finance the continuing losses on previous titles. Leaving aside Mr. Schnittman’s apparent failure to understand the difference between cash flow and accounting, which Vardibidian is rightly perplexed by, Mr. Schnittman is correct that trade publishers would be in a better financial position if they paid their authors less and reduced their printing and shipping costs. (All other things being equal, which of course they never are.)

    Vardibidian is also correctly dubious of Mr. Schnittman’s ex cathedra declaration that “Ebooks, if successful, will sink the trade publishing industry” as being remotely connected to the significant problems of trade publishing. Ebooks as a mode of publishing are orthogonal to a financial model of publishing (of which there have historically been a large number). Implementing ebook publishing is costly in many ways, and potentially rewarding in far fewer, so for quite a while publishers tried to mislead each other into diving into ebooks in the hopes that their competitors would drown, or at least smack their head on something hard. And they tried to talk down ebooks to their authors and customers, which is what Mr. Schnittman appears to be doing, so that the publishers wouldn’t be forced to Change.

    But I’m not here to mock Mr. Schnittman for his absurd argumentation, nor to praise Vardibidian for trying to make sense of it. I’m actually here to highlight a comment made by James Embry on Mr. Schnittman’s post:

    While, for many authors, the most crucial function of the publisher is to find the book’s audience, many established authors have a locked-in audience, and many of the younger, web-savvy set, are actually better than most publicity departments (OUP exempted, natch) at marketing themselves as well as their output.
    The strength of those blockbuster authors is the core of the problem for trade publishing. Trade publishers depend on them, and the entire traditional trade industry has organized itself around precisely those authors who no longer need the trade publishers to find their audience. So trade publishers need to figure out what their role is. To provide an editor? Proofreader? Book designer? These are all individual tasks that are easily outsourced, as many employees of trade publishers have discovered. Production and distribution remain tasks that most authors will continue to need some company’s infrastructure for, whether the books are delivered to customers in print or in electronic form. The technical requirements of creating and distributing ebooks for a large number of reading platforms are, in addition to a cost and a headache, an opportunity for publishers. They should be embracing the complexities, because those complexities are a way to remain indispensable.

    The good old days

    From Boomerang, a Dutch e-card site

    Monday, March 30, 2009

    Go see Enchanted April

    Quick plug: We saw Enchanted April in West Hartford yesterday, and it was a lovely play—took me away from my troubles for a couple of hours and left me smiling. You have one more week to go see it, and you really should.

    Logistics for the Park Road Playhouse: West Hartford is an easy day trip from Boston: 1 1/2 to 2 hours driving each way, depending on how fast you drive. The theater itself is a couple of minutes from exit 43 of I-84. Parking is free on the street, there’s an ice cream shop/diner next door, candy and sodas are $1 in the theater, seating is comfortable and spacious with an excellent rake (and only 4 rows), and I’d recommend asking for tickets in the B section, which is the center section of seating around the thrust stage. (We were as far as possible from those seats, though, and it was still fine. Wherever you sit, the thrust stage in combination with competent blocking guarantees that you’ll never have the best or worst seat for every scene.)

    Disclaimer: I know an overly modest cast member in the production. If you also know him and have been dissuaded from going because he’s not the star of the show, please ignore his modesty and be assured that he has a perfectly fun role.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009


    The plural of anecdote is not data.

    The plural of datum is not understanding.

    The plural of teaching is not tenure.

    The plural of graft is not representation.

    The plural of test is not education.

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009

    Tax the bonuses at 100%

    Tax the bonuses at 100%.

    It’s really a simple solution. If Congress actually cared about the AIG bonuses and similar abuses, they could amend the income tax to tax those bonuses at 100% with no deductions allowed. Since most states would have their own taxes on top of that, you’d see any AIG employee with a brain declining the bonus, just as working people all across this country have been forced to accept lower salaries and lower benefits than their contracts call for.

    Tax the bonuses at 100%.

