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Christopher Stumm
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Christopher Stumm

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We just updated our Transparency Report, showing how many requests Google gets for information about its users. But we're not allowed to give the full story because the U.S. government says that requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) must be kept secret. We can tell you this: Requests have more than doubled around the world since 2009, and more than tripled in the U.S.: http://g.co/u5sp

Share this if you believe you have a right to know what our governments are up to. 
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Christopher Stumm

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It's the serendipitous experiences you get while wandering around NYC that make living here unlike any other city I've been to. While watching some young tap dancers show off their stuff, Colin (a Washington Sq Park regular -- http://colinhuggins.com/) came over with his piano. When the dancers saw him coming over their excitement was palpable. The whole thing was completely unplanned and unscripted. I shot a video of the act so that I could spread the huge smile that it brought to my face to others.

Here are some more videos of just the tap dancers:
http://youtu.be/6h0Y4u7wFhY?hd=1
http://youtu.be/gZpbf-qpjjc?hd=1

Tap dancers were: Caleb (http://CalebTeicher.com), Demi, Ayan, Gabe, and Melissa.
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I love this! Thank you for sharing! (I really love the sound of the tap shoes - I'm weird like that :))
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Fantastic video.
 
This is a pretty amazing and awesome explanation of why plants exhibit Fibonacci spirals.
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Christopher Stumm

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Dizzying but invisible depth

You just went to the Google home page.

Simple, isn't it?

What just actually happened?

Well, when you know a bit of about how browsers work, it's not quite that simple. You've just put into play HTTP, HTML, CSS, ECMAscript, and more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.

Let's simplify.

You just connected your computer to www.google.com.

Simple, isn't it?

What just actually happened?

Well, when you know a bit about how networks work, it's not quite that simple. You've just put into play DNS, TCP, UDP, IP, Wifi, Ethernet, DOCSIS, OC, SONET, and more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.

Let's simplify.

You just typed www.google.com in the location bar of your browser.

Simple, isn't it?

What just actually happened?

Well, when you know a bit about how operating systems work, it's not quite that simple. You've just put into play a kernel, a USB host stack, an input dispatcher, an event handler, a font hinter, a sub-pixel rasterizer, a windowing system, a graphics driver, and more, all of those written in high-level languages that get processed by compilers, linkers, optimizers, interpreters, and more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.

Let's simplify.

You just pressed a key on your keyboard.

Simple, isn't it?

What just actually happened?

Well, when you know about bit about how input peripherals work, it's not quite that simple. You've just put into play a power regulator, a debouncer, an input multiplexer, a USB device stack, a USB hub stack, all of that implemented in a single chip. That chip is built around thinly sliced wafers of highly purified single-crystal silicon ingot, doped with minute quantities of other atoms that are blasted into the crystal structure, interconnected with multiple layers of aluminum or copper, that are deposited according to patterns of high-energy ultraviolet light that are focused to a precision of a fraction of a micron, connected to the outside world via thin gold wires, all inside a packaging made of a dimensionally and thermally stable resin. The doping patterns and the interconnects implement transistors, which are grouped together to create logic gates. In some parts of the chip, logic gates are combined to create arithmetic and bitwise functions, which are combined to create an ALU. In another part of the chip, logic gates are combined into bistable loops, which are lined up into rows, which are combined with selectors to create a register bank. In another part of the chip, logic gates are combined into bus controllers and instruction decoders and microcode to create an execution scheduler. In another part of the chip, they're combined into address and data multiplexers and timing circuitry to create a memory controller. There's even more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.

Can we simplify further?

In fact, very scarily, no, we can't. We can barely comprehend the complexity of a single chip in a computer keyboard, and yet there's no simpler level. The next step takes us to the software that is used to design the chip's logic, and that software itself has a level of complexity that requires to go back to the top of the loop.

Today's computers are so complex that they can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. In turn the computers used for the design and manufacture are so complex that they themselves can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. You'd have to go through many such loops to get back to a level that could possibly be re-built from scratch.

Once you start to understand how our modern devices work and how they're created, it's impossible to not be dizzy about the depth of everything that's involved, and to not be in awe about the fact that they work at all, when Murphy's law says that they simply shouldn't possibly work.

