Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Hurt Locker - Movie Review

We didn't catch The Hurt Locker during its run at the theatres so we picked it up, finally, at Red Box and it didn't disappoint. Suspenseful, sure, but mercilessly so with fine performances by the leads. (And look for some cameos by some familiar faces.) Neither anti- or pro- Iraq war, it's a story instead of people dealing with unrelenting pressure and with one another in situations they'll never find themselves back in civilian life. The sets appear authentic and the minor details ring true and they all serve well the main story of these brave men carrying out their duties. A little too much of the shaky-cam at times, Director Bigelow otherwise runs the show with a solid hand. She's already won the Director's Guild Award for this effort; don't be surprised if she takes Best Director in the upcoming Oscar season.

Here's the awesome Stephen Hunter with the best discussion of the movie that I've read. Click on through and then don't deny yourself the pleasure of the finely crafted movie.

More Ice Storm Pictures

Just some quick shots I took when I stepped out yesterday to start digging out. Though it looks like calling this thing an ice storm may be a misnomer - it looks like we got plenty of snow. We did, it's just that under all of it, is up to an inch of ice. No spectacular damage like this time last year in Arkansas so we're lucky. (Click on over to see what damage can really look like. Then stay around for a great blog. Ice storm damage link helpfully provided by Bruce, who has a wonderful blog as well.) Here are my pictures from last year, which will give you a link to my ice storm pictures from two years ago.

The snow piled high on our trash cans gives you an idea of how much we got. Roughly half the amount of last month's blizzard:


Icicles sparkle in the morning light:


The snow before I tromped through it to get to the back yard and shovel a way out for the dogs:


Rachel's car before the big dig. Can you dig it? I did. Dug it out, I mean.




Nope, nothing like it had been, nothing like it could've been. We're blessed, indeed.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ice Storm 2010

So the ice storm came and stayed around awhile like an unexpected, and unwelcome, guest over the holidays. You kept looking at your watch, wondering when it would leave, and buddy, it ain't going nowhere.

Everyone stayed home on Friday. Clara could work from home; so could I and we did. The girls, like kids on all snow days everywhere, parked it in front of the TVs and the dogs wandered throughout the house, whining occasionally to be let out and then barking to be let right back in. Cold out there, boss. And snow. Did you know about the snow? The day like that, one long smear, punctuated with looks out of various windows to see how bad things were and if it had ended yet.

A good marker? The length of icicles on Miss Betty's house next door. They started out as nothing but just kept getting longer and longer and longer:
The holly tree tips over. I'll tie it back again when the weather clears but it's just not built to take an ice load.


The hummingbird feeder is a hopeful leftover from summer. You can see the sleet and snow stacking up in the in the bird bath. Not too bad. Not just yet.



The maple in the front yard, glazed in ice. Not a soul stirring on the street or in Miss Ronda's house across the street. Nothing to do but watch.

Our own icicles are growing. The gutters are dammed up with ice and we'll have to watch inside when it melts to see if we don't get some leaks. Probably not; it's rarely happened in the past.


Snow dog! I tweeted this picture. Pepper likes the snow more than Lucky but they'll both come in covered with snow dingleberries. when they're done romping for a place to take care of business.


The snow fell heavier throughout the afternoon but finally stopped around 6:00 or so. I'd say we got about 6 inches. A good amount over an inch or so of ice so we got it good. But not nearly as bad as we've had it before. So we're grateful for that.

Nothing to do now but dig out.

The Drive Home

So the much dreaded ice storm finally hit this past Thursday. The weather folks had been predicting this a week out and I was doubtful - they've been wrong so many times and they seemed fueled more by memories of the ice storm from two years ago and last month's blizzard and the hunt for high ratings than they were by a desire to be accurate; the further out your predictions, the more likely it is you'll be wrong. But they weren't wrong this time.

Thursday morning started out as rain. Schools were already closed but I went into the office anyway. By noon, things were getting a little icy. We called it quits by 3:00. I was smart this time and parking with the Sequoia's butt end to the north and my wipers jutting out from the glass windshield. Clara had bought me an awesome ice scraper after the last blizzard and it made short work of the ice on my windshield and windows. I blasted through the staff's cars as well - hey, that's one of those untaxed fringe benefits, isn't it? - and sent them on their way before returning to my car. By then, the heater and the rear window defroster had taken care of what my ice scraper hadn't. I checked in with home and headed out.

The going wasn't bad, much easier than driving through last month's blizzard. There was no blowing snow, no white out conditions, my wipers and heater stayed on top of keeping the windshield and back window clear. The roads were covered with sleet - not too slick and it made for steady, if slow, going. Still, I saw two wrecks on the way home, one where the car had left the road entirely and the EMS folks had just arrived and were picking their way down the slope to the unlucky soul still in their car. I hope they were all right.

Pretty bleak weather though. And fairly crowded. I kept a close eye out as I got my iPhone out and up and fired off a few pictures:










Watch out, I'm really gaining on that car on the right!

I made it home in only a little more time than it normally takes. Fortunately, Clara had planned ahead and had laid in supplies the night before so I didn't have to hit the store on the way home or go right back out. We buttoned up the house after I got home and hunkered down, ready.

Rural Client

I had a business client call me around lunch time this past Wednesday wanting to schedule a time to review her QuickBooks accounting; what I had to say was more than what I could do over the phone and with the direly predicted ice and snow storm approaching, it might be a week or more before I could get out their way. So I dropped what I was doing - I was approaching a stopping point in what I was doing anyway - hopped in my Sequoia, and headed out. My firm's not too big just yet where the principal can just come out on a moment's notice; I like being able to do that and I hope my client's notice the difference.

The client wasn't far - about 25 minutes from my office, via Interstate - and I took care of business quickly and she was happy when I was through. I headed back to the office and I was struck as I often am about how easily you can find yourself in a rural setting here in Oklahoma City without having to travel far at all. The business location is just a couple miles south of the airport but looking around you'd think you were out in far west Oklahoma:


(Those clouds are the ragged shreds of the winter storm coming our way.)
Lonely gravel roads. Grain silos. Farm country.


Minutes later, I'm back in suburban Oklahoma City and then running down the Interstate back to the office. Twenty-five minutes later, I'm back in my chair in front of a computer monitor. The swift change of settings is a little disorienting.

I haven't been to a lot of cities but I imagine that Oklahoma City is one of the places where this kind of thing is becoming quite rare. Soon we'll be like all of the other big cities - we've been saying that for years and years and some day it'll be true - but for now, we're not. There are still some things that make us unique. Let's count our blessings before we become just like every other place.

Wine!

Not content to home brew beer, I've branched out into home, er, brewing wine. (You don't brew wine, you simply make it.) The steps are similar - lots of cleaning and sanitizing and mixing and pitching yeast and then moving the wine from one fermenter to the next and then cleaning and sanitizing and bottling - all done with similar equipment. The ingredients - and time - are the only things that change. And, yes, I'm using a kit; I'm just learning the techniques right now and don't have the expertise yet to do my own design and blending of wine.

Well, the first batch is done - more of a wine cooler, really, a strawberry white merlot:



Pink and sweet, more of a hint of strawberry, really, than an overwhelming flavor. And it tastes good! Which is the only real criteria a wine should meet, shouldn't it?

