Saturday, August 18, 2012

Atlanta Trivia Championships

Team Trivia is a huge thing in Atlanta. My team was fortunate enough to qualify for the end-of-season championships and even more fortunate to come home with some money for our high placing. For those of you who think you are good at this, try answering these questions without the help of any reference materials.

E-mail me your answers and I'll let you know how you did.

1a) In the movie poster for the Simpson's Movie, the O in Simpson was represented by what object?
1b) What are the last 4 digits of the phone number of Philadelphia City Hall?
1c) What actor was put in the Boxing Hall of Fame as an observer?

2a) Of the top 10 baby girl names in the US according to the Social Security Administration in 2011, which is the only one that is also the name of a US state capital?
2b) What do the following TV characters have in common: Ray Barone, Ted DiMeo, Slap Maxwell, Oscar Madison?
2c) In 2012, 6-year old Lori Ann Madison became the youngest person ever to compete in what annual event?

3a) What 1975 movie had the following title when released in Germany: "Die Ritter der Kokosnuss" which translates to the Knights of the Coconuts?
3b) Who did Priscilla Chan marry in 2012?
3c) Who was the earliest US president who still has 1 or more grandchildren living today?

Halftime: Not counting The Avengers, name the 11 movie franchises with at least $1 billion in US box office receipts.

4a) What famous singer was in the high school choir at Erasmus Hall High School with Barbra Streisand?
4b) Who is the only person in NBA history to have won MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year?
4c) The magazine "Ahoy!" was solely dedicated to the products of what computer maker?

5a) What is the most populous US city named after a US president?
5b) What was the only year in which both a Star Wars movie and a Star Trek movie were released?
5c) Produced by the Ohio Art Company, what toy had its sales dramatically increase in 2012 after Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom mentioned it in a CNN interview?

6a) Who was the only movie critic who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing movie reviews?
6b) You have a SIM card in your cell phone. What does SIM stand for?
6c) According to the US Census Bureau, which day of the year (not counting February 29) had the fewest number of births in the 20th Century?

Final: Name the 10 states with the greatest number of hazardous waste sites. Name the 10 Div 1-A (FBS) colleges that have appeared in the most bowl games. Name the songs that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in which the first word of the title is a positive integer divisible by 2 (1 was in each of 1955, 1965, 1966, 1976, 1989, 1997 and the 6 numbers total to 176).

Monday, August 6, 2012

10 Incredible Olympians

We've all heard NBC trumpeting Michael Phelps as the greatest Olympian ever. Is he the greatest? That's a matter of opinion, and it happens to not be mine. Yes, he has been an amazing Olympian. But, consider that he competes in a sport in which there are a lot of medal opportunities. And, of his 22 medals, 18 of which have been gold, 9 have been in relays (7 of them gold). That said, that's a lot of medals, more than many of the countries in the Olympic movement have won. He still has 11 individual golds (more than anyone else) and 13 individual medals In fact, he has won more individual gold medals than any other Olympian in history and only Larysa Latynina of the former Soviet Union with 15 has won more individual medals (her 3 team gold medals brings her total to 18).

This post is not about that, however. This post is about Olympians and Olympic performances that boggle the mind. Here are my top 10, in no particular order. If you don't agree, say so. You have a right to your opinion, even if I think it's wrong.

And, as an aside, I write this from memory, so if I am forgetting your well-deserved favorite, I attribute it to my brain having aged.

