Monday, April 28, 1997

Week of 04/28/1997

Dismantling the IRS…
It’s not as easy at it seems!
- by David Matthews 2

Well April 15th has come and gone again, and just like previous years there was talk about the evils of the Internal Revenue Service. It seems every year there is some issue about the IRS that we all hate and we all ask ourselves "Why can’t we just get rid of the IRS?"

Look, let’s be brutally honest here. I’ll break out the champagne when the words IRS stand for Irrelevant and Retired Snoops. And yeah, I wish it was as simple as passing a law, which was how the IRS got started in the first place. Unfortunately there’s more to it than meets the eye.

For starters, we need to think about how we see taxes. Not just "we" as in you and me, but also "we" as in the other people. We’re quick to say that WE pay too much taxes, but how many of us - when faced with alternatives such as a flat tax - then point to someone else and say THEY don’t pay their share of taxes? Oh sure, the more wealthier of us can get tax breaks and exemptions, but what about the tax breaks the rest of us are given? How many of you have families? How many of you are given tax credits for having kids, on top of listing them as deductions? How are those different from the tax breaks wealthy corporations get? Either way you look at it, it still means not having to pay "your share" of taxes!

Didn’t think about it that way, did you? Maybe you should.

Look, before any of us start pointing fingers at someone else and accuse them of not paying taxes, let’s look at how many tax breaks and exemptions WE take advantage of. We need to change out attitudes about things such as "tax credits" for families and people with kids. I’m not insensitive to the demands of family life. I know it’s hard to raise a family today. But we need to shout foul instead of fair whenever politicians stop talking about giving us tax cuts and instead talk about "tax credits," because they are no different than the tax breaks they give to the rich! As long as the politicians continue to play this game of favorites and as long as we continue to play their little game, we will not get any closer to establishing a tax system that IS equal!

Ask yourself: Would you rather have a tax credit that you’ll only see on your tax forms, or a tax cut that you’ll see every week with more of your paycheck coming back to you?

Here’s another question for all of us to ask: How much do you pay in taxes overall? Ever figure out the math? I have. 17.8% of my paycheck goes to paying both federal and state taxes. How about you? Radio talk show host and fellow libertarian Neal Boortz asks people regularly around Tax Day how much they make per year. Not how much you bring home, but how much you make before taxes. Do you know? I do. Look at your pay stub and do the math. I think you’ll be surprised as to how much you make compared to how much you really get after taxes.

Now that you know how much you’re losing every year to pay Uncle Sam and his 50 spoiled brats, let’s talk about the IRS.

For starters, we have to realize that no matter what tax alternative we offer, be it through a flat tax or a national sales tax or another kind of consumption tax, we will not get rid of the IRS in it’s entirety! There will STILL be a need for people to account for the tax money raised to keep government going.

Then we have to think about who would be hurt if we put in an alternative tax system such as a flat tax. (And I’m talking about a REAL flat tax - no exemptions, no deductions, no credits!) Well who benefits from the current tax system besides government? For starters, accountants! Not just the ones in the IRS, but also those private CPAs out there. The companies and firms who prepare our tax forms such as H&R Block would go out of business if all of our taxes can be filled out on a postcard. Think about all those software programs such as TurboTax that would be irrelevant. Sure companies like Intuit can continue to prosper with financial software like Quicken and Quick Books, but how many other small software companies thrive on the current morass we call the tax codes?

Why mention these groups? Because THEY are your real opposition! These are the people who would be seriously hurt by our gain of a fair and equal system of paying taxes. Don’t think for a minute that they won’t fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo, because if we were talking about my bread and butter I’d be fighting just as hard, if not harder!

To be honest, no matter WHAT bureaucracy we try to get rid of, it’ll cost us in terms of jobs, and those groups will fight tooth and nail to keep their paychecks. But unlike ordinary folk like you and I, we’re talking some seriously well-off vocations being endangered. And I’m not even getting into the more trickier questions of how to handle those tax-exempt groups such as full-time students, non-profit organizations, and churches!

Suddenly it’s not so simple, is it?

Look, if we want to fix the tax system, we need to seriously look at these issues and decide beforehand which alternative system we want implemented. Don’t look to the politicians to do this for us, because they won’t! These societal parasites can’t have a bowel movement without first checking with the latest Gallop Poll to see if what they produce will rate higher than them! They listen to whomever will pay their campaign bills, not whomever votes them into office.

