And the award for the world’s most annoying program goes to…

The Thinker by Rodin

Granted there is a lot of stiff competition out there for annoying programs. But to me it’s an easy call. Adobe Acrobat Reader is the world’s most annoying program.

It’s annoying because it fulfills an important need: rendering and printing documents. Because no matter how hard we try, we can’t kill the page. We still need pages and since we now live in an electronic world we need to render legal electronic documents perfectly on paper in an efficient manner. Lots of programs can put content onto pages but only Portable Document Format (PDF) and its ubiquitous Acrobat Reader companion can arguably display WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) page content onto virtually any device or operating system.

Technically the Microsoft Word format is an open standard, but in principle if you need to do word processing, you will uses Microsoft Word instead of its few competitors like OpenOffice. We use Adobe Acrobat Reader because the Adobe Corporation works hard to make Reader free and ubiquitous. It was first to market and has worked relentlessly to keep it there.

However, it manages to do so in a way that is not just obtrusive, but obnoxious. It feels like it constantly wants you to upgrade it, generally because hackers regularly find new security holes in the product. So Adobe patches the particular security hole and pushes out an urgent upgrade announcement that you will encounter. Chances are it won’t be long before the next upgrade announcement. If you are curious, then check out this link. Acrobat Reader Version 10 alone had eight security patches released in 2011. Version 9 had nine security patches in last year. And those are just the security patches. Each version of Acrobat introduces new features to the product and into PDF. If you receive a PDF that uses these features, Reader will detect this and urge you to upgrade Reader. It is hard to go more than a week without getting an annoying request to upgrade Reader on your device.

Enterprises do their best to manage these security patches for you, as does the organization where I work. Even so, I get version upgrade alerts, typically on my status bar in a pop up when I log in. Reader thoughtfully gives me a link to where I can download the upgrade. Unfortunately, most of us working in the enterprise don’t have permissions to upgrade the software. Adobe should be able to detect this and suppress the pop ups for us unempowered peons, but they can’t seem to be bothered to program around it. Which means you get an upgrade pop up every time you log into your machine until your service desk manages to push out a change.

Lots of products these days come with the silent upgrade capability. Google Chrome is a prominent example. Firefox is working on a similar feature. I am not sure why Acrobat cannot do the same thing. It may be because it requires more operating system permissions than browsers, which triggers security policies in the underlying operating system, hence the annoying pop ups. Or it may be that because it is so buggy, the operating system won’t trust its silent upgrades. However, I secretly suspect that Adobe likes being able to nag us via the upgrade process. It’s a way to tell us, “We’re alive! And we are still relevant!”

When you finally succumb and decide to upgrade, there is a decent chance Adobe will use the opportunity to market to you, principally to purchase their full-featured Adobe Acrobat product. If you are not careful, you might install Acrobat Air as well, which is usually bundled in the upgrade, and possibly upgrades to other Adobe products as well. You will probably be required to sit through a slew of these ads during the upgrade. Adobe sees the need to upgrade Reader as a back channel and free marketing mechanism.

You can in theory purge Reader from your computer. Of course, if you do so you won’t be able to read any documents in a PDF format, unless they come off the web and a PDF emulator is built into your browser. There are third party alternatives out there and here are a few. It’s likely that these alternatives will annoy you to upgrade less often, but it’s unclear if they can handle PDF documents that embed newer Acrobat features or if these products also have security holes or are even trustworthy. There are be plenty of security holes discovered in Reader, but at least you know that when found they should get patched.

There doesn’t seem to be a way for the computer user to win here. To escape Adobe Reader upgrade hell, you either have to give up the ability to see and print PDF files at all on your computer or use a potentially untrustworthy third party PDF reader that might not be able to handle new features being introduced into Acrobat by Adobe. Or you can continue to use Reader and put up with its constant annoying notices, upgrades, patches and advertising.

Of course, Adobe could engineer a solid product and give us a few years without security bugs or new features. But that would require solid software engineering and probably affect their bottom line. So there is little likelihood that this will happen.

