Holy crap this was the most annoying tax year I’ve ever had.
On the one hand, it was a little easier because Debbi and I got married last year. And filing jointly saved us a bunch of money in taxes, and that meant two fewer returns (federal and state) to file.
On the other hand, Mom passed away last year, and I’m the executor of her estate. So that meant filing federal and state taxes for her personally, and then federal and state taxes for her estate, and an additional state return for California because (apparently) that’s where I live.
On top of that, one of the funds she’s invested in was astoundingly late getting their information to her investment company, so they sent out a preliminary 1099 in February, and then an amended 1099 in late March (!!). Fortunately I have my CPA do all the paperwork, and I know they do it all on computer, so it was mostly a matter of waiting, waiting, and waiting some more before finally dropping it off with them. Oh, and since I transitioned her account from a personal to an estate account, and the personal account records were still being sent to her old address, I had to contact her investment advisor to get the amended 1099 for that account sent to me. Ghaaa-aaah.
And basically everything else hinged on getting the estate returns done, so it could generate K-1 forms for myself and my sister (the estate’s beneficiaries) for our own returns.
Lastly, I found an error in our returns when I picked them up for review, which involved some more running around (but was worth it because it saved us a reasonable amount of additional money).
I am one of those luddites who still files my taxes on paper. Although that’s not really the issue; some of my Mom’s taxes cannot be filed electronically anyway. It did mean a wait at the post office to ship things off, but on the plus side the fact that so many people file electronically these days means the wait is a lot shorter than it used to be.
Anyway, I got everything sent off on Thursday, and hopefully that will be the last I hear of them. Where taxes are concerned, no news is definitely good news.
Yesterday I headed down to Isle of Gamers for the prerelease for the latest Magic set, Shadows Over Innistrad. After listening to the set review on Limited Resources, and poking around on the net a bit, my feeling was that this would be a complicated set, and that assimilating all the information in the sealed deck prerelease would be pretty daunting, trying to figure out how best to fit together the various moving parts.
Once I opened my packs, I had this card pool:
Notice the following things:
I opened 7 rares (well, one was the promo card), of which 3 were land, 2 were planeswalkers (yay!), and 2 were not really great in limited.
All five colors are somewhat playable – this is a pretty deep pool.
Unfortunately, red is the weakest color, and green the second-weakest, and both planeswalkers require red.
Black is both deep and has a bunch of removal, so I’m surely playing black.
My first inclination was to go white-black, splashing red for Nahiri, so I came up with this:
That’s not awful, but probably not worth splashing just for one card, even a really good one. And there isn’t really any other red worth splashing. The other thing I realized is that it often doesn’t start doing stuff until turn 3, and it doesn’t make great use of its rare, Odric.
So I decided to try again, with blue instead of white, which gives me a little more early options, and a little more flying power:
I would characterize this deck as “unexciting midrange” (no rares other than the dual land!), but I hoped it would make up for that in consistency and evasion, and after some agonizing, it’s the one I decided to go with. Here’s how it played out:
Round 1: I played against a white-blue deck, and both of our decks ended up playing out as control decks against the other. I had more evasion than he did, but he had cards like Puncturing Light and Sleep Paralysis to deal with my Stormrider Spirits. I won game 1 mainly on the back of Daring Sleuth‘s flip side giving me lots of card advantage, and he won game 2 by grinding me out. Then we drew game 3 because we didn’t have nearly enough time to finish.
After this round I decided that Wild-Field Scarecrow didn’t do much in this deck, so I replaced it with the more aggressive Wicker Witch, which turned out to be the right choice. I also swapped out Merciless Resolve for the cheaper Macabre Waltz, which also paid dividends as I often had creatures in my graveyard I wanted to get back.
