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March 31, 2008

Tax preparation software still stinks

They say one of the definitions of insanity is repeating the same process and expecting different results. Clearly I need to abandon the idea of doing my own taxes using software, and start paying a professional, because while the software is slightly cheaper, it tends to raise my blood pressure.

After last year’s mess with H&R Block’s TaxCut, I went back to Intuit’s TurboTax this year. The TurboTax name is applied to both an online service and a desktop program. I got a CD for the desktop program in the mail (unsolicited; Intuit is apparently the new AOL), and the process works like this: you install the software, plug in all your data, and then you buy a license before you can print or e-file. This is either brilliant (users’ data is already captive in the program, and they’ve invested several hours in Intuit’s software) or a really bad idea (when we call to “buy” the software, we’re already angry about our taxes.)

We’ll leave aside the mess which is my taxes (getting a significant chunk of income from an organization based in Monaco does not do wonders for your return) and get right to this “purchase” process.

There is no online option. You call a 1-800 number, beep through an automatic tree, state your name, key in your credit card number, and get a sixteen-character confirmation code. You’re also told to use the last four digits of your card number as a verification number, so presumably part of this confirmation code is a hash of the credit card number.

I had to re-play the confirmation number four times, and still was unsure about one character. (Was that a “B”, a “C”, or a “D”? Or an “E”? Or even a 3?) I figured the margin of options was small enough that I could brute-force it. Then I hit the next snag, which was this verification number.

Despite the instructions on the phone, the software says, “Enter 1234 for your verification code here.” Needless to say, this engenders some confusion.

So, after six or eight failed attempts to plug in this ridiculous code, I sent an email to Intuit’s customer support website, and was promised a response within 24 hours.

Well, I got a response within twelve hours, but apparently Intuit needs to outsource their customer service to a higher-quality firm, because the response not only fails to be helpful, it is so replete with non sequiturs and grammatical problems that it actually makes no sense. Don’t believe me? Here’s the full text, with only my identifying details redacted:

Thank you for contacting TurboTax Customer Service & Support.

I do understand that you were unable to successfully enter the provided confirmation code in the program.

Going back to your concern [name], It’s my pleasure to help you on this matter. Actually, you can still use your Turbotax Deluxe 2007 on your Mac Computer without putting some information or register from the CD. You can just pass that particular interview screen.

However, If you still want to register or put information, you can just Uninstall and Reinstall the program.

Take note: If you’re going to uninstall your Turbotax program on your computer, please save and back-up your tax data file.

Title: Back Up Your Return (Mac)
URL: http://turbotax.intuit.com/support/kb/printing-mailing-saving/saving-backing-up/3784.html

To better assist you, kindly dont hesitate call our GS ( Getting Started ) Department:1-888 777-3103 from 8 am to 5 pm Pacific Time, Monday through Friday and you will be answered by our helpful and friendly Technical Support Representative.

I am glad to have assisted you today. You may receive a survey from us through e-mail in approximately 24 hours asking you about my performance on today’s contact, as well as comments you may have in regards to the TurboTax product. So we can continue with our promise to provide our customers with the best support available, please take a few minutes to complete the survey.

Have a great day ahead

  • Is it me, or is the second paragraph suggesting that I can simply bypass registration?

  • Can someone explain to me how reinstalling the software is going to help when I apparently have either a broken confirmation code or broken confirmation-code-verifying code?

  • Anyone who wishes to diagram the sentence beginning, “To better assist you…” is welcome to try. I think the results may be hallucinogenic.

  • I must say I am eagerly looking forward to this “survey through email.” I will do more than take a few minutes to complete it; I will lovingly detail all the specific aspects on which Intuit has simply failed to provide either a product which works as designed, or any useful support for this product.

If I could be certain my credit card hasn’t been charged, I would re-start my return tonight with TaxCut. I’d also like to repeat my plea from last year: can’t someone please make tax preparation software that doesn’t suck?

Update: A phone call to the number above resolved the problem; despite the “Pacific Time” red herring, the call center reached is almost certainly not in Pacific Time. The system did not recognize the case number assigned in my email, and there was a great deal of confusion surrounding the last time I allowed myself to be stripped of $50 by these charlatans, which was when I did my 2005 taxes. However, I can print my returns now.

Now Playing: Country Sad Ballad Man from Blur by Blur

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Posted by pjm at 11:54 AM | Comments (2)

March 30, 2008

Kathleen Edwards at Pearl Street

For all the years I’ve lived in the Pioneer Valley, I shouldn’t be able to write this, but last night I went to my first show at the Pearl Street Nightclub.

Kathleen Edwards has outgrown the Iron Horse, so they moved her over to Pearl Street for last night’s show, early in her tour in support of the recently-released “Asking for Flowers.” I haven’t really soaked in the new album yet (I bought the CD at the show, which is worth another post later) so there were a good chunk of the songs I didn’t know well enough to sing along to (not that I do that).