Well, all righty then. Looks like we'll be doing wine as well 'round here.

Next up: a riesling. This one'll take some time so expect a few weeks before I can post a report.

IRS '10,000 Letters' Program Angers CPAs

No kidding:
CPAs are complaining about an intrusive and intimidating Internal Revenue Service (IRS) initiative that began in early January when the IRS started sending “over 10,000” letters to tax return preparers (commercial and professional), with follow-up visits to “thousands” of letter recipients. This is part of an IRS program to be sure that preparers are “assisting clients appropriately” and part of Commissioner Shulman’s overall effort to increase oversight of return preparers. The IRS may intend this as an encouragement to do a better job, but CPA practitioners see this as poorly timed and intimidating during the busy tax season as they seek to apply the tax law correctly to client situations.

No, the IRS doesn't see this as encouragement; that's only the lipstick they put on this pig, the thing they tell themselves as they pat themselves on the back and give each other performance awards for coming up with such a brilliant scheme of harassment and intimidation. As always, the IRS' focus is on the those who are in compliance, and why not? The IRS already has the compliant right where they want them: filing tax returns, paying taxes, duly reporting the returns for which they were paid to prepare. It's too much trouble, and too expensive, to put together a task force to root out and discipline those who aren't in compliance. Better to send out letters and visit offices - in the middle of filing season! - and talk in general terms about "errors" - codespeak for intentional fraud and said with a smile - found on the returns of other preparers. They're like the mob, visiting a business: nice little tax practice you've got here. It'd be a shame if anything should happen to it.

CPAs go through a rigorous training program and examination to be licensed, as well as an extensive continuing education program. Further, they're subject to stringent ethical requirements to maintain their license. Sure, there are lots of bad CPAs, just like there are lots of bad attorneys and bad doctors; the certification process isn't perfect. But the greatest number of tax returns that are being prepared erroneously - whether intentionally or not - aren't being prepared by CPAs. (And what's a correctly prepared tax return anyway? Look for the inevitable stories this filing season of the accuracy rate of the IRS' own help hotline; they'll seldom give you the same answer twice. The Internal Revenue Code is a vast and complicated piece of legislation, open to a great number of interpretations. Even the IRS doesn't know what it means. They don't win every case in Tax Court.)

If the IRS knows enough about CPAs to send out letters and make office visits, I say formalize your charges and bring 'em forward. Otherwise, stop this nonsense. You don't see the Department of Justice sending letters or making visits to attorney offices "encouraging" attorneys to argue more "accurate" cases. The IRS has no business doing the same with CPAs.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rachel's Birthday

It was Rachel's choice for her birthday dinner so it was her idea to go to The Melting Pot in Bricktown. Hey, great idea!

You know what would've been a better idea? If Dad had remembered to bring the camera. Kee-riminy. Doofuses come no bigger than Rachel's Dad. Ah, but I had my iPhone's camera didn't I? A sure guarantee of dim, grainy pictures to commemorate this event. Let's take a look:

Hey, not too bad. Rachel looks quite pleased to be here. Good. We were, too:


Emily always finds time to throw some gang signs. Represent, yo!


Rachel studies the menu; she must choose wisely:


Emily looks on and offers her sage advice:


Turns out the table they gave us wasn't the one we had reserved. No prob. We moved over to our assigned spot and picked up from there. Emily had been perfectly happy where she was, thank you very much:


Rachel's pleased with the new location:





Fondue forks at the ready:



The cheese course arrives and it's all a blur of hands after that:


I swear I saw sparks flying as our forks clashed with one another. Positively medieval:


Time to think about the next course:



Some of us think a little more deeply than others. Will I get enough to eat? Will I?


Yes, yes I think I will get enough to eat. But I can't be absolutely sure, can I?



Oooo. The meat course. The girls had the Pacific Rim; they were a'hankerin' for the duck. Their cooking style? The chicken brothy stuff:



The meat arrives and it's another blur of hands and sparking forks:





Yes, I believe Emily's getting her share but Rachel's ready for some chocolate:


No, not chocolate, not yet. Clara and I had the Coq a Vin style. Looks a little thick in the aftermath but tasty:



An existential play: When will the chocolate come? When? No one knows but life's absurd while you wait:


Ahhhh. Chocolate at last. Rachel's moved to tears.



Nom nom nom.


So, a splendid time was had by all. A memorable choice for a memorable birthday. Though I think we all agreed, next time we'll move from the cheese course directly to the chocolate. Why waste time with salad and meat and all? Life's too short!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Clint Eastwood Voted Favorite Film Star But Who's Number 7?

Sure, Eastwood's number 1 but look who comes in at number 7:
As has been the case every year since Harris began its poll, the only dead star in the Top 10 was John Wayne, who came it at No. 7 this time around.

Wayne, in fact, is the only actor -- living or dead -- to appear on the list every year since its inception in 1994.

(Emphasis mine.)

Take that, you whippersnappers. Codgers, both alive and dead, rule!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Koss Embezzlement May Exceed $20 Million

From my friend Michael Hasenstab comes this:
The alleged embezzlement from Koss Corp. may be far greater than was first apparent, with the company saying late Thursday that "unauthorized transactions" over the last four years could exceed $20 million.

The firm's longtime vice president of finance already stands accused of stealing $4.5 million from the small, publicly traded maker of stereo headphones over three months this fall and covering her tracks by falsifying balances in Koss' bank account.

Now, the company's continuing internal investigation indicates that the unauthorized transactions may extend as far back as fiscal 2006 and amount to more than $20 million. . .

. . . Koss said Thursday that its last four annual financial statements should no longer be relied upon, nor should its latest quarterly report. The firm said it would file restatements as its investigation warrants. . .

. . . The unauthorized transactions the firm now has discovered apparently went unnoticed in annual audits of the company's books. The Grant Thornton accounting firm conducted the last four annual audits and each time concluded that Koss Corp.'s financial statements fairly represented the firm's financial position. . .

Audits aren't infallible but you'd think a little thing like the embezzlement of $20 million would have been caught by a high and mighty firm like Grant Thornton. Alas, no. But I like to think a teeny tiny little firm like mine would have noticed something was afoot. That's a lot of personal credit card debt that's being paid off.

Looks like Koss'll be looking for a new auditing firm. Wonder if they'd like to hear from a teeny tiny little firm in Oklahoma?

Emily's Cookin'!

Pancakes! She'll be cooking them for a class so she wanted to know how to do it beforehand. We found a recipe we liked, she did the measurements while I showed her how to separate an egg,and off she went:






The verdict? Delish! She'll really wow 'em in class when the time comes.

The recipe? From the awesome Alton Brown:

"Instant" Pancake Mix

Recipe courtesy Alton Brown

Serves:
3 batches of pancakes

Ingredients

* 6 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda (check expiration date first)
* 3 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 tablespoon kosher salt
* 2 tablespoons sugar

Directions

Combine all of the ingredients in a lidded container. Shake to mix.

Use the mix within 3 months.
"INSTANT" PANCAKES:

* 2 eggs, separated
* 2 cups buttermilk
* 4 tablespoons melted butter
* 2 cups "Instant" Pancake Mix, recipe above
* 1 stick butter, for greasing the pan
* 2 cups fresh fruit such as blueberries, if desired

Heat an electric griddle or frying pan to 350 degrees F. Heat oven to 200 degrees F.