Which means that it’s likely the Adobe Acrobat Reader aggravation will continue for years to come.

Time to dig up the lawn again

The Thinker by Rodin

I would file this under “General Annoyances” if I had such a category.

During midweek, we came home to find part of our lawn dug up and parts of our sidewalk in pieces. Ho hum. I am getting used to it by now. This seems to be an annoying fact of modern life. Once a year, sometimes more than once, some utility will come by, break up sections of our sidewalk, and tear up our lawn.

This time it was Verizon. How do I know? Because a Verizon guy actually knocked on my door to “inform” me that our telephone service may have been disrupted for a time. Not to worry; it was done to install this nifty new fiber optic high-speed internet service call FiOS. Okay, whatever. I shut the door in his face. I hate it when people knock on my door pretending not to be selling anything but are really selling me something.

I guess Verizon got annoyed that our cable company Cox Communications beat them by six years in the high-speed internet business. That is how long we have had their high-speed internet service. We were the first on the block to subscribe back in 1999. Seeing their revenues plummet, Verizon is finally coming around to offer some competition. They never even bothered to offer Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) in our neighborhood. That technology requires you to be fairly close to a major telephone switching station, and apparently, we are not. Now they have arrived at last with a fiber optic high-speed Internet / TV / POTS (plain old telephone service) bundle. Of course, to offer these new technologies they had to tear up our lawn and break apart our sidewalks.

They insist that they will make it look all nice and pretty again. They laid new sidewalk on Thursday and it is now drying. Moreover, they will stick sod back to fill in the gaps and like the others, throw some ryegrass on it for good measure, although it will not germinate for a couple months. Meanwhile my lawn will look like hell. Well, at least so will all our neighbors’.

The result of all these repeated diggings is I have a front lawn that even in the middle of the growing season looks like hell. Admittedly, if I were a bit more anal about throwing fertilizer and weed killer on it, it would look better. I know the odds favor that some company with an easement will show up during the year and just tear up the darn thing again. So why bother?

In fact, Verizon is replacing blocks of sidewalk that were just replaced two years ago. I am not sure who was digging it up then. It all rolls together in my mind. Was it Cox Communications putting in their fiber optic/digital cable/telephone service? Was it Washington Gas? Was it the electric company replacing bad wiring? Was it the electric company putting in that streetlight near the corner by our house? Whatever. My lawn seems to be of intense interest to many companies out there. They cannot leave it alone. Unfortunately, they are not doing a good job of restoring it to a healthy lawn. Instead, it is another patch job. As a result, my front lawn constantly suffers from erosion problems. I am not too surprised. After all, when does the new grass have a chance to get firmly established?

Twice in the nearly thirteen years that we have lived in the house, we were actually responsible for tearing up the lawn. The first was an involuntary experience: a defective PVC water pipe broke. $3500 later and about a week later we solved that problem. The other was to deal with our drainage problem. We had our lawn service install a pipe that fed our storm water out into the street. That turned out to be a much cheaper solution than trying to waterproof our basement.

There should be better ways for utilities to do their work. I wonder why houses cannot be built with three main pipes: one for the sewer, one for the water, and one for all the electric and electronic necessities in life including power, telephone and cable. The latter would need to be a big pipe, but at least cables could be snaked through it and the lawn would not have to be torn up. I would think it would save the utilities boatloads of money. If our legislative representatives want to be useful, why don’t they work on common sense legislation like this? Instead, they are wasting our tax dollars passing stupid and mean marriage amendments.

One thing is for sure: there will be more digging up of my lawn in the years ahead. Life is about change and business has to respond to change. And that means to bring their services to me, many of which I do not want, they will have to dig my lawn up again.

If I am very lucky, I may get through 2006 without my lawn being assaulted yet again.

Happy Holidays from the IRS

The Thinker by Rodin

It is never a good day when you get an unexpected letter from the Internal Revenue Service. It is an even worse day when you get it a few days before Christmas. Inside the voluminous letter was a very firm request that I had better cough up $9468.32 immediately, which included interest of $438.02 for my alleged mistake on my 2004 tax return. Umm sure. And how was this money to suddenly materialize exactly?