I’d listened to some of the songs from the new album streaming on her website earlier this week, and I’d been a little worried; they didn’t seem to have quite the punch her first two albums had. I like Edwards when her songs are steeped in bitterness and anger, and the occasional slides into despair, while often good songs, aren’t what I’m listening for. I need not have worried; the set showcased on the website, while it does include the caustic “The Cheapest Key” (which could have been addressed to the same leading man as “One More Song The Radio Won’t Like”), it doesn’t have titles like “Oil Man’s War” (one guess what that one’s about) or “Oh Canada” which deliver just the pointed criticism that makes a good Edwards song.

She opened up with solid songs from her earlier discs (“Failer” and “Back to Me”), starting out with “Mercury” from the former, and even though she covered the big titles from those two (“6 O’Clock News” from “Failer” and the title track from “Back To Me”) she seemed to have picked up a set list which had very little overlap with the last time I saw her. For example, “12 Bellevue” came up very early in the show.

The best part of the show, however, was just that Edwards really seemed to be having a good time. She still sings the songs like she’s delivering them for the first time (her voice cracks on “Scared at Night”, a song she wrote for her father,) and she bounces around the stage grinning at her band like she can’t believe she gets to do this for work. Maybe it’s early in the tour yet, but it’s always a great show when you’re watching someone who clearly enjoys what they’re doing.

Yes, this time I brought earplugs. Good decision. Also, yes, Jim Bryson was part of the band. The Weakerthans are coming next month; I wonder who they’ll have in his role?

Justin Rutledge was the opener, not a bad one but not, I think, electrifying enough for me to buy the CDs. I’ll keep an eye on him.

Now Playing: Buffalo from Asking For Flowers by Kathleen Edwards

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Posted by pjm at 1:52 PM | Comments (1)

March 29, 2008

A starting point

I have 39:56 on my watch. The official results have me at 40:02. I saw the clock at 39:57 as I finished. I like to think I was under 40, thank you. Maybe, like Beach to Beacon last year, which I ran in almost exactly the same time, it’s a chip-time/gun-time discrepancy.

And now I’ve done the biggest race in Western Massachusetts. It’s not too bad, if you ignore the hundreds of people who have no idea that if you’re going to run 8:00 pace, you have no business being in the first three rows at the start.

Posted by pjm at 6:48 PM | Comments (0)

Symptoms of a lasting problem

I was in no kind of shape to swim at New Englands this weekend, but I find that I’m watching the results with interest. I don’t always understand the times, but knowing the faces that go with some of the names helps a great deal.

And I still find cool stuff. For example, if you look at the 400y MR results from late yesterday, you’ll find, in the 25+ age group, a team which is evidently made up of one family, two generations: two men at 51 and 53, and two more at 23 and 25.

And you can find that my team set at least two New England records, one being my brother’s relay. (Two and a half seconds off the old mark.)

The team is 4.5 points ahead after the second of four days of competition, defending the title we won last year. That’s not a very big margin when the point totals are already in excess of 1,500. In the overall rankings, I found that the Austrian Swimming Federation (AUT) has 18 points.

Now Playing: Punk As F*ck from Know By Heart by The American Analog Set

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Posted by pjm at 8:43 AM | Comments (0)

March 28, 2008

I like good grades

After I spent a chunk of yesterday figuring out how to make some work sites load significantly faster (think “twice as fast”) without a few little configuration changes, I thought I should apply the same process here. I ran YSlow on this site, and started with a grade of 68, a D. Unacceptable.

Unfortunately, since I don’t own the server this site runs on (yet) I don’t have total control over its configuration. For example, I can’t figure out how to ensure that the site stylesheet (all 2KB of it) get compressed before it’s sent to your browser. (This would be worth doing because the time it takes to Gzip a CSS file is more than reclaimed in the time saved downloading a notably smaller file.) However, I was able to add these three lines to the configuration:

FileETag none    

ExpiresActive On    
ExpiresByType image/gif "access plus 1 year"
ExpiresByType image/jpeg "access plus 1 year"
ExpiresByType image/png "access plus 1 year"
ExpiresByType text/css "access plus 1 year"

This means that the two files you do download along with the front page (the stylesheet and the image) will stay in your browser cache as long as you let them, or one year, whichever is shorter, which means you won’t need to request them every time you visit this page. Not a big deal for one visit, but over time, it adds up. And you’re coming back, right?

What really got me was a number of little JavaScript inclusions I added years ago in the name of boosting traffic, such as a Technorati widget which, on closer examination, I discovered isn’t even current. Dropping those took a number of relatively slow-loading scripts off the download list for the front page.

The result of this is that, even though fewer people are coming here, the pages will load more quickly for those who still are. And, probably more important to me, my grade is now an A (94). Which we all know stands for Acceptable.

Now Playing: Merry-Go-Round from All Shook Down by The Replacements

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Posted by pjm at 9:15 PM | Comments (0)

March 26, 2008

My life as a syndicated blogger

I think maybe I signed up with BlogBurst two years ago. Nothing came of it and the whole thing passed out of my mind. This is, after all, not exactly the sort of site that lends itself to easy syndication and republication; I’m far too erratic in my choice of topics.

