Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for March, 2007

The Tax Monster

Posted by hyperpat on March 26, 2007

I filled out my tax returns for this year this last weekend. Total working time to do all of this was just about 12 hours, and I filled out the 1040, schedules A, B, D, plus my state return. Now admittedly this was a more complex tax return than most people have, but this still seems like an inordinate amount of time to determine what should be fairly straightforward: How much did I make, and what’s the tax on that amount.

Instead of something simple like the above, I have to calculate what part of my income is taxed at differing rates (things like qualified dividends and long-term capital investments), determine what deductions I can take (and if they are limited due to making X dollars too many – differing max amounts for different categories of deductions), write down information that the government already has, and then on top of all this I have to go back and re-calculate the whole mess a second time to determine if I’m subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (twice! once for Federal, once for State) . Now all of this takes not only time to put all the entries down, but quite a bit of time reading the gobbledy-gook that passes for instructions that the government provides (this was especially true for the entries on Schedule D, where someone seems to think that anyone who trades stocks will be intimately familiar with what 1256 contracts, puts and straddles, futures contracts, wash sales, and other such things are). Plus there’s all these mini-calculation forms buried in the instruction book that you have to figure out, even though you don’t have to submit these items – what happens at audit time, where you have to justify all your numbers, and you didn’t so happen to save a copy of these interim internal forms? (and there’s no warning in the book that you should save this information).

On top of this, it’s very clear that the Alternative Minimum Tax is badly broken. Intended to make those making very large amounts of money pay at least some amount of tax regardless of how many tax shelters these people have (and the existence of those tax shelters is something else that needs fixing), it has now morphed into a giant patch of quicksand, catching something like twenty percent of all taxpayers in its clutches, as it has not been indexed to account for inflation (to put it on the same basis it had when it was first enacted, everyone with incomes below $500,000 should be exempted).

Now I could have gone to a tax-preparer, but at a cost of $400+ for a return like mine, I ask, why should I be placed in this position – either having to give myself a massive headache or cough up a pretty large amount of money just for the privilege of handing even more money to the government? The current tax-code is a massive hodge-podge of this and that special cases, enacted over many years in response to lobbying by all sorts of special interest groups and individuals, and is so chock full of loopholes, special handling, and patches to patches that even the IRS cannot give you a straight answer to all too many questions about how to properly fill out your return.

Now there have been occasional attempts to throw all this mess out and go with a straight percentage tax, or sometimes this is tried as an indexed percentage, but every time it’s suggested, all those whose ox would be gored by such a change set up such a massive howl that the concept is almost immediately dropped. But somehow the current situation cannot be allowed to continue, as it’s getting worse every year. I therefore propose a compromise:

As long as the tax code is going to be used as an instrument of social engineering, encouraging some behaviors (such as house-buying) and discouraging others (short-term stock market trading), why not lay out a document that exactly describes these goals in clear English? State exactly what the goal is, who and how someone would qualify to get whatever tax benefit is proposed, when the provisions in the code that work towards that goal would be repealed when the goal is met (if ever), what indexing should apply so the code remains current in terms of future dollar buying power, and how and when the code should be modified. Once this document is created, present it to the entire country as a proposed Constitutional amendment, and let everyone vote on it, with a vote on each major provision of the document, with only those portions that get the full 2/3 ‘yes’ vote actually becoming part of the final amendment. Maybe then we’ll get something that can be filled out in fifteen minutes, except for those very few people who have really complicated income streams and investments.

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Posted in Politics | 1 Comment »

Home, Sweet Home for Dinosaurs

Posted by hyperpat on March 21, 2007

Scientists have now discovered den-digging, burrowing dinosaurs. This news alone is not earth-shattering, and probably is of direct interest only to a very few. However, it adds one more point in what is known about dinosaurs and the environment they lived in, and with each such point that is added, it becomes clearer that during their heyday the dinosaurs occupied just about every possible ecological animal niche. To my mind, at least, this is strong evidence in support of the theory of evolution, as it is possible to track the spread of dinosaurs throughout these ecological niches over the course of time, and also shows just how competition for resources favors those new animal variants that can best take advantage of some particular feature, eventually resulting in completely new species.

