Succulent Cabbage Rolls

cabbage leaves, as large as possible
1 cup onions & peppers (chopped)
2 medium carrots, diced
1 stalk celery or more (with extra leaves if available)
garlic powder to taste
½ lb ground beef
¼ tsp basil, divided
1 cup tomato sauce, or more
1 cup beef broth, or more
½ cup of the water left from boiling the cabbage, possibly more
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup diced tomatoes (not drained)
1 cup pre-cooked rice
½ TBSP corn starch
½ TBSP worchestershire sauce

Boil the cabbage leaves enough to soften them, so that they can be rolled. Save enough of the water for the sauce.

Saute the onions, carrots, and peppers in olive oil or vegetable oil until the carrots begin to soften. Add the celery (chopped) and the beef. Sprinkle with garlic powder and half the basil. Cook, stirring occasionally. When the beef is done, add the diced tomatoes (with their juice), half the basil, and the rice. Simmer and mix.

Combine broth and tomato sauce in saucepan on medium heat. Add the water, brown sugar, worchester, the other half of the basil, and the corn starch. Whisk thoroughly and heat, stirring enough that it does not stick, until it bubbles significantly. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 350F. Add some of the filling to each leaf and wrap as you would a burrito, but with both ends closed. Place in glass or ceramic baking pan with the loose edge down. When all the rolls are in the pan, pour the sauce over the top, covering the rolls as well as possible. Bake and serve hot.

A QEMU screenshot for your edification

Heh, heh, heh.

Easier to use, more reliable, faster, and more entertaining. That was some good marketing copy, there.

There were some improvements in Windows 98 (versus Windows 95 OSR2, I mean; comparing it to later systems would be unfair), but these weren't them.

Reliability was basically the same; Windows 98 crashed just as often as Windows 95 and was at least as likely to corrupt the filesystem when it did.

Faster is a joke; Windows 95 performs better every time on the same hardware. (This is normal; newer systems are made for more recent hardware, and they do more, so older systems are always faster. That's true in the open-source world as well, with a few rare exceptions.)

Easier to use and more entertaining? I guess they must be referring to the fact that Windows 98 introduced Windows Media Player, the most impossibly unusable media player EVER (except, possibly, for Apple QuickTime). The only way that's entertaining is if you're watching other people try to figure out how to make it do what they want and laughing at them.

A Very Strange Check

Today I got a very strange check in the mail. It's clearly designed to make me think it's my state tax refund, but I am skeptical about its authenticity, for a number of reasons, which I shall outline below.

The very first strange thing is the timeframe. This check arrived before my federal tax refund. The federal refund has always arrived first, before the state one, in the past. I just mailed off my IT-1040 a couple of weeks ago, so I wasn't expecting a refund check for another month at least. If that were the only oddity, of course, I'd just figure the state got their act together better this year, maybe some new electronic processing or something, and the checks are coming out sooner. But...

The address in the upper-left corner of the check, which showed through the envelope in the return-address position (the envelope itself has no information on it at all), is a P.O. Box address for something called "Taxation-Refund/Research", which sounds very much like it was carefully constructed to let extremely gullible recipients think that it might come from the Department of Taxation, without actually saying so.

The check is signed by someone named "J. Pari Saberty", whom I've never heard of, and whose title is given as "Director", and the subtext reads "Office of Budget Management". Real state tax refund checks, at least in Ohio, are signed by someone with a significantly more familiar title, such as State Treasurer, or at least they always have been in the past. I've never heard of the "Office of Budget Management" before, and I find it interesting that it isn't the "Ohio Office of Budget Management", as one would expect if it were a legitimate branch of the state government. Perhaps it is the Office of Budget Management of the Taxation-Refund/Research Corporation?

There are some other oddities. The check has a warrant number; maybe I'm just forgetting, but I don't recall seeing one of those on a check before. In the upper-right corner there are also three different unlabeled numbers; there's no way to know what they are supposed to represent.

The tear-off sheet on top, which came folded behind the check, also includes a warrant date and, I am not making this up, a vendor number, as well as a voucher ID number. That word voucher is a bit scary. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but in the back of my mind, there is a notion rolling around that a voucher can come with strings attached.

Then there's this wording:
This payment represents your Personal Income tax refund.
For payment information contact 800-282-1780.

