On being … just as likely

By Ingrid Sapona  

I’m not the most tech savvy person, nor am I the least tech savvy. That said, any tech skills I have I owe to my friend – I’ll call her Dee – an engineer and an absolute tech wiz. For as long as I can remember, I’ve relied on her for advice and hands-on help with all things tech-related. She’s that rare combination of knowledgeable AND able to explain things in a way that’s understandable. 

Unlike some tech folks who would just as soon take over and “fix” things, Dee explains what she’s doing as she works. She knows me well enough to know that I’m interested in trying to understand so that I can be – or at least feel – a bit self-sufficient. She gets that if I have at least a sense of what might cause some application to crash or misbehave, I’m less likely to worry that I’ve done something that’s caused irreparable damage.  

Our mentor/mentee relationship has advanced to the point that if I email her about a problem, she usually lets 24-36 hours go before she responds. It took me awhile to realize that her delay isn’t just about her being busy. I’m pretty sure she holds off because she knows I’m going to keep trying different things in the meanwhile. And – sure enough – sometimes that pays off and I manage to solve the problem on my own.  

I’ve come to realize there are a few things that are almost always worth trying before panicking. For example, if an app or program starts acting wonky, uninstalling and reinstalling the software is worth a try. I think the rationale for this is that perhaps the software version I’m running isn’t up-to-date. Another good trick is to simply reboot the computer or device. I’m always surprised when that fixes things. I guess it’s the computer equivalent to taking a deep breath. And if, after four or so attempts, it’s clear that rebooting isn’t doing a darned thing, it’s time for what always seems silly, but is surprisingly curative: unplugging the device and counting to 30. I once asked a tech person who had suggested doing this why this might work. This person (not Dee) said he thought that unplugging electronics and waiting 30 seconds or so gives the electrons (or whatever) a chance to return to a more neutral state, ready to start anew. Though that might be a bunch of hooey, it sounds reasonable to me and it works more often than you’d think.  

Not too long ago I had a problem with my phone. I was listening to an audio book through a pair of headphones (the original kind – ones attached by cord) when all of a sudden, the audio just stopped. The audio book was playing fine when I took out the headphones. I then tried playing some music. Again, without the headphones I could hear it just fine – but I got absolutely no sound through the headphones. So, the question was: is the problem the headphones or the phone’s audio jack? I did the few things Apple suggests to diagnose and/or fix the problem, but nothing worked. If none of the suggestions work, Apple says to bring the phone in so they can look at it. Ugh… knowing Apple, I suspect the fix – however simple – would not be inexpensive. (I didn’t bother Dee about the phone because fixing hardware isn’t her specialty.)  

Frustrated that I couldn’t listen to anything at the gym or on walks, I went in search of an old phone to see if I could listen to audiobooks on it. I downloaded a book and plugged in my headphones. I could hear the book just fine, so clearly the problem isn’t the headphones. Using the old phone (which doesn’t have a sim card so I can’t make calls on it) to play audiobooks seemed a reasonable solution – at least while I debated about whether to bite the bullet and have Apple fix the phone.  

By week three, the inconvenience of carrying around two devices had me re-thinking about just getting the phone fixed. When I made up my mind to make an appointment to do that, I thought I better try one more time because I’d sure feel stupid if I went to the Apple store and they found it worked fine. So, I plugged the headphones into the phone, tapped on an audio book, and sure enough, I could hear the book through the headphones. The same with the music app – I could hear songs through the headphones perfectly.  

Though I’m tickled that the headphones are again working with the phone, the whole thing puzzles me. I desperately want to understand why the sound suddenly stopped – and why the mere passage of time seemed to fix the problem. After much consideration, I have come up with a rationale: it’s the work of gremlins.  

