February 24, 2018

Horse 2378 - Cheesecake Is Still Not A Pie But It Might Be Evil

Cheesecake, we have to talk.

After passing judgement that cheesecake is not a pie in yesterday's post, I have subsequently been emphatically told that cheesecake is a flan, been directed to a Wikipedia page which states that cheesecake is a tart and therefore also a flan, and perhaps most worrying of all, I have learned  that there are European cheesecakes which are cooked in a pastry shell and that some are even baked so that there is a cherry or strawberry centre within the layer of the cheese substance called "quirk" and which already sits inside a pastry shell. I feel as if I've wandered into some sort of strange Mary Berry meets Xzibit land of cheesecakeception where a thing is inside a thing while being a thing.
I feel as though I've somehow disturbed and awoken the ancient forces of the bakery guardians and now they're going to exact their hateful pies of winters past upon me with squirrel and raisins, kidney and custard all at the same time.

I decided to confer with someone with eminently more expertise in the field and so I asked Mrs R who postulated that a cheesecake is probably a tart; which only confirms previous information on the subject.
By now I was really questioning the very fabric of the universe and so I took an excursion to the local library, wherein possibly the most authoritative reference in the world of comestibles, the Larrouse Gastronomique, also places cheesecakes in the classification of tarts. Intriguingly it also has a section on flans but in that section, cheesecakes are conspicuous by their absence.

What this says to me is that cheesecakes are most definitely tarts, sometimes flans but very probably not pies. What it also suggests is that there is considerable overlap between one thing and another, and that there might be some underlying spectrum of bakery upon which all of these things lie.
The fact that there are reference books on the subject says to me that there is already a great deal of academia here and the truth is that I already knew that. The deeper philosophical question is more of an ontological one, concerning the thingness of a thing and even though cheesecake is on the grand bakery spectrum, it isn't pieific enough to be called a pie.

On the subject of flans though, who do these bakery hoodlums think they are, anyway? Like pies, flans can be either savoury or sweet and they have the audacity to claim pastry cases in the frozen food section of the supermarket all to themselves. You don't find pie crusts in the freezer but flan cases. Somehow, flans managed to lobby the ancient forces of the bakery guardians into giving them the sole control of that real estate and I bet that the little knaves want to go on and claim ice cream cake in their malevolent empire.
My excursion to the supermarket today also opened my eyes to the territory war that cheesecake is fighting. Not being content with just vanilla, strawberry and banana, I found both apricot cheesecake and a weird hybrid Chocolate Bavarian Cheesecake. Cheesecake it seems, has weaponised and is moving onwards through the freezer. I shudder to think what a full mobilisation, aided and abetted by The  Cheesecake Factory would look like. That right there is the bakery-industrial-complex in full action - a dairylea triangle, if you will.

I'm sorry cheesecake. I was happy when you were just your own thing but this simply has to stop. How long will it be before you claim slices, bars and other cakes in your diabetes inducing war of conquest. Just because you are not a pie, doesn't mean that you are not nice. You can stay as a tart or a flan (or both) but you have to accept that you can not be everything in the realm of bakery.

February 22, 2018

Horse 2377 - Is Cheesecake A Pie?

As per Section 1 of Betteridge's Law Of Headlines, the answer to any question power in the headline of an article is "no". The short answer to this argument is that Cheesecake is not a pie. This court has ruled; that is all.

NOT a pie.

Ah yes, the question of "why?" The eternal six year old child in all of us is never satisfied being told that a thing is a thing. We always need to know why. Step forward into my private mind chambers, in my memory palace. Mind where you step though, I've had the trapdoor to the pit of insanity re-oiled.

If we're going to say that a thing is not a thing, then this is very much an ontological question on the nature of being. Before we go there, we need to be aware that names are deceptive. A Boston Cream Pie for example, is very obviously not a pie because in my not very well paid opinion, experience tells me that they are all cakes. If this be true that a name is no guarantee that a thing is or isn't a thing, then a cheesecake could very well be a pie.

What is a pie?
The short answer is that a pie is a bowl shaped layer of bready material (and I have to include all possible pastries, crumbled up cookie things, and even pasta) into which some other stuff is poured. That bowl shaped receptacle of bready material is generally called a crust or a shell.
That working definition is broad enough to include all manner of sweet pies, savoury pies, and historical abominations which are insane combinations of both.

Using this as a starting point, the things that we generally accept as pies are obviously pies. Fruit pies including Apple Pie, Cherry Pie, Apricot Pie, as well as Steak & Kidney Pie, Chicken Pot Pie, and variations on a Meat Pie which include curry, chili, bacon, cheese, carrot, tomato, a whole host of gravies and sauces, are all included.
I don't think that the top of the pie needs to be defined at all because a Shepherd's Pie which has a layer of potato on the top, as well as fruit pies with a criss-cross lattice of pastry, are already both obviously pies.

This does of course immediately beg the question of whether or not a Quiche is a pie and again, the answer is obviously "yes" because by definition, a Quiche is a bowl of pastry into which what amounts to an uncooked omelette is poured and then cooked. Quiche is a pie.
Also, this begs the corollary question of whether or not things put into a ramekin with a lid of pastry on top is a pie and I would argue that they are not. They fall into another category with the amusing portmanteau name of a "stewpé" because they are basically a stew with a toupé of pastry on the top.
Naturally this leads to the delicious abomination of the Scottish Restaurant's (we dare not speak it's name because that's bad luck) Hot Apple Pie. Is that thing a pie? Amazingly, yes. You have a rectangular bowl of pastry into which stuff is poured, then covered over with another layer pastry (albeit identical) and then even though the whole thing is deep fried it's still a pie because the method of cooking isn't an integral component of the ontological properties of being a pie. That also goes for its siblings the Hot Cherry Pie, Hot Custard Pie and Hot Apricot Pie.

Back to the opening question. A cheesecake is almost always a layer of crumbled up cookie things on the bottom onto which a layer of sweet cream cheese mixture is put, and a myriad of variations follow. I have never ever even once seen a cheesecake where the layer on the bottom came up the sides to form a bowl. Admittedly one could build a cheesecake inside a pastry crust but immediately you'd want to call that thing a Cheesecake Pie.
I will also admit that cheesecake could be put into a bowl like thing as per a tart but then you would have a Cheesecake Tart, which is probably as close as you get to a pie without actually being one.

Cheesecakes are of the same kind of form as Chocolate Bavarians, which are also not pies. If we start including things which are round, have a base and can be cut into slices, then this is the way of madness. Start on that path and Pavlova will want to barge its way onto the stage of pies and then there's the question of whether or not Custard or Caramel Slices are pies as well; which they clearly are not.

Cheesecakes are not pies; just because they have a base of crumbled up cookie things doesn't help their cause either. The thing that prompted this and why the question even needed to be asked was because a client of mine saw Cheesecake in the section of a menu at a coffee shop called "Pies". It's a good thing that I don't know which coffee shop it is because as a long term resident in the house on Pedant Corner, I want to mark on that menu in big red letters "Cheesecakes are not pies. See me after class."

I'm not casting ill faith on cheesecakes because they are yummy and that isn't in doubt and I don't want to be pastry racist because all of them are delicious but in the world cup of food nations, Cheesecake isn't eligible to play on Team Pie because it isn't a citizen.

February 17, 2018

Horse 2376 - Do You Want To See What "Fawning" Looks Like? I'll Show You "Fawning"

Earlier this week, an article was brought to my attention third hand and I was asked for an opinion on it. The issue in question is whether or not the US media is quote unquote "fawning" over North Korea, because of various articles which have been published over the course of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.
Specifically the article is complaining about the US media's "fawning" over a North Korean cheer squad which has been sent to South Korea.

As someone who lives in the part of the world called "Not America", I can't say that I've particularly noticed this. Certainly the ABC, BBC, NPR, Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Xinhua, Pravda, Le Monde... and everywhere else I'm likely to see news from, hasn't been necessarily "fawning".
You get an entirely different impression from this article though:

You would think in a situation like this, all Americans would react with disdain and apprehension, this being a clear act of propaganda, but you would be wrong. While some have done so, there are certainly those celebrating these women as a sign of peace to come.
This is not to suggest that the media has been congratulating the North Korean government. However, anything less than condemnation of this ploy should be considered unacceptable. The headlines should have read, "North Korean Government Sends Cheer Squad to Olympics in Obvious Display of Propaganda." Unfortunately, most are simply not that direct.
- Haley Smith, The Daily Wire, 11th Feb 2018.

In fact, in searching for this I only found two other articles which both hit upon the idea of the media "fawning" over North Korea:
- WALSH: 7 Horrifying Facts About North Korea That Our Fawning Media Seems To Have Forgotten
- Why the Media Is Fawning Over North Korea
I shan't link to them because quite frankly, they aren't well written and to be honest, I'm not all that convinced that the media in general is displaying that much obsequiousness here.

This in my opinion, isn't "fawning". I know what "fawning" looks like. And how do I know what proper fawning looks like? Because history is a really really great teacher.

