Tax Day

Yep, it’s that time of year again. April 15th in the United States has a special meaning – it’s tax day. File your yearly income tax return OR ELSE!

Normally I’d spend all day ranting and raving about how much I hate the IRS (which I do) and how taxes are evil (which they are) and so forth. But honestly I’m just too tired to do that today.

I had my taxes prepared professionally this year – the move, along with some other things, introduced some complexities to my return that I just didn’t want to deal with, so I paid some people who’s logo is a rather uninspired green square to do it for me.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m any less angry at the IRS for taking my money away from me. What was that quote… ah yes, that April 15th is “the day I capitulate to the reality that the USA is actually socialist.” So true, so true.

Not to dampen anyone’s spirits, but if you’re feeling pretty happy today because you’re getting a refund on your taxes, just remember – that’s your money to begin with. You just “lent” it to the government, interest free. Nice deal for them, eh?

Ah, taxes…

On the Road: New York

New York drivers are much like their New Jersey neighbors, except without the strange phobia of left turns.

Actually that’s not entirely fair – as you get further away from New Jersey, New York drivers take on a style all their own.

And it’s a fast style.

Although they retain the irritating habit of slowing down for no reason, by and large you are more likely to find New York drivers doing 120% of the posted speed limit on the Interstate – if not more. They do also tend to fall into “lemming” mode and do whatever the person in front of them / around them is doing, regardless of why (which irritates me to no end), but all in all they aren’t bad drivers at all. Though I’ve never driven in New York City… but that’s really a whole different world and doesn’t count.

New York drivers are also less likely to cut you off than a driver from New Jersey, they are more likely to tailgate very, very close to you if you don’t get out of their way.

Still, as I said, not bad drivers at all (all things considered).

Next time: Connecticut!

Behind the Wheel: 2007 Suzuki Forenza

Before I even begin, let me just say I’m not really a car person anymore. I mean, they’re fine and all, but they’re just not what I would choose.

So with that out of the way, let me tell you about my recent experiences with a Suzuki Forenza. I had to rent this car to drive to Laconia, New Hampshire from New Jersey – a drive of about 6 hours (each way). So I had plenty of time to get to know the car.

First, some pros: the car’s ride is very comfortable – both the suspension and the seats themselves. I’d even say that the seats are more comfortable than in my own car, and the suspension is definitely better at soaking up bumps. At least – as long as there’s not 4 people in the car.

This leads directly into the cons: When it was just me riding, the car was nimble, maneuverable, and the suspension saved me from having a sore rear end on the highways and side-roads I traveled (this last winter in New England has not been kind to the Interstate highway system, nor to the roads in general in New Hampshire). The car turns quite nicely (as you would expect) and all in all it was a pretty quiet ride (although there was a bit of wind noise at highway speed).

BUT… when there were 4 people in the car, the suspension was seriously taxed. Bumps that I had driven over by myself and hardly noticed now thrashed the car so roughly that I was worried my passengers would hit their heads on the roof!

Of course, this is what happens when you design a suspension like that – it really can’t be helped that much, but it’s something to be aware of.

Another downside of this car is that the engine is very, very weak. Seriously. I would go to merge onto highway traffic, put the gas right down to the floor (literally) and the car would putter along at its own pace until it was happy. It wouldn’t down-shift like I expected when I stomped on the gas – and even when it did (or when I did, by manually moving the automatic shift lever), it didn’t make much difference. The car was trying very hard to stay in its “power band,” but quite honestly it just didn’t have one. Given that the engine is rated at 127 HP, I found it surprisingly sluggish for what must’ve been a very light car. I suspect that the engine and transmission were engineered more for fuel efficiency instead of power.

Speaking of which, the car did quite well on the fuel consumption scale – averaging about 33 miles per gallon at highway speeds. I was able to make the entire 350 mile trip on just under a tank of gas (about 12 gallons). So no complaints there.

The other side of the coin, however, is that the car is a bit tricky to handle on the Interstate highways. It is a light car, and it gets blown around easily from the turbulence in the wake of a big truck, and going around a bend in the highway at speed, and hitting a joint (such as from a bridge or from road work) can make the car feel like it’s just done a little jump – which is unnerving at 65 MPH!!

