Archive for May, 2012

Government Burdens on My Business (and what I want to do about it…)

May 28, 2012

The White House called me the other day – they have scheduled a conference call with me to explore a “few ideas”. This is the result of a scathing letter I wrote to President Obama in January.

My “Beefs”? They are “fuzzy”… It boils down to the burden from the total body of law. From my letter:

The law is additive in the United States – it does not diminish – it seems to grow and grow without bound. Every law has a cost – a cost to socialize, write, pass, publish, educate, enforce, comply with and audit. The more laws there are, the higher the social and economic cost of the total body of law.

My Objectives:

I am asking our Government to embark on a cultural shift to eliminate burdensome law, and I am asking our Government to write higher quality legislation that the person it pertains to can read and understand. And I am also asking the Government to foster small business in some new and innovative ways. In my letter, I focused on two areas of law that cost me time and money: tax law and immigration law. I’ll add a third category of law in my conference call: intellectual property or IP law.

Here are five things I want to accomplish for my business:

  1. Reduce the amount of time spent complying with the total body of law to less than a 10% burden of my productive time;
  2. Eliminate significant administrative expenses dedicated to legal compliance;
  3. Create access to skilled and experienced employees who may need visas;
  4. Create and exploit IP protections my business currently does not enjoy;
  5. Encourage law that is essential, minimal, straight forward and readable.

I spend about 20% of my productive time and thousands of dollars every year to comply with the laws I am exposed to in my business. I would much rather invest my time and money in my business. And have you read the law? I have read more than 120,000 pages of law, proposed legislation, instructions, guidelines, position papers, etc. over the years, and I can actually understand some of it – I say that in jest. The law is almost impossible for me to read and understand. Golly, you should be able to read the law and understand what your obligations are without too much of a struggle.

When I am uncertain about how to complete a form (I seem to file an inordinate number of forms), I start with a phone call to a government agency to seek an answer to my questions. My frustration is frequently amplified with every call I make until my frustration is overwhelming. Have you ever called the IRS with a question? Every agency of the Government works in roughly the same way – they are happy to read the law and locate resources in print or on-line for you, and that can be helpful, but they are unable to interpret the law.

Me – This is my question: “blah blah”;

Them – This is the law: “gobblety goop”;

Me “But what does that mean?”

Them “We can’t tell you what it means, we can just tell you what it says.”

Me “OK – what does this word mean? And this word? And this word? And this phrase?”

And on and on…

When the questions get down to the definition of words, well, I start to learn a few things and put things together in my brain. This is a frustrating “peeling the onion” process, but it can be productive none the less.

Another frustration that costs me hours of time and maintains a “simmering” level of frustration – agency registrations, on-line account maintenance and news dissemination. My company has more than a dozen agency registrations that require periodic attention. News and information is posted on-line by each agency, but you must visit each agency’s website to learn these things.

Here is what I intend to propose in a nutshell:

Tell me “what it means” !
Don’t force my company to engage with our attorneys and CPAs to get basic answers to fundamental questions. Provide constructive guidance to the small business. Produce resources that explain the law and describe “official” government interpretations of the law. This is a huge challenge, but the very exercise of addressing this problem will expose the poor quality and ambiguous nature of legislation for Congress to address. Tell me what it means, not what it says…

Give me one login!
Facebook has a neat credential server service. A growing number of websites let you login with your Facebook login. This is a big simplification for a lot of people. The Government has a few focal points for citizen access with a login credential – GRANTS.GOV is one example. Many agency websites use a GRANTS.GOV registration to provide basic registration information for their own registration processes, and this saves time – this is a good step forward.  USA.GOV is another focal point for citizen access, but it currently requires no login. It would be a tremendous step forward if government agencies used a central login resource for secure citizen online access – Login with USA.GOV!. For some uses, a second ID challenge or a biometric or device verification process is fine – mandatory for some uses. For most secure online access requirements with Government, though, let me login with one credential to any agency of the Government just like I login “with Facebook” for many commercial websites.