Whisk together the egg whites and the buttermilk in a small bowl. In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the melted butter.

Combine the buttermilk mixture with the egg yolk mixture in a large mixing bowl and whisk together until thoroughly combined. Pour the liquid ingredients on top of the pancake mix. Using a whisk, mix the batter just enough to bring it together. Don't try to work all the lumps out.

Check to see that the griddle is hot by placing a few drops of water onto to the griddle. The griddle is ready if the water dances across the surface.

Lightly butter the griddle. Wipe off thoroughly with a paper towel. (No butter should be visible.)

Gently ladle the pancake batter onto the griddle and sprinkle on fruit if desired. When bubbles begin to set around the edges of the pancake and the griddle-side of the cake is golden, gently flip the pancakes. Continue to cook 2 to 3 minutes or until the pancake is set.

Serve immediately or remove to a towel-lined baking sheet and cover with a towel. Hold in a warm place for 20 to 30 minutes.

Yield: 12 pancakes

We prepared only a third of the mix because we were short of flour. We left out the fruit, too, but we added some vanilla, just to make it our own. Light, fluffy, all you could ask for in a pancake.

Awesome, and Then Some - John Wayne and Noel Coward

TV talk show host Dick Cavett was astonished that John Wayne - John Wayne! - knew of and appreciated Noel Coward:
Wayne: Wasn’t he great?

Me: Who?

Wayne: Coward.

Me [startled, realizing now that the tune was Noel Coward’s “Someday I'll Find You”]: Yes.

Wayne: I’ve always loved his stuff. Remember the scene in “Private Lives” when they realize they still love each other?

Me: Yes, and did you know there’s a recording of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence doing that scene?

Wayne: Gee, I gotta get that. I guess I’ve read most of his plays.

Me [still not convinced there isn't a ventriloquist in the room]: I’ll send you the record.

Wayne: Well, thank ya. I like the line [he switched to quite passable upper-class British], “You’re looking very lovely you know, in this damned moonlight.”

Me: I did a show with Coward and, as he introduced them, “My dearest friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.”

Wayne: I sure would love to have seen them in “Design for Living.” [Mentally I reach again for the smelling salts.] And, damn, I’d love to see that show of yours.

Me: I’ll see that you do. [Jesus! Did I? Oh, I hope so.]

Wayne: That’d be awful nice of ya.

Me: Did you ever think of doing one of his plays?

Wayne: Yeah, but it never got past the thought stage. I guess they figured that maybe spurs and “Blithe Spirit” wouldn’t go together. Can’t you see the critics? “Wayne should go back to killing Indians, not Noel Coward.”

A nice remembrance by Cavett so read the whole thing. I wasn't nearly as astonished as Cavett but Wayne never ceases to surprise and delight.

Hat tip: the great Terry Teachout.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hemingway's True at First Light - The Final Allotment

Finally. The last chunk of pages was dangerously slow going. (Here's my explanation of why I had to digest this wreck of a book in chunks.) Mary remains in Nairobi. Hemingway shops in a village for the camp and his staff. He kills a leopard. He hunts by moonlight. With a spear. He fawns over Debba, his second "wife." He ruminates on religion. Mary returns and there's some tension there which is resolved. They go and dig up and later plant her Christmas tree. They tell each other how much they love each other and Africa. It ends with them in bed in their tent, Hemingway listening to and thinking about the sounds of night-time Africa.

I'm tellin' ya', Hem's heirs have got a lot to answer for, letting this thing be published. It's crystal clear to me that it was never Hemingway's intent to have this published. Occasional flashes of brilliant prose do not a book make; the author was casting about for something to hook this remembrance to and it simply wasn't there. He'd already done it with Green Hills of Africa so why do it again unless you could do it better or differently but differently in a good way. With this, he could do neither, and though his final years were sadly battered by mental illness, at least he had the good sense to know this wasn't publishable. Not without a lot of work.

Well, I did what I set out to do: to read the last bit of published Hemingway that I hadn't read. So I have that. And I have the published work and the one posthumous work that's worth anything, A Moveable Feast. (Though I have soft spots for Islands in The Stream and The Garden of Eden.) That's plenty enough.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Oklahoma City Ranks in "100 Best Places to Work” with three high-ranking businesses | NewsOK.com

You don't need me to tell you what a great place Oklahoma city is to work. Fortune magazine will tell you:
Fortune magazine’s latest "100 Best Places to Work” list provides more evidence that Oklahoma City has joined the ranks of big-league cities.

Fortune magazine’s latest "100 Best Places to Work” list provides more evidence that Oklahoma City has joined the ranks of big-league cities.

A glaring omission from the list of best places to work: Peter Terranova CPA.

Looks like I'm gonna have to have a little talk with the staff about this. That special, quiet time we share in the morning when I'm chaining them to their desks would be perfect.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hitler Finds Out Scott Brown Won

Once again, I'm late to the game but here's the Hitler Finds Out Scott Brown won video. Blogging skillz? I lack 'em.

As if you haven't seen it yet:

It Was 18 Years Ago Today

No, Sergeant Pepper didn't teach the band to play. It was when Rachel was born!

She wouldn't like it if I got all gooey and sentimental about it so I won't but I can't let the day pass without marking it in some way. She was born today and we got the news we would be her parents not 24 hours later. A bit of jaundice had to be cleared up before we could take her home from the Stillwater hospital a couple of days later but by then our lives had been irrevocably altered. The days have been blessed ever since.

Rachel's turning into quite a young lady. She's having to make some big decisions now that'll affect life in the years ahead, just like a grownup. That's the way it's supposed to be but I can't help but think back on those early, heady days with her. They're always your baby, aren't they, no matter how old they are?

How will we celebrate? You can be sure she's been working us over pretty good for the last few weeks, allowing us to consider some major clothing purchases as her birthday present. Of course, we've lost count of what we've bought her and what we've still to get her - you don't think that's part of her plan, do you? - but we'll be doing a special dinner for her tonight.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got something in my eye.

Sniff.

(More here on the girls' adoption and the part the rest of our family has played in all of this. Our blessings are endless.)

No 2009 Taxes From Some Lawmakers

Taxes for thee but not for me:
Some state legislators failed to file their 2009 income taxes.

Georgia Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham mailed letters last Friday to an undisclosed number of lawmakers.

Under a new ethics law passed on the final day of last year's General Assembly, the lawmakers have 30 days to respond to Graham's letter.

After that deadline Graham will give the names to the House and Senate Ethics Committees for possible disciplinary action.

The names will be released if formal charges are brought.

Heck, release their names now; voters should be informed.

(Oh, and if anyone knows any of those lawmakers who need a good CPA to get them current, send 'em my way.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

‘Spenser’ Novelist Robert Parker Dies

Writers are dropping like flies. First it was Erich Segal, now it's Robert Parker:
Robert Parker, the author of the popular "Spenser" novels about a hard-nosed Boston private investigator, has died. He was 77.

