June 9, 2014

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Calling All Boomers: How To Shed Your ‘Luddite’ Label and Embrace Technology (With Trepidation!)

Start small. Less is more. If the terms iPod, Smart Phone, E-Reader, digital device are as foreign to you as Sanskrit, it’s time to venture out to your local small, independent or large ‘big box’ technology outlet. Walk in with your head held high, and don’t let them see you sweat. You’ll be surprised how many young people (that is, anyone legally young enough to work), will happily swarm to your side, eager to demonstrate how much they know vs. how little you know about the latest digital tool.

Use my strategy. I always start by admitting that I know less than I really do. That approach accomplishes several objectives: first, it reinforces within me the fact that whatever meager knowledge I do have is accurate, because it has been substantiated by a 16-year-old expert; secondly, it gives your salesperson the opportunity to ‘show off’ what he/she knows. You will thereby make a friend who, hopefully, will guide you through what could probably be a daunting, intimidating purchase process. Ideally, he will adopt you as your mentor, shielding you from making today’s overkill purchase as well as tomorrow’s feelings of buyer’s remorse.

Next, don’t hesitate to stop him immediately — as soon as he utters one cyber-word beyond your comprehension, Politely interrupt him and claim ignorance. This approach immediately serves as a reality check for your ‘teacher’, compelling him to back up a few terabytes, to lower his expectations, and to tone down his rhetoric. Your ‘tech tutor’ immediately realizes that in you he’s dealing with someone who is still in a 20th century time warp, and adjusts his sales pitch accordingly.

Once you have his attention as to your level of technology incompetence, then mention your interests. Again, here it helps to be specific and to ‘think small’. Is your passion music? Photography? Video? Statistics? Writing? Would you like to learn how to use The Web? Establish a Facebook or Twitter presence? Or do you just no longer want to be tethered to your home phone? Yes. You demurely admit – you still use a LAN line and don’t own a cell phone!
A word of caution. You will undoubtedly, fall prey to all the glitz, the lights, the jargon, the media blitz that surrounds you. Focus, laser-beam-like, on your limitations, your specific technology goal, and your bank account.

Your goal – to zero in on the least sophisticated tech tool that will help you get started for the lowest price.

Whatever the techie on the sales floor recommends, keep asking him to ‘drill down’ to a simpler gadget – one with less features, not more.

The trick is to achieve that balance between what you really need to jump start your launch into the cyber world, without becoming overwhelmed and confused with too many advanced, sophisticated features that you, the tech neophyte, do not understand or probably will never use. Again, less is more. The research shows that most of us use less than 10% of our technology devices’ power and features, because: a) we’re totally unaware of a given tech tool’s capabilities; b) our interests or our work focus on and/or require only specific features; c) our level of technical expertise is limited. In other words, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” And, until you do learn about what you don’t know, you don’t want to become a victim of technology overload. A rule of thumb, if you can’t pronounce it, and if you can’t describe in your own words what it can do, you probably don’t need or want it.

Are you ready???!!! Aim, aim, aim – fire! Make a decision. Choose a device. Trust me; your choice to make a leap into the tech world will be a cathartic experience and a defining moment.

“Now, what?” you say? “Now that I’ve caught the fish, won the prize, bought the pig – what do I do with it?” Not to fear. Help is on the way. In my next segment, I’ll provide great human and material resources that are ready, willing and able to transform you into a cyber-user in no time at all, and with a minimum of angst. In fact, trust me, you will savor the journey.

June 1, 2014

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What Ails Vermont?

Vermonters are understandably proud of their scenic, mostly rural and unspoiled state, so it may have been a little jarring to hear Gov. Peter Shumlin talk about a “full-blown heroin crisis” and a mounting “hopelessness that can help drive drug habits.” (1)

Jarring, but not exactly surprising. Even as just an occasional vacationer, for years I have heard about a swelling problem with heroin in the small city of Rutland, at the western foot of the Green Mountains. Overall, Shumlin said in his state of the state address, treatment for opiate use has increased nearly eightfold since 2000.

Which brings us directly to the question: What ails Vermont?

