Save the data!

Some of the most important technology programs that keep Washington accountable are in danger of being eliminated.,, the IT Dashboard and other federal data transparency and government accountability programs are facing a massive budget cut, despite only being a tiny fraction of the national budget.

Help save the data and make sure that Congress doesn’t leave the American people in the dark.


Audit Defense may not be worth the price

Just a quick note to let you know the Audit Defense service offered by TurboTax in recent years is probably not worth the price. It’s run by a company called TaxResources, Inc., and they say they’ll represent you to the IRS in case you should have any problems with your return, for the low price of only $39.95.

Someone close to me got to find out exactly what they give you in return for that $39.95 “peace-of mind” fee, when an irregularity popped up on their tax return. They’d made an accounting error, found it out, wanted to report it to the IRS on their own, but contacted these folks because, after all, they did pay for the service.

In the meantime, the IRS also found out about the error and contacted them. This is where the Audit Defense service should have shined. Instead, my contact got the run-around. The Audit Defense team weren’t willing to help them in a timely fashion, didn’t want to contact the IRS on their behalf like they should have done, and only ended up helping them — if you might call what they got help — after several written requests. In the end, my contact lost out on precious time, got extra stress they didn’t need, and will need to pay the IRS additional penalties.

It looks to me like the Audit Defense people failed on three of their basic promises: they didn’t step in right away to deal with the IRS, they didn’t handle the entire tax audit, and they didn’t keep IRS penalties as low as possible.

The name of the employee who “helped” my contact with their IRS audit was Joe Schricker, and the company’s name again is TaxResources, Inc. The service is advertised as Audit Defense on TurboTax, and my advice to you is not to get it.


Obama wants to increase airport security tax

Waiting to check in

We’re currently getting charged $2.50 per passenger to go through the security theater* at our airports. Now the Obama administration wants to increase this fee. Quoting from this article at the Economist:

“The Homeland Security portion of Obama’s proposed 2010 budget (PDF) includes a plan to raise the fees by an as-yet-undisclosed amount in 2012. The increase, the White House says, is needed because the current fee only funds about 36% of airport security costs.”

So let me get this straight: not only do we have to go through the inane, annoying and useless experience of getting scanned, uber-prodded and turned over every time we want to board a plane, but now we’ll have to pay more for that unsavory experience as well? Thanks a lot, Mr. Obama. I can see my vote went to a good cause.

As I said before, I think we should be doing away with the whole darned thing. What happened to accepting the risk and moving on? That’s how the United States was founded and built. It wasn’t built by wimps who wanted to make sure no letter openers or nail clippers got on the plane with them. Why zap us with X-rays, make us take off our shoes, put us through air blowers to sniff us (I’ve half a mind to fart when I go through those things just to see what happens), open up our luggage, and generally speaking stink up the whole flying experience when we don’t really need any of it?

It’s shocking to hear that, isn’t it? Truth of the matter is we wouldn’t really need any of it if security were done right, and if people had the courage to step up and disarm the terrorists when and if they dared do something on a plane. Since the general populace is a bunch of pansies who’d rather have big-brother government do everything for them, now we have to put up with cretinous security checks and starting next year, with increased fees for said security checks. Hooray for democracy, where the majority rules with a pudgy, slightly damp and sweaty fist, tired from holding the remote control too long.

* Term coined by Bruce Schneier.


Another point of view about ferryboats

Nowadays, people think a ferry is a romantic way to get over a river, but in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, people used to think otherwise.

A ferry ride

A ferry ride

For a great look back in time, watch “Bridge Ahoy“, a Popeye cartoon released on May 1, 1936. In it, Bluto overcharges passengers for rides on his ferry, so Popeye, Olive and Wimpy decide to build a bridge and let people cross the river for free.

You see, when you’re the only way to get across a river, you’ve got a monopoly. You control the market and set your own price. Before monopoly laws, it’s probably what happened with ferryboats, and it didn’t sit well with the cash-strapped folks of the mid-1930s. If we had only ferryboats to get across rivers nowadays, we’d no doubt share the same feelings.

Things worked out in the cartoon and the three delivered a bridge made to order. Everyone was happy except Bluto, the ferryboat owner, which was as expected.

Of course, if we carry this solution over to modern times, it breaks down right away. You see, we get charged to go over bridges nowadays. Kind of makes the point of building a bridge to avoid ferry tolls moot, doesn’t it?


I bought gas for $4.45 a gallon tonight

That’s the going price for premium gasoline (93 octane) in these parts (Bethesda, MD). Back when I advocated the use of a heavy gasoline tax three years ago, I had $4-5 per gallon in mind, but I envisioned about $2 of that to be the actual tax itself.

What we’ve got now is a puny 14 cent tax on $4.45 per gallon. I suppose we’ve got our current administration to thank for this fine pickle. Weren’t we supposed to get cheaper oil from Iraq once we invaded liberated them? At least that’s what was sold to us as part of the rationale…

Thank goodness my commute is fairly short. And even though the price for gas is high and will likely get higher over this summer, at least it will encourage certain productive behaviors on the part of some people, not to mention that it will also spur more research into alternative fuels or transportation methods.

If you’ve got another couple of minutes, this guide to efficient energy use I put together back in 2004 is relevant to our situation.


TurboTax better this year, but still needs work

TurboTaxJust got done with my taxes. Yes! Being a long-time user of TurboTax, I’m naturally concerned with how it fares each year. I’ve been using the online version ever since it came out, and let me tell you, it’s much, much better than it was in 2006, when I had this to say about it. With that in mind, here’s what I think of it right now.