So it’s really just a question of how bad do we want change. Are we willing to discuss these issues and decide which alternative tax system we want implemented? It’s up to us!

Monday, April 21, 1997

Week of 04/21/1997

Voice-Activated Systems
Next Challenge for Designers of Operating Systems
- by David Matthews 2

We’ve been hearing a lot from Microsoft and Apple about the "next" generation of computer systems. Microsoft is competing with Netscape in creating THE Internet Browser, and I hate to say it (since I am a Netscape fan) that Microsoft has the edge because they will be able to integrate their browser with the desktop of it’s operating system. We’ve been hearing about network computers and Internet systems for the television. We’ve been hearing about Java and Active X, and the attempts to getting these integrated into the operating systems.

And yes, I have read Bill Gates’ book The Road Ahead which talks about his vision for computers and their role in society. This adventurous road that seems to be just around the corner but we still aren’t able to see it yet.

Seen it, read it. But amongst all this talk of future and near-future technology, there is still something missing from the mix. Do you know what it is?

Eh? Can’t hear you.. SPEAK UP!

That’s right. SOUND. We can make the computer talk thanks to an endless supply of sound files, but what about our own ability to talk to the computer? What ever happened to voice-activated systems?

Today’s computers are STILL dependent on an external source, such as a keyboard, a mouse, a joystick, or a trackball, to deliver commands. But time can be simplified a whole lot better when you can simply TELL the computer what to do. Think about the time needed to move the mouse, click on the various icons and buttons to get to a program. Now compare it to simply telling the computer to run the program. See the difference?

Voice active systems are not new either. Creative Labs, creators of the ever-popular Sound Blaster sound cards, experimented with a voice-activated program called Voice Blaster. Dragon Systems has their own version in use for the Star Trek Omnipedia program. And there are already expensive "electronic butler" programs available for home use so people can give vocal commands to open curtains, turn on the TV, etc. There are even hotel chains who are installing these systems as part of their "techno-friendly" suites.

So why hasn’t Microsoft or Apple picked up the ball and developed an OS program with voice-active capabilities? Why, in their quest to out-do each other, have they forgotten about the one thing that will give them the definitive edge over their competition?

Consider the advantages of an OS with a Voice-Active System (VAS). With a VAS, users can open and close programs with a few select words. You can tell the computer to "Run Chess," and when you’re done say "Close Chess." At no time having to move your mouse. And with a VAS chess game, you can even tell the computer which chess pieces to move instead of using a cursor and mouse.

In terms of security, a voice-active OS is more efficient than a keyboard/mouse only input system. Passwords based on typed words or even symbols can be duplicated, or passed around. Voices, however, are much like fingerprints. Even the best vocal impersonators can imitate your voice, but not duplicate it.

A typical start-up for a voice-active OS would involve you telling the computer to recognize you by your name. You would say, for instance, "Recognize Bob Jones" into the microphone. The computer would have your voice sample in memory and would then customize itself to respond to your voice. It would even be able to reply in whatever tone, male or female, you wish.

If your voice sample is not in it’s memory, the computer might ask you to set up a quick profile. This would involve you saying your name, then five words of different pronunciations like "today," "mother," "yesterday," "tomorrow," and "hello." Words that will help establish the range of your voice for the computer to understand you. For a more detailed setup, the computer can help determine what kind of voice you would like the computer to use in replying to your commands, as well as the mood you would like it to be in. That way if you say "Computer play chess," the computer can reply "Yes sir" instead of "OK." You can even give the computer a name so you can call it "Alfred" or "Bill" instead of saying "computer" all the time.

VAS can also be helpful for the users on the Internet. A voice-active browser can save the time needed to go though dozens of bookmarks. Simply say "Computer go to Microsoft" and the browser will take you to Microsoft’s web site. You can also tell the computer to search for a word by saying "computer search coffee" or "computer search Atlanta Braves" and the computer will take you to a search engine like Yahoo that has already begun a search using the parameters "coffee" or "Atlanta Braves."