If we can tear our gaze away from those green hills, red barns, snowy ski slopes and brilliant fall colors, we might see a statistical picture of a state that is stagnating, like a retiree with too little to do. Bodies decay under such conditions, and spirits do too.

With an enviable unemployment rate of 4.4 percent for November, compared to the national 7 percent at that time, you might think Vermont’s economy is booming, much like that of equally rural, oil-fed North Dakota. But it isn’t. There were about 335,000 Vermonters (from a total statewide population of about 626,000) working that month, including the self-employed. In November 1999, the state counted 328,200 workers. That’s a pitiful net growth of fewer than 7,000 jobs in 14 years. By the way, North Dakota – with a population only slightly larger than that of Vermont – gained around 50,000 jobs in the same 14-year period.

The recession of 2008-2009 is not a big factor. After recovering many of the jobs lost in the downturn, Vermont actually lost some jobs during the past year. Unemployment fell during the same time, however, from 5 percent to 4.4 percent, as more people left the labor force than entered it.

Overall, Vermont lost a handful of residents last year – the first population downturn in three-quarters of a century, according to the Census Bureau. (2) From the 1960s through the 1980s, Vermont gained residents at double-digit percentages. The state responded with numerous measures to curb development, including a land-gains tax of up to 80 percent on property that is acquired and quickly subdivided, usually for new housing developments. From 1990 to 2000, the population increased only 8.2 percent. From 2000 to 2010, the net gain was a scant 2.8 percent. These are not annual percentages; these are percentages for the entire decade. From 2010 to now, the growth is barely above zero.

Similar trends are playing out nationally, but they are exaggerated in Vermont. The state is older and much whiter than average. The state’s percentage of Hispanics (1.5 percent) is the second-lowest in the country; the percentage of African-Americans (1 percent) is third-lowest. These demographic groups tend to have higher birth rates than non-Hispanic whites.

It is no surprise that Vermont’s population of school-age students is shrinking at an alarming rate. There were fewer than 90,000 school-age Vermonters in 2011-12, according to the state, compared to more than 106,000 in 1996-97. The school population fell in all 15 of those years.

As school enrollments fall, costs per student are rising. The state spent about $13,500 per elementary and secondary student this year, up about 30 percent from a decade earlier.

Vermonters seem to think their state is a great place to live, but it seems not too many folks from other places agree.

Vermont’s notably chilly weather must play a role, as does its remoteness. But New Hampshire is not tropical either, and it has attracted considerable growth and a thriving technology industry, especially the southern region close to Boston. The state’s population is more than double Vermont’s, and it grew by more than 6 percent between 2000 and 2010.

I think Vermont’s tax structure has a lot to do with the difference between its performance and its neighbor’s. Besides the aforementioned tax on relatively short-term gains from the sale of land, the state has a steep income tax, is among the minority that imposes an estate tax, has a significant sales tax, and also provides a property tax break to households with less than $90,000 of annual income, which shifts more of the burden to upper-income residents. New Hampshire has no land gains tax, no tax on wages, no estate tax and no sales tax.

Taxes are not the only factor, however. Egalitarian Vermont, which sent self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders to Washington, has a complex and cumbersome property tax system in which wealthy communities directly subsidize schools for poorer locales. The system makes it complicated and expensive for such communities to raise money to spend locally on programs such as enriched extracurricular activities and advanced placement classes. Though Vermont’s schools are widely considered to be pretty good, they do not rank highly in the percentage of graduates who go on to four-year college degrees.

Likewise, the state’s varied restrictions on development discourage the creation of new industries and the jobs they might bring. There is a historical basis for Vermont’s anti-development bias. In the years before the Civil War, the state was nearly denuded of trees because of a boom in farming and raising livestock, especially sheep. The barren hillsides poured choking silt into the streams below. By the start of the 20th century, Vermont had to go so far as importing white-tailed deer from New York to restock its population.

Many of the state’s residents today prize the small-town culture. They treasure handmade crafts and artisanal, organic, locally grown foods. I have nothing against these things; I like many of Vermont’s products, including chocolate, wooden crafts and maple syrup. But you don’t attract many new jobs with these industries, and without jobs, you don’t attract many young workers and their children. You don’t create many opportunities for the young people who are already present, either.

