A cautionary tale
Most people posted their tax nightmare stories Tuesday, but since mine continues to drag on, I suppose I can still justify a post.

The problems began when my former employer, the Social Security Administration, failed to change my state tax withholding when I transferred from an office in Indiana to an office in Illinois. I probably bear some responsibility for this too, but at any rate the result was that my taxes for both 2001 and 2002 are completely screwed up on the state level.

In the past, I've always done my own taxes - they've gotten more and more complicated each year, but I've always been up to the task. Not this time. I spent literally hours on the phone last year (at work) trying to sort this mess out, and the Social Security Administration absolutely refused to change the withholding records. Without a correct w-2 form, I was afraid I'd draw a lot of attention to myself, and with self-employment income for the past two years, I'm not exactly eager to be audited. So, at the urging of people close to me, I decided to bite the bullet and pay someone to do my taxes.

Just down the street there's a seasonal office for H&R Block, so I went over there. They were friendly, professional, and when I wondered out loud whether they could handle the problem, they told me "We're H&R Block. We can handle anything."

They were wrong. The fellow who handled my case ended up sending my returns to a central location, where they were promptly botched thanks to a communication failure. Meanwhile, I was instructed to send $400 to the state of Illinois based on the way the Indiana returns should have looked. Unfortunately, when the returns came back, they didn't reflect this at all, since they were processed according to my incorrect w-2 forms and not according to my instructions.

I found this pretty upsetting, since it means I'm out $400 that Illinois won't even know why I've sent. It also means I paid $352 for a bunch of tax returns I could have done myself, and which I'm going to have to do myself anyway thanks to H&R Block's incompetence. Luckily, I was able to get a hefty refund by raising hell at the central office; and after talking with the guy who actually handled my tax return there it looks like I may be able to handle the problem myself. Of course, I've still sent $400 into the vast Illinois tax bureaucracy, and I have no idea when or how I'll get it back.

I guess the moral of this story is, don't hire a so-called expert to do something you can do perfectly well yourself. And similarly, don't assume that the so-called experts actually know more than you do, especially when it concerns your problems.

Off the reservation
Both Unlearned Hand and Archpundit have commended Colin Powell for telling the truth about the US role in the murder of democratically-elected Chilean leader Salvador Allende in 1973 (followed by the installation of General Augusto Pinochet as dictator). They're obviously right - it's nice to see some candor from the government about one of the most despicable acts of the Cold War.

What I don't understand is how the State Department could release a statement contradicting Powell. For one thing, it makes the whole bunch of them look like Cold War relics. But more to the point, isn't it a bad idea to undermine the Secretary of State's credibility? This wasn't just a leak, it was a full-fledged statement. If you ask me, heads should roll...

Bait and switch
Josh Marshall thinks mulitlateral talks with the DPRK aren't mulitlateral at all, with China basically playing a host role, and Japan and Russia uninvited. It's not clear what the Chinese think of this or what the US reaction will be, but this kind of plateau negotiating tactic isn't really a surprise, as BigOldGeek noted in comments below. Meanwhile, the business about reprocessing plutonium rods, true or not, is a real slap in the face. We'll soon see what it gets them.


Old masters
I haven't exactly made a habit of blogging about books I'm reading (although if my reading habits ever fully recover from my decision to start a blog, this may change), but in the past couple days I've been flipping through a slim volume by Thomas Bernhard that demands a mention here.

Bernhard was most famous for his plays, but I've only had occasion to read his novels. These tend to be stylistically difficult - dense, repetitive, ambiguous interior monologues, unreliably narrated - and thick with familial bitterness and self-destructive artistic ambition. My kind of stuff...

The book I just picked up, The Voice Imitator, is a departure - it's actually not even fiction. Bernhard takes events from his personal life, rumors, stories from the news; and he comments on them, perfectly drawing out the ironies for the reader. The form is quite short - none is longer than a page - and maybe it was this tautness that reminded me of some blogs I've read.

I've decided to reproduce a couple of these short pieces here, just for the hell of it, really. Let me know what you think....

Last week in Linz 180 people died who had the flu that is currently raging in Linz, but they died not from the flu but as the result of a prescription that was misunderstood by a newly appointed pharmacist. The pharmacist will probably be charged with reckless homicide, possibly, according to the paper, even before Christmas.

An old lady who lived near us had gone too far in her charity. She had, as she thought, taken in a poor Turk, who at the outset was grateful that he no longer had to live in a hovel scheduled to be torn down but was now - through the charity of the old lady - allowed to live in her town house surrounded by a large garden. He had made himself useful to the old lady as a gardner and, as time went by, was not only completel re-outfitted with clothes by her but was actually pampered by her. One day the Turk appeared at the police station and reported that he had murdered the old lady who had, out of charity, taken him into her house. Strangled, as the officers of the court determined on the visit they immediately made to the scene of the crime. When the Turk was asked by the officers of the court why he had murdered the old lady by strangling her, he replied, out of charity.

