Saturday, January 30, 2010

Up: Pixar does it again, and not just for kids

The Pixar film Up is now out on DVD, and it's a thrill ride, with a lot of great story for young and old. In addition to the quality of the film (more on this below), the DVD includes a number of extra features - including Pixar shorts "Partly Cloudy" and "Dug's Special Mission" - which I haven't had time to fully watch yet, but I saw the movie in the theater back when it came out and have seen it once again since it came out on DVD. Really a great film! I wrote the following review of the feature film for Amazon (rate the review here):
From the beginning, Pixar has made films based on premises that I thought were going to be bad. A film about toys? A film about bugs? A film about fish? A film about talking cars? A film about a cooking rat? Yet, time and again, they've not only made the premise work, they've made it exceptional. (Actually, I didn't personally like the cooking rat film, but my point still stands.)

So by the time that I saw a preview for Up, I knew not to dismiss their weird premises. A film about a house flying because it's tied to a bunch of balloons? Eh, they've done weirder.
What I was not expecting, but should have, was that this flying house would provide the backdrop for a deeply poignant film about overcoming grief and embracing life. While all the films carry important thematic elements, I'd say that this is the first of the Pixar movies that adults can actually appreciate more for the adult themes than kids will appreciate for the fun parts. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of fun stuff for kids ... but the story is something you have to be a little bit older to really grasp.

From the first few minutes, where we see a montage of Carl Fredrickson's (played by Ed Asner) life, adults especially connect to him in a very personal way, because it's clear that he's led a rich, full life ... but also that many unanticipated, tragic things have happened to him. He is now an old man, a widower, and about to lose everything. So, in reaction, he decides to go on a final adventure ... and take his house along with him.

The adventure, though, is really the old adventure he (and his wife) had always longed for but never achieved. It was not intended as an affirmation of his life, but a conclusion to it. It was not about boldly stepping into the future, but about connecting to his past. And, through the course of the film, Carl realizes that life isn't over until it's over.

It's a powerful message, woven into a film which kids will appreciate for the cute chubby Wilderness Explorer Russell, the talking dogs (some of whom fly airplanes), and the big crazy colorful bird. But someday, when they're much older, they'll realize that they had very different adventures from the ones they once dreamed of ... but that doesn't make them any less valuable.  If anything, it makes them more valuable. And maybe they'll think of Up, and realize there was a lot they missed in that film.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Boskone Panel Schedule

I've received a preliminary schedule for my events at Boskone, the Boston science fiction convention of NESFA.  Boskone runs from Febrary 12 through February 14. I'll be taking part in a number of science-related panels. There could still be some changes before the actual event, but here's what I'm scheduled for as of this moment:
  • Friday, Feb. 12 - 7:00 pm - Autographing
  • Friday, Feb. 12 - 9:00 pm - The Place of Prediction in SF and Reality
  • Sunday, Feb. 14 - 11:00 am - Bad Science on TV
  • Sunday, Feb. 14 - 1:00 pm - Time Travel in Science and Science Fiction
I've got some great co-panelists, including Karl Schroeder, Allen Steele, & Vernor Vinge, so I'm really looking forward to it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Exodus 6 - 40

