Saturday, February 27, 2010

Intuit Turbotax Upate

A while back I started my taxes with TurboTax and I posted the following gripes: Intuit Nonsense. I have now finished my taxes. The good news is that I don't have any additional bad news to report. The program worked. In fact the endless sales pitches, this year, seemed a bit toned down. The program also seemed a bit easier to use.

Woodstock : A Disturbing Truth

Well that remains to be proven, but it does point to something that I have been contemplating for a while. In the 60s and 70s, the then young baby-boomers provided this country with an idyllic explosion potentially leading to utopian future. The 60s and the 70s brought us an artistic renaissance, Woodstock, the hippie movement, flower power, Peace and Love, massive public involvement against the Vietnam War, and seminal books such as a Stranger in a Strange Land. The future looked bright and promising.

Forty years later, the baby-boom generation has emerged as the population segment in charge of this country. Instead of bringing a utopian society of love and peace we have become an ethically challenged society with a dysfunctional political system, out-of-control deficit spending, Bread and Circuses, continued war, loss of personal freedoms for national security, and "Greed is Good". So what happened to the baby boomers and their ideals?

Not unexpectedly, this thought has occurred to others. So I was amazed when I heard on the Hannity show of the documentary Generation Zero, were he interviewed David N. Bossie (the producer) and Steve K. Bannon (the Director). Regretfully, the Hannity interview, from my point of view, was garbage since Hannity only wanted to spew his anti-liberal agenda rather than present to the audience an understanding of why the baby-boomer generation went "bad".

Of course, it should be pointed out that this documentary was unveiled at the recently convened Tea Party/CPAC convention, which implies that it is unabashedly "right wing". Nevertheless, it raises the legitimate question, why and how did the baby-boomer generation loose the ideals of the 60s and the 70s and go "bad".

Generation Zero – Movie Review. According to the Generation Zero website:

"The current economic crisis is not a failure of capitalism, but a failure of culture. Generation Zero explores the cultural roots of the global financial meltdown - beginning with the narcissism of the 1960's, spreading like a virus through the self-indulgent 90's, and exploding across the world in the present economic cataclysm.

Generation Zero goes beneath the shallow media headlines and talking head sound bites to get to the source of today's economic nightmare. With a cutting edge style and haunting imagery, this must see documentary will change everything you thought you knew about Wall Street and Washington.

Featuring experts, authors, and pundits from across the political spectrum, Generation Zero exposes the little told story of how the mindset of the baby boomers sowed the seeds of economic disaster that will be reaped by coming generations."

Interestingly and also unexplored, why haven't any of the Vietnam War combat veterans risen to be elected president? We have a long history of electing presidents who were war heroes, such as Grant and Eisenhower. Instead we have elected Clinton, Bush, and Obama. The "natural" order of political progression seems to have skipped-a-beat?

I have not seen the full documentary, only the clips. The important point is the question of why the baby-boomer generation has apparently gone "bad". It is a critically important concern that must be explored. It is time for some serious self-examination.

Hopefully I will have an opportunity to view Generation Zero. I also hope to see Michael Moore's documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story". Between these two documentaries, I hope one can begin to understand how and why the baby-boomers became lost.

UPDATE: hetyd4580 provided a link a Generation Jones video. Very interesting and very applicable. The "good" news with the creation of Generation Jones, Obama is no longer a baby boomer! On the sad side, the generational leadership "torch" (with the election of Obama) is being passed from the baby boomers to Generation Jones. Please read hetyd4580 comments.

A Deserved Shout-Out to the Technology Liberation Front

I have expressed dismay over many of the recent posts at the Technology Liberation Front. So I was pleasantly surprised when I read Cord Blomquist's: “Special 301 Watchlist” Threatens Open-Source Software. In light of my prior criticisms, it is important for me to publicly acknowledge positive events when they occur.

Cord writes:

"That inclusion is being pushed for by the International Intellectual Property Alliance, an umbrella group which includes the MPAA and RIAA. This is, of course, a brazen move by US corporations to force these developing nations to use their expense proprietary software instead of the cheaper open-source alternatives available.

This is exactly the kind of things libertarians should abhore—government being co-opted by corporations so that policies can be made in order to defend their interests, instead of our rights."

