The Fabulous World of Shareware

Today I wanted to convert 26 height measurements I made into a topographic map. Complicating the project was the fact that my data were not spaced at regular cartesian grid points, but rather compass-style at 30-degree intervals from a series of reference points. Within a few minutes of searching online I found this shareware program from 2004 that could take a plaintext file of the xyz points as an input and interpolate a surface, producing this:

Another great piece of freeware that recently simplified some of my other work is this VBA “Decompiler”: I have been pushing the envelope with Excel, and since Microsoft Office is sloppy with its Visual Basic interpreters one must occasionally purge all VBA code from a workbook and reload it – a kludgy process that was automated by the author of that clever tool.

Tax Optimization: Charitable Giving

If you don’t itemize deductions when filing your personal federal taxes then you get no tax benefit for charitable giving. But if you coordinate charitable donations with other taxpayers you can keep more money out of the hands of the government.

Important tax terminology: A “deduction” is an expenditure or loss that reduces the amount of income that is subject to tax. Individual taxpayers have the option of either listing (“itemizing”) and subtracting all allowed deductions when calculating and filing their taxes, or instead just subtracting a Standard Deduction. Itemized Deductions can’t reduce your tax bill unless they exceed your Standard Deduction. The Standard Deduction for tax year 2020 is $12,400.

The idea behind the Standard Deduction is that on average every taxpayer has some deductions. Correctly itemizing deductions – i.e., listing them out and ensuring they are valid and compliant with the tax code – can take a lot of work. In order to simplify tax compliance for the average taxpayer the tax code offers the Standard Deduction for free. Taxpayers who think they have more deductions than what is assumed by the Standard Deduction can choose to do the accounting work to claim those deductions.

When you claim Itemized Deductions you “lose” your Standard Deduction. This is only meaningful if you can shift deductions around. Shifting deductions is not something the tax code was designed for, but it can be done legally and it’s a big part of tax optimization.

Shifting as an individual (a.k.a. “bunching”)

If you claim the Standard Deduction then your Itemized Deductions have no tax value. For many taxpayers the biggest deductible expense – and often the only one that can be easily “shifted” – is Charitable Donations. In order to minimize taxes you should “bunch” donations into a single tax year in which you Itemize Deductions, and then claim the Standard Deduction the other years.

For example: Suppose you tithe $10,000 a year to your church, and you don’t have many other deductions. If you pay your tithing once per tax year you would get no tax benefit from your tithes because it doesn’t exceed the Standard Deduction of $12,400. But suppose you paid your 2019 tithing all on 1 January 2020, and then you paid your 2020 tithes on 31 December 2020 (instead of in January 2021). Now for tax year 2020 you have $20,000 in deductible donations (which is worth itemizing), and in 2021 you can claim the Standard Deduction.

In practice not so many individuals will find themselves able to profitably shift Itemized Deductions.

Shifting within groups

When coordinated within a group, shifting charitable donations can readily save a lot of taxes. Remember that as an individual claiming the Standard Deduction your donations have no tax value … to you. But if you know somebody who is Itemizing Deductions and you donate through them then your donation will reduce their tax bill!

How do you donate through someone else? Whatever you want to donate to a charity you “gift” to them, and then they donate it instead. (Shifting like this need only be a paper transaction: So long as they get the receipt they can claim the donation.) The tax code contains an annual gift exclusion – currently $15,000 per person. I.e., you can gift anyone up to $15,000 per year without triggering a gift tax. (The gift exclusion is per person, so you can give a couple up to $30,000 per year. This is relevant because spouses have to choose between the Itemized and Standard Deduction whether filing separately or jointly.)

For example, if everyone in your family gives $10,000 a year to your church, it could be that nobody is able to deduct the tithes. If everyone instead gives their tithes to one donor and that donor Itemizes Deductions, then the donor gets the full tax value of the donations and everyone else gets the full value of the Standard Deduction.

The tax benefits compound further if the donor is the group member with the highest marginal tax rate. For example, suppose you and your siblings live in states with no income tax and you only earn enough to put you in the 24% tax bracket. If you itemize and deduct everyone’s tithing then each $10,000 donation will save you 24% of $10,000, or $2,400 in taxes. But suppose your father lives in New York City: his marginal tax rate could be over 45%. If he donates and deducts $10,000 it saves him $4,500 in taxes!