Offer RSS Services; Maintain an Interest Profile for E-mail News Notifications.
USA.GOV allows users to subscribe to RSS feeds – every agency of the Government should be required to offer RSS feeds to users. Many do, but not all… Further, every agency should maintain an “Interest Profile” for subject-specific e-mail notifications for news and events, bulletins, advisories, etc. Automated and highly focused e-mail notifications would help me stay abreast of news and changes I need to know about. Keep me informed as effortlessly as possible with focused, automated notifications.

The “Hobby” Business – Encourage it!
The IRS discourages the “hobby’ business. The IRS devotes resources to identify and stop a “hobby” business. I believe that a “hobby” business can spur innovation, create wealth and lead to much larger enterprises over time for more and more business owners. Why discourage small revenue-generating and innovative businesses that require long periods of time to flourish? Why stifle tinkering and plodding by uncertain and hesitant entrepreneurs? Why drive this business model into a lawless enterprise in the grey economy or black market? This is a “garden of opportunity” to foster and encourage.

Tax Law – Fewer Forms and Less Information for a Small Business.
Texas offers a huge time-saver for my company – a simple one-page “No Tax Due” annual franchise tax filing requirement that I qualify for because of the small size of my company. The IRS needs a form 1120-SIMPLE and a form K-1-SIMPLE, for example. Don’t ask about accounting methods, inventory valuation, previously taxed shareholder distributions, amortization or depreciation if my business is smaller than a certain employee count threshold or revenue threshold. Make it all very simple with a quick one-page form. Form 1120S, for example, already allows the filer to omit balance sheet information if revenue is less than a threshold amount, but I think the IRS can go much further to simplify things for me. Make my tax filings far simpler than they are so that I can invest my productive time and money in my business – just ask me for Revenue and Profit.

Immigration Law – Give me One or Two Express H1B Visas
A large business finds their necessary mix of skills and experience in their large numbers of employees. Conversely, the small business looks for the critical mix of skills and experience in the same person. In my business, I want to employ specific people I know who are immediately productive because they have previously been associated with my business and its mission for one reason or another. A specific example of this problem for me was a key employee working on a NSF grant awarded to my company. This employee on an F1 visa with an OPT extension can no longer work past this summer because their visa expires. Getting an H1B visa for this employee will take many months and cost thousands of dollars – time and money I don’t have and can’t afford. Because of National quotas, it would take years for a visa for this employee based upon their own conventional visa application. My success depends on this one particular employee. Give a small business one or two “express” H1B visas at little or no cost to the company. Grant it in less than 30 days and make it renewable for one year at a time. Don’t require that I pay a salary “at the market” if my business is smaller than a certain threshold revenue and/or number of employees – eliminate the Department of Labor in this “express” H1B process, in other words, if my business is small enough. Help my small business take advantage of the critical skills and experience in one key person who needs a visa, and help my business to be more nimble – grant my small business one or two express H1B visas.

IP Law – Renew Provisional Patent Applications; Shield Small Business from Litigation Costs and Adverse Settlements. 
Patents are wildly expensive. There is a limited time in which to file before IP rights are forfeit or abandoned. An infringement suit will ruin a small business that cannot afford a legal offense or defense. Current intellectual property law puts the small business at a distinct disadvantage, and these are the three areas of exposure that concern me the most. A patent can cost me between $10,000 and $20,000 to write and file to completion – just one patent, and the patenting process can consume four or five years! I have a year from first discovery to file a patent application, and by filing a provisional application, I can in effect add another year to the formal application filing deadline I am allowed. If my small company could renew a provisional application until such time as I can afford to make a complete formal application, I would benefit significantly. But the real issue I face is infringement – a large company that infringes on my IP can do so without fear of retribution because I cannot afford the time or money to sue, and if my small company inadvertently infringes on the IP of a large company that notices and sues, then I am ruined. Require low cost arbitration in lieu of litigation for IP disputes involving a small business. Shield the small business from infringement consequences and adverse settlements for as long as company revenue is less than a certain threshold amount. Limit future liability for infringement damages for IP invented while the business is small. Improving the IP landscape for the small business can accelerate innovations and reward those small companies like my own that can make better use of the IP.

