ralph robert moore
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Copyright © 2002 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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Return to lately 2002.
as tightly fisted as a magician's hand just before the magic
march 16, 2002
Mary and I hate doing our taxes.
Figuring our taxes is like sitting in the adjustable chair for a really bad dentist appointment.
The problem is that each year, we wind up "owing" the government several thousand dollars.
We both have regular jobs, with regular paychecks, regular tax deductions taken out, but somehow, in our case, it's never enough.
We started off taking one exemption each on our paychecks, meaning two exemptions total, since there are two of us, the method the IRS recommends, figuring that'd be enough.
It wasn't. We wound up having to pay several thousand extra dollars the following April 15, in addition to all the money we gave the government during the year in the form of payroll deductions.
So we switched to declaring no exemptions whatsoever, meaning even more money came out of our paychecks towards taxes.
The following April 15, we still had to write a check for three thousand dollars to the IRS.
So the next year, in addition to declaring no exemptions whatsoever, which is ridiculous, I also had my company take additional money out of each paycheck towards taxes, which is also ridiculous, figuring that would let us break even.
The following April 15, we're writing still another check to the IRS, for three thousand dollars. It's like no matter how much we pay in advance on our taxes, we still owe three thousand dollars.
Nobody else has this problem. Everyone else shows up at work all excited, waving their green tax refund check around.
And this extra amount each year doesn't include all the money we pay in cigarette taxes. I have paid so many thousands of dollars over the years in cigarette taxes, they ought to name a highway after me.
It has really pissed us off. It also pisses me off that I can't declare our cats as exemptions. They're a part of our family, they eat, they have dental bills (and believe me, a dental bill for a child is chump change compared to a dental bill for a cat.) Why should our pets not count when it comes to tax time? Why do we have to be so speciest about tax exemptions? Where the hell is PETA?
Anyway, early this February we got our W-2 forms, which are the forms American companies use to report your annual, taxable salary, and the amount of taxes you've prepaid during the year in the form of payroll deductions, but we decided to wait until April to actually figure our taxes. Who wants to hear bad news ahead of time?
The other night, Tuesday of this past week, we were sitting around the kitchen table after work, having a beer, laughing, when we both kind of simultaneously remembered that Oh, there's something bad in the future. Fritz Leiber discusses this phenomenon in his novel Conjure Wife, where, at the beginning, the protagonist is wandering around his home, waiting for his wife to come home, in a really happy mood, but thinking, I shouldn't examine my happiness too closely, because if I do, I'll find something depressing in it. Human nature. I wake up Monday morning, smoke a cigarette while still on my back, get out of bed to feed the cats and make us some coffee, in a pretty good mood even though the weekend is gone, and inevitably I think, is there anything in this upcoming week I'm not looking forward to? A meeting, a doctor's appointment, a really snarled-up mess I have to straighten out?
So there Mary and I were laughing at the kitchen table Tuesday night, and we both remembered, Shit, we're going to have to write a three thousand dollar check to the government again in the next few weeks.
We decided to figure our taxes right there and then, just so we wouldn't have to worry about how big the bite would be this time.
We got out our paperwork, the W-2 forms, bank and mortgage statements, and set to work.
And guess what? Twenty minutes later, looking dumbfounded at the figure in the LED display on the calculator, we realized that not only did we not owe any money this year, we were actually getting back more than nine hundred dollars!
I assume it's because of George Bush's tax cut.
So I'm no longer pissed off. About taxes.
I'm still pissed off about Microsoft Word.
As I recounted in earlier columns, I bought a new computer with Windows XP installed. As part of the installation, Dell included Word 2000.
The version of Word 2000 I have has an odd feature where nearly everytime you try to save a document, an error message pops up saying, "Word has encountered a problem and must close. We are sorry for any inconvenience."
(Let me interrupt myself here to say that it's typical of the shitheads at Microsoft to say 'any inconvenience' instead of 'this profound inconvenience', as if losing the file you've been working on for the past hour or so might not, in fact, be inconvenient at all.)
Since I'm a writer, I of course depend, I don't think too unreasonably, on being able to save what I'm writing. I realize Microsoft Word carries a number of different features to it, as any word processing software does, such as the ability to create tables, and text boxes, and import graphic files, which is nice, but I would think, and again, I believe, not unreasonably, that one, kind of essential, feature you would expect from any word processing software is that it saves the fucking file you've been working on.
I know this is a problem a lot of people are having, because since I first discussed this problem in a Lately, a lot of my recent search strings for my site have been from people who entered, "Problem saving files in Word 2000 using Windows XP."
