Tax Thoughts

CalculatorThe April 15 deadline for filing tax returns is fast approaching and I’m not happy to say that we are still working with the accountant on completing our forms. I have been researching on a lot of tax hoop-la and here are some useful links I’ve come across:

Here is a good calculator for figuring out what tax bracket you are in based on your ‘taxable income’. It also shows what your federal tax liability will be including what percentage of your income is that number.

We had a unique case tax-wise this year because my wife was just transferred internationally and started US local work last May. The IRS has what it calls as the Substantial Presence Test which basically helps you figure out if you are a resident or a non-resident for tax purposes.

HR Block has this tax calculator which will help you get a ballpark figure of what your federal tax refund will be. I like their calculator a lot because you do not need to enter in personal information, just numbers.

Here is a list of overlooked deductions which is useful if you are itemizing deductions.

Random Thoughts 03-18-09

ThoughtsI have been very busy these past few days trying to get ready the web modules I’ve been working on for the internal testing slated for next week, so here are some random thoughts:

Saw this relatively new TV service from AT&T called U-verse and I got very interested on it. It features a bunch of other channels we couldn’t get from our current cable provider and something that they call Total Home DVR which basically allows you to record on just one DVR box and have the data accessible on any other U-verse enabled TV in your home. I believe they use fiber optic technology so the availability as of the moment is very limited. Here’s one guy’s review on the whole installation process. I will be looking at this and on the Verizon FIOS services in the future.

Been watching a lot of Bleach lately instead of the usual Naruto. So I have a lot of Naruto episodes waiting and I will have that pile up for a while so I can take full advantage of my free trial on Crunchyroll.

The pH on my nano-reef has been low at 7.6. I’m not sure when this started because I just noticed it when Tin and I calibrated the pH meter yesterday. I began dosing DT’s 3-part to see if it helps so I need to monitor that in the next few days.

There are some decisions to make in the next few weeks so I’m praying everything turns out well…

Image Annotation on Lotus Domino

CodeI found this very nifty script using JQuery to annotate images on the web ala Flickr and Facebook. On my end, the challenge was to implement it on a Lotus Domino web application.

One of the first things I needed to do was to submit the data and to convert it to JSON format:

notes = [{"x1":"10","y1":"10","height":"150","width": "50","note":"This is note one"}, {"x1":"25","y1":"25","height":"70","width": "80","note":"<strong>This</strong> is a new note This is another note This is a new note"}];

In order to do this in domino I needed to use two Computed fields, of text type and computed after validation. Also, I would need the fields for the data that would set the height and width of the annotation box, and the note that goes with the box. (NoteHeight, NoteWidth, NoteNote). Field 1 will have the following value:

@If(@IsNewDoc=1; “{\”x1\”:\””+ X1+ “\”,\”y1\”:\””+ Y1+ “\”,\”height\”:\””+ NoteHeight+”\”,\”width\”:\”” + NoteWidth + “\”,\”note\”:\””+NoteNote+”\”}”;notesdata + “, ” + “{\”x1\”:\””+ X1+ “\”,\”y1\”:\””+ Y1+ “\”,\”height\”:\””+ NoteHeight+”\”,\”width\”:\”” + NoteWidth + “\”,\”note\”:\””+NoteNote+”\”}” )

Field 2 will take this value in JSON format and add succesive annotation data that will be handled by the jquery plugin:

@If(@IsDocBeingSaved=0;”[]”;”[" + notesdata +"]“)

After that, we just need to run  Evaluate() on the text string to create the JSON objects:

notes = eval(‘(‘ +     document.forms[0].field2.value + ‘)’);

You should then have the plugin working on your domino web application. It should be similar to the plugin demo.

Chicago Weekend

ChicagoTin and I went to Chicago for the weekend so that I could go to the Philippine Consulate there and renew my passport.  It was a very eventful two days for us to say the least.