Pass QUALITY Laws that are Essential, Minimal, Straight Forward and Readable; Benefits Must Exceed the Costs.
All legislation should pass a Cost-Benefit Analysis performed by a Government agency such as the GAO. A Cost-Benefit Analysis is a standard element of business decision making. For most all things, the cost can be measured, and the benefits measured, too. With few “American Values” exceptions, the benefits of every law passed by Congress should exceed the costs of the law. Periodic cost-benefit reviews should detect and eliminate laws with costs that significantly exceed cost estimates or benefits that significantly miss benefit estimates at the time of passage. All legislation should be tested by a panel of ordinary people before being signed into law – if the law can not be read and understood by ordinary people, it goes back to Congress for simplification. It’s QUALITY of law, not quantity of law that counts!

This is a large plate of issues and ideas – the conference call will be verrrry interesting!

Raising the Flag this Memorial Day

May 26, 2012

Boy Scout Troop 500 in our area contacted me the other day to ask if I would help their troop go to summer camp. Their proposal was to plant a flag in my yard at about sunrise four times this year on specific National holidays, and then retrieve the flag at about sunset the same day – this for a small contribution to the troop. I was asked if I could let homeowners in my neighborhood know about this project.

This is a terrific idea – the troop calls it “Raising the Flag”. I was glad to spread the word throughout my neighborhood and to another nearby neighborhood, too. As the HOA president, I have some resources, an e-mail list, and an organized “pyramid” for communicating out to our homeowners and other nearby HOAs. I hope to see a “sea of flags” tomorrow. I am sure to see a few, at any rate.

I like this project. It teaches a patriotism lesson, a commitment lesson, a flag ritual, and it instills some confidence as the scouts approach neighbors beyond their street. So, I said, “Sure – I’ll spread the word! And, here is my contribution!”

Our neighborhood is tremendously diverse. Different cultures have different views of charity and community and country, and there are likely to be several differing perspectives in our neighborhood regarding this flag project. From my point of view, Troop 500 Raising the Flag projects genuine American values that I hope the various cultures of homeowners living in my neighborhood will notice and can appreciate.

I like celebrations. I encourage our homeowners to live quiet, discrete lives, but I also encourage our homeowners to celebrate as a community now and then by doing something that they don’t do every day – something tangible to celebrate something meaningful.

Raise your flag this Memorial Day – celebrate with Troop 500, and with me!

The Future “Industry” of Education

May 24, 2012

My alma mater Rice University celebrates it’s 100th anniversary of it’s founding on October 10, 2012. My own view of Rice is that it is an exceptional university – perhaps one of the most notable 50 or so in the world. My experiences there were as exceptional as the school. I worry a little bit that the next 100 years will be a struggle for Rice and for many, many great universities in the US and throughout the world.

There are a number of forces and trends colliding – here is what I observe:

  1. A University education is becoming unaffordable. Tuition at US universities continues to climb at an alarming rate that is far steeper than the increase in the cost of living. Most parents on the verge of sending their children to a university will face a staggering tab that will be between $100,000 and $250,000. The average college graduate today assumes a $25,000 student loan debt, and that debt burden will certainly grow significantly, too.
  2. On-line universities are starting to proliferate. Every month or two, I hear a new on-line university advertise on TV. Employers like these on-line universities – they are inexpensive for the companies that reimburse their employees of continuing education expenses, and they don’t interfere with work commitments.
  3. Certifications and cert-like credentials are ever more in demand for technical jobs. One job I investigated had 17 certifications required representing an investment of about $20,000 in credentialing fees – far cheaper than a 4-year degree from most public schools. Many technically demanding job postings I see advertised fail to require a college degree in the list of credentials and certifications – this is a growing trend in the labor market.
  4. Incoming student quality is declining. Public K-12 education performance in the US lags way behind the rest of the world, and the trend for US public education is a continued decline. Many universities have student bodies that are about one-third foreign students. These foreign students are increasingly of a slightly lesser caliber than a few years ago if quiet confidences from my academia friends are to be believed. As universities in their other countries, particularly India and China have become more capable and noteworthy in the world, they attract a growing number of the truly talented students in their own country.
  5. Public funding for schools is declining. K-12 and public university funding is declining as states and cities slash budgets. Universities face a conundrum of rising costs, reduced funding and uncertain endowment values. The only sure outcome for many universities is shrinking course offerings and ebbing quality as staff is dismissed and salaries are capped to counter the financial pressures.