This morning I saw an odd referral in my traffic stats from the Chicago Sun Times. Hmm. I pursued it and discovered that even as my search engine traffic has declined I’ve had a hundred or so post views from the Sun Times and Reuters. And, I might add, not exactly on the posts I would’ve expected to get picked up for republication.

Only the one click-through back to this site, though, and it’s pretty easy to see why when you look at how the pages show up; despite BlogBurst’s claim of helping new people discover your site, there aren’t many links back to the post source at all, and most of them are obfuscated by BlogBurst along the way.

I see that Rodale is on the list of BlogBurst publishers. It would be vastly amusing to me if one of my posts showed up there.

Now Playing: Daisy And Prudence from Distillation by Erin McKeown

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Posted by pjm at 10:32 AM | Comments (0)

March 24, 2008

It compiles if you hold your mouth right

Due largely to this post, I’ve spent some off-and-on time over the last eight weeks trying to make a particular obstinate Ruby library compile and install on my Mac. (Remember my adventures in Fortran?) Tonight I finally managed it, though I did wind up performing the software installation equivalent of getting in under the hood and banging around with a hammer.

I think the reason I finally succeeded tonight was that last night I gave up, opened an Ubuntu virtual machine in Parallels, and installed Ruby, Rails, the relevant library, and a working copy of my application there, resigned to doing all my developing and testing in a virtual machine.

Now I need to confront my deficient understanding of linear algebra.

Now Playing: Aside from Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans

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Posted by pjm at 10:06 PM | Comments (0)

The thirty-year strings

I tend to have more (and, generally, better) guitars around than would be expected for a musician of my talent level and infrequent practice. That’s another story.

Today I broke a string on an acoustic I don’t play very often. (Bigger, louder, and a wider fret-board than I prefer, none of which make it a bad instrument.) I knew there were quite a few string envelopes in the case, so I pulled out the lot to see if I could find a replacement.

As I went through the stack, I learned a bit about how the guitar’s previous owner had kept it. Aside from two complete, unopened sets of strings, there were three packets with incomplete used sets in the envelopes. (You can tell a used string because the end without the nut is crimped where it was coiled around the tuning peg.) The label on each was turned back-out and marked with a date.

SEPT 8
1973

(in red felt-tip, fading to orange, with a zig-zag double-underline between the month and the year)

6 MÄRZ 1974

(in pencil, with the same underline under the whole line and a hurried rock-and-roll dash to the handwriting—the umlaut on the A firmly added)

July 1978

(Royal blue felt-tip, just a step away from calligraphy, with sweeping descenders on the J and 9, a European one-serif 1 and a serif on the lowercase l)

Assuming I haven’t forgotten anything I did with this guitar while it’s been in my care, that July 1978 may indicate the strings I just replaced. (N.B. It’s also possible that some of the strings went with another guitar.) In which case, those strings made it almost thirty years. That’s not half bad.

Rather than just replace the broken string with a single used one, I opened one of the fresh sets and replaced the whole set, putting the old ones (except the broken one) in the empty envelopes as I went. Then I labeled the packet with today’s date and added it back into the stack.

The guitar sounds ghastly now, because I didn’t wind the new strings to full tension yet; I’ll let them relax a bit overnight and tune it next time I have a few minutes.

Now Playing: Secretariat from Miles from the Lightning by Jeffrey Foucault

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Posted by pjm at 6:32 PM | Comments (0)

March 22, 2008

Where fine cooking and heavy metal collide

For this project, we had to ensure that certain functions work properly with the accented letters which crop up relatively often in Italian (as opposed to English, which operates on the philosophy that if you don’t already know how to pronounce the vowel in a word, you must be a foreigner anyway and should be forced to guess as a comedy performance. Written Russian addresses the problem by providing ten glyphs for vowels, but sometimes requires accent marks anyway).

The solution I came up with involved this policy: test cases must include röckdöts.

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Posted by pjm at 12:54 PM | Comments (0)

March 21, 2008

My algorithmic good name

A few weeks ago I noticed that traffic for this site has been plunging. I used to average just over a hundred visits a day; recently (i.e. the past week or so, though the trend started three or more weeks ago)it’s been less than half that. It’s easy to see where the change is: when traffic was higher, I was getting slightly more than half my traffic from search engines, mostly Google. Now, search engine traffic is somewhat less than a third of the much-diminished total; that translates to about a quarter of the traffic it used to be.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal; I like being read, but the search engine traffic is not regular readership. I don’t have advertising on the site, so the reduced traffic isn’t hitting any revenue source. However, eventually this site’s position on search engines affects other sites I link to in which I do have some financial interest, specifically the various CMI projects. So this morning I tried to track down what was going on.