There are a number of forums on the Internet for Microsoft problems (big surprise), where you can post the problem you're having with a Microsoft product, and the forum's "experts" will tell you the solution. I've tried two popular ones, John C. Derrick and Windows XP Pro, where I have very carefully explained the specific problem I'm having, mentioning which version of Word 2000 I've been blessed with, etc., etc. None of the experts on John C. Derrick ever bothered answering my post. On Windows XP Pro, all I've gotten from the experts is a slack-jawed, "Huh? What?"
John C. Derrick bills itself as, "The second most popular XP forum on the Web." Great marketing campaign, guys. Why not change your slogan to, "We're not the top choice, but what the fuck, you're here."
I've tried to cope with the problem by changing my file back-up time to one minute, so that whatever I'm working on is backed up every sixty seconds. It's still "inconvenient", but at least it's a work-around.
Wednesday, I wanted to continue writing a story I've been working on for a while, which takes place in New Mexico. I'm excited about the story, and I was excited about getting back into it. The thing about writing, at least for me, is that I often get my best ideas, and perfect phrases, after I stop writing for the day. It's like after I've been writing for a few hours, and stop, then the ideas really start to flow. What happens then is that I've shut off my computer, but for the next hour or so, in the comet tail of my actual writing, I'm reaching for scraps of paper to jot down all these new ideas for tomorrow.
So as I sat down before my computer Wednesday, I had all these new ideas I wanted to incorporate in my story.
I bring up the story, and the first few pages are fine, but then after that, it's mostly empty square boxes on page after page, with only an isolated word here and there.
I lost about half the story, the text I worked so hard on substituted with these stupid little boxes.
About five pages were lost in all. Fortunately, I printed an earlier draft of the story, so I could somewhat recreate the text, although all the changes I made Tuesday (I did the print-out on Monday), were forever lost. Here's all that remained of the missing text of about two thousand words, a random word or two on each box-filled page:
It can be viewed as a poem, but believe me, an unwanted poem.
One of the nice things about the Internet is that if you're dissatisfied with service you've received, you can write about that dissatisfaction, not just to the company, but to the world.
So here is a list of companies with which I'm currently dissatisfied. I expect the list to grow over time.
I use HTML Pro 97 for my HTML coding. I like it because you can start with a blank screen, and it doesn't add any code (unlike Microsoft's FrontPage, which is held in almost universal contempt for the bloated code it adds, increasing the download time for each page). Essentially, HTML Pro 97 is Notepad with a few improvements. You can preview your page in Internet Explorer and Netscape without having to save your file first, to see all the mistakes you made. (I usually preview in Netscape first, since it's less forgiving, then in Internet Explorer to see how the page looks to the other 98% of the browsing world).
When Mary started coding for her own site, she used Notepad. I showed her the little extras Pro had, and she eventually downloaded her own version, which by then was Pro 2000.
Pro 2000 includes an FTP feature, which means it allows you to upload your page to your site once the page is ready. (For those of you who aren't webmasters, most people create their web pages on their own computer, then transfer the file via the Internet to the remote computer that hosts their site using FTP software. "FTP" stands for file transfer protocol).
Everything worked great until one day when she was trying to upload a bunch of files, and the FTP function of Pro 2000 wouldn't work properly. It kept failing to connect to her remote site, which is located in Pennsylvania.
After a lot of frustrations over not being able to connect through Pro 2000 over an extended period of time, she e-mailed the Pro 2000 technical help department, asking for help.
Here's her e-mail:
"For the past month I have been unable to upload to my site. It gets to the point where it says "listing directory", but then it keeps cycling and never displays the directory. At that point it locks up and I have to 'control alt delete' to get out."
Here's Pro 2000's reply, from Daniel in their tech department:
"Thank you for e-mailing. It has been recommended that users have more than one tool for doing web work. Sometimes, for example, when one FTP program times out, the other will not.
"Do a search for WS FTP and download the free one. Set it up and try that. Then, you'll bounce back and forth between the two."
In other words, Our product sucks. Use our competitor's product if you want to get results. Daniel, you're probably a nice guy, but I envision a future for you where you're going to 'bounce back and forth' between any number of companies that don't really care about their customers.
A couple of years ago, I arranged to have the AT&T @Home people come out to install cable modem Internet access on my computer. If you live in the United States, you've probably seen AT&T's commercials on TV, and probably get at least one flyer a week addressed to "Internet Enthusiast" at your address.
So the @Home people came out, and installed a cable modem for me. It didn't even work while they were there, but they assured me it would in a few hours. It never did. I had it uninstalled. A couple of months later, I tried it again, because they swore up and down they had ironed out all the glitches, they had a better tech team now, blah, blah, blah.
