23 Jan 2012

A unique tax error?

This is truly astonishing. I seem to be the only person on the internet who has received a particular form letter from the State of Illinois, or at least, the only one to talk about it.

The situation itself was pretty astonishing to begin with. I filed my 2010 taxes on time, in April 2011, and two months later got a "Return Correction Notice" from the state of Illinois about how I'd claimed a bunch of estimated payments (line 25) that I'd never made, so they zeroed that out and now I owe them a bunch of money. Um, I said. Looking back at the form, which I had kept a scan of, I clearly wrote an amount of withholdings (on line 24). I called them up and explained this, but apparently nothing could be done over the phone despite the fact that they actually had the actual original form and could presumably see that this was a simple data entry error; I had to mail them a letter "with documentation". Fine.

They apparently didn't get around to reading it for three months, because I didn't actually get my refund until September (thank goodness I'd had them send a check instead of direct deposit... the USPS forwarded my check to Virginia, no telling what would have happened if the bank deposit bounced). Fine, whatever; I deposited it.

So then this week I get an "Erroneous Refund Letter"---note, four months after they mailed me my check---telling me they shouldn't have allowed the withholding because it included out-of-state withholdings, which I was supposed to file a Schedule CR for.

This is strange for at least three reasons. One, I did file a Schedule CR. Two, and more importantly, the amount on line 24 doesn't include my Ohio income; there is clearly no computer verification of this letter/error/process, because if you add my two Illinois W-2s, you get the amount that I claimed to have been withheld. Three, if you do an internet search for "Erroneous Refund Letter", which is the actual title of the letter, all that comes up is Federal stuff; if you add Illinois to the query, there's just one (spurious) link. Apparently either nobody's received this letter before, or else somehow nobody's ever talked about it online. Mind-boggling.

(Less mind-boggling, but somewhat entertaining, is the paragraph that begins, "Our records show this refund has been cashed." You think? Might that be because you mailed it to me four months ago?)

So now I get to send them a second correction letter, pointing out that my original return was correct as it stands, thank you very much. I mean, it's great that they're checking their records for fraud, I guess, although I'm not exactly a high-roller here (above the median income, though, so I suppose that's something). But they've clearly spent a bunch of person-hours on this case---and burned even more of my time---for issues that are nothing but a waste of everyone's time. Argh.

(Meanwhile I'm also playing telephone tag to track down a mortgage payment; Bank of America sold my mortgage to another bank, marvelous timing, and I got a helpful call from the new bank that my January payment was missing. Thank goodness for federal rules that mandate a 60-day ironing-out period where payments sent to the old bank on time can't be assessed late fees even if the old bank is slow about forwarding the payment, but still, more of my time burned. Just when I have so much time to deal with it.)

"I can see where it's heading: a service called Google Assault that doesn't even bother to guess what you want, and simply hurls random words and sounds and images at you until you dribble all the fluid out of your body." --Charlie Brooker

Posted by blahedo at 12:21am | Comments (1)

22 Jan 2012

Gateway to the next level

(Originally posted as a comment on Hacker News.)

Haley Mlotek posted an article about her experience with Ladies Learning Code.

This is pretty great. Its first-order effects would be good enough: a successful class that turns people from mere users into content creators. Great!

But the second-order effects may be more important. Nearly anyone, when first introduced to computers, is "just" a user---they use the computer in the ways that are taught to them. Those of us that progress into general programmers generally had some transition phase where we were sort of "just users", typing something in or following instructions, but those things we typed in were our gateway to the next level. For me, it was typing in BASIC listings from magazines on the family Apple IIe in the mid-80s, and then figuring out that I could tweak them and make the programs do new things that weren't in the original article. For some of my students these days, it was typing in WoW macros and then learning to tweak their own.

A couple years ago, I had a student whose original entree into programming came via a web design class mostly involving HTML and largely done using a front-end app (Dreamweaver maybe?). But it was a start, and it inspired her to learn more about HTML and then eventually to take AP CS and major in it in college. I think her sex and her gender are only statistically relevant here---there most certainly are girls that play video games and will want to write macros, and there are boys that can will be well-served by an HTML-first curriculum. But she suspected, and I agree, that teaching people structured content creation will have long-term effects of increasing the ratio of females in all areas of CS.

But whether that speculation is accurate or not, let's not be dissing this person's experience because it's not programming-y enough. We don't need to be gatekeeping the secrets of the High Priesthood here; everyone needs to start somewhere. And whether Ms. Mlotek eventually goes on into "true" programming or not, she's more computer-empowered than before, so we should be happy for her, and if not her then others who go through this program, both male and female, will find their way into programming and other CS disciplines. And that is something we should all be happy about.

"Autotune... it's the audio equivalent to 'Snap to Grid'." --xpaulbettsx

Posted by blahedo at 2:21pm | Comments (0)

20 Jan 2012

Forget "where's my jetpack?", I want to know...

For Christmas, I got a wristwatch.

There's sort of a longer story there, but suffice it to say that I had been without a wristwatch for three or four years and had pretty thoroughly adapted to using my cellphone for the purpose. But I like a lot of old things and old-fashioned things, so I was grateful to wear a wristwatch again if only for the light affectation of it.

How quaint! He's wearing a watch! Do they even make those anymore?

Within a few days I was remembering to check it instead of going for the phone in my pocket. Within a few weeks (i.e. yesterday) I was annoyed when I accidentally left it at home, because I kept checking my blank wrist; and you know what? It's actually kind of annoying to have to fish your phone out of your pocket to check the time. Also, way harder to be subtle about it.

Today I followed that thought to its logical conclusion. If it's more convenient to carry the time on my wrist than to have to fish the phone from my pocket, wouldn't it be more convenient to carry the other functions of the phone on my wrist? I mean, people have been joking for years that if phones get any smaller we won't be able to see them (though smart phones arrested this trend somewhat), so the miniaturisation is totally on track to do this. Keypads would have been tricky to fit in there, but now everything's all touchpad-y so we might be ok there; and we would have needed both hands for an onscreen keyboard, maybe, except now that everybody's raving about Siri you can just hold your phone to your mouth and talk to it to tell it what to do.

There was a vogue a few years back lamenting the 1930s and 1950s visions of the future that still hadn't yet come to pass, often summed up with the pithy remark, "Where's my jetpack?" But now I'm thinking, hey, forget the jetpack—where's my wristphone?

...it's coming. Soon.

"We may not always like what the First Amendment permits, but we've agreed as a nation that the short-term aggravation of personal offense is the tithe we pay for freedom." --Kathleen Parker

Posted by blahedo at 10:55pm | Comments (2)