The internet sales tax bill

The old complaint was that big corporate retailers like Wal-Mart and Borders were putting the local mom ‘n’ pop stores out of business.  But now buying on the internet is making even the big box stores obsolete, as people from every corner of the nation are buying what they need  online without the need of any local stores.

Not only that, the online retailers have a big price advantage.  Part of that comes from not having to charge sales tax, which can add upwards of 10% to the cost of a product.  Local stores report how they are being reduced to showrooms for online companies, as customers go to actual stores to check out the merchandise and then buy it online.  Sometimes they do so on their smart phones while they are still in the store.

Now states, desperate for revenue, and local businesses are pushing for internet operations to charge sales tax.   More and more states are passing laws to this effect.  Now the federal government is getting into the act.  A bill before Congress, with lots of bipartisan approach, would make it easier for collecting sales tax to become routine across the internet.

The latest federal proposal — the Marketplace Fairness Act — has strong bipartisan support and appears to be moving forward. . . .

The bill proposes that a state can decide whether to enforce collection of its sales tax. If the state chooses to, then it should simplify its tax system according to conditions outlined in the bill.

Sales tax rates generally range from 5 to 10 percent, depending on the type of product as well as the jurisdiction (cities and counties can impose their own taxes on top of state rates). In Maryland and the District, many items are taxed at 6 percent, while in Virginia, the sales tax generally hovers around 5 percent.

Traditional retailers with an online presence, such as Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart and Target, also support the bill, as do groups such as the National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

On the other side is Net­Choice, the trade association of e-commerce companies. Net­Choice has opposed sales tax collection and overturning the physical-presence ruling by the Supreme Court. Its argument, which Amazon has used in the past, is that tax calculation for thousands of jurisdictions country­wide is an impossibly complicated task.

“The burden falls disproportionately on a small business,” said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice. “It has no accounting or IT staff to keep track of tax rules and holidays.”

The new bill exempts online businesses making less than $500,000 a year from collecting sales tax. NetChoice says that threshold is too low. It also notes that the amount states will gain from online sales taxes is less than 1 percent of total state tax revenue.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and 12 others, was introduced in November. The House Judiciary Committee is set to hold a hearing on it July 24.

via States, Congress rallying for an e-sales tax – The Washington Post.

What do you think about this?  Can you formulate an argument why this is not a good idea on grounds other than just not wanting to pay more?

Coming back to the power outage

When we came into our house after our vacation, we found that our technology fast was continuing.  We had no electricity.   We came back to the great power outage of 2012.

We had heard people talking in the airport before our connecting flight about the big storm–the straight winds of over 80 miles an hour known as a derecho  (Spanish for “straight,” as opposed to a tornado, meaning “turning”) that hit the country, knocking out power for millions in the D.C. area.  When we drove into the small town where we live, the first stop light was out, but then the others seemed to be working, as were the lights in shops and the loudspeaker at the Little League park near our home.  But when we unlocked the door and walked into our house, we stepped into a blast furnace.  No air conditioning, no lights, no kitchen appliances, no internet.  The landline didn’t work either, which usually doesn’t happen when the electricity goes, and our cell batteries were running low.

What to do?  We were weary of hotels, but surely many of them would be without power too, and the ones that were functioning were surely full.  We called our power company to report our problem and see how the repairs were coming, but the animated message could give no estimate of when electricity might be restored.   I got on my smart phone and learned that repairs could take not hours but days.   We resolved to just try to get some sleep in the sauna that was our room.  We sat out on the porch until it got dark.  Finally, we got sleepy and went inside.  To cooler air!  To the humming of the refrigerator!  The lights came on!

Our electricity was out for only about 24 hours, and we missed most of it.  We lost some food, but we had drawn our supplies down anyway for our two weeks of vacation, so that wasn’t so bad.  There are  about 600,000 people in the area–one out of three electricity company customers–who still don’t have power, so I both sympathize and empathize with them.

So now, despite our fun time in the woods, I now hail the electronic era as a great blessing and have learned not to take it for granted.

 

Power outages drag on in D.C. region; officials fuming at utility companies – The Washington Post.

Obama’s data mining

Yesterday we posted about mining “big data,” how corporations, politicians, and researchers are delving into Twitter, Google,  Facebook, and other online information to forecast trends, target customers, and gain various competitive advantages.  Well, it turns out that the Obama campaign is mining such data on voters on a massive, unprecedented scale.  Politico’s Lois Romano reports:

On the sixth floor of a sleek office building here, more than 150 techies are quietly peeling back the layers of your life. They know what you read and where you shop, what kind of work you do and who you count as friends. They also know who your mother voted for in the last election.