First, we need to take a trip back in time.
A weird looking lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln, accepted the Republican Party's nomination for the state of Illinois to be a US senator. Being 1858 though, the freight train of history was hurtling towards America and President James Buchanan wasn't really doing a lot to try and slow it down before it crashed into the worst possible giant mess.

During one of the debates in Springfield, Lincoln gave a terrible forewarning of the inevitbailty of what was to come:
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
- Abraham Lincoln, August 1858.

The freight train of history arrived, struck the walls of division and for the next four years, America became a train wreck of a nation and within four years, as many as 2.4 million people lay dead and strewn across the continent.

What do you do about that? How do you rebuild a nation which has torn itself in two? What happens when so much blood has been shed that the rivers run crimson?

You look forward to a time when it's all over. That's what.
As early as December of 1863, Lincoln was already plotting and gaming the best way out. As a poltician, he knew what it it was like to have enemies. As a lawyer, he knew what it it was like to have adversaries. He also would have known what it was like to look forward to the end of a case and work out what the best method of arbitration was.

Lincoln's plan for healing the nation was relatively simple. It had as its basic premise that if you go on hating your enemies, then things are generally not going to be all that fun.
Not only were things not going to be fun but your enemies were very likely to want to hate you back because of the things that you'd done to them.
Probably as a result of General Sherman's "March To The Sea" in which the armies of the North swept through the South and burned everything as they went, one of the points of Lincoln's plan was to forgive all the debts of states as they were restored to the Union and reseated in Congress. This made sense because after having burned everything, thus destroying not only the means of livelihood of many people but the means by which they might pay back reparations, there was no possible way that making people who had lost the war pay for it was going to breed anything other than complete contempt.
If that sounds dumb, remember that even to this day, the people of Atlanta, Georgia, still remember the burning of their city. Asking them to pay reparations after their city had been on fire, would have been the height of stupidity.

In addition to that, one of Lincoln's requirements was that people would take an oath of non-violence and set aside their desire to take up arms in revenge for what had been done to them. It would make sense that you might demand say three-quarters or even half of the population of the South to agree to this but again, Lincoln knew that that was a mostly impossible demand and so he asked for just ten percent.
Normally if you were running a thing and you had just ten percent of people agree with you, then it's logical to conclude that you were doing an utterly hopeless and woeful job. The thing to remember though is that just a few weeks before this, the people from whom Lincoln was asking this of were literally at war with each other. In that light, ten percent approval of a thing starts to look decidedly sane and smart because it says that Lincoln was looking for any sliver of goodwill to work with.

You're probably wondering what on earth that Lincoln's plan for reconstructing the United States has to do with North Korea. The fact is that North Korea is kind of a strange enemy in that it has spent the last 70 years behind a semi self imposed wall of fear. I don't think that the media is even remotely fawning over the North Korean regime by reporting the odd story here and there about an odd cheer squad that they've sent to the Winter Olympics across the border. I don't think that the media is fawning over Kim Jong-Un's sister who has been sent as a delegate, either. No, the media is reporting on a weird thing because it is a weird thing.
Although even if the media had been fawning over North Korea, although I fail to see what that would look like, is that necessarily a bad thing? To use two bad metaphors, if tensions are running hot then you need things to cool off a bit, and if there has been a cold stand off then warming up a bit to your enemy so that you're at least on speaking terms, can only be a good thing. Remember, Richard Nixon toured China, Nikita Kruschev toured America and went to Disneyland. People might forget that although the world came dangerously close to full-on nuclear war in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the greatest inadvertant diplomats for peace was none other than Walt Disney who refused to refer to Kruschev as an enemy because it was pointless.

The eventual task of reunifying Korea again will be in all likelihood, insanely difficult. It will probably take a period of years to sort out and the job is made all the more difficult by the fact that unlike knitting together the two Germanys in the 1990s or knitting together the United States in the 1860s, there are more impoverished people living in North Korea and the disparity between the two parts that will be knitted back together is greater than the other two cases.
If that means doing a small but of fawning in the media, in an entirely different country, over a piece of culture, then that seems like a worthwhile but exceptionally small price to pay. If the two Koreas are eventually knitted back together, there will have to be more than just token fawning going on but forgiveness and formal oaths of non-violence and the setting aside of the desire to take up arms against a former enemy.
If you want to see what an exaggerated display of affection looks like, then Lincoln's plan for forgiveness and reconciliation was it. Genuine affection would mean taking active steps in trying to improve the welfare and we'll being of your enemy. Do I want to see proper fawning over North Korea? Absolutely. Would I like to see the lives of people improve? Yes please. The thing is that practical examples of affection always need to follow dialogue; that means being nice to someone even if it hurts.

If that sounds radical and weird, remember that Lincoln's plan was also so radical and weird that John Wilkes Booth hated it so much that he shot Lincoln in the head at point blank range during a production of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre. Andrew Johnson who followed, sort of only half carried out the plan and the ramifications were still being felt for the next century but deep down, I think we all know that a wee bit of fawning and the desire not to seek reparations from an old enemy would have been the right thing to do; and John Wilkes Booth was an idiot.

Remember, "fawning" is a deliberate and exaggerated display of flattery or affection. That has to be a better idea than doing what we've already been doing for the past 70 years and yelling at someone from behind a sofa. Fawning? Bring it on I say. Yes, even if that does mean the media reporting on a weird thing because it is a weird thing.

February 16, 2018

Horse 2375 - The Parable Of The Good American?

There was once a fifteen year old high school girl who had arrived early because she wanted to see her friends. She sat down on a bench in the school yard and took out a book to get in some quick study time, by revising what they had learned in class the day before.

As she was sitting there minding her own business, two boys with semi-automatic weapons arrived on campus and proceeded to empty bullets info everything and everyone. They killed eight students, which wasn't even enough to make the local news bulletin, injured about thirty students including the girl sitting on the bench in the schoolyard, and when the police arrived, they shot and killed one of the boys and arrested the other.

First there was the politician who said that it was all too early to talk about what had happened but that his thoughts and prayers were with the victims.

Next there was the second politician who said that we need to be doing more for our police officers who bravely stand in the line of duty.

Next there was the news pundit who accused the boys of being radicalised online and being illegal immigrants, despite neither of those things being true.

After this came the male politician who said that this was a mental health problem and that we should look at that instead of blaming guns.

Then came a female politician who agreed but when she asked for funding initiatives to help solve mental health problems, everyone else laughed at such a very silly idea.

Next there was another news pundit who looked as though he had swallowed a wasp, and was very very shouty, and accused anyone who wanted to implement any kind of gun control whatsoever as unpatriotic and bordering on treasonous.

Then came some lobbyists who agreed with the very shouty news pundit, and they paid a bunch of politicians not to look at gun control ever. They argued that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun, despite there being no statistical evidence for this.

After that, there was yet another shouty news pundit who was even more shouty and who said that you couldn't trust the government and that everyone needed to go out and get more guns to defend their family because they have a constitutional right.

All of these people either saw that there was a problem and skirted around it, or denied that there was a problem at all. They continued to do nothing while many school children went to hospital because of their injuries, some even bankrupting their families because of expensive and inadequate health insurance, and the rest of America went on its merry way.

In the meantime, the thirteen year old brother of the girl who had been sitting on the bench in the schoolyard, vowed to get revenge on the people who did this and to the world at large. He went out and bought some semi-automatic weapons and nobody cared or checked that he was only thirteen years old.

What do you think happens next? Well, all you have to do is change the ages and location and repeat roughly once every ten days or so. Nobody ever learns anything from this parable and it keeps on repeating.

What is the official statutory time limit after an event like what we saw yesterday in Florida before we're allowed to talk about the issue of gun control? The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting was six years ago, can we start there?

February 14, 2018

Horse 2374 - If Gojira met Der Bergmönch

In 2018, the Supercars (formerly the V8Supercars), prompted by the fact that neither Holden nor Ford produce cars in Australia any more, have opened the door to a different engine configuration for the first time since the rules were changed in 1993 to deliberately exclude the all conquering Nissan Skyline GTR. The Nissan Skyline GTR R32 had been specifically developed to exploit the international Group A Touring Car rules and it came to dominate every national series that it was entered in, with the exception of Australia where it proved beatable on occasion. In Australia, the local response by Holden and Ford was to develop their own set of Group 3A rules which ruled in their Commodore and Falcon respectively and ruled out everyone else. Under the older Group A rules, Holden had continued to use their 5L V8 Commodore despite it being rather heavy, while Ford, Nissan and Volvo developed turbocharged cars to some success. The Nissan Skyline GTR R32 was by most accounts the most well thought out touring car, developed from the existing Skyline GTS-R HR31 but taking the RB series of in-line 6 cylinder engine and mating it to a very robust and reliable four wheel drive system. And yet I don't think that it was the best Group A Touring Car in the world, possibly.