The only reasons for Vermont to have an epidemic of drugs and hopelessness are man-made. When heroin is sold just around the corner from the farmer’s market, something must be wrong. I think I understand why Vermonters have adopted the policies that govern their state today. I do wonder, though, whether they are willing to change their policies if they don’t like the results.

Sources:

1) The Washington Post, “Vermont Session Preview: A budget gap and a heroin crisis”

2) Burlington Free Press, “Experts: Vermont population loss to challenge economic growth”

May 25, 2014

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Design As a Strategic Advantage

In this environment, the design of a Website can become a strategic advantage. Effective use of design will allow a company to benefit in a number of ways.

An effective design will allow the provider to better predict and control costs. For example, a design should include flexible rules for how and where the site will add new content (as opposed to updating old content). Establishing these rules in the design phase of the project will greatly reduce the need for ongoing design changes, as well as pushing out the time until the next major redesign.

A layered site design can allow a company to react more quickly and effectively. Separating content from presentation and function in the design reduces the effort to change any of the three later. In addition, a strong conceptual model streamlines decision making about whether or not to make changes in the first place.

Perhaps most importantly, an effective design can help satisfy and retain users. There are measurable human factors that can be used to objectively evaluate the impact a site design has on its users. An effective Web site design can improve the experience for users in several measurable ways. For example, using consistent language on buttons and prompts reduces the time it takes users to perform tasks by 25 percent. Users come to a site with goals. Effective design will help them to attain their goals more quickly and easily.

A design can be used to reduce the number of errors users make while performing common tasks on a site. If someone hasn’t been exposed to how software designer’s deal with error, this idea may seem jarring. Users typically think of errors as mistakes they make that are somehow their fault. Software designers think of errors as a user’s best approximation of the correct action. In other words, the user took what appeared to be the right action to achieve a goal. Software designers use well-known principles to improve the likelihood that a user will take the correct action in the first place. There are no bad users, but there are less-than-perfect designers and designs.

Subjective satisfaction is another human factor that software designers measure. This is typically done by having users assign a numerical value to how much they enjoyed using the software. So although the factor being measured is subjective, it is assigned an objective number-by users-that will serve as a benchmark that can be remeasured over time to gauge improvement. If an organization thinks that user satisfaction with its site isn’t terribly important, it might want to keep in mind that it’s an important predictor of whether or not the user will ever return.

We’ve seen some of the ways that better design can improve a site in measurable ways. But with rising costs, rapid technological change, and increased functional complexity, how will designers cope, let alone move beyond current levels of usability, to achieve a strategic advantage for their sites?

As Web projects become more like software projects, Web designers will have to look to the methodologies of the software industry. This will result in a move to a new design imperative that will combine best practices from media design and production with principles of computer-human interaction. This is called action oriented design.

A good part of this new design movement will take place naturally. The Web may be the newest new medium but it certainly isn’t the first new medium. There is a natural progression to the design of all new forms, media or otherwise. New forms start out by imitating older forms, then evolve into what the new form will eventually become. Early automobile designs copied carriage designs (hence, the name “horseless carriage”). Early television programs copied both radio and live theater. So, too, the Web is struggling from its early imitation of print and broadcast media and toward what it will ultimately become.

Four Phases of Web Design

The four progressive phases of Web design evolution mirror the phases that many Web designers pass through in their development. There are many examples of sites on the Web today that correspond to the first three phases. The fourth phase is one that is only now beginning to emerge. The four phases are:

I. Applying What We Already Knew. Here the designer applies lessons from established media. Consequently, the site tends to look like a printed page, a video still, or a CD-ROM. Interactivity often suffers and performance is usually poor due to heavy graphics.

2. Imitating What We See. As the designer becomes immersed in the realities of Web design, new design problems pop up that can’t easily be solved by applying lessons from other media. At this point, the designer looks to how other sites solved these problems, and adapts those solutions. But although the designer is growing in knowledge, there is still no deep conceptual framework of understanding. A borrowed solution may not be appropriate and can even cause usability problems that are worse.