My fear is that for all but the most distinguished universities in the US, the US “brick-and-mortar” university will struggle to survive with declining undergraduate student quality and degree credibility and perceived worth. This outcome is tragic in light of the high value of face-to-face student body interaction and face-to-face student-professor interaction that can’t be realized without a physical place for learning.

Many universities are streaming classroom courses on-line live and also on demand for students who are unable to attend or for review after class time. UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania are notable examples of this response to student demand with significant on-line Internet resources for their students. Academic Earth hosts a collection of on-line degrees and course offerings from a number of prominent universities and lecturers. See Academic Earth

MIT offers Circuits and Electronics on-line for free along with a host of archived classroom streams available for the asking. MIT’s “On-line Learning Initiative” includes a treasure trove of  formal courseware with course outlines, notes, assignments, tests, detailed solutions and text supplements. The Circuits and Electronics course is the first MIT course offered on-line as a tailored on-line course for credit with grading and TA teaching assistant services. See MIT Open Courseware  See Circuits and Electronics

Stanford offered the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course last Fall taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, distinguished leaders in this field, for free with more than 100,000 students participating. The Stanford AI course is a part of the Stanford Engineering Everywhere program. See Stanford Engineering Everywhere

MIT and Stanford prove that on-line strategies can positively augment a prominent school’s reputation. An on-line courseware debate rages in academia with concerns about copyright holder, royalties collection and distribution, effective course structure different from classroom course structure, necessary interaction strategies between students and instructors, dilution of “student experience”, monitored testing infrastructures, and many other issues. The on-line University is obviously in it’s infancy with real pioneers beginning to be seen and heard.

Rice has yet to enter the on-line “fray” with courseware. They need to do it “smartly”. Rice will in time, I am sure. But, I am afraid that many fine public universities will fail and physical facilities will go increasingly unused over the coming decade as higher education becomes another industry in turmoil in the US. And I am afraid that the value of an undergraduate college degree will diminish as certifications take on more prominence. And finally, I am afraid that the value of face-to-face interaction will be all but lost on-line.

One of these days, I’ll… (fill in the blank)

May 21, 2012

There was a total solar eclipse visible in the continental US on Sunday.  A rare event.  I almost flew to Albuquerque  to watch it!  I have never seen a total solar eclipse, and one of these days, I will.

I have seen a near-total eclipse only once, and it was a memorable experience.  It was in the mid-90’s, and after looking at Wikipedia, I am certain it was the annular eclipse on Tuesday, May 10, 1994.  I was at Sprint in Kansas City “pitching” a product to network planning and engineering executive staff that day – this was the final round of presentations before a competitive award was to be made.  We had Director and Vice President-level staff attending from both companies – this was a critical day.

In the middle of my presentation, I stopped to the horror of my manager, and I asked the Sprint staff if we could take a five-minute break to step outside and observe the eclipse.  I put up a PowerPoint slide of the eclipse path, and I pointed out that this was almost the most opportune moment to step outside.  I had a Welder’s glass for almost everyone (I had a box or 24 2″x4″ glass inserts), and I passed them around.  Someone said that this would eat into our presentation time, but the Sprint VP responsible for the award decision said, “I want to see this eclipse – let’s all go outside.  Fujitsu will just have to wait until we get back into the room and Alcatel finishes.  I want to see the eclipse, too.”  So, with that, we all walked outside and spent the next 20 minutes or so experiencing the eclipse.

The sunlight got noticeably dim.  Through the welder’s glass, you could see a slim crescent of the sun.  Shadows cast by tree leaves had unusual distinctive curls to their edges.  Insects stopped flying around.  It was a marvelous experience.  And, we got the contract award for the network expansion we proposed!  Maybe observing the eclipse was what tipped the balance.