  1. Felix Carbajal (Cuba) -- In 1904, Felix Carbajal, a Cuban postman begged in the streets of Havana to raise money to take a boat to the United States so that he could participate in the Olympic Marathon. The problem was that the boat took him to south Florida from where he ran, walked and hitchhiked to St. Louis to arrive just in time for the Olympic marathon. Out of money, he had not eaten for about two days when the marathon started. About halfway through the race, in the lead and starving, he came across an apple tree. He stopped to grab a few apples, ate them and developed a terrible stomach ache which caused him to stop running. After regaining his composure, he began to run again and nearly made it into the medal grouping finishing fourth, less than a minute behind third place.
  2. Abebe Bikila (Ethiopia) -- Another marathoner, Bikila was the first African to win an Olympic distance race. And, he didn't just win one, he won the Olympic marathon twice, once in 1960 in Rome and again in 1964 in Tokyo. Each win was in a world record time and each win had its own remarkable side story to it. In the 1960 Olympics, Bikila vowed to show the strength and determination of the Ethiopian people and ran the 26.2 miles of the Olympic course barefoot to win easily. In 1964, Bikila wore shoes. However, just a few weeks before the Olympics, Bikila had undergone an appendectomy and had stopped training. Again, he won in world record time.
  3. Shun Fujimoto (Gymnastics) -- We hear lots about Kerri Strug and her amazing vault. And, this is not to take away from what she did. That she landed the vault that she did given the pressure she was under and the ankle injury she had suffered was truly incredible. Consider Fujimoto, however. In the team competition, during his floor exercise routine, Fujimoto fractured his kneecap. Think about that, a fractured kneecap. I couldn't walk with that, could you? He competed in not one, but two more apparatuses, the second of which was the rings. In the rings, when a gymnast dismounts, he falls from about 8 feet. In Fujimoto's case, fractured kneecap and all, he dismounted with a twisting somersault and stuck the landing. It was only after hopping off the platform that he informed his coaches and teammates of his injury. His score of 9.7 (out of 10) was enough to give Japan the gold medal.
  4. Eddie Eagan (Boxing and Bobsled) -- Eddie Eagan was an American boxer, a very good one. He was good enough, in fact, that he won the gold medal in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp in the light-heavyweight division. But, that's not particularly amazing. That gold medal has been won by two dozen or so athletes. What made Eagan amazing is that in 1932, in the Lake Placid Winter Olympic, Eagan got a gold medal in the 4-man bobsled (then called bobsleigh). He is the only person to have won gold medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
  5. Hubert Van Innis (Archery) -- Hubert Van Innis competed in what many consider to be an obscure sport of archery. He won gold medals in two separate Summer Olympics, those held in Paris and in Antwerp. What makes his gold medals so amazing is when they were won. You see, the Olympics were held in Paris in 1900 and in Antwerp in 1920. That's 20 years apart, and that's a long time to be at the top of your sport.
  6. Dara Torres (Swimming) -- Swimming, especially women's swimming, is viewed as a young person's sport. And, it was for Dara Torres. She medaled for the first time in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics winning the gold in the 4x100 meter freestyle relay. Torres also swam in the 1988, and 1992 Olympics, skipped 1996, and then swam in the 2000 and 2008 Olympics. In 2008, she won no golds, but barely missed (by 0.01 seconds) winning the 50 meter freestyle. 24 years is a long time span. To medal 24 years apart in women's swimming is completely without precedent.
  7. Eric Heiden (Speed Skating) -- Imagine winning the 100 meter dash in the Olympic Games. Then, imagine winning the 200 meter dash. Then, imagine winning the 400 meter run, and then winning the 800 meter run, and then then the 1500 meter run. If you prefer swimming, think of it as the 50 meter freestyle as well as the 100, 200, 400, and 1500. Nobody has ever come close. Well, in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Eric Heiden pulled off the winter equivalent. He won gold in the men's 500 meter, 1000 meter, 1500 meter, 5000 meter, and 10000 meter speed skating events. All at once, that made him the finest sprinter, middle distance-skater and long-distance skater in the world. 
  8. Al Oerter (Discus) -- Al Oerter was a very good discus thrower. He was not so good, as any Olympics were coming up that he was ever a favorite to win. In 1956, in Melbourne, he threw a personal best to win the gold medal. In 1957, he was in a horrible auto accident. At first, doctors thought he wouldn't live. Then, they were sure that he would never walk again. By 1960, he made the US Olympic team competing in Rome as the second best discus thrower in the country. Rink Babka, the world record holder was the heavy favorite in the event. After 4 (of 6) throws, Babka held a sizable lead with Oerter well back in the pack. But, Babka had noticed a flaw in Oerter's throwing technique during his fourth throw. On throw number five using Babka's advice, Oerter unleashed the winning throw. By 1964 (Tokyo), Oerter held the world record in the discus. But due to torn cartilage around his ribcage, Oerter considered dropping off the Olympic team. He decided to go, competed and won. In 1968 (Mexico City), Oerter won a fourth consecutive gold beating world record holder and fellow American Jay Silvester. At this point, Oerter retired, but in 1980, at the age of 43, he decided to make another try for the Olympic team. He finished fourth in the US trials (3rd would have made the Olympic team) and finally retired.
  9. Birgit Fischer (Canoeing) -- Canoeing is a strenuous sport. I'm not talking about going out for a leisurely paddle on your favorite lake. I'm talking about competitive canoeing. It's a remarkable exercise in overall (especially upper body) strength and cardiovascular fitness. Most don't have either at the level necessary to compete in the Olympics much past the age of 30. In 1980, at the age of 18, Fischer took home the gold medal in the 500 meter kayak singles (K1 500 if you are a hardcore enthusiast). She didn't compete in 1984 because of the eastern bloc boycott. In 1988, she again medaled in the K1 taking second place, but won the K2 (pairs) for her second gold medal. She followed this in Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996) with a silver and a gold in each, and then won gold in both the K1 and K2 in Sydney (2000) at which point she retired. She was 38 years old and had completed her career as probably the best female kayaker ever. Oops, I spoke too soon. She returned for Athens in 2004 at the ripe old age (for competitive canoeing) of 42, she led the German K4 team to the gold medal. At the end of the race after her team had overtaken Hungary, only she of the four Germans had enough energy to raise her oar in celebration.
  10. Bob Beamon (Long Jump) -- 44 years later, this is still perhaps my favorite Olympic visual. The place was Mexico City. The weather was surprisingly cool and damp. The world record was 27 feet 4-3/4 inches. The Olympic record was slightly less. Nobody had ever broken the world record by more than 6 inches. He fouled on his first two qualifying jumps, so he needed a fair jump on his third and got it. He only needed one more jump. Beamon took off from near the end of the (foul) board and created a problem. For the first time, optical measuring devices had been installed in the long jumps at the Olympics. They were ready to measure a world record. But, they weren't ready to measure what happened. You see, Beamon outjumped the range of the optical device. Officials scurried to the pit with hand-held measures to analyze his jump. The result -- 29 feet, 2-1/2 inches. He had broken the previous record by nearly 2 feet. He set a record that stood for 23 years. Second place was 26 feet, 10-3/8 inches. When Beamon saw the results of his jump, he fell to his knees, hands over his face. He never again jumped 27 feet, but on that day, Bob Beamon made a jump so amazing that a new term was added to the sports lexicon; from then on, feats that were so amazing that they might never be repeated became known as Beamonesque.
So, there you have it. If it were a different day, I might have a different 10. What are yours? What do you think of mine?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

(Un)Reasonable Profits Board

Perhaps I am too conservative fiscally. Perhaps I am just too conservative. But, since this is my blog, I get to speak my piece.

Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has introduced into the House of Representatives HR 3784, the Gas Price Spike Act of 2012. Lest he not be the only one associated with this lovely piece of legislation, he has been joined by his co-sponsors John Conyers (D-MI), Bob Filner (D-CA), Marcia Fudge (D-OH), James Langevin (D-OH), and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA).

I need to be fair to these representatives. Let's look at where their districts are.

  • Kucinich (West Cleveland and near western suburbs)
  • Conyers (downriver suburbs of Detroit)
  • Filner (far southern California on the borders of Mexico and Arizona)
  • Fudge (Cleveland and its near eastern suburbs)
  • Langevin (most of Rhode Island except for Providence)
  • Woolsey (area north of Oakland and most of Sonoma county)
These are pretty liberal areas, so these representatives may be doing a good job of serving their constituencies. But, that is the extent of the faint praise they will get from me.

Here is a summary of the way the bill would work if it were to become law. 
  • The President would appoint a 3-member Reasonable Profits Board (RPB), not subject to Congressional approval.
  • The RPB would determine what constitutes reasonable profits for the sale of crude oil, natural gas, or other taxable product (fuel which is the product of natural gas or crude oil). 
  • To the extent that profits on said sale exceed the reasonable amount by less than 2%, an excise tax of 50% on such unreasonable amount would be imposed.
  • To the extent that profits on said sale exceed the reasonable amount by 2%-5%, an excise tax on such unreasonable amount of 75% would be imposed. 
  • To the extent that profits on said sale exceed the reasonable amount by at least 5%, an excise tax on such unreasonable amount of 100% would be imposed.
  • These excise taxes would allow for tax credits for fuel-efficient vehicles and to allow grants for mass transit.
Let's see. We have an anti-trust act which prohibits monopolies and price-fixing. It has been used when appropriate. Oil company profit margins are less than they were (in total) 30 years ago. I thought we lived in a free enterprise type society.

What comes next? Do we get a similar tax on pharmaceuticals? The companies that make them are generally judged to be pretty evil. How about cosmetic companies? They have high profit margins. 

In my opinion, this is a bad idea with a very slippery slope to go with it. 

Thankfully, this one won't pass, but I still felt the need to write about it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Translation: Refundable Tax Credit = You Are Giving Money to Someone Else for Something You Probably Don't Approve of

It's one of the worst things since we forgot how to slice bread -- the refundable tax credit. And in recent years, it has been a pet trick of politicians to make an individual or group of individuals vote for them.

Before I go on my complete rant, it may be helpful to understand what a refundable tax credit is. Let's take a stepping stone approach. First, there is an income tax. This causes you, the taxpayer, to owe to the government an amount of money based on your income. Whether you like it or not, the 16th Amendment to the US Constitution permits such an income tax to be imposed and attempts to prove that the 16th Amendment was never ratified have been shot down by the US Supreme Court.

Our Tax Code ("The Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as Amended," if you care, which you probably don't) provides that there are items that get taxed (such as wages) and other items that produce offsets to that tax or credits. One such well-known credit is the deduction for contributions to a bona fide charity. That seems reasonable to me. Such charitable contributions to a BONA FIDE charity are in the public interest and giving an individual or corporation a credit of some number of cents on the dollar seems reasonable.

Now, suppose your tax liability before considering the credits is, say, $1,000. And, suppose that you paid no installments (through payroll or otherwise) on your taxes during the year. Further, suppose that your nonrefundable (normal) credits add up to $500, leaving you, tentatively, with a tax bill of $500. Finally, suppose that you qualify for 3 refundable tax credits in the amounts of $750, $1,000, and $2,500. Then, your tax bill is 0, right?

Wrong, not only do you not have to pay any tax, you get a tax refund despite the fact that you have paid nothing into the system. That's right, you paid nothing in, but you get $3,750 back. IMHO, that is not fair to all the good people who have paid into the system.

In recent years, these refundable tax credits have become really popular. You see, they have the potential to get a politician votes from two constituencies at once -- the people who get the credits and the industry being favored by the credit.

If this doesn't make sense, let's consider an example. Suppose I am running for Congress from the lovely 5th Congressional District of California (for those among you who haven't memorized California's Congressional districting map, this is essentially Napa and Sonoma counties). Further suppose that I introduce legislation for a refundable tax credit on the purchase of Napa or Sonoma produced wine. Wine drinkers will be thrilled with me. But, even more so, since wine drinkers will essentially be paying less for their product, so to will the wine producers love me.

Let's look at some of the refundable tax credits which actually have become part of the Tax Code in recent years.

First-Time Homebuyers Credit

In all fairness, this wasn't so much a credit as an interest-free loan from the government to you. If you were a first-time homebuyer in 2008 or 2009, you were entitled to a refundable tax credit for that year of 10% of the purchase price of that home, but not to exceed $7,500. But, starting in 2010, you were required to repay that 'loan' to the government in equal installments over 15 years. Of course, if adding that $500 into your tax liability left you still with no liability, you owed nothing.

Making Work Pay Credit

This was a 2009 and 2010 reduction in your tax bill of up to $400 if you were single, or married filing separately and up to $800 if you were married filing jointly. It was put in place by the 2009 stimulus bill. I didn't find it to be very stimulating. It phased out for people that the government decided didn't need it as their incomes were high enough already.

American Opportunity Tax Credit

This one is for qualified education expenses for years 2009 through 2012. If your income was less than $80,000 for individuals or $160,000 for couples, you can get a refundable tax credit of 100 percent of the first $2,000 of tuition, fees, and course materials paid during the taxable year and 25% of the next $2,000.

Health Care Premium Tax Credit

This was brought to you by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Health Care Reform, if you prefer. I'd love to explain it for you in a nutshell, but the IRS proposed regulations on the topic are 20 pages of 3-column gibberish long. let's just be glad that we have until tax season during 2015 to figure it all out.

Adoption Tax Credit

This one was part of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, also known as Public Law 111-152. Under this law, adopting parent(s) can claim a credit of up to $13,170. For parents who go through traditional adoption procedures, that amount cannot come close to covering the cost of the adoption or the costs that they will incur. On the other hand, there have been well-documented stories of parents adopting children to get these credits for little if any cost. Like many other provisions, I like the intent, but not necessarily the execution.

Additional Child Tax Credit

This is one that I have never understood. Essentially, families with three or more children and who have low enough earned income are entitled to a refundable tax credit for each child in excess of two. You don't get it either?


Perhaps you are one of the people who thinks that these refiundable tax credits are a good idea. If so, then consider this in the National Taxpayer Advocate's Annual Address to Congress:
While refundable credits provide valuable benefits to the target populations, they can be tempting targets for fraud because taxpayers eligible for them may claim refunds that exceed the amount of taxes they have paid.  In 2011, the IRS’s Electronic Fraud Detection System (EFDS) flagged 1,054,704 returns on suspicion of fraud, an increase of 72 percent over 2010.  Meanwhile, the IRS’s centralized Identity Protection Specialized Unit (IPSU) received more than 226,000 identity theft-related cases, an increase of 20 percent over 2010.
That's a lot of potential fraud. I think it's time to consider whether there is a better way than these refundable tax credits.