Ever slowly, I'm progressing through the reading of the Bible, from Genesis through Revelations. Exodus has been some slow, depressing reading, but here are my thoughts on it:
  • Puppet Pharaoh: Repeatedly, Exodus explicitly says that God is responsible for the hardening of Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 7:3, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10). In Exodus 11:9, God says "Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt."  God isn't just professing that Pharaoh is a jerk and will harden his own heart ... it's very clear that God is the cause of the hardening. This really paints God, not Pharaoh, as the bad guy in this tale. After every single plague, practically, it seems as if Pharaoh is about to relent ... and then his "heart hardens" or he "hardens his heart" ... but if God is really the reason why Pharaoh's heart hardens, then it's really God's fault that the Israelites aren't freed earlier, and it appears to be for the sake of showing off his "wonders." Furthermore, this brings up issues of free will ... rarely do you ever hear about God directly intervening in people's emotional states, but this seems to be a pretty clear cut case of this. Pharaoh is shown as little more than God's puppet in all of this. (This reminds me of the arguments that Judas' betrayal is necessary for the salvation in the New Testament, so Judas is, in an odd way, performing God's work.)
  • The mystery of the resurrected livestock: In Exodus 9, "all the livestock of the Egyptians died" (The Fifth Plague), but then in Exodus 11 (The Tenth Plague) the firstborn all die, including "all the firstborn of the livestock." But the livestock all died already, so how are the firstborn dying again? This brings up another point - one of timing. I can't tell from my read of this what sort of timeframe the plagues are taking place over. The impression is a fairly rapid-fire series of plagues, but I suppose it is feasible that these plagues are spread out over a period of years (although that's certainly less impressive than the more common depictions). Exodus 7:7 says that Moses is 80 and Aaron 83 when they first approach Pharaoh, but I'm not seeing a later age stated that would give us a timeframe. (If I'm just missing it, please let me know where it is.)
  • The firstborn belong to God: in Exodus 13:12, there is an intriguing command - "you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the Lord's. But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children shall you redeem." In other words, you're supposed to sacrifice a sheep to redeem the firstborn male children. I wonder if anyone (Jewish or Christian) still follows this today.
  • The Red Sea or Sea of Reeds: the Bible account of the crossing of the Red Sea (or, as a footnote indicates, possibly the "Sea of Reeds") is always thrilling. I've heard the Sea of Reeds reference to try to tone down this passage, as if maybe God guided Moses through a marsh or something, but the account is pretty specific that this is dramatic. The water forms walls on the sides of the Israelites and collapses back upon the Egyptians, who are "tossed ... into the sea." There's not really any doubt that the passage is attempting to describe a spectacular miracle ... of course, it may be that this is an exaggeration of the actual events being described, and that the "Sea of Reeds" is the only remnant of the older version of the tale.
  • Jethro's managerial advice: I love Exodus 18, where Moses' father-in-law basically tells him that he's working too hard and needs to learn how to delegate before he burns himself out. Religious leaders should really devote a lot more time to making it clear that there's good, practical advice like this available in the Bible. 
  • The Real Ten Commandments: Well, the traditional Ten Commandments show up in Exodus 20, but they aren't actually called "The Ten Commandments." I did some investigation, and it looks like the name "the Ten Commandments" is actually mentioned in the Bible only later on (Exodus 34:10-28), where Moses makes new tablets after the Golden Calf incident, but that's a slightly different set of commandments. So every time some sanctimonious person wants to put the ten commandments on display in a public location, a smart-ass can try to make sure they're actually wanting to display the right ones. The actual ten commandments are the following, and are more worship-focused than the traditional Ten Commandment list, which are mostly moral laws:

    1. Have/worship no other gods.
    2. Don't make covenants with the people you encounter in the other lands (this is really a refinement of the "no other gods" one, because these other people will lead the Isrealites astray)
    3. Don't cast idols
    4. Keep the festival of unleavened bread (Passover)
    5. The first out of the womb belongs to God. Clean animals should be sacrificed, but unclean animals should be redeemed by the sacrifice of a clean animal. Human firstborn males should also be redeemed through the sacrifice of a clean animal.
    6. No one should appear before God empty-handed.
    7. Keep the sabbath, and observe three festivals per year: "the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel."
    8. Do not offer the blood of sacrifices with leaven, and don't leave the Passover sacrifice out overnight.
    9. The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord
    10. You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk
  • Laws and more laws: Yikes, this is a tedious section of the book, and I have the feeling it's going to keep going for several books. How to build an altar, a temple, the ark of the covenant. Can't wait until I'm through "the books of the law." 
  • Hatin' on witches: Exodus 22:18 says "You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live." ... but male sorcerers are okay? Odd.
  • Two tablets: In Exodus 31: 18, Moses is given two tablets which include "the covenant" ... but the details of this covenant took over 10 pages to describe in the Bible. God must have some crazy economical shorthand system to fit all of this on the tablets.
  • The Golden Calf: I knew that Moses' brother Aaron was part of the Golden Calf story, but I didn't realize that it was actually his idea! I'd always assumed that some putzes in the crowd got this going, and Aaron just kind of got dragged along with it, but it turns out that he was the ringleader in gathering the gold and casting the idol. In fact, when Moses comes down to straighten things out, Aaron himself places the blame on everyone else. What a wanker!
  • The Wrath of God: God gets mad over the Golden Calf incident, but Moses is able to talk Him down. This is a common event with the Old Testament God, and God seems to respect those who can talk sense into Him when He gets out of control. (This is actually part of what I most love about my own wife, so I can relate to this, although I rarely declare that "my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them" ... although sometimes I am close." - Exodus 32:10) "And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people." (Exodus 32:14) Still, despite Moses apparently convincing Him not to just "consume them" and then ordering the execution of 3,000 of the Israelites, God still feels the need that "Whoever has sinned against me I will blog out of my book" (Exodus 32:33) and he sends a plague (Exodus 32:35). Guess he changed his mind again.
  • The Wrath of Moses: In Exodus 32:20, after breaking the tablets, Moses "took the [golden] calf they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Isrealites drink it." Then he begins berating Aaron and others, finally getting the Levites to kill 3,000 of the Isrealites, before he can get things under control. I'm assuming this isn't chronological, since I presume he'd want to get his people under control before he spends the day grinding the calf into powder and making people drink it (which, presumably, takes a fair amount of time).
  • Repetition again: We are re-introduced to Bezalel and Oholiab, who were introduced in Exodus 31 and then introduced again in Exodus 35. It's hard to see how anyone can read Exodus and believe that  it is not a collection of stories that got edited together. There's no way that a single person wrote this book, unless they had severe ADD and couldn't keep track of what they wrote the day before. Now, I suppose that in fairness, in Exodus 31 God is telling Moses about Bezalel and Oholiab, but in Exodus 35 Moses is telling the Israelites about them ... but it's basically the exact same passage, but told in first person and then in second person. (Bezalel & Oholiab are awesome designers/carpenters, who are placed in charge of building the Tabernacle that God earlier described. They got their crazy mad building skills from God himself, as we are told both times.) Then, after having the lengthy instructions for the Tabernacle from God, we're given the description of its actual building ... which, since they're following the exact steps outlined by God just a few chapters ago, is again repetition.
And that, my friends, is my reading of Exodus ... on to Leviticus.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A story about Michio Kaku

