The world is a little brighter

I’ve been trying to write about yesterday’s election in Iraq, but have had difficulty figuring out exactly how to say what I really want to say. There are a lot of positives being thrown about, all justifiable. There have also been negatives, whether discussing the reality of democracy by referring to the election as the “election” or by not discussing it at all. I can only conclude that sheer partisanship or blind hatred are the cause of these negatives. There are many political nuances and issues, both positive and negative, surrounding how Iraq got to free elections, but those are not the debate for today. Regardless of what anyone may want to believe about yesterday’s events, President Bush succeeded. American troops succeeded. And most importantly, Iraqis succeeded.

Rather than babble on any further, I offer these thoughts expressed in an entry by Jeff Jarvis. He wrote:

The American right and left are analyzing the Iraq vote on the wrong basis: It’s not about George Bush, pro or con. It’s not about America, pro or con. It’s not even about the war, pro or con. It’s about the Iraqi people and democracy and their future, for which there is only a pro, not a con.

Anyone who doesn’t understand that can’t or won’t understand democracy.

How did he know I’m wearing sunglasses?

It’s time to lighten the mood a little, so I offer this. Someone googled for “falling while skiing“. To that random person… you’ve made Ha-Ha(&#153 Melissa Danielle) at my expense. Are you happy with yourself? Good for you. And how did you know that Danielle and I are going skiing next weekend? Are you psychic? Either way, I don’t like that person knowing so much about how my little foray down the bunny trail is going to go next Saturday.

However they know, to that I have a simple statement. They can go frig themself.

History is important

In the spring of ’99, I went to Europe by myself for the first time. I wanted to see Germany, so three days in Berlin became the foundation of my trip. Looking at a map of Europe, I could see the options for countries surrounding Germany were simple enough. I could return to France, Italy, or Austria, but I didn’t want to do that. I first traveled to Europe the previous spring, so I was still in consumption mode for new countries. Those big three didn’t fit that requirement, so they were immediately excluded. I looked north and noticed Denmark and Scandinavia, but I was still poor at the time, so I struck those from consideration, as well. A simple maxim is that Europe gets more expensive as the traveler moves north. That left one alternative: look east.

My first trip to Europe included nearly two weeks in Slovenia. The thought of going east was an easy consideration. The former communist block was still in its democratic infancy, having been set free into capitalism less than a decade earlier. Looking at my map, I saw the Czech Republic. I knew Prague was a tourist favorite, so I looked into that briefly and realized it would be a perfect fit for my trip. I scheduled three days of Prague into my itinerary.

The largest expense on my European vacations, because I choose to stay in youth hostels, is always the airfare. At $500 with a budget of barely $1,000, the final destination would have to be cheap and simple. I would need a visa to go further east, so I looked to Poland, a neighbor of both Germany and the Czech Republic. I knew of Warsaw, but Krakow intrigued me more. Because of the guidebook information, it seemed like a perfect fit for my needs. It was cheap, full of history, and cheap. Three days in Krakow completed the plan. The triangle formed by Berlin, Krakow, and Prague had an additional benefit. Since each journey is a perfect 8-hour overnight train ride, my itinerary eliminated two extra hostel stays. I anticipated my trip with the specific focus of Berlin and Prague. It was impossible for me to fathom that what I’d witness during my stay in Krakow would be the most lasting memory.

Auschwitz and Birkenau are situated in the tiny Polish town of Oswiecim, about an hour outside of Krakow. Auschwitz-Birkenau are separate camps approximately 2 miles apart. They’re sometimes referred to as Auschwitz I and II, respectively. The sign that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” is on the entrance gate to Auschwitz, the more famous of the two camps. Auschwitz is the more famous camp, seen in news reels and photos. Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments were done on prisoners at Auschwitz. The camp has a feeling of being closed in because the buildings are large and close together. The true scope is difficult to grasp without walking around and seeing such atrocities as the tiny prison cells and the “Black Wall” where executions took place.

