“On-Line Sales Tax Legislation” HR 5660

There is no “New Internet Tax” — at least not in HR 5660. This article by John C. Dvorak appeared in a blog from PC Mag (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2367551,00.asp). It is worth confronting at this time because it represents one serious problem with the blogosphere — laziness. It took me under five minutes to check this out, but a professional reporter did not invest five minutes of his time to do the same.

For one thing, HR 5660 is included in HR 4577. For another it is not news, it happened in July. The Federal government does not get any money as a result of this legislation. And even more importantly, all it does is establish a simplified standard format for the State forms used to collect Sales Tax from retailers so that on-line businesses don’t need to learn 50 different sets of rules. Mr. Dvorak writes:

A new piece of legislation claims to level the playing field between Internet retailers and brick-and-mortar stores, but this “fairness” bill is anything but.

Internet stores and direct mail operations have long been targeted by money hungry legislatures as potential sources of more tax money for government coffers. There’s always a bill in the works trying to tax Internet stores. Over the years, these proposed laws have been discovered early on, forcing the tax mavens to regroup, over and over again.

They’re at it again, with a bill called The Main Street Fairness Act (HR 5660). This time the bill is cloaked in a cloud of last minute darkness. The argument is that the poor brick-and-mortar stores are being killed by Internet companies, because the latter don’t have to charge tax if they are out of state. Of course! This supposed advantage is negated by shipping costs, but that is seldom brought up. People generally buy things on the Internet when they are not available locally—or when they’re much cheaper online. Tax has little to do with it. This rationalization is meant to cover up the fact that HR5660 is just a money grab.

I looked up this legislation and read through a summary section by section and a good part of the actual law (http://commdocs.house.gov/reports/106/h4577.pdf). Dvorak is wrong: the bill is what Bill Delahunt says it is (http://delahunt.house.gov/2010/07/delahunt-introduces-main-street-fairness-act.shtml) — a mechanism for using the same form for every State (instead of 50 different sets of laws and related paperwork).

All the on-line retailers I use already collect sales tax: this bill created no new tax, only a means of replacing the myriad different forms and rules with a single form so retailers can easily accommodate all the States without a herculean effort to analyze and comply with 50 different laws.

Sales tax goes to the State in which the consumer lives, to pay for the consumer’s needed police, fire, school, and other expenses. If you live and are protected by the police in Washington, then you pay tax to Washington, not California, for your own government, not someone else’s. If you do not like your own State government’s sales tax, then you need to change your State government.

Mr. Dvorak, I like reading your column, but you need to take time to read the legislation before you blog on it. Going off half cocked degrades your credibility.


Ten Habits of Bad Web Design

Every self-proclaimed “web designer” and “expert” does not necessarily know what she or he is doing. More often than not they are simply sales types who have decided “there is money to be made” in selling web sites, and they’ll fast talk inexperienced people into buying from them. Baseline Magazine reports ten of the worst mistakes you can make in website design in their article at http://www.baselinemag.com/c/a/Intelligence/Ten-Habits-of-Bad-Web-Design-171565/ Basically, these mistakes give the same impression as the fast talking salesman in a pink suit with green stripes, white shoes, and two teeth missing hawking his wares out of a suitcase as he stands in the opening to an alley and watches for police.

1. Shouting — Scrolling text, automatic launches of video and audio, and screen-grabbing ads are all turnoffs.

2. Clutter — An over-abundance of links, boxes, and menus paralyzes visitors with uncertainty, not to mention eye-strain.

3. Unfriendliness — Prescription-label-sized text, ill-used white space, links represented by obscure, unfamiliar icons … these are helping your visitors how?

4. Navigation Hazards — Broken or misdirected links, poorly worded links, an inability to go directly back to the home page—all will drive your visitors batty, if they even stick around.

5. Catastrophic Colors — We’re already on your site. Why the gaudy display of plumage to get our attention?

6. Lack of Contrast — Some color is good. Keeping a visitor’s interest requires balance.

7. Runaway Text — Hiding text off to the side or below the screen without easy scrolling tells users you just don’t care if they read it.

8. Drop-Down Debacles — Drop-down menus that disappear below the visible page and prevent visitors from getting at those unseen links are site-killers.

9. Devilish Details — Grammar gaffes and errors in spelling or fact-checking leave a lasting impression, and not a good one.

10. Printing Problems — Print-configured pages should actually print easily and in a usable fashion.

It does take effort to avoid some of these, and sometimes things such as spelling errors do creep in, but they should be fixed as soon as they are found.  Before even beginning to create a web site one should first decide what the message is and to whom it is directed. Then one chooses appropriate colors, then fonts, layout, and other design details.

