Passover Tax Day thoughts

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Why is this Passover different from most others? The first day coincides with Tax Day for Americans. Jews remember the bitter hardship and forced labor of slavery in Egypt. Scholars, however, can find no evidence of modern era-style slavery (or of Jews residing in or escaping from in Egypt). As for the pyramids there are records of payments to laborers, typically farmers who had nothing else to do at certain times of year. A “slave” in ancient Egypt may simply have been a person subject to a 20% tax that free Egyptians did not pay.

[To the children at last night's Seder I pointed out that "the plagues visited upon the Egyptians were so bad that their civilization lasted only about 2000 more years."]

Hugo Chavez’s legacy

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I’m reading Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. The book contains an interesting perspective on this leader, from an executive at the Venezuelan national oil company:

Sansó defended Chávez’s energy policy, saying the comandante had helped revive OPEC, sending prices rising even before the Iraq war, and had had the vision to recognize Venezuela’s oil was not just around Lake Maracaibo, in the west, but also in the center of the country along the Orinoco in a smiling arc known as the Faja. The same wilderness that had swallowed gold-seeking conquistadores contained enormous deposits of extra-heavy crude. The black ooze had long been written off as tar, a costly-to-extract type of liquid coal, and the old PDVSA gave foreign oil companies a virtual free hand to develop it. Chávez insisted it was oil, and eventually even the U.S. Geological Survey agreed. The zone contained an estimated 220 billion barrels—making Venezuela’s total reserves vaster than Saudi Arabia’s. Chávez partly nationalized the Faja in 2007, taking majority shares in the operations, an audacious decision that infuriated the foreign oil companies working there. “For that alone Chávez was worth it,” said Sansó. “He was crazy enough to do it. Any reasonable guy wouldn’t have had the guts. He would have said it’s not possible. A century from now Chávez will be remembered and thanked for this, no matter what else happens.”

The book could use some editing. It jumps back and forth in time. There is some redundancy. But it is highly relevant right now when politicians and newspapers worldwide are trying to get people excited about “income inequality” (e.g., see this New York Times op-ed from yesterday). Chávez did not just talk about income inequality but took action.

Income Inequality: The Uber Driver and the Patent Litigators

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Yesterday I was deposed as an expert witness in a patent case. The deposition was held at a law firm in the Seaport and started early in the morning so I decided to treat myself to an Uber (“black car” version, not the discount UberX). A Lincoln that could have been magnificently comfortable appeared. However, it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the driver, an immigrant from Ethiopia, had not elected to run on the climate control system. When I asked him if he would consider adding some heat, he used the touch screen on the dashboard to set the “front zone” (where he was sitting) to 80 degrees while leaving the rear zone (where I was sitting) off. I am always interested when people use technology in this manner so I asked him “Do you set the thermostat in your house at 80?”

I spent the rest of the day sitting with the attorneys who’d hired me. These native-born Americans with engineering undergraduate degrees and three years of law school behind them understood the technology of the patent plus all of the legal rules that apply to fights in Federal District Court, patent offer reexaminations, the new PTAB administrative law court within the patent office, the International Trade Commission, etc. Winning or losing a case will nearly always mean tens of millions of dollars changing hands if not hundreds of millions. The attorneys were able to keep an astonishing array of facts alive in their heads simultaneously and apply those facts.

What’s the income difference between these folks? This Reuters article says that New York taxi drivers earn about $150 per day driving their $1 million assets (the medallion!). That’s about what a law firm senior associate earns in one hour, so that’s maybe a 10:1 income ratio. This BLS page says taxi drivers earn closer to $12 per hour, a 12:1 ratio. Uber apparently does not gather statistics on what drivers actually earn, but has claimed at least once that it may be as much as $70,000 per year. Let’s call that $25 per hour or a 6:1 ratio.