The “Special 301 Watchlist” was also covered in Against Monopoly: "IIPA thinks open source equals piracy" and in the TechDirt article: "IIPA's Section 301 Filing Shows It's Really Not At All Interested In Reducing Copyright Infringement"

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Great Net Neutrality Debate IV

Once again the Adam Thierer on the Technology Liberation Front has posted a video, Reason TV on Net Neutrality Regulation, which only presents "half" of the net neutrality debate. The video is interesting and worth watching and makes a reasonable claim that network neutrality regulation may be premature. In the video Michael Moynihan logically concludes that exploring regulation becomes an option should the free-market fail.

What was omitted from this video, the missing half, are the attempts of corporations to buy favorable regulation from Congress. Once again we have a biased discussion that speaks of regulation that favors the consumer as "bad", but is totally silent on the attempts of the private sector to acquire regulation that favors their special interests. Seems to me that if you are truly in favor of an unregulated internet, as implied by the video, that you would also expose the attempts of the private sector to "buy" regulation.

For example, Al Gore is made out as a "bad" person for advocating that all people be treated equally on the internet. But where is the mention of US Senator Dianne Feinstein in all this? According to The Register, (2/11/2009) cites Public Knowledge Diane Feinstein is sponsoring a "network management amendment" at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America. The article notes that this would allow the ISPs to manage the flow of traffic. Additionally, in typical Save the Children language this is being done for our benefit. Not only that but "... if they're using copyright infringement and child porn as excuses, they'll have to start sniffing packets. So, Feinstein's amendment would also destroy net privacy - if there's any out there." (The Register story is a year old, I don't know what transpired since then.)

If Michael Moynihan video was a balanced presentation, Al Gore and Dianne Feinstein would both have had some face time on the video.

Change We Can Believe In

Ron Paul appeared on CNBC: "Ron Paul on CPAC Straw Poll Win" Very good interview. I hope that you will watch it.

Posting this in light of some of my prior posts concerning Libertarians, why a positive reference to Ron Paul? He seems to be broadcasting an honest and consistent policy. Which is something I can respect. Of course, I will not agree with many of his positions concerning government regulation, the environment, and foreign policy. (On foreign policy I agree with him that we cannot be the World's Policeman, but I also think that if Iran proves to be a threat that it is OK to take military action.) Nevertheless, he really seems to want to restore this country to a small government with a real free-market economy. Ron Paul represents a change we can believe in.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Eloquent Peasant

Like the Libertarians I have a malaise, an irrational belief that rationality will prevail. Libertarians hold that people interacting in a rationale manner will lead to a utopian society. Recognizing that people don't act rationale, I envision a benign government that will at least provide a level playing field. Obviously, governments act irrationally too, hence my post "Deficit Spending - Fiscal Insanity".

What prompted this post, is the posting of "A look at the legal system" on the Analog webpage. In that series of posts, Pawyilee brought up the story of "The Eloquent Peasant" (Wikipedia Entry). The story concerns an Egyptian peasant named Khunanup who is wronged by Nemtinakht circa 2040 – 1674 B.C. The story is essentially an appeal by Khunanup to the Egyptian government of that time for justice, which he eventually gets.

My first big take away of this story is that society 4,000 years ago was a lot more sophisticated than one thinks. So, not only can we be provisional in terms of space; but we can be provincial in time too. A good lesson in humility.

But I started out discussing Libertarians and rationality? Well Libertarian thought is based on the concept that rationale people can work out solutions using rationality with minimal government intervention. Khunanu, in his appeal to the Egyptian government for justice, raises many of the same issues that I have concerning the Libertarian position. He rationally demonstrated to Nemtinakht that an injustice was done to him. However, Nemtinakht because he had "power" refused negotiate. Not very Libertarian of Nemtinakht. It would be gratifying to credit Khunanu with the recognition that certain aspects of Libertarian ideology are irrational, but (as far as I know) there weren't any Libertarian's back then.

