Microsoft derps on Excel ad

Microsoft’s Facebook ad for new features in Excel highlights the Treemap visualization, but gets it totally wrong.

Ad for Excel visualization features

A treemap is supposed to visualize relative size in a hierarchy. But in the illustration here, the data don’t fit this type of visualization (it’s a time series of one flat variable—without hierarchy).

Original resolution of Excel ad showing treemap chart

But it’s even worse than that. The relative sizes don’t make sense! Why would the 31 MPG box for January be so much larger than the 32 MPG box for May?

This seems like a great illustration of why math/statistical education should be required for everyone—even visual designers and marketers. Or at least, the people selling the product should understand what the software actually does.

Privacy in the home

Privacy comes up a lot nowadays in the context of technology. But legal conceptions of privacy predate the information age.

From a recent reading for Property law:

The freedom of association is often inextricably entwined with the constitutionally guaranteed right of privacy. The right to ‘establish a home’ is an essential part of the liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399 (1923); Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 495 (1965) (Goldberg, J., concurring). And the Constitution secures to an individual a freedom ‘to satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home.’ Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 565 (1969); see Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, 413 U.S. 49, 66–67 (1973). Constitutionally protected privacy is, in Mr. Justice Brandeis’ words, ‘as against the Government, the right to be let alone . . . the right most valued by civilized man.’ Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 478 (1928) (dissenting opinion). The choice of household companions—of whether a person’s ‘intellectual and emotional needs’ are best met by living with family, friends, professional associates, or others—involves deeply personal considerations as to the kind and quality of intimate relationships within the home. That decision surely falls within the ambit of the right to privacy protected by the Constitution. See Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 153 (1973) . . .

Vill. of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1, 15–16 (1974) (Marshall, J., dissenting) (emphasis added).

This was a case about a local ordinance that regulated what kinds of homes could be kept, not about, for example, sexual conduct or faith. But the passage illustrates the extent to which “privacy” is implicated any time any level of government attempts to regulate private conduct within a home—foreshadowing the social progress that would follow, particularly with same-sex rights.

Justice Marshall cited, as would later be recognized as the seminal line of cases finding privacy in the Constitution, Fourth Amendment cases like Olmstead and abortion/contraceptive cases like Roe and Griswold. And what he criticized in the ordinance was its attempt to keep out people who had different “lifestyle choices”:

The instant ordinance discriminates on the basis of just such a personal lifestyle choice as to household companions. It permits any number of persons related by blood or marriage, be it two or twenty, to live in a single household, but it limits to two the number of unrelated persons bound by profession, love, friendship, religious or political affiliation, or mere economics who can occupy a single home. Belle Terre imposes upon those who deviate from the community norm in their choice of living companions significantly greater restrictions than are applied to residential groups who are related by blood or marriage, and compose the established order within the community. The village has, in effect, acted to fence out those individuals whose choice of lifestyle differs from that of its current residents.

Belle Terre, 416 U.S. at 16–17 (Marshall, J., dissenting) (emphasis added).

Zoning officials properly concern themselves with the uses of land—with, for example, the number and kind of dwellings to be constructed in a certain neighborhood or the number of persons who can reside in those dwellings. But zoning authorities cannot validly consider who those persons are, what they believe, or how they choose to live, whether they are Negro or white, Catholic or Jew, Republican or Democrat, married or unmarried.

Belle Terre, 416 U.S. at 14–15 (Marshall, J., dissenting) (emphasis added).

So why was Justice Marshall alone in his dissent?

CRA PDF form validation frustrations

While trying to file my Canadian taxes as a nonresident, using the “Income Tax and Benefit Return for Non-residents … of Canada” — since I live in the United States and am a tax resident of the United States — I ran into a really frustrating bug in the first 5 form fields.

The form doesn’t accept non-Canadian provinces/territories and postal codes!

Can't put Massachusetts as a state
MA? not allowed.
Can't input a ZIP code
ZIP code? not allowed.

It’s really foolish, because many of the people who would be filing this form are likely residing outside of Canada. That’s why this version of the T1 return has an added Country field in the address block.

This is the kind of situation when PDF forms should just step back and allow free-form, unvalidated input.

Pretty sure the IRS made a typo in Publication 519

There’s a provision that allows aliens in the U.S.1 to choose to be treated as a U.S. resident for tax purposes even if they would not otherwise qualify as a resident. Income tax rules themselves are already really confusing — and they are even more complicated for foreigners in the U.S. — so a typographic error could really confuse a taxpayer.

I think the IRS made a typographic error, but I’m not even sure how to get in touch with them to fix this.

Motivating example

Suppose you arrive in the U.S. for the very first time on October 1, 2015 to work for the foreseeable future on a TN-1 (NAFTA Professional) visa. Because the period from 2015-10-01 to 2015-12-31 is insufficient to meet the Substantial Presence Test,2 you would otherwise be a nonresident alien for tax year 2015. This would mean your income in the United States might be subject to taxation in the U.S. as well as in your home country. What if you wanted to be treated as a resident alien starting on October 1, 2015 — despite not satisfying the Substantial Presence Test?