What benefit do you get by shifting through someone else? There’s the principled argument, which is that big government is wasteful and does not spend money wisely, and it is therefore best to keep as much money out of the government’s hands as possible. (If you disagree, then you are welcome to pay more in taxes than required by law: Donations to the U.S. Treasury are tax deductible! But for all the big-government sanctimony out there the reality is that virtually nobody gives money to the government voluntarily.)

Then there’s the practical consideration: You could share the tax savings created by shifting. For example, if you gift your father $10,000; he donates it to your church; he saves $4,500 in taxes; he could gift that full $4,500 in savings back to you and be no worse off.

Check your dryer vent

When your clothes dryer says “check vent” you really should. In this case the outside vent cap was unobstructed. But the dryer insisted. I pulled the dryer away from the wall to disconnect the flex duct and discovered it packed with straw – apparently by a bird that thought it would make a cozy nest.

I pulled out a giant wad of grass, cleaned the flex duct, reconnected it, and thought that was the end of the matter. “Check vent” came on again. This time I reached deep into the vent on the dryer side and pulled out another foot-long plug of woven grass!

Beginning Violin

When I was four years old my parents asked me if I wanted to learn to play the violin. I didn’t have a lot going on at the time so I said yes.

I was accepted as a student by Mrs. Primrose, a Japanese teacher of the Suzuki violin method (and wife of famous violist William Primrose). I discovered that the violin is a difficult and awkward instrument. Learning it requires patient practice, and patience was not one of my early character traits. (A fellow student was Jenny Oaks, who has made a career as a violinist. Mrs. Primrose would often chastise me, “David: Why don’t you practice more, like Jenny?”)

What I lacked in patience I abounded with in obstinance. I was first born and my poor mother did not realize what a constant and pitched battle it would be to get me to practice. She was gifted with perseverance that somehow kept me on the violin for the years until I reached a level at which it became interesting enough for me to continue studying with minimal goading. (She did, however, learn from the process: My younger siblings were started on musical instruments at increasingly later ages, and the last three got to start with piano, which has an easier learning curve. You’re welcome guys.)

Beginning the Suzuki violin method is excruciating for a young western boy. The first few weeks consist of nothing but finger exercises with a pencil, before ever touching the bow. Then there were what seemed like months of bowing “taca-taca stop-stop” on open strings before I was allowed to try placing fingers on taped marks to play other notes. There is no “Karate Kid” moment when the student discovers that all of the detached exercises have laid the foundation for a rewarding performance. Just months of tedious practice and virtually nothing to show for it. That’s what learning the violin felt like.

Violin practice at age 6


This post is not a reference to current stock markets or the throngs of new retail traders chasing extraordinary profits. Not at all. This is just some of my favorite pictures of one of my boys and his fascination and delight with bubbles.

SmartWalls Are Nearing

In 2007 I envisioned a future in which building walls and windows are constructed from “sturdy modular panels capable of controlling every phase and frequency of electromagnetic radiation.” Recently I took a small real-world step in that direction by repurposing an old 60″ 1080p LED “smart” TV to fill a space that needed a large piece of art:

With no natural light available, the interior decorator was struggling to find something that made this windowless basement living room “work.” Unlike old-fashioned hanging pictures or mirrors, LED displays don’t depend on ambient light to showcase images. Since they are emissive they also add light to the space. And, of course, the image itself can be changed at the press of a button, or the display “retasked” to its original design function as a smart screen.

Presently mid-range LED panels cost about $25 per square foot, or roughly $3,000 to completely cover the wall in the photo above. So they’re not yet price-competitive with sheetrock and paint, or even high-end wallpaper, but they are on par with tile. Installation? Personally I would rather wire and anchor an array of LED panels to a wall frame than hang and finish sheetrock or wall tile.

Full-surface “SmartWalls” will make more sense in a few years when LED production has shifted from passive LEDs to OLEDs: Because each OLED pixel is itself emissive, OLED sheets don’t require side- or back-lighting and are therefore ultra-thin. Once large-scale OLED fabrication techniques have matured, the installed cost of smart walls will be similar to that of wallpapered drywall.

Here is a collection of my photos sized for 1080 panels that I use on these emissive wall hangings.

