Saturday, March 16, 2013

Tax Efficiency

Until this year, I have prepared and filed a paper annual Income Tax return.  I looked at the tax guide for any changes, and completed the return by hand, carefully double-checking the schedules and calculations and referring to my prior year's return.

This year Canada Revenue Agency advised that they were no longer sending out paper forms or tax guides and suggested that I complete my return using computer software and file it electronically.  A little slow to move past my comfortable habits, I realized that most filers had probably made this transition and that I was a straggler.

CRA provided a short list of approved software, and I selected Studio Tax, rather than UFile or TurboTax, because it was free (donation) and I had no idea of their relative merits.

Studio Tax turned out to be easy to use.  After a few questions regarding identification, residency, and status, it asked me to transfer information from my tax statements to their similar statements and produced a preliminary tax return with schedules, worksheets, and tax calculations completed.  I added other earnings for which I had not received statements, plus my quarterly instalments, recalculated, and my tax return was done.

Because it looked similar to my previous return and the figures seemed in line, I decided to accept that the calculations were correct (after all it was CRA approved), saved it, and then created a "Netfile" version for CRA.  Using their website, I submitted the return to CRA, checked my online account, and saw that it had been received.    

Last year, I had been a little annoyed that it took six weeks for CRA to process my return (submitted March 6, but not processed until April 16).  This year, I submitted the return on Monday, March 10, and when I checked on Friday, it was processed and I could print a summary.  CRA did not identify any errors and indicated that my refund would be deposited on the following Thursday.

Reducing the processing time from six weeks to four days was certainly an improvement, suggesting that the slow service from the previous year was possibly intentional to get filers to change over. 

On the cautionary side, the return did not require a signature, and I could have filed a return for someone else if I had their Social Insurance Number and birthdate.  There is also the downside that as they make it more convenient, I will become less knowledgeable, so I  should probably find an online tax guide to review before taking too much for granted.     

Monday, January 21, 2013

Blue Monday

I see that today is "Blue Monday", described as the most depressing day of the year.  The assumptions on which this is based are that it is probably cold, the Christmas hangover of unpaid bills has arrived, and New Year's resolutions are already broken.

In my case, however, it is just the opposite.  We have yet to have any serious snow, only two light days in December and one light day in January.  My Christmas bills are paid and the yearly contribution to my  TFSA (Tax-Free Savings Account) has been made.  My two New Year's resolutions are still well intact, the first (as usual) to lose a few pounds and the other to focus less on political and social issues from the United States.

Of my resolutions, I am ten pounds overweight according to the BMI calculator.  Given that I tend to have my highest weight in January and am ten pounds below where I was three years ago at this time (when I then lost twenty pounds), I'm fairly optimistic that I can again get back to healthy weight.  For my age, I am at the 46 percentile, meaning I am actually a little less than average in an overweight population. 

The second resolution, to reduce the amount of unpleasant political information I receive from the U. S., is also under way.  I've limited the amount of time watching CNN and am in the process of severely reducing time on Facebook.  Although I like my Facebook "friends", the attempt to engage in meaningful political or social discussion on the forums doesn't work.  I was particularly amazed a week ago when three seemingly moderate comments I made were severely attacked by others.  On both the left and the right, there is very little tolerance for the middle ground, very little effort to look at both sides of issues, and strong partisan identification.  Maybe this is just the nature of Facebook, but I've decided that aside from staying in contact with real friends and family, there isn't much to be gained from it.                

Saturday, November 17, 2012


The U. S. election finally took place and happily President Obama was re-elected.  Not that this will put an end to partisan bickering, but the general tone coming from the U. S. is likely to be far more to my liking than if the result had been different. This has put me in a good mood and I can only hope that it will last.

On Friday after the election, I had fifteen windows replaced in my house.  The installers came on time and did a tidy, efficient job.  The previously single-paned windows are now double-glazed with automatic locks. The living room windows are now casement, which crank out, instead of the smaller awning type.  Immediately I noticed the difference with significant noise reduction and a warmer-feeling house.