TurboTax has really improved for the 2007 tax year, but it still needs work. While it’s easy to prepare the federal tax return, and to navigate to specific sections when you need to look things up (which was a big complaint of mine in the past), you’re pretty much on your own when it comes to the error check. The messages given for the errors are almost cryptic, there are no links that explain what those fields are, and more importantly, there’s no way to go directly to those fields on the pages without exiting the error check, which defeats its purpose.

This year, I noticed that random fields were carried over from past years, unseen in the online return as I progressed through it. They showed up when I printed it, but there were nowhere to be found in the online forms.

What’s more, the error check discovered that required fields weren’t filled in when the return was prepared, but those fields simply don’t appear on the online forms, so there’s no way to fill them out until you get to the error check.

The state tax return portion of TurboTax still needs serious work. There is absolutely no guidance (field explanations, help files) when you get there. You’re completely on your own, and that sucks. It makes me wonder why I’m paying for that portion of the program. I’d actually be willing to pay more for it if TurboTax offered me real, tangible help there.

Other than the points I outlined above, I found TurboTax to be helpful and easier to use this year. I also saw that it packs more value through the addition of the two downloadable applications (QuickBooks Simple Start and Audit Support). I plan to give those a try when I get a chance, and if I have anything worthwhile to say about that experience, I’ll write about it here.


Caveat Emptor: TurboTax is a pain

Before I start, I should say I’ve been a user of TurboTax for several years – can’t remember exactly how many, but for more than 5 years for sure. I couldn’t imagine doing my taxes without it in the past, but after this year’s experience, I’m seriously thinking about switching to something else, just so I don’t end up banging my head on the wall out of utter frustration!

I should also mention that I waited since 4/17 to post this entry in order to cool off. I would have been much more critical if I wrote this last week…

I’ve been using the online version of TurboTax since it came out about two years ago. When I started using it this year, I noticed that it had changed a lot – the graphics were slicker, the site looked nicer, etc. That’s where the good points stopped! The rest of the changes were horrible:

  • Gone was the wonderful screen-by-screen contextual help, with audio and video walk-throughs. Instead, now I had some horrible pop-up help that didn’t help much at all and at times referred me to dig through the IRS site for some form or other such thing.
  • Gone was the easy navigation to specific pages. Now, if I wanted to access a specific screen, I had to start from the beginning of the section and go through e-v-e-r-y little page I didn’t care about, making sure I didn’t mess up my previously answered fields… Horrible, just horrible! This was the single biggest time-waster of this year’s tax season!
  • Gone was the simple, easy to use interface. Now I had a slick but clunky interface, where I had to guess how things were organized. I had this weird dichotomy of thought – on the one hand, I wanted to take a sharp pencil and run it across the screen in anguish, doodling in despair, and on the other hand, the buttons looked so nice… Ugh!
  • Did any of you notice the ridiculous wait times to get to chat live with a rep? For me, it was 50 minutes! Do I have 50 minutes to sit in front of my computer, only to wait for some tired and frazzled rep to answer my question perfunctorily? I think not.

I can’t describe the agony of doing my taxes this year. It was a nightmare. I must have wasted over 10 hours because of TurboTax ‘s horrible navigation and clunkiness! Still, I would have been willing to pull the cover over all these glaring shortcomings if only TurboTax would have been able to do its most basic function, which is… to file my taxes correctly! But no, it had to go and mess that up, too!

I chose to file my taxes electronically this year, and to send in a hand-signed form. I was supposed to get notified by TurboTax when my taxes were electronically accepted by the IRS, so I could come back online and print out the form, sign it, and mail it. Sounds simple, right? Well, they never notified me! My wife and I sat there wondering when it would happen, and come tax day (4/17), we still weren’t notified!

That afternoon, I decided to log back into my account to check the status, and I couldn’t! I kept getting this error, telling me TurboTax couldn’t retrieve my submission status. Well, gosh darn it, why did I pay for this piece of software? No matter how many times I tried, even after logging out, emptying my cache, jumping on one foot, throwing salt over my shoulder, whatever, TurboTax couldn’t retrieve my submission status, and it was getting really, really late – I mean, like 10 minutes before 5 pm late!

Finally, I started looking through the TurboTax help files to see how this error could be addressed – because, of course, TurboTax didn’t provide a link to the specific help page addressing this error next to the error message (duh!). After 10 minutes of digging around and mumbling all sorts of unwell thoughts about TurboTax , I stumbled across some number (not toll-free) I could call to check my status over the phone. When I called, I had to listen to a pre-recorded message telling me how I could check my status online… Would I be calling if I could do that?! So anyway, after navigating through a needless phone menu, I was able to get my information, and to find out that my return had been accepted by the IRS several days earlier. Peachy, or so I thought!

I logged back into my TurboTax acount to print out the special one-page form, but of course, I couldn’t print it because the stinking program couldn’t retrieve my status. Aargh! So I went to the IRS site and printed the form, then filled it in by hand – again, I couldn’t help asking myself why I paid for TurboTax if I had to fill out forms by hand (?!) – only to find out… and it gets better, folks… that it was too late. I was supposed to sign and send the form within 24 hours of the electronic acceptance by the IRS!

At this point, I think steam must have been coming out of my ears! I tell you, I was NOT thinking nice, friendly thoughts about TurboTax , and for good reason! They didn’t notify me the IRS had received my taxes! They were able to do it last year, but not this year!

In the end, I ended up having to print my entire tax forms set from TurboTax and send it into the IRS once more, hoping that they’ll accept it in paper format even though I’d sent it in electronically already… I included the special signature form, for good measure. I hope I won’t get in trouble with the IRS. If I do, I have TurboTax to thank for it!

So, there you have it, my entire, horrible, not to be repeated, experience with TurboTax , which this year, was a dreadful, “pull your hair out” piece of software. You be the judge of whether you want to use it to do your taxes. My take: tax time is stressful enough already without having to deal with buggy, hard to use software.