The scale of horror at Birkenau is obvious from every spot in the camp. It covers an immense area of land, fenced in with a railroad track leading through the front gate, continuing to the rear of the camp. On both sides of the tracks were barracks. A few still remain on each side, but most were burned when the Nazis retreated from the camps. The outlines of the destroyed barracks remain, wrapped symmetrically around the still standing chimneys. I walked through a few of the barracks still standing, but stood motionless before the door of one particular barrack. An immense feeling of dread enveloped me at the door. I tried to walk in, but was physically unable to move forward. That was the first moment in my life when I knew that there is more to our world than just what we see. Some remark that they feel a sense of holiness in churches such as Assisi. The feeling I had was the opposite.

At the conclusion of the tracks, the crematoriums remain, although one rests in a pile of rubble leftover from a prisoner uprising. A lake rests off to the side of the crematorium where the human ashes were dumped.

I had planned to spend one day exploring the two camps, but the intensity of seeing Auschwitz forced me to break it into two separate days. I didn’t want to dwell in the horror for that long, but the camps are still emotionally exhausting. Seeing the efficiency with which the Nazis encased the murder of millions of people is stunning in its inexplicable evil. That anyone survived the death camps is a testament to the human spirit. So that no one forgets the horrors, guided tours are still offered by camp survivors.

Rather than provide any more details, I’ll let my pictures tell the rest of the story.

Image 1Image 2Image 3Image 4Image 5Image 6
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On January 27, 1945, Russian troops liberated the death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The camps were liberated nearly thirty years before I was born. I don’t have any family members even remotely associated with the history of Auschwitz or Birkenau. I’m just some guy with a story. My only real connection is my humanity, the same connection shared by everyone. The world has changed in numerous ways in 60
years, but some of our problems have remained the same, the core of evil changing only its appearance. As we strive to push freedom’s light into every dark corner of our world, we must remember that the struggle isn’t over. But we can overcome even the most horrific imaginings of the human mind.

He’s the full hot orator.

You might have noticed that I have a few topics that I like to rant about. One that I have not discussed here, but that is very important to me is taxes. I ramble about what tax policy should be and what taxes should be used for and the fairness of the tax code and all of those exciting ideas, but that’s not the tax issue most important to me. It’s something much simpler and, more importantly, indisputable. Allow me to repeat so that the point isn’t missed: INDISPUTABLE. For on this topic, unlike how accurate some believe my other opinions to be, I am 100% correct on this. And you know why? Because I learned the framework in college. And you know what’s in college? Books!

From mid-January until April 15th, I get more worked up than I should by people who look forward to receiving their tax refund from the IRS. This is the most egregious mistake that an American taxpayer can make because it’s so easy to fix the situation. When a taxpayer receives a tax refund from the IRS, that worker has actually given the federal government an interest-free loan. I can think of better ways to use my money than lending it interest-free to the federal government for up to fifteen months. Even a simple money market account is better than a loan to the government. Consider ING Direct, which offers a 2.35% return with no fees and no minimum investment. That’s not spectacular, but it’s better than the 0% the federal government offers.

There are basic rules for paying your estimated taxes during the course of the tax year. H&R Block offers this advice on their Income Tax Basics page under the section “Withholding your taxes“:

Ideally, the amount of income taxes you have withheld from your income is equal, or close to equal, the amount of taxes you will owe for the year. If too much is withheld, a refund may be appealing but remember that a refund has a hidden opportunity cost: Instead of you earning interest on your income, you’re making an interest-free loan to the IRS!

From a link on that page, H&R Block offers this definition of “opportunity cost”:

Opportunity cost is the sacrifice of benefits from the next-best alternative that you face when you make a financial or economic decision. For example, say you had $1,000 to invest. You could invest it in a stock mutual fund that might return 20% or more. If you make this investment decision, you sacrifice the opportunity to earn a lower rate of return on an investment that has no risk. This might be a CD or other fixed-term deposit that had a 6% rate of return. This 6% guaranteed return would be the opportunity cost of investing in the mutual fund instead.

