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Saturday, January 28th, 2006

Free Federal Tax Software and Online Filing

My W-2 came in, so I headed over to the IRS website to download all the forms and instructions for filing my federal taxes. While I was there, I checked out the eFile options, because I filed electronically last year and the refund was directly deposited into my checking account in less than two weeks.

I was interested in doing my taxes at home, without buying software, and filing on the Internet – and I wanted to do it all for free. Seems to me that when I’m required by law to file taxes, and it’s easier, cheaper, and less prone to error for the government to process my return if it’s filed electronically, that shouldn’t be unreasonable. But, of course, helping people file their taxes is an industry, and government can’t compete with businesses – even if it’s to comply with a government requirement. California already has CalFile that does all the things I want to file my state tax return.

The IRS does make some effort to get people to file online (after all, it’s in their own interest as well) and they list several options. After digging down through their site, past plenty of advice to hire tax professionals, I got to the eFile Using a Computer page. Once again, I’m confronted with the explanation that the IRS can’t compete with private enterprise, and links to tax professionals, but I find that I can file online for free, through a “commercial partner”, as long as my adjusted gross income is less than $50,000. (I’m going to try real hard here to avoid going into depth about my wife’s seeming guilty obligation to atone for the sins of her ancestors by patronizing our local Native American tribes’ casinos; a guilt so deep that she has to put all her winnings back; my rueful observations that the Native Americans have finally come up with revenge for being introduced to whiskey; my own guilt that my ancestors must have either participated in or benefited from the genocide of the colonization of Australia; and my interest in whether the people we know as “Native Americans” once committed genocide on a people that preceeded them to America – possibly Australians. Believe me, this parenthetical comment is restraining myself.) Last year I filed through H&R Block’s free program, but this year I am not eligible.

The interesting thing that I found from a study of this page is that, although the IRS is adroit at handing out links to commercial partners (after all, where do IRS employees go after they put in their twenty?), they mention that you can download software from the Internet and file online, but they don’t give any links on where to find the software to do this. Break out the trusty old Google. In short order I found TaxAct.

TaxAct offers a Standard version of their tax preparation software that is free, without restrictions, and allows you to file online yourself. I looked at the comparisons between their free and commercial software (which is still pretty cheap), and didn’t see any benefit in paying for an augmented version. This, of course, made me deeply suspicious. I started the download process and found it pretty simple, without a lot of obstacles promoting the upgraded versions, and the required registration process was pretty simple and non-obtrusive. I had to give name, state, zip and an email address, and I remembered to unclick the pre-selected “send me offers” box. The site’s Privacy Policy was lengthy and legal, but acceptable.

But I was still suspicious. The provider pledges that TaxAct Standard is free of spyware, and according to my research, it is, so I decided to install it. The EULA is also acceptable – standard non-indemnification clauses, the only warranty is that the calculations are correct (big deal!) – and has no mention of third party software. In fact, it again mentions the privacy policy:

2nd Story Software, Inc. does not rent, sell or share any personal information received in an e-file transaction other than to transmit it to the IRS for electronic filing purposes, or if required by law. For more information on the taxact.com privacy policy, please refer to: http://www.taxact.com/privacy_policy.asp

Now, I don’t like that my return will apparently flow through the company’s servers on the way to the IRS; in fact, it stinks, but it’s my understanding that the IRS will not allow direct filing to their computers. Write your congressman. The website’s privacy policy doesn’t address this issue. I’ve gone through it carefully, and what it says is that it only applies to www.taxact.com. I wonder what server my tax return will be filed through? I’m going to be running Ethereal when I hit the transmit button.

Still, everything about this company says they’re manic about protecting your privacy. I think I’ll cut them a break. As far as my suspicions go, I was almost relieved to see that the software is total nagware – it’s full of offers to upgrade to the Deluxe edition. But that’s ok with me – I only have to put up with it for a couple of hours and I’m done.

