If you get a big tax refund, you’re doing it wrong

This probably gets said to everyone every year, but I feel I need to repeat it: if you get back a big tax refund, it’s not like you’ve outsmarted The Man, or like you’ve gotten a big windfall; it’s just that you paid the government more throughout the year than you needed to, and they’re giving you back what you overpaid.

I really think many people don’t understand what they’re doing when they file their taxes. They’re computing on the one hand how much they should have paid during the previous year, and on the other hand how much they actually did pay. Subtract what you did pay from what you were supposed to pay. If the result is a number greater than zero, then you underpaid during the year, and you need to pay to make up the difference; if it’s less than zero, you overpaid, and the IRS owes you back some of your own money.

When you underpay throughout the year, you can take the extra money from every paycheck and put it in a bank account and earn interest, or you can invest it and (if you’re lucky) earn a positive return. Whereas if you overpay, the government doesn’t pay you interest at the end of the year. So by overpaying throughout the year and receiving a refund at the end of the year, you’ve given the Federal government an interest-free loan throughout the year.

The optimal strategy, then, is to do two things:

  1. Estimate, early in the year, roughly how much you’re going to owe in taxes.
  2. Underpay throughout the year by just enough that the IRS never gets mad.

Actually, 2. isn’t quite right. It’s okay to get them mad, because when they get mad they just charge you money. If you know your tax situation well enough, you can have them charge you just enough money that you still end up ahead. Suppose they charge you $1.05 for every dollar you underpaid. Well, if you can get a 6% return on your money by investing it rather than paying it to the IRS, you should just invest that money, earn 6%, then pay the 5% penalty. You’ll still end up ahead.

But presumably they don’t just charge you some fixed low rate of interest for every dollar by which you underpaid throughout the year. I don’t know, but I would imagine you pass some threshold where your underpayment makes them really unhappy (we might say that their response is “nonlinear”). So the optimal strategy would be to underpay such that the marginal dollar of underpayment is just offset by a marginal dollar of fines from the IRS.

I realize this takes all the fun out of why people like tax refunds. They like seeing a nice big check. And I think a lot of people don’t believe they have the self-control to set aside a few dollars with every paycheck; they believe they could handle a windfall better. If that’s how you feel, then go you. Empirically, I wonder if it’s true that people can handle a windfall in their taxes any better than they can handle a small regular payment.

Generally speaking, I don’t understand why people find taxes so vexing. For most of us, it’s simple:

  1. Add up all the money you made during the year.
  2. Subtract exemptions for yourself and your dependents.
  3. Subtract deductions for your house and charitable contributions.
  4. Use the tax tables to figure out what you owe.

Some people do have it hard. Small-business owners, I would wager, will find this particularly tricky. If you have lots of complicated financial assets, it’s probably annoying. I’d like to look it up empirically, but here’s a quick observation: most people don’t itemize their deductions. If you take that as a measure of how complicated most people’s returns are, you have your answer: most people’s returns aren’t complicated.

And if the pain of filing your taxes is that you’re sending money to the IRS, you can eliminate this pain by just setting up your withholdings properly throughout the year. Set it up so that you owe nothing, and are owed nothing, at the end of the year. If you’re like 2/3 of Americans, this isn’t hard: you’re not even going to be itemizing the deduction for the home you own.

Indeed, most Americans would be just fine letting the IRS handle their taxes for them, if we had such a thing; we’d be more likely to have such a thing if tax preparers weren’t lobbying against it. Your employer would submit your salary to the IRS; your bank would submit your interest income; your mortgage company would submit any interest payments you made; the IRS would tell you what you owe, and you’d be done with it.

For most people, though, I just don’t see what the big deal is.

Tiny adventures in home improvement: the Nest thermostat and smoke detector

Attention conservation notice: 1800 words on how-to instructions for Nest products, leading into some thoughts on being afraid of things you don’t know how to do, leading into some thoughts on needing a mentor, leading into an idea for a bartered mentoring scheme.

Me, I’m not so good at the handyman stuff. Which is something of a shame, because I’m sort of the landlord-in-residence at the apartment that I rent from my friends. But the smoke detectors needed to be upgraded: the existing ones start screaming when the wind blows the wrong way, and the Nests promise that you can silence them easily when all you’re doing is burning some toast (they call this the “Nest Wave”; they’ve recently remotely disabled it).

