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Disconsolate and Miscellaneous Jottings

Usually, my rambling and "somewhere-near-monthly" diary entries tend to focus on just one topic at a time. These topics may be exceptionally varied (for instance, from DNS and VPNs one month to Planet Rock radio and visits to computer stores to buy light bulbs the next), but in general I do try to confine myself to a single theme each month, and wander aimlessly off only into semi-related areas.

This month, however, I've broken with tradition to the extent that I actually need to provide a Table of Contents. But I wouldnít want you to think that my life suddenly got interesting - itís just that nothing of sufficient significance has happened to warrant writing the usual excruciatingly long and incomprehensible single-topic diatribe. And, just to warn you up front, it hasnít been a good month for keeping an even temper, so most of this is ranting. I won't blame you if you wander off now and read today's Dilbert cartoon or visit your favorite joke-of-the day site instead.

The Table of Contents:

Business-friendly Government? Pull the other one...

Here in England, we've been ruled by a Government made up of Scottish politicians for over ten years now. They've been experimenting with the usual Labour party socialism stuff, increasing taxes, decreasing services, and generally mucking up most of the things that used to work quite well. However, what is particularly galling is that they seem to have hung on to some kind of "business friendly" label. Exactly which businesses, other than government consultancies, they are friendly to is hard to determine - itís certainly not small businesses like mine.

For example, some years ago they decided that it would be useful to persuade small businesses to incorporate into Limited Companies (rather like the US LLC equivalent), so that they would have to undergo much stricter accounting and auditing regimes. This was, no doubt, to try to stem the flood of "back-hand" transactions and other dodges that reduce company corporation tax receipts.

Acknowledging the extra costs companies would face, the first 10,000 pounds of profit was free of corporation tax, so that the money saved (just under 2,000 pounds) would cover the costs of accountants, auditing, payroll, company registration, annual returns, and all the other stuff that being a Limited Company entails. Then last year, out of the blue, they removed this allowance, so that small companies were hit by a reduction in final income that could easily exceed 10%.

Secondly, a side effect (expected by everyone except the Government) was that small one-man-band companies would incorporate in order to benefit from a reduced level of tax. This means that contractors working onsite effectively as employees would not be paying the same tax as employees (never mind that they donít get expenses, holidays, etc.). So the tax people came up with fiendishly complicated rules to counter this, which never really worked. The result, this year, is that they decided to raise the corporation tax for small businesses by 3% so that contractors will pay about the same.

This fascinating new approach to tax policy means that another 3% disappears from the bottom line of small businesses who are operating legally and in compliance with tax rules. It's like if you go into a shop to buy a can of baked beans and the check-out operative says that they had a can stolen last week, so you have to pay for two - yours and the stolen one. I wonder if they'll extend it to other areas as well? Like some guy embezzles a few million from your pension company, and so you're told that you wonít get a pension when you retire because you have to pay someone else's pension now instead. Whoops... hang on a minute, didn't that already happen?

And why not make dying incomprehensible while you're at it...

Have you agreed to be the executor for someone's will? Itís easy to do - you get chatting with friends over dinner one night discussing someone who recently died, and you both agree to be executor for the other couple's wills should something awful happen. I did that, not realizing just what it entails. If you have done the same, now's the time to reconsider...

Itís not just the ten-page form full of incomprehensible questions about linked trusts and use of disposed assets, but the fact that you need to have full and intimate knowledge of the deceased person's bank account! For example, you have to be prepared to list every gift of cash, property, assets, and valuables, including the date and the recipient's name and address, for the previous seven years.

Do you know your friends that well? Did they send 20 pounds to some charity five years ago, or give their daughter 500 pounds when she got married? I asked my solicitor how I was supposed to find all this stuff out and their reply was "You are the executor, write to their bank". Like that will work.

And, if they sold their house, what was the value of the fixtures and fittings, and can you prove that this was a "reasonable" sum? Did they give a nephew some money out of a pension that matured, and what kind of pension was it, and did they draw any cash on it when they retired (and if their partner was still alive, were they over 65 years old, and had they retired, and what pension did they have?). The solicitor's response: "You are the executor, you should have all the paperwork".

What about "Did they have use of an asset they had previously disposed of?". You tell me - how would I know? The solicitor's response: "You are the executor, you should know".

You have been warned...

Pornographic filtering? Just be glad you donít live in Scunthorpe...