Posted by Greg as Family & Friends, Politics, Posts About Me, Software at 15:00 PST

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Monday, November 21st, 2005

Working with DICOM Files

I was having problems working with digital files that came with my PET scan. A little research revealed the existence of the DICOM standard for medical image files, and I found many free DICOM image viewers, but although I downloaded at least four different viewers, I couldn’t open any of the files on the cd I got. Most of the files did not have extensions, so I was guessing at which ones were the images, but some of the files that contained useful information when opened with a hex editor showed DICOM standard headers. (My favorite hex editor used to be Hackman, which is really a complete disassembler/reverse engineering suite, but I found a much simpler and faster hex editor function in my PSPad text editor, which I use to write generic code.) I also noticed that several files had JFIF header info after the DICOM headers, and in accordance with the “Quick and Dirty Tricks” section at David Clunie’s site, I stripped off the DICOM header info and should have had a JPEG image file, but none of my viewers, including the regular image programs IrfanView and Gimp, could open these files.

[UPDATE: Found one! Try Medirec – I’m having trouble opening the raw files (don’t know if that’s a problem with the DR Systems files, or the viewer, or me), but by stripping out the header info and saving the result as a *.jpg file, I have a 12-bit greyscale lossy jpeg that I can open in this viewer – in Windows.]

I started reading up on the DICOM standard and the DR Systems compliance document, but that bogged me down pretty quickly. So I sent off an email to David Clunie. With his permission, here’s his answer:

Hi Greg

I took a look at the files that you sent, and there is nothing seriously
wrong with them with respect to anything that might confuse a viewer.

The problem you are having is simply that the images are encoded
using the 12 bit lossy JPEG transfer syntax, and many viewers just
don’t support that. Further, if you extract the JPEG bitstream,
most consumer image viewers won’t support the 12 bit JPEG form
as opposed to the usual 8 bit JPEG form either.

The bottom line is that you either need to use a viewer that
handles the JPEG DICOM transfer syntaxes, or find a way to
have the DR Systems CD creation tool encoded them uncompressed
(even if they were stored in the PACS compressed, which is
likely with that system).

I would also point out that lossy compression of PET images is
probably not cool from the perspective of quantitative PET
measurements (like SUV), though the likely error, if any, would
be very small.

That said, the images are not strictly compliant with the standard,
probably as a result of them being inverted and squeezed into 12
bits rather than 16, but I doubt if that has anything to do with
the problems that you are seeing:

% dciodvfy 196
PETImage
Warning – Optional Type 2C Conditional Element=<patientposition> Module=<generalseries>
Warning – Unrecognized defined term <ring> for attribute <field of View Shape>
Error – Unrecognized enumerated value <monochrome1> for attribute <photometric Interpretation>
Error – Unrecognized enumerated value <0xc> for attribute <bits Stored>
Error – Unrecognized enumerated value <0xb> for attribute <high Bit>

I suspect that the errors are being introduced by the DR Systems
PACS, and not by the Siemens ECAT system.

If you want me to recommend a particular viewer, I would suggest
Osirix, which does open these images just fine (I tried it), though
you need a Mac to use it. It has nice 3D.

If you want to just uncompress the whole lot so that you view
them with an “ordinary” DICOM viewer, then you could try the
dcunjpeg script from my dicom3tools, which depends on the
presence of the Stanford PVRG JPEG codec, both of which are
available on my web site – but these require a unix system
on which to compile them and may be more trouble than it is
worth.

David

First off, I just wanted to give a big public thanks to David, who responded quickly and was very helpful. I started searching for a free image viewer that could handle the 12-bit lossy JPEGs, but haven’t found one yet. There are some commercial medical image reading programs that start around US$4K (!!!), but that’s a little more than I would be willing to spend. I noted that handling 12-bit images are planned for the Gimp 2.4 version, and I’ll be eagerly waiting for that.

Looks like I’m going to have to get back to working on my Fedora Core 4 installation so I can try David’s uncompression scripts, not to mention completing the build my other computer, which is intended to be a Linux-only box. **Sigh**. Why do I get so many interesting projects building up when I have even less time to spend on them?

Posted by Greg as General Science, Software at 05:32 PST

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Thursday, June 16th, 2005

Google Ranking Commercial Software

For some reason I Googled “google API” and quickly saw that I was not the first to think of my “Google Fame” concept. It was predicted ar least as early as April 2002 by Rael Dornfest, and someone’s trying to charge $150 a year for a commercial version. I wonder how they got Google’s permission for that?

There are stand-alone pages that will do this sort of search for you – I remember now finding them before. But there is no existing plugin for WordPress, so my project will be the first to do that.

Posted by Greg as My Website, Software at 11:35 PST

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Friday, June 10th, 2005

Photos from Rodd

Rodd sent down a couple of photos and I decided to post some of them. As it turns out, he’s not the greatest photographer – nearly everything was backlit.