Marco Arment doesn’t think the Nest Protect solves any real problem, because “If your smoke detector has too many false alarms, moving it is going to be a far more effective upgrade. And if you can’t move it, you probably also can’t replace it.” It’s a fair cop. It’s even fairer to note that the existing crappy Kidde smoke detectors already had a “hush mode”, which was supposed to do what the Nest Wave does. My only hope here is that a higher-end product, from a company that seems to want to establish a relationship with its customers, is more likely to deliver on the promise.

Add to this the fact that everyone who owns a Nest thermostat loves it, and that (I assume) there are increasing returns to owning more Nest devices: if nothing else, the Nest smoke detectors can communicate with each other wirelessly. Altogether, it seemed like there were good reasons to go all-in on Nest products: I bought seven of the smoke detectors and one thermostat.

Before I go into the handyman aspect of this, which is the whole point of the post, let me just note that the thermostat is beautiful. It’s packaged with the same loving care that Apple puts into their products; the product is elegantly simple (again, like an Apple product); and it has a remarkably pleasing weight.

Installing the thermostat was really quite easy. The basic gist of the installation routine is just

  1. Pay attention to which color wires go into which marked terminals (Y1, G, Rh, etc.). Take a photo with your phone.
  2. Turn off the power to your house, so that you don’t die. (I think I could have just killed the power to the furnace, but I didn’t know for sure.)
  3. Remove the old thermostat.
  4. Put the new thermostat base on, and level it with the handily included bubble level.
  5. Plug the wires into the appropriate terminals.
  6. Put the new thermostat on the base.
  7. Turn the power back on.
  8. Go through a little dance to configure it.

Nice short, straight, perfectly vivid segments of wire, not much at all like what I encountered It was basically painless. The only pain, really, was that I had to strip some wires. The wiring diagram from Nest (included at right) suggests that your segments of wire will be perfectly straight, will be cut to exactly the lengths you need, and will have the appropriate lengths of exposed copper. Mine did not meet these criteria. The first couple times I tried wiring it up and turning the power back on, I got the dreaded error 24, which seemed to mean that I hadn’t wired things up properly. This has to do with the Rh wire, apparently. I gather that the ‘h’ stands for ‘heating’. Unsure what the ‘R’ stands for. Now that I’ve played with this stuff, I would like to understand more about what I just did. If anyone has any books you’d recommend here, do let me know.

In any case, I had to shorten some wires so that they’d make nice straight segments. Then I had to strip the shielding off the ends, so that they’d conduct when put in contact with the terminals. With that done, everything went smoothly.

The Nest UI is really cool. One of the screens showed me which wires were connected to which terminals, thereby revealing to me that my Nest wasn’t ready to control the apartment’s air conditioning. (Maybe it was the Y1 wire? I forget.) So I took off the thermostat, killed the power — probably excessive, but still — stripped a bit more shielding, put the wire back in, put the thermostat back on, and voilà: the device showed me that it now saw a wire where it expected to find one, and told me on another screen that it could now control the A/C. Brilliant.

Putting in a smoke detector was even easier, though it was exhausting to bend my head back to look up at the ceiling and screw a bunch of stuff in above my head; I now know exactly how Michelangelo felt.

Here the only steps were

  1. Kill the power.
  2. Take the old backplate to the old smoke detector off the ceiling.
  3. Screw in the new backplate.
  4. Remove the old wire nuts that connect the existing black, white, and red wires.
  5. Pair the new Nest black wire with the existing black wire and the new white wire with the existing white wire, and put the new wire nuts on over the existing wires. Then put a wire nut over the existing red interconnect wire: the Nest thermostat doesn’t need it; Nest uses 802.15.4 to connect devices wirelessly. I seem to recall reading that it uses your home WiFi to connect until all the thermostats are Nest, but that doesn’t 100% make sense to me: what happens if your WiFi router is down? In any case, Nest doesn’t use the red wire.
  6. Install the Nest smartphone app and tell it that you want to add a smoke detector. It’ll ask you to take a photo of the QR code on the back of the device. After you’ve done that, it’ll tell you the ESSID of the device’s ad-hoc wireless network; connect to that ESSID through your phone’s WiFi control. (You may need to press the button on the smoke detector; the blue ring will light up, and within a few seconds the ad-hoc network will show up on your phone.)
  7. Connect the power cable (which is hanging off the black and white wires) to the Nest.
  8. Tuck all the cables away in the ceiling, and twist the Nest onto the ceiling.

And you’re done! There’s a little smartphone-app / website dancing to do here, but that’s all obvious.

I’ll admit to you that I was a little scared of installing this. What if I do something wrong? What if I disable our smoke detectors? It helped me a little that our existing smoke detectors were all but disabled, because they went off too often to do anyone any good.

