Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day—Where, When, And Why

Saturday, April 22, 2017, is Earth Day. We only have one planet and we need to do everything we can to save it.

Supposedly originated in 1969 at a UNESCO conference in San Francisco, the name and idea for Earth Day was first observed on March 21, 1970—the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. This day in celebration of the Earth was put into a proclamation signed by UN Secretary U Thant.

And at about the same time, a separate Earth Day was founded in the United States as an environmental teach-in first observed on April 22, 1970.  The April 22nd date was taken international in 1990 with organized events focusing on environmental issues in 141 nations.

The impetus for an Earth Day came following the huge oil spill in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.  Originally a teach-in on environmental issues to be observed on every college campus in the United States.  The name Earth Day was a logical and obvious suggestion made by several people in the fall of 1969.

The April 22, 1970, Earth Day was the beginning of the modern environmental movement.  Media coverage of the first April 22 Earth Day included Walter Cronkite's narration of a CBS News Special Report Earth Day: A Question Of Survival.

Earth Day became a popular event in the United States and soon around the world as well.  Earth Day seemed to work because of a grassroots level enthusiasm that quickly spread.

In 1990, on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in the United States, the observation officially went global in 141 countries.  The status of environmental issues now had stronger marketing tools, greater access to television and radio, and multimillion-dollar budgets.

Earth Day 2000 marked the first time the movement used the internet as its principle means of organization both locally and internationally.

Today Earth Day continues to grow in membership, number of countries participating, and the scope of its effectiveness.

We only have one planet. We need to do everything we can to save it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Last Czar

With Russia being in the news so much for the last few months, I thought the contents of this article I came across about a year and a half ago might be of interest.

The article told about the Russian government's desire to reunite the remains of their last imperial family in one place—the czar, czarina, and their five children. However, the mission was not without roadblocks, namely the need to satisfy skeptics about the validity of all the remains.

On September 23, 2015, Russian investigators exhumed the body of Czar Nicholas Romanov II and his wife, Alexandra, as part of an investigation into the family's death in 1918. It's part of the ongoing attempt to confirm the remains really belong to Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children. Some of the family's remains were tested in the early 1990s (the early days of DNA testing) with the results being that the scientists were pretty confident that it's really them. The remains exhumed at that time included the czar, his wife, three of their children and several servants. Two of the children, Alexei and Maria, were unaccounted for at that time. But…the officials weren't able to convince the Russian Orthodox Church about the authenticity of the remains.

The church officials have not come out with their exact reasons for doubt. There had been some discussion about the Romanov family having been canonized in 2000 which made the remains holy relics which required a different way of treating them. In general, church leaders say they just aren't convinced. The church's approval is important for bringing the family's remains together.

The church did, somewhat reluctantly, allow the family's remains to be interred in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg where most of Russia's other czars are buried. But the church still had not accepted the family's identities in spite of the fact that several rounds of DNA testing had occurred.

In 2007 another burial site was located containing the remains of a young man and a young woman. More DNA testing confirmed they were Alexei and Maria. Those remains, however, were left sitting on a shelf because the Russian Orthodox Church balked at the idea of adding them to the family tomb. The church says it believes the family's remains were destroyed and won't change their position until they are 100 percent sure in spite of the DNA confirmation.

In February 2016 the church once again blocked the reuniting of the remains. Currently, the most prevalent explanation is that the church hierarchy wants to avoid the decision because either choice would alienate key factions. Rejecting the bones will anger some Orthodox adherents, particularly those outside Russia, while accepting them will incense a conservative domestic faction that believes the Soviet government somehow faked the original burial at the time they died and those aren't the real remains of Czar Nicholas II and his family.

And the entire effort remains in limbo.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Crazy Tax Deductions—Part 2 of 2

Here are some more zany tax deductions that didn't work…and some equally zany ones that did.  And a few deductions where the CPA preparing the taxes offered an opinion before the taxpayer filed the forms.

Here's some that were rejected by the IRS.

1)  Burning Down The Business:
A furniture store owner had unsuccessfully tried for years to sell his business.  He finally hired an arsonist and collected $500,000 in insurance money.  But things went bad for him when he tried to deduct the $10,000 he paid the arsonist as a "consulting fee."  Both men ended up in prison.

