Your Tax Dollars at Work

Not exactly a newsflash; just restating how the IRS wastes time and money.

I just got off the phone with the IRS. I’d called them because I needed a confirmation letter with my company name and EIN. I’d had a document like that, but it was likely among those destroyed when my wasband stored cardboard boxes of my personal and business documents, books, and software on the floor of my hangar and the hangar flooded, thus destroying everything in those boxes. If he still wonders why I threw so many of his personal items into random cardboard boxes in the garage during the 10 months I lived in our Wickenburg home last autumn/winter/spring, that should give him a clue. He should consider himself lucky that I didn’t leave those boxes outside or turn the hose on them.

Confirmation of Sin?
Searching for “confirmation of ein” results in this interesting suggestion — on the IRS website?

Anyway, I tried to get the document I needed online. I got some comic relief from the search system on the IRS website before zeroing in on a document with instructions that I thought would help.

Instructions

You can read as well as I can. The third bullet point tells me to call the Business & Specialty Tax Line at a toll-free number. So I dialed it up on my cell phone, pressed 1 when prompted to get English (really?), and then pressed 3 to tell them I needed an EIN certification letter. The machine then warned me I’d have a 30 minute wait time.

I got out my bluetooth earpiece, plugged it into my ear, and turned it on. And then I went about my business while on hold.

I waited more than 30 minutes. It didn’t really bother me because my cell phone has unlimited minutes and the music they were playing was tolerable. I did some banking and wrote a few email messages. I washed the dishes. I updated my to-do list.

58 minutes after dialing, a series of beeps and clicks told me something was happening. After a moment, a woman got on the line.

I told her what I needed. She asked me questions to confirm my identity. Then she said she’d “generate a letter” and that I’d get it “in the mail in 5 to 7 business days.”

I asked if it were possible to have the letter generated as a PDF and emailed to me. She said they didn’t have the ability to do that. That didn’t surprise me in the least. An organization that takes nearly an hour to answer a phone call isn’t one that’s likely to be too technologically savvy.

We talked briefly about my hour-long wait on a toll-free number. It didn’t cost me a dime — directly. But as a taxpayer, it cost me money. If you pay taxes in the U.S., it cost you money, too. After all, toll-free numbers might be free to people who dial them, but they’re not free to the people who answer them. I don’t know what the going rate is, but even if it’s only 5¢/minute, the IRS spent $3 to make me wait on hold. Assuming I wasn’t the only one with an hour-long wait today, that’s $3 for every call they take.

We also talked about the cost of generating that letter, stuffing it into an envelope, putting a stamp on it, and sending it to me. That’s another buck or two in materials cost and labor, no?

Of course, she doesn’t care. She’s got a job and she’d doing it. I understand that and told her I didn’t blame her in the least. I just told her I wished our government could step up into the 21st century with the rest of us.

They could do that, of course, by giving business owners access to the database. Have a front end that asks me the same questions she asked to give me the ability to generate the document onscreen or as a PDF for immediate access. The phone call wouldn’t be necessary, the wait wouldn’t be necessary. I’d have my document now instead of having to wait a week to get it.

Why do I need this particular document? Ironically, so I can upload it to a website as documentation for opening a new account. At least someone is using technology right.

Mind Boggling

One definition.

Today, while sitting at my desk in an RV parked in the middle of Central Washington State farmland, I watched a live, full-color feed from outer space on my phone of the historic docking of a privately developed commercial spacecraft to the multi-government built International Space Station. Here’s a screen capture from my phone:

Dragon Docks with ISS

I am old enough to remember when the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon. It was 1969 and I was almost 8 years old. (Aw, come on, don’t do the math.) My mother made us stay up to watch it on the family TV — a big TV console that stood on the floor and required you to get up to change the channels because there was no remote control. The picture we saw of that historic moment looked like this:

Apollo 11 First Step

Do I even need to point out that my phone has more computing power than NASA had when it launched Apollo 11?

We’ve come a long, long way.

I call that mind-boggling.

