Time to break up with H&R Block Online (formerly TaxCut)

You know, as much as I hated filling out all of my 2009 taxes in H&R Block’s new “At Home Deluxe” online product, I think I may just go ahead and try filing with TurboTax anyways.

Last year, I was wowed at how great their online TaxCut software was. It was quite helpful, easy to use, and seemed to take care of all of my investment needs.

This year – quite the opposite. When trying to find information about wash sales the site provided no helpful input, no automated calculations – nothing. It is really just a beautified IRS form. I had to research the web for hours and do my calculations manually in a spreadsheet. Even then, because they don’t show you what fields you’re actually filling in in the IRS form – there is not way to be sure I was doing it right.

Then, finally, I got to a point where I thought it was time to submit. And – it finds an error.

“Error 1 of 1: Remove the non-alpha characters in %P in order to electronically file this return.”

%P? Oh gee thanks, that is useful. Who knows where that is. So it brings me to a random spot in my return – all of the characters such as $’s and ,’s are automatically put there by the software. If it is complaining about those – I don’t even have the option to change them. After going through the portion in the survey that it takes me to multiple times with no success, I finally ask tech support:

Welcome to H&R Block At Home technical support. Please wait while we find a technical support agent to assist you.
You have been connected to Kelly A..
Kelly A.: Hello BRIAN, welcome to H&R Block’s At Home Live Chat Support! How can we assist you today?
BRIAN SAGHY: Hello, I’m trying to submit my return by e-file, and it is giving me an error message that appears to be broken:
BRIAN SAGHY: Remove the non-alpha characters in %P in order to electronically file this return.
BRIAN SAGHY: %P definitely looks like the backend code is somehow broken and is not being filled in correctly
Kelly A.: That means somewhere in the return there is a letter that is where a number should be or a number where a letter should be. You will need to review the entire form to find it. I apologize for the inconvenience.
BRIAN SAGHY: That is pretty awful
Kelly A.: I agree.
Kelly A.: Is there anything else we are able to assist you with today?
BRIAN SAGHY: i guess thats it

Tech support agrees – their product sucks. So why should I pay for it? We’ll see if TurboTax or TaxACT 2009 is any better this year.

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Break up with your DNS servers

When you sign up for an internet provider, like Earthlink, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, Roadrunner, etc – the first thing you probably look at is the bandwidth that you’ll be getting.

“7mbps down, 780kbps up”

Sounds super, right?

But then how many times do you type a URL in the browser, or even search for something in the search field and get stuck with “Looking up ____________________” in the status bar? It could be that your DNS servers are just taking their good old time at resolving the domain name.

What is a DNS server?

Good question. You probably don’t really care. The DNS (Domain Name System) server handles the very first transaction when you try to load anything that has a domain name in it. This includes web pages, e-mail, and even those pesky ads. It converts human-friendly names (like http://www.google.com) to computer-friendly addresses (like 74.125.95.147). Think of it like a phone book. Easy to remember names translated into hard-to-remember phone numbers.

DNS Diagram

What your DNS Server is doing

So, the faster you can look up the address, the faster you can start downloading the actual website/content that you wanted to.

Why should I break up with my DNS server? I hardly know it!

Well, maybe you shouldn’t.  But chances are that there is probably a faster DNS server out there for you. And no, you don’t even have to write a breakup note.

I’m not going to go into great detail on how to do this, but I have found a wonderful utility that will basically compare your current DNS servers to several free and public DNS servers. It tests the performance of all of them, and then tells you which are fastest. It is called Domain Name Speed Benchmark.

Here are my personalized results (Running under Ubuntu 9.10 64-bit Wine, from Austin, TX on an Earthlink Cable connection):
Domain Name Server Benchmark Names
Domain Name Server Benchmark Response Times
As you can see, there were a few public servers that were much faster than both Earthlink and Time Warner’s Roadrunner DNS servers.

So long, Earthlink DNS servers. It was nice using you all of 20 minutes. [breakup] Helloooooo ThePlanet.com and Level 3!

Run the program for your own personalized results. Then, you can set your DNS servers to the fastest ones. I’m not going to outline how exactly to do this, but trust me – its easy with a little Google searching for “Change DNS Servers” + your operating system.