First off, we left home around 3am in the morning  so that we could arrive there early to avoid rush hour traffic going in to the city. Chicago from Cincinnati was a 5-hour drive already and I wasn’t about to extend it beyond that. On our way there, the drive was going very smoothly until I missed a lane change and ended up in the downtown Gary, IN area.

The part of Gary that we drove through, looking for the I-74W exit, was very creepy. We passed through what I assumed was the main thoroughfare in the downtown area and almost every building was boarded up. The roads were in terrible condition, riddled with very deep potholes which made me very afraid it would ruin our car or something. Passing through there was like going through a ghost town. Later on, I would search on Gary, IN and I found this link by urban explorers who visited some of the abandoned buildings in the area. I am sure this is not representative of what the whole city is, but it was scary to see that there were areas as abandoned as it was.

We arrived at the Hyatt in downtown Chicago around 8am (a bit early because we forgot about the time difference) and was pleasantly suprised that they allowed us to check-in early. We settled in and left for the consulate around 9am. It was my second time in Chicago so N Michigan Ave was a bit familiar to me. We found the consulate quite easily and proceeded to renew my passport. I was actually so shocked by the excellent level of service that they  were giving out in the consulate.  At one point it seemed that there were 3-4 people who were assisting me throughout the process and all of them were so friendly and helpful. This is a very stark contrast when you have to deal with the government back in Manila. Most employees were either underpaid or undertrained that it’s usually like pulling teeth just to get things done. I know that the environment is very different, but still kudos to the staff over at the Philippine Consulate in Chicago for making my experience very smooth and pleasant.

After a lunch of fiery, extremely-hot-it-will-make-you-vomit, peanut noodles (due to an overdose of sriracha chili sauce) and a quick nap, we went to the Chinatown area to stroll around, take pictures and grab an early dinner.

ChinatownChinatown was a bit deserted because it was an ordinary Friday. We took some pictures in the market square and after a while proceeded to the much touted Ken-Kee restaurant in that same area. The menu was very long which had a list of preparations of almost all kinds of meat that included goose intestines, pig intestines, etc. We were not feeling adventurous so we opted for a fried Tilapia in sweet and sour sauce, and calamari with garlic-chili flakes. Ken-Kee did not disappoint as everything tasted very fresh and flavorful. After dinner, we had to go back to the hotel because we brought some chinese barbecue buns which we had to store.

After that, we again went out because we had tickets to the Bulls game that night (talk about a full schedule). We were so tired of all the walking that we already did that we decided that instead of taking the cheaper bus (which was a 5-block walk) we just took a cab going to the United Center.

United CenterThe United Center was a bit drab compared to other sports stadiums we visited. The atmosphere was not as festive as we were normally accustomed to when going to games. We took some pictures and quickly found our seats in the upper section. At the third quarter mark of the game, the Bulls were leading the Bucks by about 9 points, we decided to call it a day and avoid the crowds after the game. We took a cab back to the hotel and after a few minutes we were already in dreamland.

In the morning we took our breakfast vouchers (we got our hotel room with breakfast and parking for only around $129 before tax thanks to Travelzoo) and went to the buffet downstairs. We checked out at 11am and started the long trip home. Getting out of the Chicago downtown area was not that easy for us. Even though we were armed with a GPS, as soon as we hit the underground streets, we lost the GPS signal and were completely lost. We almost went into a one-way street which would have been disastrous. After a while of driving around, we finally found the exit to the highway.

The trip back home was thankfully uneventful, and we got home around 6pm. The whole ordeal was very tiring but was laden with very good experiences for both of us.

Living on food stamps

Snow CrabHere is a blog of a CNN reporter who decided to go on an experiment to live on $176 a month as his food expense. According to him, he wanted to see what it feels like to live using food stamps that the government gives out. So he approached a state government employee who told him that $176 is the most a single person can qualify for under this program. Since, he cannot get the actual food stamps, he got a debit card, placed $176 on it and decided to use only that for his food purchases for an entire month.

