California’s tax wall of shame

By law, the state of California maintains a website listing “the 500 largest delinquent sales and use tax accounts over $100,000.” I came across this while doing some investigative research on California’s peculiar use tax. More on that in another post, perhaps.

The Top 500 Sales & Use Tax Delinquencies in California page has some fascinating content. The largest delinquent account comes in at $18,433,917. That’s right, “CALIF. TARGET ENTERPRISES INC.” owes the state of California more than 18 million dollars! (That’s not Target the retailer, but someone else.)

Naturally, we might wish that the state could collect on these accounts and possibly help reduce its deficit (which is about $13 billion, so CALIF. TARGET ENTERPRISES INC would only be able to contribute a drop in the bucket. Still.). And surely the state has some more proactive means for doing this than simply posting a passive website. However:

“Since the inception of this program, the Board of Equalization has received a total of $5.3 million from 40 qualifying taxpayers that came forward to take care of their debts: 27 through installment payment agreements and 13 by making payment in full.”

So hey, maybe public shame works. For some.

The psychology of frugality

In the grocery store yesterday, I was weighing options in the cereal isle. I really wanted to get some Raisin Bran Crunch or Kashi cereal, but both were something like $4 per box. That seems like a lot for a box of cereal. Some of the cheap stuff is down to $2.50. Shouldn’t I get that instead?


It seems that early frugality is a hard habit to kick. (It’s not clear that I *want* to kick it, which is part of the complexity.) When I was growing up, my family was, let’s say, financially challenged. We had food stamps, and we knew which days you could show up at the food bank and get free blocks of cheese. Things were always tight, but I never felt the pinch of true poverty. I guess I noticed things got a little awkward when I happily showed up to middle school wearing hand-me-downs from *a girl in my class* (her mother worked with my mother and took pity on us). At any rate, it seemed totally normal to me to always do things yourself rather than paying someone else to do them, and to always seek out the best possible deal, no matter how much time it took.

I still tally my grocery bill in my head when unloading my cart onto the belt. That’s a carryover from college, when I had exactly $20 to cover each week’s food and could not overspend. I’m scrupulous about paying for my portion of meals or outings because I’d be mortified to infringe on someone else’s budget or resources — what if it was money they couldn’t spare?

I’ve worked to whittle away at some of these habits, mainly in the domain of trading time for money. Time really IS worth more to me, so now I pay housecleaners and a gardener to take care of things that now afford me a little more free time. I’m fortunate enough to be paid well enough that having enough money is simply a non-concern. As a result, money has shrunk in significance to the point where raises at work provide zero motivation for me. (But wait, don’t raises inspire higher performance? NO! See this totally awesome RSAnimate on Motivation for just one argument about why not.) That makes it all the more ludicrous when I’m making grocery decisions based on a 20-cent difference in pasta brands.

But yeah. This time I went home with the cereal, at full price. Next thing you know, I’ll be hiring someone to do my shopping for me. Well, probably not… but that’d be another hour a week for violin practice or disc golf or studying cryptography or another billion things. Maybe it’s not such a crazy idea after all!

The joy of running

I really never thought I’d be one of those people who would go running for its own sake. The pounding abuse to your feet, knees, hips, and the seemingly pointless expenditure of effort for… what? Getting back to where you started, usually.

But since I started training for a triathlon, it seems I’ve gotten hooked.

Running takes effort, and dragging yourself out of bed or off the couch takes maybe more effort, but once you’re out there, this delicious sort of zen descends and you’re zooming along like nothing can touch you. This is a particularly good antidote for those of us prone to unproductive, anxiety-based mind-loops. And when you’re done, you may be tired, but you feel GREAT! Endorphins, accomplishment, fresh air, who knows? It’s all good.

Beyond that, there’s the positive reinforcement angle of seeing measurable progress and increase in your abilities. I started training in December and was able to see the time it took me to run a mile steadily drop (click to enlarge):

Three months in, I’ve shaved 2 minutes off my mile!

I’ve discovered other things I enjoy about running, too: the smell of night-blooming jasmine; spotting Mars, Venus, and Jupiter; seeing my neighborhood away from the computer. Boy, there are a lot of people who walk dogs around here!

And this training process has wreaked changes on my body. My calves are their own, defined muscles. I can see, and feel, the increased muscle tone throughout my legs. I feel like a superwoman at Jazzercise, where a one-hour workout that used to wear me out now leaves me bouncing with energy — so much so that I’ve started doing runs afterwards to help round it out.