[Note that all of these ratios would be smaller if we considered the fact that the law firm senior associate probably ends up working a lot more than 40 hours per week, so his or her $200-300,000/year income needs to be divided by 3000 hours instead of 2000 and works out to less than $100 per hour.]

The birth of Amazon.com

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon is an interesting book for those of us who planned and programmed early ecommerce sites.

Here’s a bit about Amazon’s early infrastructure and design…

Amazon’s first engineers coded in a computer language called C and decided to store the website in an off-the-shelf database called Berkeley DB that had never seen the levels of traffic to which it would soon be exposed.

[Fact check by Greenspun: "Oracle was always used for transactional business data, e.g. CUSTOMER, SESSION, SHIPMENT, etc. Berkeley DB was used for non-transactional data like the product catalog and were always built by offline processes." -- someone who knows]

One early challenge was that the book distributors required retailers to order ten books at a time. Amazon didn’t yet have that kind of sales volume, and Bezos later enjoyed telling the story of how he got around it. “We found a loophole,” he said. “Their systems were programmed in such a way that you didn’t have to receive ten books, you only had to order ten books. So we found an obscure book about lichens that they had in their system but was out of stock. We began ordering the one book we wanted and nine copies of the lichen book. They would ship out the book we needed and a note that said, ‘Sorry, but we’re out of the lichen book.’ ”

In early June, Kaphan added a reviews feature that he’d coded over a single weekend. Bezos believed that if Amazon.com had more user-generated book reviews than any other site, it would give the company a huge advantage; customers would be less inclined to go to other online bookstores. They had discussed whether such unfiltered user-generated content could get the company in trouble. Bezos decided to watch reviews closely for offensive material rather than read everything before it was published.

The site went live on July 16, 1995, and became visible to all Web users.

How well were the founders/managers able to predict the business trajectory?

In the meetings, Bezos presented what was, at best, an ambiguous picture of Amazon’s future. At the time, it had about $139,000 in assets, $69,000 of which was in cash. The company had lost $52,000 in 1994 and was on track to lose another $300,000 that year.

Against that meager start, Bezos would tell investors he projected $74 million in sales by 2000 if things went moderately well, and $114 million in sales if they went much better than expected. (Actual net sales in 2000: $1.64 billion.) Bezos also predicted the company would be moderately profitable by that time (net loss in 2000: $1.4 billion). He wanted to value the fledgling firm at $6 million—an aggressive valuation that he had seemingly picked out of thin air.

What happened when a group of MIT geniuses were pitted against one Lisp programmer from Utah?

That fall, the company focused on customizing the site for each visitor, just as Bezos had promised his original investors it would. Its first attempt relied on software developed by a firm called Firefly Network, an offshoot of the MIT Media Lab. The feature, which Amazon called Bookmatch, required customers to rate a few dozen books and then generated recommendations based on their tastes. The system was slow and crashed frequently, and Amazon found that customers were reluctant to go through the extra effort of evaluating books. So Bezos suggested that the personalization team develop a much simpler system, one that made recommendations based on books that customers had already bought. Eric Benson took about two weeks to construct a preliminary version that grouped together customers who had similar purchasing histories and then found books that appealed to the people in each group. That feature, called Similarities, immediately yielded a noticeable uptick in sales and allowed Amazon to point customers toward books that they might not otherwise have found.

The author adopts a worshipful attitude toward Jeff Bezos, whose advice is almost always so prescient that people refer to him as “prescient”:

Later Bezos recalled speaking at an all-hands meeting called to address the assault by Barnes & Noble. “Look, you should wake up worried, terrified every morning,” he told his employees. “But don’t be worried about our competitors because they’re never going to send us any money anyway. Let’s be worried about our customers and stay heads-down focused.”