This is the First-Year Choice, and it’s documented in Publication 519 (“U.S. Tax Guide for Aliens”) by the IRS.

The error

I got a little confused when I first read the rule, because it seemed to require an impossibility:

2015 Publication 519 typo on page 7

Let me excerpt that to show why it’s so self-contradictory: “If you do not meet either the [GCT] or the [SPT] for 2014 … but you meet the [SPT] for 2014.”

Huh? Clearly they meant 2016 there. Moreover, if you met the SPT for 2014, the current tax year — 2015 — wouldn’t be your first year in the U.S.

This is confirmed by the bulleted list on the following page:

2015 Publication 519 excerpt from page 8

Motivating example resolved

If you are going to satisfy the Substantial Presence Test in the following tax year — 2016 — you can choose to pretend to be a U.S. resident from 2015-10-01 to 2015-12-31 as well, if you meet all of the requirements in the bulleted list above.


What’s in that USPS postage barcode?

I am publishing this post as a hobbyist, because I find barcodes cool (as demonstrated by a prior open source project using 2D barcodes that I worked on). Do not attempt to use this information for any illegitimate purpose. Counterfeiting postage is a federal crime, 18 U.S.C. § 501.

Blogs don’t really have to be about a single theme, but it’s nice when they let the blogger’s personality shine through. This post ties together some of my favourite things: 2D barcodes, high speed automation, printers, cryptographic signatures (!), postal mail and postage, fraud prevention, and even a little bit about patents! If you know me at all, you’ll understand why I find this stuff so ridiculously cool.

Continue reading What’s in that USPS postage barcode?

A new blog series?

Over dinner this week, I was revealed as one of those weirdos who actually read the fine print. Yep, once in a while—embarrassingly often—I’ll actually dig right into those long documents that come with the health insurance, the credit card offer, or the website signup.

Forced arbitration clause in Amex Premier Rewards Gold cardmember agreement.
When was the last time you actually read something like this?

Why? Because the purpose of these “Terms and Conditions,” or “Cardmember Agreements,” or whatever else they’re calling these lengthy, prewritten, one-sided contracts, is to modify default legal rules/rights in such a way that benefits the parties that wrote them. So, even if I don’t have any practical choice in whether or not to use Facebook, even if I can’t really negotiate with American Express and rewrite the terms of the extended warranty, at the very least it’s useful to know what my rights are—and what hidden benefits there might be that most people don’t know about.

So a friend thought it might be fun if I just occasionally write about these things. Perhaps a sort of Bad Terms & Conditions section on my blog, or … Digging through the Fine Print

Still working on the name.

I’ll try not to fall into the bad habit of labelling companies “fascists” or something similarly colourful,1 which other blogs highlighting these issues inevitably find themselves doing. (I mean, literally every company that deserves any business does it, so what’s a conscientious consumer to do?) For what it’s worth, Consumerist already writes about this and does a pretty good job of it.

Continue reading A new blog series?

Another startup blatantly steals university trademarks

A friend directed my attention to a startup-y website selling “cheap smartphone [insurance] coverage” for “as little as $3 a month”. Right at the top of the Penn-branded subdomain ( was an iPhone mockup showing the Penn shield:

GetCovered ripping off Penn seal

highly doubt they went through all the trouble of actually licensing the trademark from the university. Penn’s policy on use of its logos by external entities provides (emphasis added):

Outside sponsors of University programs or activities often seek to use University names or insignia in promotional or advertising materials. While the University is pleased to recognize the contributions of sponsors, such recognition must not suggest University endorsement of the sponsor’s activities. Therefore, University names or insignia may not be used in connection with any outside entity’s name or logo without prior approval of the Secretary of the University. In general, the Secretary will approve uses which recognize or acknowledge the sponsor’s contribution to the University program or activity. Uses which, in the Secretary’s judgment, may suggest University endorsement or approval of the sponsor’s goods or services will not be permitted.

The big issue, of course, is the risk of confusion — by consumers, etc — who might think that the service is sponsored or endorsed by the university. There would be a pretty good prima facie case for trademark infringement, especially since the registrant behind the domain name appears to be a Stanford grad with no connection to Penn.

But to top it all off, the site seems to be lying on its face. The Penn page includes a quote from a “Leah B, Philadelphia, PA”:

Leah B, Philadelphia, PA quote

but the exact same quote is used on the non-Penn-branded homepage of GetCovered, this time from “Leah B, Washington, DC”!

Leah B, Washington, DC quote

As an alum, I certainly don’t want the university’s shield to be used in connection with this company. What they’re doing is strangely reminiscent of the Campus Backup service that OCM was marketing a few years ago — which shut down after my blog post overtook their site in search engines.

Update (2015-11-02): a quick Google search of the opening sentence of the quote directed me to the source — a 2012 comment on a Gawker post by a Gawker contributor, no obvious connection to GetCovered.