As a general matter I think I’m too scared in my life of doing things wrong. This fear leads often to procrastination, which of course only makes the problem worse: you’re still scared of doing things wrong, but now you’re just going to have to worry about it for longer. And if it’s like most things in your life, the obligation won’t go away; that thing at work that you’re concerned you might fail on is now something that you might fail on after having avoided it for too long. So now you have other people thinking you can’t do it, which makes you look stupid or incapable in front of other people, which is (to my mind) worse than merely fearing your own incapacity.

You see how badly this turns out. In many cases I think I need a mentor to help me get over the hurdle: someone who will show me the ropes and convince me that in fact I know what I’m doing. Mentors are incredibly valuable; had I gone off on my own to learn Linux, without Adam watching over my shoulder, the whole bizarre Unix universe would have probably seemed too daunting to get started on, and I might have ditched it. And I wouldn’t have built the reasonably successful career I’ve been on ever since.

So it is with home-repair stuff. It’d be fun to put together a list of things I want to do around this apartment, then invite someone over to be by my side while I do them. They’d tell me things I should do differently, the corners I could cut, the shortcuts I could take, the extra little bit of hardware that, if I bought it (or borrowed it from a municipal library), would radically speed up my work. That would lower the difficulty of tasks in the future, which would lower my fear, which would mean I could do more on my own. Increasing returns! Indeed, this home-improvement coach would hopefully be someone who could tell me all the things that could be improved in my apartment that I just don’t see because I’ve not been trained. Hiring someone to train you on these things — without going to a vo-tech school, say — would be hugely great. I believe there are bicycle shops in Cambridge that do that: you can pay them $n to repair your bike, or pay them $m (where 0 <= m < n) to teach you how to repair your own.

Jeez. Writing this out puts me in a mind to construct some kind of community mentoring scheme. I could mentor people in what I know well (computer stuff, say); they could mentor me in what they know well and that I need help on, like carpentry or interior decorating or electrical work or plumbing. The first retort that comes to mind on this is “How do you know you’re getting the right training from these people?” In principle you should ask the same question of Harvard or MIT professors, but those institutions are assumed to have vetted their staff properly. As for the Adams of the world, teaching people Linux … well, I knew Adam, so that solved that. In any case, the proper solution here would be Yelp for education, essentially. I teach you about Linux, and you rate how well you liked my teaching. Or maybe we find some more objective way to evaluate whether you learned what I ostensibly taught. E.g., you should be able to answer the question “how do you list the contents of a directory at the Unix shell?” after I’m done teaching you. And so forth. Combine a community mentoring scheme with a community library of tools (borrow a drill for an hour from the library, say), and you’ve got something really cool.

Yes, in some sense this is recapitulating the idea of “school”, but in important ways I think it’s different. It’s a you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours kind of system. And as described, it sounds a lot like like barter.

(Is ‘skill-share’ a generic term for this? A moment’s Googling suggests it may be.)

I dunno. I think this is worth doing. It’s all in the pursuit of reducing fear.

Does Heartbleed mean that C should die?

The “Does that pretty much wrap it up for C?” piece (via my man Jamie Forrest) is interesting, but I think he needs to talk it out a bit more. I mean, at some level, someone is going to have to do memory allocation on bare metal. And what do we do then? And there are always going to be functions that need high performance, because they’re in the middle of some tight inner loop. Or in the SSL case, someone is going to need to do very specific things with memory, like making sure it’s not holding any sensitive data.

My understanding of modern malloc implementations is that they include all kinds of sophisticated ways to prevent buffer-overflow attacks. When you request a block of memory, they set it up such that requests past the end of your block cause a segfault. Or they randomize the blocks they give you, so that you can’t just grab the next few bytes and expect there to be anything there.

I’m not a C programmer (I really need to know it, I think, to be a complete programmer), but all of this says a couple things to me:

  1. If you use the right libraries, you should be protected against a lot of stupid behavior. Makes you wonder, for instance, why the OpenSSL team wasn’t using tcmalloc or ptmalloc. I’m sure there’s a reason; I just don’t know the problem space well enough to say.
  2. Any serious software system, whether down at the bare metal like C or higher up like Python, is going to require lots of testing, regardless of whether it’s got compile-time type safety. There should be lots of unit tests. Ideally, the unit tests would also be able to simulate other components, using mock objects and whatnot. And then you need integration tests to see how well your component integrates with others. And then, in the case of a secure system, you probably need to bombard it with very focused buffer-overflow attacks, written by dudes who know the code inside and out. (Sort of like penetration testing within a company, on the assumption that you’re most vulnerable to your own employees.) And for performance reasons, you should also test it by bombarding it with millions of requests per second and seeing where it breaks. Testing is hard. QA is hard, and is very often not respected as a peer of engineering. Engineering is sexier. If you’re really good at QA, you’re spending your time writing systems to test many thousands of cases rather than just grinding out the same manual test over and over, and you’d probably rather be off building something new. Engineers also feel this way: they’d rather be writing new versions of the code than maintaining the old stuff.
  3. An ideal team will learn from its mistakes and build systems that prevent the same bug — or similar bugs — from reappearing.
  4. Building good software requires a good organization and good management (whether by “management” we mean someone who’s controlling the work product of his direct reports, or something broader like “group structure”). This is a variant of Conway’s Law: “Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce systems which are copies of the communications structures of these organizations.”

Let me be clear that I say all of this with absolutely no understanding of the OpenSSL code base, much less an understanding of the OpenSSL team’s structure. But it just strikes me that blaming an OpenSSL bug on the C language doesn’t really get at the problem. A successful software system will fix this mistake and ensure that it never happens again. A successful open-source software system will take community direction to build such a resilient system, and will do it all with a fully open process. That goes beyond narrow issues of language choice.

Why doesn’t Blue Cross fly me to Nebraska?

This paragraph in a Vox post about Vermont’s single-payer plan pokes at a question I’ve had for a long time:

American doctors spend lots of money dealing with insurers because there are thousands of them, each negotiating their own rate with every hospital and doctor. An appendectomy, for example, can cost anywhere from $1,529 to $186,955, depending on how good of a deal an insurer can get from a hospital.

My mental model of this part of health care is that there are four players: the patient, the insurer, the employer, and the provider. The insurer negotiates a price with the provider for a given procedure. The employer picks an insurer, based on price and various other things. (I’m ignoring the VA Medical System, which is like the UK’s National Health System; I’m ignoring Medicare, which is like Canadian single-payer; I’m ignoring the individual market; etc.) I … well, I just work where I work, and in practice I’m not going to pick my employer based on how cheap a deal they get on appendectomies.

Now then. Who has the incentive to keep things cheap? Well, I do, I guess, inasmuch as I have some “skin in the game”, which is why the terrible state of the art in health insurance is that I pay more and more and have a very large deductible. (Hey, at least I won’t go bankrupt! I mean that half-seriously.) My employer does, to some extent. For one thing, they pay the majority of my health-insurance premium; they’d like to pay less of that. For another, every dollar they pay toward health insurance is a dollar they can’t pay toward salaries, and every dollar they take away from salaries decreases their odds of getting good candidates.

Where the rubber really hits the road on prices is the insurer. The less the insurer can pay for appendectomies, the more profit they make. To the extent that the insurer can just pass costs along to the patient, the insurer doesn’t really care what it’s paying for appendectomies. The more urgent the care, the more the insurer can pass it along to the customer, maybe. (I’ll gladly bankrupt myself to pay for an emergency appendectomy.)

Let’s assume that the insurer can’t just pass costs directly along to the patient. And let’s assume that neither the insurer nor the provider has unlimited bargaining power: the insurer can’t pay $0.01 for an appendectomy, and the provider can’t charge $1 million for it.

If the insurer negotiates a rate of $100,000 with one provider for a given procedure, and negotiates a rate of $1500 with another … why not pay me to fly to the cheap hospital? Suppose it’s in North Dakota while I’m in Boston. Why not pay for the plane ticket, pay for the airfare, and — hell — compensate my employer for the value they lost while I was gone. If I estimated that all of that together, plus the cost of the procedure at the cheap hospital, would cost the insurer $10,000, I think I’d be radically overestimating it. But that’s $90,000 less than they were going to have to pay. So: good for them!

Maybe emergency procedures are a bad example: if you need them now, you need them now. Even there, though, I wonder whether it would be medically justified to stick me in a chartered flight to North Dakota. Maybe there’d be a whole fleet of medical airplanes run by the insurance companies. Just spitballing here!

Two other notes:

  1. All of the above, I think, shows that “consumer-directed health care” is nonsense. The insurer is still going to be the locus of the cost savings, under any system (and whether that insurer is the U.S. government or a private company). There’s just no reason to expect that the consumer can do anything here. Maybe consumer-directed health care means that I’ll go to my podiatrist a little less often. If I need that appendectomy, though, I need that appendectomy.