Brin and Page left Shriram’s house after breakfast. Revealing once again his utter faith in passionate entrepreneurs’ power to harness the Internet, Bezos immediately told Shriram that he wanted to personally invest in Google. Shriram told him the financing round had closed months ago, but Bezos insisted and said he wanted the same deal terms as other early investors. Shriram said he would try to get it done. He later went back to the Google founders and argued that Bezos’s insight and budding celebrity could help the fledgling firm, and they agreed. Brin and Page flew to Seattle and spent an hour with Bezos at Amazon’s offices talking about technical issues like computer infrastructure. “Jeff was very helpful in some of those early meetings,” Larry Page says. Thus did Jeff Bezos become one of the original investors in Google, his company’s future rival, and four years after starting Amazon, he minted an entirely separate fortune that today might be worth well over a billion dollars. (Bezos adamantly refuses to discuss whether he kept some or all of his Google holdings after its IPO in 2004.) “He’s so prescient. It’s like he can peer into the future,” says Shriram

At the same time, Bezos is a slave-driver:

The assumption was that no one would take even a weekend day off. “Nobody said you couldn’t, but nobody thought you would,” says Susan Benson. Eric Benson adds, “There were deadlines and death marches.”

Parking was scarce and expensive. Nicholas Lovejoy suggested to Bezos that the company subsidize bus passes for employees, but Bezos scoffed at the idea. “He didn’t want employees to leave work to catch the bus,” Lovejoy says. “He wanted them to have their cars there so there was never any pressure to go home.”

During one memorable meeting, a female employee pointedly asked Bezos when Amazon was going to establish a better work-life balance. He didn’t take that well. “The reason we are here is to get stuff done, that is the top priority,” he answered bluntly. “That is the DNA of Amazon. If you can’t excel and put everything into it, this might not be the place for you.”

Kim Rachmeler shared a favorite quote she heard from a colleague around that time. “If you’re not good, Jeff will chew you up and spit you out. And if you’re good, he will jump on your back and ride you into the ground.”

Amazon does not share the Fortune 500′s fondness for PowerPoint and Kumbaya:

“Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.” At that meeting and in public speeches afterward, Bezos vowed to run Amazon with an emphasis on decentralization and independent decision-making. “A hierarchy isn’t responsive enough to change,” he said. “I’m still trying to get people to do occasionally what I ask. And if I was successful, maybe we wouldn’t have the right kind of company.”

PowerPoint is a very imprecise communication mechanism,” says Jeff Holden, Bezos’s former D. E. Shaw colleague, who by that point had joined the S Team. “It is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. You are never forced to express your thoughts completely.” Bezos announced that employees could no longer use such corporate crutches and would have to write their presentations in prose, in what he called narratives. The S Team debated with him over the wisdom of scrapping PowerPoint but Bezos insisted. He wanted people thinking deeply and taking the time to express their thoughts cogently. “I don’t want this place to become a country club,” he was fond of saying as he pushed employees harder.

“What we do is hard. This is not where people go to retire.” There was a period of grumbling adjustment. Meetings no longer started with someone standing up and commanding the floor as they had previously at Amazon and everywhere else throughout the corporate land. Instead, the narratives were passed out and everyone sat quietly reading the document for fifteen minutes—or longer.

Bezos refined the formula even further. Every time a new feature or product was proposed, he decreed that the narrative should take the shape of a mock press release. The goal was to get employees to distill a pitch into its purest essence, to start from something the customer might see—the public announcement—and work backward.

Amazon can be a comfortable place to work, however:

[in 2006] A temporary employee in the Coffeyville, Kansas, fulfillment center showed up at the start of his shift and left at the end of it, but strangely, he was not logging any actual work in the hours in between. Amazon’s time clocks were not yet linked to the system that tracked productivity, so the discrepancy went unnoticed for at least a week. Finally someone uncovered the scheme. The worker had surreptitiously tunneled out a cavern inside an eight-foot-tall pile of empty wooden pallets in a far corner of the fulfillment center. Inside, completely blocked from view, he had created a cozy den and furnished it with items purloined from Amazon’s plentiful shelves. There was food, a comfortable bed, pictures ripped from books adorning the walls—and several pornographic calendars.