Google’s Webmaster Tools tell me that I’m still listed. However, when I look at the “Top 20 queries in which my site appeared”, I find some odd stuff. In the top 10, I find terms like “free ringtones” (#2; I’m the 206th result) or “wallpaper” (#3; I’m 902nd) or “free ringtone” (#5; I’m 108th). I maintain an attitude of puzzled bemusement towards the ring-tone economy (why would I want my phone to sound like anything other than a phone?) and I’ve certainly never written about it. Why on earth would this site come up in searches for these terms?

The answer seems to come from Technorati. They find a slew of sites linking to me; some the expected other weblogs, but a few unexpected ones (hello, California Library Association?) which appear to be nests of comment spam. And that comment spam is… linking to this site. Using terms like “free go phone ringtone”.

Because, of course, you can find that stuff here, right?

My best guess is that this is meta-comment spam, that the spammed comments etc. were meant to link to similar comment spam on this site. But, of course, I filter that stuff. (At considerable cost to my blood pressure, I might add. Such is the cost of being a good internet citizen and taking responsibility where others won’t.)

My hypothesis is that since I appear to be the “beneficiary” of this (these) spam run(s), I’m getting penalized in the search results. One more reason to love spam. Don’t you?

Now Playing: Cowards from Abigail by The Nields

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Posted by pjm at 10:09 AM | Comments (0)

March 20, 2008

The turkeys of South Pleasant Street

I was coming up the hill towards the College on 116, passing my Favorite View in Amherst® when I spotted some large birds flying low over the road ahead of me.

“Hmm,” I thought, “I wonder why those geese are having so much trouble getting altitude from the golf course.”

Then I realized that I was watching a flock of turkeys—well over a dozen, maybe twenty—crossing the road. I’d seen groups of turkeys (generally fewer than this, of course) hanging out in the nearby woods and sometimes browsing the hayfields where the cross-country course goes, but never this many this close.

And I have to say, there’s nothing that flies quite like a turkey. They fly the way novices ride bicycles: tentatively, in short segments, sometimes crash-landing.

Now Playing: Fortunate Son by Bruce Hornsby

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Posted by pjm at 1:18 PM | Comments (0)

March 19, 2008

It works on so many levels

As I watched the compiler working on the last software upgrade, I saw this go scrolling by on the terminal window:

compiling curses

I know what that really does, of course, but imagine the other interpretations!

Now Playing: People Of The Underground from Float Away With The Friday Night Gods by Marah

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Posted by pjm at 10:38 AM | Comments (0)

I got my entry in

Something reminded me, Saturday evening, to put in my registration for Beach to Beacon, since it had opened registration (online only) that morning. When I registered, they said they had 950 spots left (of 5,500) as of 6 PM, 12 hours after registration opened. By 8 AM on Sunday, apparently, they were full and closed. (N.B. you can still get an entry if you’re willing to raise money for one of several associated race beneficiaries.)

I’ve run B2B four times that I can think of, including the first two (‘98 and ‘99). I’ve generally managed a pretty good start position, appropriate to my pace, and consequently the numbers haven’t bothered me. (In ‘98 I had an elite number, for reasons which were never made entirely clear to me.) I like the course and I think it’s possible to run a good time there if you’re well trained, the conditions are good (not the muggy humidity we had last year) and you’re smart about how you distribute your effort.

I also just filled out entry forms for two nearby races in coming weeks. One of them has a $25 early-entry fee which expires by mail on Friday. Online, it lasts into next week, but online you pay a $3 fee, which to me says, “We don’t really want you to enter online.” The second race costs $10 pre-race, $15 race-day, and has no online entry.

B2B is expensive, but there’s no extra charge for online entry—in fact, it’s online-only for the first time this year, so there’s only one way to enter, in advance and online. The point of having different fees is to steer runners to the route you want them to use. If races want runners to sign up online, they shouldn’t charge extra for the convenience. If they can’t afford the fees charged by services like Active.com, they should use another service… or not offer online registration.

Now Playing: This Dreadful Life from Cherry Marmalade by Kay Hanley

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Posted by pjm at 9:51 AM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2008

Five-digit envy

One of my sometime training partners referenced this story in the Glob, which lists the top-25 ZIP codes (inside 95/128, naturally) where “…neighbors are smart, restaurants are plentiful, commuting is easy, and, best of all, home values are still strong.” It’s an interesting list; the predictable tony suburbs are on there, but there are some (e.g. a section of Roxbury, noted for its “marked racial diversity”) which are a little less predictable. (The training partner who pointed this article out lives in a third-floor walkup in Inman Square, which is one of the three Cambridge ZIPs on the list.)

The trick here is that they’re citing all of these ZIPs as having “still strong” home values. And yet… the methodology is to look at prices from 2002 to 2007. I’m guessing this is because there isn’t enough solid data to go very far into 2008, and maybe I haven’t been paying close enough attention, but isn’t any actual decline in home values a fairly recent thing? Even if it showed in 2007 numbers, isn’t it likely that nothing has slid all the way back to 2002 yet?