The FIA Group A touring car rules were brought in, in an effort to homogenise the various classes of touring car racing in Europe and make them compatible with each other. Previously they had been a general sort of mishmash with no common points at all. Initially this meant that the cars to beat were the BMW 635i, the Rover 3500 SD1, and there had been attempts to make the fox body Ford Mustang and the Alfa Romeo GTV competitive. Mostly there were normally aspirated executive cars being raced against each other but being the early 1980s, a turbocharged revolution was on the horizon.
From about 1987 onwards, the Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth became the default choice for people wanting to buy an off the shelf touring car, anywhere around the world. The XR4i Turbo which had originally been run by the Eggenberger team in Germany, was superseded when Ford decided to throw a little bit of money at the project. After the failed attempt to win the World Touring Car Championship in 1987, the Sierra from 1988 onwards sort of blew everything else to the weeds. Then as mysteriously as it had started and as Ford invariably decides, they just abandoned the project.
In Britain the Sierra was eventually outlawed by banning turbocharging (though that idea has been overturned in recent seasons) and in Germany, the desire to run a car with no real factory support faded. In Australia though, Sierras still thundered around motor racing circuits despite the base model never being sold here.

In Germany, Mercedes Benz had played around with its 500SEC to no success at all, BMW's E30 M3 was useful on smaller circuits but hopelessly outclassed when it met anything that required vast amounts of power and then seemingly out of nowhere Audi decided that it wanted to play.
This is where the story gets interesting.

Audi had tasted success in the WRC with its Quattro and then developed that car into a Group B monster to go rallying in, before that series was deemed too dangerous. What Audi had learned in rallying was extremely useful and so when it came time to go touring car racing, they took their four wheel drive knowledge and found their own source of raw unadulterated power with the Audi V8.

The Audi V8 which replaced the 200 Quattro had a 3.6L V8 which probably put out 480bhp in race trim. That would have been far less power than the Nissan Skyline GTR but it wouldn't be hurt as much by the weight penalty. I imagine that in time, Audi would have thrown more development at the engine had they needed to but going around against feeble opposition, they never needed to.
In contrast, Mercedes Benz who could never make their 500SEC Group A car work, could only respond with their Cosworth 190E Evo II and BMW had their existing M3. Both were hopelessly outclassed and woefully inadequate. The Audi V8 had more brute power and because it sent that power to all four wheels, it could punch out of corners more effectively. If the Nissan Skyline GTR R32 had been given the name "Godzilla" by the press, then the Audi V8 was some other kind of Teutonic monster like the Bergmönch or Meister Hämmerling because it equally hammered the competition.

The question which will remain unanswered is who would have won in the fight if they had ever met. The Nissan Skyline GTR R32 had been beaten by the Ford Sierra and the Holden Commodore on occasion but the Audi V8 never really faced any worthy opposition. They would have never met in Japan because after Alan Moffat won the Fuji 500 in 1989 with his Ford Sierra, the organisers of the Japan Touring Car Championship simply banned anyone from outside the country from competition. This meant that teams like Calsonic never met Nissan Motorsport Australia cars prepared by Fred Gibson. The Gibson prepared GTRs were beaten occasionally by the opposition and so the eternal unanswered question is how they would have fared against another properly powerful monster which also had four wheel drive.
It's worth remembering that this is the same Audi who decided to go into endurance racing and with their R15 and R18 were quite successful; so although this is definitely a case of never was, the Audi V8 and the Nissan GTR were both built according to the same rules set and so this is a case of what might have been. Both of these monsters destroyed everything else around them, I really want to know what would have happened if Gojira met Der Bergmönch .

February 09, 2018

Horse 2373 - The Government Could Already Be Doing Your Tax Return For You

As someone who spends a great deal of time doing people's tax returns, I am consistently amazed at the incredible laziness of people. This week we had a chap come in, who had only a single PAYG Summary Statement, one bank account and no deductions and yet he was still prepared to pay us $220 just so he could get a refund.
As I looked at everything and saw that there was pre-filling data, I couldn't help but question why there isn't already a government pre-filling system. They already have all of the information, they not could just as easily send you an already finished tax return which you would look over and either agree or disagree with. Bang a drum and it's all been done.
So why don't they?

It makes complete sense to me that rather than going through the pain and effort of having to worry if you haven't declared anything, for the cast majority of people who only have one or two jobs, a few back accounts and some shares, that because the government already has the information, they should tell you what info that they have on you and you can check it; rather than living in fear about trying to second guess them.
I guess libertarians might be unhappy with the idea that the government is telling you that they have information but since they already have it because the law compels financial institutions to report their payments to people, then that argument is already moot. The big bad scary database already exists and they've already got better information than you do. Wouldn't you like to hold the government accountable for a change?

Then comes the subject of doing tax returns in the United States. Ugh.
I am increasingly becoming convinced that the rarefied atmosphere of W2, W8, 1099 and whatnot, is deliberately designed to look so hideous that you will give up and give your stuff to accountants and tax preparers. Forget David Lewis, Robert H. "Three-Fingered" Birch, The Goings Gang and Samuel Mason, today's highwaymen are Messrs H&R Block, Intuit, QuickBooks and Sage.

As an accountant in Australia who is trying to do US Tax Returns for some of our clients, I find it utterly reprehensible that there isn't a standard system of filing tax returns in the United States. In Australia, we have MyTax, which is run through the MyGov system. It's pretty simple to use and is quite secure.Most importantly, as a government run system, it means that the ATO and other government reporting agencies, can update the system and there isn't any confusion.

In the United States, no such system exists. This is crazifying in the land of 2018.You can still file on paper but unlike Australia which solved this problem more than 20 years ago, America's IRS just makes you want to bang your head repeatedly on the desk.
Why, why, why? How can a country be so incredibly, Statue of Liberty sized monumentally idiotic? As usual, follow the money.

There is a system of sorts called Free File. Practically nobody knows about it and because the system unilaterally changes every single year without telling anyone, people who may have used the service one year, then find that they asked to pay an amount of $50 for filing their taxes the next.
Filed for free with NumptyTax's Free File last year? Well this year you can't. However, since we've already got last year's information, why not pay us $50 to file your tax return?
This will be enough to hook most people because if you have someone who throws their hands up when they only have a single payment summary statement from their employer, one bank account and no deductions, then that's an easy pick off for NumptyTax.

The Free File system is run by the delightfully sounding Free File Alliance. It sounds altruistic but scratch the surface even just a little bit and you find that it is a very very crooked penny indeed:

The Free File Alliance is a nonprofit coalition of industry-leading tax software companies partnered with the IRS to help millions of Americans prepare and e-file their federal tax returns for free. Free File is the fast, safe and free way to do your federal tax return online. Free File Alliance member companies provide more than a dozen brand name tax software options at no cost.
Free File serves 100 million American taxpayers.

Or so it claims.

Although 70% of American taxpayers (about 100 million people) are eligible for Free File as the system claims, only about than 50 million returns have been filed through the Free File program since it began in 2003. We'll be generous and call it 60 million and thus wildly overstate their claim for the purpose of this.
Since 2003, there should have been roughly 1500 million tax returns filed in total. Even if you allow for the generous overstatement of 60 million, that means that at best that only 4% of tax returns have been filed for free since the system began 15 years ago as compared to the ones that were eligible.

This means to say that 96% of all tax returns that could have been filed for free have had charges placed on them by private firms. 96%?? How this isn't seen as one of the greatest crimes of the century, I have no idea.
At say $50 per tax return, this means to say that roughly $72 billion has been stolen from the hands of the public, and the United States Federal Government has absolutely willingly endorsed it.

So then, if there was a free $72 billion just lying around, who would be the logical culprits to suspect who'd want to get their thieving mits on it? How about those people who supposedly provide the service for free?

eSmart, FileYourTaxes, TaxSlayer, FreeTaxUSA, H&R Block, 1040Now, TurboTax, exTaxReturn, OLT, 1040.com, MyTax, TaxActInc... all look like pretty good places to start.

And I'm not the first to discover this pile of steaming malarkey. Propublica¹ and NBC² have both written pieces on this. It appears that behind this not very well disguised front, is just the lobby group for making bribes to members of Congress.

Their bribery has been successful. H.R. 4938 which was passed by the 114th Congress was "To make permanent the Internal Revenue Service Free File program." Take particular notes of sections 3 & 4:

(3) The IRS Free File program offers Federal individual income tax return preparation and electronic filing services to more than 70 percent of taxpayers, approximately 100,000,000 taxpayers at the end of the current tax filing period, with tax software and electronic filing provided at no cost to the taxpayers who use the service or to the Federal Government from tax software and electronic filing companies participating in the program.

Offering a thing is pointless if nobody knows about it and if you keep on changing it so that it's so unwieldy that not even a twentieth of the target market uses it.

(4) By the end of the current tax return filing season, it is estimated that the IRS Free File program will have saved taxpayers approximately $1,300,000,0000 (sic.) and will have saved the Federal Government about $125,000,000 in processing costs.

