Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Pick Your Favorites

     As I mentioned in my November 4 post, I'm taking a photography course at home. While I'm here in South Carolina, as part of the course, I'm putting together a portfolio about the beach in November. The idea is to show the beach in its more natural state, after all the crowds have gone home.

     Most of the photos feature shots of sand and water and jetties. But I want to include a few photos of town as well. After all, when you think of the beach, don't you also call up the image of the dive bar, or the souvenir shop, the ice-cream stand or the restaurant with fishnets hanging from the ceiling? Here's a photo of a restaurant, taken through the front window.

     Ultimately I'll probably include two or three town shots in my portfolio. So, if you would do me the favor, could you tell me in the comment section below, which of these rank as your favorites. Here we have a souvenir shop, looking in the front door.

     Or . . . maybe this photo of a display which I found along the side of a building.

     Or, of this dog trying to look cool . . .

     But like I said, it's the people who count the most. Here's a fisherman out on the pier.

     And a woman lying on the beach . . .

     Or, do you prefer the long shot of the couple on the beach?

     Then we have a bird's eye view.

     And a seagull who ... she looks cold, doesn't she?

     Finally, a more abstract look at a fence.

     That's all I have for now. Again, I'd value your opinion on which are your favorites, hoping that at least a couple of them are interesting enough to catch and hold your eye.

     When I get home, and after I present my portfolio to the class, I'll be sure to bring you the results -- meaning, what the teacher and my classmates said about them. Thanks again!

Friday, November 10, 2017

What's a Snowbird?

     B and I are spending the first three weeks of November in the Carolinas. We came here to enjoy the warmer weather, to be sure, but the main reason we drove down here is because we stopped to see my daughter, who lives in Raleigh, NC, and then we're visiting with B's son (and now a grandson!) who lives in Charleston, SC. (We don't stay with her son . . . no way. We rent our own place out at the beach.)

     We will go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then I will depart for three weeks in Florida, before meeting up with B to spend the month of February back in Charleston.

     I invite B every year to go with me to Florida but she only went once . . . and won't go back. She doesn't like Florida. It might be interesting to interview her and do a post on all the things that are, in her mind, wrong with Florida.

     So anyway, we had this same schedule last year. It seems to be our developing pattern, now that B is retired. Three weeks in November, then for a month in February, with me taking a side trip to Florida. So . . . does that make us Snowbirds?

     I don't think so. The Carolinas are a place where many Northerners go to retire. But they're not visiting; they live here. It's a compromise. The winter can be chilly, but there's no snow like in the north. The summers are hot and muggy, but not as bad as Florida, and the brutal heat of summer doesn't last as long either.

     Not too many people come to the Carolinas just for the winter. The true Snowbirds go farther south, usually to Florida. From my experience you have to get south of Orlando before you can rely on a balmy January or February.

     Of course the West Coast has its own version of Snowbirds. They go from Oregon or Washington, usually to Arizona. If you live in California -- like the Carolinas -- you don't need to go anywhere else.

     But I don't think the Carolinas qualify us for Snowbird status. And three weeks in Florida is not enough time. Besides, doesn't Snowbird have a slightly negative connotation?

     Snowbirds are kind of a cliche. They are old and retired and wear funny-looking clothes. They are kind of selfish, only concerned with their own comfort level, people who abandon friends and family at the first sign of cold weather. They are, literally, fair-weather friends. Or maybe they're the much-hated one-percenters who can afford two homes and are gaming the tax system by claiming residence in a low-tax state, while they really continue to live and enjoy the amenities of the North.

     Okay, now I'm going too far. I don't mean to insult anybody. After all, my parents were full-fledged Snowbirds and they weren't one-percenters -- although they did wear funny-looking clothes. My dad favored a checked sport jacket, turquoise pants and he sometimes wore a hat and a tie that were at least 30 years old. (He never got a pair of white shoes, though . . . gotta give him that!)

     Besides, if I had my druthers, I'd probably be a Snowbird myself. Personally, I like Florida. I was even there once in the summer, watching July 4th fireworks, and I didn't find the heat and humidity all that oppressive. I already play golf, which seems to be a prerequisite for retiring to Florida (and Arizona too?). And according to B anyway, I already wear the funny-looking clothes. So, uh, I guess credit goes to B . . . for keeping me from becoming a cliche.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Which Do You Like Better?