For an individual, it may make sense to just use the one minute “instant web site” tools provided by many web hosting companies, such as GoDaddy.com who has a nice selection of very easy to use tools — click, wait a minute, ah, instant web site — and their hosting packages are cheap. In fact some of these tools, for example Web Site Tonight, will even prompt you for your purpose, likes and dislikes, and fill in some content for you.

For a professional, if you can’t or don’t have time, to carefully scope out exactly what you want, at least set up one of the professional looking blog packages, such as WordPress, specify “static pages” with the standard information every web site needs (About Us, Privacy Policy, Contact), and choose a template with a color scheme that evokes the impression that you want. You can see this approach on some of our sites at http://jdnash.org and http://alt-fw.org. By starting in this way you will start working out what you really need in a web site and keep notes for later, when you do have time to think it through in advance and do a nice job.


NPO Grant Coop

A group has been proposed for Public Charities in the Fort Wayne / Allen County Indiana area to help each other with grant proposals and technical (website, computer) assistance. This is a ‘Call Out’ to start a new group in the Fort Wayne Indiana area. If your NPO is interested please send me a short email to say so, and include your contact information. Adult Life Training, Inc. will then send out an email to the group so we can start to get together.

An example of contact information is:

John Nash, CEO
Adult Life Training, Inc.
3301 East Coliseum Blvd, RM 136
Fort Wayne, IN 46805
Telephone: 260.432.0014 x128
E-Mail: jdnash@alt-fw.org
FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/kubulai
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/kubulai
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/kubulai


Tax Software

Tax time is fast approaching. There is info on how to file US and State taxes for free, without buying any tax software at all just a bit further down this page.

We used the Intuit TurboTax and Quicken products basically since their creation but a few years ago we ran into what we considered irreconcilable differences(Note 1) and had to fire Intuit. Since that time we have purchased the new H&R Block Tax Cut software each year.

H&R Block changed the product name this year to H&R Block At Home. It comes in several versions, Basic, Deluxe, and Premium. We priced the product on H&R Block’s web site, via a CD H&R Block mails to their past customers to recapture their business for this year, and through web sites for three large office supply chains: Office Depot, Staples, and Wal-Mart.

If your taxes are pretty ordinary (no special business forms or such) then just go to Wal-Mart and buy the $15 ‘Basic’ package. OR skip buying software at all and just use the Free IRS web site.

The benefit of buying the software is the additional safety of having someone besides Big Brother look over your taxes as you work on them and then tell you what to change *before* you file it, the ability to start your taxes on your notebook right away and come back later to finish, for example if you still need some information that is missing when you start, and also the ability to print nice copies of your tax return for all those situations that demand them through the year: your return stays on your computer so you just start the program and click print. If you like the program and buy another one next year, then your work from this year should be automagically sucked into next year’s program for you, so you can skip some typing (such your name, address, ssn, and how much your refund was for 2009).

We looked at the prices (to nearest whole dollar) in each case, and the results are as follows:

Basic Deluxe
w/o State
Deluxe
with State
Premium
H&R Block Web Site $35.00 $45.00 $60.00
Office Depot $20.00 $20.00 $35.00 $50.00
Staples $20.00 $30.00 $45.00 $60.00
Wal-Mart $15.00 $40.00 $50.00

Office Depot advertised the Deluxe without (w/o) State but they were sold out (obviously people know they don’t need State in Indiana because they can file for free on the IN.GOV web site). Why Office Depot is stocking Deluxe with State in Indiana is beyond me. Maybe they are just hoping people will not know about filing for free on IN.GOV and buy the State anyway.

If your income is less than $57,000 you can probably copy the resulting forms right onto the http://www.irs.gov/ on the IRS “FreeFile”, which I think is about everyone. If you actually snookered more than $57,000 last year you can still use e-File on the IRS site. OOOHHHH and remember Adult Life Training has been doing wonderful work helping displaced older workers update their job skills and so they can get re-employed and reduce your tax burden for this year. Send your tax deductible donation to Adult Life Training, c/o Abundant Life, 3301 East Coliseum Blvd, Fort Wayne, IN 46805 or click the button at top left of their page to Donate with PayPal. (end of shameless promotion of my charity)

If you use Free File or E-File the refund should be in your bank account in 10 days or less. Ditto for the Indiana Personal Income taxes — just copy a few numbers onto the IN.GOV tax form, without paying big ‘electronic filing’ fees to some corporation. There might be a filing fee of say $2, Indiana tends to do stuff like that.