2)  Did She Tango Her Way Home:
A taxpayer was denied a deduction for dance lessons which she claimed would improve her varicose veins.  The reason for the rejection?  The IRS claimed the lessons were not medically necessary, the ruling also extending to dance lessons for arthritis and nervous disorders.

3)  Fido's Babysitting:
Millions of household dogs in the U.S. are left home alone each day.  One taxpayer hired someone to come to his house and watch his dog while he was at work then he tried to deduct the expense using the same rules intended for children and legal dependents.  The IRS said 'no way.'

4)  Beer vs. Whiskey:
Here's one that got a thumbs up and a thumbs down.

A gas station owner gave his customers free beer and took the cost as a tax deduction.  On the other hand, a businessman tried to deduct several cases of whiskey he gave to clients as an entertainment expense.  Tax Court ruled that the beer deduction was allowed but the whiskey deduction was denied.  [Makes no sense to me, or anyone else for that matter other than the Tax Court judge who made the ruling]

And here are some surprise rulings in favor of the taxpayer.

5)  Dairy Cows On Safari:
The owners of a dairy farm tried to write off an African safari as a business expense claiming that some of the dairy's promotional efforts included wild animals.  Even though the concept of 'wild dairy cows' is a bit far-fetched, the IRS actually allowed the deduction.

6)  Come By For A Swim:
An emphysema patient was told by his doctor that he needed to start exercising.  So, the patient installed a swimming pool at his home and deducted it as a 'necessary medical expense.'  Even though they turned down the deduction for the tango lessons, the IRS allowed the swimming pool deduction including the cost of various chemicals, cleaning, heating and upkeep.

7)  Here, Kitty-Kitty-Kitty:
Junkyard owners had a nasty snake and rat problem.  In an attempt to combat it, they set out bowls of pet food each night to attract the feral cats that roamed the area.  The cats ate the pet food and also the snakes and rats.  Since the cats made the business safer for customers and employees, the IRS allowed the deduction for the pet food.

8)  The Bigger…The Better:
An exotic dancer wrote off the cost of breast implants, claiming it was a business expense since bigger breasts equaled bigger tips.  The IRS agreed, saying the implants were a stage prop essential to her act.

And finally, some strange deductions the tax preparer ruled on before the taxpayer filed the forms with the IRS.

9)  Carrier Pigeons:
A tax payer was so distrustful of technology that he wouldn't use a computer or even a phone.  So, he used carrier pigeons to communicate with his business partner across town.  He also thought it made sense to deduct all his expenses for the care, feeding, and housing of the carrier pigeons as a business expense.  After determining that the businessman had not used technology for communication in the past, the CPA preparing his taxes decided the deduction was fair.  No word yet on whether the IRS agreed.

10)  A Baby:
A businesswoman tried to deduct the cost of her own baby as a business expense.  She used photos of the baby in marketing materials for her business and believed the money she spent on her baby's food, clothing, nanny, diapers and baby powder—a total of about $26,000 for the year—should all count as business expenses.  The CPA doing her taxes wrote off the cost of hiring the photographer who took the photos of the baby as well as the baby's stroller and clothing items that carried the company logo which pictured the baby, but she informed her client that the rest of the expenses were not allowed.

11)  Hip Replacement For A Dog:
A woman dropped off her tax information to her tax preparer.  He noticed an unusually high amount for medical expenses including $8,000 for a 'family dependent' even though she had no spouse or children.  The family dependent turned out to be her dog.  Because the animal wasn't a medical necessity for the taxpayer, he couldn't let her deduct the cost of the surgery or any of the dog's other expenses.

12)  Pole Dancing Lessons:
A man tried to write off the cost of his wife's pole dancing lessons as a business expense under 'meals and entertainment.'  The man claimed watching her dance was his after work relaxation and made him better at his job.  His tax preparer informed him that the IRS would swiftly deny the $800 deduction.

13)  $1,000 Worth Of Evian Water:
A very wealthy woman convinced her doctor to give her a prescription for three bottles of Evian water (specifying the brand) every day and declared $1,095 as a medical deduction on her taxes for the water.  Her CPA said that since she still had the prescription note in her files showing it had been prescribed by a doctor it was a permissible expense even though the doctor's note didn't disclose what her medical condition was that required three bottles of Evian water every day.