A spokeswoman for the Cambridge police department says an ambulance was sent to Parker's home at about 11 a.m. Monday for reports of a sudden death. The spokeswoman, Alexa Manocchio, says the death was of "natural causes" and is not considered suspicious.

A publicist for Parker's publisher confirmed the death but had no further details.

Here's more about Parker:
In the past quarter century, it could be said, no writer of private-eye fiction was more popular or prolific than Robert B. Parker, who died Monday at the age of 77. His nearly 40 books involving the no-first-name Boston P.I. Spenser—starting in 1973 with "The Godwulf Manuscript" and ending, it would seem, with "The Professional," published three months ago—made the Massachusetts-born Mr. Parker a best-selling author and a household-name in all homes where mystery fiction was consumed.

Building on aspects developed by illustrious predecessors (aspects he studied as the author of a doctoral dissertation on the private eye in American fiction)—the bantering dialogue of Raymond Chandler, the concern for young people expressed by Ross Macdonald, the swift action of Dashiell Hammett, even the violence of Mickey Spillane—Mr. Parker created a hero and a series of books that revivified the P.I. genre, making it fresh and viable through the end of the 20th century and into the next.

I've read a few of the Spenser books and a couple of the Jessie Stone books. I never followed the Spenser TV series but I caught the Stone TV movies with Tom Selleck and they're a good fit for him.

Huh. I see I was a bit harsh on the movie Appaloosa that was based on Parker's book - and I may have been harsher on Parker in that review than I feel about him now that he's died. If you were wanting to start in on a series character by a solid writer, you could do worse than Parker. As for me, he just might be worth a second look.

(And for writers, I like this from Parker in the above linked article:
But Mr. Parker—whose oeuvre also included series with a small-town sheriff, Jesse Stone, and a woman P.I. named Sunny Randall, as well as a handful of westerns and other novels—of course had a very real job, working five days a week turning out five pages a day. "It's like running a small business," he told fellow writer Stuart Kaminsky, adding: "'Writer's block? That's just another word for 'lazy.'"

Okay, definitely worth a second look.)

’Love Story’ Author Erich Segal dies at 72

Segal died of a heart attack but had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for a long time. We don't remember it now but in its time, Love Story had quite an influence on the culture:
Segal was a Yale classics professor and screenplay writer when he turned a proposed movie about two college students — preppy Oliver and smart-mouthed Jenny — into a novel. Published in 1970, “Love Story” was a weeper about a young couple who fall in love, marry and discover she is dying of cancer. It was a million seller guaranteed to make readers cry and critics scream.

A much bigger audience caught up with the film version, which starred Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw. Directed by Arthur Hiller, with a plaintive, Henry Mancini-composed theme song that wouldn't quit, “Love Story” gained seven Oscar nominations — including one for Segal for writing the screenplay, as well as for best picture, best director and best actor and actress. It won one Oscar, for best music.

I caught part of this not too terribly long ago on TCM, I think. Totally unwatchable now but of interest as a relic of the early 70s.

Twitter's Down

As of right now, Twitter's down, and down hard. Crashed because of last night's historic election win by Scott Brown? Could be. If so, that's something else for the history books: a pivotal election win thanks to the new media and the new media's inability to handle the crush of news and comments about the result.

That or Twitter's just plain ol' down.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ten Reasons Why I Should Be Preparing Your Tax Return and Not Turbo-Tax

1.) There are no free lunches. I've had a chance to look further into Turbo Tax's free edition of their software and it's not, you know, free if you have to file a state tax return or you call them with a question. Their other packages? Sure, somewhat cheaper than what I'll charge you but my price includes the state return and, of course, e-filing's free. So while TurboTax can beat my price, they can't beat it by too terribly much.

2.) Price isn't everything is it? Cost is. What will it cost you to use TurboTax to do your tax return rather than me? Let's see, there's the cost of the software, the computer to run the software, the time you spent learning the software and inputting the information, and the potential cost you'll have if the IRS has a question about your return. And make no mistake, the IRS is questioning more and more returns. You'll have to take time to respond to any IRS inquiries and should the IRS take a hard line - something they seem to be doing more and more nowadays - you'll have to take time to research and respond to that. That's all included with my fee. I call that a pretty low cost for a some peace of mind.

3.) Customer support. I'll grant TurboTax has pretty good customer support. Not as good as you'll get from me - I'm a phone call or e-mail away. And depending on the circumstances, I'll even come to you. I don't think anyone from TurboTax will do that, do you?

4.) Coffee. Drop your information off and stay for a chat, get coffee. It's Colombian. It's free.

5.) Change is the tax code throughout the year? Changes in your personal status? You won't call TurboTax will you? Didn't think so.

6.) Record keeping. I maintain files of all the tax returns I prepare for you. Think of all the attic space you'll save. And I'm ready to provide copies to whomever you authorize me.

7.) A reliable referral source. Anyone you send to me, I guarantee will get the same great service you got.

8.) Networking. I have an incredible span of clients. Chances are, if you have a professional need, I can refer you to someone I know who'll take care of it. We're all in this together, you know.

9.) Tax organizers. At the beginning of each year, you get an organizer from me to help you get your records in order for tax preparation. That and a client letter with the latest tax information that might affect you.

10.) If you have a business, I can do more than just your tax returns. I can do your accounting, payroll, consult about QuickBooks, your business, perform financial statement reviews and audits. Name it. I'll help you find a solution for your business.

Interested? I've added my contact information on the sidebar. Give me a shout. Let's see what I can do for you.

The Lovely Bones - Movie Review

A good reason to see The Lovely Bones would be to see director Peter Jackson's vivid creation of the in-between world that Susie Salmon finds herself stuck in. I haven't yet seen Avatar so I understand that movie pretty much owns how an imaginary world is depicted but Jackson does an outstanding job. Is that enough to recommend the movie? Maybe if you can catch a matinee; the digital effects should be enjoyed on the big screen so treat yourself.

But after that, there's not much to be enthused about. Though the previews try to convince those who are unfamiliar with the book that this is some kind of a thriller, it's not, or at least that parts that try to be a thriller fail. It's too passive - events happen to the main character and she's powerless to do anything about them. Oh, she might be lucky in that another character may sense her presence but that's about it.

This kind of thing might work in a novel - I'd started the book once or twice but abandoned it because the father of two girls doesn't need to be reading a literary novel about the rape and murder of a 14 year old girl. The movie makes it tolerable - it's not explicit in the crimes but concerns itself more about the aftermath. That's the real subject here and what could have been a moody, feely piece about that opts instead for the eye-candy and faux thriller elements. We've seen too many Law and Order episodes so that the crime-solving elements look amateurish here. And Susan Sarandon? What's up with her character?

I'd looked forward to seeing this movie so I came away disappointed that it wasn't as good as I'd hoped. Lost in the holiday and post-holiday releases, it's doomed to be forgotten, I'm afraid. Still, there's some life to it and may be worth seeking out on a slow, rainy, Sunday afternoon.

Up In The Air - Book Review

No, the novel Up In The Air, by Walter Kirn, isn't anything like the wonderful movie on which it's based; movies and novels are never the same and you usually prefer one is preferable over the other. I don't think I would have approached this book on my own - I picked it up at the Crossroads Mall Waldenbook's liquidation at a steep discount and since I enjoyed the movie so much I thought I'd give it a try. Unfortunately, the goodwill that was generated by the movie doesn't spill over to the book.