     I am taking a photography course with an organization called the Center for Learning in Retirement, held at our local university in Pennsylvania. For our final project we have to put together a portfolio based on a certain theme.

     B and I just arrived at the beach in South Carolina. We'll be here for two weeks, seeing B's son and grandson, who live nearby in Charleston . . .  and, well, enjoying the sand and the surf and the little beach town and, hopefully, some warm weather.

     So I picked for my photography theme: November at the Beach.

     Ultimately, I have to put together a portfolio of about a dozen photos that encapsulate the feel of the beach at this time of year -- the Carolina beach after the season is over, after the crowds go home.

     So I'm asking for your help. I have a few photos here. Can you tell me in the comment section which of the two photos you like better? Or, please let me know if you don't like either of them -- be honest because I'll have to show these photos to my teacher and the rest of the class ... and, you know, I don't want to embarrass myself by presenting lousy photos. One problem with beach pictures is that they tend toward the cliche -- the setting sun, the breaking waves, the pretty flowers. Of course, a lot of what makes a good picture is not the subject matter, but how you look at it, the point of view.

     So anyway, if you'd do me the favor, please let me know which you like better . . .  Number 1:

No. 1

     Or Number 2:

No. 2

     I know, the photos are similar. But which captures the mood better? Or, again please be honest, are they both boring or too familiar?

     How about Number 3:

No. 3

     Or Number 4? They cover the same subject, but they are somewhat different, aren't they? Which one speaks to you better, No. 3 or No. 4?

No. 4

     How about this look at a beach road, with the shadows . . . You like Number 5 better:

No. 5

     Or this one, Number 6, which is a road of a different kind  . . .

No. 6

     And then I've got a closeup of a shell. Number 7 shows the shell through the water.

No. 7

     But does Number 8, with the shadow, seem better than No. 7 -- or are they both kinda boring?

No. 8

     And finally, which of these three do you like best . . . all playing with the late-in-the-day shadows. Number 9:

No. 9

     Or Number 10:

No. 10

     Or Number 11:

No. 11

     I appreciate your "votes" and thank you for your help. If you think this is fun, I'll show more photos later in the week. If it's not fun . . . well then, I'll just bug B with my photos. She's stuck here with me for two weeks and can't get away!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

New Tax Plan -- Fair or Not Fair

     If I had to bet, I would bet that the proposed Republican tax reform bill does not get passed, that it never actually makes it into law. However, I also know I am not very good at predicting the political future, so let me put in my two cents' worth about the tax reform proposal ... what it proposes, and whether it's fair or not. My information about the proposal comes from U.S. News, which I assume is accurate but not necessarily comprehensive.

     First of all I agree that the tax code ought to be simplified. Does this proposal accomplish that? Well, it reduces the tax brackets from seven to four; it raises the standard deduction so more people will be able to file without having to itemize deductions. Perhaps it's a small step in the right direction. But it FALLS SHORT in accomplishing a true simplification that would allow the majority of people to understand the code and do their own taxes.

     The most-advertised change is the lowering of the business tax from 35% to 20%. People will argue all day long about whether or not this is a good thing. Proponents say it will spur investment, jobs and income. Opponents argue that it will add to the federal deficit and that most of the benefits will go to the rich. The truth is, NOBODY KNOWS what the effects will be. So it's hard to say whether this is fair or not.

     The current seven tax brackets will be reduced to four, ranging from 12% to 39.6%. The highest rate has not been reduced. So ... FAIR.

     Certain deductions are capped. The mortgage deduction is currently capped at $1 million. In other words, mortgage interest is tax deductible up to the interest paid on a $1 million loan. The proposal calls for lowering the cap to $500,000. Despite howls of protest from the real-estate industry, this only seems FAIR to me. I think it's a good idea for the federal government to encourage home ownership, because it is generally considered a social good. But come on. There should be a reasonable limit on how much the rest of us subsidize people buying million-dollar-plus McMansions, don't you think?.

     The other cap is for state and local property tax. Currently, all real-estate tax is exempt from federal income tax. The proposal calls for a cap at $10,000. In effect, this increases taxes on people living in wealthy areas, who benefit from the extra services their $10,000-plus property taxes pay for. Again, I think we should subsidize local governments, particularly local school systems. But there's no reason why regular people should subsidize other people's $10,000-plus luxuries. So ... FAIR.

