Plagiarism isn’t interesting

Dreadful. And stupid.

I think that few things are duller than a plagiarism scandal. I’ve worked as an editor, a literary agent, a journalist, and I currently teach writing, so I take plagiarism very seriously – no one should ever put their name on the words written by someone else. It’s lazy and dishonest. But as moral crimes go, it’s up there with money laundering and illegal dumping on the list of seriously un-dramatic transgressions. But since writers are inherently navel-gazers and since plagiarism is one of the worst crimes we can commit (right after making stuff up and saying it’s true), too many writers think that there’s something profound and exciting about stealing words. Rarely, if ever, is that true. And that’s the main problem with The Words, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s shallow and pretentious drama about a writer who passes off someone else’s novel as his own. Continue…

I meant to post these reviews, but I forgot.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spaced on posting my movie review here, even though I’d been writing them and they kept appearing in print. In reverse chronological order of the movies that haven’t been blogged.

I really wanted to like Cowboys & Aliens. Oh, well.

When I first saw the poster for Cowboys & Aliens,I got excited. These are two great tastes that haven’t yet gone together, but should. Five years ago, that’s what I said about chocolate and bacon. Now you can buy bacon chocolate bars everywhere. (Well, maybe not everywhere. But soon, I hope.)

Two of the great American film genres, the Western and the sci-fi action film, seem incongruous, even odd together, but they have a great deal in common. Both the Western and the sci-fi action film are, often, about honorable underdogs who must fight evil in the form of the corrupt (evil cattle barons or the Galactic Empire), the criminal (bank robbers or super-corporations of the future) or the racial other (Indians or green reptilian monsters from a distant solar system). Mixing the two genres would give the filmmakers all sorts of interesting material to work with, crazy juxtapositions and surprising plot twists. Or not. [Read the rest here.]

I was dumbfounded by how much I loved — by how good — Captain America was.

Captain America: The First Avengerdebuted in San Diego last week at a screening full of both comic book geeks here for Comic-Con and local soldiers, sailors and pilots in fatigues and pressed blues. Both groups were thrilled when a troupe of dancing girls decked out like Rockettes from the 1940s performed at the front of the theater; they got a lot more cheers than Chris Evans, who plays the Captain and who showed up to tell everyone how much he loves the movie.

With that much fanfare, anything less than an exciting, enjoyable, morally simple and beautifully shot action film would have been a disappointment. No one was disappointed; I certainly wasn’t. [Read the rest here.]

Tabloid really disturbed me, and I’m one of the maybe three people who had a lot of issues with the movie.

Tabloid, the latest documentary from Oscar-winner Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line), couldn’t have arrived at a more appropriate moment. While Britain is immersed in an epic scandal involving the relentless, creepy and illegal overreach of its most popular tabloid newspaper The News of theWorld,Morris’ film showcases a sex scandal that provided cannon fodder for Britain’s tabloid wars almost 35 years ago.

The unintentional irony of Morris’ film is that he focuses on the tabloidy, if amazing and hilarious, aspects of the story – its protagonist’s delusions, the almost impossible-to-believe details and the sex, sex, sex – while glossing over the enormously shady ways that the tabloids used and abused the people involved in the scandal. Joyce McKinney, the colorful, charismatic, sexy and maybe a little crazy center of it all, ends up as fodder for Morris, too. As she was in 1977, McKinney is an expendable casualty in the service of a story told for profit. [Read the rest here.]

Transformers: Dark of the Moon was ridiculous.

I’m not sure why anyone needs to watch, let along make, 157 minutes of a third movie based on Hasbro’s popular toys known as Transformers. But Transformers: Dark of the Moon,the latest in the series of action movies about morphing robots from outer space, is more than two and a half hours long. With a reported budget of $195 million, director Michael Bay and executive producer Steven Spielberg have spent $805,000 for each minute of computer generated robots attacking each other, chunks of the Chicago skyline and the various humans unlucky or dumb enough to get in the way.