I imagine Kirn must think the director and screenplay writers took his work of biting genius and wrung all the life out of it but, really, they did him a favor. Darker, more cynical, not at all about what the movie is about though the main character and some of the minor characters and plot points remain. The time span is much shorter - only a few days - but the evocation of AirWorld is quite vivid and seems spot on. Kirn skewers well the world of business motivation seminars and shoots for something to say about American business culture but I prefer the theme of personal connection I found so compelling in the movie. It's a miracle what the movie-makers were able to make from this book and the book only serves to deepen my admiration of the movie even more.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Thanks to Althouse

I got a slew of hits after this post. Thanks for coming by, everyone!

Ha, ha! Look! She's graciously using a quote from my post in her blog's header. I'm honored. And glad I could lend a hand, Althouse.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Oklahoma County Quakes, Shakes, Rattles, Rolls

Didn't feel it but the occurence is so noted:
Two Friday morning earthquakes centered in Jones are believed stronger than any that have hit Oklahoma County before, but geologists said the current swarm of activity is no cause for alarm.

Geologists at the Oklahoma Geological Survey reported a magnitude-4 earthquake at 9:18 a.m. Friday with an epicenter three miles northeast of Jones — the strongest earthquake to hit the state since a magnitude-4.2 earthquake was recorded in 1998 in Comanche County.

A second earthquake, recorded at 9:27 a.m. about a mile northeast of Jones, measured a magnitude of 3.8.

Both quakes could be felt as far away as Tulsa and Stillwater, but several people said the second quake felt stronger.


Tornadoes, blizzards, teeth-cracking cold, searing heat, earthquakes. You can have it all in Oklahoma!

What's Wrong With Danny Glover

Actor Danny Glover won't cede the doofus title to Pat Robertson. Glover offers his own theory about the Haitian earthquake:
“When we see what we did at the climate summit in Copenhagen, this is the response, this is what happens, you know what I’m sayin’?”

Waiting for criticism from the same circles who criticized to Pat Robertson to commence any minute now.

How to Blog

Congratulations to Ann Althouse and marking six years of blogging. I used to visit her site quite often some years ago but she lost me when she mocked Tom Coburn's weeping during the John Roberts' confirmation hearings. I have other issues with her as well but I haven't let that give me reason to delete her from my Google Reader feed and, on occasion, link to her and, very, very rarely, comment over there. Click the link so she can tell you her own accomplishments but, despite my problems with her, I can't deny that she's accomplishing something over there that is uniquely hers. Good for her, I say.

An Althouse commenter linked to Billy Collins' poem "Marginalia," which is what Althouse first called her blog. I see Althouse lifted the poem's wonderful last line and put it in her blog header for the time being. To heck with a link, I say. Here's the entire poem:

Marginalia



Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author

raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

Friday, January 15, 2010

‘Pants on the Ground’ Singer Strikes Chord

There was a lot of good talent on exhibit in Atlanta on the second night of American Idol this week but by far my favorite performer was General" Larry Platt:
“Everybody in America’s singing my song, ‘Pants on the Ground.’ I made that song up, years ago,” he said.

And he added that the song has a simple message.

“It’s about these kids and grown folk walking around with their pants down,” he said. “Get these pants up!”

His sudden popularity tells me he's saying something a lot of people have been wanting to say.

Loved it.

What's Wrong WIth Pat Robertson

Though my criticism of Pat Robertson's statement about Haiti was pretty mild, Peter Wehner gets to the core of what's really wrong with what Pat Robertson said:
Pat Robertson’s argument is as neat and clean as a mathematical equation: God grants blessings and curses on nations and people based on their allegiance and obedience to Him. If things are going well, you’re living right; if things are going badly, you’re living wrong. And it is Robertson himself who can divine the hierarchy of sins that most trouble God.

But this view simply does not correspond with any serious understanding of Christianity. After all, the most important symbol in Christianity is the Cross, which represents suffering, agony, and death. When Jesus spoke to Ananias, who was instrumental in the conversion of the Apostle Paul, Ananias was told, “I will show [Paul] how much he must suffer for my name.” Christ Himself warned His disciples that they would suffer for His sake; most of them were martyred for their faith. The Apostle Peter speaks about the suffering that Christians will endure for doing good. And in the book of Romans we read that we are to rejoice in our suffering because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character produces hope. On and on it goes.

Robertson may deserve our criticism for his statements but not our attention.

Taxpayers Win 14% of Tax Cases

The odds of winning against the IRS in Tax Court appear dismal:
Your chances of winning a fight with the IRS are about as great as your chances when fighting City Hall. National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, in her recently-released annual report to Congress, listed the 10 tax issues most litigated in the federal courts. Of the 923 cases involving those issues, taxpayers prevailed in whole, or in part, in 132, or roughly 14%. Taxpayers who were represented by counsel did somewhat better when the numbers were broken down—they won 20%, or 54 of 265 cases; pro se taxpayers prevailed in 12%, or 78 of 658 cases. ...

But it's important to remember, these are the cases that actually make it to court. Some are frivolous - sorry, tax protesters, but taxes are legal and you have to pay 'em - while others may have had no hope of winning in the first place. These statistics don't show how many disputes were actually resolved in the administrative stage or just prior to going to court. You can be sure the IRS doesn't litigate every matter, just those they think they can win. So, assuming the IRS thinks they'll win 100% of the cases they litigate, a 14% success rate on behalf of the taxpayers isn't bad.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Surrealistic Windshield

Yes, yes, they're cliched pictures of the patterns on a windshield as a car goes through the car wash. So? These are different! These are -

Oh, who am I kidding? These pictures look like pretty much anything anyone else would capture with an iPhone while they were going through a car wash. Though there is a sort of a nice narrative arc to them, isn't there?

It's enough that I thought patterns were weird enough to try to capture. All part of a fine day, with the weather warming, the sun shining, the snow and ice melting. Riding through a car was just seemed like a thing to bring you that much more closer to Spring.























Pat Robertson Explanation

Evangelist Pat Robertson has an unfortunate history of uttering outlandish statements at the most inconvenient times. The tragedy of the Haitian earthquake is no exception. Here's his explanation:
On today’s The 700 Club, during a segment about the devastation, suffering and humanitarian effort that is needed in Haiti, Dr. Robertson also spoke about Haiti’s history. His comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French. This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed. Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath.

So while I re-tweeted Jonah Goldberg's comment that maybe Robertson so speak less often, this kind of makes sense. Then again, how much better would things have been if Robertson had skipped over all of this and just go to the Haiti-needs-our-help part?

(By the way, Haiti needs our help. Prayers their way. Things look awful and it looks like it's only going to get worse.)

Photo of Martian Dune Field

It's been awhile since I've used the awesome pictures tag so here ya' go: Martian dunes.


Awesome!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Washing Machine: Repaired!

If you've been following me on Twitter - my feed publishes right over there to the right. Convenient, no? - you'll know all about my trials and tribulations getting our washing machine repaired which broke down over a month ago. Well, that long dark slog through the world of laundromats has come to an end, my brothers. The washing machine has been restored to good working order and I began feeding it load after load of laundry.