Round 2: Another white deck, this time white-black. In game 1 I recognized that my draw was much more aggressive than his and won by pushing through damage early, combined with overwhelming board position through my incremental card advantage. Game 2 was a squeaker, with me seemingly taking a big advantage and playing the Morkrut Necropod, but he had an answer for it in Murderous Compulsion. He took me down to 1, and he was also at 1. I ended my turn with 3 creatures to his 2, and with Broken Concentration in hand I countered his attempt to cast Bygone Bishop (I believe my spoken response when he cast it was, “No no, no no no – no.”) and that was enough to push through the last point of damage on my next turn.
Round 3: My opponent ran me over in the first game, playing a white-green humans deck which fired on all cylinders. Game 2 went much better as he never drew green mana and so stalled out in the midgame. He later told me his deck was mostly white, so this was a weird draw for him. For my part I was pleased that I mulliganed a hand with 3 islands, 3 black spells, and an artifact creature. Game 3 was the opposite as he kept a hand with 3 forests, 3 white cards, and an Intrepid Provisioner. He didn’t draw a plains until it was too late, and I won again.
Afterwards we chatted about his last game’s keep, and I told him that I’d had a similar scenario in game 2, where I’d mulliganed, and that I always seemed to do (and feel) better when I mulliganed color-mismatch hands like that. He pointed out that he had many more plains in his deck than forests, and he only needed one to get going. I don’t know what the answer is; if he had 10 plains in his deck, then the odds were he’d draw one by turn 4, but he really needed to draw one before that if my deck curved out (which it did). So it was a tough loss for him.
Round 4: My opponent here unfortunately also had mana problems, stalling out at 3 land in game 1, and I had just the right removal for the cards she could play (such as the ultra-annoying Sin Prodder). In game 2 she got mana flooded, and while she did play a big bomb in Flameblade Angel when she was still around 14 life, Press For Answers was exactly the answer I needed to push through a bunch of damage which she didn’t have any other blockers for.
So in the end I went 3-0-1 in my 4 matches, which was good for fourth place overall (and 8 packs!) in a field of over 50 people. I feel that my deck overperformed a little bit, and that my opponents’ decks underperformed – in some cases by a lot – so I’m not sure whether I truly “earned” my record. But sometimes you end up on the good side of the variance gods.
A few lessons I learned from the day as regards the format:
The removal doesn’t look impressive in this set, but a lot of it works well against a wide variety of threats. It seems like there are a lot of 2/3 and 3/2 creatures, and doing 2 damage does really well against the latter, while the former tend to be less threatening. As one person put it, there’s “not a lot of beef” in this set. (But – small sample size alert. There are a number of ways to make some larger creatures, and I just didn’t face many of them.)
Morkrut Necropod is a better card than it looks like, as there are not many things which can deal with a 7/7 with Menace in the format, and sacrificing a land by the time it comes down is not a big penalty.
It doesn’t take a lot of Investigate sources in your deck to enable cards which need them such as Daring Sleuth. I think I had 3 in my deck, and that was enough to pretty reliably flip the Sleuth.
Also, Daring Sleuth can be a horse in limited.
Gone Missing can do some work. One game when an opponent was struggling with mana, I put his tap-land on top of his deck, which not only blanked his next draw, but it meant even if he had anything to play with 4 mana that he hadn’t played for some reason (such as a combat trick), he would have to wait an extra turn to play it. Also great to enable an alpha strike.
Accursed Witch is a great card. If they decide not to kill it, then it hits them for 4. If they do kill it, then (most of the time) it turns into an annoying enchantment.
Thraben Gargoyle is also surprisingly good; by the time you can flip it, if your opponent hasn’t been careful to hold back some removal, a 4/2 flyer is pretty hard to deal with.
Also, having a deck where only one card costs double-colored-mana is a nice incremental advantage since it makes it harder to be color-screwed.
Also, it turns out that my worry about information overload was unfounded; while I could imagine that having several good Madness cards could lead to struggling to figure out how to use it effectively, I didn’t have that problem. And there are several good ways to interact with discarding and sacrificing and the graveyard which don’t require Madness.