My wife gave me a little lecture about home improvement projects, however:  (1)  Do the projects in the summer; (2) Don't do them just because the neighbour does them; (3) Don't put them off.  In general, I agree with this.  I actually started the window project in the summer, but getting multiple quotes, ordering the windows, and waiting for the installation to be scheduled took two months, which is not unusual.  I don't think I do things just because I see the neighbour do them, but they are a good source of ideas.  I have to admit guilt on the third item, generally because there are a variety of projects that could be undertaken and it probably takes a catalyst to move them forward.

I wonder what the catalyst for re-doing the kitchen will be?       

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Avoiding U. S. Politics and Preserving Sanity

Political campaigns, particularly U. S. style, can be annoying (if not depressing).  Another two months yet before the U. S. Presidential election, to be filled with hyperbole, accusations, media hype, gotcha moments, and manipulative TV ads.  As former Canadian Prime Minister (short-lived) Kim Campbell once remarked, "Elections are no time to discuss serious issues".  When asked this year about U. S. election politics, former U. N. ambassador Stephen Lewis described them in one word: "Preposterous".

My task is how to avoid the noise as much as possible.

It should be easy.  Don't watch TV or use the internet.  That, however, is easier said than done.  I pretty much confine U. S. TV watching to TCM, PBS (which have no paid commercials), and CNN.  I've cut my viewing of CNN in half, usually only glancing quickly, before deciding whether to subject myself to more self-serving political "debate".  For two weeks I watched the Olympics on Canadian channels CTV, TSN, and SNETP, completely excluding NBC.  (This worked well, because as Canadians watched major events live, the U. S. audience waited until evening prime time to see the same on a delayed basis).

As far as the internet, I've unfriended conservatives and reduced liberals to "only important" updates.  I generally agree with liberals, but they also like to pursue irrelevant matters, and are equally capable of reducing discussion to name-calling, overstatement, and simplistic solutions (if only the 1% would pay up).

I know others shut out this process as well, one of the reasons for low voter turn-out.   The reality is that many issues are complex, involve multiple interests, and can only be resolved by trade-off, negotiation, and consideration of both costs and benefits over the long term.  Elections are conducted on sound bites, easy solutions, identity politics, emotion (mainly fear), and short term events. Therefore, we get theatre (mostly tired and uninspired), instead of substance. 

Not long ago, the election period started in February and was over in November.  Unfortunately, the process is now twice as long and twice as tiring and banal.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Stockton, California

I lived in Stockton, California, from 1947 to 1953, between the ages of four and ten.  I attended El Dorado Elementary School on Pacific Avenue, a very nice two-story school with a large playground built in 1916, for kindergarten through grade five.  From the first grade on, I walked to and from school every day, carrying my lunch in either a brown bag or lunch pail.  In the fifth grade, I was a boy cop crossing guard, with a red jacket and cap, signalling the cars to stop at nearby crosswalks, both at lunch and after school.  I can't remember any incident involving police in the years that I attended El Dorado.

Two weeks ago, Stockton declared bankruptcy, unable to reach an agreement with creditors over a $26 million deficit in the city budget.  Really?  $26 million in a city of almost 300,000?  Why not just raise property taxes?

It turns out that the issue is a lot more complicated.  In 1978, California passed Proposition 13, an  initiative constitutionally limiting property taxes to a maximum 1% of assessed valuation.  As the result of falling house prices during the current downturn, property taxes fell.  Even though homeowners started paying far less than previously, Stockton was prohibited by Proposition 13 from raising the tax rate and maintaining revenue.  The city cut services, but increasingly  was unable to balance the budget and service their debt.  Consequently, they filed for bankruptcy.

The neighborhood around El Dorado School when I lived there was probably moderate income, middle class, and well-maintained.  Economically and socially, it appears to have declined. 

Shooting near El Dorado School, February 2012
Checking the status of El Dorado School, I discovered that on a academic achievement scale of 1-10, it rates a 1.  90% of the kids qualify for the free lunch program. The school's highest concern appears to be safety.  In February, there was a gang-related shooting on the south side of the school, at an intersection where I was once a crossing guard.