I can't tell you how pleasurable it is to have the option of immediately cleaning an item as soon as it's soiled. That I do. It's just nice to have that option. And not have Himalaya-sized piles of laundry that need to be hauled to and then back from the laundromat.

It's the little things in life, isn't it?

More About Up in The Air

Michael Graham over at The National Review's The Corner picks up on why he thinks Up In The Air is maybe the best movie he's seen all year:
That life, as Clooney is told explicitly at one point in the movie, is the life of a juvenile. Clooney's character finally wants to grow up, and . . . well, bad things happen. But there's no doubt that, at the end, Clooney's character is a loser. All the envy has become pity.

Not to say this movie's a downer but it doesn't pull any punches, either. Admirable. There may be a buzz that's building that'll take it all the way to the Oscars. Best Picture? I'd have to see what else was nominated and review the list of movies we saw in 2009 before I'll commit to that but it was definitely one of the best.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hemingway's True At First Light - The Fifth Allotment

A lot of self-indulgent talk about literature and Africa and other stuff. Then Mary gets dysentery and has to go into Nairobi for treatment and leaves the stage for a while. Hemingway kills a leopard that's gone rogue and killing the natives' cattle. There's a very good section about the eagles Hemingway sees that triggers a memory of a hunt in the American Rockies that's ranks right up there with the best of Hemingway. But most of this is, once again, Hemingway casting about, getting a feel for his material. He did this much better in The Green Hills of Africa, likely because he edited and shaped his material himself.

Without much going on, and with much repetition, and little forward movement, it was all I could do to get through this chunk of 50 pages. It looks like I'm not going to make that mad dash to the finish like I'd thought. Still, the end is in sight so I don't have much longer to put up with this.

Nurse Outduels IRS Over MBA Tuition

Good for Lori Singleton-Clarke:

A Maryland nurse accomplished two rare feats in her battle with the Internal Revenue Service: She defended herself against the agency's lawyers and won, and she got a ruling that could help tens of thousands of students deduct the cost of an M.B.A. degree on their taxes.

The U.S. Tax Court handed Lori Singleton-Clarke her victory last month, saying the 47-year-old Bryantown, Md., woman had properly deducted nearly $15,000 in business school tuition. The Tax Court ruling should make it easier for many other professionals to deduct the expense of a Master in Business Administration degree.

Ms. Singleton-Clarke had a tax-return preparer but it's not clear from the article why that preparer didn't represent her through all of this. Probably a good thing, since she won; a lot of prepareres - not this one! - roll over and play dead once an audit reaches the litigation stage. But her stubborness, and careful record-keeping, saved the day.

The article portrays the IRS as the overbearing enforcement agency it is; Ms. Singleton-Clarke goes mano-a-mano against a tableful of tax attorneys and para-legals but, with my experience at the IRS, this is just business as usual. Tax Court isn't just about one case before it but a whole slew of cases on the docket for that day and likely the week ahead. Tax Court judges are similar to the old West circuit judges in that they ride into a central location and here a calendarful of cases and then move on. That's likely the reason for the nearly one year delay in its ruling. Yes, the IRS usually wins litigation but that's because the IRS picks and chooses its cases wisely. They'll always go up against those kooky tax protesters because there's so much at stake. Also, it's an easy win. But most cases are settled before they reach the Tax Court, thus making the IRS' win rate a lot higher than it seems.

Ms. Singleon-Clarke's efforts notwithstanding, the IRS fumbled the ball badly in this case. They could have easily resolved the matter far earlier in the process, a resolution not necessarily in their favor, but causing far less harm to them than having this Tax Court ruling go against them.

Now, to review this case and then my own client's circumstances to see if I can save them some money on their taxes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bob Waldmire, King of Route 66, Rolls On to that Highway in the Sky

Who is Bob Waldmire?

Ask most people where they live and they'll name a street or a town. If you'd asked Bob Waldmire where he lived, he would have said "Route 66." That was a factual statement until Dec. 16, 2009, when the self-proclaimed "hippie artist" died of abdominal cancer. He was 64.

To say that Waldmire personified the iconic two-lane road that once stretched from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., would be an understatement.

"He was one of the first people to recognize that the road not only needed to be preserved, but promoted," said Jerry McClanahan, author of the "EZ66 Guide for Travelers." And he did it in his own, unique way, through art.

Growing up in the 1950s, Waldmire would sit outside his parents' Springfield, Ill., drive-in restaurant, the Cozy Dog, a Route 66 landmark in its own right, and watch the cars go by. When the family, which lived in nearby Rochester, Ill., took a road trip to California in 1962 via Route 66, Waldmire fell in love with the roadside motels, diners, neon signs and—more than anything else—the desert Southwest.

When he graduated from high school, all he wanted to do was travel up and down Route 66. That cost money, but Waldmire, a gifted illustrator, found a way to support his wanderlust. He started out by going to college towns and drawing bird's-eye views that featured local businesses and landmarks. He'd get the businesses to pay upfront to be included in the illustrations, then made more money selling the finished products. Later in life he would turn his eye toward the landmarks of Route 66 and the plants and animals of his beloved Southwest. It was a business model that worked for the rest of his life.

Still don't know? Me neither. Wait a minute, here we go:
Most of that life was spent in an orange 1972 VW microbus that became a Route 66 icon itself, as famous as the Wigwam Motel in Rialto, Calif., and the Midpoint Café in Adrian, Texas. In fact, Fillmore, the VW microbus character voiced by George Carlin in the Pixar film "Cars," is loosely based on Waldmire.

Ohhhh. Bob Waldmire.

Route 66 is right here in our backyard. I'm astounded at my ignorance of its history. I'll need to do something about that.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Right as Rain - Book Review

I've heard good things about George Pelecanos and I'd enjoyed his The Night Gardener, with some reservations, so I was looking forward to Right as Rain as the starting point of maybe working my way through his oeuvre. But while the novel has its strong points, overall, it turned out to be a disappointment.

A gritty crime novel about the gritty streets of Washington D.C., the novel tries to tie race relations to the crime central to the plot. (Derek Strange, a black private investigator, tries to get to the bottom of the shooting of a black off-duty police officer by Terry Quinn, a white, on-duty police officer. From this unlikely pairing will come two more novels featuring Strange and Quinn.) But the outcome is un-surprising. There's more, of course, than meets the eye to what lead up to the circumstances that caused the shooting but the bottom line conclusion of every one in the novel is that Quinn would not have shot if the victim had been white. Pelecanos fails to make the case for me. And when he has Strange unironically proclaim what he thinks is the solution to D.C.'s crime problem - drugs should be legalized and guns should be outlawed - well, we know this book more of a polemic for Pelecanos than it is a crime novel.

Pelecanos' style is lean and mean, like a good crime novelist's style should be, and the bad guys are very bad, making their eventual comeuppance supremely satisfying. (Oh, and did I mention the baddest of the bad guys are racist, too? Yep. So more boos and hisses for them.) But the strain begins to show towards the end of the book as Pelecanos is reaching for the finish line. And though the style is spare, would it kill him to at least give us a time of when some of the action is occurring. Several times I was puzzled to learn that some things were happening in the day time when, in fact, it was night, and vice versa.