Seems to me that there’s a possibility some of these ZIPs aren’t quite as rock-solid as the Glob wants them to be.

(No, I haven’t looked to see where 01002 would stand in the list.)

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Posted by pjm at 8:06 PM | Comments (0)

Power out

In Osaka, there were no running refrigerators in the stadium. Drinks were served from unplugged freezer cases stuffed with ice. The reason I heard for this was that a recent earthquake had required a nearby nuclear power plant to go offline (presumably for safety checks) and that the LOC was concerned about the power draw at the stadium and therefore cut wherever they could.

Perhaps the Valencia LOC should have taken the hint. On the third day of competition, shortly before the afternoon session started, the power went out in our section of the press tribune. I wouldn’t consider this a serious problem—I work with a laptop, and therefore switch to battery power without actually noticing the outages at first—but it brought our ethernet router down as well, so it knocked me offline. What’s more, the network’s return lagged the return of power by several minutes.

This went on to happen repeatedly through the course of the afternoon, including the critical juncture where the women’s high jump went from five jumpers to two. It was frustrating for me, to say the least, but at least I knew I wasn’t the only one; I could hear my editor, down the line, making some caustic remarks into his cell phone. (He also got his digs in the opening sentence of this article.)

I might have saved myself if I had multi-homed—that is, if I had made note of the password for the arena wifi network and had been able to switch from my wired connection to the wireless. But I hadn’t, and I’m not actually sure if that was working any better than the wired network.

With China talking about closing down pollution-generating facilities around Beijing during the Olympics, I have to wonder about the power supply in the Birdcage. Reporters are using more electricity every year; if you want an idea of how much power a wireless network uses, check the expected battery life on your laptop with the wireless switched off and switched on. I wonder if brown-outs will be an expected part of championship meets in coming years.

Now Playing: One Great City! from Reconstruction Site by The Weakerthans

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Posted by pjm at 10:26 AM | Comments (0)

March 17, 2008

Ever Greene

I implied but never really detailed my hour or so (in two half-hour sessions) with Maurice Greene in Valencia. Greene, who was the dominant 100m sprinter from ‘97 to ‘02 or so (and still won the ‘04 U.S. Olympic Trials and a bronze medal in Athens) announced his retirement earlier this year, and is now part of the IAAF’s “Ambassadors” program.

Greene was always as fast with his mouth as with his feet (among other stunts, he stripped off his spikes within seconds of crossing a finish line in first place, then doused them with a fire extinguisher) and it’s hard to imagine him building a successful career as, say, a rocket scientist.

But I discovered in Valencia something I probably could have figured out if I’d been paying attention: Greene knows and loves his sport, and is capable of communicating that enthusiasm in a relatively articulate manner. And while I won’t count on being invited over to see his gold medals, I thought we got along pretty well for two people of similar ages with practically nothing but this sport in common.

In other words, he’s a great ambassador. I suppose, having met his training partner Ato Boldon in Boston this winter, that I shouldn’t be surprised; Boldon himself, who picked up one of the minor medals in the slipstream of Michael Johnson’s Beamonesque 200m in Atlanta, is among the nicest guys you’d ever want to watch a track meet with.

The more I think about him, though, the more I want to know. Now that he’s retired, Greene has locked up a position as the fastest guy who’s never been busted, and that means something; the only retired sprinter with comparable credibility is Carl Lewis. Unlike some of his predecessors (e.g. Dennis Mitchell or Linford Christie) Greene didn’t get caught in some bizarre late-career trying-to-hang-on doping. He was never implicated in the BALCO mess. And some of his aspiring successors (e.g. Tim Montgomery or Justin Gatlin) went down in flames before they could even reach Greene’s longevity in the sport. This doesn’t mean Greene was clean, but unlike many cynics, I’m willing to give him the benefit of belief; I do think people can run that fast without doping, and I don’t have reason to believe that Greene didn’t.

But what a position he must have been in! People he knew, people he trained with, went down the doping path and got busted. He must have stood in the same position they did, at some point, and made the choice between (let’s be dramatic for a second) the dark side and the light side. He must have looked down that dark path, at least, and seen it from a perspective most of us haven’t. I’d love to hear what he has to say about that, among other things.

Now Playing: Everything Must Go from Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans

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Posted by pjm at 9:34 AM | Comments (2)

March 16, 2008

Yeah, yeah, yeah

I’m not sure what’s been behind the drought this week. I could blame last week’s enforced professional logorrhea, but it seems more likely that every time I have an idea which I feel like writing about, it grows into a thousand-word soliloquy before I have a chance to even start writing, and by that point it looks like more of a time suck than I’m ready to take on, so I don’t write at all.

I need more three-sentence posts.

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Posted by pjm at 5:41 PM | Comments (0)

March 13, 2008

Tempting

Figuring out how a particular junk-mail sender got my address and decided I would be a good target can be a mildly amusing game, but I’m still trying to work out how I got the big first-class-postage mailer from the resort in Bermuda. I mean, I’ve been to Bermuda, but several address changes ago.

