Art and commentary by Kimberly Harris

Archive for March, 2011

The CPAs Dance for Joy at the Arrival of Yet Another Tax Season

Henri Matisse painting "The Dance" with figures dressed in suits.

CPAs dance for joy!

The Accountants and Tax Preparers Full Employment Act has gone into full swing with the looming filing deadline in clear view. All over the country, an army of over a million sharply-dressed CPAs and accountants is gearing up for yet another marathon of digesting disorganized collections of receipts that arrived in supermarket bags and the proverbial shoeboxes brought in by their frazzled clients. Tax season for accountants is like Christmas season for retailers. This is where all the long hours are put in and all the money is made.

The bountiful extravaganza is the result of the prolific output of congressional tax writing committees, who in collaboration with the more than 15,000 lobbyists representing a gaggle of special interests, have succeed in concocting the vile sausage that is the US Tax Code, all the while billing over $3 billion in fees.

Incredible as it may seem, the 2010 U.S. tax code is 71,684 pages in length. That is enough to cover an entire acre of land or to create a trail of paper nearly 13 miles long. It contains some 600 forms, each designed to benefit one specific group or another

Nobody understands the tax code, least of all the legislators who wrote it or those in charge of enforcing it. During a recent interview on C-SPAN, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman conceded that one reason that he does not file his own taxes is because he believes the tax code is too complex. Indeed, his predecessor, Mark Everson, was of a similar mindset. Some 60% of Americans use a tax preparer, and another 20% use tax-preparation software.

And this may not even be enough. A few years ago, USA TODAY asked three tax experts, a CPA and two enrolled agents, to prepare an income tax return for a hypothetical family. None of the results agreed. Incredibly, a 2008 study found that when the IRS was contacted by taxpayers regarding a tax law issue, its experts gave out the wrong answer about 10% of the time.

There is nothing you can do about it, so it is best to join the accountants in their merrymaking and hope for the best on April 18.

Senator Claire McCaskill’s Carbon Folly

Senator Claire McCaskill as a Varga girl on the side of a B-24

Her critics are calling it “Claire Air”

Claire McCaskill, the senior U.S. Senator from Missouri has recently become mired in a sticky affair whereby allegations have been made in the news media regarding her extensive use of a chartered corporate aircraft for her air travel, some of which may have been for personal purposes, all the while billing the expense to the taxpayers. More importantly, it has been revealed that the aircraft used by the senator was registered to a Delaware corporation owned by her husband, a wealthy real estate developer whose considerable fortune came in large part from federal contracts. This would appear to be a conflict of interest of a type that politicians should always steer clear of.

In March 2007, the Senator flew from St. Louis to Hannibal, Missouri to attend an annual political event and billed taxpayers $1,220.44 for the trip. The distance between these two cities is only 116 miles and could have been driven in a couple hours, incurring a mileage cost of only $112.52 at the official government reimbursement rate of 48.5 cents per mile at the time.

Contrary to stories that have appeared in the media, the aircraft in question is not a twin-engine Piper, but rather a Swiss-made, single-engine turboprop Pilatus PC-12/45, a high-end pressurized executive transport plane with seats for 8 and a cockpit crew of 2.

This is not an environmentally-friendly way to travel. Taking into account time for start-up, taxing to and from the active runway, runup, cruise, St. Louis approach patterns and area traffic, this round trip flight could have easily taken two hours. The PC-12/45 is not very efficient for short flights at low speeds and low altitudes and can burn 500 lbs of fuel per hour under those conditions. With Jet-A fuel weighing about 6.8 lbs per gallon, this translates into about 147 gallons for the trip. A modest sedan getting 20 mpg would have required less than 12 gallons, by comparison.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 23.9 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced for every gallon of jet fuel burned, so this short jaunt was responsible for needlessly releasing approximately 3,513 pounds of carbon dioxide into the Missouri skies.

Multiply this times the 89 flights said to have been flown, many of which were much longer in distance and a formidable carbon footprint starts to emerge, one that could have been avoided by using the humble automobile or a seat on a commercial carrier.

