Monday, March 30, 2009

Go see Enchanted April

Quick plug: We saw Enchanted April in West Hartford yesterday, and it was a lovely play—took me away from my troubles for a couple of hours and left me smiling. You have one more week to go see it, and you really should.

Logistics for the Park Road Playhouse: West Hartford is an easy day trip from Boston: 1 1/2 to 2 hours driving each way, depending on how fast you drive. The theater itself is a couple of minutes from exit 43 of I-84. Parking is free on the street, there’s an ice cream shop/diner next door, candy and sodas are $1 in the theater, seating is comfortable and spacious with an excellent rake (and only 4 rows), and I’d recommend asking for tickets in the B section, which is the center section of seating around the thrust stage. (We were as far as possible from those seats, though, and it was still fine. Wherever you sit, the thrust stage in combination with competent blocking guarantees that you’ll never have the best or worst seat for every scene.)

Disclaimer: I know an overly modest cast member in the production. If you also know him and have been dissuaded from going because he’s not the star of the show, please ignore his modesty and be assured that he has a perfectly fun role.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


The plural of anecdote is not data.

The plural of datum is not understanding.

The plural of teaching is not tenure.

The plural of graft is not representation.

The plural of test is not education.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tax the bonuses at 100%

Tax the bonuses at 100%.

It’s really a simple solution. If Congress actually cared about the AIG bonuses and similar abuses, they could amend the income tax to tax those bonuses at 100% with no deductions allowed. Since most states would have their own taxes on top of that, you’d see any AIG employee with a brain declining the bonus, just as working people all across this country have been forced to accept lower salaries and lower benefits than their contracts call for.

Tax the bonuses at 100%.

Anything short of that is just politicians making noise while they continue to let the hyperwealthy finish destroying our entire economy. Cap the salaries, tax the bonuses at 100%, fire the executives, put the companies into receivership, and then tell me that you intend to tackle the significant problems like the 1.4 quadrillion dollar derivatives market.

The news of the bonuses has focused some anger on AIG. Maybe realizing that Congress is rolling over for it will redirect the anger where it will do some good. Tax the bonuses at 100%.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Form 1099-ZORK

In our income tax system, the IRS differentiates between refundable tax credits and non-refundable tax credits. This confuses many taxpayers (and worse, people giving advice to taxpayers), who believe that the distinction is related to refund checks from the IRS. When you file your income taxes, the IRS looks at a couple of different numbers: your total tax (A) and what you have paid (B). The amount you’ve paid includes any payments you’ve sent directly and federal income tax that your employer withheld from your paychecks. When B is larger than A, the IRS sends you a refund for the difference (B–A). As an example, suppose $4000 was withheld in federal taxes from your paychecks last year, and your total tax (as calculated on your 1040) is $3000. You’ll receive a refund check of $1000.

The difference between a refundable tax credit and a non-refundable tax credit is only related to your total tax (A). A refundable tax credit can reduce your total tax to less than 0, while a non-refundable tax credit cannot reduce your total tax to less than 0. Now suppose you have a tax credit of $5000 to add to the earlier example. If the tax credit is refundable, then it can reduce your total tax to –$2000 and you’ll receive a refund check of $6000 instead of $1000. If the tax credit is non-refundable, then it can only reduce your total tax to $0 and you’ll receive a refund check of $4000 instead of $1000. Even though the tax credit is called non-refundable, it still affects your refund check.

When a non-refundable tax credit can only be partly used because it’s greater than your total tax, the remainder that you didn’t use can often be carried forward to a future tax year. In the last example above, the $2000 that you didn’t get to use isn’t necessarily wasted, because you may be able to subtract that $2000 from next year’s total tax.

The tax system is full of these sorts of confusing terms: credit (reduction of taxes) vs. deduction (reduction of income on which taxes are calculated) is another one that many people get wrong, and the dollar difference can be huge. If your marginal tax rate is 15%, then a credit of $1000 is worth $1000 off your taxes while a deduction of $1000 is only worth $150 off your taxes.

I’ve always done my own income taxes as a business owner because I wanted to understand the tax implications of the decisions I have to make. It does add time, energy, and stress to the process of running a business, though. My financial position might be stronger if I let someone else deal with the taxes and I focused on trying to increase my income or reduce my expenses. Sadly, that reasoning is how our tax system got so impossible to understand. The taxpayer makes the sensible decision not to try to understand their own taxes. Once that happens, why bother to understand other people’s taxes? And if the public can’t intelligently participate in public discourse about our tax system, then why should legislators try to understand it?

I’m using both TaxCut and TurboTax in parallel this year, seeing where they agree and where they differ. Both programs give you a choice of answering questions in a friendly interview format or just entering information directly into tax forms and worksheets. Both programs strongly prefer that you follow the interview process. I’ve already run into one form in TurboTax that refuses to do any calculations and forces you to override every blank line in order to fill in numbers yourself. But if you do the interview for that form, then TurboTax is willing to fill in the form itself. TaxCut hates forms entry so much that you’re not even allowed to save your tax return while you’re entering information into a form.