Many years ago a photographer took up residence in Ebensee; from the very first day he was rumored to have spent several years in prison for having molested a thirteen-year-old boy from Ischl. Not a single person had their photograph taken by the photographer, who expected to do good business in Ebensee, where so many weddings take place throughout the year, or at the very least to make a decent income, and he finally had to close down his business and move out again. It is said that there was no truth to the rumor; it was originally spread by the Traunkirchen photographer Stroessner. Stroessner has now stated that his colleague has committed suicide, but it is not known how.

Again, the book is The Voice Imitator, by Thomas Bernhard. The translator is Kenneth J. Norcott.

Further reading
I've pruned the blogroll a bit and made some valuable additions at the same time: Larry Magitti, How Appealing, Unlearned Hand, Half the Sins of Mankind, and Cowboy Kahlil.

MORE: Forgot to add Bryan Pfaffenberger's Pfaffenblog.

Casus Belli
According to this article, the US forces will enter Syria if Saddam is found to be hiding there:

American special forces in western Iraq have been told that they can enter Syria to grab the former President, and in all likelihood kill him, if they have "credible Intelligence" of his whereabouts. Their commanders would justify the action under the doctrine of "hot pursuit", the disputed theory that soldiers who are in the act of hunting a terrorist suspect are allowed under international law to enter a foreign country without permission.
I'm not sure the premise - that we're somehow bound by international law - is even relevant after our invasion of Iraq, but I guess it puts a veneer of legitimacy on what otherwise seems to be wanton militaristic opportunism...

By the way, since when is Saddam a terrorist?

Modelling disaster
Matt Yglesias links to this fascinating application of standard economic models to the Bush tax cut. The stated conclusions don't leave much room for optimism.

While I'm obviously no friend of the Bush admin's tax policy, I should say that I'm highly skeptical of all this macroeconomic modelling and what it can say about the effects a big tax package like this one will have. The tax environment in the United States is extraordinarily complex, and before you can determine what effect a particular change will have, you have to control for all the other policies already in effect.

Will Hart run?
Via Seth Michaels, here's a disturbing report that our very own Ezra Klein might've jumped the gun with his call for Hart campaign volunteers. I'm actually very interested in the opportunity, but my one concern is that Hart still hasn't announced his candidacy. Ezra's attestations to the contrary notwithstanding, this latest news is a downer.


Powering fusion
PLA links to an article on an alternative approach to fusion power. It seems somewhat more promising than the compressed hydrogen approach, at least in the near-term.

There's also some interesting discussion of fusion power on a comment thread at Matt Yglesias's site. Several people (me included) argue for a Manhattan Project-style investment in fusion power by the US government.

Matt Yglesias links to an interesting suggestion on OxBlog that the UK might return some of the historical/anthrolpological treasures taken from Iraq under British rule, to help replace those lost in the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities. The idea here is to have it done willingly, but I've always wondered whether there was any precedent under international law for suing to get some of these items back. This would seem to be reasonable enough - after all, European countries are refusing to waive the massive debts owed by Iraq's pre-war government. I don't see why former European governments should get special treatment...

Also, Bryan Pfaffenberger (link via body and soul) has more questions about the reasons for the looting. Incredibly, the DoD is denying it had any responsibility to protect the artifacts, even though they were clearly forewarned.


Loot first, shame later
Steven Landsburg has another lifeless economic analysis over at Slate - this time he's talking about the economic implications of looting. First he explains the conventional wisdom on what makes looting bad, but then he says something surptising:

But I wonder how much of the property in Baghdad was legitimately earned in the first place. Iraq, for at least two decades, has been a society where many rewards have flowed not to those who served the needs of the marketplace, but to those who served the needs of the tyrant. If those rewards are redistributed to the tyrant's victims, that's fine with me.
I wouldn't have expected this kind of redistributionist thinking from Landsburg, but I do have some sympathy for the argument that what's being stolen ultimately belongs to the people of Iraq. Unfortunately, he seems to have missed some of the nuance here. It's not clear whether he thinks accomplishing this redistribution by looting is efficient, or equitable, or both...

I see two big holes in his analysis. First of all, he's all too willing to accept massive income inequality as a justification for a complete breakdown in property rights. Aren't well defined and accepted property rights the most fundamental component of a market economy? But for days, American forces sat idly by, watching these rights disintegrate. I believe this has serious implications for Iraq's future.

The other issue specifically involves the looting of museums. The archaeological treasures being taken are (or at least, were) public goods, so for an economist their value is a summation of individual utilities. But all this value is lost when they're distributed privately, because they can only be appreciated by a much smaller number of individuals. The suggestion that they belong to the Iraqi people is specious - Iraqis still posess them if they remain in the museum, don't they?