Since Khunanu was unable to achieve a resolution with Nemtinakht he appealed to the Egyptian government for justice. I am not going to go through all nine appeal themes. I will highlight the four that seem most relevant to my hopped for utopian government as a means of addressing my perception of Libertarian "shortcomings".
  • Justice is Essential for an Orderly State.
  • The Judge Has a Great Charge
  • An Unjust Judge Participates in the Wrongdoer’s Acts
  • The Judge Must Protect the Weak
I will endeavor to summarize the four points above. Please take a look at "Nanny State Hypocrisy?" In that post, I discussed that certain Libertarians advocate that government must stay out of interfering with business, yet in the very same breath they claim that government must take an active role in protecting business. This implies a tiered legal system where some would have the privilege of legal protection while others would not. Such a system would be inherently unjust. If the system is unjust, why should anyone respect the law? The translator writes:"The poor, the one who suffers injustice, is left with little recourse if the judge does not mete out justice with straight measure. That destroys the foundations of justice. Foundations once destroyed, what can the just man do?" With little recourse, one could assume anarchy as a logical outcome.

In order to maintain an orderly state, the judge must act in a fair manner. The translator writes: "A judge who judges unjustly not only commits an infraction against the virtue of justice, but he becomes a participant, a co-conspirator in the crime of the wrongdoer."

Like Nemtinakht some Libertarians seem to believe they can put a "blanket" in the road with impunity and expect the State to protect them. Passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Sonny Bono Act is an example of a law specifically implemented to protect a business thereby figuratively "stealing" from public domain which would make the government a criminal co-conspirator. The fallacy of this perceived corporate right to place a "blanket" is nicely summarized by the translator: "This is a symbol of how injustice—which is a private appropriation of another’s right—blocks the public right-of-way, justice, which is the “good way” of the simple as Khunanup calls it. Like a public thoroughfare, justice is a res publica, and its self-appropriation by the selfish and overreaching is a barricade to its proper function." I hope that those Libertarians who seem to believe that economic power somehow entitles them to State protection will appreciate the thoughts of Khunanu, "The Eloquent Peasant".

Monday, February 15, 2010

Deficit Spending - Fiscal Insanity

The Washington Post reports that: "Obama has proposed a record $1.56 trillion deficit for fiscal 2010 ..." The Post then goes on to quote Obama as saying: ""It's easy to get up in front of the cameras and rant against exploding deficits. What's hard is actually getting deficits under control. But that's what we must do," Obama said." How can anyone (with a straight face) publicly propose a monumental deficit while simultaneously promising to get it "under control"??? If Obama were truly committed, propose a balanced budget now. This is insane.

Furthermore, the post quotes Obama as saying: ""Sometimes, particularly in tough times like these, you have to make hard choices about where to spend and where to save. That's what being responsible means. That's a bedrock value of our country. And that ought to be a value that our government lives up to as well," he said." The concern with this type of oratory fluff and empty rhetoric is that for whatever reason, it leaves open the door that we will never have a balanced budget since there will always be "tough times" (Reagan, Bush II, and now Obama have used this excuse) demanding Federal support to make the politicians look good.

Whip It - A movie Review

This past weekend we saw Whip It. It was a very enjoyable movie to watch.

When it hit the theaters, it received positive reviews. Consequently, I had put it in my mental filing cabinet to see it when it came out on DVD. By the time it came out on DVD, I had forgotten all about it. Seems to happen a lot to me these days. Oh well. Fortunately I finally remembered.

What was interesting were the reviews by Richard Roper and Roger Ebert where both had essentially the same review (that the plot was unoriginal and cliche ridden) but reached vastly different conclusions. Roger's review was positive: ""Whip It" is an unreasonably entertaining movie, ..." Richard's review was less positive: "The problem with "Whip It' is it's too damn cuddly and cute." In this instance, I am in tune with Roger's assessment: "Yes, the movie has cliches. Yes, it all leads up to a big game. Yes, there is a character's validating appearance near the end. Yes, and so what? The movie is miles more intelligent than most of the cream-of-wheat marketed to teenage girls." Most of all it was fun to watch.

A particularly refreshing aspect of "Whip It", was that the teams opposing the Hurl Scouts were never demonized nor portrayed as "bad". Competition as good clean fun! What a novel thought. The movie "A Knights Tale" (also a cliche ridden unoriginal plot) unfortunately made the mistake of following the standard formula of turning Count Adhemar into a true villain. Had the (competitive) relationship between William Thatcher and Count Adhemar been kept "clean", "A Knights Tale" would have been a much better movie. Finally, I get to divulge this annoyance after eight years!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

General Electric - Another Coffin Nail?