I was wondering how to deal with this and I must have lucked out on the search terms I used because I ended up at the GIMP tutorial. I use GIMP for most image manipulation (since I’m too cheap to fork out for Photoshop,) but most of its functions are a complete mystery to me. So while browsing through the list of tutorials I was titillated to see some of the topics there, like Changing Background Color, which I could have used a little while ago, and found what I needed in Contrast Mask. I knew this sort of stuff was possible from seeing Bert Monroy’s Photoshop tutorials on the late, great TechTV’s “The Screensavers.”

***Pictures Removed***

God, I’ve gotten fat.

Posted by Greg as Family & Friends, Posts About Me, Software at 16:49 PST

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Wednesday, May 25th, 2005

Visited My Brother

I took the kids and went up to visit my brother last weekend. I’ve been thinking for days now about how to write about it. It’s been made harder by how chaotic things have been since I got back, but I feel like I need to put up a statement about how good it was and how much I enjoyed it as quickly as possible, and in the absence of something deep and moving you’re going to get this instead. Perhaps part of the delay has been a reluctance to probe the depths of my feelings.

In short, it was good. I haven’t gotten to go for too long and I really enjoyed it. I especially like seeing my nephews and having them see me every so often.

I guess that, in my bid to be the Brevity comic Number 1 fan, I have to report on watching actual production of a comic. The technical details are pretty much what would be expected – drawing, scanning, and manipulating on an Apple G5 using Photoshop (what did you expect – he’s surround by commercial artists at work – of course it would be an Apple.) But since this is a commercial venture, and I promised him I would ask before posting personal details in my blog, I can’t really go much more into detail. Just turn green with envy, you other Brevity fans – I have seen it!

Posted by Greg as Family & Friends, Software at 15:45 PST

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Tuesday, May 17th, 2005

Getting Famous One Person At a Time

So this morning I came in and found an email from my brother saying he found my blog. Great detective work, Rodd!! If you get emails from greg_at_gregrperry_dot_com, didn’t you think there might be a gregrperry.com? As you can see from the email text,

Subject: Found your blog

Actually, Guy found it, as he was vainly searching the internet – which he
does about every 5 minutes. The archive thing you do with our comic is
cool. Does a bot do that automatically, or do you have to do it manually?
Of course, we will have to send the lawyers after you if we ever release a
book.

he didn’t even figure it out from the email. I used to keep my Brevity comic archive secret, with no links and a robots.txt prohibiting the search bots from indexing it, but my fraternal pride won out and I posted the link you can see on the left, which does show up in a google search. Actually, I was afraid of my brother’s lawyers. If I do get a “cease and desist” letter, I’ll be sure to post it prominently.

Notice also that Rodd didn’t bother to post here – I had to quote his email. Of course, he’s not too busy to post to other people’s blogs and getting famous. Perhaps I need to criticize his work to attract his (and Guy’s) attention.

I’ll let you all know how I maintain the Brevity archive. Six days a week I get the daily Brevity emailed to me by Comics.com, so on Monday morning I have to go fetch the Sunday one myself. I save all the images from these. Then I can use IrfanView, the best image viewer I have ever found, to create the thumbnails and the html pages. Then I FTP the new index page and the new image pages up to my host. I do this about once or twice a week.

It would be nice to figure out a way to automate this process, but I’m kind of busy playing with my Mambo site and learning all the things I’ve mentioned in previous posts. That is also keeping me busy posting technical details as a diary of learning how to set up my website, and leaves little time to go on with the social commentary. When I get everything up and running I’ll have much more to say on other topics.

Posted by Greg as Family & Friends, My Website, Software at 09:52 PST

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Wednesday, May 4th, 2005

Alternate Spellchecker

Couldn’t get the WordPress plugin to work. It couldn’t find the required executable on my host’s server, and my $4-a-month hosting plan does not include server access.

So I went with the Mozilla extension SpellBound. I couldn’t get this to work either, but the notes said I would have to reinstall Mozilla. I went with the upgrade, 1.7.3 to 1.7.7, and now little funky things are happening like searches in my googlebar popping up in the background instead of the foreground. **Sigh**. But I do have a spellchecker now, and one I can use whenever I’m filling out anything online.

Posted by Greg as My Website, Software at 12:58 PST

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