3. Learning by Experience. The feedback mechanisms of the Web are an incredibly valuable tool for learning. Study of server logs shows how users move through a site. Users voice their likes and dislikes through e-mail. But be warned: Although users know when they have a problem, they are not the right ones to design the solution. In addition, internal users are a constant source of data. As a Web designer enters the third phase, the design is typically simplified so that it will work better on a variety of browsers, the size of pages is reduced so that it will work better over low bandwidth, and it moves toward more consistency in page layouts. These are all positive developments, even though the designer may still lack an underlying framework of understanding.

4. Software Design Awareness. Some new media designers have begun to look beyond the current state of Web design and become aware of the principles and methods used by software designers. At the same time, the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) community-largely academic and previously focused strictly on software-has begun to adapt and apply its work to the Web. What we are just beginning to see on the Web is a design approach that owes as much to science as to art. It is a more rigorous, principled approach to new media design. It is characterized by designers taking what they have learned from both past lives and recent experience, and applying it through structured methodology to produce designs that are measurably superior to past efforts. This is the beginning of action-oriented design.

Why is action-oriented design important? Users come to a site with goals. So, too, Web site owners have business goals that can be attained only by driving specific user actions, such as viewing pages (drives ad revenue) or making transactions (drives electronic commerce revenue).

Inevitably, sites add more content, more function, and more graphics. In a Forrester study of new media executives responsible for their companies’ Web sites, the top responses to the question, “What will you add to your site in 2014?” were “more content” and “personalization.” In the same study, site owners said that their top challenge was “making the site attractive.” Ensuring ease of use came in fourth.

In the midst of this increased complexity, helping users attain their goals while leading them toward actions that support business goals is not easy. To achieve success, designers will need to clearly understand user goals, business goals, rapidly evolving site functionality, and software design methodologies. Talent and experience alone will not get the job done.

May 17, 2014

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Furnished Holiday Lettings – A Tax Guide

Where a furnished rental property is designated as a ‘furnished holiday letting’ (FHL) there are several advantages over a normal let property as it is basically treated as a trade for certain tax purposes. This includes tax relief to be claimed on expenditure on fixtures and fittings and also provides entitlement to various capital gains reliefs when the property is subsequently sold, replaced or gifted.

Owners of FHLs should endeavour as far as possible to comply with the specified letting rules outlined below, thus ensuring that the property qualifies for the favourable tax advantages.

Qualifying letting periods

  • The FHL property must be available for commercial holiday letting to the public for at least 210 days per year AND be actually let as holiday accommodation for 105 days per year.
  • It must not normally be let for a continuous period of more than 31 days to the same tenant in seven months of the year.

There are two ways to help owners of FHLs to reach the above thresholds. If an owner owns more than one FHL the ‘averaging’ election might be helpful and if a FHL meets the thresholds in some years but not in others, then a ‘period of grace’ election is currently available.

Location of property

  • All FHL properties which are located in the UK are treated as one ‘business’ and all properties located in other EEA states are taxed as a separate ‘business’.

Capital allowances

  • Expenditure on fittings, furniture and equipment (and certain integral features) qualifies for a 100% annual investment allowance (AIA) up to £250,000 pa for expenditure incurred between 1 January 2013 and 31 December 2014.
  • The availability of the AIA means that expenditure on such assets installed in a qualifying FHL property can be wholly written-off for tax purposes in the tax year in which the expenditure is incurred.
  • Note however that there are no capital allowances available on the cost of the property itself or the land on which it stands.

Pre-Letting Expenditure

  • Revenue expenditure incurred in the pre-letting period, such as advertising costs or repairs can be deducted against rental income received during the first tax year.
  • Expenditure incurred in renovating a property so that it is brought into a condition fit for letting are treated as capital costs.

Personal Use

  • Where the property is used by the owner (or their family at a nominal rent) then any qualifying expenditure must be restricted by the private use proportion on a just and reasonable basis.

Treatment of FHL losses

  • Where a net loss, after deduction of any capital allowances, is incurred on UK located FHLs it can only be offset against UK FHL profits of a later tax year.
  • Likewise where a net loss is incurred on FHLs located elsewhere in the EEA then it can only be carried forward against future profits of the same properties.
  • ‘Sideways’ loss relief, which prior to 2011 allowed losses on FHLs to be set against other types of taxable income, is unfortunately no longer available.