Amazon dominated cloud services with low prices:

Bezos believed his company had a natural advantage in its cost structure and ability to survive in the thin atmosphere of low-margin businesses. Companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Google, he suspected, would hesitate to get into such markets because it would depress their overall profit margins. Bill Miller, the chief investment officer at Legg Mason Capital Management and a major Amazon shareholder, asked Bezos at the time about the profitability prospects for AWS. Bezos predicted they would be good over the long term but said that he didn’t want to repeat “Steve Jobs’s mistake” of pricing the iPhone in a way that was so fantastically profitable that the smartphone market became a magnet for competition. The comment reflected his distinctive business philosophy. Bezos believed that high margins justified rivals’ investments in research and development and attracted more competition, while low margins attracted customers and were more defensible. … Bezos’s belief was borne out, and AWS’s deliberately low rates had their intended effect; Google chairman Eric Schmidt said it was at least two years before he noticed that the founders of seemingly every startup he visited told him they were building their systems atop Amazon’s servers. “All of the sudden, it was all Amazon,” Schmidt says. “It’s a significant benefit when every interesting fast-growing company starts on your platform.”

Amazon employs at least 80 full-time people to navigate the world of taxes:

Color-coded maps were widely distributed to employees at headquarters in Seattle. Travel to green states like Michigan was okay, but orange states like California required special clearance so that the legal department could track the cumulative number of days Amazon employees spent there. Travel to red states, like Texas, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, required employees to complete an intensive seventeen-item questionnaire about the trip that was designed to determine whether they would make the company vulnerable to sales-tax collection efforts (number 16: “Will you be holding a raffle?”). Amazon lawyers then either nixed the trip altogether or obtained a private letter ruling from that state spelling out its specific treatment of that particular situation.

“The economic outlook for many states is bleak,” read one early 2010 internal tax memo to employees that was filed in the Vadim Tsypin case record. “As a result, states are pursuing taxpayers more aggressively than before. Amazon’s recent public experiences with New York and Texas provide timely and pertinent examples of the heightened risk. That’s why our attention to nexus-related issues are more important than ever.”

As the era of tax-free online purchases was ending in many states, the true architect of Amazon’s tax strategy and chief of its eighty-person tax department, an attorney named Robert Comfort, stepped out of the shadows. Comfort, a Princeton alumnus who joined Amazon in 2000, had spent more than a decade employing every trick in the book, and inventing many new ones, to minimize the company’s tax burden. He created its controversial tax structure in Europe, funneling sales through entities in Luxembourg, which has a famously low tax rate. In 2012, this arcane tax structure nearly collapsed amid a wave of populist European anger directed at Amazon and other U.S. companies, including Google, who were trying to minimize their overseas tax burden.

Shopping for your next car? Want to know what a billionaire chooses for his family?

On a cold, wet Tuesday morning in early November 2012 at around nine o’clock, a Honda minivan pulled up to Day One North, on the corner of Terry Avenue and Republican Street in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. Jeff Bezos, sitting in the passenger seat, leaned over to kiss his wife, MacKenzie, good-bye, got out of the car, and walked self-assuredly into the building to start another day.

Factcheck by Greenspun: I asked one of the first Amazon employees what he thought of the book. Here is the response: “Substantially accurate, yes. I did get some stress flashbacks while reading. My biggest problem with the book is that it paints Jeff as a capricious tyrant. While this was a side of him that we saw, I think Brad went overboard on this. Jeff is not Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. He is neither bipolar nor an autistic savant. He is capable of non-manipulative genuine human emotion. Most of the time he was a reasonable person making audacious decisions that turned out to be correct.”

More: read the book

Should the SEC make it illegal for public companies to employ men?

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Today the President of the United States told us that men are paid 30 percent more for doing the same work as women. See this New York Times story:

 “America deserves equal pay for equal work,” he said. Noting that it was “Equal Pay Day,” he said a woman who worked in 2013 had to work this far into 2014 to catch up to what a man earned by the end of last year.