    Anything short of that is just politicians making noise while they continue to let the hyperwealthy finish destroying our entire economy. Cap the salaries, tax the bonuses at 100%, fire the executives, put the companies into receivership, and then tell me that you intend to tackle the significant problems like the 1.4 quadrillion dollar derivatives market.

    The news of the bonuses has focused some anger on AIG. Maybe realizing that Congress is rolling over for it will redirect the anger where it will do some good. Tax the bonuses at 100%.

    Sunday, March 15, 2009

    Form 1099-ZORK

    In our income tax system, the IRS differentiates between refundable tax credits and non-refundable tax credits. This confuses many taxpayers (and worse, people giving advice to taxpayers), who believe that the distinction is related to refund checks from the IRS. When you file your income taxes, the IRS looks at a couple of different numbers: your total tax (A) and what you have paid (B). The amount you’ve paid includes any payments you’ve sent directly and federal income tax that your employer withheld from your paychecks. When B is larger than A, the IRS sends you a refund for the difference (B–A). As an example, suppose $4000 was withheld in federal taxes from your paychecks last year, and your total tax (as calculated on your 1040) is $3000. You’ll receive a refund check of $1000.

    The difference between a refundable tax credit and a non-refundable tax credit is only related to your total tax (A). A refundable tax credit can reduce your total tax to less than 0, while a non-refundable tax credit cannot reduce your total tax to less than 0. Now suppose you have a tax credit of $5000 to add to the earlier example. If the tax credit is refundable, then it can reduce your total tax to –$2000 and you’ll receive a refund check of $6000 instead of $1000. If the tax credit is non-refundable, then it can only reduce your total tax to $0 and you’ll receive a refund check of $4000 instead of $1000. Even though the tax credit is called non-refundable, it still affects your refund check.

    When a non-refundable tax credit can only be partly used because it’s greater than your total tax, the remainder that you didn’t use can often be carried forward to a future tax year. In the last example above, the $2000 that you didn’t get to use isn’t necessarily wasted, because you may be able to subtract that $2000 from next year’s total tax.

    The tax system is full of these sorts of confusing terms: credit (reduction of taxes) vs. deduction (reduction of income on which taxes are calculated) is another one that many people get wrong, and the dollar difference can be huge. If your marginal tax rate is 15%, then a credit of $1000 is worth $1000 off your taxes while a deduction of $1000 is only worth $150 off your taxes.

    I’ve always done my own income taxes as a business owner because I wanted to understand the tax implications of the decisions I have to make. It does add time, energy, and stress to the process of running a business, though. My financial position might be stronger if I let someone else deal with the taxes and I focused on trying to increase my income or reduce my expenses. Sadly, that reasoning is how our tax system got so impossible to understand. The taxpayer makes the sensible decision not to try to understand their own taxes. Once that happens, why bother to understand other people’s taxes? And if the public can’t intelligently participate in public discourse about our tax system, then why should legislators try to understand it?

    I’m using both TaxCut and TurboTax in parallel this year, seeing where they agree and where they differ. Both programs give you a choice of answering questions in a friendly interview format or just entering information directly into tax forms and worksheets. Both programs strongly prefer that you follow the interview process. I’ve already run into one form in TurboTax that refuses to do any calculations and forces you to override every blank line in order to fill in numbers yourself. But if you do the interview for that form, then TurboTax is willing to fill in the form itself. TaxCut hates forms entry so much that you’re not even allowed to save your tax return while you’re entering information into a form.

    Both programs present the same black box to the user if you try to figure out why the software is filling in particular numbers. TurboTax used to have a “show data source” feature which would let you trace back where a number on a tax form came from, but they decided to remove that feature a few years ago. (Bob Meighan, a VP at Intuit, says that nobody complained when they removed it, but they also removed any way for users to provide feedback.) If you select “override” for a number in TaxCut, the program then gives you four choices: Entry Info, Itemize, Goes To, and Comes From. The “Comes From” option sounds promising, but only tells you where the number came from if it was carried over from another form. For almost all lines where it should show you how the number was calculated or what worksheet the number came from, TaxCut says “This value is carried over or calculated based on the following (This entry is not carried here from another form)”. The “Goes To” option says “This entry is not carried to another form” and leads off with “Dummy”. Gee, sorry for asking.