14)  Spanx Shapewear:
A real estate agent who was 'a little bit big on the bottom' (according to her tax preparer) bought several pairs of the Spanx brand slimming underwear because she thought looking smaller would help her sell more houses.  Her tax preparer told her there was no proof the Spanx had any impact on her business or income, therefore, it couldn't be considered a legitimate business expense.

15)  Recreational Drugs:
One financial planner had a rock band client actually try to deduct an item labeled 'drugs' as a Travel & Entertainment expense.  The total cost of the 'drugs' was in the high five-figures.  The band's bookkeeper claimed the cost of recreational drugs was necessary and ordinary.  Setting aside the fact that possession of the recreational drugs was illegal, the tax preparer advised the band that the IRS would never allow the deduction.

And on that note…Happy Tax Day to everyone!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Crazy Tax Deductions That Didn't Work—Part 1 of 2

It's that time of year again…at least here in the U.S.  Income tax is due!

Each year tax payers have tried to take the craziest deductions and have even pursued the matter in tax court when the IRS denied the deductions.  Here are ten of the zanier deduction attempts.

1)  Overdone Overdrafts:
A couple trying to keep their dry-cleaning businesses from going under had been denied business loans by their bank who had judged them to be a bad credit risk.  They came up with a plan to ease their cash flow problems.  They regularly overdrew their bank account and would pay the overdraft when the bank called.  This ended up costing them more than $30,000 a year in overdraft charges which they deducted from their taxes as a business expense.  The Tax Court denied the write-off, stating that the charges were unreasonably high.

2)  Red Blood Cell Depletion Allowance:
Because of her rare blood type, a woman made more than $7,000 in one year as a blood plasma donor.  She tried to offset the additional income through a tax deduction, claiming a depletion for the loss of both her blood's mineral content and her blood's ability to regenerate.  Depletion is a proper write-off for firms that remove deposits of minerals such as coal and iron ore from the ground.  The Tax Court ruled that individuals cannot claim depletion on their bodies.

3)  Prostitutes And Porn:
A tax lawyer spent more than $65,000 a year on prostitutes and pornographic materials which he deducted as a medical expense.  He stated the positive health effects of sex therapy.  The Tax Court denied the write-off saying his conduct was illegal and also wasn't the treatment for a medical condition.

4)  Burning Down The House:
A man relocated his family to a new state after a job transfer.  His wife didn't like the new location and returned home with the kids.  He visited over a holiday weekend and discovered another man had been living with her.  They argued and she left the house at which time he put some of her clothes on the stove and set them on fire.  It got out of control and burned the house down.  He claimed a casualty loss deduction and the Tax Court denied it saying they could not allow him to deduct a loss from a fire he set.

5)  Hush Money:
A pro football player got into an altercation with a lady friend at the time that he was in the process of negotiating a contract extension.  She filed a criminal complaint against him.  The team owner said if the matter became public, they would cut or trade him.  He agreed to pay her $25,000 to keep things quiet and he got his four-year contract extension.  When he tried to take the payout as a tax deduction, the Tax Court said the payment was a result of a personal relationship rather than a business expense.

6)  Designer Clothes:
The manager of a designer label boutique was required to purchase and wear the designer's clothing as a condition of her job to project the image of an exclusive life style.  A court denied her deduction because the clothes could be worn outside work regardless of the fact that they were not her personal taste of clothing. [Several decades ago when Dinah Shore had her weekly variety show, she deducted several gowns she had worn on her show as a business expense. The IRS claimed they weren't business as she could wear them to social functions having nothing to do with her television show. Her counter argument was that they were not useable for anything else as she could not even sit down in them. The IRS had her put on each of the gowns and prove that she couldn't sit down. She couldn't sit in them and the IRA relented.]

7)  Las Vegas Gambling Junket:
A repo company sponsored a bus trip to Las Vegas in an effort to drum up business from banks.  The people talked informally about the collection business, but everyone spent most of the weekend gambling and no formal meetings were scheduled.  The trip was very successful and the repo company got a lot more business from the attendees.  However, the Tax Court denied them the deduction of the cost of the junket because the business discussions were only a small part of the trip.

