Reassess This

As a homeowner, I’m used to getting all sorts of shady offers in the mail for new mortgages with astoundingly bad terms. But now that home values are declining, the free market has spawned a new kind of scam, at least in California. In our fair state, home values are reassessed only when they are sold (hoo boy, Prop 13!). In the meantime, the County Assessor assumes that your home value increases by about 2% each year and increases your property taxes accordingly. Historically, this has been a win for homeowners, whose property value was outpacing 2% by leaps and bounds, and a increasingly problematic loss for any local tax-supported services (such as school funding).

Anyway, these new offers take the form of a letter warning you that your home is probably worth less than the county thinks it is, and giving you the opportunity to pay a third party company to file a “tax reassessment” form to have the property properly revalued (and get a lower property tax bill). What makes this such a miserable scam is that anyone can file this form themselves, for free. Here are online instructions, with the online form. Not only that, but the County Assessor is pre-emptively re-assessing 500,000 homes this year (sold between 2003 and 2008) to see if they should be adjusted — you don’t even have to file the form! The County Assessor’s office is clearly exasperated with this scam, too, and has posted a scam warning on the subject.

Recently, I received one of these offers that really took the cake. Not only did the letter from “Property Tax Adjustment Services” try to entice me to pay for a free service, but it actually came formatted as a bill — complete with a “due date” and a “late charge” if payment was not received by the deadline! As I stared at the “bill”, it seemed strangely familiar… so familiar that I went and dug up my actual property tax bill. They are formatted virtually identically. See image at right (click to enlarge). The “reassessment bill” is on top, and my property tax bill is on the bottom (actual numbers removed). Obviously they’re hoping that I as a busy homeowner might glance at this and think it comes from the County Assessor’s office and is a required payment.

This scam letter actually does mention the fact that you can file the form yourself (but not that it’s free to do so). It also warns that “Property Tax Adjustment Services” is an expert business who will ensure that it gets done right. Yeah. The form requires all of three pieces of information: your home’s address and the addresses of two comparable recent sales. This information is available easily from the County Assessor’s website, which even has a browsable map interface so you can see all recent sales near your home.

Disgusting, is what it is. Or simple capitalism in action? Caveat emptor!

Women in Technology: Missions to Mars and Internet Identity

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, accompanied by a large-scale blogging exercise in which people around the world blogged about women in technology they admire. Yesterday was also a rather busy day for me, so I’m writing my entry a day late. I’m sure Ada would understand.

There are volumes to say (and that have been written) about Ada herself. She was gifted in mathematics and reasoning, and developed the first computer programs — before any computers actually existed. (She was developing hypothetical programs for Babbage’s Analytical Engine, which didn’t exist either.) Today it is challenging enough to learn languages already developed for machines that anyone can use; imagine starting from less than scratch to accomplish computational magic!

I’d like to draw your attention to two women who’ve made more recent contributions to the field of computers and technology. The first is Donna Shirley, a key player in the JPL Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997. She led the team that built the Sojourner rover, as chronicled in her enjoyable Managing Martians autobiography. She was a trailblazer for women in high-profile (and high-stress) mission positions, but also remarkable for her accomplishments regardless of gender. She flew airplanes, became an aeronautical engineer, worked on the Mariner 10 mission to Venus and Mercury, raised a daughter, and more. I recommend this fascinating interview with her from 1998. I had the opportunity to meet her years later, when I was interviewing for jobs with my shiny new Ph.D. in 2002. At the time, she was the Associate Dean of Engineering at the University of Oklahoma, and I had a wonderful lunch with her. I didn’t end up taking that job, and she moved on a year later to start her own speaking and consulting business to encourage innovation and creativity in tech fields. There’s so much more to say about her delightful personality and her passion about space and innovation. I encourage you to take a look at her book.

Another fascinating woman in technology is Sherry Turkle. Her background is in psychology, which she’s applied to good effect in analyzing the world of technology. She wrote a book called Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet about how people interact with computers (and the Internet), and the effect that interaction has on us in return. What’s even more remarkable is that this book was published in 1995, when the Internet was still something of a foreign country that only a fraction of the population had visited. She has some very interesting things to say about identity in a virtual environment and the challenge involved in drawing a clear separating line between events in the “real” world and events that happen online. She’s put forth a host of other interesting ideas, including:

I love new ideas and thought-provoking inventions, regardless of the gender of their source. Ada Lovelace Day is a chance to put the spotlight on female contributors, with one goal being to combat the perception that tech advances are produced solely by men. So far, they’ve collected a phenomenal 1,112 posts by bloggers (men and women) about these ground-breaking possessors of double-X chromosomes. Go ahead and browse, as a list or a world map. So many of these were new to me!