This looks like it will be a fun format, though I think there will be more to keep track of in draft than in sealed (“Whoops I forgot to draft a discard outlet”), but it also looks possible to draft a pretty straightforward deck if you prefer. I also wonder if it’s going to be a less bomb-y format than most (i.e., a pauper rather than a prince format, as the lingo goes).
Obviously I have fun – winning is usually fun! Definitely more fun than the Battle for Zendikar prerelease last fall, where my pool was both not good, and not fun to play. And it was my best prerelease showing since Journey Into Nyx (which featured a fairly meat-and-potatoes aggro deck, albeit one with two great rares).
I’ve been averaging a little less than every other prerelease for the last few years, for a combination of reasons. I’m hoping I’ll be able to make it to the Eldritch Moon prerelease in late July.
I occasionally read about how bookstores are doing better these days, presumably through a combination of Borders closing (perhaps opening a chunk of the market for independent bookstores), the supposed leveling-off of eBooks, and people looking for a more personal touch than they can get at Amazon, or even Barnes & Noble. But small businesses are a high-variance proposition, and perhaps few other places more so than here in the Bay Area, with its skyrocketing rents. So, as someone who visits a lot of bookstores in the area, I’ve been watching how rough it is out there.
In San Francisco, science fiction bookstore Borderlands Books garnered national attention when it announced in early 2015 that it would be closing in advance of the city’s minimum wage hike. (Links to some of the media coverage here.) But with the help of many of their patrons joining a sponsorship program, they stayed open.
Also in Half Moon Bay, Ocean Books (Facebook, Yelp) was a small used book store, of the sort where you go to find something to read while lying on the beach. We visit downtown HMB fairly often and we almost always stopped in, but we didn’t often find much to buy, which is perhaps the curse of the seaside town small bookstore, at least as far as people who aren’t going to lie on the beach are concerned. I wonder if they also felt pressure from the nearby and much larger Ink Spell Books.
Lastly, and perhaps the one I’m saddest about, is Know Knew Books (Facebook, Yelp). When I moved to the Bay Area in 1999 this was the first used bookstore I visited, and it was great! A huge science fiction selection, not quite as big as Bookbuyers, but generally a more selective stock. I bought a hardcover copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – autographed! – there. At the time it was located on California Ave in Palo Alto.
But over time the store seemed to go downhill. They tried reconfiguring the Palo Alto location, and seemed to have a really long going-out-of-business sale. But then, surprisingly, they suddenly moved to downtown Los Altos, opening in a new location, bright, perhaps a little sparsely stocked, and branching out a bit into jewelry and other knick-knacks, but still fun to browse. The last time I visited they’d gotten a couple of bookstore kittens who were getting acclimated to the attention, but the store seemed to be looking up.
They abruptly closed late last spring, which I only learned about when walking up to the vacant storefront. It sounds like there was some behind-the-scenes acrimony between the two owners, but it appears the details have been kept private. You can read a little public grousing by customers in comments on this article, and what appears to be one side of the story in this GoFundMe page. I guess I don’t really want to know the story of what really happened, I’m just sorry the move didn’t work out.
I’ve seen other great bookstores close in my life (hell, Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA alone is littered with storefronts I remember fondly visiting when I was in high school and college), and like I said, small businesses are a high-variance experience, and when you patronize a lot of them, then a lot of them are going to come and go over the years.
But it still sucks, and I think the next five years are going to be at least as rough as the last five.
Update 4/18/2016: In just the 2 months since I posted this, Bookbuyers announced they can no longer afford their space in downtown Mountain View on Castro Street and are moving. At first they’d hoped to find another place in Mountain View, but now they’re looking further afield, and will be leaving Mountain View. Their last day open was yesterday (we stopped by and Debbi bought a bag of books).
I can only recall one bookstore moving other than by choice which managed to survive (Lee’s Comics in Palo Alto lost their lease 15 years ago and relocated to their current Mountain View location), so unfortunately I am not optimistic about Bookbuyers’ chances. And if they move somewhere far away like Morgan Hill (as they apparently were exploring), then it’s likely we will rarely-if-ever go there (I think we get down to that end of the valley to shop about once very 3-5 years).
