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February 26, 2009

Bok Tower and Gardens

Today, Carol, Mom, and I went to see Bok Tower. It was built in the 1920's by Edward Bok. The gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. It is a very nice place with pretty gardens and a really pretty belltower. The weather was absolutely perfect. After we took a guided walking tour and listened to the carillon, we headed down the hill (the highest point in Florida), and had a picnic lunch.






Spook Hill

Today on the way to Bok Tower and Gardens, Mom, Carol, and I went on a search for Spook Hill, a mysterious road where gravity does not work correctly and cars can coast up a hill. We saw a lot of signs to Spook Hill, but as we got closer, the signs disappeared and Spook Hill seemed to vanish even though we knew we were within 0.3 miles according to the last sign.

Once we went to Bok Tower we got better directions and found out that it was right next to Spook Hill Elementary School. There is a sign on the street that explains the legend of Spook Hill and then instructs you to drive forward to a white line on the pavement at the bottom of the hill, put the car in neutral, and let the power of Spook Hill push your car back up the hill to the sign again. There was a van in front of us doing it and the effect must have been so surprising that they coasted backwards right into the curb.

Once it was our turn, Carol did a much better job of driving, but even without touching the gas and in neutral, we coasted right up the hill!


February 15, 2009

Tax Spreadsheet

Figuring taxes is one of those things that seems like it should be pretty simple, but gets kind of complicated. I have tried coming up with a spreadsheet in the past and always get bogged down in tax brackets, long term gains rates, deductions, and personal exemptions. Since I was changing my withholding allowances this year and the official IRS calculator is so unfathomable, I thought it might be easier to try a spreadsheet again.

The biggest problem is dealing with the different tax brackets. For instance in 2008, the first $8,025 is taxed at 10%, then a 15% bracket kicks in until $32,550 when the rate goes to 25%. If you make $40,000 you pay 10% of $8,025, 15% of $32,550 minus $8,025 and 25% of $40,000 minus $32,550. So I came up with a spreadsheet with five nested IF statements to handle the six different tax brackets (rather than trying some sort of lookup function). Then I had to look up tax brackets and rates for the last few years since each year is different.

Then it was a matter of dealing with qualified dividends and long terms gains which are taxed at 15% (20% before 2003). Unless you have losses in which case it counts against your income (but only up to $3,000 which the spreadsheet doesn't deal with; you just have to enter a maximum of $3,000). Those amounts, if positive, are subtracted from your income and taxed at a lower rate. Your reduced income is taxed from the tax tables. There are actually a couple of different capital gains rates for lower incomes, but I skipped that part.

So far so good, but I was still getting the wrong answer. That's because the tax is based on your income in the tax tables, rather than the actual percentage of your income. For instance, if your income was $40,005, you would go into the table for the amount for $40,000 to $40,050. And that tax amount is actually based on $40,025. So I rounded down to the nearest $50 and added $25.

Using the same formulas for every year, I was able to accurately generate my taxes going back to 2001. Then I was able to project forward to 2009 and figure out about how much I would owe or get back next year. I am probably not withholding enough taxes if I want to hit my target of a $200 refund. So I think later in the year I will reduce my withholding.


February 14, 2009

Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL

A couple of weeks ago I read a review of a new take on Jesus Christ Superstar being put on by the Alliance Theater. They took the same music but gave it a black gospel treatment. The paper raved about it saying it was the greatest thing ever. I've always loved the music since I was a kid playing the the album we had in the blue cover on my record player. At some point as grown-up I rented the movie version of it and was horrified at how dated it had become and really a lot of the music was just loud rock and screaming. So it could really use an update to something more modern. I sent Susan an e-mail with the review and within an hour or so she had bought tickets for Valentine's Day.

We had really great seats, 10 rows back and right in the middle. The stage and set started out very simple, but became a technical wonder of rising platforms, scaffolding, and an orchestra on wheels. It is nearly an all black cast (I thought it would be good to make Judas white as a contrast with the movie where Judas was the only black guy, but now that I've seen it, they made the right choice) with a big chorus and a very good orchestra right on the stage. There are a lot of people in motion on a fairly small stage and everything worked seamlessly. The songs are the same as the original, but there is definitely a gospel sound, sometimes more than others. At times the different sound was jarring since I know the original material so well, but most of the time it really worked, sometimes improving on the original. Plus, being at a live performance made the music far more powerful and intimate. The singing is showy (think Jennifer Hudson) but not over the top. There are a few very strong solos and I guess because there was a significant black presence in the crowd, people broke into applause after almost every song, at least once during a particularly strong moment in a song, and sometimes people would shout out some kind of praise. That added to the experience. Jesus seemed to be kind of a weak singer at first, but during his big solo in Gethsemane when he questions God's "omnipresent brain" he left no doubt about why he got the part. Judas and Mary Magdalene were very good, and the ultra deep voice of Caiaphas was a real treat.

This is a great adaptation and one that I think has a strong future. People love this music already and adding gospel allows it to be more Americanized. Given the amount of soul in the original rock music and that soul is based on gospel, it isn't a huge leap, but enough to make this very different. Plus they can add some elements of black culture like soldiers that look like they stepped out of one of Public Enemy's rap shows, or high priests dressed like modern day African American ministers in black suits and red shirts, or Herod in pimptacular purple. The black cast and gospel music are probably a big draw to black audiences, but the historic rock opera will still deliver traditional theater goers.

Unfortunately, it ends February 22 so there isn't much time left to catch it, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is extended somehow.

February 10, 2009


For a while I've been carrying around a flash drive on my keychain. It helps if I ever need to transfer files from work or pictures from Susan's house, or whatever. One of the things I put on there is paystubs that I download from work and then bring home. And sometimes I want some spreadsheet from home to be available when I'm at work, so I've been carrying around some other financial stuff too. I realized I don't want just anyone to be able to get all of this if I ever lose the drive or my keys.

I looked around for some kind of flash drive vault software and soon found a free one called TrueCrypt. Like a lot of really good SourceForge collaborations, it has a huge feature set as people make recommendations for improvements. That has also made it kind of complicated: it has a 119 page user manual. I had to follow the first 23 pages of instructions just to store my first file (and this is the abbreviated quick start).

TrueCrypt's approach is kind of neat. You create an encrypted file on the flash drive (I chose to make my 300 MB out of a 2 GB drive) that can be any name (so I chose katie.avi and figured people would just think it was a video of my dog that they couldn't open with Windows Media Player for some reason). You open the TrueCrypt software (stored in unprotected space on the drive), open the archive file, enter your password, and it mounts a new drive letter where you can see all of your files and also drag and drop files just like another flash drive (for instance, my flash drive might be drive J:, but the TrueCrypt archive will show up as drive M:).

I still don't have the hang of it yet, but the level of protection is really impressive. They recommend a 20-letter password and they generate some kind of random key to use by having you move the mouse around for 30 seconds. There are other options like different security algorithms and you can hide the archive file if you want, but I just started on this last night.

February 8, 2009


Last year I started making iced coffee at home. I was using Folger individual serving "tea bags" to make the coffee, then adding sugar, cooling it down, then adding milk and pouring it over ice. When Publix had bricks of coffee as their mystery penny item (mystery solved), I got one. That savings meant I then had to go buy a coffee maker (a tiny Mr. Coffee) plus filters. So I did that for a while and Jeb even gave me some Starbucks coffee for my birthday.

It's not like I was drinking coffee every day, though when it got cold I did start drinking it hot. And I wasn't drinking that much, but I would still wind up with some headaches that I attributed to the coffee (could also be related to sleep apnea).

So this last time when the Publix mystery item was a brick of coffee in either regular or decaf, I decided to try decaf. Even after reading about the various processes to decaffeinate coffee, I'm still not sure how it works, but Publix says it uses only water to decaffeinate the beans (instead of stronger solvents) before grinding them.

So far, so good. I don't notice much difference in the taste and I don't think I'm getting headaches. When Mom comes home I can give her an unopened penny brick of Publix coffee I've had in my freezer.

Taxes Done

This week I got the last of my 1099's and although I had done a rough draft of my taxes a couple of weeks ago, I was able to finish everything last night. I think last year I lowered my number of withholding allowances at work, plus I had tons of stock market losses, plus my salary was frozen by the state budget crisis, so I wound up getting $2500 back federal and $700 back on state. I really don't like getting that much back, so at work last month I bumped my withholding allowances up a bunch. That is nice because it is giving me an extra $300 per month in my paycheck (the only way to get a raise). Actually I may have overdone it because that will actually give me too much money back and I will end up owing taxes, which I'm not crazy about either (ideally I'd like to get a refund of about $200 which seems like a suitable reward for doing my taxes).

My taxes were ridiculously complicated this year. Because I had a busy year on the stock market, I had a ton of trades to enter. It does seem like some of this could be automated a little better and that Scottrade could let me download some kind of file that my tax software, Tax Act, could then read. That would eliminate some of the errors I wound up making (and correcting when I checked everything), though I still have to decide which shares I'm selling at any particular time (though it also seems like some software could figure out which shares would be best to sell tax-wise without incurring a wash sale instead of me doing that). I think for the first time I had to use the extra sheets on Schedule D for capital gains and losses.

It didn't help that I also liquidated several mutual fund holdings in order to harvest losses. That gets complicated because part of a sale might include shares held long term (more than a year) and some shares might be short term (even if I didn't contribute since dividends and gains are reinvested into new shares) even though I'm using the average cost basis for all of it. So one transaction then gets split into one short-term and one long-term transaction. In the end, I had 28 Schedule D transactions.

All of those losses are really working out though. I didn't get all of my stimulus check last year, but since the stimulus check was an advance rebate on this year's tax return, based on last year's numbers (when I made more money), I was able to recover that missing $14 they had taken because I made too much. Also, I wound up with way more than the maximum deductible losses of $3,000 I can use to offset income, so I can carry forward losses for next year and maybe the year after that too. That's a great deal because even long term losses will cancel out income or possibly short term gains taxed at 25% (long term gains are only taxed at 15%).

Last year, as I usually do, I filed my federal taxes electronically and my state by hand. But last year the state refund didn't show up for months (I think because they were short on money) and this year could be worse (California has postponed all state income tax refunds due to lack of funds). I thought about filing the state return electronically too, but that would have been another $14 ($7 if I had ordered it when I got the federal software, which I would have done if I had realized how much I would be getting back, which I didn't because I didn't have the software yet).