This view of the world does not eliminate the possibility of the world/universe being created by some omniscient being, but it does put a severe crimp into any literal interpretation of how the world was created as presented in any of the major religious works.  As evidence keeps piling up for the basic veracity of the theory, it seems to me that the debate on whether to teach things like ‘Intelligent Design’ right alongside evolutionary theory should be ended – while such concepts may have a place in philosophy or literature classes, they do not deserve to be handed up in the same texts that cover biology. These ideas simply do not have the same evidentiary basis as evolution, and placing them on the same footing will do nothing but confuse the students about just what science is and how it is practiced.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, religion, Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »

Scalzi and the Nebulas

Posted by hyperpat on March 19, 2007

John Scalzi announced his candidacy for the post of president of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) last Thursday. While most of the commentary over on his Whatever site has been very positive, there has also been a strong thread indicating that he must be out of his mind to willingly take on a job like this. But his stated platform clearly lays out things that need to be addressed by that organization, things that have relevance beyond the internal workings of it, that might affect every sf fan.

Most prominent of these is his stated goal of bringing the Nebula awards back to the prominence that they used to have, when they rivaled the Hugo Awards in terms of importance and in recognizing the best in the field. As it sits now, the Nebulas trail the Hugos in terms of timeliness, often being awarded for books up to a full year later than the Hugos. Especially for paperback issues, when a book does receive a Hugo, it will immediately get notice of that award splashed on the cover, and it definitely helps drive sales and notice. Due to the time lag, though, a similar notice about a Nebula award frequently doesn’t make it, as the edition is already printed. For those books that don’t receive the Hugo but did manage to get the Nebula, by the time the award is made, often the book is no longer ‘fresh’, and publishers may not be willing to bring out a new edition of such material that would highlight its award status. And this is a shame.

Science fiction is still looked upon in too many circles as ‘entertainment only’ fiction, not worthy of serious consideration. As the Nebulas are awarded by vote of other sf writers, frequently the books that get the award are the more literate variety of offerings in the field, and often showcase just exactly how good works in the field can be. It would seem as if, under current policies, sf is voluntarily given up a great opportunity to promote itself as far more than ‘genre’ fiction.

Whether Scalzi is successful in his bid for the presidency or not, I hope that his airing of this issue will cause a true rejuvenation of the Nebula status, and perhaps a little better reputation for the field can be had in circles that currently unjustly denigrate it.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 2 Comments »

Silicon Valley

Posted by hyperpat on March 15, 2007

Why does Silicon Valley dominate the world of electronics innovation? Not that there aren’t many things that are developed elsewhere, but for the last thirty years or so this place has been the leader in developing new products, manufacturing methods, and even whole new industry segments. Other places have sent people here to see just what the ‘formula’ is, and to a certain extent have managed to copy it, but they are still trailing this place in terms of patents granted or almost any other measure of success.

Now clearly part of the reason is the local great schools: Stanford and Berkeley are both world-renowned schools that year after year graduate brilliant and usually well-grounded students into the local businesses. And this doesn’t even count the network of various local community colleges and places like San Jose State. But having these students wouldn’t do any good if the local businesses couldn’t induce them to stay in the local area, not so easy when you consider that this area is one of the highest cost of living areas in the country, and is plagued with some of the worst commute traffic.

Business inducements range from relatively high starting salaries to the incredible number of start-up businesses that offer stock options and other perks, along with the opportunity to work on something new and different to new employees. Money alone isn’t all the answer, though. Another major piece is how employees are treated: here, most companies really believe in empowering their ‘little people’, giving them the authority to make meaningful decisions about the company direction, and treating them with some respect rather than as interchangeable cogs. Flexible working hours, corporate game and exercise rooms, memberships in athletic clubs, help with day-care and other family obligations are all part of the parcel.