It’s a big blow to Castro Street, which is flooded with restaurants and has very little retail. I’m very bummed.
Back in February of 2014 Debbi and I were selected to join Arbitron ratings (who have since acquired by their competitor Nielsen and are now named Nielsen Audio).
I imagine back in the day that people in this program would need to note which programs they watched and when on paper and then mail them in. (I think I’ve heard of this, and no doubt someone who participated back in those days could explain in detail.) Today it’s different: You get a little device (“meter”) to carry with you which is connected to the cellular network, and it would listen programs you watch or listen to for a signal which identifies the program, and report back to its home base. All we had to do was charge it each night, and notify Arbitron if we were going on an extended trip away from home. Well, and not tell that we were in the program on social media while we were in it. (I doubt we told very many people at all, in fact.)
In return, beyond being counted directly, we also received a small check every month for our troubles. Coincidentally, we also signed up for Graze around the same time, and I noted that the checks we got from Arbitron would just about cover the cost of the Graze boxes. Convenient!
Debbi watches a lot of television in the background, especially police procedurals, while I tend to throw on sports. We also had some regular shows we watched. While I doubt I can remember it all, here’s a rundown of what we watched while we carried our meters:
I listen to public radio, and Debbi listens to country.
NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans. Probably also some NCIS: Los Angeles, though we have run out of gas on that show.
Doctor Who, of course.
The Big Bang Theory.
We started watching Elementary during that time. (Did I mention police procedurals?)
And a random assortment of films which aired on cable.
Last September Arbitron contacted us that we had been randomly selected to leave the program – a little early, since we’d been told at the start that it would be at most a 2-year term. Apparently we’d been among the most diligent participants in the program. It was kind of weird for a couple of weeks to no longer be carrying our meters with us everywhere.
Anyway, it was a neat little perk for a while, easy to do, and maybe helping keep some programs we enjoy on the air. I rather wish we’d gotten a TiVo while we were in the program in order to support a few other shows, such as Person of Interest, which I’d been interested in but which aired at an inconvenient time slot to watch live. But, so it goes.
My birthday weekends get a little more low-key over time. Having a big to-do of a party seems less appealing than it used to. Maybe for my 50th.
This weekend I decided what I mainly wanted to do as play poker, so Friday night I had five friends over for an evening of our low-stakes game. Rooting around for the new deck of cards I knew I’d bought, I looked at my order history on Amazon, and found that it had been over two and a half years since I’d hosted a game. Probably almost that long since I’d last played no-limit, too. But it was a successful evening for me, more than doubling my buy-in. I was particularly pleased with a hand where I turned two pair with a 4-straight on the board, and realized no one had the straight when they didn’t bet the turn, so I was able to make a little more money on the turn and river.
(I’ve been listening to the Thinking Poker podcast, and find it’s maybe even more instructive to learn about hand-reading by listening to it than by reading a book about it.)
In the evening we went to Amber India with some friends for dinner. They moved a few months ago (I think their old strip mall is going to be redeveloped soon), and their new spot has a nice outdoor patio (not suitable for this rainy weather, but should be great in the summer). The inside feels a little cramped and warm, but possibly they just have a few kinks to work out. The good news is, the food is still awesome!
Sunday was had a relatively quiet day, though in the afternoon we drove over to Half Moon Bay hoping to catch some of the rain showers we were supposed to be getting. We stopped for lunch at Cameron’s British Pub, whose English pastie was exactly what I was craving. Then we drove down the side street the pub is on and ended up at the Wavecrest open space preserve, where we hiked around for about an hour, getting our sneakers muddy and (in Debbi’s case) soaked. But it was a pretty – if blustery – day, and we had a good time. We then drove up to Point Montara Lighthouse where we sat in the car and watched the waves crash on. Alas, we never got more than some drizzle on the whole trip, which was a bit disappointing.