  2. Somehow that Vox piece goes through 3,000-plus words, by my count, without once explaining what has to be the most interesting question about single payer in Vermont: how did they bring the insurers and the hospitals on board? How did they get around the hospitals? There are vague nods in the direction of Vermont being liberal, and the movement being grassroots. And they mention that the hospitals aren’t happy with this. (Really?) But how did they neuter the hospitals here? How did they neuter the private insurers? Or did they? I’m worried that skipping this part of the story is an occupational hazard at Vox. They’re trying very hard to explain “just the facts”, and there are only so many words they can pack in. If we get to the level of What Is The World Wide Web? it’s going to take us a while to get up to “how did Vermont and Canada claim victory over the pre-existing health-industry power structure?” I’ll wait patiently, but that kind of depth seems a ways off.

Buying a home in Boston, redux

For whatever reason, I’ve been obsessed for a long while with buying a home around here. Interest rates are crazy low, and the housing market is insane, and it seems like every other conversation I have around here now is on that subject.

I can’t make decisions on complicated open-ended topics like this unless I can pin down some of the parameters. So here’s what I think I can safely say:

  • I don’t want to lower what I contribute toward retirement. Right now I contribute the legal maximum toward my 401(k). (The house shouldn’t crowd out other financially important decisions. I think people tend to think about the house in isolation.)
  • I figure that after all is said and done, I can afford to spend 30% of my net income (net of 401(k) contributions, taxes, health and dental insurance, etc.) on housing. 30% works out to about $1600 per month, in regular months (months when I don’t get paid a bonus, etc.). That would have to cover the mortgage, any repairs (whose expected cost I could only guess at), property taxes, etc. (I’m lucky not to have any other debts, having paid off my college loan 18 months ago.)
  • With reasonable guesses for property taxes and so forth, and with a pretty low-interest mortgage, $1600/month will get you an approximately $373,000 house.
  • If you ask Zillow or whomever, it turns out that $373,000 will buy you a few hundred square feet in Cambridge. Not a lot of space. Prices in Cambridge average $512 per square foot, last I checked; at that price, a 1000-square-foot condo would cost me about $2200 out of pocket every month. (Alternatively, I could put down a quarter of a million dollars as a downpayment toward a 1000-square-foot condo, but I don’t have that much cash on hand.)
  • A multi-family home changes things a bit. If you aim to spend $1600 a month, if you buy a triple decker, and if you rent out two of the units, you can buy an approximately $1 million home. Of course this assumes that you put down $200,000 for the downpayment. I don’t have that kind of money sitting around just yet. Give it a year and a half, and maybe I will. It’s also not clear that there are any triple-deckers available around here for that little money.
  • If I ask the New York Times and probably lots of other calculators, and I tell them what I’d expect to pay for rent, and I plug in $373,000, and I don’t assume any appreciation in the value of my home (which seems like the safest approach, even though values are going up rapidly [1]), then it turns out that owning is only better than renting after six years. I can’t be certain that I’ll be living here in six years. Though if I bought a home here and left after a few years, I could hand it over to a property-management company to take care of for me while I’m gone. (At the moment it does seem like Boston would be the right place for me and my family long-term.)

That’s what I’ve got at the moment, when I try to consider buying a home rationally rather than for the emotional reasons that get pounded into every American’s head. How about you? Do you have any other fixed points of analysis?

[1] – Would home appreciation even help me? Suppose the value of my home rises at some stratospheric rate every year — like 10%. I sell it in 5 years for 61% more than I bought it for. But now I need to live somewhere else. Assuming there’s nothing idiosyncratic about the place I’ve just sold, the new property I would buy would likely also have risen in value by 61%. So I wouldn’t profit off the appreciation.

Seems like some of the only ways to profit off of a rise in home prices are to

  1. move to somewhere where prices haven’t risen as much (e.g., the suburbs);
  2. borrow money on the increased value of your home and invest it;
  3. rent instead of buy; or
  4. buy a smaller (hence cheaper) place than the place I’m selling.

If I sold a home in Cambridge, I would likely want to buy a new home in Cambridge, so 1) is out. 2) entails some obvious risks, but is probably the smartest of the 4. And if the market is sane, then the prices to rent and to buy should be approximately equal, which knocks out 3). Finally, 4) makes sense if you’re buying the new property during your retirement years, after your kids have moved out, but the standard arc of a middle-class American life would suggest that your new home would likely be larger than the one you’re selling.