There is a positive feedback effect working here, too. With so many high-talent people working here, an idea percolates from one group over to another, sparking additional ideas. Networking between people in multiple companies is common, happening anywhere from the corporate cubicle to the evening watering hole.  And of course, the very fact that things are happening here attracts more people who want to be in on the action.

Now it doesn’t hurt that the Bay Area has what some people would consider the world’s best climate: never too cold, you don’t get soggy-drenched in the winter, hurricanes and tornadoes are almost unheard of, and typically there are only a few days in the summer that it really gets hot.  And if you really want to go flop in the snow, there are some really great ski runs located only a few hours by car from here. There are some pretty good cultural/artistic places/theaters/museums here, too, allowing you to be a geek and art-lover at the same time.

I first moved to the Bay Area in 1972, when I was still in the Air Force, and got stationed at Mill Valley Air Force Station, located atop Mt. Tamalpais, about ten miles north of San Francisco. This, however, was not the place to experience the Silicon Valley revolution, as, with 169 curves from the top to the bottom of the mountain, plus another sixty miles to get to the heart of Silicon Valley,  it was a major chore to make the trip. However, when I left the military in 1980, I got an immediate job with a firm in Sunnyvale working on (as one small aspect of their overall business) microcomputers for use on the Galileo space shot.  This was my first real experience with the excitement and rewards of working in the valley (besides instantly doubling what I had been making in the military).  It was also my first experience with something known as environmental testing; clearly, if you expect a circuit to work in space, it makes sense to test it here on the ground at both very hot and very cold temperatures, in a vacuum, pure oxygen or nitrogen atmospheres, drop it a few times (the g-stress test), shake it up some more, and in general abuse it in every way you can think of. This is a field I’m still involved with today.

But since that first experience with the Silicon Valley way, other than one side trip to Florida to get married, I’ve remained in the valley, one among many others who find this environment a great place to work.

Posted in General, Places, Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »

Don’t You Wish Everyone Was a Genius?

Posted by hyperpat on March 13, 2007

Our solar system orbits around the Milky Way once every 250 million years or so. It also has some proper motion versus the local star systems and dust clouds. Which means that over very long time scales, the Earth may experience some very different interstellar environments, from being inside/outside of a dust cloud to moving near a gamma ray burster (which is one of the listed possible causes for one of the great extinction events).

Poul Anderson, way back when (1954), capitalized on this set of facts to dream up something he called the Brain Wave. He hypothesized that humanity had evolved during a period when the Earth was in an area that slowed down electromagnetic waves. As human mental activity is mediated by such, it’s a short leap to dream of a time when the Earth would exit this area and return to where these waves would move at normal speed, with a concomitant increase in human mental activity, i.e, suddenly everyone would get very smart. And not just people, but animals also. While being smart might seem like a good thing to be, Anderson showed that this could produce some very deep problems.

When animals get smart enough to know what a slaughterhouse is, there would be an immediate crisis in keeping in the world fed. When those people who held menial jobs due to lack of good thinking abilities can suddenly see just what a waste of time their jobs are, and there is no one else who is willing to do those jobs, however necessary, what happens to civilization’s infrastructure? Intelligence alone does no good without information to process; education is necessary, and who will provide it? A brilliant idea does no good if there is no way to implement it – think about the problem a cave-man would have had if he figured out what lightning was and wanted to build an electric light bulb. Nor does it prevent continuing to come up with the wrong answers, because the basic assumptions the person is working from are false: belief in religions, UFO’s , conspiracy theories, and ‘I’m better than anyone else, I should be treated accordingly’ would continue to thrive. The whole scenario is a recipe for disaster.