Now Playing: I Better Be Quiet Now from Figure 8 by Elliott Smith

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Posted by pjm at 2:25 PM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2008

When a line is not a line

I was trying to figure out why I was so bothered by the general behavior of people in the airport lines I saw this week, and I realized that my most-recent experience in European airports was entirely German and Swiss, where lines are taken seriously.

Apparently in Spain and Italy, lines are more of a suggestion. I watched people in security lines and boarding lines (not check-in lines, but I would’ve been much more upset there) casually walk past me and join the line close to the front. In some cases (boarding, generally, but also the passport control line in Milan) the line wasn’t even sharply defined, just a generalized mob with a front and a back through which people filtered at varying rates of speed.

For the most part, it didn’t affect me—I got where I needed to go and didn’t miss anything—but it was a little annoying.

Posted by pjm at 8:40 PM | Comments (4)

A lost opportunity

Someone was leaving a good chunk of cash on the table at the World Indoor Championships. I went out on Sunday to try to find some kind of souvenir concession—t-shirts, hats, whatever. At the big meets I’ve attended in Japan in ‘06 and ‘07, Mizuno (an IAAF sponsor) had at least a tent at the venue with shirts; in Osaka, they had rented an entire store near the stadium which was full of gear. (And I dropped some cash there.)

In Valencia? Nothing. Mizuno had a tent, but it was just Mizuno gear, nothing event-specific. I don’t know if it should’ve been the LOC (which is international athletics jargon for the Local Organizing Committee, the hosts of the event,) the IAAF themselves via the LOC, or Mizuno (or even the Spanish federation,) but somebody could have picked up a few thousand euros selling shirts. The only things I saw with the event logo were the volunteers’ jackets and the backpacks handed out to the press.

Posted by pjm at 7:17 PM | Comments (0)

March 9, 2008

Regrets

It’s still unclear to me how I got to the end of this article without saying much, much more about the women’s high jump.

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Posted by pjm at 6:08 PM | Comments (0)

Fallas fireworks

The Spanish, they love their gunpowder.

We’re in Valencia in the early stages of the Fallas festival, which involves (for a very, very brief summary) large papier-maché statues, copious fireworks, and fire—every statue but one is burned at the culmination of the festival, which comes later this month. (And alcohol, of course.)

Part of the festival includes fireworks at 2:00 every afternoon in the plaza in front of the City Hall. I was there on Thursday, because our press conference was there, and got some video clips of the conflagration. Because the festivities are held in full sunlight, the pyrotechnics rely heavily on noise and smoke, so the racket is tremendous. I briefly suspected that the technicians on the ground had accidentally set off a detonation of all the remaining gunpowder on the ground, before they were launched, but on further consideration I realized the raucous banging and plume of smoke was intentional.

Whenever I’ve been outdoors, particularly this weekend, there have been occasional crackles and bangs of firecrackers on neighboring streets; it’s easy to imagine the city engaged in some bizarre guerrilla warfare with skirmishes breaking out day and night.

The sprint races have seen a rash of false starts here, and I’ve occasionally wondered if the starters are simply joining the celebration of Las Fallas by letting fly a few rounds from their pistols.

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Posted by pjm at 10:13 AM | Comments (0)

Scouting

I was sitting in the sun in a plaza downtown on Thursday, having just finished writing a third postcard, when it occurred to me that I rather liked the kind of tourism I was doing. I wasn’t struggling to visit a length list of “sights,” nor was I footsore in a museum somewhere. I spent the afternoon going where my feet took me, visiting things which looked intriguing but ignoring the “Don’t Miss” lists.

Sometimes I think of these work trips as scouting, as though one of these days I’ll come back to all the places I didn’t really have time to visit the first time, and see the rest of it. I had only an afternoon here in Valencia, but I feel like I filled it well, and I’ll leave early tomorrow with a list of “next times” but without any great regrets.

Turia fountain

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Posted by pjm at 9:52 AM | Comments (0)

Another content-free post

One pleasant side-effect of jet lag is that I really won’t notice the daylight savings time shift. I just discovered this morning that I’m now only five hours ahead, instead of the six I’ve been for the last several days. Since I’m averaging about five hours of sleep a night, working until one or two and rising with the sun, my time zone has ceased to have much connection to my physical state.

Last night’s work: the wrap for Saturday and the preview for Sunday. I’m sort of proud of successfully working in the Morceli reference in the preview and making it work. They tell me I will only be doing the summaries, not the previews, in Beijing, which is a good thing. I think I’ve already mentioned several times how much I don’t love doing previews.

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March 8, 2008

Another night's work

The schedule never lets up, now that the competition has begun. Last night I wrapped up Friday and previewed Saturday. Major gaffe in the preview—I specifically implied a medal contender wasn’t here, but she is—but I have the access to fix it myself, now, and I have.

I also had some illustrious visitors yesterday. (I’m not in the pictures, but my laptop is.) Only Greene is coming back today.