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

A painting of a woman that's covered over with white paper. Periodically there are holes cut out of the paper. The holes are larger at the top of the paper than at the bottom. The holes are in fact in the shape of the moon. At the top of the paper is a full moon; as we move down the page, the moon looks more and more like a crescent. At the top of the page we can see most of her fact. By the bottom of the page we can see very little. I hardly want to tell you anything about this book. Mostly I just want to tell you to go read it right away. Eleanor Catton, who has won a Booker Prize for The Luminaries at 28 years old and has thereby left half the world with their jaws agape, has pulled off a magic trick with this book.

It’s really hard for me to describe it as anything other than a magic trick. While reading it, I for some reason couldn’t help but contrast it with the magic involved in some amazing piece of machinery. I don’t really understand what’s happening in my iPhone, yet somehow that’s expected: it presents as a single smooth piece of glass, with all the magic carefully hidden away. The Luminaries, like all novels, shows you all its workings. Yet Catton’s novel feels more magical than any machine.

Catton plays with time, periodically jumping back years and months to explain how we got here. She plays with storytelling: characters tell stories that involve other characters, and the other characters inside the stories tell stories of their own. She plays with narration: our narrator is possibly omniscient, and it’s really hard to tell which era he or she is in: the narrator could exist in the 19th century like the rest of the novel, or could be telling us the whole story from a century on. For that matter, the narrator might be an incorporeal essence rather than a human.

Yet the most magical part of all is that, with all these magic tricks going on, Catton is a careful enough storyteller that she never leaves us behind. She knows that all the nested storytelling and playing with time could leave us confused, and paranoid that we’re missing something. So she’s careful to bring us along slowly: when she returns us to a character who exists at the intersection of three or four different stories, the story carefully reminds us of that character’s significance. And it’s not clunky at all: Catton has the characters dance with each other in such a way that they’re naturally going to explain to each other what’s going on. Catton’s handling of this complexity says both that she is a master of the story she’s telling, and completely understands the ear of the person she’s telling it to. This sort of deftness would be astonishing from writers of any age; from a 28-year-old, it’s practically a miracle.

You might be wondering what this book is about. I almost don’t want to tell you. How about if I just tell you about the first chapter. One of our fellows arrives in a New Zealand gold-rush town in the middle of the night, having just taken a journey by boat that unnerved him to his core. When he shows up at the inn where he’s to stay, he sits down before a fireplace in a comfortable leather chair, hoping to decompress and cast off the cares that followed him in from the sea. A talkative fellow starts chatting him up, and soon enough he realizes that all the other gentlemen in the room are listening very carefully while trying hard to seem nonchalant. All the others, in fact, seem to be occupying very prescribed spots in the room. Why are they listening? Why do they care?

The conversation between our voyager and his new intimates continues, until eventually someone says something that makes everyone else’s spines tingle. Suddenly the twelve men in the room, and the newcomer, realize that they are tied together by the ship voyage that our visitor has just taken. The rest of the room lights up. Suddenly all those who had been sitting quietly are very interested indeed in what this new fellow has to say.

Much of the book proceeds similarly. Characters end up in the same room as other characters, and start chatting amiably about the odd gossip that would consume any newcomer in a gold-rush town: everyone is out to make a fortune, and the world has been creates anew. Everyone is fresh off the boat from Scotland or England; even the prostitutes have just arrived. Yet somehow by the end of every conversation, something even more mysterious and unnerving has been revealed.

A long sequence of these dialogues could make you feel like you’re reading Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicles — an amazing read but a terrible tease. I always envision Murakami writing Wind-Up Bird during a weeks-long cocaine binge, at the end of which he checked himself into Betty Ford and wrapped up the book as quickly as he could. Alternatively, I envision him carrying on the world’s most thrilling juggling show, throwing chainsaws and jaguars and smaller versions of Haruki Murakami himself into the air, spinning them dazzlingly, and then — just when you think he can’t continue with this magical show any longer — deciding he’s bored and ending the whole show in an instant, the whole structure falling to the ground with a splat.

I was somewhat worried throughout The Luminaries that we’d have another Wind-Up Bird on our hands. I was only somewhat afraid, though: even from the beginning, it’s clear that Catton is completely in control of her narration, of her dialogue, and of the novel’s full architecture. Indeed, I would be astonished if she didn’t have the whole story literally mapped out on her wall, like James Joyce plotting out his characters’ motions around Dublin with the aid of a stopwatch.

It’s a masterpiece. I get chills of joy when I imagine what art this brilliant author will give to the world over her long career.

Merging and de-duping contacts under iOS and OS X

I guess I’m some sort of completist when it comes to having accurate contact information for my friends. OS X has made it really worth your while to keep that information up to date, for a few reasons.

