Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Required Reading

Bruce Schneier is one of the world's top experts in computer security, and, in particular, cryptography. In his latest newsletter he talks about some general security principles that are very relevant to the post-9/11 security frenzy. The article you want is the first one, "How to Think About Security"

Basically, there are five things we have to look at for any proposed new "security" procedure or doodad:

  1. What problem does it solve?
  2. How well does it solve the problem?
  3. What new problems does it add?
  4. What are the economic and social costs?
  5. Given the above, is it worth the costs?

In Schneier's field of computer security, this little checklist is very common. Unfortunately, our politicians and news people haven't heard of it, to our peril.

Go read it. Now. I'll wait.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002


I say again, AARGH!

April 15th. Income Tax Day in the US. Should be like Election Day, with all the bars closed.

This year's AARGH is not so much for the taxes (although I took a major hit, both due to a miscalculation of estimated tax and to a change in the laws), but to the %##)_@ computer program I used (or rather tried to use) to figure out my taxes. Now, unless you have no income except wages and bank interest, you're going to have to use a computer program to figure out your taxes. Doesn't matter who you are -- professional tax preparers use computer programs that are essentially the same as the ones you get for yourself. The tax laws are just too complicated for any one person to figure out on their own. The personal computer is the only thing that has saved the United States from a full-scale tax rebellion.

For years, I have used Turbo Tax to do my taxes, and every year I get more disgusted with what they're doing with the program. For years, the Turbo Tax people have ignored the opportunity to improve the operation of their program, choosing to concentrate on sprucing up the user interface. The user interface has gotten "spruced up" to the point of being nearly unusable.

So this year I tried TaxCut. Bad move. I thought the user interface on Turbo tax was bad, but TaxCut sets new standards for incompetence. TaxCut is the Yugo of tax programs.

Basically, the problem is that the forms wouldn't display properly. It apparently uses a fixed size for all the forms, and then assumes that whatever font your machine is using will fit into that size. This is a beginner's interface design mistake, and should have been caught in a design review. What takes it past the "beginner" category and puts it into the Design Disaster Hall of Fame is that they managed to do the same thing with the printed output. More on that later.

OK, thinks I. Problem probably is that I'm running Windows 2000, and TaxCut can't handle it. Not to worry, I am running a program called VMWare that lets me run multiple operating systems at once. I happen to have one set up for Windows 98. Cool, I'll just run it under Windows 98. Hey! It works! 640x480 screen resolution, but I'll cope. Enter all the data. Like TurboTax, they assume that the way you want to enter all your data is through an "interview". Tedious, as it asks questions about everything in the world, including things that are simply incomprehensible ("Do you have any Form 4668 income?") I ignore this, find the forms menus, track down the associated worksheets (another area of incompetence for TaxCut) and fill in the numbers. They have something called "the shoebox" that is supposed to help you do this. Doesn't work.

There are a few problems, still. Some of the forms simply cannot be seen at 640x480 resolution (funny, there's no display resolution limit mentioned on the box. Another beginner's mistake.), but it's doable. OK, move the forms back to the main system for printing and filing.

Let's try this electronic filing business. More accurate (because the forms don't have to be retyped) and supposedly less subject to audit. Oops. Won't work -- they don't like my wife's name. Now, having a different name on your return than you had last year is the second biggest audit flag there is (only behind having "travel and entertainment" expenses more than 50% of your gross income) Don't wanna do that. Also, what's this nonsense about a fee for filing electronically? We do this to make life easier for the Government, and they charge us for it? They should give us a discount. Bag it. Whatever happened to the form 1040PC? All the advantages of electronic filing and it didn't cost anything extra. Plus, it worked.

While we're futzing with this, let's print an archive copy. Print a test form. Looks OK; print everything. Oops. Same resolution problem as before. I just created 120 pages of scrap paper. OK, back to Windows 98. Print to a Postscript file. Move the file to the main box. Convert from Postscript to PDF. Print from Acrobat Reader. Works! ... or does it? The spacing on the forms is all messed up. In particular, numbers. "$123.00" is rendered as "$12     3". I have never seen this problem anywhere before.

I should mention that, for all this printing, my computer is in the basement. The printer is attached to my wife's computer upstairs. Every test and print oddity means a trip up or down the basement stairs. I got my exercise for the day, yahsureyoubetcha.

[Deep breath] One last thing to try. I've been printing to my LaserJet in normal mode. Let's try printing from Acrobat Reader in Postscript. Works! Now I have printed copies of everything. Wrap it all up and mail to the Government.

Safe again, for another year. Or at least until some drelb at the IRS finds a problem. They have three years to find things wrong with your return, unless they suspect fraud, where they have seven. When they have had problems with my returns in the past, they've waited two years and ten months.

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