“That’s not fair,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s like adding another six miles to a marathon.” He added: “America should be a level playing field, a fair race for everybody.”

The president, as he has in the past, reiterated that it was “an embarrassment” that women on average earn 77 cents for every dollar men make.

Presumably the President would not mislead us with false data. Thus it is an established fact that companies who hire men are paying a 30 percent premium, presumably to golfing, fishing, and flying buddies of the (male) executives. Perhaps this is an acceptable practice for a private company, but why should managers at a public company be allowed to steal from shareholders in this manner?

President Obama could use his executive powers to have the Securities and Exchange Commission make it illegal for public corporations to hire men. Typical companies spend between 20 and 50 percent of their revenue on wages. Some companies have a male-dominated workforce. Thus a 25 percent cut to these costs, achieved via the stroke of a government pen, would improve profitability by as much as 12 percent of revenue, an enormous boost for the typical public company (S&P 500 operating profit margin is about 10 percent of revenue).

[Note that this would also yield a big boost to state and federal treasuries, since roughly 40 percent of these extra profits would be collected in tax in the typical state.]

Malaysia 370 related reading: Vanished

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If you’re looking for something to read that is related to Malaysia 370, I’m in the middle of Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II, a book about looking for planes that crashed in the ocean.

Previous book read: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (recommended).

Brendan Eich

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Friends at MIT have been asking for comments on Brandon Eich resigning from Mozilla (story) following publicity regarding a donation that he made in support of a 2008 proposition banning gay marriage in California and news articles describing him as “anti-gay”. I replied “How do we know that he is anti-gay? Has he been quoted as saying anything against gay people? Can we reliably infer from a donation made in 2008 what his opinions might be in 2014, six years later? Do we know anything about why he made the donation six years ago? Did he have a friend who was passionate about the proposition and asked him to contribute? [I have made a lot of donations to organizations selected by friends running marathons or doing bicycle rides, for example, despite the fact that I either (a) knew very little about these organizations, and (b) in some cases would have actively opposed the idea of giving the selected organization money.] Was he against civil marriage in general, on the grounds that civil marriages can be dissolved only via litigation, which generates a lot of acrimony that is harmful to children and can cost $1 million or more in legal fees (money that would otherwise be available for childrens’ college education and inheritance)? [See my Divorce Corp. movie review for more about divorce in Eich's home state of California.] Was he against the idea of gay marriage in 2008 but now accepts it as part of the landscape in 2014?”

Even if one were to accept the idea that an employee should be fired for not holding the same political beliefs as the majority of Americans, in this particular case it does not seem that anyone, other than Mr. Eich, knows anything about Mr. Eich’s current political beliefs or that anyone has real information about Mr. Eich’s past political beliefs.

Related: summary of the known facts by a Mozilla employee

[Separately, does this show that all American jobs are converging on how my friend described his job as a tenured physics professor: "I can be fired for any reason, except incompetence." Bob Nardelli and his golfing buddies on the Board of Home Depot managed to loot from shareholders for six years before the tens of billions in lost value became impossible to ignore. If any of the folks on this list don't seem to be worth $100 million per year anymore, maybe shareholders can dig up evidence of past support for a currently disfavored political position and stop the bleeding (see my economic recovery article for how public company shareholders are disempowered by federal regulations).]

Sun n Fun

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For the first time in my aviation life I attended Sun n Fun, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Here are some notes…

The big story is the continuing rise of the tablet. With a $900 AHRS/WAAS GPS (example) stuck to the glareshield, a $150/year app on your iPad or Android tablet will give you everything that a $50,000 glass panel plus $2000/year in data subscriptions gets you. Traffic, weather (free via ADS-B from the Federales), synthetic vision (Microsoft Flight Simulator view of the world), georeferenced charts, etc. The app on your tablet will be improved every couple of months without you doing anything. The $50,000 certified glass panel will languish with ancient processor speeds and painful monthly manual data updates.