On January 9, 2010, I was interviewed by Michio Kaku about my new book, String Theory for Dummies, on his nationally-syndicated science radio show, Science Fantastic, which is broadcast to 125 cities nation-wide. It was a pleasant interview over the phone and, while it may not be quite the same as a face-to-face sit-down over lunch, I’m going to count it as having met him.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tax Tips for Writers #2: Business Miles Are Your Friend

It might not seem that business mileage is a big deal for a writer, but this can actually turn out to be a major deduction for any small business person. There are a few ways to handle this particular deduction, though, and you have to be careful about how you keep your records to make sure the deduction qualifies. (Again, keep in mind that you should get tax professional advice before implementing these suggestions.)

The thing to keep in mind is that when keeping records for business driving purposes, you get to identify what the "primary purpose" of the trip is. If you post flyers for editing/proofreading services (assuming you offer them) on a local community board at your grocery store, and you travel every week to make sure that the flyer is still up (or perhaps replaced, if it has those little tear-away tabs at the bottom), then you can declare that as the primary purpose of your trip. It is perfectly legal if, on that same trip, you also get groceries - the government doesn't need, nor does it care, about any secondary purposes of the trip. It just needs to know the primary purpose.

To figure out the best way to get your deduction, you should track three things:
  • Total mileage in 2010 (record odometer reading on January 1 - or now!- and on December 31, then subtract)
  • Total business miles (see below)
  • Total vehicle operating expenses
Now, there are two ways to establish how many total miles end up being deductible.
  1. You can record every single business trip and add them up at the end of the year.
  2. For a period of 90 days (any 90-day period over the year should work, where you're using the vehicle normally), you record every usage of the vehicle. Indicate if each use is "business" or "personal." Calculate the % of business usage during those 90 days. This is your business usage percentage. Multiply the total 2010 mileage by the business usage percentage. This gives the total business miles.
I find the second method to be much easier to track.

The deduction can be figured two different ways, as well:
  • Record your vehicle operating costs (having a credit card solely for vehicle expenses is a good way of doing this), and multiply directly by your business usage percentage. This is the amount of vehicle operating cost that is deductible as business use of vehicle.
  • Take your total business miles and multiply by the amount per mile dictated by federal law. ($0.55 for 2010)
You are allowed to use either of these systems, so should record all of this and figure out which method gets you the best deduction, then use that. This can amount to thousands of dollars in deductions, which can count against other income sources (such as your W-2 job) if it exceeds the amount you made from writing.

The problem with business mileage is that "commuting miles" - travel from home to work - is absolutely not deductible. If it were, everyone would get major deductions. It's just not deductible.

However, if you have business travel on the way to your job, then the whole trip counts. For example, I know someone who is a roofer. On the way to his job, which is a half-hour drive, he stops by his union offices, which is near his house. His work day, therefore, starts at his first business stop - the union offices - and the mileage from the union offices to the job site is deductible business travel.

So, here's the question:

If I run a home-based business (such as writing), does the travel from my qualified home office to another job location count as deductible business miles?

The short answer is that there has never been an official ruling on this interpretation of the law. Travel from "residence" to a work location is not deductible, but does the home-based business count, in this case, as your residence?

