Sunday, February 24, 2008

US Taxes 2007

I have, for the first time, e-filed full-year United States resident taxes. Honestly, it was unpleasant, but I'm glad to say it's done.

US taxes are pretty much the same basic idea as Canadian taxes - follow the instructions, copy line 666, etc. -, except the Canadian forms are more colourful. Shockingly, for a single man like myself, the federal tax rate is similar to what I'd pay in Canada - for example, for a straight-up 100k, a tax bracket of 26% in Canada vs a bracket of 28% in the US (Washington lacks state income tax, unlike B.C., but that's another story). So much for Canada's excessive taxation!

The American taxes are arguably a bit more complicated - they have the same type of rules, just more of them.

In any rate, this year, I downloaded Intuit TurboTax Premier, using a nice 25% discount provided by Fidelity. A few people asked why I would download a product as opposed to doing it online, potentially even for free. Well, in summary:
  • I can do as many returns as I want this year. It's at very least two-for-one: Amber will get the freebie. Since it included a free state too, I can even add her California taxes (since Washington has no state income tax).
  • Reliable stop-restart-save. No worrying about my session timing out, or using the back button on accident, etc. Any time I'm worried, I can save the file, copy it to 100 backup locations, etc.
  • Control. I don't have to trust as many people with my data.
  • Import data next year for whatever application I choose to use (any application worth buying can import from TurboTax).

While the software definitely has some quirks and even outright bugs (sometimes I had to delete entire sections to get it to 'forget' old numbers I had made mistakes on), it feels like a solid application. It's designed in a linear "interview" format, while seamlessly allowing you to move back and forth if you need to change something. Also, at any time, you can look at the raw tax forms that result from the answers you give, and edit them to your satisfaction. If you have a truly unbelievable tax scenario, you can look up tax forms by number and edit them manually (they won't interview you, but you have the interactive form with all the calculations done for you).

It was looking pretty grim at first - capital gains, some disallowed capital losses (the dreaded wash sale), and not even enough mortgage interest to break past the standard deduction. Thankfully TurboTax revealed that the hefty premium ("points") I paid to Golf Savings Bank to secure my loan was fully deductible. Thus, I now have a small but pleasant refund coming back.

While my taxes will be largely the same next year as they are this year, I still think I'll buy next year's version. Unless I get audited this year; in which case there will be lots of ranting... and yelling.

[[While tax software may seem irrelevant in a world where accountants are cheap, I am dubious of any accountant I can personally afford. Our expensive KPMG accountants last year did a passable job , but I had to fill half of everything in ahead of time on their website anyways (which was far less informative than TurboTax was to me this year). And after all that, I still got slaughtered on my taxes based on a technicality (arriving on Jan 2 instead of Jan 1 means you don't get the standard deduction). And let me tell you, I know how much KPMG costs, and I can't afford anything like that. The last accountant I had before that, a BB&A Inc in Vancouver, simply farmed my taxes out to an intern who actually told the Canadian government that I worked sixteen months in the past year, while simultaneously going to school. Such a feat would be impressive if it were possible - needless to say, the Canadian government was not amused with the assertion.

So unless twelve of my closest friends can vouch that their accountant rescued their Mothers from a raging fire, I remain dubious of the cost-to-benefit ratio of the professionals in this field. Hence, software wins.]]

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Metroid Prime 3 is Done!

Finally, I have completed Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Unfortunately, the progress estimate on my savegame was misleading; despite my earlier estimate of 40 hours, my first clear was 18:24, with a respectable 88% collection rate. Certainly not what I'd call a speedrun, but not as long as I expected. Still, that beats Halo by a fair margin I think; while a good game, I'm still disappointed at the short complete time.

I have to stand by my earlier assessment. This is a great Metroid game! It keeps all the core elements that make Metroid great (yes, even two Ridley fights!), built into a FPS designed for the Wiimote and nunchuck. Add to that a huge environment, lots of power-ups and arguably one of the longst Metroid games to date.

One technical flaw I observed though, is that room transitions can lag pretty badly. If you're backtracking through a sequence of cleared rooms, it can take upwards of 15 seconds for a door to open. It gets very annoying after awhile.

Two things bother me about this game, and both are nerfs.

1. Metroids.
The game is named after these creatures - round hovering jellyfish-like creatures that fly at you and can drain your energy. They were truly fearsome in the original. Twice your size, and ticking off nearly 10 energy per second (which, when you only have 5 energy tanks, is pretty extreme) until if you're very lucky, you shake it off. Your only hope is to freeze it and hit it with five missiles, terminating the fearsome creature. Every encounter is a brush with doom.

So, needless to say, walking into a research lab with small metroids in glass statis chambers along the wall, I was naturally nervous. Doubly so when I flip off the power, the lights go dim, and you hear the crash of the Metroids escaping. To the backdrop of spooky music, I go creeping back through the facility, dreading my first encounter with what would surely be an express train to my last save point.

Instead, I find something like this.

The Metroids are wussy. Beyond wussy. They spend more time thinking, building power, and hovering than sucking your lifeforce, and in case your ineptness got the best of you, and you find this Metroid on you.... ... ... .... .... .... .... .... ... ... ... ... oops it drained one point of energy [note: not exaggeration - literally, one point of your 600-1600 pts every five seconds or so]. Boo hoo, maybe in an hour or two, you might have to bother to shake it off.

This has been a trend in the Prime series that has really annoyed me. They've butchered Metroids, and it makes me sad.

2. Missiles
In the original NES game, missiles were the easy way out. When your firepower just wasn't enough, you unleashed these explosive goodies, and beat through anything that moved. In Super Metroid, they had "Super Missiles", thus making your original missiles less desirable, but still worthwhile in that they could be fired very quickly.

This latest game goes to great extent to put around 50 missile expansions for you to find. A shame that missiles don't do jack. Their damage doesn't even really compare to a regular beam shot, and unlike other Metroid games, fire slowly, and travel even slower. You don't even really use them except where the game says you have to.

But, I still like it.

Yea, it's a good game. I'll probably play again. My clear unlocked "Hypermode" (the difficulty above hard) - and given the rather yawnfest difficulty of normal, I think this might add a much-needed level of difficulty to the game.