Big snowstorm in Washington D.C. today. I take a look at the Washington Post to read about the storm and see the following: "Paulson's book details GE chief's private concerns in 2008 over company's debt". Like many we invested in General Electric and have since watch the stock decline. The big question, in the face of this corporate decline (both in reputation and performance), why hasn't Immelt resigned or been fired?

Jeff Gerth, in his article writes:

"As the financial crisis worsened toward the end of 2008, chief executive Jeffrey Immelt and other leaders at General Electric repeatedly assured the public there was no need to worry about the company's ability to access credit markets and refinance its massive debts as they came due.

But in private conversations that alarmed then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., Immelt laid out a different picture of GE's credit situation, according to Paulson's new book about the crisis."

One would think that "big" investors, such a Buffet and the mutual funds would also be concerned about the decline of General Electric since they are shareholders too. By now I would have expected them to have stepped in to "protect shareholder value". So far no visible action. I wonder why?

Intuit Nonsense

Tax season is upon us. Once again I have debased myself by buying Intuit's Turbo Tax. As I open-up Trubo Tax I am once again relieved that the welcome/registration screen is still loaded with comforting Orwellian newspeak.

1. "Tell us about your Turbo Tax Product so we can keep you up to date."
A nonsensical statement, the product updates itself automatically.

2. "If you want to tell us how you you would like Intuit to contact you or do not wish to received marketing materials, please specify your contact preferences."
Another inane statement. Why should I have to click on "contact preferences", go to another webpage, and re-enter the very same information that I entered to register the product? This is a computer program that is supposedly designed to make life easier for the user by eliminating things such as entering the same information twice! Intuit could simply have provided a contact preference check box on the registration screen itself.

Furthermore, this "request" is an annual tradition. Again this is a computer program, the program calls home, so Intuit could simply ask the question about keeping your prior preferences.

3. "The contact information you update here will only affect future marketing promotions."
The sentence above comes from Intuit's "contact preference" webpage. Good to see this clarification, but its in the wrong place. This clarification could have been provided on the registration page itself.

My concern is that when you read bullet point #2, the implication is that you may not receive product updates if you had requested Intuit not to contact you. To my knowledge, the updates have never been disabled, but the point is that FUD is being used to encourage you to receive marketing information.


An important consideration is that Intuit is only one of many software sellers that use Orwellian Newspeak to obfuscate what is going on. I will say that Microsoft and Intuit are successfully competing as to who uses the English language in the most disingenuous manner.

As I progress in completing my taxes, I hope to get around to disclosing other irritating "features" on CasualObservations. One of the principle ones being periodic marketing calls for "upgrading". I don't mind an occasional advertisement, but there is a line where the marketing hype becomes intrusive and irritating.

PS (Update): That didn't take long. One of the first opening screens was a recommendation to upgrade to Turbo Tax Premier. Also in reviewing the differences between the Deluxe and Premier version I don't get a clear picture of why the Premier would be better beyond a vague reference to improved "guidance". I won't be exploring the concern of whether the difference between the Deluxe and Premier versions is real or artificial.

If you have any favorite stories to share concerning Intuit, I hope to hear from you!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rising College Costs: A Federal Role?

The editor of the New York Times ask a legitimate question: Rising College Costs: A Federal Role? Like medical care, college costs have been rising. What bothers me is the apparent inability of some pundits to recongnize that subsidizing an activity, even one as laudable as a college degree for everyone, is - in the end - self defeating. Worse, the US is teetering on bankruptcy so where is this college aide supposed to come from?

As an example of a pundit not recognizing limits, Jane V. Wellman fancifully writes: "The states are broke, and they can’t continue to pay for the lion’s share of funding for higher education. So increasing federal need-based aid should be a top fiscal priority, and the Obama budget proposal is a good thing." So how is the Federal government going to provide financial assistance if it is broke too. Furthermore, even if the Federal government was able to provide financial assistance, where is this money going to come from? Taxes of course!

A fellow contributor to this debate, Patrick M. Callan partially noted the futility of subsidizing education: "These grants do not cause higher tuition, but runaway tuition undermines their effectiveness in supporting access for low income students." To me, Mr. Callan remarks is cutting hairs, similar to the argument concerning whether a cup is half full or half empty. Fundamentally, the simple large scale availability of "easy" money allows colleges to "test" higher tuition rates.

