Aug 22, 2009

Is your MBA tax deductible?

A recent article (PDF) in the Georgetown Law Journal explores the ambiguity surrounding deductibility of expenses associated with a MBA program. Generally, educational expenses which qualify the taxpayer for a new occupation are not deductible, but normal and ordinary expenses in your line of business are deductible. There is some interesting examination of the regulations and court cases where this issue has been challenged, and the author concludes:

Although the line of Tax Court cases considering the deductibility of MBA related tuition expenses may at first appear to be a confusing and winding maze of inconsistency, more careful inspection reveals that—in most cases—the courts probably got it right. For the most part, MBA students at elite schools who attempted to take enormous tax deductions for career-transforming educational experiences were turned away, whereas those toiling away in an effort to improve their established business skills while continuing to work full-time were permitted to take their deductions. In short, at the end of the day it appears as if the courts generally muddled through the cluttered, outdated mess that is Treasury Regulation § 1.162-5 and came out with the right answers.

Aug 16, 2009

Samsung TV USB Media Player: Tips and Troubleshooting

I recently bought a Samsung LCD HDTV LN52B630 and it's a great TV (fortunately I paid a lot less than what Amazon is selling it for). One of the best features of Samsung's LCD and Plasma TVs is the ability to play video files directly from a USB memory stick or hard drive. This feature is alternately referred to as USB Movie 2.0 or Wiselink. Sure, you could buy a TV without this and then add on something like WDTV or Roku but that's an added expense and one more remote to clutter things up. Samsung has done a great job of integrating the media player into the TV. However, the manual doesn't explain everything as clearly as it could, so I've written down some of the problems and solutions I've encountered.

The TV supports a variety of video file formats, such as AVI, MP4, MKV, and VOB. These are really just "containers" for audio and video information, so just because you have one of these files there's no guarantee that the TV will play it. Within the container, the audio and video is stored using a codec. Common video codecs are Divx, Xvid, and MPEG4. Common audio codecs are AC3, MP3, and DTS. You can use software like VLC to tell what codecs were used to create a particular file.

Not supported audio codec

MKV has become popular with high definition material (720p, 1080p). However, the most common problem when you try to play an MKV file is that the video works but the error message comes up: "Not supported audio codec" and there is no sound. Most of the time, this is because the audio was encoded with Digital Theater System (DTS) which the TV doesn't support (Samsung didn't want to pay the license fee). You can easily fix this by reencoding the file to Dolby Digital (AC3) using PopCorn Audio Converter.

Dialog is not in English

MKV files often contain more than one audio track. However, the TV has no way to select between the tracks, so if the default audio track is not the one you want, you can't change it while you're watching. First, open the file with VLC to make sure there is an English language track in the file. Then, open the file in MKVmergeGUI (part of MKVtoolnix) which will allow you to select exactly which audio track you want, and create (aka "remux") a new file that has only that audio track.

It is possible that a file could have both problems - DTS audio and a primary non-English track. In that case, first remux a new MKV using mkvmerge with only the audio track you want. Then, run it through the DTS to AC3 conversion.

The TV won't display subtitles

Just as an MKV file can contain more than one audio stream, it may also contain subtitles, however the TV doesn't support this subtitle format. First, extract the subtitles from the file using MKVExtractGUI. Then, run the output through Subtitle Workshop to convert to SRT format which the TV supports. Make sure you name your new SRT file exactly the same as your MKV file (except for the file name extension, which will obviously be different: .SRT versus .MKV) and put it in the same directory as the video file. Then, you can activate the captions using the CC button on the TV's remote control.

Archiving your DVDs to a hard drive

With 1TB hard drives available for under $100 now, you might want to backup your DVD collection. This would allow you to play any of your movies off the hard drive without having to search for the discs. However, if you try to just copy the files off your DVD and play them on the TV, you probably won't get what you're expecting, even though the TV supports VOB files. The file may not play at all, or the video will start and end in weird places. This is because the DVD menu also contains instructions on where the video should start and stop, but the TV doesn't know how to read that data. The solution is to use DVDShrink to remaster the DVD and extract just the video you want. This will work for both a movie that is one big file as well as a DVD with TV shows on it, where you want a separate output file for each episode. Put the DVD in the computer and start DVDShrink. Select the Re-Author function and then select the various video tracks that you want to extract. Select Backup to copy those files to your hard drive. Now you can open each of those VOBs will be a self-contained video file that the TV can recognize.