Saved $1.3 billion? What a load of complete bunk. The US Congress is directly and outright lying in the middle of a piece of legislation. Under no circumstances ever, should it cost you for the "privilege" of paying your taxes. Not paying something that should cost you nothing in the first place is a net saving of approximately $0,000,000,000 by my calculations.
The fact that it saved the government $125m in processing costs is pathetic in comparison with the $4800m in costs paid by the general public who are paying for the "privilege" of paying their own taxes. It should be a reasonable cost of the administration of government to collect revenue.
Never mind the fact that the billions of dollars which could be paid as refunds is just sitting around because people don't file their tax returns.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution, which is commonly known as the "Taxing and Spending Clause" gives the Congress that power and I don't think it unreasonable that that power is married to the responsibility:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.
- Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution (1789)

As far as I'm concerned, this is an abrogation of responsibility which costs the US Taxpayer billions every year and the only reason that they won't march on Congress to demand that Congress and the Federal Government does its job, is that it is hard to see that you are being fleeced when you have the wool pulled over your eyes by the wolves.
The government should already be doing your tax return for you, which you then should absolutely have the right to dispute and amend. They already have all of the information, they could just as easily send you an already finished tax return and a refund and it certainly shouldn't cost you to file your tax returns both here in Australia and in the United States. At least we're kind of close in Australia.


February 08, 2018

Horse 2372 - Memento Mori: Quod Autem Spectat Cattus Tu

The only two sure things in life are death and taxes. Some people by virtue of being too poor never really have to worry about taxes and a few select number of people who are able to play elaborate shell games might be able to pay far less in the way of taxes than schmucks who need to work for a living but in the end, everyone from the poorest of people who can carry all their worldly possessions in a sack to the grandest of corporate emporers with many many mansions, all face death.
Although death moves at the rather leisurely pace of about one mile an hour, everyone reaches a point where not only can they not outrun death anymore but they can't even feebly outcrawl it. Eventually, death visits every door, slowly working its way through its grand list, leaving out nothing and nobody.
I am reminded of a t-shirt that I once saw with the printed message "He who dies with the most toys wins" and on the back: "but still dies."

Everything that you have ever owned will eventually break; if we pile up enough broken things from the past, we call that archaeology. Everyone that you have ever loved, everyone who you have ever been friends with, everyone who has been your rival or adversary, will die; if we pile up enough of those stories, we call that history. Yes you dear reader, even you, will die; the memory of you will also die along with everyone who matters to you and who you matter to.

I write this in the knowledge that there is a fair chance that one of my cats will die before the close of 2018. We have had him not quite ten years and we have no idea how old he was when we got him. What we do know is that he led a rough life before he came to us, and that my sister found him scratching around the bins behind a Woolworths. He might be as old as thirteen years but given that he lived life on the mean streets, he aged faster than his years betrayed.

Kipper has always been a scruffy cat. He isn't the prettiest cat in the world and he doesn't exactly have the most distinctive of markings. He's kind of a nondescript standard grey tabby, with some degree of ragdoll in him because he has always loved being picked up and his coat is uncommonly soft for a cat.  However what he lacks in the beauty department, he more than makes up with his good nature.
As quite an intelligent cat, Kipper probably learned as many as three dozen words. This is all the more remarkable if you consider that we never trained him. He probably also learned very early on that people give you things. Unlike Purranna who is skittish and very very obviously a cat, Kipper is bold in asking for things, even to the point of inventing different chirrups for different reasons.
Or at least he did.
Along with his good nature, is a tolerance for pain. I know that because his back legs don't work properly and more, it means that he can't scratch any itches; that has to be excruciatingly annoying. Despite this, he doesn't complain very much and because I am unable to help him, it is one of the most heartbreaking things in the world.

There will come a day this year when no more will I see his enormous eyes staring back. The whinges, the chirrups, the very quiet meow and the barely perceptible purr will all also be no more. The weird cry of "hewaw" at 3am in the morning, the strange grumble of him running through the house and stopping for no apparent reason, and the nightly questioning demand for milk, will all fall silent and be no more. The peculiar smell that only is his (if you've had your face close enough to cats, then you know that they all have their own unique smell), will dissipate and be no more.

As I write this, the road to the end has already begun. Probably a hard life at the beginning, an overactive thyroid and the fact that he has seen at least 140 moons, has many that he has gone lame in his back legs; yet he remains stoic about it. Hedonism sometimes has a bad rap but Epicurus is credited as saying that his list of what he needed for happiness was not much longer than a lot of cheese, a jug of wine and a few friends; really is Kipper any different? His grand list for happiness also includes dairy products, and someone to be nice to him. When it's all said and done, are we really that much different ourselves?
I totally understand the want to stare out of the window and see what's going on, to sit in the cool of the evening and to talk to the birds, and to want to have someone be nice to you. In those respects, the desires of a cat and the rest of us are no different at all.

Dear travellers, I don't know if you're worldview includes the divine and whether or not you need to make peace with your maker, I don't know if you believe that you come back again as something else, and I don't know if you think that the universe just is and will end in the inevitable heat death of all things but irrespective of what you believe, the inescapable fact is that death is slowly working its way through its list, and will take away everything you own and everyone you've ever loved.
The lights will fade, the party will end, the music will stop and we all fall asleep. I suspect that deep inside, one of the reasons why we have pets is because although we know that death is moving at one mile an hour, if we get a decade or so, then we still will have run eighty thousand miles in the meantime, and that's a fun journey and you win for a while... but still die.

In the meantime, we still have him around...

...his enormous eyes staring back.

February 02, 2018

Horse 2371 - Why Am I Paying To Send Your Kids To A Private School?

This week, after a long hot summer, was the first week back at school across the state. It only took two days into the school year but when I was on the bus coming back from the bank to the office, I saw three primary school aged kids from a private school beating up a kid from a public school.
I'm not going to do the school where these kids are from a disservice by naming them, other than to say that their school motto is "Generosity, Faith and Courage" in what is either a case of irony or insanely myopic blindness.

I make no bones about the fact that I abhor private schools. I don't like the entrenchment of class that they promote and I really don't like the attitude taken by parents who send their children to private schools when they try to convince you that their choice somehow saves the taxpayer money. I mean really if you want to be pedantic about it, as someone who doesn't even have children you're not really saving me any money at all; if anything, the fact that you've chosen to spawn a sprog places a need on the drawstrings of the public purse to educate them. On top of that, it's being done less efficiently because education is subject to the sorts of economies of scale as any other good or service which is being produced and all private schooling does is add elements of inefficiency through duplication and the profit motive.

The truth is that every single dollar which is paid in school fees to a private educational institution is a dollar which not only doesn't go into the public system but also creates demand drivers which degrade the public system. This has unfortunate consequences.
That might of course be your intent. The existence of private schools and hence school fees, creates a barrier to entry based solely on economic means. This is a method of open segregation based on socio economic principles. By sending your children to private school, you send out one of two messages. Either you feel that your children get a better quality of education than they would in the public system, which says by default that you inadvertently or openly wish that those lesser means get a worse education because they are poorer, or your disdain for people of lesser means than yourself is so much on display that you wish for your children not to have to associate with them. Either way, you help to create an entire cohort of people who feel that they are a better class of people than those who didn't go to private school and this is backed up by the purest economic signal of all.
It could also be a matter of direct signalling on your part. In the future, you wish for future employers to consider your children for employment and or other educational advantage and you're willing to purchase a piece of paper which demonstrates the economic class that your children come from. There is definitely a case to be made here because I've actually seen and overheard a couple of chaps going through people's resumes and chucking out applicants based solely on metrics like their names and where they went to school. If you're sending your children to private school on that basis, then you are endorsing that attitude and backing it up with the placement of your money.

If you send your children to a private school because you claim that you want to your children to have a religious education, then that inadvertently says something about the quality of your parenting. It says that you do such a bad job at instilling your values in your children, that by paying for private education, you expect someone else to do that job for you.
Moreover it says that you actually prefer the idea that your children aren't exposed to people who believe something else than you do. It should be obvious to all and sundry that we live in a fairly pluralistic society where people of lots of different faiths and beliefs rub against each other. By not exposing your children to different people who might have entirely different outlooks on the world, you reinforce a sense of othering which is the breeding ground of both fear and mistrust.
That sense of othering was clearly on display when I saw those private school kids beat up on that kid from the public school and even if they care nothing about the issues of religion, they certainly do know that the public school kid is poorer.
In general, people already have a tendency to associate more with people who look like them and come from the same socio economic background. That's true in the western suburbs as much as it is in a place like Mosman. In the west though, where the differences might be demarcated into zones which contain actual poverty, then sending your kids to a private school, exacerbates the problem even further.

Then there's the rather obvious fact that the state already provides education to children as part of its obligation to maintaining a cohesive society. If you have chosen to send your children to a private school when the public school system exists, I don't understand why you should expect the government to fund even a single dollar to your choice. You have outright rejected the provision of services and as far as I'm concerned, you shouldn't be able to get something special because you are deliberately selfish. I don't have children; so if I asked of you'd like to pay for a new Ferrari 458 Italia which you are never allowed to use, then you'd quite rightly tell me to get lost; yet that is exactly what you are expecting the general public to do when you ask them to fund your choice to send your child to a private school - a choice which costs tens of thousands of dollars, every single year, for more than a decade.