First, if you have a friend with an oddly spelled name, and you don’t have that person’s name in your contacts, then OS X will flag the spelling of your friend’s name with the dreaded red wavy underline; it flags no spelling problems if you have them in your contacts.

Second, if you keep all the various ways of addressing a given person under the same contact, OS X lets you search for that person using every available identifier. For instance, I have a colleague whose real name is ‘Junrui’, but whose nickname is ‘Hench’; if I’m diligent about including the ‘nickname’ field and the real first name in his contact entry, then I can search Mail.app (inter alia, presumably) using either the nickname or the first name. The same goes for an old friend, for whom I have eleven email addresses and two family names, one hyphenated. If I don’t keep these contacts merged, then I need to remember whether the email message I’m searching for came from him when he was just “John Smith” or had become “John Smith-Jones” (note: not his actual name). With merged contacts, you can just search for ‘Smith’ and be done with it.

Third, the Calendar app can display a feed of contacts’ birthdays, which you can selectively choose to display or hide. I like that much better than having to keep a separate annually recurring calendar entry for every one of my friends. Instead I just stick their birthdays (and anniversaries) in the appropriate contact entries, which is where they belong.

Social networks make things a little more complicated. iOS lets you pull in contacts from your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. To some extent this is all to the good: now your contact entries will have your friends’ Facebook profile pages, their Twitter handles, and so forth. But now you also have multiple contacts for each person: one contact for John Smith via LinkedIn, one for John Smith via Facebook, and so forth. Annoying.

Enter iOS and Mac contact merging. This is useful, but frustrating. You can merge contacts on OS X, and merge them on iOS, but I have thus far not been able to make them sync as smoothly as one would like. Syncing between iOS and OS X is otherwise quite smooth, using iCloud: you change a field in the contact on your Mac, and by the time you come to your iPhone, the contact is updated there. Great! Except that merging contacts under OS X doesn’t seem to merge the corresponding contacts on iOS.

So then, if you’re as (apparently) anal about this as I am, you go over to your iPhone and merge there, too. (You do this by editing one of the contact entries you want to merge, going to the bottom of the entry, selecting ‘Link Contacts’, and then selecting — one by one — all the other contacts to merge.) This is twice the effort, because anal.

Now you have your contacts merged on both devices. New problem: how does the Apple universe de-duplicate entries? Suppose you list your home address on Facebook as “Cambridge, MA 02139″, whereas you list it on LinkedIn as “Cambridge, MA 02139-3986″; how do you de-dup that? At least two plausible alternatives come to mind: either include both addresses in the merged contact, or merge them into a single address with more information in it — in this case, a single address with the ZIP+4. iOS seems to go for the first option: include multiple nearly identical addresses. Which is a little annoying because, if you’re OCD about this sort of thing (as I apparently am), you are then very tempted to then go through and de-dup everything properly.

I don’t fully understand the internal logic of merged iOS contacts. I think they’re designed with the assumption that you can un-merge them later; depending upon how they implemented that, it may mean that you can’t delete a superfluous address entry: you may un-link the cards later, and will at that point need to recover the original address. So it’s possible that when you delete a duplicate field in a merged contact entry, iOS keeps the deleted field around, hidden, and available for un-hiding if you decide to un-link. It’s confusing to me.

While writing all of this up, I discovered some oddities about the merging/syncing logic:

  • OS X has a “maiden name” field in contact entries. That’s handy: again, I may want to search for “Jane Smith” before she became “Jane Jones”. It doesn’t seem like maiden names propagate to iOS contacts.
  • Duplicate home addresses seem to show up in iOS but not under OS X.
  • If I mark Jane Jones’s maiden name as Jane Smith under OS X, I would expect that I could search Mail.app for Jane Smith, and get all of Jane Jones’s emails in the same result set. It seems to not be so. I was really excited that OS X had seemingly mastered the notion of “identity”, whereby Jane Smith and Jane Jones are really different labels for the same identity. I think maybe OS X has a different notion of identity than I do, though I could probably defend their notion of identity if I were called upon to do so. Maybe, for instance, it’s sensible to treat Smith and Jones as different identities, because maybe sometimes you want to search for things from a particular period in Smith/Jones’s life; in that sort of case, you’d want to make a distinction between Smith and Jones. That said, see the next bullet.
  • If I type “Smith” into Mail.app’s Spotlight search field, it doesn’t return me any results from the contact whose maiden name is listed as Smith. That seems odd, and cuts against the interpretation of OS X identity that I posited in the previous bullet: it can’t be that OS X is trying to keep your options open by giving Smith one identity and Jones another. Smith’s identity seems to have disappeared altogether.
  • Actually, now that I focus on it more, I notice that OS X doesn’t unify identities at all in the way that I’d hoped. Again supposing I have several email addresses for Smith/Jones, one of which is jane@smith.com and the other of which is jane@jones.com, I would expect to be able to search Mail.app for “emails from Jane Jones” or “emails from Jane Smith” and return email messages from any of them. It seems to not be so.