Another contributor, Arthur M. Hauptman, noted that: "If anything, more Pell Grants will lead to lower completion rates because more people are likely to give college a try but not all will finish."

A responder Buh-Bye, Ben Bernanke to the debate weighed in with an important observation, that the student loans are guaranteed by the government, therefore there is little risk to either the school or the financial institution in making inappropriate loans. As previously mentioned the availability of cheap money permits tuition to be raised.

MFF offers this observation: "The most fascinating thing is this: why is that neighboring Canada, where college is not free, is still capable of offering affordable university educations--and ditto for England, where college is also not free."

Elizabeth offers an interesting take, that I agree with: "No mention of outrageous sports budgets of colleges? Why not? Why not support intramural sports and scrap all of the rest? People will adjust. Is there really any reason to pay head coach multiple million dollar annual salaries/ packages etc.? Why are state supported colleges doing this? Is our country so off kilter that it is thought justifiable to use college educational funds in order to develop talent for our pro teams?" Seems to me that pro-teams should pay the schools for their draft picks and that the money should go towards student education.

Obviously my quotes have been picked to make the case that subsidizing college attendance results in ever higher tuition costs because fiscal constraints are removed. We also need to recognize that the money for subsidizing tuition assistance must come from somewhere. That somewhere is taxes. There are real limits, we need to recognize them and adjust our programs accordingly. To conclude, thisteensy, wrote: "Student loans are the worst thing that ever happened to higher education."

A Long Battle for the Hudson River

In scanning the New York Times, I ran across the interactive time-line: "A Long Battle for the Hudson River". This time-line and related editorial deal with: "the decades-long duel between the Environmental Protection Agency and General Electric to purge the Hudson River of toxic chemicals." Now, its not unusual for a company to attempt to squirm out of cleaning-up the environment. What is interesting is the back-story.

The election of Obama, as President, promised a "Green" revolution. General Electric has joined this revolution and its moto is "Imagination at Work". The CEO of General Electric happens to be Jeff Immelt. Mr. Immelt also appears politically close to Obama who has appointed him to his Economic Recovery Advisory Board. So instead of dragging it's feet, one would assume that General Electric would be leading the charge to clean-up the Hudson River. It would make for good public relations and would be a superb demonstration of commitment to cleaning up the environment. Deeds over empty words.

Back in July of 2006 Vanity Fair wrote: "
Vanity Fair Profiles GE's Jeffrey Immelt", which stated:
"While Wal-Mart's CEO Lee Scott is likely the corporate chieftain that perplexes Treehuggers the most, General Electric's Jeffrey Immelt runs a close second. The 125-year-old company bears responsiblity for massive environmental damages over the years, including the infamous contamination of the Hudson River with PCBs in the mid-20th century. Many observers would claim that Immelt has staked out a position not far from that of his combative predecessor Jack Welch on the Hudson River issue:he is unapologetic even as he seeks to settle decades of litigation. At the same time, Immelt is also the driving force behind Ecomagination, a company campaign to revolutionize the way GE makes products and produces energy. The campaign's motto, "Green is Green," signifies a commitment to increasing shareholder value through clean technology, sustainable design and complete accountability."
While the Times is to be commended for keeping this environmental concern alive, what is regrettable is that the Times, in typical fashion, has not challenged a supposedly green CEO on why General Electric has not demonstrated leadership in meeting the green obligation of cleaning up the Hudson River. The Times does report that dredging began in May 2009, so maybe things are looking up. Finally substance over stonewalling rhetoric?

PS: We own shares in General Electric, unfortunately not enough to make a dent in how the company is managed.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Reaganomics... the gift that keeps on giving.

The witty title comes from a post in the New York Times by Steven in California. The post by Steven is a comment on the New York Times article: Huge Deficits May Alter U.S. Politics and Global Power. It seems to me that our political leaders continue to disingenuously promise deficit reduction while proposing ever greater deficit spending.

The New York Times in an editorial even writes: "Mr. Obama is right that the recovery is too fragile to make deep cuts in government spending." The problem of course is that virtually every presidential administration in recent history has used that "fragility" excuse to avoid making the "hard" decisions they were elected to make. Someday the bill will come due.

As a relevant example of good sounding empty rhetoric, the Times quotes Lawrence H. Summers, Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, as saying before he took his current job: "How long can the world’s biggest borrower remain the world’s biggest power?