For non-technologists, this is all a black box. That is a great success of technology: all those layers of complexity are entirely hidden and people can use them without even knowing that they exist at all. That is the reason why many people can find computers so frustrating to use: there are so many things that can possibly go wrong that some of them inevitably will, but the complexity goes so deep that it's impossible for most users to be able to do anything about any error.

That is also why it's so hard for technologists and non-technologists to communicate together: technologists know too much about too many layers and non-technologists know too little about too few layers to be able to establish effective direct communication. The gap is so large that it's not even possible any more to have a single person be an intermediate between those two groups, and that's why e.g. we end up with those convoluted technical support call centers and their multiple tiers. Without such deep support structures, you end up with the frustrating situation that we see when end users have access to a bug database that is directly used by engineers: neither the end users nor the engineers get the information that they need to accomplish their goals.

That is why the mainstream press and the general population has talked so much about Steve Jobs' death and comparatively so little about Dennis Ritchie's: Steve's influence was at a layer that most people could see, while Dennis' was much deeper. On the one hand, I can imagine where the computing world would be without the work that Jobs did and the people he inspired: probably a bit less shiny, a bit more beige, a bit more square. Deep inside, though, our devices would still work the same way and do the same things. On the other hand, I literally can't imagine where the computing world would be without the work that Ritchie did and the people he inspired. By the mid 80s, Ritchie's influence had taken over, and even back then very little remained of the pre-Ritchie world.

Finally, last but not least, that is why our patent system is broken: technology has done such an amazing job at hiding its complexity that the people regulating and running the patent system are barely even aware of the complexity of what they're regulating and running. That's the ultimate bikeshedding: just like the proverbial discussions in the town hall about a nuclear power plant end up being about the paint color for the plant's bike shed, the patent discussions about modern computing systems end up being about screen sizes and icon ordering, because in both cases those are the only aspect that the people involved in the discussion are capable of discussing, even though they are irrelevant to the actual function of the overall system being discussed.

CC:BY 3.0
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Christopher Stumm

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"In one famous Russian study from the 1950s, children were told to stand still as long as they could—they lasted two minutes. Then a second group of children were told to pretend they were soldiers on guard who had to stand still at their posts—they lasted eleven minutes." 
source: https://kindle.amazon.com/work/nurtureshock-thinking-about-children-ebook/B00252JVWY/B002LHRLO8
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Christopher Stumm

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Possibly the best street crossing sign ever. Watch the little man walk, and start to run as the time counts down.
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Hahaha.
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How Apple Sidesteps Billions in Taxes Around the Globe: Some Personal Reflections

If someone asked you how much Apple paid on $34.2 Billion in profits, what would you guess? Especially if you listen regularly to the right-wing rhetoric about how tax burden is unsupportable, how jobs are being destroyed because of excessive taxes, and how companies are being made uncompetitive by their tax burden? How much?

$9 billion? $10 billion? Nah. It's $3.3 billion, or a tax rate of about 9.8%. The actual figure is likely even lower, since "Apple does not disclose what portion of those payments was in the United States, or what portion is assigned to previous or future years."

Apple, of course, is not the only one. This front page article in today's New York Times singles out Apple as an example both because Apple is now about to become the most profitable company ever, and is one of the most aggressive in tax avoidance. But the article isn't unfair to Apple. It talks about a culture of tax avoidance throughout corporate America, and in particular, at high tech firms, which have the biggest opportunities for tax avoidance because digital goods and "intellectual property" can more easily be made to appear to belong to subsidiaries in low or no-tax countries.

Big companies have armies and lawyers who outfox tax collectors by taking advantage of a patchwork of conflicting tax regimes around the world. For example:

"Apple, for instance, was among the first tech companies to designate overseas salespeople in high-tax countries in a manner that allowed them to sell on behalf of low-tax subsidiaries on other continents, sidestepping income taxes, according to former executives. Apple was a pioneer of an accounting technique known as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean. Today, that tactic is used by hundreds of other corporations — some of which directly imitated Apple’s methods, say accountants at those companies."

There's an expanded explanation of the Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich later in the story. But this line gives one taste: "In 2004, Ireland, a nation of less than 5 million, was home to more than one-third of Apple’s worldwide revenues, according to company filings."