Why I Can’t Just Enjoy My New 13″ MacBook Pro

It really is a business expense.

13Last week, I finally broke down and ordered a new MacBook Pro. I’d been wanting a computer like the 13″ MacBook for a while, but what I really wanted was a Mac netbook. When Apple unveiled the 13″ MacBook Pro at the Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference earlier this month, I finally stopped denying the truth: that there would be no Mac netbook in my immediate future. Instead, I saw the new 13″ MacBook Pro as a reward for my patience. Not only did it have more features than the MacBook I’d been looking at, but it would cost less money.

Apple also announced some new features in Snow Leopard. While I’m not prepared (because of NDA stuff) to write publicly about Snow Leopard, I am in the middle of a revision to my Mac OS Visual QuickStart Guide for Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. One of the hurdles I was facing was not being able to show and discuss features of Mac OS X that work on the new MacBooks. About two years ago, I bought a 15-inch MacBook Pro to use as my “test mule” for writing about Leopard. That computer simply doesn’t have the bells and whistles of the newer models I need to write about.

It looked as if I’d have to buy a new MacBook Pro so I could write about it for my book.

This is both good and bad:

  • Good because having to buy a new computer for work means I can deduct the cost of it from my taxes. (I use my computers for all of my various business endeavors — I don’t play games on my computers. If I’m not working, I’m out having fun somewhere or sleeping.) And let’s face it: it’s always nice to have a computer with the latest technology.
  • Bad because having to buy a new computer means having to come up with the money to pay for it. Just because I can deduct it as a business expense doesn’t mean it’s free. (So many people don’t understand this simple fact: you still have to pay for business expenses; it’s just like being able to buy them at a discount equal to your tax bracket percentage.) In this case, the final price tag came to just under $2K. Ouch.

It’s also bad because I never seem able to buy a new computer and just enjoy it like a normal person.

Believe it or not, this is my first “unboxing” video. Let’s just say it doesn’t completely suck. The weird noises you hear in the background are coming from Alex the Bird.

Most folks buy a computer, open the box, fire it up, and start exploring. I, on the other hand, buy a computer, open the box, fire it up, erase the hard disk, and install beta operating system software on it. I then get to spend several weeks exploring the minutiae of the operating system’s elements, including every single window and dialog that might appear to the average user. I take screen shots of everything I see and write about it in an unbelievable level of detail.

So right now, as I type this, I’m waiting for the Developer Preview of Snow Leopard to install on my brand new, just-out-of-the-box 13″ MacBook Pro’s freshly erased hard disk. I’ll put some sample files on it, set it down on my workspace table beside my 24-inch iMac, get them talking to each other via AirPort network, and start exploring the current topic I’m writing about, which is the Dashboard and Widgets. I’ll put my old 15-inch MacBook Pro away in its case and set it atop the Dell laptop I’ve also brought along with me this summer to revise another book for another publisher.

When I get back to Arizona, if I’m not too busy doing other things, I’ll use the discs that came with the 13″ MacBook Pro to restore it to its factory hard drive configuration. Then maybe — just maybe — I’ll put it back in the box and have a reopening, trying my best to pretend it’s brand new again.

I’m Not as Dumb as Most Cars Think

And I don’t like cars bossing me around.

This week, I had the dubious pleasure of driving a Dodge. In all honesty, I don’t know what kind of Dodge it was. It seemed to be a kind of cross between a station wagon and an SUV. The car was a rental and I didn’t rent it so I can’t complain. I do feel bad for the company that rented it for me. They got ripped off. The 6-day rental cost them nearly $400.

I will make some comments about this vehicle:

  • It is designed for short people. I’m 5 feet 8 inches tall and my eyes looked almost directly into the top frame of the windshield. Slouching while driving was required.
  • The car was a dog. That means it didn’t want to go. I spend a lot of time with my heavy foot pressing down hard, just to enter or pass on the freeway.
  • It seemed like a perfectly workable family car. Four doors, storage in back. I could imagine kids sitting in there with dirty soccer uniforms on.

Check Tire Pressure?