I just found his experiment a little trivial because I don’t think that it is that hard to live on $176 a month for food. Now don’t get me wrong, I am in no way trying to downplay the hardships of those folks who qualify and take advantage of the food stamp program, but his experiment does not really do them any justice either. Aside from food, like most people, they also need to find the resources for housing, utilities, child care, etc.

Why do I say it’s not that hard? Me and my wife spend on average, $80 on groceries every week. That accounts for everything we buy in the grocery including non-food products (which frequently are the most expensive like shampoo, razors, etc.).  In the past month, we did probably went out to eat twice a week for an average of 15$ per meal. Almost, everyday I bring my own lunch to the office made of leftovers and my wife goes home to eat lunch too.

Doing the math, let say our ‘food only groceries’ is 75% of the $80 total which is $60 a week. So that’s $240 a month. We eat out for $30 a week, which is $120, add that to the groceries, we spend $360 a month on food. Dividing that between the two of us, that’s $180 per month per person for food, $4 more than the experiment, without even really trying.

I guess my point is, there are so many people out there who are so out of touch, and are really spending so much, that they think $176 a month is so low to spend on food (this reporter even went to a doctor before the experiment thinking what he was about to do was a health risk) when in reality this is what most middle-class people really spend without even being stingy. They fail to see that it is really not the amount, but rather the smart choices you make. Just last Sunday, with a total of $83 for groceries, we spent $13 for 1.5lbs of snow crab and ate that for dinner (I felt I was living the high life). I’m thinking it wil cost you $40-$50 at Red Lobster to eat the amount of crab we had. You can always get more for less.

Pirate Bay trial wraps up

PirateI have been  monitoring diligently the current Pirate Bay trial being held in Sweden against co-founder Peter Sunde and four others. I found the trial highly amusing given by the apparent lack of knowledge of the prosecutors on how bittorrent technology really works and what Pirate Bay’s participation in all of this really is. Aside from that, they have asked for $13 million in compensation for purported revenue loss which nobody clearly knows how they got to that amount.

The defendants throughout the trial maintained that Pirate Bay is a mere search engine and a repository of user uploaded content. Which is very true. They are no different than Google. When you do a torrent search in Google, it acts almost the same, giving you links to torrents. No copyrighted content exists on their servers because what users’ actually upload are torrent files which users made themselves.

The verdict is due on April 17th and I’m anticipating it because this sets a precedent. In the end, it is for the swedish courts to decide on the future of Pirate Bay, but I’m really a little bit scared on what the impact this will bring to the Internet and its users.

Debt Reduction Calculator

Calculator2008 was not a very good year for a lot of people, including us, in terms of finances. We watched our net worth slowly shrink down due to a variety of reasons. Our 401ks seemingly stopped growing because a large chunk of our allocations where on riskier but higher return investments such as stocks. The DJIA at this point  last year was double of what it is now. The USD which was very strong for several years took a nose dive against asian currencies. Coupled with unforseen circumstances and our relocation last year, we found ourselves with a pretty significant amount of debt.

Thankfully though, I feel we are still on track on paying off our debts and at the same time growing back our savings. Also, we did manage to pay off  our subdivision lot and car back home last Jan, so this cleared some of our income to be dedicated for debt payments. A very nifty application which I am using throughout this process is the Debt Reducation Calculator.

Basically, this excel file filled with an unbelievable amount of macros and formulas will allow you to input several accounts so you can manage your debt payments. It features several strategies on paying of your loans, credit cards, etc. so you can see which is the better way of paying things especially if you have accounts with different interest rates.

This calculator features the Debt Snowball strategy, which let’s you benefit psychologically in paying off your debt. Basically, it is paying off your smaller accounts so that you can build momentum and see a lot of ‘progress’ early on. Other strategies include, high interest first (which I think is the best one really, feeling good does not put money back in my pocket), no snowball, or custom order.

You can download the tool here.