So in the end, a nice enough little car, and probably quite suitable if you do a lot of in-city driving, where it’s small size and lack of acceleration wouldn’t be much of a concern. But if you do any serious amount of driving on big highways, or if you need to carry more than 2 people, I’d look elsewhere. Though for such an inexpensive car, you can’t blame it. Still, I wouldn’t drive it and I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone else.

More on “Where have all the children gone”

This is a follow-up to my posts on Where have all the children gone and More on the “Missing Children”.

Bruce Schneier writes about how overprotective we’ve become of children. He quotes a story of a mother who lets her son take the New York City subway home on his own, trusting him to follow her instructions and be safe.

Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them.

Now, I may not have grown up in New York City, but as a kid I used to wander for miles and miles on my own. I’m sure many people reading this can say the same thing – and we all turned out OK, right?

So why are we so scared to let children go out and actually be children?

Verizon and INCREDIBLY STUPID Verification Schemes

Before we begin today’s rant, it is important to point out that the word “elegant” holds a special meaning for software people. Let me quote the entry from the New Hacker’s Dictionary (or the “Jargon File” as it is sometimes known):

Combining simplicity, power, and a certain ineffable grace of design. Higher praise than `clever’, `winning’, or even cuspy.

Now we can move on to the topic of today’s rant: Verizon. Verizon’s systems that interact with customers are most definitely not elegant.

This weekend I tried to pay my Verizon phone bill. It was near the due date, and so I didn’t want to mail a check (so… 20th century-ish) and paying by phone brings with it an irrational $3 fee (always a good business practice to make it harder for your customers to pay you… riiiiiight…), so paying online seemed to be the best option. What the heck, I’d done it before, right?

Well, no.

Since I’ve moved, my phone number has (obviously) changed. And although my online account still works (user name and password logs me in, anyway), there are no phone numbers associated with my account. Apparently, the USER – the CUSTOMER is responsible for this association. Great call there, Verizon.

So I try to associate my phone number. In order to prevent random people from stealing your account, their system will actually call you on your home phone – which seems like a good idea at first glance. (I’ll set aside arguments about how this won’t work unless you are at home with a working phone for now, as they didn’t apply to me.) Apparently, the way it works is their automated system will call you and give you a “temporary PIN” which you then type into the website and that’s how they verify that YOU are actually the owner of the line. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Good Idea: Use a temporary PIN to verify the owner of an account
  • Bad Idea: Use a temporary PIN that is read by an automated computer voice that uses a lot of the following easily-confused-with-one-another letters: B, D, V, and probably others that I couldn’t figure out because it was a computer reading them to me.

The problem here should now be obvious. Here I was, being spoken to by a computerized voice which read out some random bunch of letters & numbers (which really isn’t a “PIN” in the strictest sense of the word, but whatever), and for the life of me I couldn’t tell whether it was saying “B” or “D” or “V” or maybe even some other letter that sounds sort of the same (and there are a lot). It didn’t even use the standard phonetic alphabet readings, like “V as in Victor” and so forth, so there can’t be any confusion.

In the end, after many different tries of different combinations of letters, I gave up. I could not validate my account AT ALL online, and had to pay BY PHONE and be charged $3 for the privilege of getting my money to Verizon faster.

You can understand why this interaction with Verizon left me feeling like I’d been sucker-punched in the stomach.

For a company as big as Verizon, this is inexcusable. What’s worse is that because it was the weekend (Sunday, to be exact), ALL of their support phone numbers (which are hard enough to find as it is) were closed – except for the automated computer system that can only read you your balance (and take your payment and charge you $3 extra for it).

I’d love for someone to explain to me how, exactly, this is considered “good” customer service?

Let’s break down the transgressions, shall we?

  1. Verizon doesn’t synchronize changes to a user’s account with their on-line account – even though they have the information to do so.
  2. Verizon uses a computer to read letters & numbers to you without spelling them out using the phonetic alphabet (“V as in Victor” style)
  3. When you have a problem entering the “temporary PIN,” a link appears that says (basically), “Having trouble? Contact us!” Which does not take you to a phone number – it takes you to the “let’s hide our phone number from our customers” page
  4. Support for the 24-hour on-line system is… only available during weekday business hours?
  5. The 24-hour payment option charges customers an extra $3 for the privilege of paying quickly and on-time.

It’s enough to make me think about finally giving up my hard line with Verizon and going entirely with VoIP phone service instead.

If you want 5 ways to lose customers and make them angry, just take these tips from Verizon.