Happy browsing with less waiting!

eBay Spam

Every time I buy something on eBay, I’m frustrated by how much excessive mail fills up my inbox with repetitive garbage. Yesterday I purchased a new keyboard. Here is a chronological list of the subject headers that have flooded in over 24 hours. I expect at least 4 more to follow:

  • You eBay bid is confirmed
  • You won this item on eBay:
  • You have won eBay Item …
  • Your invoice for eBay purchase
  • Good news. eBay item …. (won)
  • RE: Item #  … – Notification of an Instant Payment Received
  • Thank you for your payment
  • Your package will be shipped by PayPal Shipping with UPS
  • Your eBay item has shipped

Nine e-mails. NINE! I knew I bid when I hit the bid button. I don’t need 4 e-mails all telling me that I won. I don’t need 2 e-mails telling me that the payment was received. And I don’t need 2 e-mails telling me the same shipping info. What is going on?

Here is what I want:

  • You won the item! Here is your invoice. Please pay here.
  • Your payment was received. Item will be shipped …
  • Item shipped, tracking number. Please remember to rate.

The only other time I want to be e-mailed is if I were possibly out-bid, I guess. Even then, I’m not so sure that would change how I use eBay at all.

Things That BEEP [and i don’t know why]

The piezo-electric buzzer salesman is one of the most successful businessman of his time. Perhaps not economically, but he certainly got his product into more devices around the world than I personally would ever have wished for.

The buzzer is a simple device – a piece of flexible crystal which flexes itself when an electrical current is applied. Turn the current on and off in rapid succession, and you get a frequency. You attach that frequency to a spasming piece of metal or plastic, and you get movement of air. You move air, and you get a blaring obnoxious noise entering your ear, waking you up at 6:30 in the morning as a construction worker decided to put his vehicle in reverse not too far from your bedroom window. Continue reading

International Dvorak Layout

Before my study abroad in Spain, I realized that I was going to be doing quite a bit of writing en español, and that this was going to require some new keyboard adjusting, since I didn’t feel like doing the alt-01249 key combinations to get characters like ñ € ó ç º ü ¡ ¿, etc, since they would be quite frequent.

This is great and simple, if you use a QWERTY-style keyboard. The problem for me is that I use the Dvorak simplified keyboard layout, and I have been since my Junior year of High School. Though I can type in QWERTY, I find it uncomfortable and slow. There exist several Spanish-Dvorak keyboard layout setup files for Windows, however they are all designed for the Spanish keyboard layout, not the US layout. This moves around some keys from where I am used to having them on my US-Dvorak layout, which again is uncomfortable. I already know two layouts, why should I force myself to learn a third? All I wanted was my US-Dvorak layout with the special accented characters and symbols. This shouldn’t be too hard.

Doing some long and tedious searching, I stumbled upon Colin at carfreeuniverse.org’s US-Dvorak with Spanish Chars implementation. This was a great starting point, but it still lacked some of the symbols that I wanted. I can’t remember what at this point, as it was a year ago when I first looked at his layout. I believe I needed most the €, º, and ç symbols, especially if I wanted to write some Català. So I modified his layout for my own purposes, and added characters as I found necessary.

Now, I’m trying to teach myself Português, and along comes a whole new set of letters that weren’t needed in Spanish – ã, õ, à, ô, â, ê, etc. So, nearly a year later, I open up the old Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator and start doing some edits, and add the characters I need. Finally, this is installed on my desktop, so I can send e-mails in Spanish and Portuguese to my friends without looking like a fool and causing vowel confusion.

The result is a keyboard layout that can be used as the default keyboard dvorak layout when typing in English. When special characters are needed, the ‘, ~, `, and ^ characters are all “dead keys” which are used to modify the following character. The layout thus will not get in my way for any of my everyday typing, and allows me to hold IM conversations and write Spanglish/Esportuguês with zero transition between languages. This may even cover French, but its probably not quite there yet. Maybe in version 3.0. The only thing I modified was swapping the shift state of the ~ and `, since ~ characters are used much more frequently. This may be confusing, because its opposite of the key printing on the keyboard itself. I may change it back if it gets confusing.

Here are some screen shots of the layout:

US Dvorak with Spanish defaultDefault

US Dvorak with Spanish ShiftShift


US Dvorak with Spanish Alt-CtrlAlt-Ctrl

I figured I would post all my hard work for undoubtedly enormous population of US-dvorak-native tri+linguists out there. I can think of at least 2 other people who may find this useful that I actually know, that is, if they even use Windows. More importantly, I’ll be able to access this website and install the layouts from anywhere.

Feel free to comment on the layout. Perhaps I missed some characters or made a goof somewhere. I’d be happy to fix it, so long as I’m in agreement 🙂

Click here to download installer