Despite this book's flaws, I'll give Pelecanos another chance. But I don't see the need to finish out the other two books in this series. That's too bad.

Walt Disney Co.'s Princess and the Frog Stirs Controversy Among Evangelicals

I think we evangelicals have bigger things to worry about than this:
Walt Disney Co. no doubt expected kudos for breaking racial barriers in its holiday hit, "The Princess and the Frog," and that praise has come from some quarters. But the entertainment giant also finds itself receiving stinging criticism from conservative evangelical Christians on a Web warpath. Hollywoodjesus.com said the animated feature's preoccupation with voodoo, black magic, bloody amulets and Ouija boards was "too dark and extreme for this kind of kids' film." Christiananswers.net rated the movie "Offensive"; citing a Tarot card reading, soul transfer and implied reincarnation, the site called the film "demonic." A reviewer for the respected magazine Christianity Today charged that the movie was "disturbing," with a "hollow, thoughtless core." These and other essays provoked furious debate involving hundreds of Internet responses, likely echoed in evangelical moms' groups in churches nationwide. Disney declined to respond directly to the criticism, saying in an email to me: "The Princess and the Frog is a lighthearted musical fairytale set in New Orleans during the jazz age featuring Disney's first African American Princess, which audiences and critics around the world have enthusiastically embraced."

Disney hasn't been as family friendly as it has in the past but it's still the only entertainment company that you can depend on to provide high quality family fare. Evangelicals criticism of this movie, like their mis-guided boycotts in the past, is mis-placed. We should be looking to Disney as a partner in the promotion of solid family values.

The IRS' Heavy Hand of Tax Return Preparer Regulation

Don't get me started about the IRS' plan to register all tax preparers. Instead, I'll let The Wall Street Journal editorial board get started because they echo my sentiments exactly:
We're guessing that when Americans think of outlaw industries, tax preparers aren't the first rogues that come to mind. But lo, the nation's green eyeshades are now destined to come under the regulatory rule of the Internal Revenue Service as part of the Obama Administration's latest revenue grab.

Under the plan, which would begin with the 2011 tax season, anyone who takes money to help people with their taxes will have to register with the IRS, and eventually pass competency tests and sign up for continuing education. So having made tax filing so complicated that most Americans need help with their forms, Washington now wants to raise the price of such counsel by regulating advisers in a way that may reduce their supply. . .

. . . America's tax preparers are far from a band of desperados: CPAs and lawyers already make up a large percentage of those who assist taxpayers for a fee, and all paid preparers already have to put their name or ID numbers on client returns. The IRS can thus already see if the clients of certain preparers are on the edgy side in taking deductions or declaring income. The tax men can make auditing decisions accordingly. These new rules look like a redundant exercise to intimidate tax preparers to be less aggressive in urging clients to take tax deductions.

(Emphasis mine.)

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has nothing to do with the registering and continuing education of attorneys. The DOJ doesn't penalize attorneys for zealous representation of their clients. (Though sanctions can ordered by judges during trials at the judge's discretion, not as a policy of the DOJ.) The DOJ doesn't gather data on attorneys about the kinds of cases they take on, like the IRS has with this program. In short, the IRS seems to be the only government agency that has such a heavy hand in the regulation of the professionals that represent the taxpayers that come before them.

Outrageous.

A Great New Blog

Hey, everyone, my nephew has started a great new blog. Go on over there and check it out. You won't be disappointed.

More About TurboTax vs. Tax Professionals

I haven't changed my opinions I expressed here and here, two of my most visited posts, especially during filings season. To sum up: Yeah, I'm a professional but I think hiring a professional to prepare your tax return is better than using TurboTax. I'll cost more but in the long run you'll want me to make sure it's done right and run interference with the IRS, especially now that the IRS is firing up its audit machine.

But, man, I can't compete with the free edition of TurboTax. I don't have a lot of clients that meet the criteria for TurboTax' free filing program and those that I do have there's no way I can do their returns for free. For these clients, I try to be competitive but how do you compete against free? You can't. So, TurboTax, you win this one.

On all other levels though, well, that's a different story.

Friday, January 8, 2010

IRS Is Overburdened

Just in time for the filing season comes this report from the National Taxpayer Advocate:
An expanding slate of duties is stretching the Internal Revenue Service too thin, leading to poor customer service and undermining its ability to collect taxes owed, a government watchdog warned Wednesday.

The IRS's goal of responding to 71% of taxpayer calls in 2010 is "unacceptable," said Nina E. Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, in her annual report to Congress.

"In other words, the IRS is planning to be unable to answer about three of every 10 calls it receives," she wrote. Ms. Olson identified the IRS lack of responsiveness to telephone calls as the number-one problem currently facing taxpayers.

She also said the IRS lacks a successful strategy for collecting debts owed. One key problem is that the IRS uses an automated system to file liens against taxpayers, even when there are no assets for the lien to attach to and little chance of collecting the debt, Ms. Olson wrote.

Another problem is a preference for correspondence audits, which can produce more errors than face-to-face exams, she said.

At the root of some of these problems, Ms. Olson said, is that Congress keeps piling duties on the IRS through temporary stimulus programs and new social programs administered through the tax code.

The IRS is tasked with an impossible, thankless job. I'll be the first to point out its many failures but I'd like to see aany other massive government agency that has to carry out what it does - the enforcement of a labyrinthine tax code - half as well.

The Young Victoria - Movie Review

Like period movies about British royalty with lots of eye candy? We do! So we say The Young Victoria and it has all of that good stuff. Though we never tire of these kinds of movies, you have to admit they're all pretty much the same - whatever the royal of the title has to work his or her way through whatever troubles they're going through. (Hey, I think I just described the plot to every movie ever made!) But this one is different in that Victoria and Albert get married because they genuinely love one another and remain happily so. Not much conflict there but it's refreshing.

(An interesting scene: there's the tradition of the prime minister meeting with the Queen; he must keeping his front to her at all times and so exiting a room where she's present makes for a comical backing out routine. It continues through today as we've seen in The Queen, another great British royalty movie.)

Another good one.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Frightful Weather

We've got a dome of polar cold air settling around here for the next few days; lows will be in the single digits and we won't see above freezing temperatures again until probably Sunday. That seems about on par with what the rest of the country is going through. It's cold, even as far south as Florida. But then it's Winter so what do you expect?

So it's cold. Record breaking cold? Not really. Sure, it's been awhile since we've had something like this - I recall reading something the other day in the paper that the last time it was this cold, Clinton was President. We've been through this before. We'll get through it. We'll go through it again.

Surprisingly, some school districts are closing down. No, not because of any precipitation - there hasn't been any - but because some students may not have the proper clothing to withstand walking to school or waiting outside for the bus. I just deleted a longish rant about the cowardice of the school districts but you know what? Never mind. This is just he kind of leadership you can expect from our government officials. When the going gets tough, they'll fold like a cheap pup tent.