There was more in store for the tireless champion for transparency and fighting government waste and excess. Senator McCaskill promptly reimbursed the U.S. Treasury $88,000 this month for the 89 trips on the plane, a few of which were said to be for political purposes. In recent days it came to light that the Senator failed to pay property taxes on the aircraft after it was moved to Missouri four years ago. Its market value is estimated to be in the vicinity of $2.4 million, and St. Louis County calculated the outstanding tax bill to be $319,541, including penalties and interest. Senator McCaskill’s husband’s Delaware corporation, Timesaver LLC, paid approximately $287,000 a few days ago.

With her reelection campaign soon to be launched, it is all but certain that an in-depth investigation will follow in short order, with many additional lurid details emerging into the public venue.

The irony in this whole affair is that during the 2004 primaries for governor, then State Auditor Claire McCaskill successfully used this same argument against her opponent, incumbent Gov. William Holden, when she accused him of using the taxpayer-funded state airplane for more than 300 trips, some of which were for the purpose of attending sporting events.

Wait a minute, the Senator used to be an auditor…?

The Birth of Bigfoot

Boticcelli's Bigfoot stands in a clamshell surrounded by extraterrestrials

The Birth of Bigfoot

Art historians in Florence, Italy call an impromptu press conference to announce a shocking discovery regarding an image found to lie underneath a famous Renaissance painting.

Earlier this year, museum curators at the famed Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy removed 15th century painter Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece, the “Birth of Venus” from public display so that it could undergo routine cleaning and maintenance. At the museum’s art restoration laboratory, a team of highly experienced conservation and restoration experts employed three-dimensional infrared technology to look beneath the original layer of paint in order to help determine the cause of the 15th century painting’s slow deterioration. What they found shook the foundations of the art history community.

It is not unusual in the case of historical works to find an earlier painting or sketch by the artist underneath a well-known masterpiece, as was the case with Da Vinci’s “Virgin on the Rocks.” However, in most instances, those images were revealed to be sketches that were the basis of the final work, or occasionally, simply a painting that the artist was not satisfied with, leading him to recycle the canvas for a future project.

However, the experts’ scan revealed a shockingly different image that immediately gave rise to centuries-old conspiracy theories and suggestions of a Renaissance era cover-up. For more than five centuries Botticelli’s masterpiece concealed a sinister secret. The image that appeared on the restorers’ computer screens was not a fantasy with Greco-Roman roots, but rather depicted a creature that is all too well-known by present day enthusiasts of cryptozoology and the paranormal: Bigfoot.

Historians speculate that this image may potentially lend credence to the long-held theory that Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Chupacabra and other creatures of legend and folklore may in fact have otherworldly origins. Most students of art history are aware of the abundance of images painted over the centuries that would appear to depict UFOs and their extraterrestrial occupants.

Fellow Florentine painter and Botticelli contemporary, Domenico Ghirlandaio painted his “The Madonna with Saint Giovannino” which clearly shows a mysterious glowing object suspended in the sky above Mary’s shoulder. Also from the same period, “The Annunciation” by Carlo Crivelli, shows an airborne disk directing a focused beam of light right through a building onto Mary’s head. Could visitors from another world have brought strange creatures to live among us, and to what end?

Scholars agree that Lorenzo de’ Medici ordered Botticelli to paint the canvas over because he feared that Savonarola, the Dominican monk who was at the time campaigning vigorously for the destruction of immoral art might denounce it as an act of heresy and order its authors to be punished.

Illustration by Kim Harris

Implausible yarn by Don Rudisuhle

Garlic Man at the Airport

Drawing of a man in the form of a garlic bulb sitting in an airport terminal

Please be kind.

We garlic lovers don’t mean to offend others. Often we are oblivious to the noxious bouquet that envelopes us and permeates our immediate environment. If you happen to be among the unfortunate ones forced to spend an extended amount of time in our presence in a public place such as an airport, we apologize. Please be kind.

Referrer Spam Monsters be Here!

Tiny Monsters begging to be clicked on by a giant finger

Click on us at your own peril!

It’s so frustrating to have to sort through your page views to try to identify your legitimate visitors who are obscured in a swamp of spam. Not only are these unwelcome visitors a source of clutter and distraction, but they also can harbor dangerous malware.