H&R Block “gets” the message but ignores their responsibility to advise (potential) clients with the next few sentences from the “Withholding your taxes” section.

On the other hand, if too little is withheld and you’re not prepared to pay at tax time, you may be forced to draw on your savings or, worse, pay with a credit card. To the extent possible, you want to optimize your withholdings to equal your estimated tax liability.

In addition, the IRS may penalize you if you have too little withheld. You’re required to pay at least 90% of your estimated tax liability for the year by Jan. 15.

I’ve already offered the solution for not having enough funds to pay the remaining tax bill, so there is no excuse for not claiming enough exemptions to avoid a refund. (The correct answer is one for yourself and another one for yourself, not including tax effects from investments, interest, etc.) Anything less is financially stupid irresponsible. H&R Block knows this, which makes their new contest absurd self-promotion at the expense of the people they claim to serve.

The contest is called The Double Your Refund Instant Win Game. Its basic premise is that, as the lucky winner, you can “double the amount of your federal refund up to $10,000”. Reinforcing the idea that receiving a tax refund is wise goes against all logic. The people getting refunds are generally going to be lower income wage-earners with the least complicated tax returns. These are the people most in need of better advice to help them make their paychecks go further. Yes, it’s beneficial for a single mother with three kids to get a refund of $1,200 each spring, but how much more helpful would that $1,200 be in $100 monthly increments over the course of the previous year? This contest doesn’t encourage customers to rethink their lack of a financial strategy, but it also fails to encourage H&R Block to teach their customers about developing a financial strategy. (Disclosure: I have no knowledge of how H&R Block conducts their tax preparation services, so they might teach their customers. I doubt it, but they might. I’m not saying they’re evil, just that this is a bad promotion.)

There is also another angle of this promotion that H&R Block doesn’t highlight. The minimum prize is $1,000, which is much closer to what the winner will receive than the $10,000 figure mentioned in the contest. Here’s a simple example to explain why. If a worker has no investments and claims the standard deduction (assumptions I’m making for the average customer of a simple tax preparation service) on a salary of $75,000 per year, that worker will owe approximately $14,000 in federal taxes for the year. That does NOT include FICA and state/city taxes. To receive a $10,000 refund, the example taxpayer would have to pay the IRS $24,000 during the tax year. Over-hyping a promotion is nothing new, but it’s illogical to promote a contest with the underlying assumption that the taxpayer will pay 70% more in federal taxes than necessary. All it signifies to me is that H&R Block thinks its customers are stupid.

That is what I rant about every spring. I’ve converted some people to the truth, but I’m still working on everyone else. If anyone still wants to hang on to illogical reasons for receiving a tax refund, I’ll get over it. I’ll secretly bang my head on the wall, but I’ll get over it. Thus, my simple version of everything I’ve just written is this: receiving a tax refund is bad. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

I spent eight bucks to see a loser?

This afternoon, I read Andrew Sullivan’s comments about today’s Oscar nominations. I was a little surprised that he mentioned a point that I didn’t even think of when I read the list. Consider:

OSCAR SANITY: Kudos to the academy for ignoring the execrable “Fahrenheit 9/11” and the pornographic “Passion.” Right-wing and left-wing ideologues will be disappointed. But what do they know about art?

I didn’t even think about Fahrenheit 9/11 or The Passion of the Christ. I reviewed the former here and I still haven’t seen the latter. In due time, I guess. Either way, I agree with the sentiment about Fahrenheit 9/11. I haven’t seen any of the movies nominated for Best Picture, but I know they’re all better than Michael Moore’s important documentary marginal film two-hour crapfest. Maybe we can all just step back and understand that Hollywood may be full of liberals (debatable), but it doesn’t value ideology over art dollars quality. We’re all appropriately underwhelmed by that revelation, right?

For what it’s worth, the real focus should be on the Adapted screenplay category. That’s where the real movie of the year is located. Yes, you know which movie I’m talking about. THE movie of the year:

Before Sunset (Warner Independent Pictures)
Screenplay by Richard Linklater & Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke
Story by Richard Linklater & Kim Krizan

Buy it today. Seriously. Go. Now.