Prices are shown to the nearest dollar. We ended up buying at Office Depot. We wanted the package without the State capacity because Indiana provides free income tax filing to their citizens via their IN.GOV web site — no eFiling fee, no extra charge for preparation, no third party collecting your financial data and then forwarding it to Indiana for you: we just type the numbers from our federal form onto Indiana’s web form and file. We like that.

Photo H&R Block At Home Premium
Photo H&R Block At Home Premium

As it turns out, the Office Depot folks explained that I needed the Premium version because the Deluxe version will not let you fill in a Schedule A or C. This seems like a rather unexpected limitation — a call later to H&R Block busted this claim: Deluxe will do the Forms A, C, and many others.

H&R BLOCK At Home Premium Package contents
H&R BLOCK At Home Premium Package contents

The prices for Intuit started at $24.95 and went up to $129.95. I felt that their web site was also a bit confusing because they advertised “Start for Free” but they didn’t really describe when they get my money or how much of it they expect to get in a way that I felt was obvious — money details should be on the first screen. Apparently Intuit’s Home and Business (compares to Block’s Premium) is $74.95 PLUS $36.95 more if you want the State too.

Guess H&R Block is the competitor this year.

The competition considered, $50 for H&R Block At Home Premium (their Home & Small Business version) isn’t so bad, even if I would have liked to escape paying for the State that I did not need or want. In H&R Block’s defense, they do include five (5) eFiles with that package, except there is only one of me so you go figure. Maybe 4 more people would like to eFile their Federal Return with my tax package. Hmmmm. Wonder if I could soak ’em each for say, $12.50?

Our test system is a VMWare virtual machine (VM) with dual core CPU and 4 gig of RAM running Windows 7 Ultimate. We copied our data from last year into the VM and let Windows 7 update itself before we began. We converted the CD to an .iso  to serve the VM as a CD for the install. Installation was straight forward with nothing to see: we started the CD and clicked seven times. Done. Maybe 2 minutes total.

Operation of the software is straight forward. You just follow the screens and type in the numbers it requests. The software will ask you questions to discover which forms to use to your best advantage, then finally it will test your return to be sure there is nothing in it to trigger an audit and send it electronically to IRS. To make extra copies later you just start the program again and click print.


Notes:
1. For years we used the Intuit Turbo Tax, and then a few years ago we black listed Intuit over what we felt were several ethical and security issues: we do not like their installation of the “Content Guard” copyright protection software on our computers because we had very bad experience using it with Zinio some years ago (it kept forgetting we were allowed to use our subscriptions, which we simply cannot afford to have happen with our financial data), and we had a major dispute with Intuit over their demand that we pay them $200 every year to buy the same information contained in the (free) IRS Circular E, even though we prefer to do our own payroll and their QuickBooks product represented that as one of three ways we could use our copy of QuickBooks to do our payroll.
Intuit literally told me that business persons are not capable of typing in the three or four numbers from the Circular E, so it is in our best interest that they force us to pay them to do it for us instead, and to enforce that position by deleting all our payroll multipliers (withholding rate, etc) every time we try to run payroll. We had been buying their new version of Turbo Tax and the accompanying consumer accounting software Quicken for more than a decade — from Quicken version 2.0 on up.
So that is how we started using an alternative tax preparation software, Tax Cut by H&R Block. Not that it was all that different to use: H&R Block simply seems to understand that their customers do not want their financial secrets potentially compromised by malfunctioning ‘copy protection’ software and so far as I have detected, they have not followed in Intuit’s steps to so disrespect their paying customers.
Note: this article is the writers personal opinion. It is based upon almost 40 years of experience in small computers and communications, but it is still an opinion.It is presented AS IS. All use is at your own risk.

Notebook Failure Rates

Notebook computers. Failure rate from SquareTrade, an Extended Warranty service company, is 15.6% to 26%. Note, 26% means that more than one out of every four broke. 15.6% is still not exactly good: imagine the doctor telling you “Yes, I know how to do this surgery really well, I only make serious mistakes 15.6% of the time.” What is that, more than one out of every seven patients dies?

Listed worst to best:

HP:  26%

Gateway: 23.5%

Acer 23.3%

Lenovo 21%

Dell 18.3%

Mac 17.3%

Sony 16.8%

Toshiba 15.7%

Asus 15.6%

See the entire slideshow at http://www.channelinsider.com/c/a/Spotlight/How-Good-is-that-PC-under-the-Tree-204989/?kc=EWKNLEDP12302009A