VAS also opens the door for using the computer more and more for home tasks. Such visions similar to the ones Bill Gates detailed in his book The Road Ahead. Imagine saying "Good Morning" when you wake up and have the computer open the curtains and start up the coffee machine for you. Or saying "sleep in 2 hours," and have the computer automatically turn off the lights and TV for you instead of having them on all night. These things can’t be done only on a keyboard/mouse system.

In short, the future of computer development rests with the development of voice-active systems. Without VAS, computer development will be stagnant. The technology to develop VAS is already here, it only needs to be implemented into the next generation of operating systems.

The only stumbling block rests with Microsoft and Apple. It’s up to them to decide where they want to go tomorrow.

Monday, April 14, 1997

Week of 04/14/1997

Pay-Per-Channel Service
A Consumer Choice Whose Time Has Come
- by David Matthews 2

Just last month I got a notice from DirecTV, one of two DSS subscribers I deal with. They claim that they have listened to the public and have decided to give us some new channels. I thought "Hey, good deal!"

Then I saw what those channels were. Chicago Superstation WGN? OK, that’s not too bad. It’s a WB network. No problem. STARZ2? I don’t get STARZ, why should I be impressed with STARZ2? Same applies with STARZ2 West. QVC? Why, is the Home Shopping Channel getting too boring for those compulsive spenders? Romance Channel? Well I may not have a social life, but that doesn’t mean I should deprive anyone else from one. Channel Earth? Wasn’t that a show on the Discover Channel? How do they rate into becoming a channel unto itself? Trinity Broadcast Channel? Well since Pat Robertson only has ONE channel compared to the 200 plus channels available, why not add this one. The TV FOOD NETWORK?

Then there are the FOX Sports Arizona, FOX Sports Midwest, and SPORTSCHANNEL Florida channels. Why not FOX Sports Hoboken? Or SPORTSCHANNEL Rhode Island? Matter of fact, why not have SPORTSCHANNEL Rhode Island WEST for those west coast fans of Rhode Island sports? Can we squeeze in another steroid-laden testosterone sports program? I think there are a couple of sports bars left that are still playing with rabbit ears! I’m still waiting for the ultimate in sports channel absurdity - the 24-hour fishing channel, where we can watch nothing but a couple of guys in an expensive boat catching fish they’ll never take home to cook, and using expensive gear that the ordinary fisherman can never afford never mind know how to use.

In case you couldn’t tell, I wasn’t too impressed with the bulk of these new channels. My question was just WHO did the suits at DirecTV listen to? Probably the same rocket scientists who do the Nielson ratings that decide which knock-off sitcom of "Friends" will be in the top 10.

But wait! That’s not all! There’s a catch to having all these wonderful programs added into our monthly bill. And that catch is DirecTV gets to put all the ENCORE movie channels that used to be part of our Total Choice service into their own subscription plan to go with STARZ, STARZ2, their west coast channels, the Romance Channel, and IFC! They call it Total Choice Silver.. to go with Total Choice Gold and Total Choice Platinum subscription plans.

People, this is nothing new. The cable companies were the original masters of this bait-and-switch reshuffling game. Give the people a ton of channels they like, then start to reshuffle them into separate more expensive subscription programs, and replace the gap with a bunch of channels you won’t watch. This was precisely the reason WHY people wanted to ditch their cable subscriptions in the first place! To have DirecTV pull the same game as cable companies is discouraging at the very least. It is annoying to have a company that prides itself in being the alternative to the cable companies start to think and behave like them.

With that in mind, I suggest an alternative, one that I think consumers would eat up like Jello because it would finally work to their advantage. It’s called Pay-Per-Channel, and here’s how it works: Instead of an arbitrary block of channels, you get to pay for each individual channel that you want to subscribe to. Take each channel and figure out how much each costs per channel. Say there are 100 channels available for $23 per month. That’s $.23 per channel. Now say you’ll only want to watch 50 of those channels. That’s $11.50 a month. That beats paying the full $23 for 50 channels you won’t watch.

The advantage of this is that you will finally have a choice in what kind of programming you want. The providers give you a wide option, and you get to pick and choose your individual package instead of having to subscribe to a block package. You like QVC? You get QVC. You don’t like QVC? You don’t get QVC and you won’t have to pay for it either!