Check Tire Pressure

After leaving Burbank and starting my long drive to Ventura on the 101 freeway, I noticed that one of the idiot lights was on. We used to call them idiot lights because they used to warn drivers about the obvious problems with a car: overheating, low oil pressure, out of gas. But these lights have apparently graduated to the next level of reporting. Now they report about more advanced problems — or potential problems. I thought the symbol was referring to the oil, but I didn’t pull over to check. After all, I’d just picked it up at Enterprise and they should have checked the oil. Instead, I ignored it.

On the third day, I got tired of looking at it. I pulled out the manual, which was in the glove box, and looked it up. It was a tire pressure indicator. The light on meant one of two things:

  • The tire pressure in one or more tires was low
  • The tire pressure monitoring system was broken.

I walked around the car. The tires looked fine.

I spent the rest of the week ignoring the light.

Stop Nagging Me about My Seat Belt!

I wear my seat belt — at least most of the time. I don’t wear it in parking lots, especially when backing up. I also don’t wear it on the extremely rough roads I sometimes drive in my Jeep. And no, I don’t wear it while driving around town, since my speed seldom tops 45 MPH. My 2003 Honda S2000 and 1999 Jeep Wrangler both have airbags. In the unlikely event of a collision at 30 MPH, I’ll let the airbag protect me from the steering wheel. I don’t think a collision at that speed is going to throw me out of the vehicle, either. I’m more likely to get trapped in my seat when some senior T-bones me at an intersection.

I’m fortunate. Neither of my primary vehicles (or the two secondary vehicles — a 1987 Toyota MR2 and 2994 Ford F-150 Pickup) has one of those annoying seatbelt reminders. Sure, an idiot light goes on on the panel. It might even flash — I’m so good at ignoring it that I just don’t know. But it doesn’t repeatedly beep until I fasten the damn seatbelt. It gently reminds me and then allows me to make my own decision.

The Dodge this past week was a nag. It got so annoying that I fastened the seatbelt behind my back on Tuesday and left it there until I departed Ventura today.

It could be worse. It could be one of those automatic seatbelt things. My sister had a car with one of those. What a pain in the butt.

I’ll Shift When I’m Ready to Shift!

My Jeep thinks it needs to tell me when to shift gears. An idiot light comes on when I accelerate, apparently to signal me when it’s time to upshift. As if I can’t hear the engine or feel the power of the engine. As if I’d prefer watching the instrument panel for the cue than the road in front of me.

I don’t shift when it tells me to. I like to wind things out a bit. My Honda redlines at 9000 RPM — and yes, I’ve been there.

And that’s another thing: engine cutoffs. Both my Honda and my Toyota cut power if I enter redline territory. Okay, so maybe that’s not such a bad idea. It certainly keeps me on my toes when Mike and I race home from Scottsdale or Phoenix. I have better reaction time at traffic lights, but if I don’t shift before redline, the car gives him an advantage. (The fact that he’s driving an AMG doesn’t help me much, either.)

I’m Not Quite Out of Gas Yet

My Jeep also likes to beep when the fuel level gets low. That’s a good thing, since I have become an expert at ignoring idiot lights. The audible warning is a real help. Unfortunately, the Jeep’s idea of low fuel and mine are very different. The Jeep tells me I’m low when the 19 gallon tank gets down to 5 gallons. That’s not low, even for a Jeep.

My Honda uses a series of lighted bars on the digital dash to indicate fuel level. When it gets down to two bars (out of about a dozen), the low fuel light goes on. But I’ve taken it down to zero bars and have only put 11 gallons in the 13 gallon tank. At 25 miles per gallon, I still had 50 miles left.

Of course, I have completely run out of gas in my Toyota. I was on my way to work, wearing a suit and heels, and had to walk about a half mile to the nearest gas station. Then I had to beg them to loan me a container for the fuel. Sheesh. So I’m more careful now. And I use the odometer on that car to judge remaining fuel.

I almost ran out of gas in my redneck truck. (That’s the 94 Ford.) You can read about it here, if you’re curious. That vehicle doesn’t have low fuel lights. It has two fuel tanks, though, and only one fuel gauge.