Some years ago, bulletin boards and mailing lists were full of people complaining about the unfortunate effects of pornographic text filtering on emails, and when setting up accounts with ISPs. Here in England, the common example was the unlucky populace of the North Lincolnshire town of Scunthorpe, who often found that they could not register email addresses containing their town name, set up Web sites with the town name in the URL, and send email messages containing their address.

I thought that this had all blown over now, with the realization that this kind of filtering generally causes more problems than it solves. After all, if someone wants to send an email with a rude word in it, they can just send a GIF image of the word. It certainly seems to work for the spammers who send me daily offers for all kinds of doubtful drugs, stock market picks, and other medical extensibility procedures.

But this week, our national press reported that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (the feathered kind) has introduced a new filtering system that replaces rude words with asterisks. The result, and it's amazing that no-one saw this coming, is that emails now refer to a "**** Pheasant" when they mean the male member of the species. Rumor has it that the Battersea Dogs Home are planning to install the same system. I wonder if the female members of various canine species will be referred to as "*******".

And, in what seemed like an amazing coincidence, I noticed the following entry in my weekly Web server reports this week. Someone had obviously purchased our book that discusses client-side coding in Web pages, and tried to run the "buttons" examples:

Who said accountants are boring?

The common conception of accountants, at least as portrayed by Monty Python's Flying Circus, is that they are exceptionally boring people who do an exceptionally boring job. The spotty bespectacled kid next to you in school who helped you with your maths homework was obviously going to grow up to be an accountant. However, what I discovered today when I called my accountant about a matter that was partially connected to the "having a bad week" syndrome, was - to say the least - a surprise.

"Hi (name omitted to protect the innocent), how are you doing?" said I. "Fine", he said, "your accounts are nearly done, but I'm away on holiday next week so it will be a couple of weeks before you get them". "No problem", I replied - and being polite: "Going anywhere nice?"

I was, of course, expecting an answer like "No, staying home to do jigsaws"..., but in fact he replied "Yes, white water rafting in Patagonia". At this point, my usual tactfulness failed me and I exclaimed "Wow, I though accountants were supposed to be boring..." (whoops), to which his reply was "Well, I like to try new things. I spent last weekend doing a sky-diving course!"

Make money using your computer...

One of the reasons for the call to my accountants was to complain about a bill they just sent me. In an effort to push everyone into filing their payroll returns electronically, the Government Tax people offered a refund on a descending scale against payments due over the next three years if you do away with those nasty paper forms.

Last year my accountants, quick off the mark, said they would do this for all their clients - great! - but you had to pay a fee for "training and buying the necessary software" (on top of the usual accountancy annual charges). I suppose that's like when you go into the same supermarket as earlier to buy another can of baked beans, and the check-out operative tells you that one of the bulbs in the cheese cooler cabinet has blown, so you need to pay an extra six pounds for the beans so they can buy a new one.

Still, as we were all going to get some money back for doing it, and the accountants only wanted to charge us half of that to set it up, it's not too bad - and itís not like you have a choice unless you change your accountant.

What was annoying today was that they sent me another bill for year two - carefully adjusted to be half of the rebate available this year. It seems like this is to cover the costs of them using the software I already paid for. An interesting approach. I wonder if I can charge my next customer extra for a copy of Microsoft Word and a new desk for my office.

Banging my head against a brick wall...

Finally, and whatís probably most to blame for the bad mood this month, is that they just started work building the remaining part of the housing estate behind my house. We always knew, when we moved here seven years ago, that they would build there - but it's still a bit of a shock.

And it's not as if they seem to be very good at it. The first week, the digger driver reversed into the front wall of one of the half-built houses and knocked it over. Then one of the trucks drove over a drain cover crushing part of the sewers. Finally, this week, they spent two days putting the wooden roof trusses on one of the houses - only to discover that they'd got the wrong ones and had to take it all apart again. It's interesting to speculate on why it takes so long to build houses in England these days...

But, of more concern, is that they changed the plans at the last minute so that the single-storey garage behind me will now be the side wall of a two-storey house. It's close enough that, once it's finished, we'll effectively be living in a tunnel. As it's already breezy enough here in the wild and wonderful Derbyshire Dales, it will probably be like a wind tunnel when they're finished. If you have trouble reading future diary entries, it's likely to be because some of the words have been blown off the page.

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