[The big war in the tablet world seems to be between Foreflight and Garmin. Garmin right now has an edge in that they support synthetic vision.]

At the opposite end of the avionics spectrum is Bendix-King, a division of Honeywell. These guys are calmly standing by while their products are being ripped out of America’s general aviation fleet and replaced with Garmin. Consider the Pilatus PC-12. This product came with four King EFIS tubes plus a King KLN 90B, a King multi-function display, and King radios. Want to upgrade the GPS with something more modern? King doesn’t make a plug-compatible replacement for the once-popular 90B. So as long as you are cutting a hole in the panel you might as well go with the more popular Garmin systems. EFIS CRT tube fails? King doesn’t have anything new that fits so you should get the Garmin G600 STC from Pilatus and chuck everything that King put into the airplane. It could hardly be better for Garmin if Honeywell’s executives were on the Garmin payroll.

Fans of utility planes will appreciate the Discovery 201, a nearly certified twin with a Russian heritage. Ridiculously slow but you could load a stack of dog crates in through the back doors. Two of the same engines as the Cirrus SR20, which means that if one engine quits you’re trying to climb with roughly the same horsepower and an airplane that weighs 4850 lbs. instead of 3000. No single-engine performance numbers are published. Technam showed its very cute certified P2006T Rotax-powered twin. At almost $600,000 it costs about three times as much as a good used six-seat Beechcraft Baron. If you fly it 5000 hours you may come out ahead due to the lower fuel burn/cost. As with the Discovery 201, single-engine performance seems like a theoretical concept. Each engine produces 100 horsepower and the airplane has a gross weight of 2700 lbs.

Startup flight schools are overtaking 50-year-old schools, e.g., with 3-year-old schools keeping 10 airplanes busy at rates that are 50% higher than their competition. How? Veterans Administration 100 percent funding (with no regard to pricing) for students at flight schools that are affiliated with four-year colleges. This is truly the golden era for schools that can work the federal regulatory hurdles.

The family-owned Daher-Socata was there with the TBM 900, a $3.7 million six-seater sporting a new five-blade Hartzell composite prop that cuts interior noise by about 2 dB. Epic Aircraft is stuffed full of Russian money and bringing their formerly experimental (home-built) six-seat turboprop to market as a certified airplane in 2015 (that’s the goal; it doesn’t seem quite as insane as some due to the fact that they are making virtually no changes to the airframe and the engine is the already-certified PT-6). The certified composite Epic will cost about $2.75 million and beats the 25-year-old aluminum TBM at everything. No bathroom so it is a good thing that the plane goes fast!

Patty Wagstaff gave an inspiring talk about how she became a competition aerobatic pilot. Her father was an airline pilot and her husband was an attorney willing to work hard enough to keep buying her higher performance airplanes. “My husband, now ex-husband actually, gave me the best advice that I ever got,” Wagstaff noted. “He said just try one competition and if you don’t like it we can always sell the Decathlon. Take it one step at a time and don’t worry about getting beyond the next event.” Wagstaff was advocating that all pilots learn aerobatics during their primary training, rather than having to be retrained with “upset training” when they start flying jets. Pilots are generally Fox News libertarians, but Wagstaff could hardly finish speaking due to the demands that the federal government (FAA) get on this problem and mandate that everyone seeking a Private or Commercial certificate do aerobatics. (If you do want to learn aerobatics, Wagstaff now has her own flight school in St. Augustine, Florida. For $325/hour (Decathlon) or $495/hour (Extra) you can take lessons from Wagstaff herself. That’s kind of like taking intro tennis lessons from Venus Williams.)

A good talk with great pictures was given by Bob Jones, a retired medical doctor. He tows a two-seat folding wing Kitfox in a trailer behind a Roadtrek motorhome. Total cost of RV, trailer, and airplane? About $60,000 (all but the trailer were purchased used). Now he drives around to beautiful parts of the nation, pulls into an airport, takes the Kitfox out of the trailer, and flies low and slow to sightsee. He can get the airplane out of the trailer and ready to fly in about 10 minutes (down from 45 minutes at first).