It took me a couple days of deciphering the paperwork before I figured out what teed them off. They noticed that I had rolled over about $24,000 from one retirement account to another. They just did not believe me when I told them that I had actually redeposited the money into another qualifying plan.

You see, in 1987, I left the federal civil service payroll for about a year and a half for a job in the private sector. At that point, I was still young. I had been working for Uncle Sam for only six years. I did not figure I would be working for the federal government again. Therefore, I took out my $8000 or so in Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) contributions. I redeposited the monies into an IRA account at the local savings and loan. Over the years, the money rolled over from one IRA to another without a problem. However, last year I decided there was no point in retiring on a reduced pension if I could redeposit my CSRS funds with interest for my first six years of federal employment. With a total of 21 years of civil service at that point, I knew I would hang on until retirement, if possible. Therefore, I decided to pay back the CSRS what I owed. With interest, it amounted to about $24,000. I got a check from Wells Fargo, who managed my IRA. I deposited it in my money market account. Less than a week later wrote another check to the Office of Personnel Management. I had 60 days to do a rollover. I did it in about a week.

Just to be perfectly clear with the IRS I attached a statement to my return explaining what I had done. I referenced their own regulations that said the CSRS qualified as a retirement plan and could be used for rollover contributions. I forgot all about it until this IRS letter arrived.

No said the IRS. You took out the money but did not redeposit it. Therefore, that is income. So cough up $9468.32 and you better do it really fast because the interest meter is running.

My wife, whose mother had many IRS troubles when she was a spry young thing, immediately went into panic mode. What she remembered from the many experiences is that when the IRS has you in its crosshairs, there is no escape. There is also no appeal. They are judge and jury.

I tried not to panic and tried to figure out what to do. What I needed was some way to return a volley. I needed a certified public accountant that specialized in dealing with the IRS. I found one and explained the problem to him. Apparently, retirement account managers tell the IRS when they disbursed and received rollover money. In this case, the recipient of the money was not some Wall Street brokerage firm. It was the federal government. Moreover, apparently, the Office of Personnel Management, which runs the CSRS, does not bother to inform the IRS about CSRS redeposits. Therefore, the IRS assumed I had not reported the money as income. The good news: the CPA could fix my problem for $1000.

I weighed the probability of successfully appealing my problem to the IRS agent versus letting a professional deal with it. I decided $1000 was a lot of money but if I tried to handle the matter myself, I probably was not going to win. Meanwhile I had to document that I had indeed rolled over the money within sixty days as required by law. Fortunately, I kept statements from both the brokerage firm and the Office of Personnel Management. In addition, it took about a week but I was able to get a copy of the canceled check showing my redeposit.

Case over? I hope so. Nevertheless, I remain nervous. Although my CPA has talked to the IRS agent, yesterday we received two new and bulky certified letters from the IRS (one for me, one for my wife). Once again, the IRS was sternly telling us to pay up soon or a tax court was going to come collecting. My CPA said not to worry. This was standard IRS intimidation tactics. Now that I had a copy of the canceled check and copies of the bank statements I mailed them to him.

I will not rest easily until I get official notification from the IRS that they were in error. That, my agent said, will take a few months. Meanwhile, I am thinking about my 2005 tax return. My hand has now been burned by the IRS. I figure it is time to stop using off the shelf tax software, and hire a tax preparer instead. Had I done this last year perhaps I would not have been in this current mess. Not that I was at fault. The IRS instructions said nothing about having to submit proof with my tax return that I had in fact rolled over the money. All the instructions said was that I had to do was roll it over within 60 days.

However, I suspect I am now on their radar. Like Bush’s No Fly List, I am betting that once on it there is no way to get off it. Therefore, I will probably have to spend a couple hundred bucks a year to let someone else do my taxes. Apparently commercial tax software is no longer good enough. I need someone who knows that the IRS really requires more than what apparently is in their instructions.

I am assuming I can at least deduct these expenses. I had better check with my tax advisor first.