But, I have yet to observe a total eclipse.  One of these days, I will…

One of these days, I will also:

  • See Machu Picchu – Wonder how the Inca’s precisely-fitted stone walls were made?
  • See Nazca Lines – from the ground and from the air.
  • Set Foot on Antarctica – just to do it.
  • Watch Whales Swimming in the Ocean – In their natural habitat and up close enough to hear and feel their breath.
  • See a Space  Launch – Close enough to feel the rumble of the engines!
  • Go Skydiving – Free fall for at least 2500 meters.
  • Meet Aliens from another World – Yes, this is still on my list…

This is what remains from my “bucket list” that I made when I was about 10 years old.  A few things have dropped off that list such as going into space – to the Moon and to Mars was the bullet point.  But from a 2-page list of things to do, the above is all that remains.

My original two-page list has long since been lost – a pity.  I spent months in 5th grade researching for this list.  I split the list into

  1. Natural Phenomenon;
  2. Evidence of Man and Animal Life;
  3. Other Experiential.

I am doing pretty well on my “bucket list”.

Three Movies – You’ll Like One!

May 16, 2012

I have three movies in front of me:

1) REDS, a Warren Beaty film starring Warren Beaty and Diane Keaton (and even Jack Nicholson).

2) THE DREAMERS (uncut), a Bernardo Bertolucci film starring Michael Pitt, Eva Green and Louis Garrel.

3) THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (an animation), a Steven Spielberg film with the voices of Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis and Daniel Craig.

REDS is a 1981 production about the romance and relationship of the historical communist journalist Jack Reed and the feminist Louise Bryant during the period of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in the early 1900’s.  This is a 3+ hours epic of history and romance and radical culture.  This film is the first that I recall to use the tool of the “witness” – close-up interviews of actual witnesses to events interspersed throughout the film.  Witnesses were used very effectively by Ron Howard in his film IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON – another great movie.

I recall seeing this movie in 1981 in an “artsy” theatre in Dallas with several eccentric friends.  We brought wine and cheese, croissants and apples, and we even bought a pizza from the pizzeria next door to the theatre.  The film started at 7:00 PM on a Saturday, and ended about midnight.  With two intermissions, it made quite an evening.  Those were great days – just out of college – living in an inexpensive apartment the only English-speaking tenant where the entire complex was a community of Russian Jewish immigrants, and I happened to speak Russian very well in those days – and they often asked, “Are you KGB or CIA?”.

Reed was buried inside the Kremlin – I actually found his grave there, but the Russians I spoke to there inside the Kremlin walls had no idea who he was…

THE DREAMERS – wow, an erotic 2004 film filled with the whimsy of youth with plenty of vivid sex and unabashed full frontal nudity, both male and female.  I misread the excerpt of this movie and expected something quirt different, and it was a very “European” film.  The Dreamers chronicled the French socialist revolution of the ’60’s through the eyes of three students who were engrossed by a common interest – an obsession, really, of cinematic technique.  Pitt (brother is Brad) is handsome in his own way, and Green and Garrel are unknowns who spun their roles so naturally, it was hard to believe they were just beginning their movie careers.

This film drew me into each character consistently and continually as their experiences unfolded to shape how they saw their world, and how their view of the world around them changed as their own relationships developed.  Compared to the French, Americans are rather prudish.  More than rather…  You can also buy an “Americanized” edit that omits much of the sex and nudity – if you are rather prudish…

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN was pure fun.  My father used to read Hergé’s Tintin books to me in French when I was a child.  This film brought back some of those memories.  The animation was superbly crafted – the camera angle changed continuously to follow the main characters and the dog; expression and artistic detail was tremendous.  Snowy, Tintin’s dog, is remarkable animation – you will swear he is real…  Snowy is in fact a wireframe prop carried in front of the camera by the prop master.

This was fast-paced action from beginning to end that would entertain anyone of any age.  It was “clever” and surprisingly well crafted.

Three Films – Three “A’s” from me.  But, I bet you will only like one of them!