No one cares that I upgraded Movable Type.

Danielle and I have to go to Whole Foods today to get a few essentials. This would be a non-issue if D.C. hadn’t received approximately 4 inches of snow yesterday. Being unaccustomed to snow, even though it snows EVERY FUCKING WINTER in D.C., the metro area is essentially shut down. The roads are packed with snow. The side streets aren’t close to being plowed. Indeed, area transportation officials indicated that it would be 36 hours before the major roads were back to functioning. (Holy crap!) So, except for the sidewalk behind our townhouse, which some nice fellow decided to clear with the snow blower at 12:30 AM this morning, snow is everywhere. And we need supplies.

Specifically, of course, I mean we need milk, bread, and toilet paper. Because Danielle and I are the crazy ones, we weren’t at the grocery store at 11:15 Friday night to stock up for the snow. We ignored Topper Shutt’s dire 6.5 (A SIX POINT FIVE, PEOPLE!) warning on the Bread-O-Meter and mocked the sane people who wisely stocked up. And now, Sunday morning, those people can laugh at us. I have been without milk for EIGHT LONG, CALCIUM-DEFICIENT YEARS. I will NOT survive one more day! This drinking water bullshit is not healthy. Not healthy at all. Why didn’t I listen? I’m an asshole. An asshole without toilet paper! Oh, the humanity!

Is it obvious that I’m reaching for an excuse to drive in the snow?

Is the Constitution just paper?

Following up on a previous topic about Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush’s nominee for U.S. Attorney General, I found this from the editors of The Washington Post (the link is courtesy of Andrew Sullivan:

Mr. Gonzales stated for the record at his hearing that he opposes torture. Yet he made no effort to separate himself from legal judgments that narrowed torture’s definition so much as to authorize such methods as waterboarding for use by the CIA abroad. Despite the revision of a Justice Department memo on torture, he and the administration he represents continue to regard those practices as legal and continue to condone slightly milder abuse, such as prolonged sensory deprivation and the use of dogs, for Guantanamo. As Mr. Gonzales confirmed at his hearing, U.S. obligations under an anti-torture convention mean that the methods at Guantanamo must be allowable under the Fifth, Eighth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. According to the logic of the attorney general nominee, federal authorities could deprive American citizens of sleep, isolate them in cold cells while bombarding them with unpleasant noises and interrogate them 20 hours a day while the prisoners were naked and hooded, all without violating the Constitution. Senators who vote to ratify Mr. Gonzales’s nomination will bear the responsibility of ratifying such views as legitimate.

I agree. This issue isn’t going away, so we cannot continue to pretend that the torture of human beings is a minor issue (or worse, a non-issue because we assume it’s just a bunch of guilty foreigners.) The moment we condone the first evil actions, actions more evil and more pervasive will creep into our acceptance. We have already seen this and, until we erase it as Bush administration policy, we will all suffer the consequences. Is that the new vision of America we wish to embrace?

Just don’t eat french fries while looking suspicious

Interesting news today about the policing of America’s (worst) subway system:

Metro police officers are using new behavioral profiling techniques as they patrol subway stations, identifying suspicious riders and pulling them aside for questioning.

The officers are targeting people who avoid eye contact, loiter or appear to be looking around transit stations more than other passengers, officials said. Anyone identified as suspicious will be stopped and questioned about what they are doing and where they are going.

That’s wonderful. I’m prime suspect number one when using those rules. Avoid eye contact? Not just on the Metro, but in life in general, so check that one. Loiter? Me and everyone else riding the Metro, though that may have more to do with the frequency of trains than with personal intentions, but still, check that one. Appear to be looking around transit stations more than other passengers? I’m a people-watcher, though if you look back at me, I’ll stop. Remember the “avoid eye contact” from earlier? People are fascinating in how boring they can be during their daily commute. So I watch. And the Metro police officers check that one, too, when they’re looking at me.

Do you think the police will let me blog from jail the juvenile detention center?