No wonder I saw three kids from a private school beating up a kid from a public school.
That's probably reasonable in their eyes, to see a public school kid as less than worthy of respect for no other reason than they go to a public school because that's the attitude their parents demonstrate to the world; backed up by money.

January 29, 2018

Horse 2370 - I Am Angry Because There Wasn't A Train Strike

This morning, 29th January 2018, I took a city bound train from Marayong with absolutely no problem whatsoever. I find this utterly disgusting. I should not have been able a city bound train from Marayong with absolutely no problem whatsoever because the so-called "Fair Work" Commission should have never declared that the proposed strike action by the Rail, Tram and Bus Union was illegal.

There hasn't been a public outcry over this and news outlets which form part of the Murdocracy like the Daily Telegraph have spent the day actively bashing the Union.
Although this isn't as severe as crimes against the person or as visible as the censorship of the free press, what we've witnessed here is still an abuse of human rights as the Fair Work Commission has struck off the right to strike.

Australia has a long history when it comes to labour laws and the rights of workers. You could argue that the Eureka Stockade was the climax of a long dispute between gold miners and the government over the unfairness of licences and the right to self-organise. Indeed the Australian Labor Party is so old that its spelling dates from before the acceptance of standard British spelling and before there was a Commonwealth of Australia.

Tradition attributes the beginning of the Queensland Labour Party to a meeting of striking pastoral workers under a ghost gum tree, which is now the heritage listed "Tree of Knowledge" in Barcaldine. Australia was also the first country in the world to have either an economically left leaning social democratic or socialist government, with the appointment of Chris Watson's Labor Government after the 1903 election.

This I suspect is what is at the very heart of this. What you have is a Liberal state government who is bucking against the labout movement itself; probably because of political point scoring more than anything else.
When you see the Fair Work Commission strike off the right to strike, this i not only a strike against the rights of workers but against the other side of politics.

We have a Liberal Government in both New South Wales and Federally (the Liberal Party is named for the idelology of economic liberalism but it displays social authoritarianism) who both want to stack the deck in favour of employers. The fact that it is the executive of the state government isn't much of a problem. At the moment, it has stacked the deck at the  Fair Work Commission in favour of employers; which means that in the state of New South Wales, it has made the rules in favour of itself. Who is left to fight for the workers? Well hopefully nobody, in their eyes.

At the present moment the New South Wales Liberal Government is deliberately undertaking the task of degrading Transport for NSW, such that it can be privatised:

"They will be all private. In 10 to 15 years' time government will not be in the provision of transport services, it will be all on demand, private sector driven, underpinned by innovation in technology," the Minister said.
"Already every new train that we are bringing online now, whether it is the Metro train or light rail, are all private sector partnerships."
- Australian Financial Review, 20th Mar 2017.¹

The simple mathematics of the situation means that the workload demanded is impossible. Although the system is supposed to be designed so that drivers work for 10 days a fortnight and 9 days a fortnight (any working day might begin on call), a lot of drivers end up doing 12 days a fortnight. Without overtime, the schedule falls from 2900 trains on a weekday down to 1600 on a weekday. This means that almost 45% of trains are run on an overtime basis.

What I suspect that this latest row is about, is that after deliberately shrinking the workforce and making working conditions horrible, that the end game is that existing staff will quit, so that they can be replaced with non-union staff.
The Fair Work Commission said it a strike would "threaten to endanger the welfare of part of the population"² but it is apparently fine with drivers working excessive amounts of overtime while being in charge of more than 400 tonnes of metal doing more than 100km/h. Yet there's no public outcry over this and the Daily Telegraph is singing the government's praises.


January 26, 2018

Horse 2369 - Happy Invasion Day, You Racist Racist Country.

The country is currently having its annual lurch from side to side as the casual racists join forces with the actual racists in defending the date of Australia Day of January 26, despite it not being the day on which the country was founded - that date was 1st January 1901, following the passage of the Constitution Of Australia Act which gained royal assent on 30th July 1900.
The usual argument is that they weren't responsible for the goings on of 230 years ago and therefore, they have the right to wave the flag all they like, in spite of the injustices that remain.

The 26th of January 1788 was the day on which Governor Arthur Phillip, officially read the proclamation to declare the east coast of the continent of Australia officially British and the inception of the penal colony of New South Wales thereof. I would argue that an act like this by an officer of the Royal Navy after taking a fleet of eleven Royal Navy ships is an act of the Royal Navy and therefore a military annexation. Since the raising of the flag in possession of land is also quite obviously a naval action, I think that the assessment that this was an Invasion, albeit a very slow invasion, is completely accurate.
As Australia has never had any formal treaty process and as a result, unlike our friends across the ditch in New Zealand or our cousins across the Pacific in Canada, we've also never moved on to any kind of formal framework for addressing the issues that our first peoples face.

Let's just be honest about the problem up front. The only reason that we refuse to accept and address the problem of Australia Day and the 230 years of consequences which have followed is because of a highly vocal section of the white community who are deeply racist and an apathetic part of the community who are complicit in that racism.
One of the very first acts of the brand new parliament in 1901 was the passage of the White Australia Policy and with it enshrinememt at
law of the country's wish to keep out all of the brown people. Naturally, because Aboriginal people groups were already here, we couldn't very well deport them anywhere, so we just chose not to recognise them as citizens until the 1960s. Of course they were free to join the military and have themselves blown up in service of the King but that was the patriotic thing to do, wasn't it? Even now you still have some apologists who say that the arrival of white people was obviously a very good thing because it was white people who brought civilisation. I suppose you have to take the good with the total destruction of your homes, livelihood, way of life, existing sense of law and tradition, along with active and passive genocide, don't you?

Fast forward through dreams of symbolic referendums that achieve nothing, High Court cases to claim back what was once your family's anyway, broken promises of treaties and covenants, statements from united groups of people, until 26th January 2018, and you're still faced with that central problem of white people trying to pretend that they're not really racist when it's perfectly clear for all the world to see that they are, and even something as simple as changing the date which actively commemorates the day that the land was officially stolen, is impossible.

The bottom line is that you have a bunch of mostly white racists (some of who are pretending to everyone including themselves that they are not) actively defending their racism under the banner of patriotism. These people are entirely unencumbered by the thought process and trying to explain empathy, sympathy and basic humanity to them is useless. Try talking to a housebrick; you'll get better and more logical conversation.

I've a good mind to walk around today in an England kit and draped in the Union Jack so I can say "sorry" to everyone. I know that the phrase "white guilt" is a thing but it seems perfectly sensible to me because as a white male aged 18-65, I feel that I need to apologise on behalf of everyone like me because the injury of stupid white people ruining things for everyone isn't a problem from 1788 or 1901, but ongoing.
I'm sorry white people but although you don't want to be responsible for the goings on of 230 years ago and therefore claim that you have the right to wave the flag all you like, you are responsible for the goings on now and of the injustices that remain and still haven't been cleared up because the casual racists have joined forces with the actual racists, whether they wanted to or not.

Happy Invasion Day!

January 24, 2018

Horse 2368 - Health Insurance, Tax Returns, The IRS, And The Descent Into Madness

I feel your pain, Joker.

The United States like the majority of the world has its financial year aligned with the calendar year. This means that people's tax returns are due in the first quarter of the calendar year, as opposed to the third quarter of the calendar year like thy are in Australia.
As someone who has the job of doing tax returns for people who have income from the United States, I find American tax returns to be singularly ridiculous on many levels. This is also in concert with the fact that as the United States has a so called "republican" form of government (small r) as mentioned in the Constitution, and in addition to Federal income tax returns people also have to file state tax returns as well.
This year though, as part of the new wave of Trumpian idiocy, the concert of cacophony has been called up to a crescendo with the compulsory requirement to declare either if you have health insurance or an exemption from paying into a health insurance policy, or else the IRS by directive has been ordered to refuse to assess the tax return. In addition to this, the particular state that I'm doing a tax return for a client, has declared that the state tax return will only be assessed upon the issue of the assessment and file document number from the IRS.
What happens if you are a non resident alien, who has to file tax returns from outside of the United States? Thanks to the government shutdown, nobody knows. Actually, irrespective of the government shutdown, nobody knows.

I have a client who owns rental properties in the United States. The individual tax return demands that they have a health insurance policy or else the IRS won't assess the return. My client as a foreign non resident alien, who lives in a country with a universal health care system, has no need of a health insurance policy and so they don't have one. This concept seemed like a foreign non resident alien from the planet Zog as far as the chap who I spoke at the IRS was concerned, and explaining it to him was like trying to explain Newton's laws of motion to a pigeon.

Never mind the fact that this was announced in late October last year; which means that the IRS have had four months to think about this.