Anderson had a pretty optimistic ending to his book, believing that people would manage to find solutions to the problem of too much brain power. I’m not so sure. There are just too many examples of very intelligent people doing very dumb things; people ‘think’ as much with their emotions as they do with their brains; and to date no one has come up with an ethos for living in harmony with everyone else that everyone buys into.

Sometimes being ‘smart’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

Looking Backward

Posted by hyperpat on March 12, 2007

This will make my 100th post to this blog, and a total volume of words equal to a short novel. As such, it’s time for a little rumination on how well this space has met my original expectations.

When I started this eight months ago, my only real plan was to put forward of few of my pet hobby-horses to a wider audience than just my friends and family – things like various trends in science, the extolling of some the better science fiction works and the ideas embodied within them, a few riffs on the political scene, and just a general diary of daily happenings. In this I think I’ve been pretty successful. The other half of this, to interest other people in these things and get meaningful feedback and commentary, has not been quite as successful as I would like, not because those who have commented have not been intelligent, reasonable, and interesting in their feedback, but merely because there haven’t been enough of them.  I have found a few other bloggers with similar (though not identical) interests, and reading their blogs has enriched my life.

Now perhaps what I’m peddling is just not that interesting to large number of people. But I like to think it’s more a matter of publicity, of getting this site more well known. Which doesn’t happen overnight, given the incredible number of blogs out there competing for everyone’s attention.  Writing these posts has probably helped me focus and organize my thoughts, and given me considerable practice in how to present those thoughts, so I will continue slogging on, and wait for the fame and fortune that will surely be mine when this site gets discovered by the great unwashed masses 🙂

Posted in Daily Happenings, General | 4 Comments »

Don’t Pack It In, Stock It Up

Posted by hyperpat on March 8, 2007

There’s a disaster waiting just around the corner. Your corner. No matter where in world you live, there is always some hazard just waiting for you to turn your back to come snarling around and sinking its teeth in your throat. It could be an earthquake. Or a hurricane, tornado, flood, forest fire, blizzard, giant sinkhole, volcano, meteorite, lightning strike, famine, or pandemic. No one is absolutely safe – if not any of these natural hazards, then I’m sure your fellow man will be kind enough to supply the requisite level of destruction via war, revolution, or environmental poisoning.

The question is, what are you doing about it? Do you have emergency supplies stockpiled? Know what your escape route will be if needed? Have insurance? A passport?  A means to get news and communicate when there’s no power? Know where your local emergency center is (assuming there is one – and if not, why not?), who administers it, what services and personnel are dedicated to helping in times of trouble?

If you’re like 90% of Americans, your answers to these questions will show an abysmal level of readiness. As this is one area where what you do and how you prepare really, really counts,  and you can’t depend on government or other organizations to ‘fix’ this for you, then it’s probably time you got cracking.

And if everyone was truly prepared, when that disaster happens, which it will, everyone will have an easier time of recovering,  and be able to go back to enjoying life that much sooner.  Unless, of course, the disaster that does happen is a planet-killer collision with a really large rock, or the sun going nova – in which case no one will have to worry, forever.

Posted in General | 1 Comment »

What a Piece of Work is Man

Posted by hyperpat on March 7, 2007

Quick, now, when was the last time you thought about establishing ethical standards for the treatment of robots? Uh, never, right? But there is a group in South Korea (!) doing just this. Now perhaps the document they are attempting to create is a little ahead of its time – after all, so far there are no robots that would meet the normal definition of either intelligence or possessive of free will, at the moment they are still nothing more than machines. And it could be quite awhile before electronics and software advance to the point where something like Asimov’s Three Laws could even attempt to be implemented. So is what this group is doing a waste of time?

Not really. Somewhere along the line, humanity will be faced with other intelligences that are not ‘human’ – whether it be AI robots, aliens, genetically enhanced versions of other terrestrial  species, or even enhanced ‘super humans’. At what point do we decide to treat these types of beings of being worthy of having the same rights, privileges, and obligations of everyday people? If you have a household robot, can you order it to do whatever you want, or must you consider whether such an action would be demeaning to the robot? Would you trust it to baby-sit your child? Would you need to give it the occasional day off? Does it require a salary? When should (must) you do what the robot asks you to do?

