Thursday, March 31, 2011

Doing Your Taxes

Jay Nordlinger writes today about taxes in America:

You know how people say, “There’s something wrong with our tax system if people can’t do their taxes on their own”? I think I agree with that. A special caste, almost a priestly caste, has grown up: tax accountants, tax preparers. They exist to help us do our taxes, or to do them for us.

Reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with a friend from Denmark. He was extolling the virtues of the Danish system: you give the government all your information, and they compute your taxes for you and send you a bill. Simple. I understand the allure of this idea, especially around this time of year. This year I get to file a federal return and two state returns, with major penalties on at least two of them because of some unexpected income in the year. It's a pain, and thank goodness we have software to help us.

I'd still prefer not to give the government my information if I don't have to. It's a losing battle, of course, or maybe a lost one: most of my finances are reported to them anyway in the normal course of doing business. But at least there's a chance to reverse this. Once the government is doing your taxes for you, the odds of reversal drop to infinitesimal levels.

But an even more important point is that with the authorities doing my taxes for me, I'm not as involved in the tax system. Right now I can see the loopholes: railroad workers get special treatment, as do the blind, the aged, those affected by natural disasters, and so on. It's right there on your 1040. Some loopholes are harder to find, of course, which is why we still have tax accountants. But if we turned over all preparation to the government, I lose whatever insight I currently have.

My Danish friend thought I was being a typically paranoid American. I hope my response was typical.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Watch Veena Malik

Veena Malik is my new hero. The Pakistani actress takes an imam to task on television for criticizing her appearance on an Indian reality TV show. She is unstoppable!

I almost felt sorry for the imam. He probably thought he'd just do his usual thing, invoke the community, shame, etc., and that his opponent would be cowed. But Malik will not be shamed, will not be cowed. She fights right back, gives better than she got, and just whips the guy. Of course, this is how it looks to a Westerner like me: a brave woman speaking truth to power. But the more important question is, how does it look to the average Pakistani?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Clean Energy: Pro and Con

If you have a couple of hours, watch this. It's the video of a debate on the proposition: "Clean energy can drive America’s economic recovery." Or if you can't watch the video, you can read the transcript or listen to the debate.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Says... Dennis Kucinich. No, not because the aliens said to. Apparently he thinks we should impeach Obama because of the attack on Libya. Priceless, priceless.

The best part are the comments below the story. My favorite is this one:

This was authorized by the U.N.

Please explain how the President has committed a crime.

Oh, well, in that case....

Monday, March 21, 2011

Clarity in Libya

Thanks to President Obama for clarifying our position vis-a-vis Libya. We are only intervening to protect Libyan civilians, not to oust Colonel Ghaddafi. However, Ghaddafi should go. But not because of the military intervention, of course. No, he should go because otherwise we might work with the U.N. to isolate him diplomatically, a threat which must chill the Colonel to his bones.

It is no wonder that the President is held in such high regard by foreign leaders, including the Arab League, whose own clarity of purpose was demonstrated by their welcoming a no-fly zone as long as no bullets or missiles were actually used. Perhaps butterfly nets would have sufficed.

No doubt this will all come to a happy conclusion soon.

Break Out the Potassium Iodide!

Or rather, don't. XKCD explains relative radiation doses. It's interesting to read, and to compare the differences among Three-Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl.

Clearly, TMI was nearly a non-event by comparison. The maximum external dosage was only 1 mSv, one-third the dosage from a single mammogram. The lowest radiation dose clearly linked to increased cancer risk is 100 mSv, so if you got that maximum external dosage near TMI for 100 years, you'd just reach this threshold. It's pretty clear that containment worked at TMI.

Next take Fukushima. All the facts are not yet in, but it's clearly worse than TMI: a one-day dose 50km away was already measured at 3.6 mSv. But — probably — no actual reactor fuel has been exposed to the atmosphere, which implies that the radioactive materials causing this dose have a short half-life and will quickly decay. There is reason for caution here, but this is almost guaranteed to be no Chernobyl.

It has been over 20 years since Chernobyl. And according to XKCD's chart, you can still get a 6 mSv dose in one hour on the grounds of the stricken reactor. That means spending a single day there, unprotected, would increase your risk of cancer. Spending two weeks there could very well kill you with a 2.1 Sv dose.

You could safely go on a camping trip to TMI today. Not so Chernobyl. The jury is still out of Fukushima, but my bet is that in 20 years it'll be much closer to the safer end of this spectrum.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Movie

Looks like Hollywood finally noticed that Atlas Shrugged is one of the bestselling novels of all time. The question, "Who is John Galt?" will finally be answered in cinematic form. I'm happy about this - and tickled that the movie opens on Tax Day, April 15, 2011. Even though I continue to have grave reservations about Ayn Rand herself, the novel is something different - something novel, if you will - and a sound rejection of the liberal platitudes that suffuse so many movies.

You can expect a thousand-page novel to be shortened for the film version. But maybe not too much: the one coming out in a month is just Part 1. Will Part 2 be just John Galt's speech? Let's hope not.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Democrats Mean by "Democracy"

Now that the Wisconsin state senate has passed Governor Walker's collective bargaining bill, it now falls to the State Assembly. But the Assembly was not able to hold a vote today. Why? Because of the danger posed by union protesters in Madison. I hope Democrats are extremely embarrassed by this. What the protesters are engaging in is raw violence for the purpose of preventing a vote they know will go against them, and entirely indefensible. Wisconsin's Democratic state legislators escaping to avoid the vote was bad enough, but could at least be viewed as a legitimate, if sharp-elbowed and cowardly, tactic. But protesters preventing the orderly functioning of government is ugly banana republic politics.

The Decline of Planetariums

Or is that "planetaria"?

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to attend a school that had its own observatory and planetarium. As early as first grade, I was exposed to the wonders of the planetarium show, where the sky was projected on a hemispherical ceiling from this funny ant-like device. An astronomer (or maybe just a science teacher) would explain about the constellations, or the planets, or the Milky Way, or whatever, and could demonstrate on the ceiling what he was talking about. And it wasn't just in school that I enjoyed them - I visited several other planetariums over these years (the 70s and 80s) and got the same basic thing.

So when did they turn into overpriced movie theaters? My family and I visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. One thing we were really looking forward to was the planetarium show. It's billed as a planetarium; that's what I expected. But when we entered the room, it was just an Omnimax theater. We didn't get a planetarium show at all; instead it was just a 30-minute movie.

I guess it's easier for them to run a movie every half hour than a live show. And trying to recreate childhood experiences almost always disappoints. But the content itself is so watered down now. There's no basic descriptive astronomy: what's a constellation? what's a star? where are the planets? The subject matter is too broad (this particular one was about the origin of life in the universe) and necessarily, therefore, too shallow.

So take this as a call for planetarium shows like they had in the old days. And if anyone knows where I can still find one today, leave it in the comments!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bogus Recovery

I feel sort of bad posting this, because I've been so awfully slow at posting the past three months. Sorry, everyone! In my defense, I've started a new job, and I'm very busy. Anyhow, having said that, all I have here is a repost from another blog. Not good news.