Most people who meticulously maintain their blogs on a routine basis are experiencing the irritating phenomenon known as “referrer spam.” It appears with annoying frequency in our visitor statistics in the form of links whose intent it is to dispatch us off to some faraway land to view some abjectly irrelevant page hyping a product or service that is of no interest or utility to us, even if it were free. The substance of this business model escapes me, because for every click that earns someone a tiny commission, there is another person on the other end who pays the bill for all the impressions and clicks with the expectation of turning a profit from the site visitors attracted by the referrer spam. Since most WordPress bloggers are highly unlikely to purchase beauty products or cell phone service from a site on the other side of the planet, what is the point?

There is however a more sinister side to this unwanted deluge of links. Occasionally, they are intended to deceive unwary viewers for the purpose of leading them to a rogue website where dangerous malware will be surreptitiously downloaded onto their computers for the purpose of identity theft or conscripting their machines into a life of servitude as an unwitting vehicle for transmitting more spam to other hapless victims.

An additional element of danger is present in the spammers’ use of URL shorteners that obscure the true destination of the link by using abbreviations that reference “bit.ly” and “tinyurl” redirection services. However, the recent trend is towards longer complete links that often include “wordpress.” Don’t be fooled. Be wary of these monsters and gremlins. Don’t click.

The Latest Millennium Millinery from Milan

Fancy tin foil hats displayed in a shop with aliens in the bcakground

What happens in your head stays in your head

Step into style with ladies designer springtime tin foil hats

Are you tired of the same old, worn out, cone-shaped styles in tin foil hats? Why not add a little flair and panache this spring with tasteful and trendy aluminum millinery?

These stunningly attractive foil hats are custom made with the discriminating conspiracy theorist and fashion-conscious alien abductee in mind. You’ll look fabulous while feeling secure in the knowledge that your thoughts are safe from prying minds and extraterrestrial probes. Paranoid can now mean “pretty” instead of “pretty paranoid.”

Kim Qui, The Golden Turtle God and Guardian of the Sword

Kim Qui, the sacred turtle sits on a rock with a sword

The Golden Turtle God and Guardian of the Sword

In the news today is a troubling story concerning the sacred turtle of Vietnam’s Hoan Kien Lake. This rare and endangered turtle is sick and slowly dying from pollution.

The following story from our Squidoo Lens, The Mysterious Creatures of Cryptozoology is about the legend of Kim Qui and some information on the turtle itself.

Kim Qui is a legendary turtle that has repeatedly come to the assistance of Vietnamese rulers over the millennia to help them defeat their enemies and defend their kingdoms from invaders. In a story parallel to that of King Arthur and Excalibur, there is a traditional account about how Kim Qui, the Golden Turtle God, gave Emperor Le Loi a magical sword bearing the inscription “The Will of Heaven.” This sword gave the emperor great strength and was instrumental in his leading his forces to defeat the invading Ming Chinese armies in 1427. Following his victory, Le Loi was boating on Luc Thuy (“Green Water”) Lake when the turtle deity Kim Qui suddenly rose to the surface and seized the sword in his mouth and promptly vanished back into the murky depths. The emperor bemoaned the loss of this precious sword, but was eventually persuaded that now that his kingdom was again free, the sword’s rightful owners had reclaimed it. The emperor then proclaimed that Luc Thuy Lake be renamed Ho Hoan Kiem Lake, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword.”

Hoan Kiem Lake is located just west of the Song Hong River (“Red River”) in an urban setting near Hanoi’s Old Quarter and about a mile southeast of Truc Bach Lake, where John McCain landed after being shot down by a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft missile in 1967. In the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, there is a small island with a structure known as The Tortoise Tower that commemorates the Kim Qui legend.

In scientific terms, Kim Qui is a Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle, which is formally known as Rafetus swinhoei. Weighing in at around 400 pounds, it may be the largest fresh water turtle in the world. It is easily identified by its pig-like snout and nostrils.

Aside from the single specimen known to live in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi and presumed by many to be the legendary Kim Qui, there only four other known surviving members of the species. These are located at zoos in China, and several are estimated to be between 80 and 100 years old. Other individuals have recently been observed in the wild, but the species has been seriously depleted by pollution, human encroachment into its habitat, especially the damming of rivers and the mining of sand, and also from hunting for food or the supposed medical properties of its shell and bones. This has prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in Switzerland to list Rafetus swinhoei as “critically endangered.”

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