That word "represents" is outright terrifying in its clearly deliberate vagueness. They went out of their way to avoid saying that this is in fact my refund. It only represents my refund. One supposes my actual refund will be coming along later, from the state, and if I've cashed this check meanwhile, then I'll probably owe the refund itself to "Taxation-Refund/Research", perhaps with interest and other attached strings.

I could look up that 800 number and see who it belongs to, but realistically there's no point, because even if the phone number belongs to the Ohio Department of Taxation, it only means that this outfit printed that phone number on the document they sent me. The wording surrounding it is sufficiently vague ("For payment information") that you couldn't even really argue that the outfit issuing the check is claiming the number belongs to them. There's clearly no such claim. They're just advising you to call the number if you need information.

So I did a web search for "Taxation-Refund/Research", and I found... an article on a blog, headlined "Refund checks aren't a scam; they're the work of state government". On a blog. Yeah.

I'll say that again, because it bears repeating: my web search for the name of the organization that issued this check turns up an article on a blog. There are no other significant results. Notably, a web search for this outfit does not turn up any Ohio state government websites.

The blog article is designed to look like it's a column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but the domain name of the blog, while it is a name that would be very plausible for the Plain Dealer, does not match the actual domain name of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, (which I looked up in a search engine).

At this point, loud alarm bells are going off in my brain.

When I trim the blog article's URL back to just the domain name, it's... a blog-hosting site. There's a "sign up for a blog" link right there in the sidebar, which is presumably what "Taxation-Refund/Research" did, I guess.

The blog article claims that the Ohio Department of Taxation got enough calls about the redesigned checks that they posted a sample of what the new checks look like on their website. This claim should be verifiable... but I have looked on said Dept of Taxation website and have not been able to locate any such thing. It's possible that I'm just missing it, I suppose... government websites are notoriously badly organized and difficult to navigate. But it's also at least vaguely conceivable to me that the blog article, reputable though it may seem on account of the fact that somebody posted it up on the internet, is less than 100% accurate, as unlikely as that may seem. This is one detail of the article that I should be able to verify, if it were true, and I cannot.

On the other hand, there's a light "Great Seal of the State of Ohio" graphic built into the background of the check, which probably should ought to be illegal for a private company to use in this manner without proper authorization, though I'm not a lawyer and can't really say this for certain. And yes, I know what said seal is supposed to look like, and this looks like it. So there's that.

Also, the amount of the check happens to exactly match the amount of the refund I was expecting, which would be a pretty odd coincidence if they didn't get the number from the Ohio Dept of Taxation. Then again, the name of the outfit issuing the check includes the word "Research", so maybe they know something I don't about the legal nuances of tax and public records laws. I thought the amount of your tax refund was considered confidential and not disclosed to third parties, but I am not a lawyer and could be mistaken about this. I'd have to research it to be sure, but this also points toward the check perhaps being legitimate, unless there's something I don't know. So there's that too.

Additionally, the check says "VOID AFTER 2 YEARS", which is a normal duration for a tax refund check. You'd normally expect a scam to say something more like "VOID AFTER THIRTY DAYS", to encourage people to stop thinking and just go cash the thing already. This, to my way of thinking, is the strongest piece of evidence I could find that the check might in fact be legitimate.

The two-year duration allows me to just hang onto the thing for a couple of months, if I am so inclined, to see if perhaps my real tax refund check will arrive in the mail from the Ohio Department of the Treasury. Since the check is for a small amount, I might just do that, rather than bother doing any further research.

But it seems very likely to me that this is some kind of scam. The supposed Plain Dealer article on a blog, rather than on the Plain Dealer website, and the lack of any evidence on the web that there's any "Taxation-Refund/Research" associated with any branch of the Ohio state government, are both difficult to explain away. And if it is a scam, it's one of the most underhandedly ingenious ones I've ever seen, and likely to catch a lot of unsuspecting people.

Housing Credit Crisis

I ran across this video (via Gerv Markham's blog) that tries to explain in layman's terms why the banks have run into trouble. On the whole, I think it does a pretty fair job of breaking down some of the basic points and making them understandable.

It basically comes down to this: sub-prime mortgages are a somewhat riskier investment, and the risk was underplayed, and some funds were invested in sub-prime mortgages that really could not tolerate that level of risk.