Saturday, April 25, 2015


The Mary Celeste

From the day man first figured out how to travel on the water, it's been an accepted fact that some ships would leave port and never return.  On occasion these lost ships are seen again and again, often minus their crew, seemingly traveling the seas randomly.  These wandering vessels are often referred to as ghost ships.

One of the most famous of the ghost ships, the Mary Celeste was a brigantine with a history of minor accidents, crew illnesses, and embarrassing mishaps.  Suspicious sailors considered it an unlucky ship.  Those sailors were proven right when the ship was found on December 4, 1872, drifting unmanned in the middle of the Atlantic approximately 600 miles from the nearest port.

A popular enhancement to the story, but not true, says the boarding party found still warm and untouched meals when they entered the galley.  In reality, they found nothing amiss except some slight damage to the sails and pumps and the loss or destruction of much of the ship's navigational equipment and documentation.  And the ship's only lifeboat was gone.  The captain's intact log book gave no hint of what happened.  When the vessel was finally steered into Gibraltar, its entire cargo was intact except for 9 mysteriously empty barrels that had contained alcohol.

Modern explanations have fixed on those 9 barrels.  It's theorized that the porous wood allowed the alcohol to evaporate, filling the hold with noxious and explosive vapors.  Fearing an explosion and fire, everyone evacuated the ship in panic.

There isn't any mystery concerning the initial loss of the Baychimo, but its continual reappearance is a mystery of its own.  In 1931, the Baychimo became irretrievably mired in pack ice off the coast of Alaska where the crew was able to walk to safety after determining the ship was a write off.  But that didn't stop it from being seen again and again over the next 38 years.  Every attempt by salvage crews to board her were thwarted by freak storms and encroaching ice floes.  The last confirmed sighting was from the air in 1969 showing the wandering ship again mired in heavy pack ice.  To this day the location of the Baychimo is unknown.

The Antarctic Circle is known as a dangerous place to sail, spawning many tales of death and tragedy.  One of the most disturbing is the story of the schooner Jenny.  On September 22, 1860, the crew of the whaler Hope sighted a battered ship sailing out from a gap between 2 icebergs with 7 men appearing to be standing at attention on the main deck.  As the Hope drew closer, its crew saw that the men were actually frozen solid.  When they boarded the schooner, the Hope's captain found the Jenny's captain apparently in the middle of writing a log entry.  He, too, was frozen solid.  The last entry in the log book was dated May 4, 1823—almost 40 years earlier.

Bouvet Island is one of the most isolated places on the face of the planet.  The closest land of any kind is the uninhabited coast of Queen Maud Land in Antarctica, 1100 miles away.  It's not on any shipping routes, has no interesting or precious resources, and its sole purpose today is the location of a weather station on one of the few stretches of ground where boats can land.  In 1964 the British and South African government went to Bouvet Island to establish a weather station.  They found a 20 foot boat of a lifeboat or whaler type, a single set of oars, a 40 gallon drum, and a "copper flotation or buoyancy tank" that had been cut open for some unknown reason.  No human remains or traces of habitation were found.  The life threatening weather and aggressive wildlife allowed them only 45 minutes to determine if the area was suitable for the weather station.  The worsening weather forced the crew to return to Cape Town.  Two years later, a follow up expedition found no trace of the rowboat or the damaged equipment.

On February 13, 1748, Simon Reed took his new bride, Annette, aboard his ship, Lady Lovibond.  They were going on a cruise to Portugal.  At the time, it was considered bad luck to bring a woman on a ship.  Unfortunately for all on board, the first mate was in love with the captain's wife.  In a fit of jealous rage, he took control of the wheel and steered the Lovibond towards the notorious Goodwin Sands resulting in the death of everyone on board.  Fifty years later to the day, in 1798, 2 separate ships saw a phantom ship sailing the Goodwin Sands. Then on February 13, 1848, another 50 years later, local fisherman saw a vessel wreck in the area and lifeboats were went to investigate but no sign could be found of a ship on the sands.  In 1948, another 50 year increment, the Lovibond was seen again and was described as having an eerie green glow.

And finally, probably the most famous ghost ship of all…

What most people probably don't know (and I'm in that group) is that The Flying Dutchman refers to the captain of the vessel and not to the ship itself.  Several ghost ships have been referred to as The Flying Dutchman, but there was one original candidate.

As the story goes:  Captain Hendrick Van Der Decken was sailing around the Cape of Good Hope headed for Amsterdam.  Even though a terrible storm raged around them, the captain refused to turn back despite the pleadings of the frightened crew.  As monstrous waves attacked the ship, the captain passed the time by singing obscene songs, drinking beer, and smoking his pipe.  Finally, out of desperation, some of the crew mutinied.  The captain, in a drunken stupor, shot the leader and threw his body overboard.  At that time, the clouds overhead parted and a booming voice came down from the heavens. "You're a very stubborn man."

The captain replied, "I never asked for a peaceful voyage.  I never asked for anything, so clear off before I shoot you, too."  Van Der Decken aimed his pistol toward the sky, but before he could fire the pistol exploded in his hand.

"You are condemned to sail the oceans for eternity, with a ghostly crew of dead men, bringing death to all who sight your spectral ship and to never make port or know a moment's peace.  Furthermore, gall shall be your drink, and red hot iron your meat."

Since that time there have been numerous sightings of The Flying Dutchman, quite often by reputable and experienced seamen including Prince George of Wales and his brother, Prince Albert Victor of Wales.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Earth Day—Where, When, And Why

Wednesday, April 22nd is Earth Day.

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 and need to do everything we can to save it.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

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 the CPA preparing the taxes offered an opinion on 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.'

One that got a thumbs up and a thumbs down.

4)  Beer vs. Whiskey:
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 4, 2015

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

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.

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.