Some friends and I experienced no end of trouble, along similar lines, when we tried to carry on a long-running group chat via iMessage. For reasons that still make no sense to me, a sequence like the following would happen often, whenever there were more than two people on the thread:

  1. Person A would start chatting with people B and C on message thread 1.
  2. Person B would reply to A and C.
  3. Person B’s reply would show up on A and C’s devices on message thread 2. (I say “devices” rather than “iPhones” because at least two of us were trying to conduct this conversation from both an iPhone and a Mac. I don’t remember whether that fact caused any of the particular problems that we ran into. At this point, even the memory of our difficulties is frustrating enough that I don’t want to revisit it.)

They wouldn’t be threaded together. This is incredibly annoying. It seems like ultimately this is related to Apple’s confused notion of “identity”. Again, it seems to me that your device ought to treat anything that comes from me — from any of my email addresses, phone numbers, Twitter handles, etc. — as an emission from “Steve Laniel”, the metaphysical entity. The fact that one of the senders happens to be steve@stevereads.com, while another happens to be steve@laniels.org, should be immaterial. I think this distinction confused iMessage, even though I think all of us were diligent about telling iMessage that any of our phone numbers, email addresses, etc., should all be valid senders for iMessage purposes.

Again, there may well be good design reasons not to unify people into “identities” of this sort. Perhaps there are certain cases where it makes sense to unify, and others where it makes sense to separate. I would just like to see Apple defend its separate/unified identity design decision. But Apple doesn’t, generally speaking, explain its design decisions to anyone, so I’m not holding my breath. All I know is that the results are often confusing, as it stands.

I’m tempted to say here that Apple is very good when they control the entire experience, start to finish: if the universe of your usage lies within Apple products, then they’ve got the user experience handled. As soon as you need to incorporate the outside world in some way, though — by syncing across devices using Google’s sync services; by using multiple email addresses from non-iCloud providers; by loading iCal calendar feeds from other providers; by pulling in contact information from LinkedIn or Facebook — the experience gets much more muddled, and I don’t know that Apple does terribly well. They’re getting better over time, and I have hope that they’ll eventually get it working well enough that a lot of the muddle I described above will go away. They need to, because over time our mobile devices and computers are incorporating more and more sources of information in more and more complicated ways. Apple has historically done very well at forming a coherent whole from its own universe of products; I now really hope it’ll form a coherent whole from people’s online identities.

Really useful link on how much parents are expected to pay for their kids’ college

This probably won’t be relevant by the time I need to think about saving for my as-yet-notional children’s college education, but it’s still super-useful: the New York Times‘s Economix blog runs down the numbers.

Basically the big questions I had going into the article were:

  1. Why bother saving at all, if every dollar saved is one more dollar that you need to contribute to your kids’ college educations? (Short answer: one dollar saved implies less than one dollar of contribution.)
  2. Are any savings vehicles beyond the reach of the financial-aid authorities? (Short answer: yes, 401(k)s and home equity don’t factor into the calculation. This suggests a new term: “college-aid shelter”. It’s analogous to a tax shelter.)

So consider this a link for future reference.

Changing my mind about BitCoins

This Freakonomics episode changed my mind. And that’s not something I say often about Freakonomics.

I think actually what it did is lower my expectations. BitCoin, or something like it, seems like it’ll live on — or at least should live on — because it removes the credit-card intermediaries. The show brings up a really good example: immigrant communities who send remittances back to their families every month are often paying extortionate fees to do so, and they’re the last people who can afford such fees. Removing the intermediaries, so that I can send you money without any transaction overhead, is a good thing. And the euthanasia of the rentier is something strongly to be desired.

Note what this isn’t saying — note what isn’t relevant here. BitCoins as a currency are not the important thing, necessarily. You can divorce BitCoins from the libertarian fever dreams of a Federal Reserve-free world.

You can also abstract away from BitCoin itself. Whether BitCoin survives is irrelevant; what you should want is for decentralized transaction-processing services to persist.

Go listen to the podcast. It’s a good one.