Now I realize this doesn’t work in the favor of the satellite or cable providers. After all, they’re getting paid to air all these channels, which in turn they pass on to you, the subscribers. That is why I suggest this alternative - offer the usual block channel package, but give the people the ability to cancel certain channels from their service and from the bill. Again, if a channel costs the consumer $.23 per month, block out that channel like you do pay-per-view channels and deduct $.23 off their monthly bill.

Giving the consumers the power to subscribe or unsubscribe to certain channels will give whatever provider that offers it - satellite or cable - a huge edge. One that will certainly enable them to reap the lion’s share of viewers, as well as give them a more accurate determination as to what the consumers REALLY want.

Monday, April 7, 1997

Week of 04/07/1997

Big Boss or Big Brother?
Privacy in the workplace is limited
- by David Matthews 2

Picture this: You’re at the office, and you get an interoffice E-mail from your friend about the latest changes in office decorum. You don’t like the changes, and you let your friend know all about your displeasure in no uncertain terms. And in there you include how you don’t like your boss’ toupee and that you think he’s having an affair with his assistant. Nothing new, you’ve done this kind of stuff before.

Next day you get called into the boss’ office, where he hands you his copy of the E-mail you had sent, along with several other E-mails you had sent in the past sharing the same views, and at the end of this is the infamous pink slip notifying you that you are no longer an employee. You start packing your desk and wonder just how the hell your boss was able to know what you said. You know your friend wouldn’t fink on you, so you realize that your boss was reading your E-mail. So now you’re mad. After all, E-mail is supposed to be like regular mail. Private, right?


One of the "dirty little secrets" about the electronic communication - be it through an online service, the Internet, or a private Intranet - is that E-mail communications are NOT private. Online services can tap into your E-mail messages if they suspect you’re violating their Terms of Service. Same with Internet Providers, but even more so because your message may be ferried to different system administrators in different parts of the world before it gets to you.

And the debate about office privacy is not just about E-mail, but also what you access online and how you use your computer at work. Office employers were amazed and angered by a study that showed that the highest visited Internet sites on office computers were for Penthouse and Playboy. Two county workers in the greater Atlanta area were fired after having sexually explicit images loaded into their workplace computers. And with the advent of telecommuting, where people work at home while in communication with the office, the question of personal privacy is made even murkier.

Let’s get some of the obvious points ironed out first: If you’re using a computer that is owned by your company, it’s not yours to do with as you wish! It’s there for you to do your work, not to play Doom or view the Playmate of the Month. And because it’s their systems, they have the right to determine what you are allowed to have on it or how it is to be used. And yes, that includes putting in devices that block you from accessing certain sites on the Internet or monitor how long you play games instead of working. Both devices ARE available, and possibly already even in your office computers as you read this.

Where the line gets confusing, however, is when we get into telecommuting - where people use their own computers to communicate with the office. While it’s almost instinct to say that using your computer gives you more privacy than before, current legal actions say otherwise. Armed with lawyers and a search warrant, a company that used to employ you can raid your home and seize your computer in the name of "protecting intellectual property." These lawyers can then either keep your computer and all software and printouts or copy then wipe your entire hard drive. ALL information, both business and personal, to be held until the matter is "resolved."

This is a serious issue and something that needs to be addressed now by business leaders, computer users, and legal experts. And if we don’t take care of this now, it will only get worse when telecommuting becomes a workplace standard. And believe me, it WILL be a workplace standard.

While it’s naïve to believe that the workplace would be willing to supply each and every telecommuter with a separate computer for work, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask for some alternative devices to be installed into the system, such as removable hard drives or zip drives. Both of which are already commercially available and cheaper than buying a laptop computer. These devices can ensure that workplace data can be stored separate from your personal data.

And while we’re at it, let’s address the issue of "intellectual property" so that it doesn’t come in conflict with personal freedoms and privacy. While employees have accepted the fact that lifetime employment is gone forever, employers have yet to recognize that when they lose an employee, either through layoffs, termination, or simply to another job, that they no longer have control over that person’s talents.

Success is not inherent in a company, it is inherent in the people who work in that company. NBC did not make David Letterman a success. They simply provided the air time for him to be a success. CBS knew that, which was why they were able to get Letterman from NBC. The same applies to Microsoft, Apple, Sun Microsystems, and IBM. Their success or failure will not come from the workplace, but rather in the people they employ and how the workplace allows them to be creative.