The depth and breadth of the Obama campaign’s 2012 digital operation — from data mining to online organizing — reaches so far beyond anything politics has ever seen, experts maintain, that it could impact the outcome of a close presidential election. It makes the president’s much-heralded 2008 social media juggernaut — which raised half billion dollars and revolutionized politics — look like cavemen with stone tablets.

Mitt Romney indeed is ramping up his digital effort after a debilitating primary and, for sure, the notion that Democrats have a monopoly on cutting edge technology no longer holds water.

But it’s also not at all clear that Romney can come close to achieving the same level of technological sophistication and reach as his opponent. (The campaign was mercilessly ridiculed last month when it rolled out a new App misspelling America.)

“It’s all about the data this year and Obama has that. When a race is as close as this one promises to be, any small advantage could absolutely make the difference,” says Andrew Rasiej, a technology strategist and publisher of TechPresident. “More and more accurate data means more insight, more money, more message distribution, and more votes.”

Adds Nicco Mele, a Harvard professor and social media guru: “The fabric of our public and political space is shifting. If the Obama campaign can combine its data efforts with the way people now live their lives online, a new kind of political engagement — and political persuasion — is possible.”

Launched two weeks ago, Obama’s newest innovation is the much anticipated “Dashboard” , a sophisticated and highly interactive platform that gives supporters a blueprint for organizing, and communicating with each other and the campaign.

In addition, by harnessing the growing power of Facebook and other online sources, the campaign is building what some see as an unprecedented data base to develop highly specific profiles of potential voters. This allows the campaign to tailor messages directly to them — depending on factors such as socio-economic level, age and interests.

The data also allows the campaign to micro-target a range of dollar solicitations online depending on the recipient. In 2008, the campaign was the first to maximize online giving — raising hundreds of millions of dollars from small donors. This time, they are constantly experimenting and testing to expand the donor base.

via Obama’s data advantage – Lois Romano – POLITICO.com.

Do you think all of this data the president’s campaign is collecting is a game changer or ultimately trivial?  Does gathering so much information about you for political purposes bother you?

Mining “big data”

An interesting article by Ariana Eunjung Cha on how financiers, politicians, and researchers are mining data from Twitter, Google, Facebook, and the like to identify trends and forecast the future:

From a trading desk in London, Paul Hawtin monitors the fire hose of more than 340 million Twitter posts flying around the world each day to try to assess the collective mood of the populace.

The computer program he uses generates a global sentiment score from 1 to 50 based on how pessimistic or optimistic people seem to be from their online conversations. Hawtin, chief executive of Derwent Capital Markets, buys and trades millions of dollars of stocks for private investors based on that number: When everyone appears happy, he generally buys. When anxiety runs high, he sells short.

Hawtin has seen a gain of more than 7 percent in the first quarter of this year, and his method shows the advantage individuals, companies and governments are gaining as they take hold of the unprecedented amount of data online. Traders such as Hawtin say analyzing mathematical trends on the Web delivers insights and news faster than traditional investment approaches.

The explosion in the use of Google, Facebook, Twitter and other services has resulted in the generation of some 2.5 quintillion bytes each day, according to IBM.

“Big data,” as it has been dubbed by researchers, has become so valuable that the World Economic Forum, in a report published last year, deemed it a new class of economic asset, like oil.

“Business boundaries are being redrawn,” the report said. Companies with the ability to mine the data are becoming the most powerful, it added.

While the human brain cannot comprehend that much information at once, advances in computer power and analytics have made it possible for machines to tease out patterns in topics of conversation, calling habits, purchasing trends, use of language, popularity of sports, spread of disease and other expressions of daily life.

“This is changing the world in a big way. It enables us to watch changes in society in real time and make decisions in a way we haven’t been able to ever before,” said Gary King, a social science professor at Harvard University and a co-founder of Crimson Hexagon, a data analysis firm based in Boston.

The Obama campaign employs rows of people manning computers that monitor Twitter sentiment about the candidates in key states. Google scientists are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track the spread of flu around the world by analyzing what people are typing in to search. And the United Nations is measuring inflation through computers that analyze the price of bread advertised in online supermarkets across Latin America.

Many questions about big data remain unanswered. Concerns are being raised about personal privacy and how consumers can ensure that their information is being used fairly. Some worry that savvy technologists could use Twitter or Google to create false trends and manipulate markets.

Even so, sociologists, software engineers, economists, policy analysts and others in nearly every field are jumping into the fray.

via ‘Big data’ from social media, elsewhere online take trend-watching to new level – The Washington Post.