    I’m in the intensive tax period where I spend almost every waking minute on taxes for several days straight. I turned down joining a full-day Diplomacy game recently because I tend to think that I can’t focus on a game for that length of time, but it can’t really be harder than this annual Tax Game invitational. January is the collectible card game phase when I trade 1099-INTs, 1099-MISCs, 1098s, and W-2s, and occasionally find the rare MA 1099-HC. Now I’m wandering the maze of twisty little tax forms, all alike. And I’m pretty sure that if TaxCut calls me a dummy one more time, one of us is going to be killed by a grue.

    Thursday, March 12, 2009

    Salmon masala

    Chop two large yellow onions, cook in oil until partly caramelized. At the start of cooking the onions, add salt, garam masala, black pepper, cayenne, garam masala, balti seasoning, cardamom, cumin, a few fennel seeds, nutmeg, and more garam masala. Lightly toast 1/2 cup cashews. When onions are transluscent, add 2 cloves minced garlic, cashews, and some more garam masala. (Our garam masala jar does not pour easily.)

    Once onions are at the desired level of caramelization, add 1/2 cup each of plain yogurt and tomato sauce. If you use cream instead of yogurt, add lemon juice or a little vinegar for acidity. Stir together with the onions until heated and taste. You’ll probably decide you went too lightly on the spices and salt, so add more. If your tomato sauce is unsweetened, add a little honey. If you used too much cayenne, add yogurt and tomato sauce. When satisfied, take the sauce off the heat.

    In a skillet, cook 1 pound skinned salmon fillet in oil with salt, garam masala, and dill. When almost done, bring sauce back to hot, stir in 1 large diced tomato, and remove from heat. If you got nice color on the salmon, put the salmon on a large platter and pour the sauce around it. If you started with (or ended with) small salmon pieces, mix the salmon into the sauce. Serve with rice and naan.

    Monday, March 9, 2009

    Busy can be good

    Lisa and I had an eventful weekend. On Saturday afternoon we drove down to North Dartmouth, MA to hang out with a group of greyhounds, and then followed signs to Horseneck Beach State Reservation. We were not the only ones with the idea of watching the surf, picking up shells, and casting off our winter mindsets. We saw plenty of people there with their dogs, a couple of nice kites, and one powered paraglider taking off from the parking lot as we pulled in and landing shortly before we left.

    Photo from Wikipedia

    I had no idea that for less than the cost of a used car, you can buy a parasail, attach it to a harness/seat, strap a gasoline can and a giant industrial fan to your back, and go flying over local beaches. Maintenance shouldn’t be too expensive, but there are clearly also ongoing costs for fuel and psychotherapy.

    We also baked brownies and 11 dozen assorted cookies for an arts council reception on Sunday. Most of the planning was done in the last couple of weeks, but we collectively pulled off a really lively and fun event for the council, many of our grant recipients for this year, and a number of state and local officials. The highlight was our retiring chairperson being presented with a state award that I had nominated her for. I’m sure that the people who took a chance on attending this year will be eager to come back next year.

    Tuesday, March 3, 2009

    Where’s that Bat Signal app?

    We all have tasks that don’t get done because we don’t have the skills or strength or knowledge or motivation. At least, I suspect I’m not the only one who runs into that. And some tasks are simply easier to tackle with many hands, such as unloading a moving truck or painting a house.

    The current poll asks what you would like outside help with, in overly broad categories: Moving heavy objects (strength), Sorting papers (motivation), Electrical or plumbing (skills), Tech support (knowledge), Cooking or cleaning (motivation). I separated out sorting papers from cooking or cleaning because sorting papers is typically an infrequent intensive task, whereas cooking and cleaning are continuing obligations. Moving heavy objects and cleaning both usually benefit from many hands, but most of the others really only need one or two people who have the requisite knowledge or skills.