In the latest signal that the Affordable Care Act is still law, the Internal Revenue Service said this week that it is taking steps to enforce the most controversial provision: the tax penalty people face if they refuse to obtain health insurance.
Next year, for the first time, the I.R.S. will reject your tax return when filed electronically if you do not complete the information required about whether you have coverage, including whether you are exempt from the so-called individual mandate or will pay the penalty. If you file your tax return on paper, the agency said it could suspend processing of the return and delay any refund you might be owed.
- New York Times, 20th October 2017.

When it came to publishing information about this on the IRS's website, they only got around to it last Friday. One of the first things that they tell you about the purpose of accounting, is that the point is to produce useful information in a timely manner. This is the overview statement from the IRS:

Under the recently enacted tax law, taxpayers must continue to report coverage, qualify for an exemption, or pay the individual shared responsibility payment for tax years 2017 and 2018.
Once again this year, you may receive multiple information forms that you can use to complete your tax return and will keep with your tax records.

The information forms are:
Form 1095-A, Health Insurance Marketplace Statement
Form 1095-B, Health Coverage
Form 1095-C, Employer-Provided Health Insurance Offer and Coverage.

The Internal Revenue Service won’t process individual tax returns in 2018 unless taxpayers indicate whether they have health insurance coverage or an exemption.
- Internal Revenue Service, 19th January 2018.

None of these things provide useful information for the set of circumstances that I now face and considering that this was published almost three weeks after the reporting season has started, it hasn't been done in a timely manner either.

After a bit of probing, I was able to establish that the only government provided health care systems which would fit into his questionnaire were Medicare and Medicaid. Although we do have a system in Australia called Medicare, the IRS computers couldn't handle an Australian tax file number or a Medicare number in the relevant fields.
After a bit more probing, I came to the conclusion that the ability to work out how to solve this issue was beyond this person's pay grade and that there were screens and options that they were locked out of. I thought it best to get a case number because it was getting late in the day and this person was legally required to read out some taxation information including the kicker that failure to lodge tax returns might result in criminal prosecution or even get my client deported. Since I had my telephone on loudspeaker, my boss who is sometimes quite dry and blunt said "That's not bloody likely" to which the person at the IRS took deep offence before I let them burn out their rage, and then my boss asked the rather obvious question of how you're supposed to deport someone who isn't even in the United States. By definition, a foreign non resident alien is someone who is a non resident, right? Apparently not. Like Australia, you can be a non resident if you are in the country for less than 182 days of the year.

Given that this is January of 2018 and that the implementation of tax policy tends to move at glacial speeds, I'm kind of worried that this won't be resolved quickly and that the US government will shutdown again on February 8 which will only prolong the issue even further. There's a special kind of madness which exists in the United States government where people want to reduce the size of government and then wonder why the pared down workforce is unable to cope that well with changes that Congress imposes on it.

The whole underlying problem here is that the only reason that this stupid state of affairs exists is because of the push to move people towards getting health insurance under Obamacare. The Republicans like this sort of regulatory nonsense because it creates ill will against the system and they want it to die.
The best solution would be to implement a National Health Insurance Scheme which would be paid for via a statutory levy. This won't happen because the mantra of "individual responsiblity" is used to beat the American public into a state of stupidity, so that they won't realise that literally every single other country in the OECD already has a universal health care system which works better. Implementing a whole health care system is far too complex for a Congress that can't even get the paperwork on a tax return to work properly.

January 23, 2018

Horse 2367- E Duobus, Unum Corea?

The Presidency of Donald J Trump, a man who had never held public office and has comprehensively proven that he is unsuitable for doing so, managed to produce only one piece of major legislation in its first year and depending on your point of view also managed to cause a government shutdown (or the Democrats did). This has been a shambolic administration which has been comparable to that of Richard Nixon and Warren G. Harding but still has quite a way to fall before it reaches the level of utter terribleness that was James Buchanan's administration and who managed to break the union in half.
It has been decidedly isolationist and nativist in stance, has made statements which are undeniably outright racist, and Mr Trump's personal insults have been whipped up into a climate where a nuclear strike was not only thought possible but actually believable in the case of the false alarm in Hawaii last week. Nevertheless, this torrent of terribleness, this flood of fear and this deluge of disaster, has managed to do what might have been unthinkable even two years ago. It has brought the two Koreas together to talk.

The hermit kingdom north of the 38th parallel has often rattled the sabre in the past. From a geopolitical standpoint it probably needs to instill fear in the rest of the world and indeed in its own people because unlike 65 years ago, it's probably not going to get a bunch of help from either China or Russia if full on war was resumed. China would want to halt a flood of four million refugees coming across its border, as would Russia, and the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas would more than likely be pushed back very easily. Surely the regime in the north must know that it's trying to play out the last few tricks of a bridge hand where the best cards that it has is a 7 but it still has the 2 and 3 of nukes left over as trumps.
The thing is that Donald Trump may have inadvertently helped by insulting Kim Jong Un by calling him "Rocketman" because now Pyongyang realises that the orange haired loon at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is just as bonkers as their own administration. Trump's administration is so incredibly toxic that it actually gave the north a chance to engage in talks with the south, on the provision that Washington would keep well away. Thankfully the government shutdown in America has plunged the United States into such a pit of democratic inaction, that they're too wrapped up in their own problems to care about meddling in the affairs of the two Koreas.

It might not be that big of a step but at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyongchang in South Korea, athletes from the two Koreas will be competing side by side under the Korean Unification Banner and instead of PRK or KOR appearing in the official statistics, there will only be the one COR for Corea. The fact that you could get even this might have been an insane thought two years ago; but I for one think that it's glorious.

It speak to a much much much larger and far more hideously complex problem though. You'd have to think that at some point, the wheel of history is going to turn in such a way that the reunification of Korea is inevitable. I just don't see how the north can possibly exist into perpetuity. That means that at some point, we're going to have a set of circumstances which are in principle similar to that of the two Germanys last century.
I remember when the Berlin Wall came down and the intense joy on the faces of the German people. What I don't remember but have subsequently found out later, is that the actual events which took place were initiated by accident and once the wheel of history had been set in motion, it was impossible to stop.
The difference between the two Germanys and the two Koreas though, is that in the case of the two Germanys the economic distance between the people of the two countries wasn't as vast. East Germany was still an economically useful entity when it was behind the Iron Curtain and so there was at least a degree of useful infrastructure that was capable of being integrated into the unified country. The Bundestag in Bonn quite rightly decided to value all East German Marks at par with West German Marks and so this meant that the people of the East instantly found that they had a useful amount of buying power in addition to being instantly richer. I don't know if that sort of process would work as seamlessly in Korea as it did in Germany. A unified Korea would need to carry the people of the former north, which is almost the same kind of problem as if you had those same four million refugees flood across the border. The North Korean Won could be revalued at par with the South Korean Won but I'm not sure that ex North Koreans would have the ability to be able to participate in the new economy to anywhere near the same degree as Ossis did with Wessis.

I still love that there will be only one Korea competing at the Winter Olympics, I love that they've picked a banner which is not overtly the propaganda of one side or the other, and I love the delicious irony that talks between the two Koreas even over such a small thing as this, took place precisely because both the White House and the Congress have been so hideously bad at doing their job that they've managed to render themselves incapable of mucking things up.
There's been so much manure spread around which has been left to sit alone, that the smallest of green shoots have started to be seen.

January 20, 2018

Horse 2366 - Government Shutdowns Don't Happen In Australia

I watch US politics like a football fan watches a neutral game. I don't really care who wins between the two sides and to be honest, any attempts to prove that your side is better, is just part of the background tumult of boos and yays that happen. The difference between say a Celtic v Rangers match, or "El Classico" between Barcelona and Real Madrid, or Everton v Liverpool, is that after 90 minutes, football fans go home. In American politics, the game is eternal.
This afternoon, I was literally watching a countdown clock in the corner of a screen, when the two sides in the eternal struggle that is American politics, failed to pass the Extension of Continuing Appropriations Act, 2018, and officially the United States Government has now run out of money.
That is, that it no longer has approval to issue any more Treasury Bills to keep on funding the debt which now stands at more than $20 trillion.
$20 Trillion? That's $20,000,000,000,000.
Without a source of any more funding, this basically means that only the essential services of government will continue to function. That means that the military, social security, border security and the postal service which has access to its own money will continue to run but everything else will just stop.

The question I've now been asked five times in the space of an afternoon, is could it happen in Australia? The answer is an emphatic "No."
We don't have government shutdowns for a very very good reason.

1. We don't have a debt ceiling.
Under Article I Section 8 of the United States Constitution, only Congress can authorize the borrowing of money on the credit of the United States. Since the United States Government has run continuous deficits since about 1835, the only way to keep funding the big show is to keep on issuing debt instruments. The problem is though that issuing debt with no thought or limit is bad, so Congress imposed the Public Debt Acts as a restraint upon itself. Every time that the debt hits the limit, crises happen.
Australia imposed a debt ceiling from 2008 until 2013, when quite rightly it was realised that this is nothing more than a perpetual game which needs to be played. In 2013, under Treasurer Joe Hockey, the debt ceiling in Australia was scrapped because it actually achieved nothing except tie up the legislature.