This time, to their credit, the service did at least work while they were there. And it worked all that evening, which was great. But a couple of days later, it stopped working. I called their customer service, which is located in Colorado, and after the requisite half hour wait, my ear getting warm, during which I'm listening to all these pre-recorded announcements that service is out in San Francisco, and Buffalo, New York, and Salt Lake City, and all these other locations, I got a human who obviously had been trained to handle only the most basic of problems ("Are you sure the @Home modem is plugged in?") Then he told me, "We always advise our customers to have alternate access to the Internet, in case @Home isn't working." He gave me the URL for what was at that time a free Internet Service Provider. "Really, you should think of @Home as a toy." (Those are the exact words the @Home representative said to me. They're burned into my memory). So much for a service that bills itself as "Always on! 24-7!" I made a series of phone calls over the next week or so, trying to find anyone at AT&T customer service who could actually get their product to work, but my mission was unsuccessful. The last person I spoke with wanted me to erase my Windows operating system from my hard drive, and reload it. At that point, I cancelled the "service". I think what AT&T's @Home really means is that if you're ever stupid enough to sign up for it, you're going to be @Home for the next several weeks, trying to get their service to work properly.
Mary bought a new scanner, from Epson. Our old scanner, an HP, took about half an hour to scan each picture. It was like watching the scanner scan a picture of paint drying. I received a free scanner, from Dell, when I bought the computer pre-loaded with Windows XP I'm presently using. The problem is, the scanner isn't compatible with XP, and there are no drivers on the Internet to make it compatible. I contacted Dell, since they're the ones who sold me a computer with XP pre-loaded, and who gave me with that computer the free gift of a scanner that doesn't work with XP, but their response was f#!% you, where #!% stands for, "Dell does not provide technical support for other manufacturers' products."
I have never encountered a company with such poor customer service as Dell.
Which is why Mary bought an Epson scanner. It scans a picture in about thirty seconds, and does a beautiful job. We're really pleased with it. I recommend it.
About a month after she bought it, though, Mary noticed it was putting a yellow vertical line on each picture. She contacted Epson's customer service, who said it was a hardware problem, and to return it to where she bought it if she could, to get a replacement. She bought it from Amazon, but as it turns out, although it states on one page of Amazon's site that you can return hardware up to sixty days after purchase, their true policy is to only accept defective hardware up to thirty days after purchase.
Since the scanner came with a one year warranty, she looked up the nearest official Epson repair shop, which is where we took the scanner this past Friday.
The shop is located in a slightly run down section of Dallas. It's clear from the street signs this is the techie area of the city, with names like Electronic Way and Digital Drive. The section has obviously readjusted itself to the concentration of technicians in the area. There are a large number of steakhouses and strip clubs, and a bowling alley.
It was a small repair shop. The guy behind the glass counter, rail thin with a beard, was extremely knowledgeable, in fact too knowledgeable, since he spent about twenty minutes giving us the Not So Brief History of Scanners. He looked down at the counter through most of his reminiscences, rubbing the pad of his thumb occasionally over one speck or another he saw on the glass. He was a nice guy, though, and had some good advice, including one piece of advice I'm going to pass on now. He said that when most people put a picture on the glass bed of a scanner prepatory to having the picture scanned, they tend to touch the top edge of the picture somewhere around the middle of the glass bed, then slide the picture up to the top right of the bed (which is exactly what I've always done, and which is probably what you do, too.) It turns out, that's the worse possible way to place a picture on the bed, because in sliding the picture up to the top right, the top edge of the picture is sliding up any dust that might be on the glass, and pushing it under the frame at the top, where the sensitive scanning mechanism is located. Do that often enough, and it will degrade the scanned image. What you should do, instead, is flop the picture down so that the top edge is past the top edge of the glass tray, then pull the picture towards you until it falls into the upper-right-hand position.
He told us the scanner should be fixed in only a day or so, since technicians prefer working on scanners to any other type of computer equipment (most other computer equipment is very boring to work on, he told us). In fact, he had it fixed in a couple of hours, and we picked it up on our way home, in the rain. It's worked fine ever since, and because we were still under warranty, the repair was free.
Since I've devoted so much of this column to whining about things that don't work, let us now praise Johann Vaaler.
In 1899, he drew the design for the first paperclip, which he patented in 1901.
(In one of those weird confluences which seems to often occur in science, William Middlebook and Cornelius Brosnan also came up with the paperclip at about the same time, but Vaaler first drew the design. The strangest synchronicity of scientific inspiration, to me, is the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell registered his patent for a telephone in 1876. One hour before Bell, Elisha Grey patented his own design for a telephone.)
Over a hundred years after Vaaler's patent, despite the tremendous changes we've seen in technology, including our entry into the so-called "paperless society", the paperclip is still as popular as ever.