As of right now, the girls' schools are still open so it's up and at 'em as usual.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

John Wayne on Acting

For my dear, sweet sister, via Terry Teachout, John Wayne on acting:

Sherlock Holmes - Movie Review

I've never read a Sherlock Holmes story but from the moment I saw the previews of Sherlock Holmes, the new movie with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in the leads, I was on board. A fun re-imagining of the detective as a martial arts wielding action hero, the movie takes the steadfast character and re-invents him just for him but keeps the things that made the character so popular. Yes, he's still the keen observer, able to find and put together clues that others miss but this time there are 'splosions. Lots of 'splosions. Can't go wrong with that.

The interaction between the leads is light and affable and, while the digital effects of Avatar are all the rage, Victorian England comes to digital life in this movie no less impressively. (Okay, I haven't seen Avatar so I don't know how they compare but I was impressed with the level of detail in this movie. I was convinced that everything I was seeing was real and that's all that has to be accomplished, right?) Rachel McAdams fills her role well enough; there has to be some kind of dame in all of this male-bonding and she's a dame so, well, there you go. The bad guy is sufficiently bad and the mystery a good enough head-scratcher until all is explained at the end. Oh, and of course, a set up for a sequel in case a sequel is called for. I imagine it will be.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hemingway's True At First Light - The Fourth Allotment

Knocked out the next chunk of this interminable book. Mary finally shoots her lion but not without some controversy over who shot first and where. But the description of the hunt and the shooting is right up there with the best of Hemingway and he's clearly in his element here. But Mary believe Hemingway shot first and it's not really her lion and on and on and on. Hemingway goes to town for supplies and intermingles with colorful locals, then attends a dance at which he participates on one of the drums. I had to laugh at that image but you gotta hand it to the ol' Nobel Prize winner for immersing himself in the local culture. Without the threat of the Mau Maus and the goal of shooting Mary's lion, the tension begins to ease off. Again, I think Hemingway was just writing this thing to see where it took him and if he ever really considered publishing it, he would have made drastic cuts. Too bad his heirs didn't do the same.

Oh, and by the way, in case your curious, the Hemingway's enjoy eating some of the killed lion. Tastes like veal.

I'm up to page 200 on this, with only a little over 100 pages to go. I've got another book to finish before returning to my next 50 page allotment but I may just knuckle down and make a sprint for the finish line just to get this over with. The brief flashes of the old Hemingway hardly make up for the long stretches in between.

Up in the Air - Movie Review

If E. M. Forster implores us to only connect, George Clooney's character in Up in the Air seems perfectly happy not to, thank you very much. Until his very existence - that of a man in constant travel mode - is threatened by technology and a young upstart. He may very well be grounded if he can't prove to his boss the how much better it would be to fire people in person - which is Clooney's job - than it would be by teleconference. And then he meets someone very much like himself, perfectly content to keep others at arm's length, until, seemingly, it will no longer do to remain disconnected.

I've kept things vague enough, I think, to not give much of the plot away though if you've seen the previews you can probably figure out what happens in this very fine film. Clooney gives an easy, confident performance, supported by Vera Farmiga and, in what will surely be a breakout performance, by the tiny and fierce Anna Kendrick. I enjoyed everything about this movie, from the opening credits and music to what may turn out to be one of Hollywood's iconic endings. Definitely one of the best of 2009.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Crossroads Mall and More Memories

Waldenbooks is pulling out of two locations here in Oklahoma City so they've marked everything on sale. I went to the closest one at Crossroads Mall - here's my earlier post about the mall and what it means to me - but going there I knew I was running the risk of a flood of memories coming back. Good memories to be sure but memories made sad because of the demise of the mall.



It was a on overcast, chilly day, with mounds of plowed snow and ice piled up around the parking lot. Even on a sparkling clear day it would have been difficult to fill up the lot, I'm afraid. But you can tell not a lot of people are just flat out uninterested in coming here anymore:



Waldenbooks is one of the few national chain stores still stubbornly hanging on. Not for long, I'm afraid:



I browsed for a few minutes but was summonsed home for a change of plans. Before I left, I took a quick stroll through the mall. I had my iPhone with me so what better chance than now to make some kind of document of the place?




Well, I could take pictures all day long of empty, closed stores in the gloom. If I'm going to do that, I might as well take pictures of places that mean something. Here's the store front of the old Tops and Trousers.


Finding anything on the Internet about that old clothing chain is beyond my Google skills but maybe you'll have better luck. But Tops and Trousers was a hip clothing store of its time, sort of like Buckle but not quite as cutting edge. This is the store where Clara and I met; she was an assistant-manager and I was a post-Christmas, part-time hire having left a several year career in fast food at A&W Drive In. Tops and Trousers had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Clara was helping them wind things down. It wasn't long before we started dating and, well, the rest as they say, is history. Tops and Trousers would fold long before the demise of Crossroads Mall and stores would come and go in this location but sometimes, when we found ourselves in the mall, we'd stroll by and remember how it began for us.

Once Tops and Trousers went out of business, Clara found a reservation position with Hertz and I moved across the mall to the National Shirt Shop store, which was similar but different from Tops and Trousers. It, too, would pull out, before Crossroads started its long slide to obscurity, but this is where it used to be:


The only thing I can find about National Shirt Shop on the 'net is a possible location in Chicago. Again, I was hired as part-time sales help during college but for the summer break I worked full-time as an assistant manager. One evening during my last Fall there, after having bumped back down to part-time sales, I was talking with the new assistant manager hire. Some young, slick guy, full of stories, one of which he was weaving for me when the Oklahoma City Police came in and placed him under arrest. Something about an outstanding warrant for auto theft in another state. They cuffed him and led him out, leaving me on my own, speechless. Well, my assistant-manager skills kicked in and I called the regional manager, Jim Goins, who was a great guy, told him what happened, and agreed to look after things until he could make it to town in the next day or two. (Jean Chronister, the manager, was on a well-deserved vacation.) Jim came in as promised, took over, and we had quite a tale to tell Jean when she got back.

I'd finish out my part-time working career there at National Shirt Shop until I graduated from college and my employment at Crossroads Mall would come to an end. But, like I said in my previous Crossroads post, that wouldn't be the end of our times at the mall.

Rachel was born in January so the mall was a good place to take her for an outing when she was a baby. When she grew to be a toddler, she and I spent a lot of time in the center court waiting while Clara shopped. There was a fountain then and steps that led to a stage-like area, and you could spend a lot of time there amusing a toddler.

Those things are gone now. The flying ramp was dismantled and replaced by an elevator. Probably a good thing but let me tell you, it could be a lot of fun for toddler to run down a long ramp unimpeded. Looks like Crossroads managed to have some sort of a Santa station during the holiday so some childhood memories were still being made this year:

The stage and steps where we played were taken out and replaced by a carousel. No, not our memories but someone else's. Some day someone may reminisce about the thrilling times they rode it. I hope so.


That's about all the time I had for the mall that day and it was enough. It's still full of the phantoms of our prior lives but visible only to me. Our lives have moved on and, sadly, it looks like the rest of the world has moved on from Crossroads as well.

Who knows what's in store for this fine old mall? It's in dire need of a face lift and the work needed may be too extensive to justify; a razing may be in order and, if so, that would be too bad. It's still a great location and though the neighborhood around the mall has decayed, those kinds of things are temporary. Maybe the mall will have a re-birth. And maybe this is the last of it.

Either way, I managed to get a few pictures. The memories were always there.