2. We have a bigger fiscal nuclear weapon

If the House of Representatives passes any proposed law, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, and if after an interval of three months the House of Representatives, in the same or the next session, again passes the proposed law with or without any amendments which have been made, suggested, or agreed to by the Senate, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, the Governor-General may dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously. But such dissolution shall not take place within six months before the date of the expiry of the House of Representatives by effluxion of time.
- Section 57, Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900

On the 11th of November 1975, which was 6 months and one week after the Appropriation Bill No.1 1975-76 which wanted to spend $6,976,119,000, had failed to pass the Senate because the opposition simply deferred the passage of the appropriation bills which finance governmental operations, the Governor-General Sir John Kerr, under his Section 57 powers, issued a statement to dissolve the parliament:

Because of the federal nature of our Constitution and because of its provisions the Senate undoubtedly has constitutional power to refuse or defer supply to the Government. Because of the principles of responsible government a Prime Minister who cannot obtain supply, including money for carrying on the ordinary services of government, must either advise a general election or resign. If he refuses to do this I have the authority and indeed the duty under the Constitution to withdraw his Commission as Prime Minister. The position in Australia is quite different from a position in the United Kingdom. Here the confidence of both Houses on supply is necessary to ensure its provision. In United Kingdom the confidence of the House of Commons alone is necessary. But both here and in the United Kingdom the duty of the Prime Minister is the same in a most important aspect – if he cannot get supply he must resign or advise an election.
- Governor-General Sir John Kerr, Statement 11th Nov 1975.

More than forty years later we are still arguing the toss over what actually happened that afternoon. This is a tale of intrigue and suspicion over who said what, to whom and when.
What we do know is that at 2:24pm, the bill did pass the parliament and so there was never actually a government shutdown and at 2:34pm there was an announcement in the House that there had been a dismissal of the government. By the end of the day, writs had been issued with dissolved parliament.

The problem with the US congressional system is that the actual head of state is the President; who doesn't have the ability to dismiss or fire the Congress if they fail to pass a budget or debt ceiling extensions. The Governor-General of Australia as head of state does, and on the only occasion where it has looked as though a government shutdown was close, actually did dissolve the parliament. If a President wanted to fire the Congress, all kinds of anger would rain down on Washington.

Australia went through an eleven year process before it came to working out its constitution and it looked at what worked and what didn't work in both the United Kingdom and the United States; in consequence, we have a parliamentary system which is demonstrably better than both of them.The latest government shutdown in the United States, which by the way is the 18th since I've been alive, is in comparison to zero in Australia. It doesn't happen because our constitution works better by design.

January 17, 2018

Horse 2365 - "Raw Water" Is A Thing Now

Two of the regular fixtures on my listening schedules are "The News Quiz" on BBC Radio 4 and "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" from WBEZ Chicago and NPR. I like satirical takes on the news because let's be honest, the world is a kind of bonkers place to begin with. When I first heard about the idea of raw water on Wait, Wait and then The News Quiz, I thought that this was one of those cases where some hipster trend has begun in a place like San Francisco and is just as dumb as quinoa, kale, açai, or whatever the next trendy food fad is. When I saw that a shop near where I work in Mosman was selling raw water, I finally realised that this is now going to be a thing.
I suppose that this is the latest in the whole foods movement and I guess that I did see it at one of those kinds of shops but just because something happens to be "natural" is no guarantee that it's better or even safe. Drinking raw water seems to me to be a pathway for pathogens, viruses and bacteria to get a free ride straight into your digestive system. I don't see any sanity in that.

Raw water, for those of you who aren't up to speed on all things trendy and idiotic, is untreated water. My first reaction when I heard about this on the radio was "why?". My reaction when I saw it on sale in the shops was "why?". As someone who is bashing away at a keyboard and wondering what is wrong with people in the world, my current reaction is to yet again ask "why?"
We spend billions of dollarpounds all over the world, setting up filtration and cleaning systems because having clean, safe drinking water is sensible. The fact that I even need to make this point here, is so unbelievably daft to me, I can't describe it.

Probably since before the beginning of recorded history, people have been trying to make their water look better and taste better. Simple common sense should dictate that water with stuff in it, is going to be worse than clean water. Common sense says that if water smells bad or has dirt in it, then you probably shouldn't drink it.
The ancient Egyptians used sand filtration; Hippocrates invented a double layered bag which he used to filter water with; people in the ancient world were boiling water because although they didn't know what they were doing, they knew it did something; the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that he should take a little wine as well as water because of Timothy's frequent stomach illnesses.
If you apply the highly inaccurate Greek model of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, it stands to reason that something that's in water that isn't water is not water. In the modern world where chemistry is better understood, it is still true that anything that isn't the chemical of H2O is not water. If you are in the ancient world and you don't have a good grasp of science but you know that something in the water has the ability to literally kill you, then it's a good idea to get rid of it.

It wasn't until the invention of the microscope that we started to see that life existed at a size that was smaller than we can see. I can imagine that the first people who looked through a microscope and saw bacteria living in water must have been freaked out by it.
Perhaps the most famous story in the early history of drinking water, was the story of John Snow and the Broad Street pump. There was a cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London in 1854 and he decided to map out all the cases of cholera and see if there was a connection. He found that the centre of the outbreak was one particular pump and this coupled with other events such as the "Great Stink" of 1858 eventually led to the creation of the London sewerage system and the separation of sewerage and drinking water. Under the oversight of the civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette, London's effluent was moved eastwards and well beyond what was then the metropolitan area.

The thing is that stupid people will always do as stupid people do. If they could somehow invent a powerplant that ran on stupidity, then we could solve every energy crisis and global warming at the same time. I have no problem with stupid people being separated by their money if they do it voluntarily. The problem is that this sort of thing, dovetails with other things like the anti-vax movement and the most vocal people who are a fan of this kind of thing, also campaign against putting fluoride in the water, despite it being demonstrably safe and an excellent public health measure when it comes to dental health as well as removing the bacteria and viruses that we want to get rid of. Some of the greatest measures in public health last century were the eradication of smallpox and polio, and the mass provision of safe drinking water and decent sewerage systems.
People should mostly be free to spend their money how they like but when private choice might lead to public danger then stupidity becomes dangerous. I hope that this is seen for the obvious stupidity that it appears to be because then it's likely to just disappear and go away on its own.

January 11, 2018

Horse 2364 - The American Way To "Commute"?

I saw a full bus side advert the other day for American Airlines; which had a picture of a lady asleep in what looked like the comfiest airline seat/bed that I've ever seen and the advert had the tagline: "The American Way To Commute".

This is one of those occasions where someone was doing some paradigm shifting without using the clutch and my brain was metaphorically shooting sparks out the side. This advert was so unbelievably overflowing with wrongability that you might as well forget about trying to catch it all in buckets because there was enough of the stuff to sink the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier.

How art thee wrong? Let me count the ways.

1. Commute (the right way to use the word)
A commuter is someone who commutes. The word commute means to lessen or to reduce. A mass murderer who is facing the death penalty might have their sentence commuted to life in prison. A petty criminal who shows contrition might have their sentence commuted from time in prison to doing community service. Likewise the term "commuter" came about because people who bought season tickets, be they weekly, monthly, quarterly or even yearly (yes this was a thing), had their fare commuted to a lesser amount because they bought more travel. A person who bought a weekly rail ticket might have had their fare commuted from the full five days that they were going to work, to say the equivalent fare of three and a half days of travel.

2. Commute (the wrong way to use the word)
A commuter is someone who commutes. They have had the price of their travel commuted from an amount to a lesser amount. Somewhere in the history of urban public transport, people mangled the word to mean someone who simply travelled forth and back from work. This, rater ludicrously, eventually came to also apply to people who drive to work despite the fact that they do not have the price of their travel commuted to any lesser amount. Both the price of petrol and the associated tax are directly aligned with usage. I should point out here that since the introduction of the Opal Card system in Sydney, because an amount is deducted from people's Opal accounts at the end of every journey, this has in effect killed off the commuter in Sydney. Granted that there are discounts beyond the eighth trip and there is a weekly cap but if you are someone like me who always hits the cap, the fare is never commuted to a lesser amount.

If this is true, then even if we use the wrong definition of the word, then unless American Airlines does take people to and from work, then it's fair to say that there are no commuters who use American Airlines in Australia. There is a select number of people who fly in and fly out of the mining towns in Western Australia; so under this definition, there are some commuters who use aeroplanes in Australia, although American Airlines doesn't provide this service.

3. Commute (the wrong way to be wrong)
If we ignore part one and part two, then in what possible world does American Airlines think that there could be commuters using their services in Australia. As far as I am aware, they operate out of Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney and fly to the west coast of the United States as well as Hawaii. I'm not sure if American Airlines is aware of this but the Pacific Ocean is actually kind of big. I don't think that it's even possible to fly to Hawaii in less than twelve hours, which means to say that it is impossible to fly forth and back to work if you're home was in Australia and your workplace was in Hawaii in less than a day.
Unless you have access to time travel, or are able to manipulate the laws of time and space such that you can leave before you arrive, wake up before you go to bed, and somehow manage to fit in an eight hour working day in the middle of all that, then the tagline "The American Way To Commute" is nonsensical as applied to Australians.

