Sunday, April 29, 2012

Phobias For The Twenty-First Century

Phobias…those irrational fears of just about anything you can think of. Most of them have been out there for centuries (if not longer). Some of them have been handed down through families.

But like so many other things that have arrived with the twenty-first century, it has also brought us a whole new collection of things to provide irrational fears (after all, you can't have too many irrational fears).

Nomophobia is the fear of not having cell phone contact, whether it's due to a dead battery or because your network doesn't have coverage where you are. A fate worse than death?

Vidigameaphobia is the fear of video games. This can cover everything from simply being afraid of the games to the fear that the games could come to life. A game coming to life? Or better yet, the star of that game coming to life? Hmm…maybe I need to buy that Indiana Jones game after all.

Interphobia is exactly what it sounds like…fear of the world wide web. Now that's a phobia to avoid at all costs.

Dextrophobia and its counterpart Levophobia offers us a couple of really strange phobias. Dextrophobia is the fear of everything to the right of your body while Levophobia is the fear of everything to the left of your body.

Coulrophobia has actually been around for a long time and is still going strong. It's the fear of clowns. Didn't Stephen King have a clown as one of his evil entities?

Alektorophobia is an extreme fear of live chickens. Maybe the scope of the fear should be expanded to include people who look like Col. Sanders?

Pupaphobia is related to Coulrophobia. They might even be first cousins. It's the fear of puppets. Not sure what you'd call the fear of a clown puppet.

Sesquipedalophobia, as the length of the word suggests, is the fear of very long words. Wouldn't a shorter word be more appropriate?

Cathisophobia is one that those of us working at computers need to avoid at all costs. It's the fear of sitting.

Genuphobia is the fear of knees. That must be really difficult in summer when warm weather clothing means lots of knees sticking out there for anyone to see.

And here's a bonus phobia to carry us through the twenty-first century. This has to be the ultimate fear: Phobophobia. Yep, it's exactly what it sounds like…a fear of fears.

My primary fear is bugs and other creepy crawler things. Of course, my fear, unlike those others, is completely rational. Do you have any fears (rational or irrational) you'd like to share?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day—Where, When, And Why

Today…Sunday, April 22, is officially Earth Day.

Said to have been created 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 General 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 designed as 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 narrating 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 is Earth Day's 42nd anniversary.  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 preserve it.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

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!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

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

It's that time of year again...Tax Time.  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.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April Fool's Day—Where Did It Come From?

The first of April—April Fool's Day or All Fools' Day as it is also known. A holiday that has been celebrated for centuries. But what in the world could possibly be the origins of a day dedicated to pranks and practical jokes?

Those exact origins remain a bit of a mystery, the most widely accepted theory says it dates back to 1582 when France switched from the Julian calendar where the new year began on April 1 to the Gregorian calendar where the new year began on January 1 as called for in 1563 by the Council of Trent. People who didn't get the word that the start of the year had moved or refused to accept the change and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the object of jokes and hoaxes. Paper fish would be placed on their back and they were referred to as "poisson d'avri" which means April fish. It symbolized a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person. These people were considered fools and had practical jokes played on them.

Historians have linked April Fools' Day to ancient festivals such as Hilaria, which was celebrated in Rome at the end of March and involved people dressing up in disguises. There's also speculation that April Fool's Day was tied to the vernal equinox (first day of spring) in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when Mother Nature fooled people with changing and unpredictable weather.

On April 1, 1700, English pranksters began popularizing the annual tradition of April Fools' Day by playing practical jokes on each other. The celebration spread throughout Britain during the eighteenth century. In Scotland it became a two day event in which people were sent on phony errands and had fake tails or "kick me" signs pinned to their rear ends.

All Fools' Day is practiced in many parts of the world with the playing of practical jokes and sending people on fool's errands. In modern times people have gone to great lengths to stage elaborate pranks. Here's the top ten hoaxes from a list of the best one hundred pranks of all time as judged by notoriety, creativity, and number of people duped.

#1) The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest (1957): The respected BBC news show Panorama announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop.

#2) Sidd Finch (1985): Sports Illustrated published a story about a new rookie pitcher who planned to play for the Mets. His name was Sidd Finch, and he could reportedly throw a baseball at 168 mph with pinpoint accuracy. But Sidd Finch had never played the game before. He mastered the "art of the pitch" in a Tibetan monastery. This legendary player was the creation of the article's author, George Plimpton.

#3) Instant Color TV (1962): At the time there was only one television channel in Sweden, and it broadcast in black and white. The station's technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to display color reception. All they had to do was pull a nylon stocking over their television screen.

#4) The Taco Liberty Bell (1996): The Taco Bell Corporation announced it had purchased the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Hundreds of outraged citizens called the National Historic Park in Philadelphia to express their anger.

#5) San Serriffe (1977): British newspaper The Guardian published a special seven-page supplement devoted to San Serriffe, a small republic consisting of semi-colon shaped islands located in the Indian Ocean. It described the geography and culture of this obscure nation. Its two main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Its leader was General Pica. Only a few readers noticed that everything about the islands was named after printer's terminology.

#6) Nixon for President (1992): National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation program announced that Richard Nixon, in a surprise move, was running for President again. His campaign slogan was, "I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't do it again." Listeners flooded the show with calls expressing shock and outrage. Nixon's voice was impersonated by comedian Rich Little.

#7) Alabama Changes the Value of Pi (1998): The April 1998 issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter contained an article claiming that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the 'Biblical value' of 3.0. The article soon made its way onto the internet, then rapidly spread around the world. The Alabama legislature began receiving hundreds of calls from people protesting the legislation. The original article was intended as a parody of legislative attempts to circumscribe the teaching of evolution and had been written by a physicist.

#8) The Left-Handed Whopper (1998): Burger King published a full page ad in USA Today announcing the introduction on their menu of a "Left-Handed Whopper" for the 32 million left-handed Americans. The ingredients were the same as the original Whopper, but the ad claimed all the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the benefit of their left-handed customers. Thousands of customers requested the new sandwich.

#9) Hotheaded Naked Ice Borers (1995): Discover Magazine reported that a highly respected wildlife biologist found a new species in Antarctica—the hotheaded naked ice borer. The creatures had bony plates on their heads. When fed by numerous blood vessels, they could become burning hot thus allowing the animals to bore through ice at high speeds. They used this ability to hunt penguins, melting the ice beneath the penguins and causing them to sink downwards where the hotheads consumed them. It was theorized that the hotheads might have been responsible for the mysterious disappearance of noted Antarctic explorer Philippe Poisson in 1837. To the hotheads, the explorer looked like a penguin.

#10) Planetary Alignment Decreases Gravity (1976): British astronomer Patrick Moore announced on BBC Radio 2 that at 9:47AM a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur and listeners could experience it in their own homes. Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth's own gravity. Moore told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment the planetary alignment occurred they would experience a strange floating sensation. When 9:47AM arrived, BBC2 began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman reported she and her eleven friends had floated around the room.

Have you ever played an April Fools' Day joke on someone, or had one played on you? Tell us about it.