There is a strong case (complete with relevant tax law/ruling citations) to be made in favor of it, though. However, this only works if you are actively engaged in work at your home office prior to traveling to your work location. If you eat breakfast and immediately go to work, it doesn't count. But if you eat breakfast, head into your home office to work for a half hour, then go from your home office to your other job, the argument seems fairly sound. This takes work. My mileage log shows some days where I don't successfully meet these criteria, and on those days I just am not able to qualify the travel as deductible, so I record it as personal.

This also works if you've done the work to qualify as a business, and to make sure you have a legitimate home office that qualifies under the IRS code. (Information on that will be coming shortly.)

What's really nice about this interpretation is that it gets you in the habit of being actively engaged in your writing, preferably twice a day (before and after your W-2 job) to maximize the deductible miles.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Inalienable Rights: A Commentary

I'm currently in the process of listening to Dinesh D'Souza's intriguing book Life After Death: The Evidence on audiobook, primarily because I have seen some commentary that there's a discussion of string theory in it, and I wanted to see how it was being used in case I get questions about it during interviews.

I'll comment on the book itself when I get done with it, but right off the bat, I have an issue with the Foreward, written by The Purpose Driven Life author, Pastor Rick Warren ... who appears to have read neither the book nor the U.S. Constitution.

The first issue is that Warren says:

So where can we learn the truth about the afterlife? We have two choices -- speculation or revelation.

Aside from other potential problems with this statement, it has one serious contextual problem: the whole point of D'Souza's book is that there is a third option.

In this book, D'Souza does not appeal to revelation (though he himself is a Christian), but rather attempts to ground his arguments in the application of rational thought, proving that it is not irrational to believe in life after death. In other words, while he is not proving that life after death is true, he is certainly attempting to show that reason allows the possibility of life after death. It can't be ruled out, as the "new atheists" (or old atheists, for that matter) claim, purely as an irrational proposition. (So far, I find his case relatively compelling, despite some logical problems with some of his arguments here and there.)

The second issue from Warren's Foreward can be found in the following statement:

Even the American constitution points out that our "inalienable rights" are "endowed by our Creator," not by the government or any other human source.

For one thing, these quotes are from the Declaration of Independence, not the U.S. Constitution. (And, as an educational sidenote, the final version of the Declaration of Independence used the phrase "unalienable rights" - which means the same thing.) But the real problem comes when you look at the full sentence from the Declaration which Warren has extracted for his point:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Warren is perfectly right to point out that this statement invokes the mention of a Creator, but he's misses a major point in this sentence, which goes directly against the message of his Foreward.

There is no appeal to revelation - in fact, the truths are "self-evident" - so by his own previous litmus test, this must be "speculation." In fact, neither the Declaration nor Constitution contain any statement of positive support of specific religion, nor any appeal to divine revelation.

The Constitution has two mentions of religion, and both are somewhat against religion - the well-known First Amendment, dictating that the federal government can not establish a religion, but also a clause specifically stating that the federal government cannot require religious oaths for holding office. (Some people swear on Bibles by choice, but the Constitution specifically states that this is not, and cannot, be a requirement of office.)

In fact, the rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence are based on a rational worldview, in contrast to a revelatory worldview. This didn't have to be so. The Declaration could have invoked specific divine authority (like pretty much every other political document in history until that point). As outlined in Jon Meacham's American Gospel, there was an impassioned debate among the population because many religious thinkers wanted the government to be Christian, and didn't like that it was specifically designed as a secular institution.

The real implication of this line of the Declaration (and, to an extent, of D'Souza's book) is that you can apply reason to obtain certain information about the nature of divine truths. The appeal to revelation may or may not be valid, but it is not the only way to obtain divine truths and, in forming a diverse community, it's not even the preferred way.

Why did the founding fathers make this choice? Because the political authority of the King of England was rooted in the idea of the divine right of kings. The King of England was, after all, also the leader of the Church of England. He was endowed by his Creator with the mantle of kingship.

By invoking individual rights that were "self-evident," the founders made it clear that there was no force - not even religious revelation - could unearth the foundation of individual liberty upon which the new nation's claim of independence rested.

In every respect (except marketing), Warren's Foreward to the book is a mistake, and an intellectually misleading mistake. If nothing else, D'Souza (who was a White House policy analyst during the Reagan administration and has since been a political writer) should have recognized that the quotes were from the Declaration and not the Constitution, but even more than that he should have recognized that the claims Warren were making were at direct odds to the central message of his own book: reason is a valid way to explore the nature of the divine.

More thoughts to come on the central message of the book (which I am so far finding much more favorable than the Foreward) as I complete it ...