And it works!
If you've ever gone through a box of old files, or a shipping trunk filled with family documents your grandparents stored decades ago, and if any of those items were put in there paperclipped, that paperclip, old and rusted as it may be after so long, leaving a root beer template if you remove it, is still doggedly holding the pages or photographs or cloth samples together.
And it's dependable!
If you buy a box of paperclips, or steal one from where you work, and open that box, you'll find that every single paperclip is properly configured in the familiar looped shape, ready to clasp together anything you can fit between its modest spring action. You know that before you ever open the box. There is no one in the world, no matter how neurotic they may be, who ever doubts, as they lift open the lid on a new box of shiny steel paper clips, that any of the clips will be deformed, or broken. It just doesn't happen.
Whoever makes paperclips cares about their product.
It's like dental floss ("invented" by New Orleans dentist Levi Spear Parmly in 1815, though technically, dental floss was one of the first tools created by humans. Dental floss and tooth pick grooves have been found in the teeth of prehistoric humans, suggesting our distaste at having that little bit of dinosaur stuck between our teeth goes way back).
I have never opened a box of dental floss and not found the floss to be wound in orderly rotations around that plastic circle they put inside the center of the container. Floss sometimes breaks between my teeth, but that's my own fault. I have a rough filling, or two teeth are getting too chummy.
Now, some people might argue that a piece of computer software is a lot more complicated than a paperclip, and I absolutely agree. But a paperclip only costs a penny, and a lot of software these days goes for hundreds of dollars.
In other news, Attorney General John Ashcroft has spent $8,000 for the purchase of blue drapes to cover two statues located in the Justice Department's Great Hall, where Ashcroft holds press conferences.
The statues are made of aluminum, in the Art Deco style. One statue is of a man, the other, of a woman. The statue of the woman, titled The Spirit of Justice, has a toga covering most of its body, but one of its breasts is exposed.
Ashcroft apparently disapproves of the nipple.
Here's a suggestion. Given that we've defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan, and have reversed so many of their repressive sexist practices, why not save some money and just cover the statue you find so offensive with a cast-aside burka, John? Who knows? This may be the start of something big.
I was walking from our bedroom, where I have my work office (I'm one of the lucky few who get paid to work from home) to the kitchen, about an hour or so after Mary left for work this past Thursday, when I heard a loud screech.
I couldn't tell where it was coming from.
I stood in the kitchen, by the refrigerator, rotating my head, ears up, waiting for a rescreech.
When it came, I realized it wasn't emanating from outside the breakfast nook window, where about a hundred finches, morning doves, cardinals and blue jays were pecking at the bird bells we suspend from our trees, but from somewhere inside.
After about the fourth screech I traced it to our garage.
I opened the door to our utility room, opened the door to our garage, looking around.
Nothing, but then a flutter by the front of the garage, near the top of the nonworking upright freezer we now use to store fertilizer and herbicides.
As I watched, a gray and black mockingbird swam up to one of the garage door's cob-webbed window panes, fluttering against it, turning its beaked head back in my direction.
Oh. It's pantomiming to me it's trapped. It wants to get out.
I walked down the length of the garage, as the mockingbird, cautious, winged to the garage's back. As soon as I noisily slid the garage door up, rackety-rack-rack, it flapped the length of the garage, to the front opening, then sailed up in an arc, into our front yard.
I watched it settle heavily atop our peach tree, the buds on the branches this early in the season still as tightly-fisted as a magician's hand just before the magic, with what will be, a few weeks from now, a magnificent display of purple-pink blooms, and felt good.
I e-mailed Mary at her work. "There was a bird in our garage. I helped it get out."
Analog is so much better than digital.
One of the best things about life, and perhaps the strongest suggestion of God, is life's diversity. Think how dull our world would be if only humans existed on our planet. No other creatures. We gain consolation not only from visits to the zoo, a walk in the woods, or a backyard full of butterflies, but also from sitting on a park bench, watching the trek of ants while we work out our problems (and there is no one in the world who has not, at some point, watched the progress of ants).
We don't know, at this point, how many different species there are in the world. Current estimates, which include bacteria and fungi, run between seven and one hundred million different species (only 1.8 million have been identified so far). This huge range itself suggests how much is still unknown about our world. The Link of the Week this time is to All Species Inventory, which is attempting to classify all extant species of life. I especially like the Species Discovered page on the site, which lists recent discoveries, with details of their nature and habitat. Science can be very romantic. To me, it is never more romantic than when it deals with biology. All those expeditions to South America!
The Picture of the Week shows what was left of my poor story after Microsoft Word 2000 ravaged it. In the future, unless we're careful, all we'll publish will be tiny, blank boxes.