And Another Thing…

What is it with driver controls these days?

My Honda has buttons near the steering wheel to control the stereo and climate control. But the main control buttons for both devices are less than 10 inches away from the steering wheel. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it a hardship to reach 10 inches, even when I’m driving.

The car’s cockpit — and yes, it is a cockpit, with less room for the driver than my helicopter has for the pilot — has everything clustered around the driver’s side of the dashboard. And some things are clustered there twice.

At least that car doesn’t tell me when to shift gears.

SPOT Messenger: A First Look

Initial thoughts about my new flight following solution.

My friend, Jim, is an Idaho-based R44 pilot with a company very similar to mine. He’s a single pilot Part 135 tour and charter operator who sometimes operates over very remote terrain.

Of Flight Plans and Flight Following

One of the challenges we face as charter operators is last-minute route changes requested by paying passengers. For example, suppose the passenger books a flight from Scottsdale to Sedona. I’m required by the FAA to file a flight plan that indicates my route so that if we don’t turn up in Sedona, they’ll know which way we went and can [hopefully] find us. But at times — sometimes after the flight is already under way — the passenger might say something like, “Can you follow the course of the Verde River to Camp Verde?” This is not the most direct route and it’s not likely to be the one I planned. But what do I do? Say no?

[The right answer is yes, say no. That’s the answer the FAA wants to hear. But the FAA is not paying by the hour to conduct the flight. The FAA is not going to refer its friends to a friendly, accommodating pilot.]

The problem is, if I deviate from a route and something goes wrong, the search teams may not be looking for us anywhere near where we are. So they might not find us. And sure, I have an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) in my aircraft — even though it is not required by the FAA. But how well do those really work? It certainly didn’t help them find a pilot and his co-worker when they literally disappeared on a flight between Deer Valley in North Phoenix and Sedona nearly two years ago. They’re still missing.

And then there’s Steve Fossett. Or maybe I should have said, where’s Steve Fossett. They must have spent millions by now to find him and he’s still among the missing.

Airplane pilots and pilots flying in the flatlands of the midwest can request something called flight following from the flight service station (FSS). Flight following keeps you on radar so they pretty much always know where you are. The problem with helicopters is that we fly so darn low. Even if I flew up in nose bleed territory at, say, 1500 feet above ground level (AGL), the terrain in the area I fly is too mountainous to keep me on radar. I’d have to fly much higher to stay on radar. And if I’m going to be that high, I may as well fly a plane. So flight following is not a practical solution.

The True Geek’s Solution

Jim also flies in remote and often mountainous areas. And, like me, he’s a true gadget lover — someone who likes to fiddle with electronic toys. (I think he’s lusting for a POV.1 after seeing mine.) He was based in Chelan for cherry drying season and happened to see the SPOT Messenger displayed at the local Radio Shack. He went in and checked it out. Then he did more homework. Then he bought one and told me about it.

SPOT MessengerThe SPOT Satellite Messenger is a personal location device. It’s about the size of my Palm Treo and, as you can see here, bright orange so it’s easy to…well, spot.

My understanding of the unit is that it combines GPS receiver technology with satellite transmitter technology. So you turn it on and it acquires its position via GPS. You can then use one of four different features, depending on the subscription plan you choose:

  • The SPOT standard service plan, which costs $99/year, includes the following three features:

    • OK sends a text message or e-mail message to the phone numbers or e-mail addresses you specify. The message, which is customizable, tells the people on the list that you’re checking in OK and provides the GPS coordinates for your position. Those coordinates include a link that, when clicked, displays your position on Google Maps.
    • Help, is similar, but it sends a customizable help message to the people you specify. The idea here is that you need help and have no other way to contact someone who can help you.
    • 911 sends your GPS coordinates to the folks at the GEOS International Emergency Response Center, who, in turn, notify the appropriate emergency authorities. This is for real, life-threatening emergencies. The Response Center folks also contact, by phone, the two people you specify to notify them of the signal.
  • The tracking upgrade option, which costs another $49/year, includes live tracking, which, when activated, sends you GPS position every 10 minutes or so to the SPOT folks. This information is visible to anyone who has been given access to a Share page you configure with or without a password.