Capital gains tax advantages of FHL

Qualifying FHL properties continue to be treated favourably for CGT. FHLs are classified as ‘business’ assets and are therefore eligible for the following CGT business reliefs:

  • Entrepreneurs’ Relief ~ resulting in a CGT reduced rate of 10% payable on any capital gains arising on the disposal of the property (up to a lifetime limit of £10 million)
  • Gift Relief ~ which means that where a property is gifted the capital gain arising can be frozen and will only become liable to CGT on a subsequent disposal by the recipient.
  • Replacement of Business Asset Relief ~ which allows a capital gain arising on the disposal of a FHL to be deferred by setting it against the cost of a replacement business asset acquired within three years of the disposal.

Inheritance tax position of FHL

  • Following a Tribunal decision made in favour of HMRC in January 2013, 100% Business Property Relief is only likely to be available on furnished holiday lettings where the services provided are at a substantially more significant level than those provided on a standard let property.
  • Therefore in the vast majority of cases a FHL left on death will be treated as investment property (rather than business property) and as such fully chargeable to Inheritance Tax as part of the deceased’s estate.
  • For lifetime transfers, a FHL property will only become chargeable to IHT should the donor die within seven years of the date the property was gifted.

Value added tax position of FHL

  • The rental income from a FHL is regarded as taxable turnover for VAT which means that if an owner is already registered for VAT then they must also charge 20% VAT on the FHL rentals payable by tenants.
  • Where the rents from a FHL taken together with turnover from an unregistered business exceed £79,000 in a 12 month period, then that person should register for VAT.
  • Where however a FHL is jointly owned with a spouse then the rental income is received in a different capacity so VAT should not be an issue.

May 8, 2014

Comments Off on What Is Hope and Where Can I Get It?

What Is Hope and Where Can I Get It?

There are times
When our hope within,
Has no basis,
And we don’t know where to begin.
Then when we are raised,
A renaissance occurs,
Suddenly hope
Within us God he stirs.
Hope is a light,
A vast eternal flame,
Hope is from God
We find it in His name.

***

Hope is the love
Of self enough to sustain,
Life as it is,
In Jesus’ name.
We can know this much,
Because it is true,
We know it most certainly,
Because we feel new!

Hope is the grace of presence; to be perfectly content that very second. No matter what we have experienced immediately beforehand, hope comes suddenly, surprising, joyously, relieving, and new!

***

Hope is living,
Living for today,
But not in any foolish
Or selfish kind of way.
Living very intentionally
Is certainly the theme,
Oh to be fully enrolled,
In God’s hope-embodied scheme!

Hope is a state of mind and heart; poised with all of life beautifully ahead, yet loving the moment in all its cherished simplicity.

***

Hope is something nimble,
It flexes and gels and more,
It moves with the threads of life,
In ways where we verily explore.
Hope burgeons with myriad options,
Related to the intensity
Of life lived at life’s own pace,
In all of its immensity.

Hope doesn’t shrink. Hope adapts. Hope moves. Hope morphs. Hope explores. Hope reconciles. Hope runs beyond acknowledged weakness and into God’s glorious light.

***

Hope finds its source in the gospel of God through Jesus our Lord – once one accepts this Christ into their lives – to live and die for.

Each time we open our Bibles, perhaps in a case of annoying and despairing hopelessness, this living Word compels us to search its great mysteries, and the Spirit of God leads us to a passage, a verse, a single word. We are ‘enlightened’ in this as we can only be truly enlightened – the holy revelation of God peering through into our hearts, healing our souls for the moment, for the foreboding, and into a sustaining future.

Hope is a great thing – a schema of God designed to sustain and grow us.

Hope comes when we need it, provided we keep searching and refuse to give up. Great is the hope of God in Jesus Christ. The more we enter into the life and times of Christ, as he lived in others, and how he lives in others, the more we gaze upon the material of healing and partake of what is eternally offered. That’s hope.

© 2014 S. J. Wickham.