The core demographic of the show was best summed up by the first evening’s “entertainment series” event: “Building Interest in the Future of Aviation”. I.e., why is it mostly old white guys who care about this? The panelists for the discussion? Four old white guys (pictured wearing dark suits and gray hair). Flying, especially when one is flying two-seat aircraft, need not be expensive. So why is it that young adults mostly don’t do it? “Time,” one woman said. “With a full-time job and kids there was just no way to carve out time for lessons. After I got divorced, though, I had every other weekend free and the child support was enough to pay for a factory-new airplane.”

The one company that has a proven ability to convert non-aviators into customers, Icon Aircraft, did not have a booth at the show for their Icon A5 Seaplane. It is already at least three years late. Maybe the people who bought them will in fact be old by the time they actually receive delivery of this amphibious two-seater. In the meantime they can enjoy ever-better and cheaper non-motion simulators from a variety of vendors. Should an Icon customer want a well-proven ready-to-fly-since-1948 aircraft instead, United Helicopters is rebuilding and selling the Hiller UH-12. For $110,000 you get a truly beautiful machine with all components overhauled. (If you’re in Sarasota you can take a lesson in one of these! The hourly rate is $330, about the same as what East Coast Aero Club charges for an almost-new four seat Robinson R44. This calls into question the claim that the Hiller is economical to operate.)

[If you're stuck on the amphibious composite seaplane idea, check out the Brazilian Super Petrel biplane, one of which actually had flown into Sun n Fun.]

My favorite vendor: Signature Flight Support. They were there for us with shade, comfortable sofas, and free bottles of water on ice. Your $9.58/gallon at Teterboro is going to a good cause!

We celebrated the end of our visit with a trip to Bern’s Steak House, which my friends proclaimed to be one of the best restaurants they’d ever enjoyed. Riding home on JetBlue I overheard two JetBlue employees chatting. The airline had decided to load up an Airbus full of New York-area high school kids interested in aviation and take them directly to Lakeland. What could be more fun than a private trip on JetBlue in an air-conditioned Airbus? Unfortunately the airplane is heavy enough that even a private flight requires TSA screening. So JetBlue had to get a TSA crew to come to Lakeland. It was apparently a small team because it took them 1.5 hours to screen the teenagers, during which time they were all baking in the direct Florida sun.

Photos: on Google+

Fun gift idea: take some pictures of a friend’s airplane and send them to factorydirectmodels.com to have a beautiful model, including realistic panel and interior, fabricated in the Philippines.

Why can’t the IRS tell me how much income I got?

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Folks:

I’m working on my 2013 taxes. My accountant says that I can have a PIN to electronically communicate with the IRS regarding estimated taxes, electronic signatures, and bank transfers. Meanwhile I am gathering up a lot of paper forms and downloadable PDFs from various financial institutions that reported simultaneously to me and the IRS how much they paid me in dividends and interest. I’m wondering why I have to do this. Isn’t the IRS’s own computer system the best source of data regarding how much an American was paid by an American bank? If taxpayers have a secure way of dealing with the IRS, which we apparently do, shouldn’t we be able to go to irs.gov at tax time and just check a box saying “that’s all of the interest and dividends that I got”?

(And yes I recognize that healthcare.gov was not exactly a shining moment for Federal government IT, but I do think the IRS could build a Web site that queries a database by SSN and uses a SUM function.)

Get together Tuesday or Wednesday at Sun n Fun?

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Aviation nerds: I’m heading down to Sun n Fun in Lakeland, Florida. Would any readers like to get together Tuesday or Wednesday down there?

Architecture AND aviation nerds: Remember that Frank Lloyd Wright’s largest work is located in Lakeland.

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