Both programs present the same black box to the user if you try to figure out why the software is filling in particular numbers. TurboTax used to have a “show data source” feature which would let you trace back where a number on a tax form came from, but they decided to remove that feature a few years ago. (Bob Meighan, a VP at Intuit, says that nobody complained when they removed it, but they also removed any way for users to provide feedback.) If you select “override” for a number in TaxCut, the program then gives you four choices: Entry Info, Itemize, Goes To, and Comes From. The “Comes From” option sounds promising, but only tells you where the number came from if it was carried over from another form. For almost all lines where it should show you how the number was calculated or what worksheet the number came from, TaxCut says “This value is carried over or calculated based on the following (This entry is not carried here from another form)”. The “Goes To” option says “This entry is not carried to another form” and leads off with “Dummy”. Gee, sorry for asking.

I’m in the intensive tax period where I spend almost every waking minute on taxes for several days straight. I turned down joining a full-day Diplomacy game recently because I tend to think that I can’t focus on a game for that length of time, but it can’t really be harder than this annual Tax Game invitational. January is the collectible card game phase when I trade 1099-INTs, 1099-MISCs, 1098s, and W-2s, and occasionally find the rare MA 1099-HC. Now I’m wandering the maze of twisty little tax forms, all alike. And I’m pretty sure that if TaxCut calls me a dummy one more time, one of us is going to be killed by a grue.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Salmon masala

Chop two large yellow onions, cook in oil until partly caramelized. At the start of cooking the onions, add salt, garam masala, black pepper, cayenne, garam masala, balti seasoning, cardamom, cumin, a few fennel seeds, nutmeg, and more garam masala. Lightly toast 1/2 cup cashews. When onions are transluscent, add 2 cloves minced garlic, cashews, and some more garam masala. (Our garam masala jar does not pour easily.)

Once onions are at the desired level of caramelization, add 1/2 cup each of plain yogurt and tomato sauce. If you use cream instead of yogurt, add lemon juice or a little vinegar for acidity. Stir together with the onions until heated and taste. You’ll probably decide you went too lightly on the spices and salt, so add more. If your tomato sauce is unsweetened, add a little honey. If you used too much cayenne, add yogurt and tomato sauce. When satisfied, take the sauce off the heat.

In a skillet, cook 1 pound skinned salmon fillet in oil with salt, garam masala, and dill. When almost done, bring sauce back to hot, stir in 1 large diced tomato, and remove from heat. If you got nice color on the salmon, put the salmon on a large platter and pour the sauce around it. If you started with (or ended with) small salmon pieces, mix the salmon into the sauce. Serve with rice and naan.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Busy can be good

Lisa and I had an eventful weekend. On Saturday afternoon we drove down to North Dartmouth, MA to hang out with a group of greyhounds, and then followed signs to Horseneck Beach State Reservation. We were not the only ones with the idea of watching the surf, picking up shells, and casting off our winter mindsets. We saw plenty of people there with their dogs, a couple of nice kites, and one powered paraglider taking off from the parking lot as we pulled in and landing shortly before we left.

Photo from Wikipedia

I had no idea that for less than the cost of a used car, you can buy a parasail, attach it to a harness/seat, strap a gasoline can and a giant industrial fan to your back, and go flying over local beaches. Maintenance shouldn’t be too expensive, but there are clearly also ongoing costs for fuel and psychotherapy.

We also baked brownies and 11 dozen assorted cookies for an arts council reception on Sunday. Most of the planning was done in the last couple of weeks, but we collectively pulled off a really lively and fun event for the council, many of our grant recipients for this year, and a number of state and local officials. The highlight was our retiring chairperson being presented with a state award that I had nominated her for. I’m sure that the people who took a chance on attending this year will be eager to come back next year.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Where’s that Bat Signal app?

We all have tasks that don’t get done because we don’t have the skills or strength or knowledge or motivation. At least, I suspect I’m not the only one who runs into that. And some tasks are simply easier to tackle with many hands, such as unloading a moving truck or painting a house.

The current poll asks what you would like outside help with, in overly broad categories: Moving heavy objects (strength), Sorting papers (motivation), Electrical or plumbing (skills), Tech support (knowledge), Cooking or cleaning (motivation). I separated out sorting papers from cooking or cleaning because sorting papers is typically an infrequent intensive task, whereas cooking and cleaning are continuing obligations. Moving heavy objects and cleaning both usually benefit from many hands, but most of the others really only need one or two people who have the requisite knowledge or skills.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

It's snowing again, so it must be time to make ice cream!

After a week of above freezing weather than finally finished off the huge mound of snow the plows piled onto our sidewalk, it's snowing again. The predictions seem to range from 6 to 12 inches by the time it stops tomorrow night. This has been a hard winter for us: 2 full months of non-stop snow cover may seem like nothing in some areas of the country, it's pretty unusual here.

Rather than rushing out for french toast ingredients, how about making lemon ice cream as a way to pretend that its actually summer?

This recipe was originally for lime rather than lemon, but I've used it for a variety of citrus-flavored frozen treats.

Lemon Frozen Yogurt (adapted from Lucy's Cookbook)
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (or lime, orange requires more juice)
1/2 cup honey
pinch of salt
2.5 cups yogurt

Mix together lemon juice, honey, and salt. When honey is dissolved, mix in the yogurt. Assuming everything was cold to start with, this can go directly into your ice-cream maker.

Note: if you want to use sugar instead of honey, combine 2/3 cups sugar with lemon juice and heat until sugar dissolves. Cool before continuing.

Note 2: You might want to peel off the zest of your lemons with a vegetable peeler. You can chop it up and add it to your frozen yogurt, or you can freeze it for use in another recipe.