I highly recommend this story. It is truly eye-opening. I'm going to post a couple of the graphs from the story separately (Note to G+ - do allow embedded graphics and multiple links! With a storify-like interface, you could do this super-easily without making people need to know HTML.) The bar graph that shows Apple's growing profits versus their relatively static taxes is here: http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2012/04/29/technology/29appletax-hp-graphic.html?ref=business

Alas, it is a pale shadow of the version in the print edition, which is vertical rather than horizontal, and uses a scale that takes up 3/4 of the front page. Truly eye-opening.

This graph,http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/04/28/business/Shrinking-Corporate-Tax-Rates.html?ref=business shows that the problem is not limited to Apple. As corporate profits have soared, the amount paid in taxes across the board has remained fairly flat. Clearly, the tax collectors are falling further and further behind the experts at tax avoidance.

But to my promised personal reflections

I can already imagine the comments of the libertarians and anti-tax advocates in the comments on this post. "Avoiding taxes is just keeping more of the hard-earned wealth you've created by being productive and successful."

But I'd like to suggest a thought experiment. Imagine that you and a large group of friends, or an extended family, decide to hold a reunion or big party that requires renting a space and some real expenses. You agree to share the expenses equally. Then one of you says, "I'm getting us a discount on the hotel from my friend, so I shouldn't have to pay my share." Another two or three say, "I'm helping with the catering, so I shouldn't have to pay." Another: "I'm willing to act as designated driver, so I shouldn't have to pay." Each time, you think, "Yeah, that's reasonable."

But before long, things get dicey. Three more people fail to send in their promised check for the deposit despite repeat nagging. The ten people who are left on the hook for the expenses say, "This is too much. We can't afford it." So you start by letting a couple of your friends, who you know are really hard up for money, off the hook. Oh sh*t, the problem just got worse for the remaining people, who now have to shoulder a bigger and bigger part of the cost (or put it on a credit card and hope that they will one day be able to pay it back.)

Somewhere along the line, you realize that you just can't afford the great party that you'd all had your hearts set on.

You have a choice: You can scale back. Or you can stop accepting all the special reasons why one friend or another shouldn't have to pay, share the costs as originally planned, and make it affordable by all working together.

Sometimes cutting back is the right choice.

But sometimes, working together, we can do things that are wonderful, that none of us could do alone.

Put it in the context of your family. Wouldn't those of you who had more resources support those who didn't? Wouldn't you shoulder more of the burden? You're well off. Your brother or cousin is not. They can't afford to make it to the family reunion, but you love them dearly. Would you help?

I can imagine the libertarians and anti-taxers again: "But that's your choice. The problem is that government has a monopoly on force, and makes us do this against our will."

Hold on: You all made an agreement in the beginning to hold this party. Then some of you decided you wanted to opt out of paying for it.

It's a bit more complicated than that, of course, because it was our ancestors who decided to hold the party, and agreed over time on how to split the costs, and a bunch of wasteful cousins ran up the tab. But we're still a family, we still care about each other, and we want to do right for each other. So we work it out, and try to be fair, and to the extent we can, generous.

That's how it is, folks. We can be a happy family, who look after each other and create joy and possibility through being together, or one that chooses to go our separate ways, and leaves a lot of happiness on the table.

P.S. I come from a large, close, and generous family. I grew up in a household where my father borrowed money to meet his charitable obligations. When my company nearly went under in 1985, my mother saved it with a loan of a large percentage of her liquid assets, with the only stipulation being that she'd ask for it back when I didn't need it any more, and someone else did. That became known in the family as a "mammy loan."

A few years later, that same money helped my brother to buy a house. As I became more successful, I paid it forward to other family members as well.

I look at families that are successful. They love and take care of each other, and are repaid in ways that make everyone happier.

I look at families that are unsuccessful. Everyone looks after number one, and they gradually drift apart.

I know which kind of family I want. And I want my country to work the same way.
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This is pretty normal. Tax hacking is one of the most efficient sources of profit in a company, dollar for dollar. Any multibillion dollar corporation would lose competitive advantage by not doing everything it can to pay as little taxes as possible.
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