     The Republican tax plan would eliminate the tax credit for buying electric vehicles. FAIR, BUT NOT SMART. It would eliminate deductions for state and local income taxes, casualty losses, medical expenses (currently deductible at over 10% of income); alimony payments and moving expenses necessary for a job. To compensate the Republican bill would almost double the standard deduction from $12,700 to $24,000 for a married couple and from $6,350 to $12,000 for single filers. It would also increase the child deduction from $1000 to $1600, but eliminate the personal exemption. On balance this would benefit families and punish single people, but the effects would be minimal. So all this pretty much comes out in the wash, and simplifies the tax code. FAIR.

     The plan would also eliminate the alternative minimum tax -- originally designed to make sure the very highest-income individuals pay at least some tax, even if they pile on the deductions and other tax dodges available to those with high incomes and high-priced accountants. But the AMT has morphed into a complicated add-on that now affects not just the super-rich, but also significant numbers of upper-middle-income filers. FAIR.

     The plan would not eliminate the so-called carried interest clause, which offers select financial executives a huge tax break by classifying their income as capital gains instead of regular income, thus taxing it at a lower rate. Donald Trump railed against this tax break during the campaign -- as did Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and virtually every other candidate. But despite the protests, this particular tax break for the favored few has not been eliminated. NOT FAIR.

     The plan would also phase out the inheritance tax (or the death tax, in Republican parlance). Currently, estates worth over $5.5 million are subject to estate tax. Under this plan no estate tax would be levied on even the wealthiest of the wealthy. NOT FAIR.

     One last thing. There was talk of putting more severe caps on the amounts people could put into their 401K accounts. This element was dropped. So workers will still be able to deposit up to $18,000 in a 401K account. Yet people who do not work for a big corporation, who do not have a 401K, and instead rely on an IRA, are limited to a $5,500 contribution (or $6,500 if you're over 50). In my opinion, everyone should have the same caps on their contributions. Everyone should be treated equally. So ... UNFAIR.

     As I said, I do not know if this is a comprehensive look at the new tax plan, but it covers the basics. Some good things; some bad things. But is it progress? The beat goes on.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Packing in a Lot of Food

     With all the Halloween talk about treats and candy, B and I last Sunday thought we could pitch in for a more serious effort to help feed the children. It's an initiative through B's church, which gathered together 424 volunteers at our local university to help pack food that will be sent to poor children in some 80 countries around the world.

     The sponsor of the event was an organization called Feed My Starving Children, which is a Christian non-profit that has been distributing food to poor people since 1987.

Hard at work
     So we gathered in an auditorium, listened to a hymn, heard a prayer, then got the instructions on what to do. B and I headed off to a table where we were packing meals called Manna Packs. Each individually packaged meal basically consists of rice, fortified with soy, dried vegetables and powdered vitamins.

     Each table involved a 15-man operation. Four people ladled in the ingredients; two people funneled them into  plastic bags, two more checked and weighed the ingredients, two more folded the bags, and then one person heat-sealed the bags. Then a crew of four people packed the bags into boxes.

     Other volunteers were bringing in the ingredients and the empty boxes to the tables. Then the filled boxes were picked up by more volunteers and hauled off to a loading dock, where still others were loading the boxes into trucks. Meanwhile, there were a few Feed My Starving Children staff members who set up the production line, coordinated our efforts, and provided instructions, advice and general support.

Not me ... but a proud volunteer
     We were just one three-hour "shift" in a four-day operation that was packing and sending some 1.2 million meals around the world. A few members of B's church had been to Haiti to view one of the receiving ends of the operation -- where the food actually made it into the hands of poor, starving children. It was heartening to see the effects. They had "before" pictures of obviously malnourished children, and "after" pictures of the same children, only a few months later, who had been given a steady diet of these fortified meals.

     Our group packed over 100,000 meals, which sounds like a lot. But actually, it's a drop in the bucket. This would provide a two-week supply. But there was more to come, since another group was following in after us for another shift of packing food.

     Honestly, I don't know where they get the food, or how they process it into the ingredients that we poured into the Manna Packs. But I can tell you, I came away with a better appreciation of the difficult and enormous logistical job it is to meet even some of the needs of crying and starving children around the world.

      And also, after spending most of a morning on a production line, sealing plastic bags, and then ladling soy granules into a funnel, it gives me a better appreciation of the difficulty of working on an assembly line. My wrist was killing me by the end of the day, and B had a sore back. But if it saved even a few lives, it was worth the effort.