Shooting the Moon

Waxing crescent moon shot with Nikon D3100, 500mm f/8 manual focus, 1/15 second at ISO 800

Last year I got a reasonably sharp photo of a full moon with a Nikon D7200 using the $500 Nikkor 18-300mm zoom lens at f/6.3, 1/160 second, ISO 160. This month I pulled out an old Nikon D3100 and a $100 catadioptric 500mm f/8 lens for a bigger challenge: The cheaper lens really falls short in terms of sharpness. Here is the best I could do with each lens (the more recent shot on the right is colored by atmospheric smoke from western wildfires):

But right now there are some interesting astronomical phenomena: Mars is near its closest approach to earth and is visible to the naked eye. Here the moon passes about one degree below the red plant (top left):

Mars, top left

I turned the camera on Jupiter, which is presently close to Saturn and very prominent in the night sky. With the same lens, shooting 1/2 second at ISO 800, I get the following photo showing all four Galilean moons:

Jupiter and moons Ganymede, Io, Europa (all left of the planet) and Callisto (far right)

Climbing Table Mountain

10,400 ft on approach to Table Mountain peak – The Rock

The peak of Table Mountain is a prominent rock about 50 yards long that, from 11,100 feet above sea level, offers stunning views of the Grand Teton and surrounding canyons. I figured the 11-mile loop would be a great leg workout. But I grossly underestimated the effect that altitude would play on this excursion.

The trails start at 6,800 feet. I opted to ascend via the 4-mile-long Face Trail. The first mile covers over 2,000 feet in altitude, so it’s like climbing a mile-long flight of stairs. I could tell the air was thinning as the trail leveled out above 9,000 feet and I was still breathing heavily to maintain a decent walking pace along terrain that would normally constitute a light stroll.

Topographic map of trails (white) from 6,800ft head on left to 11,100ft peak on lower right.
Continue reading “Climbing Table Mountain”

I like Pandemia

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed America into a place I’ve wanted to live for a long time.

  • Urban living has lost some luster. Friends who used to be die hard city slickers and urban evangelists eventually got so sick of the government quarantine rules, the riots, and the prolonged inability to venture forth from their $4,000/month walk-in-closet “apartments” that they took extended leaves of absence to visit Free America. This was enabled by:
  • Telecommuting. I’ve been saying this for many years: Office workers rarely benefit from physical presence in an office. And now that companies were forced to test my assertion and see the benefits in increased productivity (and the prospect of reduced office costs) many are planning to encourage or even require “WFH” (work from home) permanently.
  • Business travel has seen a commensurate collapse. I am no longer alone in my disdain for the “one meeting business trip.”
  • There is a new respect for personal space. Casual handshaking is out.
  • Large in-person gatherings have been curtailed. Sporting events, theater, church. All of these barbaric and dangerous affairs have been replaced: Cramped pews gave way to in-person worship with close family and friends or larger teleconference gatherings. The unprecedented array of television entertainment has fully supplanted the olde tyme amusement of live theater. And professional sporting spectacles, thankfully, pretty much just went away.
  • In Free America restaurants that opened for seated service spaced their tables at comfortable distances. Food handlers wear face coverings. Serious attempts are made to sanitize high-touch surfaces, including menus.
  • You can wear a neck gaiter to cover your nose and mouth anytime, anywhere, and nobody assumes you’re a robber.

I saw a Starlink satellite train!

Last night after sundown I happened to be outside looking up at the waxing gibbous moon when I saw a satellite zipping near it in low earth orbit. And not far behind it another. And another – all spaced roughly 15 seconds (travel time, north to south) apart on the same orbit. They kept coming in what appeared to be an unbroken chain, and I could clearly see six to seven of them at a time. That’s an astonishingly dense satellite network, so it made me wonder if it was part of the astonishingly large LEO satellite network being built by Starlink.

Today I tried to confirm what satellites I could have been seeing, and it looks like there was indeed a Starlink train passing overhead at that time. The reason they were so close together is that Starlink satellites are launched 60 at a time in “trains” that gradually spread to the network’s operational altitude and separation. I must have spotted this one near the beginning of its transit of my location.

So that was very exciting, but I didn’t have equipment adequate to record it. Instead, here is a photo of a full moon I captured with a Nikon 7200 DX and 300mm lens last November:

Full moon photo by David Bookstaber