Jim went with both plans. When I bought mine on Monday, I did the same.

First Thoughts

I’ve been playing with SPOT on and off since Tuesday morning. In general, I like it and I think it’ll do the job I intend to use it for — flight following on those long cross-country flights.

After configuring message recipients, I started out by sending a few OK messages. Although the marketing material makes it seem as if those messages are instantaneous, they’re not. After pushing the OK button, the unit will try for up to 20 minutes to send your OK location via satellite uplink. It’ll send the message 3 times, but only one message is forwarded to the people on your list. For experimental purposes, I made myself one of those people. I had to wait longer than 20 minutes to receive one or two of the messages. To be fair, part of the reason for that could be my location at the time — flying between Wenatchee and Seattle in mountainous terrain. (I don’t think my cell phone was receiving very well.) The delay is satisfactory, once you realize that it’s not an instant communication.

For obvious reasons, I have not used Help or 911 yet. Let’s hope I never have to.

I did set up tracking. It took several tries to turn it on properly. The unit does not have a screen, so you have to rely on understanding the blinking lights to know what it’s doing — if anything. Twice I thought I was enabling tracking, but discovered that all I did was send OK messages. Once, tracking was on and in trying to turn it on, I really turned it off. In all cases, it was operator error. Evidently, you cannot turn on tracking during the 20-minute period in which an OK message is being sent. Since both features use the same button, it’s pretty easy to do one thing instead of the other if you don’t pay attention to how long you hold down the darn button.

My husband complained that the messages he received did not include the date and time. We later realized that it was because he was not viewing the message on his phone; he was viewing its summary. (My husband is text message challenged.)

Snowqualmie PassPad 6The e-mail version of the OK message is handy because of the link it includes. Click it and go right to Google Maps with the position clearly marked. Here are two examples. In the first one, we’re flying just to the east of Snowqualmie Pass over I-90. In the second one, we’re sitting on Pad 6 at Boeing Field in Seattle. These images are at two different magnifications. All GoogleMaps features work — it’s just the location put into GoogleMaps. My personal Messages page on the FindMeSpot.com Web site displays all points with the option of displaying any combination of them on Google Maps. It also enables me to download these points to a GPX or KML format file for use with a GPS receiver or GoogleEarth.

The Share page feature, which is still in beta, was not working when I first tried it. But it’s working now — and quite well! I set up a page that does not require a password so anyone could check in and see where I was when I was traveling with SPOT tracking turned on. Apparently, it only shows the past 24 hours of activity, so it you’re checking it now and there’s nothing going on, it’s because I’m not traveling with SPOT. But here’s what it looks like right now; as you can see, I spent a lot of time exploring Walla Walla, WA today:

SPOT Shared Page

A few things about this feature:

  • The lines between the points (which, for some reason, are not showing up in the screenshot) do not represent tracks. I was in a truck today and did stay on roads.
  • If the unit did not have a clear shot of the sky, the point that should have been recorded wasn’t. This wasn’t a problem today, since I had the unit sitting on the dashboard in the broiling sun — partially to see if heat would affect it. (It didn’t.)
  • Clicking a point in the list on the left side “flashes” that point in the display. You can also click other controls to get more information.
  • If you leave this page open, it will automatically update. So you can watch new points appear if you’re tracking someone. Way cool.

The URL for this feature is long and impossible to remember, so I created a custom URL using TinyURL: http://www.tinyurl.com/FindMaria. I invite you to try it for yourself.

Overall

My overall opinion is very positive. It will certainly give me peace of mind while flying in some of the remote desert locations I fly in. I think it’s worth the $150 unit cost plus annual subscriptions.

Even if something goes terribly wrong out there, I want to be found.

My next challenge: getting it to send OK messages to my Twitter account. Anyone have any ideas?