    Sunday, March 1, 2009

    It's snowing again, so it must be time to make ice cream!

    After a week of above freezing weather than finally finished off the huge mound of snow the plows piled onto our sidewalk, it's snowing again. The predictions seem to range from 6 to 12 inches by the time it stops tomorrow night. This has been a hard winter for us: 2 full months of non-stop snow cover may seem like nothing in some areas of the country, it's pretty unusual here.

    Rather than rushing out for french toast ingredients, how about making lemon ice cream as a way to pretend that its actually summer?

    This recipe was originally for lime rather than lemon, but I've used it for a variety of citrus-flavored frozen treats.

    Lemon Frozen Yogurt (adapted from Lucy's Cookbook)
    1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (or lime, orange requires more juice)
    1/2 cup honey
    pinch of salt
    2.5 cups yogurt

    Mix together lemon juice, honey, and salt. When honey is dissolved, mix in the yogurt. Assuming everything was cold to start with, this can go directly into your ice-cream maker.

    Note: if you want to use sugar instead of honey, combine 2/3 cups sugar with lemon juice and heat until sugar dissolves. Cool before continuing.

    Note 2: You might want to peel off the zest of your lemons with a vegetable peeler. You can chop it up and add it to your frozen yogurt, or you can freeze it for use in another recipe.

    Friday, February 27, 2009

    Industry standards

    Before my meeting with a book printer’s sales rep yesterday, I reviewed a couple of pages I wrote back in 2001 about our manufacturing standards. Many aspects of book production have changed since then. The physical end product is still familiar, though, and I was pleased that none of what I wrote needed to be updated. One explanatory paragraph in particular should never need to be changed:

    Are our standards higher than industry standards?

    “Industry standards” is a terrible phrase, and seems to be most often used by printers who claim to have “unsurpassed quality” and are then trying to excuse clearly sloppy work. The only standards we care about are our standards and our printer’s standards, both of which must be equally high in order for us to receive books we can use. While we know from experience that some printers and publishers have much lower standards, we also know from our own experience and from conversations with many other publishers that our quality standards are not unusual.
    I’ve always hated hearing the argument from any business or institution that they are cutting corners simply because their peers are also. The fact that someone has a lower standard is never a sufficient reason to lower yours. After almost 15 years in my chosen profession, I’m glad I can still do business with people who are not in a race to the bottom.

    Ontogeny capitulates again

    Paul Spinrad, writing on Boing Boing:

    When my friend John started going to the Bronx High School of Science, he was surprised to find that it contained the same cliques that his former, neighborhood school had had—the jocks, the geeks, etc. He figured that because the student body consisted of all the geeks taken from other schools, he would only find geeks there. But no—and when he got to know the school’s Chess Team, the geeks among geeks, he saw that they paralleled the same divisions.

    Humans and human groupings always seem to break down into the same archetypes, and this also seems to happen at all levels of granularity, from national character to impulses within an individual.
    From id, ego, superego to legislative, executive, judicial, we categorize what we see into our mental models. Never doubt that a single explanatory model can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

    Wednesday, February 25, 2009

    Tasks all done, let’s have pie

    Thank you all for voting and commenting on my to do lists over the past week. I dutifully followed through on the leading tasks, and I’m extremely glad to have them done. The house is safer, my car is safer, my piano will be tuned on Tuesday morning, and the books will be read by new people.

    I learned that the comments had more impact on my thinking than the votes, and the simple act of making the lists public spurred me to finish a few tasks immediately. The process of trying to balance various tasks to put in the poll forced me to think through which tasks were feasible and how to break some of them into discrete steps, which the GTD system encourages. I feel like it was a successful experiment.

    In celebration, there’s currently a poll on what lemon recipe Lisa should post next.