Another side effect is that I’ve been eating what seems like a ridiculous amount. Usually I’m not hungry after a run, but the next day, I can’t stop eating. The website where I track my runs estimates that I burn 200-300 calories after a 3-mile run, but I’m *definitely* eating way more than that to compensate — more like an extra 500-600 calories each day. (Plus, I don’t run every day, more like every 3 days.) Yet I’m not gaining any weight. I guess some of it must go to the muscle building process, but where’s the rest? Maybe this kind of exercise does increase your basal metabolism, so I’m burning more calories even when I’m stuck at my desk?

My next goal is to work up to a 10k (6 mile) run. The longest I’ve done is 4 miles, so I’ll need to start lengthening my practice runs and building more endurance. I’d also really like to get below 9 min/mile for a 5k. (The ~9 min/mile data point on the chart was from a short 1.25-mile run.) I love concrete, measurable goals!

How Swiss Army knives and thermometers are made

Ever wondered how a Swiss Army knife is put together? Wonder no more!

This is just one of a whole pile of fascinating “How It’s Made” videos put out by the Science Channel. Here’s another great one about how thermometers are made:

In these thermometers, they use an unspecified blue liquid (to avoid toxic mercury) that expands and contracts with temperature. The calibration process is fascinating (and surprisingly manual).

I’m already having trouble dragging myself away from this site! Enjoy!

Triathlon Triumph

Today I ran, biked, and swam in my first triathlon. The Pasadena Triathlon is a reverse sprint, so the distances are much shorter than a regular (Olympic-length) triathlon, and the events occur in the reverse order. Our task for the day was to run 5 km, then bike 15 km, then swim 150 m. I was most worried about the swim, as that is certainly my weakest event right now!

I arrived at 6:30 a.m., an hour and a half before the race start, and had no trouble setting up my transition area, where I would return between events to swap gear. It was very chilly at first, and we were all grateful when the sun finally came up. I was lucky enough to have two friends there to help the time pass quickly: Vali, my race buddy who was competing in the much-harder duathlon (5K run + 15K bike + another 5K run), and Evan, my triathlete friend who got me to sign up in the first place (and who took pictures and carried my stuff around and shouted encouragement at every turn!).

The hardest part of the morning might have been the final 15 minutes before race start! I kept wanting to warm up, but not too much in advance, and itching to just get going. But finally we started off. At first it was slow going because there were so many people in the “women under 40” group, but we eventually spread out and the running felt great. I enjoyed following along behind two women who were wearing tutus (easy to spot!). The run was uneventful aside from one of the tutu-wearing women tripping in front of me. She recovered with a nice roll and was back on her feet immediately.

After the run, I pulled on my helmet, gloves, and hydration backpack. I know the latter is utterly uncool, but since I was riding a mountain bike, I’d already given up any cool gear points. :) And the backpack worked great! I had all of my tire-changing supplies in there (thankfully never needed) and I never got too thirsty. Worth the weight, for me. I got brave enough to call out “Yay, mountain bikes!” to another woman riding one, and we had a brief breathless exchange (she also had a hydration pack, and she volunteered that she too most feared the upcoming swim!).

Three loops around the Rose Bowl went by quickly on the bike — or it felt that way (it actually took more total time than the single-loop run). Each loop seemed to go faster than the one before, according to my bike computer, the opposite of what I expected. I zoomed back to the transition area and got my first surprise when I dismounted the bike. You’re meant to keep jogging so you don’t clog the dismount channel, but if I hadn’t been holding the bike as I staggered along, I’d have fallen flat on my face! My left leg immediately cramped and I couldn’t seem to move my legs properly. Everyone says that the bike to run transition is hard — I guess that’s what that was! Happily, I recovered by the time I got to my bike rack. I pulled off my helmet, backpack, shirt, and shorts, pulled on my swim cap, grabbed my goggles, and ran. It’s about 200 meters from the transition area to the pool, over rocks and grass, and I was so glad I’d left my sneakers on!

Then it was into the pool, and I just went for it. I actually wasn’t as tired as I’d feared I’d be, and although the 150 meters were *long*, it was overall less effort than one of my standard 30-minute attempts at lap swims. I did have to alternate between the front crawl and swimming on my back, as I grew more tired, but I didn’t drown and I actually passed a person or two (!). I staggered out of the pool and happily accepted my medal (a neat one with a bike chain around the perimeter!).

Overall, it was a fantastic experience. I accomplished something I considered beyond my abilities just a few months ago. I really felt that my training paid off, and I was neither exhausted nor in pain at the end of the race. And contrary to what we’d been told to be prepared for, nothing went wrong! No gear failed, no important item was forgotten, I didn’t fall, I survived the swim. I could definitely see myself doing this again — and maybe even improving my time!