4. The Metaphor
Nonsense aside, the advert shows a lady asleep in one of those weird bed things that American Airlines obviously has. If you are someone who falls asleep on the bus, then you're likely not going to be awake when the advert passes by. Maybe this advert is supposed to evoke feelings of wistfulness and wanderlust in a bleary eyed person as they stand out in the cold waiting for a bus and that's perfectly sensible but this is yet another one of those occasions where the marketing department did not think things through.

From what I've seen of America, the actual American way to commute is to sit in your car for long periods of time, doing six miles an hour, or perhaps sitting on a subway train and hoping that you don't get mugged. Okay, that's hyperbole and parody but as I stand on yet another late running and overcrowded train in Sydney, I kind of hope that "the American way to commute" is to put on some blue tights and red underpants on the outside and fly like Superman - he fought for "Truth, Justice, and The American Way (to commute?)"

January 10, 2018

Horse 2363 - The Train On Platform Number 3... Ha Ha LOL. There Is No Train On Platform Number 3.

Degrade. Defund. Privatise. Repeat.

This is the current policy of the Liberal/National Coalition in both Australia and the state of New South Wales and I for one am sick of it.
After not coming to an agreement on overtime rates with train drivers, Sydney Trains and by extension the Department Of Transport, are now doing their level best to annoy the heck out of the general public by cancelling train services at random and leaving passengers on station platforms with little information.
I have spoken to three drivers and it seems that whoever their managers are, simply isn't assigning drivers on scheduled runs because they haven't got any authority to guarantee that the drivers will be paid for doing them. This is management from above by budget knavery and the best guess is that the trail of decision making leads straight to Minister Andrew Constance's door and quite possibly to Premier Gladys Berejiklian herself.

Last night at Wynyard Station, passengers were herded like sheep, deliberately held back from entering the platforms because of over crowding and the very real fear that someone might fall onto the tracks, wherein we stood nine deep waiting for trains in both directions.

When I finally did get a train that I could get onto, I found myself standing next to the railing on a set of stairs, with a bolt being pushed into my ribs and at one point I swear that my feet weren't actually touching the ground and I was suspended in the air by the crowd crush.
Thanks to the shenanigans by Sydney Trains, my expectations have been successfully lowered from wondering if I'm going to get a seat to wondering if I'm going to get a train.
Thanks Andrew and Gladys. Your handiwork is on display for all to see. Andrew has officially blamed yesterday's madness on staffing issues and lightning.

This morning wasn't really much better. I took a bus from Marayong to Blacktown because the next four services to anywhere had been cancelled and when I did get to Blacktown, the announcements that trains had been cancelled outnumbered the announcements for trains that were actually running, severalfold. I don't know if you can blame lightning which happened more than 12 hours ago for a current running problem.

The playbook which is currently being worked through has been used before. We've seen this with airports, the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, the electricity and water companies, we're currently seeing it with schools, the post office, the ferries, and if it wasn't obvious before then it is now, the trains and buses. That playbook is simply to starve the services of proper funding, watch as the public gets angry, lose government, then block any and all attempts to correct the stupidity; then after being voted back into office, claim a mandate to privatise government assets before selling them at a discount to your not quite criminal friends.
In the meantime, start playing identity politics, stirring up racial tensions and demonising the newest broad immigrant group to arrive, blame poor people for their own poverty but refuse to do anything about it, or shift the media focus to some other completely irrelevant topic like changing the flag or the republic.

I find it a bit rich that the Minister For Transport lives in an electorate with zero railways stations and that his electorate was presented with the brand new B-Line services; with no plans to expand that portion of the bus network. Incidentally, private operators TransDev already own the South & South Western Sydney bus depots but have no intention of buying the unprofitable parts of the bus network at all. The plans for the Sydney Metro were first put forward in 2001, then 2005, 2008 and 2010 until Barry O'Farrel promised to fill in all of the holes that would be dug for the new stations if his government was elected. It was and magically, the plans resurfaced for a privately operated metro line; so there's no surprise there. As an aside, I consider it total lunacy  that the Metro line terminates at Cudgegong Road but doesn't go the extra 4.1km to Schofields where it could have made a connection.

Back to the issue at hand. Andrew Constance's job as far as I can tell, is to stand up in parliament and refuse to answer any questions about anything ever posed to him. I don't know what the expiry date is for blaming the previous government but here we are seven years later and Constance's default answer to to say that they're cleaning up the mess left behind by Labour, while not actually cleaning anything up at all.
Maybe as the Liberal/National Coalition drifts towards the economic right, they are secretly hoping that we'll just accept the fascist myth of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, that the trains are running on time. Yesterday proved, that if you want the public to acccept the lie, you have to at very least make sure that the trains are running in the first place.

January 09, 2018

Horse 2362 - Jar Jar Binks Is Secretly A Good Character In A Badly Written Universe

In the Star Wars cinematic universe, the three prequel movies are almost universally hated. Unlike the three films starting from 1977, which had space ships, space guns, and space wizards with space laser swords, the prequel films which were made from 1999 and onwards, have more politics, intrigue and a romance gone wrong story, than space ships, space guns and space wizards with space laser swords. The prequel films also contain the universe's singularly most hated character of all: Jar Jar Binks. Had the prequel films never been made, then that position would have been occupied by C3-PO; I suspect that we were kind of supposed to dislike C3-PO though (nobody likes the protocol and rule followers).

Going back to Jar Jar Binks though, I have read that he is seen as representing some kind of racist caricature of Rastafarians, or perhaps nondescript Asian people, to an outright dislike of both his character design to the fact that he is just staggeringly inept and annoying. All of these are valid criticisms because the interpretation of any piece of art always belongs to its audience. No two people can ever experience anything exactly the same way;. that also includes the way that the creator experienced their own work. Although George Lucas probably had good intentions for Jar Jar Binks, to act as someone who the kids would like and maybe as an audience surrogate, once Mr Lucas released his film into the world, no longer controlled the realm of opinion.

I think that Jar Jar Binks is a far more intriguing character than either the portrayal on screen the court of public opinion has declared him to be. He has only a minor supporting role in The Phantom Menace, he gets no more than three lines of dialogue in Attack Of The Clones and he is only seen and gets zero lines of dialogue in The Revenge Of The Sith; to the extent that there isn't even a credit for him at the end of the film. So based purely on the evidence presented before us, he must have a far more interesting story than we've been told about. He has been sidelined because the public didn't like him but that still doesn't mean to say that he still doesn't have an interesting but untold story.

In The Phantom Menace he is presented as General Binks on the planet of Naboo. Immediately we have to realise that despite his bumbling exterior, he's obviously somewhat competent to be able to be promoted to such an extent that he holds the rank of General. Even though he is quite clumsy (and is told off by Qui-Gon Jinn for being clumsy) he still demonstrates at least a passing ability to fight.
Second to this, in the space between The Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones, he becomes a Junior Representative for the Bunyan people in the Galactic Senate. Owing to the fact that the whole Star Wars cinematic universe is poorly thought out when it comes to matters of government and bureaucracy (because Star Wars is a space opera with laser wizards), I have no idea how the Galactic Senate is supposed to function. I have no idea how it makes any sense that it would be just Jar Jar Binks' fault that the power of the Galactic Senate should be seeded to Palpatine at all; so I don't think that it's fair that we should blame Jar Jar Binks for the whole chain of events.
Even if you allow for the possibility that there was a vote and the result was tied, his dithering needn't necessarily be interpreted as a bad thing because based on all information available to him it might have been the best choice after a deliberative process. In a vote of 251-250, there are still 250 other Senators to join with the one.

I would like to see the political thriller about how Jar Jar Binks, who was able to convince the cosmos that he was an incompetent fool, was able to wrangle public opinion to the point where he walks into the Galactic Senate in a landslide election. This is high level kind of manipulation of the sort that we might expect from Boris Johnson, Helmut Kohl, or Sir Joh Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Maybe this is a political thriller of a different sort where Jar Jar Binks is openly loved by his people precisely because he is so naive and innocent and the bad guys and antagonists of the film, turn out to be us and our prejudices against him. I must confess that I find Jar Jar Binks an annoying character to watch on screen but I don't think that that necessarily makes him a bad character because at very least, we remember him.

The thing about the three prequel movies is that it is mostly a story about how the Jedi who are supposed to be good, end up being terrible and making equally bad decisions because a space wizard theocracy is terrible at doing the job of governance. It is in that vacuum of terrible governance that Palpatine manipulates the system to steal power. Jar Jar Binks might very well be clumsy, incompetent and terrible at government but at least he does what he thinks it is right and proper to do.
It is we the audience who are the villains for writing him off; and George Lucas himself who is the emperor of awful for giving us three convoluted films with too much politics, intrigue and a romance gone wrong story, rather than space ships, space guns and space wizards with space laser swords.