Josh Marshall isn't exactly jumping up and down over the DPRK's concession with respect to multilateral talks. For one thing, they've apparently refused to deal with Japan and Russia:

The rationale for the exclusion, according to the article is that the UN, China, North Korea and the United States were the only signatories to the original 1953 armistice agreement. So Russia and Japan are just not relevant to a new conference that would move beyond the armistice agreement and toward a non-aggression pact - the North Koreans' key, and apparently still operative, demand.

That may work as a rationale. But it doesn't really wash as a reason.

To me the real quirk/insight in Marshall's thinking is the notion that it could be the United States, not North Korea, that wants war here. For all the talk about the DPRK's paranoia, a US strike doesn't seem all that implausible. But for some reason, I've generally seen the North Koreans as having made the first move - they are the ones developing nuclear weapons, they are the ones making demands, etc. - and I think a lot of American probably feel the same way. BigOldGeek, for example, argues in comments below that our symbolic show of force (ie the war in Iraq) is what brought them to the negotiating table. But was it really the North Koreans who were unwilling to negotiate?

No fire in the belly
Several people have noted that Peter Fitzgerald won't seek a second term as Illinois senator... Archpundit sees another divisive primary for Republicans, followed by another general election meltdown. We can only hope!

I was actually disappointed at the news - Fitzgerald would've been an unusually weak candidate, one largely spurned by his own party. But now, if the Republicans get their act together, they can nominate someone serious and rally around a candidate, which will make the campaign that much more difficult for Democrats.

UPDATE: Now it looks like Jim Edgar may run. As usual, Archpundit has the goods, with more analysis in the comment thread.


Fightin' words
It's incredible how quickly we're faced with the specter of an American invasion of Syria. The bluster is getting bigger and bigger every day, like some kind of fast-forward replay of the buildup against Iraq.

Today Matthew Yglesias argues/hopes that our threats have to be credible if they're going to be effective, but that a real, live attack is unlikely. Haven't we heard this before? For how many months did we hear that our president hadn't made up his mind yet about whether to attack Iraq? The truth is, they've planned all this since September 12, 2001.

Just one quick point about Syria vs Iraq (don't worry, I'll be coming back to this issue, I expect we all will): there's no weapons of mass destruction issue in Syria. The UN has never passed a resolution banning WMD from Syria, and Syria has never tapped its arsenal. Yes, the Syrian government is a shady bunch, but they have a legitimate security rationale for building up an arsenal. You see, they border Israel - a country which posesses nuclear weapons, hasn't signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has no stated policy on the use of its nuclear arsenal. In that neighborhood, the threat of chemical retaliation is small comfort indeed.

Keep the blog rolling
There's a heartfelt defense of Sean-Paul over at Shock and Awe - I'm glad to see someone else is giving this guy the benefit of the doubt. I guess it's not surprising that the blog community has turned its back on him, since the flavor of his site has changed so dramatically (and maybe there's some jealousy, too?) but I really feel he's provided a wonderful service. So many people are so much better informed because of Sean-Paul, and informed in a way they couldn't have been if they'd relied solely on traditonal media. Yes he made a mistake, but he's handled it well. I, for one, plan to keep reading.

Imitating virtual reality?
Someone pointed me to this extensive art gallery, and I have to say, it makes me a little self-conscious about the content I publish on this site. You can walk through whole buildings in Italy, with blueprints to accompany the carefully ordered images of frescos, paintings, etc. I've always gone in more for modern art, but what a remarkable opportunity to explore...

Self-deprecating to the last
The BigOldGeek prefers to remain anonymous, but he bears a remarkable resemblance to a good friend of mine. That he's linked only to one blog so far - this one! - is also somewhat suggestive. I'll be keeping my eye on him...

The tiny blueprint of an angle
Yes, it's amazing that they've managed to map the entire human genome, but I was even more amazed to read that there are only 3 billion base pairs. This means that my laptop could store 25 copies of my genetic code!

What's really incredible about this is that my computer is nowhere near as complex as a human body, and yet it can easily hold the so-called blueprint for human life. This is possible because DNA is more than just a blueprint. The code contained in our DNA is meaningful only in the context of human development. The proteins it encodes interact with their immediate environment, so that cells which begin exactly the same begin to differentiate, depending for instance on their orientation in the womb. So, while the information contained in those 3 billion base pairs is just a bunch of protein sequences, the entire programme of individual human development is implicitly present.

(This, by the way, is the reason I've always been skeptical of the nature-nurture debate, which doesn't seem to take into account the complexity of interaction between the two.)

MORE: It turns out they've also identified the genetic sequence of SARS, which weighs in at a measly 29,000 base pairs. But the point here is the same - the genetic code itself doesn't tell the whole story, otherwise we'd have a cure already...

Every 17 minutes
My apologies for the posting lull over the past three days or so. I was in Indianapolis for a preview of the opera - ICC did two scenes in full costume as part of their annual Voices of Youth concert. It wasn't too bad, although I will say that out of context, the scenes didn't make a lot of sense. Hopefully the audience will be a little less baffled by the premiere!

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