In the evening we started watching Person of Interest, which I’d been curious about for a while, but it never aired at good time for us. (Now that’s a concern we won’t have in the future now that we own a TiVo.) It’s good stuff, a little over-the-top, but at least as good as other police procedurals, and I understand it gets more sophisticated over time.
Oh yeah: And my company’s “gift” to me for my birthday was that we have Martin Luther King day off for the first time. So today we took care of a bunch of chores in the morning, including having a plumber over to fix two of our toilets whose gaskets were having problems. In the afternoon we had some other friends over, who hadn’t been able to join us for cupcakes on Saturday, and I played with the kids for a bit, and they chased the cats and Debbi’s BB-8 robot around for a while. We wrapped up the weekend with dinner, some more chores, and some more Person of Interest.
A pretty busy weekend in a lot of ways, but also some nice quiet time. And we did get that rain I was hoping for, but it came in last night. Wish we could get a good solid day of rain during the daytime on a weekend. But for now it looks like I’ll have to be satisfied with another shower tomorrow.
2015 was a roller coaster of a year, with some great stuff mixed in with some bad stuff and a huge amount of stress.
The year opened with my Mom’s health in decline. The holidays were stressful with worry about her, and probably even worse for my sister who was her health care proxy. While there were periods of hope that she would stabilize, she never really did, and went on hospice care in early February, and passing away in early March. We held a memorial service for her in late May.
This is the first time I’ve lost someone this close to me, and I still have a lot of feelings and memories that I’m working through, especially regarding these last few years since she moved into assisted living. It’s a process.
The cognitive dissonance of getting married while dealing with my mother’s passing was occasionally difficult to reconcile in my head, but it worked out smoothly in the end, and we’re having a good time together. Of course, we had a good time before, which I guess is why we did it!
I’ve been the executor of Mom’s estate, which has taken a bunch of time this year, coordinating filing with life insurance, tracking people down, working with an attorney to file the estate and pay taxes, and all the work that goes into that. I think probably more than half of the work is done now, and most of the rest will play out over this coming year.
Last summer I decided I needed to add more exercise to my routine, so in July I started running, and I’ve kept up with it through the end of the year. I started running a mile per day, and now I’m up to 2-1/2 miles 4-to-5 days a week. I’ve lost about 10 pounds since I started, though my stretch goal of about 13 did not get met. But so far so good. Listening to podcasts keeps me motivated and occupied while running, and some days I even look forward to it. My plan is to get to 3 miles and do that on a regular basis. It’s really more about sticking with it than getting a lot better at it – I don’t plan to run any marathons.
In August, something I never got around to writing about here: I traded in my trusty 2000 Honda Civic and its 137,000 miles for a new Volkswagen Eos hard-top convertible. I’d been thinking of getting a more “fun” car for a while, and 2015 was the last year for the Eos, so I decided to treat myself (with a little urging from Debbi, who knew I’d been putting it off for a while). It’s been a great little car so far – and no, it doesn’t have one of VW’s questionable diesel engines!
After Disney World we had a quiet rest of the year, with time off around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and mostly just hanging out and taking care of stuff around the house. Oh, and finishing up the paperwork for my Mom’s estate’s tax filing. Debbi and I did get out for a few things, though: We made trips to Half Moon Bay and San Francisco; had dinner with a new cow-orker of mine and his wife (recently transplanted from the midwest); visited my cousins who were hosting their parents, whom I hadn’t seen in over 20 years; and we upgraded our A/V system by adding a TiVo (which has been great, other than the expected hassle of enabling the Comcast cable card).
I am not one for making New Year’s resolutions, and I’ve been joking that I started mine back in July. But this year I would like to write more regular journal entries, maybe write some fiction, and ma-a-aybe get back to drawing (must resist buying iPad Pro for drawing I haven’t actually been doing). We’ll see. Mostly I’m just hoping that with most of the stress and hassle of handling my mother’s affairs behind me that I can clear my head of worrying about that and do things I enjoy without wondering if there’s Something Important I need to be doing instead.
And of course having Debbi along for things that we both enjoy, too!