Greatest Of All Time

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The resignations will continue until staffing problems are resolved

Choreographing the many details of an event such as the World Indoor Championships can’t be simple, and the Local Organizing committee (who have undoubtedly been working on these three days for as much as two years, if not more) have to be under a lot of stress.

There’s a lot to go wrong. Like yesterday, when the bus I rode from my hotel to the venue appeared not to know how to actually reach the venue. He looped it twice, and when he appeared to have missed it the third time, the Spanish journalists in the bus crowded to the front, calling to him, “Enough, enough. Stop here.” So finally he did, and we walked from there. Apparently there were other issues with buses not turning up on schedule at all, or nobody knowing where the drop-off and pick-up points were. One of my colleagues made it back to the hotel via the subway system and about 15 minutes of walking, more quickly than I did on the official shuttle bus.

Today, it develops that the transport manager has resigned. Which leaves us wondering: who’s managing the buses for the remaining two days of the championships? (Not to mention the airport shuttles on Monday, now that I think about it.)

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March 7, 2008

Out of time

I wrote four postcards yesterday (checking watch) uh, Thursday, sitting on a warm step in a sunny plaza with no better place to be. I put stamps on, but didn’t get them addressed until that evening.

I’ve spent all of today in the venue (literally from nine to eleven), and expect to do the same tomorrow. I also can’t be sure I’d know the difference between a mailbox and a recycling bin (that would be A Bad Thing). I suppose I’d better leave the cards with reception at the hotel, or I’ll be sending them from an airport.

An airport in Italy, with my luck. If not Logan.

Now Playing: You Don’t Know How It Feels from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

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I'm typing as fast as I can

Aside from the stories I mentioned yesterday, the rest of my work here can be found on this page. Just don’t select the Spanish option—that’s clearly not me.

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Posted by pjm at 10:53 AM | Comments (0)

March 6, 2008

I love having my language skills minimized

I’ve discovered something in Spain (or perhaps in Valencia, which like many regions of Spain has its own special dialect; I’ve heard some, I’m not sure if they’re local, who sound like they’re speaking with a lisp, but it’s just their dialect) which I haven’t encountered anywhere else that I recall.

Specifically, I’ve run into Spaniards who take an entirely American approach to their native language. When they realize you don’t speak Spanish, they slow down and speak louder… but stick to Spanish. Because, of course, the problem is really just that I’m hard of hearing, not that all my language-learning efforts were for languages other than theirs.

Today, I ran into a friendlier guy. First he asked if I was German. (The word is similar to the French, “allemagne” or something like it.) Then if I was British. When I said I was American, he asked if I was from New York. Then I think he offered to sell me hashish. But maybe I misunderstood him.

Now Playing: Scratch To Void by People In Planes

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Posted by pjm at 1:23 PM | Comments (2)

A few previews

Some of the work I was doing last weekend when I wasn’t writing here is online now. This is good, because I doubt I’m going to have much time for feature writing once the events start tomorrow. I’ll be working some long days all weekend!

Anyway, on Saturday and Sunday I was writing about sprinters and putters. It turns out that the verb you never use when describing the shot put is “throw”—you can’t throw the shot. It may be tossed, flung, heaved, or of course put, but not thrown. Of course, the challenge now is to find new and creative ways to sneak this verb by our editor. (Also, the reason IAAF prize money is still in dollars turns out to be much more prosaic than my theories.)

Update: And my Friday preview. I wanted to put “pole vault” in the headline, but it’s not a final yet. I’m doing the site’s competition previews and wrap-up summaries every day; hopefully it will be easier to preview finals when I’ve actually seen the preliminary rounds.

Now Playing: Political Scientist from Love Is Hell by Ryan Adams

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March 5, 2008

Running in the river

This morning I ran in the Jardines de Turia, a long park about 150m-200m wide which runs in a broad arc around the historic center of Valencia. It’s a pretty decent place for a run; I had expected the park to end, eventually, or to be constantly stopping to wait for lights at major road crossings. Instead I found paths which apparently run somewhat more than five miles (I didn’t reach the end) and largely pass under bridges at major roads. In fact, the whole thing was, oddly, ten or twenty feet below the rest of the city. A minor stream ran along the park, but it’s a domesticated thing with pools and, I imagined, pumps somewhere to keep it flowing.

I saw quite a few runners down there, many apparently running with groups. (I also spotted a few Kenyans in town for the meet, so I knew I was in the right place.) It’s mainly concrete paths, but there are some dirt paths of the sort which have been hammered into stone by the tread of however many hundreds opted to avoid the too-hard concrete. (In other words, not much improvement.)

I discovered later that the park was, in fact, the old bed of the River Turia, and that the river had been rerouted to the south of the city after a catastrophic 1957 flood and turned into a massive park, not unlike if Boston drained the Charles from, say, Watertown to the sea and turned it into a park (though narrower, I suspect.)

One of these days I plan to run over to the port where the America’s Cup bases are (with the Swiss winning again last year, the expectation is that the next Cup will be held here as well, so the bases haven’t been dismantled—though the shop at the Alinghi base was running a 60% off sale when I walked there yesterday.) My hotel is as far as they get from the meet venue, but as close to the sea as any of the official meet hotels, so I’m happy to ride a bus back and forth. You can enter the beach there, which also goes for miles, but today the wind was brisk enough that I might have been sandblasted had I tried to run there.

Now Playing: Singing In My Sleep from Feeling Strangely Fine by Semisonic

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March 3, 2008

Confusing the TSA

I was thinking of approaching airport security this afternoon wearing my “WWBSD?” shirt (that’s “What Would Bruce Schneier Do”) but decided against.

Instead, my civil disobedience will be to go through security with an empty half-liter Nalgene bottle and powdered drink mix, which I will use to generate insecure! liquids! with water freely available beyond security.

Honestly, security fear is going to make this decade like the ’80s: a source for satire long after it’s gone.

I’ve been trying to minimize the shock of jet lag by getting up early for most of the last week. If there were no other considerations, I would’ve been up before 5 this morning, but the problem has been getting to bed early enough to do that. Maybe tomorrow I can tell you how it worked.

Now Playing: Army from The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner by Ben Folds Five

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March 2, 2008

Six hours ahead tomorrow night

By this time tomorrow, I’ll be on a plane for Spain (no word on rain in the plane.) I should be writing a story about my favorite non-running event which will come out, along with a story on a particular sprinter, in the next few days.

I will be spending most of my time, starting Friday, on the event “blog,” as I did in Osaka. (It’s not really a blog; my entries will be time-stamped, but they will also be very brief, and can’t be permalinked or commented on.) I will supposedly have a few “guest” bloggers, including Sanya Richards, Jeremy Wariner, and Janeth Jepkosgei; you’re now either impressed or mystified. I will also have a Spanish-language colleague working next to me, a first for the IAAF. I wonder if our readership will be compared.

I’m also writing the event previews each day, a prospect which fills me with some dread as I look back over my Osaka work and notice myself assuring the world (or, at least, the fraction which reads the back pages of Running Times) that “Alan Webb has beaten Bernard Lagat twice this season, and it’s reasonable to say he owns Lagat now.” That didn’t exactly pan out as I expected.

Now Playing: Cool James from Little by Little by Harvey Danger

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Posted by pjm at 8:40 PM | Comments (0)

March 1, 2008

Supply and demand

There’s a long-standing theory that athletics (aka “track and field”) would be more popular as a spectator sport if its athletes earned the same sort of staggering sums common among international football players (for nearly all varieties of “football”,) basketball players, baseball players, etc.

It’s a theory with some contradictions, particularly given the fascinated disgust with which fans sometimes view the top end of the salary scale for the team-sport pros. The undeniable upside is that we associate high monetary values with importance; if we value these athletes highly, along with their training and performance, people will pay more attention to them.

So why don’t we? I’ve talked about how professional runners get paid here before, and even how small our bonuses are. The problem is in supply and demand.

Let’s assume the supply of athletes is pretty much constant across sports. (It is: you can always go down the talent scale and find enough to meet demand. It’s only when you set specific standards for performance that supply fluctuates, and as the Boston Marathon experience proves, setting minimum standards will create an incentive for many athletes to raise their performance level to meet that standard.) In running, we always talk about supply, though: how many men ran marathons under 2:08 or 2:10 in a given year, how many women ran under 2:30, etc.

That’s because running goes all weird on the other side of the scale: demand. The reason professional team-sports athletes get paid as much as they do is because there is competition between teams for their services. Johnny Damon isn’t getting paid as much as he is because the Yankees are seeing that kind of value from his playing; he’s getting paid as much as he is because the Yankees were willing to offer more than the Red Sox.

There’s no analog to this in athletics. It is true that some top marathoners (Olympic gold medalists, world record setters, previous Majors winners) can benefit from competition among the major marathons, but if anything this situation where demand exceeds limited supply and produces monetary reward for some athletes highlights the problem; if there were more athletes running at that level, demand would not necessarily increase, and the same pot of money would be spread between more athletes.

How do we solve that problem? I can think of two other sports with rich athletes and no teams: golf and tennis. We can probably drop golf, because golf is awash in sponsorship cash from advertisers who want to reach the (presumably affluent) spectators for that sport. (Golf is live on television more consistently than athletics, and yet athletics gets better ratings when it is televised. Golf is on more frequently because there are more advertising dollars to make it profitable for the networks.)

I’m not sure how tennis pays its stars. Sponsorships, sure, but we’re doing that, too. Do tennis players get appearance fees for the big tournaments? Is the prize money comparable to marathons or GP track meets? How many pro tennis players are full-time and how many are juggling part-time jobs to subsidize their pro tennis “career”? I don’t know the answers to that, but finance models from outside athletics are likely to be useful when we’re talking about improving the situations of our professional runners.

Now Playing: Wilderness from Angels of Destruction! by Marah

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