I know what you’re thinking: my explanation seems to lack a certain scientific basis. Ok – so maybe it was a solar flair. Sounds better (or more plausible) to you? Maybe. But if you ask me, phones that mysteriously fix themselves seem just as likely the work of mischievous gremlins or maybe the Easter Bunny. Who can really say…  

© 2024 Ingrid Sapona




On being ... back in high school

  By Ingrid Sapona 

I don’t think about high school too often, but working on my taxes this week took me right back to Advanced Placement physics. Well, it reminded me of one particular “skill” I honed in AP physics. I’ll explain in a minute. First a bit of background: my taxes are not as straightforward as some peoples’. There are two reasons for this: I’m self employed and I have to file in both the U.S. and Canada. Because of these complications, for the past 35 years I’ve had my returns professionally prepared. 

This year, however, I decided to do my Canadian returns myself. (The U.S. returns seem exponentially more complicated so my CPA friend is still doing them.) I’m using a well-known tax prep software and answering the questions and inputting the information is straightforward. To ensure that I provide information in the exact same way as I have in the past – and to ensure no details are missing – I’ve been using my CPA-prepared returns from last year as my guide. 

All was well until I got to the part about the sales tax (GST we call it) on my business services. I know my accountant always filed my GST return based on something called “the simplified method”. I’ve never really understood the calculation. My accountant simply did the math and told me whether I owed or whether I was getting a refund because I had over-remitted the sales tax. But, since I’m doing my returns myself, I knew this would be something I would have to finally understand. I read – and re-read – all the Canada Revenue guidance on the simplified method and past explanations my accountant had sent me over the years. 

I spent hours multiplying different numbers together, hoping to figure out how my accountant arrived at the amounts reported on last year’s return. It was this that brought me right back to AP Physics. To be more precise, it reminded me of cheating on physics test questions that required application of a calculation to derive a numeric answer. You see, we were allowed to use slide rules (yes, I went to high school last century!) or a pocket calculator, if we had one. My classmate Pete (who I believe went on to become an actuary) was a whiz at physics and he had a calculator. So, he would work through the calculation and then he’d send the calculator down the row of desks, “lending” his calculator to those of us who didn’t have our own. Of course, what we were really “borrowing” was the answer that Pete conveniently left showing on the screen of his calculator. 

Though I’m not proud that I borrowed Pete’s calculator, er, answers, I didn’t feel that bad because we only got partial credit for having the right numerical answer. For full credit you had to show how you arrived at the number. So, with Pete’s help, many of us learned the useful skill of how to back into a calculation. Indeed, that was what I was trying to do to figure out how my CPA applied the simplified method in years past. After an entire afternoon on a roller coaster ride that lurched between thinking I’m too stupid to figure out the method and wondering if, perhaps, my accountant had miscalculated last year – I was overcome with another sensation from AP physics: near defeat. 

It's funny the things we learn in school – and how it is they show up for us later in life. I’m sure my AP physics teacher thought he was teaching us about gravitational forces and energy and such. I only remember a wee bit of that, but I sure remember the determination needed to figure out how you get to a particular answer.   

After sleeping on it and realizing that even the most determined forensic accountant might need help sometimes, the next day I emailed an accountant friend for help. Though he said he didn’t deal much with the simplified method, he managed to re-phrase the wording on the form in a way that helped me understand what figure plugs in where. After that I was able to come up with the numbers from last year and then I simply had to plug in the respective numbers are for this year’s return. Whew. 

Though I spent a heck of a lot of time on my returns this year, it’s been kind of empowering. You see, I was audited once. An IRS agent came up from the U.S. and I spent an entire day sitting with him at my dining room table as he went through my receipts and invoices, asking me questions. The result of the audit was that he found a transposition error in one figure and I ended up owing a whopping $20. Though the audit was financially inconsequential, it left me with unnatural dread about having to justify each and every item on my returns. 

I’m happy to report that now, having taken over the task of preparing my own returns, I feel more confident. I sure hope I’m never audited again, but at least now I know I can recreate the calculations behind all the figures – even the simplified method. Thanks Pete, wherever you are… 

© 2024 Ingrid Sapona