If you are the kind of moviegoer who is happy, even gleeful, about paying $16 to see Michael Bay’s special effects bonanzas in 3-D, then you will need to see, and may love, Dark of the Moon. It is by far the best of the three movies, and yes, that is damning it with faint praise. If you don’t compare it to other Bay movies, but rather to the work of his genre-mates like James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Spielberg, Dark of the Moon is a bombastic, occasionally fun to look at, but still craven piece of schlock. [Read the rest here.]

The next movie review post will be early

The curse of freelance

In which I write a nasty letter to San Diego’s Office of Small Business after they absurdly demanded back taxes and fees for my tiny amount of freelance writing income…

Dear Meredith Dibden Brown:

Yesterday, I received a letter from you (at the Office of Small Business) informing me that I had to register my “business” with the City of San Diego, pay a $34 yearly fee to be registered with the City, pay an unexplained $17 fee for “zoning,” and pay $250.84 in late fees for not having registered for the three years previously. I am writing to complain about the City’s unethical behavior and to demand that all late fees be removed from my bill.

As ridiculous as it is that I have to pay $34 so that I may be allowed to earn a couple thousand dollars a year as a freelance writer and editor – yes, I’m taxed before I even earn a dime — I understand that the City’s coffers are empty after decades of incompetence and mismanagement, and someone has to pay! Why not force the victims of said incompetence and mismanagement?

That said, never informing self-employed residents that they had to register with the City and then using that lack of knowledge as way to force them to accrue late fees for three years is a gross abuse of taxation power. It is unethical and unconscionable.

I have lived in San Diego for nearly four years. I have paid my California taxes every year. I have declared myself as self-employed each year. When I called your office and asked why I was only informed now that I was supposed to register in 2006, I was told it was because the City only bothered to look for the information now. So, I am paying $250.84 because the City could not be bothered to ask the State who was declaring themselves self-employed and then to cross-reference those names with the City’s registry and then to inform those un-registered persons in a timely fashion that they owed registration fees. I am paying late fees because the City is incompetent in its collection of taxes.

Speaking of incompetence, the letter that you sent to me claims that San Diego Municipal Code §31.0110 “requires all business within its City limits to obtain a Business Tax Certificate.” This is not true. §31.0110 defines the terms of the code concerning Business Taxes. §31.0121 is the section of the code that “requires all business within its City limits to obtain a Business Tax Certificate.”

I would appreciate your swift response.


Theodore K. Gideonse

Councilmember Sherri Lightner
Mayor Jerry Sanders
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith

UPDATE: This blog post was twittered by none other than the local government editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He referenced Carl DeMaio’s opposition to the way the City is dealing with the tax, so I forwarded my letter to DeMaio. DeMaio wrote back within a couple days to say that he was hoping to create an amnesty program or make really small businesses, like mine, exempt. And: “You shouldn’t be fined for not knowing you need to register.” Lightner’s assistant wrote back to say they were looking into it.

I finally received an email back from the Office of Small Business last week. It was, to say the least, defensive. Here it is in its entirety:

Dear Mr. Gideonse:

Thank you for contacting the Office of the City Treasurer.

Section 31.0135 of the San Diego Municipal Code (SDMC) states:

The City Treasurer is not required to send a notice or bill to any person subject to the provisions of this Article, and the failure to send such notice or bill shall not affect the validity of any fee or penalty due hereunder, or the duty of such person to pay required taxes.

Hence, it is the business owner’s/independent contractor’s responsibility to register with the Office of the City Treasurer prior to commencing business. Since the Business Tax assessment is a self-reporting tax, the City is not required to send notification to new businesses stating the tax is due. However, the City does provide business owners helpful information pertaining to the Business Tax application process. This information is available at the Office of the City Treasurer downtown, the six Community Service Centers located throughout the City, and the Office of Small Business which offers business start-up seminars, including information regarding the Business Tax certification process. In addition, IRS instructions to the Schedule C inform taxpayers of the potential tax liability. The fourth paragraph of the Schedule C instructions (see attachment) state: You may be subject to state and local taxes and other requirements such as business licenses and fees. Check with your state and local governments for more information.

Section 31.0131 of the SDMC also states the City can bill retroactively for up to three years with penalties for each year that the business was in operation. In addition to the penalties for delinquent payment, all small businesses (12 employees or less) that do not register or pay their taxes pay a non-compliance surcharge of $68.00, while large businesses (13 or more employees) pay $250.00. Note: Your account was not assessed the $68.00 surcharge.

All that considered, in order to more accurately assess whether you have a tax liability with the City, please address the following questions.

1. For how long have you been filing Form Schedule C – Profit or Loss From Business? Please specify year.

2. How often do you perform these freelance writing services within the City of San Diego on an annual basis? Please specify the average number of hours accrued annually?

3. Will you be filing Form Schedule C for the 2008 & 2009 tax years to report similar activities performed within the city limits of San Diego?

I look forward to your reply so I may assist you further.


John R. Zurita
Business Tax Compliance Supervisor
Office of the City Treasurer
The City of San Diego
(619) 615-1516 (Phone)
(619) 533-3274 (Fax)

There are so many problems with Zurita’s letter, most glaring being its “you don’t know what you’re talking about, you stupid taxpayer” tone. This is how I responded:

Dear Mr. Zurita,

Thank you for your email.

As my email clearly shows, I have read the municipal code. I am well aware that your office did not break the law. But your reliance on the vague fine print of the Schedule C form is a rather disingenuous way of claiming that we were told of the law when we were clearly not. I have also read Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225 (1957), and your office should, too, since it states that punishing someone for the lack of knowledge of a municipal law for which knowledge of cannot reasonably be expected is a violation of the 14th Amendment. [Thanks, Jeff! –Ed.]

If your office actually wanted taxpayers to know about the law, it would have made sure that California tax forms clearly stated the law and it would have made sure that tax preparation software programs all collected the tax. But it did not. And the most popular, TurboTax, which I use, is made by a San Diego company, Intuit!

The law is written in such a way, and it is enforced in such a way, as to create the nonpayment of taxes in order for late fees to be accrued. So, I stand by my assertion that the tax collection behavior of your office is unethical and an abuse of taxation power.

That said, here are my answers to your questions:

1. For how long have you been filing Form Schedule C – Profit or Loss From Business? Please specify year.

I have been filing a Schedule C since 1997.

2. How often do you perform these freelance writing services within the City of San Diego on an annual basis? Please specify the average number of hours accrued annually?

Since I moved to San Diego, I have never spent more than 20 to 30 hours a year writing, editing, or teaching writing on a freelance basis. I am a full-time graduate student, and rarely make more than $20,000 a year. The only year that I made a profit from my 1099s was 2006, when I received $xxx in royalties for work done in previous years. For that year, my net profit was $xxx. In 2007, my net loss was $xxx. In 2008, my net loss was $xxx.

3. Will you be filing Form Schedule C for the 2008 & 2009 tax years to report similar activities performed within the city limits of San Diego?



Ted Gideonse

I do not expect the City to voluntarily do the right thing. I can only hope that DeMaio is able to change the policy.

UPDATE #2: I win! I win!

Dear Mr. Gideonse:

Based on the information you have provided, you do not have a tax liability with the City. Since you have stated that you have never spent more than 20-30 hours per year providing these services, you qualified for an exemption under SDMC § 31.0202 (Exceptions — Limited Duration Activities). Therefore, we have canceled Notice Number – B2009006659.

In an effort to increase Business Tax Compliance, the City of San Diego recently began utilizing data from the State Franchise Tax Board (FTB). The City presumes that a taxpayer is conducting business within its jurisdiction if the taxpayer filed a business return/form with the Franchise Tax Board and or Internal Revenue Service using a City of San Diego address. This data is an effective means for tax enforcement and is used by a majority of California municipalities. However, there are situations that arise where an income tax filer does not qualify as a business.

We apologize for any inconvenience caused by the receipt of the Notice of Tax Liability billing statement.

Should you have further questions, please feel free to contact me.


John R. Zurita

And by the way, he cc-ed the email to Lightner’s assistant. Ha.