That’s very impressive, to be sure, but do you think all of this “data” is really equivalent to a natural resource?  The stock trader who buys when the Twitter traffic is happy and sells when it’s sad has been making money, but why not buy when people are sad (picking up bargains when people are giving up on the world and dumping their stocks for cheap) and selling when they are happy (taking advantage of their irrational exuberance)?  That is to say, is his data mining resulting in an application that is all that scientific?  And in what sense is a Twitter tweet necessarily equivalent to hard data?  Can one control for irony, sarcasm, and jokes?  I’m not denying that there may be some very useful information amidst all of the clutter, but still. . . .

The history of air conditioning

Washington, D.C., turns into a sweltering swamp in the summer.  It has been said that our problems with a too-big government began with the invention of air conditioning.  Before that, Congress and government officials only stayed in town a few months and was anxious to leave.  Since air conditioning was invented, they stick around all year, passing laws and running things.

I don’t know about that, but Monica Hesse, in an article about how air conditioning makes offices too cold, gives us the history of this great invention:

The blessing of modern air conditioning was bestowed upon us 110 years ago this summer by Willis Haviland Carrier, a young Buffalo native with a prominent nose on a handsome face. Carrier worked for a heating company in Upstate New York, and in 1902, was tasked with devising a solution for a printing company whose equipment was going haywire because of the summer humidity. His proposal involved fans, coils and coolants, and it worked.

His invention spread widely to movie theaters, but it took nearly half a century for air conditioning to reach workplaces. In pre-World War II architecture, buildings were designed so that every room got a window, air and light. This led to sprawling structures that took up a lot of land and cost a lot of money, which was impractical in urban areas like Washington. It would have been much more economical to put workers in giant block buildings, except, of course, that the buildings would be dark, sticky hellholes.

Enter air conditioning, says Gail Cooper, a Lehigh University historian who wrote “Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment.”

“Air conditioning and fluorescent lights made block buildings possible,” she says.

Really. You shouldn’t have.

What’s interesting about the introduction of air conditioning in the workspace, Cooper says, is that the development was tied as much to architectural design — making square, cheap buildings practical — as it was to climate. It was hard, at first, to sell employers on the notion that their workers deserved to be comfortable during the day, so air-conditioning companies tried to frame it as a productivity issue.

And productivity was an issue. As the implementers of incremental process, the federal government had contrived a mathematical formula to determine whether it was too hot for its employees to work. When the outside temperature plus 20 percent of the humidity reached 100, workers would be sent home — a sort of reverse snow day policy that could have drastic effects in a place like Washington. In 1953, the city slogged through a week-long heat wave that resulted in illnesses, heat stroke and at least 26,284 federal workers being sent home.

In 1956, the General Services Administration got a large appropriation to retrofit all federal buildings with air conditioning. A quarter of that went to buildings in Washington.

Salvation had come to the city.

via Donning sweaters and Snuggies to combat the office’s deep freeze in the heat of summer – The Washington Post.

I like it cold.  If electricity were no object, I’d crank up the air conditioner until my breath fogs.  And at night I’d make it colder, then pile on the blankets and comforters to keep warm.

So here’s to you, W. H. Carrier!

Hacking into the rest of our technology

One of those darn kids invented a monster.  It is called Shodan.  And it threatens everything connected to the internet, which is now pretty much everything:

It began as a hobby for a ­teenage computer programmer named John Matherly, who wondered how much he could learn about devices linked to the Internet.

After tinkering with code for nearly a decade, Matherly eventually developed a way to map and capture the specifications of everything from desktop computers to network printers to Web servers.

He called his fledgling search engine Shodan, and in late 2009 he began asking friends to try it out. He had no inkling it was about to alter the balance of security in cyberspace.

“I just thought it was cool,” said Matherly, now 28.

Matherly and other Shodan users quickly realized they were revealing an astonishing fact: Uncounted numbers of industrial control computers, the systems that automate such things as water plants and power grids, were linked in, and in some cases they were wide open to exploitation by even moderately talented hackers.

Control computers were built to run behind the safety of brick walls. But such security is rapidly eroded by links to the Internet. Recently, an unknown hacker broke into a water plant south of Houston using a default password he found in a user manual. A Shodan user found and accessed the cyclotron at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Yet another user found thousands of unsecured Cisco routers, the computer systems that direct data on the networks.

“There’s no reason these systems should be exposed that way,” Matherly said. “It just seems ludicrous.”

The rise of Shodan illuminates the rapid convergence of the real world and cyberspace, and the degree to which machines that millions of people depend on every day are becoming vulnerable to intrusion and digital sabotage. It also shows that the online world is more interconnected and complex than anyone fully understands, leaving us more exposed than we previously imagined.

via Cyber search engine exposes vulnerabilities – The Washington Post.


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