8)  Meals With Colleagues:
A partner in a law firm met every day with his colleagues at lunch to discuss the firm's business.  Unfortunately, the IRS denied the deduction for the meals as being a business expense.  The law firm took it to Tax Court where the court agreed with the IRS that the meals were a non-deductible personal expense.

9)  Wrecking A Rental Car:
Heavy fog had an airline employee stranded who needed to get to New Orleans.  He worked out a deal with a rental car company to take one of their cars that they needed driven to New Orleans.  The company would have the car transported without having to pay a driver and he would get to New Orleans with no charge for the rental car.  Unfortunately, he wrecked the car in Mississippi and had to pay for damages.  When he tried to deduct the payment as a casualty loss, the Tax Court denied the deduction because he wasn't the owner of the car.

10)  Shoddy Construction:
A couple paid a builder to construct their home.  Shortly after they moved in, they found a series of problems with the house that made living there impossible.  They deducted a large theft loss on their taxes, claiming the builder defrauded them.  The Tax Court denied it stating they were the victims of poor workmanship rather than fraud.

Next week in Part 2, I'll be sharing some more strange deductions that didn't work along with some equally weird deductions that the IRS did accept.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Blondes vs. Brunettes: Stereotype or Reality?

For decades it's been a matter of speculation…possibly even for centuries: blondes have more fun but brunettes are smarter.

Is there any truth to that stereotype? The one that claims blondes are dumb as far as intellect is concerned but have that innate ability to manipulate men with their sex appeal? The one that claims brunettes are by far the more intelligent and capable but lose out in the sex symbol department?

Even Hollywood has played into the hands of the stereotype, by making changes in the image they present to the movie going public. In the days of the silent movie, blonde Mary Pickford was the sweet and virginal heroine while brunette Theda Bara was the bad girl sex symbol whose screen persona was the vamp who stole boyfriends and wrecked marriages.

Then in the 1930s the show biz image changed. The blonde became the home wrecking hussy, the gold digging sex symbol while the brunette was either the dutiful wife, the hometown girl next door girlfriend, or the uncommon situation of the intelligent woman who stepped out of the housewife mold and pursued a career in the business world as a single woman.

Most of the big screen sex symbols were blondes, a few natural and most from the beauty salon. There were a few brunette sex symbols and the occasional redhead such as Rita Hayworth. Probably the most famous of all time is the iconic Marilyn Monroe whose name became synonymous with sex symbol. Marilyn co-starred with a brunette sex symbol of the time, Jane Russell, in the ultimate blonde vs. brunette movie—the 1953 release of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

But do gentlemen really prefer blondes? Results from a study conducted by the University of Westminster in the U.K. and the Scandanavian Journal of Psychology show something quite different. Their study shows that men actually prefer brunettes. The study was conducted with a woman going to three different nightclubs as a brunette, a blonde, and a redhead to see how many men approached her. She was approached most as a blonde, second as a brunette and least as a redhead. That would seem to prove the gentlemen preferring blondes theory.

However, follow-up with the men in the same three nightclubs showed that the men found her most appealing overall as a brunette. They said she came across most attractive, intelligent, approachable and dependable as a brunette, more temperamental as a redhead, and needy as a blonde. Previous studies had upheld the stereotype by showing that men prefer blondes.

Interestingly, women of all hair colors prefer men with dark hair…another stereotype of heroic tall, dark, and handsome. And apparently that choice applies to female lions as well. Male lions with dark manes are more likely to be pride leaders.

In a different study in 2011 in the U.K., 2000 men were surveyed and blondes were selected as the preference. Then when the same study was conducted in France, U.S., Spain, Italy, and Brazil, the preferred hair color was dark. Psychologists say that women who are not natural blondes usually go blonde because thy want to stand out. Since only about 10% of the population are natural blondes, this tactic works.

Hmmm…I guess those psychologists forgot about the mature women who go blonde because it softens their facial features, i.e. makes the wrinkles not as noticeable while not being that mature gray color.

However, old stereotypes die hard. With the current state of the economy, society has observed more blonde women dying their hair dark in order to be perceived as more professional in the work place and thus less likely to be laid off.

Interesting Fact:  Natural blondes have significantly more hair than brunettes. Evolutionary science tells us that hair evolved in part to protect our scalp from the sun's rays. With less pigmentation than brunettes, blondes developed more hair to achieve that protective barrier.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

STRANGEST THINGS THAT WASHED UP ON BEACHES

It's not unusual to see all sorts of things washed up on beaches around the world. There are the natural things such as seaweed/kelp and sea shells, including all things native to the oceans such as dead sea animals of various sorts ranging from small creatures to the occasional large whale.

But things washed up on the beaches also includes strange and surprising items that are not normally associated with beaches. Most of this marine debris is trash such as plastic bags, bottles and cans are from land-based sources. Some of it, however, is due to weather events like hurricanes and tsunamis. While other sources include vessels in storm-tossed seas. We have seen several very large and strange things washed up on the shores of western U.S. and Canada that arrived from Japan courtesy of the 2011 tsunami.

Here is a list I came across of unusual beach findings that didn't belong there.

In January 2012, huge shipping containers from a distressed cargo vessel washed up on one of New Zealand's most popular beaches. Up to 300 containers were reportedly tossed overboard when 6 meter (approximately 19.5 feet) waves struck the ship. People were warned against looting, but both locals and tourists flocked to the beaches to take photos of the giant containers.

A recurring washed-up-on-the-beach sensation appeared at Zandvoort, Netherlands in 2007, and Brighton Beach in England in 2008, and at Siesta Key Beach in Florida in 2011. And what was this surprise visitor to these shores? It was a giant (8 feet tall) Lego man that weighed about 100 pounds and featured a bright green torso showing the message "No Real Than You Are." The number 8 appeared on its back along with the words "Ego Leonard." The mystery was finally resolved when it was revealed that "Ego Leonard" was the alter ego of a Dutch artist. The Sarasota County Sheriff's Office in Florida joined in the fun and issued a press release saying it had taken the giant Lego man "into protective custody." In response, numerous "Free Lego Man" Facebook pages and campaigns popped up on the Internet.

In September 2005, hundreds of giant squid washed up in Newport Beach. California. The creatures, believed to be Humboldt squid, normally reside in deep water. It was rare for locals to encounter them on land or sea. Authorities said the squid might have been pursuing bait fish and gotten too close to shore. Other factors, such as warm ocean temperatures or record rainfall, were also suspected.

In May 2012, dozens of fly swatters emblazoned with logos of collegiate and professional sports teams washed up on the beaches of Kodiak, Alaska. The fly swatters were originally believed to be debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, but were eventually proven to have come from a shipping container that got loose from a ship carrying products from China. The container went overboard in dangerous weather in the Gulf of Alaska. Other sports-related items, such as Nerf balls and water bottles were also found on Kodiak's beaches.

In August 2010, hundreds of tea packets washed ashore in Rajbandar in the Raigad district, Maharashtra, India. Nine containers from the cargo ship MSC Chitra spilled into the sea after the cargo ship suffered a collision with another ship.

In 2007, residents of the Dutch North Sea island of Terschelling, 70 miles north of Amsterdam, discovered thousands of bananas washed ashore after at least six containers of the fruit fell off a cargo ship in a storm and at least one of the containers broke open. Bunches of the still green bananas from Cuba also washed up on neighboring Amerland Island. It's not known exactly what happened to the beached bananas, but at the time residents suggested sending most of the fruit to local zoos.

In February 2006, also on the Netherlands' Terschelling Island, thousand of sneakers washed up on the beach when containers from the P&O Nedlloyd ship Mondriaan fell overboard in a storm. Residents of the island rushed to get the sneakers, searching for shoes in their size. Other items that washed up on the beach from those containers included children's toys and briefcases.

Perhaps one of the most famous container spills in history occurred in January 1992 when 28,000 rubber duck toys fell into the sea.  The incident inspired a book titled Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn. The great rubber ducky spill occurred when a shipping crate on a cargo ship headed to the U.S. from China fell overboard onto the Pacific Ocean during a stormy night. Some of the rubber ducks (nicknamed Friendly Floatees) have since washed up on the shores of Alaska, Hawaii, South America, Australia and the Pacific Northwest. Some have traveled 17,000 miles, floating over the site where the Titanic sank or spending years frozen in an Arctic ice pack. Some 2,000 of the rubber ducks are still circulating in the ocean and helping researchers chart ocean currents.

On January 26, 2011, a grand piano was found on a sandbar in Miami's Biscayne Bay (pictured above), mysteriously charred from being burned. Speculation about its origins included the idea that it was part of a music video production. It was later discovered that the piano was a junk art installation, the brainchild of a 16-year-old hoping to use the piece for a college application.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Who Almost Played The Role?

As we all know, casting for the lead role in a movie can be a lengthy process with many qualified candidates to sift through before making that final decision.  And also obvious, the choice of actor in a role can sometimes end up making the difference between a box office success and a mediocre film.

Through the decades there have been many starring roles that were almost cast with a different lead, possibly changing the audience response to the character and the movie.  In retrospect, trying to visualize someone else in the role sometimes leaves us scratching our heads and wondering what in the world they were thinking of with their first choice.

Here's a sample list of films and the stars that almost didn't get the role, some of the second choices earning an Oscar for their performances.

Pirates Of The Caribbean:  the role of Capt. Jack Sparrow in that first movie was originally intended for Jim Carrey, but when a scheduling conflict forced him to bow out the role went to Johnny Depp who put his own indelible stamp on the character in a series of Pirates Of The Caribbean films.

Drive:  Hugh Jackman was originally signed for the role that ended up being Ryan Gosling's.

Lord Of The Rings:  When Sean Connery turned down the role of Gandalf, it went to Sir Ian McKellen.

American Psycho:  It was originally Leonardo DiCaprio who was eventually replaced by Christian Bale.

Men In Black:  Chris O'Donnell was originally cast but due to the director's insistence Will Smith replaced him.

Basic Instinct:  Kelly McGillis was considered before the role went to Sharon Stone.

Dirty Dancing:  Val Kilmer was considered but the role eventually went to Patrick Swayze.

The Shining:  The iconic Jack Nicholson role ("Here's Johnny!") almost went to Robin Williams.

Pretty Woman:  Molly Ringwald turned down the role that was a career maker for Julia Roberts.

Silence Of The Lambs:  Michelle Pfeiffer almost had the role that won Jodie Foster one of her Oscars.

Indiana Jones:  George Lucas was pushing for Tom Selleck but Steven Spielberg held out for Harrison Ford.

The Matrix:  Ewan McGregor was cast first, but turned down the role in favor of Star Wars Episode 1.

Gladiator:  Mel Gibson turned down the role that won an Oscar for Russell Crowe.

Titanic:  Matthew McConaughey was first choice, but the role ultimately went to Leonardo DiCaprio.

Forrest Gump:  John Travolta turned down the role that earned Tom Hanks one of his Oscars.

Chicago:  John Travolta also turned down the role of Billy Flynn with the role going to Richard Gere.

Iron Man:  Tom Cruise turned down the role due to script issues. It was then offered to Robert Downey, Jr., along with Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3.

And now let's go back several decades to some movies from the 1940ish time frame.

The Wizard Of Oz:  MGM wanted to borrow Shirley Temple from 20th Century Fox to play the role of Dorothy.  When that negotiation didn't work out, the role went to Judy Garland.

Robin Hood:  Jack L. Warner wanted James Cagney cast in the title role that went to Errol Flynn who seemed born to play the part.

Gone With The Wind:  Every leading actress in Hollywood was tested for the coveted role of Scarlet O'Hara and all were rejected.  The movie had actually started filming before a British actress named Vivien Leigh (married to Laurence Olivier at the time) was finally cast as Scarlet.

The Maltese Falcon:  George Raft turned down the role of Sam Spade because he felt it was 'not an important film' so to the delight of director John Huston, the role went to Humphrey Bogart.

Casablanca:  Ronald Reagan was first considered for the Humphrey Bogart role in one of the all time classic films. Another win situation and great film for Bogart.