The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Phone tax refund

Everyone with a phone will get a tax refund this year:

Individuals will be eligible for a refund of the long-distance tax billed for any phone service—cell, fax, computer or land-line—in the 41-month period from Feb. 28, 2003, through July 31, 2006. Taxpayers can claim a maximum refund of $60 with no questions asked, meaning they don't have to produce copies of phone bills to get money back.
For the 2006 return, a person filing a return with one exemption can claim $30; two exemptions, $40; three exemptions, $50; and four or more exemptions, $60. The agency cited this example: A married couple filing a joint return with two dependent children, for a total of four exemptions, would be eligible for the maximum amount of $60. A line for the refund will appear in the 2006 federal tax return.

Apparently, the government has collected this tax since 1898. The Spanish-American War, for which this tax was imposed, has been paid for already.

Two quick hits

First, I just put a major project to bed. It was my first time out doing litigation support, meaning I wrote software to crunch a whole bunch (= about a billion) of numbers for a law firm who represent a large (= about 350,000) class of plaintiffs. They got the results just now, so unless the defendant chooses not to settle and I get subpoenaed, I believe I'm done.

Second, at least one petty little man on the South Shore Line apparently doesn't "get" the whole idea of bikes on a train:

A day trip to South Bend ended up costing a Lincoln Park man $150 in cab fare after a South Shore Line crew member told him he would have to get his bicycle off the train.
What startled Alan Forester, 34, was that he had taken the South Shore Line to South Bend earlier in the day Sunday and no one said anything to him about his bike. Even more puzzling, he said he had followed the bicycle policy that he read on the railroad's Web site.

I had a similar problem about two years ago, when, after bonking on a very long ride, I attempted to board a Union Pacific North Line train at Highland Park, and got turned away by a conductor who thought my bungee cord was too short. (I think I may have told him at least I had a bungee cord, but we won't go there right now.)

The CTA largely gets it right. All CTA buses have bike racks. This means people can get out of their cars and save the environment by biking without worrying they'll be stranded because of weather or traffic. Why is Metra so opposed to the idea?

Chicago's <i>foie gras</i> ban

Letter to the Chicago Tribune:

The August 24th editorial on the Chicago City Council implies that the Council's recent actions, including its enacting a ban on the sale of foie gras, are paternalistic: the Council is "meddlin'," a "bossy governess," a bunch of "scolds"; its decisions are "petty intrusions in people's lives."

All of those words and phrases describe paternalistic actions; that is, actions whose purpose is to save people from themselves. The foie gras ban is intended to save geese from people. The distinction is clear as day, yet opponents of the ban keep missing it.

—Guest blogger Anne

The point of terrorism

Bruce Schneier reminds everyone how we can really defeat the terrorists:

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.
And we're doing exactly what the terrorists want.
The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn't make us any safer.

The President's Diary

As channeled through American Prospect columnist Julian Sanchez:

August 11: My anger at The New York Times subsides somewhat as I skim Foucault and Sartre. Surveillance serves its disciplinary function only if the populace is conscious of it. And if Americans aren't wrenched from being-pour-soi to being-en-soi (at least in relation to an observer who is Other) by the objectifying gaze of the state—well, then the terrorists have won.

Read more.

Judge takes away our DVR

A Federal judge has ordered Dish Network to disable almost all of its customers' digital video recorders after parent company EchoStar Communications lost a patent-infringement suit brought by TiVo:

Thursday's ruling from U.S. District Judge David Folsom in Marshall, Texas, demands that within 30 days, EchoStar must basically render useless all but 192,708 of the DVR units it has deployed.
The decision comes four months after a jury ruled that EchoStar should pay TiVo $73.9 million because it willfully infringed TiVo patents that allow the digital storage of TV programming.

Crap. This could be inconvenient. All those Lost episodes we've saved could be...um...yeah.

Update, 3:43 pm CDT (20:43 UTC): The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington has granted a temporary stay of injunction to give Dish Networks time to work something out with TiVo. (I couldn't find the actual order online.) So we get to keep our DVR for the time being.

Inner Drive will be happy to help

The FBI spent $170 million on broken software, which it has since scrapped. Now it's planning to spend $450 million on, one hopes, working software:

Because of an open-ended contract with few safeguards, [San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp.] reaped more than $100 million as the project became bigger and more complicated, even though its software never worked properly. The company continued to meet the bureau's requests, accepting payments despite clear signs that the FBI's approach to the project was badly flawed, according to people who were involved in the project or later reviewed it for the government.
David Kay, a former SAIC senior vice president who did not work on the program but closely watched its development, said the company knew the FBI's plans were going awry but did not insist on changes because the bureau continued to pay the bills as the work piled up.
Along the way, the FBI made a fateful choice: It wanted SAIC to build the new software system from scratch rather than modifying commercially available, off-the-shelf software. Later, the company would say the FBI made that decision independently; FBI officials countered that SAIC pushed them into it.

Upton Sinclair's wisdom notwithstanding, consultants have an obligation to inform clients about problems before they become too large to solve. Consultants also have an obligation to make appropriate build-or-buy recommendations to clients; in this case, if SAIC made such recommendations, there doesn't seem to be any evidence.

On the other hand, the Post article suggests the FBI had almost no clue what they were doing, bolstering SAIC's claims that they told them so.

Still, even assuming the best possible facts in SAIC's favor, they should have done the right thing, whatever that "right thing" was at any point in the relationship. Like, for example, testing the software, even if the FBI didn't think testing was important.

When a project like that blows up, everyone looks bad. Sometimes the consultant just has to walk away before that happens.

At least we're not in last place

Only Turkey lags behind the U.S. in the proportion of people who believe the well-established fact that humans decended from apes:

Religious fundamentalism, bitter partisan politics and poor science education have all contributed to this denial of evolution in the US, says Jon Miller of Michigan State University in East Lansing, who conducted the survey with his colleagues. "The US is the only country in which [the teaching of evolution] has been politicised," he says. "Republicans have clearly adopted this as one of their wedge issues. In most of the world, this is a non-issue."
Miller's report makes for grim reading for adherents of evolutionary theory. Even though the average American has more years of education than when Miller began his surveys 20 years ago, the percentage of people in the country who accept the idea of evolution has declined from 45 in 1985 to 40 in 2005 (Science, vol 313, p 765). That's despite a series of widely publicised advances in genetics, including genetic sequencing, which shows strong overlap of the human genome with those of chimpanzees and mice. "We don't seem to be going in the right direction," Miller says.

Approximately the same number of Americans accept evolution as who don't, but 10% aren't sure either way. In Turkey, more than half reject the theory.

Gotta love the fundies.

Plutons?

I'm actually enjoying the International Astronomical Union's discussions about what, actually, is a planet:

The part of "IAU Resolution 5 for GA-XXVI" that describes the planet definition, states: "A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet." Member of the Planet Definition Committee, Richard Binzel says: "Our goal was to find a scientific basis for a new definition of planet and we chose gravity as the determining factor. Nature decides whether or not an object is a planet."
The IAU draft Resolution also defines a new category of planet for official use: "pluton". Plutons are distinguished from classical planets in that they reside in orbits around the Sun that take longer than 200 years to complete (i.e. they orbit beyond Neptune). Plutons typically have orbits that are highly tilted with respect to the classical planets (technically referred to as a large orbital inclination). Plutons also typically have orbits that are far from being perfectly circular (technically referred to as having a large orbital eccentricity). All of these distinguishing characteristics for plutons are scientifically interesting in that they suggest a different origin from the classical planets.

By this definition the solar system has 12 planets, including Ceres, Charon, and UB313 (which one suspects will soon get a "real" name).