During the current recession, Stockton's  unemployment rate rose to nearly 18%. Currently, it stands at about 15.4%, nearly twice the national average.  The neighborhood, once almost entirely white, is now more than 50% Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white has declined to 15%.  Possibly, it has been impacted more than other neighborhoods by declining employment, particularly in occupations such as construction.

Somehow, sixty years of supposed U. S. economic growth and increases in opportunity haven't been realized in Stockton, at least not here.       

Monday, June 25, 2012

Game of Life

I saw John Conway's Game of Life on Stephen Hawking's "Grand Design" on Discovery Channel.
The game is played on a cellular grid.  Each cell may be living or not.  What happens to it depends on its neighbors. 

If a living cell is in contact with only one or two other living cells, it dies of loneliness.
If a living cell is in contact with four or more other living cells, it dies of overcrowding.
If a living cell is in contact with two or three other living cells, it survives.

If a non-living cell becomes contacted by three living cells, it is born.

The population may start small, grow, die out, become static or oscillating.  If an "immigrant" is added to a static population, it may grow again or be destroyed and disappear.  Static populations may consist of isolated groups, which may be energized by adding "immigrants" and recontact each other. The population may survive many generations of growth and depletion, before becoming dormant or dying out.

It's called the Game of Life, because of the many parallels to natural populations and the suggestion that human thought patterns may operate the same way, based on simple rules, with many repetitions of the same pattern. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Alan Bock  (1943-2011)

Al Bock  was a fraternity brother of mine at UCLA, whom I lived with from 1962 to 1965.  His career included being an editorial writer for the Orange County Register for thirty years, writing from a libertarian perspective.  Yesterday, checking for recent commentaries by him,  I discovered that he had passed away last year from cancer.

On November 22, 1963, having just returned to the house from an English literature lecture on The Great Gatsby , someone said that he had heard that President Kennedy had been attacked in Dallas.  Initially, this  was greeted with incredulity and dismissed as a joke.  Al then came down the stairs with a radio, and said quietly, "He's dead".  I still have a vivid picture of his giving us this news.

At the end of the fall term of 1963, post cards with final grades arrived.  Going through them (looking for our own), we saw that Al had several Grade "A", with the admonition, "Please see us. You are not enrolled in this class". It turned out that he had been in a dispute with ROTC (mandatory at UCLA) about having his army uniform cleaned before he could return it.  He refused to pay for dry cleaning and subsequently had not been allowed to register for the fall term.  He took courses anyway, but didn't get credit towards his degree.  (You could see the libertarian strain coming out.)

One night we were fooling around in the living room.  Al put his hand through a pane of glass in the outside door and cut it badly.  We raced him to the UCLA Medical Center.  He had severed two tendons and afterwards wasn't able to close his ring and small fingers on the hand.  Surprisingly, he didn't have his registration card with him at the Med Center.  (We were still unaware of his non-registration.)  They fixed him up anyway.
Al wrote four books, The Ecology Action Guide (1970)The Gospel Life of Hank Williams (1976)Ambush at Ruby Ridge (1995), and Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (2000), which gives an idea of the variety of his interests, including environment, music, and politics.

In addition, he was a frequent contributor to and a critic of U. S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his final column published two months before his death, he wrote:

“I remain convinced that the cause of individual liberty is the most noble and constructive political cause around. Albert J. Nock noted that there are two ways for people to relate: through honest exchange and mutual agreement or by one party imposing its will on the other through force, the threat of force, or fraud. He called these the economic means and the political means.

“There are plenty of things more important than politics: your family and friends and treating them right, the search for spiritual meaning in an often confusing and ambiguous world, art, music, science, simple enjoyment of the good things in life, struggling to make good choices rather than destructive ones, and supporting your children in their intellectual endeavors and at soccer and softball games. All these challenges, however, can be handled better – not necessarily easily, but better – in an atmosphere of personal liberty and freedom to make one’s own choices than in a repressive regime that makes choices for you and forces them on you.”

Tributes to Alan Bock may be found at this site: