Sunday, April 17, 2011

A while ago I got a fat envelope from IRS in the mail; they wanted me to write back. I filed and paid everything, have not tried to cheat or game the system, and have an accountant that I can rely on: so this was only a nuisance. However, it got me thinking.

The envelope contained a three-page letter mentioning the documents they request, along with seven pages of scary forms. It took me some time to realize that the scary forms are detailed calculations describing the adjustments to my tax return in the worst-case scenario: if I am a liar and have no documentation to support my deductions whatsoever, I will have to pay a considerable sum. A table describing penalties and interest was included.

First, wouldn't years of timely and professionally filed returns, accompanied by large checks that always cleared, earn me some credibility with the IRS? If Uncle Sam was an airline, I am sure I would have a frequent flier status. I am not asking for free drinks, but I would expect that the customer service, while clarifying a billing issue, will not start by threatening me.

Second, obviously the forms were generated by software. So the IRS has The One True Tax Program. I already paid for it; it probably cost a lot, knowing how government procurement process works. Why then do I pay a second time for whatever tax software my accountant uses? Open source the IRS code!

Resources will be saved by removing the duplicated software development effort done by US Government, Quicken, TaxACT, H&R Block etc. More importantly, it will completely eliminate any potential incompatibilities that cost time and money for everyone involved, and produce no economic benefit whatsoever.

There will be an additional investment required to clean up and document the IRS code before public release; but this investment will pay off. Imagine the effort saved by being able to cross-reference the tax publications and unambiguously described algorithms. Or—in a dream world—have the two together, literate programming-style. Surely, if the government really strives for transparency and efficiency, open source is the way to go.

(Of course, I am skipping over the larger issues: whether the tax code should be drastically simplified, and whether the income tax should exist at all. I have some perspective though, as I grew up in a country that at the time had no income tax. There are worse things that a government can do to you: I will take IRS over KGB any day.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Software / Art, part I

While running into images created in the style of the iconic Obama "Hope" poster, I wondered whether there is software that can help create such images. Wikipedia to the rescue! There are step-by-step instructions for Illustrator, as well as a fully automated "Obamify" plugin for Mac that works with realtime video.

How long until artists start selling software components instead of static works? I guess we are already there...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Time? Will tell.

Here's my attempt to build a better mousetrap clock.

There are two main ways to visualize time: using digital display, or an analog dial. Each one has its advantages: digital display is precise, while analog is more intuitive. Some watches have both displays, but this results in clutter. Why not combine the best of both worlds?

With the clock face on a fully programmable screen, there is no need to display irrelevant information. I had this idea back in October 2004; the flash demo was implemented by Will Law of Hostcast. Technology—such as electronic ink—is catching up and making it practical.

This can be marketed as a dedicated clock with several "skins", as a feature of a digital picture frame, or perhaps as a screensaver for Kindle. It may be especially useful in helping kids learn to tell time.

Somewhat related: visualizing weather forecasts.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

99.99% off

$1000000Recently I bought 3TB of storage for my home machine at a cost of $260. When I was buying my first PC, the sweet spot was $1/MB. The same amount of hard drive space would set me back $3,000,000. Three million dollars. Not adjusted for inflation.

It would be even more impressive if our sense of awe at numbers with lots of zeros was not blunted by the news reports.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

200 PS3s = RIP MD5

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Very smart people do very dumb things

Somehow, the satisfaction of linking to my post from March 2006 doesn't make up for the impact of this financial hurricane. From the same Berkshire Hathaway 2005 Annual Report, p.11:
It could be a different story for others in the future. Imagine, if you will, one or more firms (troubles often spread) with positions that are many multiples of ours attempting to liquidate in chaotic markets and under extreme, and well-publicized, pressures. This is a scenario to which much attention should be given now rather than after the fact. The time to have considered – and improved – the reliability of New Orleans’ levees was before Katrina.
Buffett warned us in 2003, few listened.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The physics of slacking

Here's a physics problem that bugged me for the last twenty years. Two people have to carry a large object up a narrow staircase. (Twenty years ago, that was a tub full of firewood for the furnace on the second floor of our dacha. Today, it's a big screen TV for my grandma.) Whose job is more difficult: the person who goes first and holds the top end of the object, or the second person who carries the bottom end?

Experimental results are inconclusive. "Difficulty" is admittedly somewhat subjective. But there should be a good physical model that leads to the answer.