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Tax Tips for Writers #1: Uncle Sam Pays Writers

No, I'm not talking about grants.

I'm talking about establishing yourself as a legitimate home-based business, and getting all of the commensurate tax benefits that go along with that. Writers can fully qualify for these tax breaks, but it requires education, preparation, and dedication to legitimately claim them.

If you're like me, the New Year typically brings resolutions related to two major aspects of life: work and money. And, for me, "work" includes "writing" ... an enjoyable form of work, to be sure, but work nonetheless. So here are some thoughts on how I've been able to keep more of my writing income the last couple of years, thanks to the U.S. Tax Code (behemoth though it is).

Why would Uncle Sam pay writers? Because small business is regularly the largest growing sector of the economy, and that includes home-based businesses. Microsoft, IBM, Ford, Disney, GE, and Google ... all are just some examples of major corporations that started as small home-based businesses.

Similarly, every writer out there who is now a major name started as someone who was writing in their spare time, with dreams of making it big.

One such dreamer, esteemed author Robert J. Sawyer, told me at the Banff Centre for the Arts' "Writing with Style" workshop in fall 2005, "Live a deductible lifestyle."

What most don't know is that the deductions that apply when you're successful also apply when you're still trying to be successful. I personally didn't deduct writing expenses for years, because I was afraid that my net loss would trigger an audit and penalties, but I've since found out that I have the legal right to claim those deductions.

The legal right of a taxpayer to decrease the amount of what otherwise would be his taxes, or altogether avoid them by means which the law permits, cannot be doubted.
- United States Supreme Court (Gregory v. Helvering, 293 US 465)

Do you qualify for these deductions? If you are writing with a profit intent, you are actually the head of your own home-based business. Mine is called The Philosopher's Stone and has a federal tax ID number (because I employ my wife as my assistant) but you don't need all of that. If you work the business regularly and consistently, you qualify for business deductions on your taxes.

If you are not writing regularly and consistently with the intent to make a profit, you do not qualify as a business. If you're writing purely out of love of it, then it's a hobby, not a business. Keep records, of course, because your expenses can offset your profits as a profit-generating hobby, but you can't deduct over and above that ... and that's where Uncle Sam "pays" you for writing. And you never know when your hobby may take off!

How do I prove I'm a business? Here are the records I keep:
  • A business plan, including forecasted revenues/expenses with an objective of future net profits.
  • A business bank account (business and personal finances should not mix - unless you're loaning funds to your business or repaying loans from your business)
  • Clear business financial records (I use Quicken Home and Business)
  • Annual report of profit/loss, along with revisions of business plan and objectives for the coming year (I do this in lieu of revising the whole business plan each and every year)
  • Daily ledger of all business activities (to establish the "regularly and consistently" part)
What deductions can you qualify for? Well, let's see, as a writer you can probably qualify for deductions in the following areas, at least:
  • Home Office (Business Use of Home - this is the only way to deduct portions of rental expenses from federal taxes)
  • Business Use of Vehicles
  • Research (magazines, books, and possibly movies/television, depending on what you write about)
  • Business-related travel (conventions, interviews, research trips, book signings, etc.)
  • Employee benefits (hire your spouse as an employee - and make him/her actually do work - or, if you're single, establish your business as an LLC and hire yourself - you'll have to pay Social Security & Medicare on the wages, but this converts money from available)
  • Self-employed retirement account (if you're actually making a profit)
  • Possibly other expenses such as cellphone, internet, entertainment, meals, etc. ... these can require some planning to legitimately work as business, but are well worth it.
How do I get the money? Once you are keeping the documentation to establish yourself as a business, working it regularly, and taking the necessary deductions, you can then calculate the overall amount you'll save on taxes. You can adjust your W-4 accommodations accordingly, so that your paychecks from your (or your spouse's) W-2 employer have less removed from them. There's an IRS Withholding Calculator online which can help with this, or you can have your accountant take care of it. Every paycheck goes up, and that's your pay for regularly and consistently writing with the intent of profit.

Disclaimers: I am not a tax professional, so get the advice of one for your particular situation. Though these things generally apply, they don't apply to every situation. You may get audited, of course, but you'll have the documentation to get out of the audit, because you are only claiming legitimate business deductions. If you claim an illegitimate deduction, you deserve to get nailed.

Resources: Most of the information for this post comes from the following book, which along with some other resources have helped guide me through my economic re-awakening as a info-preneur the last couple of years.

Do your own research. Use this post as a jumping-off point for organizing your financial and writing spheres. Here are some free resources to help get started: