06 March 2012

Four things that are angering me and one thing that makes me happy

Apparently I'm just in one of those "you know what really grinds my gears?" moods which requires me to bitch about stuff on the internet. I'm going to knock out a couple of these to get them out of my head.

(1) Mrs SB7 just got an email from the massive public school system for which she works informing her that everyone's W-2 is garbage. Apparently this employer, who has been doing this for decades, and has about twenty thousand employees, counted non-taxable pension contributions as taxable income. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that strikes me as a fairly obvious, boneheaded error. It's pretty infuriating that they would figure this out in March. I know accounting is not as trivial as it often appears from the outside, but how hard is it really to sum up all the money a person got paid over the course of a calendar year?

It's a damn good thing I didn't file my taxes last week when I finished them.

(2) Sallie Mae can not come to grips with the fact that Mrs SB7 is employed 42 weeks a year as a teacher. It's not like she's the only ten month employee in the country. They're insisting that her annual income must be 26 times her biweekly income even though we — and they — know she's only paid 21 times a year. This is after they assured us several months ago, and several batches of forms and applications ago, that they can account properly for this sort of thing. As a result they're greatly overestimating our income, and thus our required monthly payments.

They've asked that we submit our 2011 tax forms to demonstrate our annual income.*
Although, see above, we can't do this until the school systems gets their shit together and provides an accurate W-2.
This seems reasonable, but since Mrs SB7 was hired part-way through the year this will dramatically understate our income. Sallie Mae will end up getting less from us than we're offering to pay. This is fine by me; I'm more than happy to underpay by a year after overpaying for a quarter. But sweet jesus! how incompetent are these people? I'm legally obligated (and willing!) to give them ~$600. They bill me $850. I ask them to reconsider. They say "fine! it's a pain, but we'll accept $425." What epsilon morons are running that place?

PS See also "The Transformation of Student Loans into Taxes" at Political Calculations.

(3) I've gone to two talks in the last week that were given by people from a different department than the professors hosting the talks. (The first speaker was a Computer Scientist speaking to Statisticians, and the second was an Operation Research guy from the B-school speaking to Computer Scientists.) I'm getting really tired of hearing questions from professors in the audience that amount to "Isn't it true that you're doing everything wrong and this whole project is pointless?" There are always, always, *always* these sorts of questions at these sorts of talks, typically asked over and over by the same (usually senior) prof.

Sure, it's important for the speaker to motivate their work and explain the context. It's on them to explain why they're doing the work they're doing and why it's valuable. And it's also important to be critical and push back against people's work rather than blindly accepting it. But is it too much to ask that the audience just accept some things like the basic motivation of the speaker? Especially when the speaker is from a different discipline? I'm not asking anyone to accept a bunch of questionable conjectures about cold fusion or string theory or P being equal to NP on faith. Just allow for the possibility that when someone says "a lot of people are interested in solving this problem, because it would enable..." it might actually be true that people want to solve this problem.

When someone from another department claim that Problem X is important and common or Situation Y is computationally intractable or Characteristic Z is desirable isn't it at least possible that they're telling the truth? Couldn't it possibly be that they know more about this domain than you do? Seeing as how it's the field they've been studying for years and it's something you only have a passing familiarity with? When questioning the motivation of someone from another discipline is it that hard to phrase your question in a charitable way, leaving open the possibility that the speaker knows something you don't and isn't just a charlatan wasting your time? Is that too much to ask? Is it that difficult to say "Have you considered using a Fast Fourier Transform there? It seems like that could be helpful." rather than "Ugh! I don't see the point! Just use an FFT and be forget all the rest of this nonsense."

(4) The lease on Villa SB7 is up in a couple of months, so I received a latter from our apartment manager about the new lease terms. Our rent is going up a modest amount, which is fine. It also looks like utilities will no longer be included. I'm okay with both of those things. It's their property; they can charge what they like.

What angers me is that there's a paragraph included in this letter (which I suspect is legally required) that states the county's recommended rent increase guideline, in this case 2%. My landlord then says that my rent is going up 3%, and that if I think this is unfair I can contact the county. But that 3% doesn't include the utility bills I will have to pay directly to the landlord. All-in-all I'll probably end up writing a check to them for about 10% more than I did last year. Again, I'm fine with this. Their property; their prices. But don't increase the price 10% then tell me you're increasing it 3%.

They did the same thing last year, imposing a modest increase in the rent itself, started charging for parking and canceled a discount I got for being a state employee, but only reported the change in the rent itself as the difference in price from the previous year.

I'm going to be paying about 20% more than I did when I moved in two years ago, but they're telling me (and the county) that I'm only paying 6% more. Screw that noise. Raise your prices all you want, but have the decency to be honest about it. Don't piss on my boots and tell me it's raining.

(5) Okay. Glad that's out of my system. Let me try and balance out that bitterness dump with one item worthy of several Huzzahs!

Columbia University | Visual Arts Faculty Sarah Sze will represent the US at the 2013 Venice Biennale

Sarah Sze, Professor of Visual Arts at Columbia University School of the Arts, has been chosen to represent the United States at La Biennale di Venezia in 2013. Her work will be presented by Holly Block and the Bronx Museum of the Arts in the 55th In­ter­na­tion­al Art Exhib­ition. [...]

Sze has won acclaim for her minutely detailed, accumulative instal­la­tions, in which everyday items such as coffee cups, plastic bottles and electrical fans become vital objects that defy the boundaries between the throwaway and the precious, the mundane and the monumental.

Sze has always been known for work that challenges viewers to experience space in unexpected ways, and her installation at the U.S. Pavilion at the Biennale promises to do the same on a grand scale. Sze will create a sequence of constructed environments that will activate the Pavilion’s architecture and extend beyond the building and into the courtyard, blurring the perceptual boundaries between the site’s interior and exterior.

In conjunction with the installation, the Bronx Museum of the Arts will create a video stream documenting Sze’s process of conceiving, fabricating, and installing the piece. This will extend the project’s reach beyond the Giardini and link Sze with a worldwide audience.
I am just pleased as can be about this. Sze is one of my three of four favorite artists in the world. I've got a real soft spot for sculptors whose work moves past "here's an object on the ground" or "here's a thing on a pedestal." Sze's work is like a fractal space-filling curve of stuff.

(Via 3qd)


  1. (1) Let me guess - they use Paychex for payroll processing? They did the same thing to ours, and it took *me* to notice it. Not our entire payroll/accounting dept, not anyone at the processor, me. This was weeks ago and we're still waiting on new ones.

  2. I work for a small company that does payroll processing. The government makes hefty changes every year, and lately they've been changing what has to go on the W-2. Someone made a mistake. It sucks, but it happens. One of my coworkers' daughter works for one of the cities nearby and had the same problem--also, I believe, due to Paychex.

  3. @anon — I can't find any mention of Paychex on their website, but I don't have the paystubs in front of me so I won't rule it out.

    @rick — I'm sympathetic about the yearly changes, really. I thought it was attrocious how late Congress delayed making a decision about something as basic as the employee FICA rate. But from what I can tell from the terse, poorly written advisory email we got alerting us of the error, this seems like a much more fundamental problem. I'd be pretty shocked if this income was taxable in 2010, but not in 2011. (And that the change was made late enough in the year to slip by.)

    What bugs me is that I doubt there will be any consequences for this. If I screwed up my taxes, the IRS would take it out of my hide. If a private employer screwed this up, I'm sure the same would happen. But what's going to happen to my county government for screwing the pooch on this? They're not bearing the cost; we are. If anything, it's a justification for *increasing* the budget they have for accounting and payroll.