Some of these questions have been explored in various SF stories: Heinlein’s “Jerry Was a Man” and “Gulf“, Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, Simak’s City,  Connie Willis’ “Samaritan“,  and Orson Scott Card’s Lovelock, amongst many others. The general points presented in just about all of these stories are:

‘Free Will’ – if an entity has the ability to take actions on its own, free of outside direction, a certain level of respect and dignity should entail to that entity (this includes things like cats and dogs).

“Intelligence Level” – when the intelligence level reaches the point of a) self-awareness b) ability to understand both rights and obligations, then that entity should be treated as ‘human’.

But even within these generally agreed upon points, there are graduations of treatment and privileges, and there is not a general consensus on precisely at what point on the intelligence continuum scale full ‘human’ status should be given.  Trying to work out what standards should be applied sounds like something that needs doing now, before we are faced with real beings whose status is a gray question mark – and who could end being treated just as unfairly as the ‘African Black Man’, thought to be treatable as a slave as they were ‘sub-human’.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

Why Are We Here?

Posted by hyperpat on March 6, 2007

Usually somewhere around late adolescence most people start asking themselves just what the purpose of life is and just what they want to do with their own lives.  This can be a very depressing period, as even a cursory look at the state of the world would indicate that there are a great many people who seem to believe that rape, torture, enslavement, mutilation, destruction, and mayhem are perfectly acceptable methods of achieving their vision of what the world should be, and another large group who seemingly would like to do absolutely nothing except live comfortably in their own little cocoon without any effort on their part. For someone looking for some reason for being, for some guiding principle(s) around which to structure their lives, this picture of the world is not very enlightening or encouraging. This is probably at least part of the reason for the high teen suicide rate.

But there are reasons to be found to not only continue existing, but to put forward major effort towards personal goals. For some, religion provides a ready made set of answers and guidelines for living. Others find an answer in humanism, in trying to better the condition of all humans. Still others find hedonism to be attractive, living only for the day and personal pleasure. The largest group, however, are more than likely those who decide that the basic question is unanswerable, that there is no real, verifiable purpose except that which each individual decides is valid for themselves. And having put this question aside, they can move forward towards whatever goal meets their interests and abilities.

It’s a tough time in most people’s lives. Weathering this period is part of the process of becoming an adult. And, unfortunately, it is very difficult to help someone going through the throws of this period, as each person must almost necessarily arrive at their own conclusions about this question. But if you should so happen to be near to someone at this stage, being a non-critical listener, a sounding board that the person can bounce ideas and questions off of, may be the best thing you can be.

Posted in General, Philosophy | 2 Comments »

Dull Boy Jack

Posted by hyperpat on March 5, 2007

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything. This is not too surprising, as I indicated in an earlier post, as my working hours have been nothing short of outrageous. While I didn’t quite hit 100 hours a week for the last three weeks, I was running over 90. The end result of all this effort is a prescription for even more effort to finish this system and make it work right – but it’s no longer an all-out, do or die effort.

Now all this work has left Jack a very dull boy, and a not very happy wife.  Companies that think they can require this of their employees all the time and thereby achieve greater productivity are at the very least fooling themselves, as after only a little while of working these kinds of hours your brain turns to mush, stupid mistakes multiply, and the employee’s basic attitude becomes more and more pessimistic. In extreme cases, such policies lead to companies losing some of their best employees, which will end up costing the company huge amounts, both in dollars and in time lost while they try and train someone new for the position. Happily this is not my company’s attitude – they only request something like this when it is truly necessary and it looks like the extra effort will bring immediate benefits, but it’s still a drag when it happens.

But at least maybe now I can get back to posting here on a reasonably regular basis.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General | Leave a Comment »