EPS (justeps) wrote,

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Half of Life's Certainties

It's traditional for me to wait until the last day to file income taxes, and this year was no exception. Yes, I prepare my own returns.

Once again, everything went smoothly with the feds (tedious, but not difficult), and California was just brutal.

Despite the warnings about what a bad idea it is to file your federal taxes online (heck, just looking at www.irs.gov isn't safe; it covertly rats you out to CoreMetrics/NetIQ/Foresee Results), I figured I'd take my chances with the state. Bad idea.

This year, California's online file service is called CalFile (last year it was NetFile). It's web-based, which should make it usable by us open-source guys, but, of course, that's not the case. The only supported operating systems are Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows 98, and Macintosh OS X. Given that I have an "eleven-foot-pole" for Microsoft, that didn't leave me much choice. Off to hunt down a Mac...

First, they said I needed Adobe Reader 5.0 or higher. I didn't have that, so I installed 6.0.1, then the 6.0.2 updater, followed by the 6.0.3a updater. (Yeah, I know 7.0.1 is out, but I was trying to play it safe.) This, of course, left a bunch of file permissions screwed up, which needed to be fixed before I could proceed.

Safari is listed as a supported browser, so I figured I was OK there.

Step one: get a Customer Service Number. They used to snail-mail one each year. This time, they sent me a form letter saying that they'd "improved" things, and CSNs would no longer be required. Subsequently, they changed their mind; you really do need one, and to get it, you have to dig up last year's state return. It's kind of like the "copy protection" some old computer games used ... (e.g. turn to page 37 in the instructions, type in the third word in the fifth paragraph). I passed the challenge, and got my Lucky Lottery Numbers, er, CSN.

Then I could begin the filing process. First, they warn you that they use persistent cookies for session management, and if you take more than 20 minutes to complete a page, you'll lose all your work and will have to start over from the beginning. "Of course that will never happen, because it shouldn't take you more than five minutes to get through any page." Yeah, right.

Everything was chugging away nicely until I got to the screen where I was supposed to enter W-2 information. It wouldn't accept my "Employer's state ID number," claiming it had to be up to 14 numeric digits. Mine starts with a "C," and isn't anywhere close to 14 characters. There's a help icon on the screen, but all that does is pop up something that shows you where on the W-2 to look for the number.

I poked around on the web site for some actually helpful help (which I couldn't find), and they tried really hard to goad me into using their e-mail support. Yeah, like that's going to get back to me promptly. Well, there's a number you can call if you're a Special Problem Child. They say it's supposed to let you speak with a human, but it took about five minutes of keying in touch-tones and listening to completely irrelevant canned messages before it finally decided to hand me off to someone useful. Surprisingly, I didn't have to wait on hold very long. I got a representative, explained the problem, and was told "uh, I don't know ... let me transfer you to someone who can help." The second person I spoke with understood immediately; she'd encountered exactly this very glitch herself. "Just leave off the `C,' and the system will accept it."

Great. Got through a few more screens, then Boom!--Safari crashed. "Do I want to send a bug report to Apple?" No, I don't want to send a bug report to Apple. I just want to file my f---ing taxes!

So, I had to start over from the beginning, and re-enter all of the information all over again. This time, I got all the way through, and landed on the summary page. "You may want to print this page for reference." Why? Are you going to crash and burn again? That was fine, so I moved on to the next page.

This is where you get to download the PDF. Unlike more enlightened government agencies, this is not a PDF with fill-in forms. It's just a (legible) representation of what a paper form would have looked like had you gone the conventional lick-a-stamp route. Except that each page is emblazoned with DO NOT MAIL THIS FORM TO FTB. As for the claim that you need Adobe Reader--it's a lie. Apple's Preview works just fine.

Finally, I had to "sign" my return by entering a Personal Identification Number. This is not the CSN. I'm "invited" to use my never-reveal-this-on-pain-of-death federal PIN, or I can just make up any five digits I want. Any except all zeros. What? I can't use the classic Star Trek self-destruct code? Darn. How about the combination an idiot would have on his luggage? Nah. Instead, I picked something I wouldn't possibly remember.

All this for a refund of less than $20.

I filled out their optional survey, which mostly consisted of Likert-scale questions (does our site suck, really suck, really truly suck, suck to death, or totally blow chunks?). Nowhere do they ask for suggestions on how they might improve the service (gee, I dunno, how about computing Use Tax for you so you don't have to go get the instructions for paper filing, then hand-compute it just as if you were paper filing)?

Until next year...


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