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11 Things You Might Not Know About Income Tax

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© David Woo/Corbis

Every American’s least favorite day of the year is just around the corner. In commiseration, here are some things you might not know about the income tax.

1. More People Think It’s Okay to Cheat

Taxes are never popular, but recently they have gotten even less so. In 2011, 16% of Americans said it was acceptable to cheat on your taxes, up from 13% in 2010. The number of people who said cheating “as much as possible” was fine doubled to 8%. Researchers blame this increase on the news coverage that rich Americans and corporations use tax loopholes to pay as low as 0% tax. As the perception that others cheat becomes more prevalent, people are more likely to see fudging their taxes as a moral grey area.

2. A Lot of Money Slips Through the Cracks

According to IRS estimates, some $250-300 billion worth of taxes goes unpaid every year by people who don’t report all their income. In 1995, Congress gave the IRS $100 million to go after this missing money. They got a return on their investment of 8 to 1, but the program was cut the next year. That might be why now…

3. You Can Get Paid to Snitch

Yes, the IRS wants you to rat out your company, co-workers, and neighbors if you think they might be hiding money from the government. And if the extra they owe in taxes is enough, you could walk away with a decent chunk of change. For your anonymous reporting, you get a 15-30% cut of (a minimum of) $2 million. So far, it’s working: in 2006 the IRS recovered more than $1.4 billion in taxes owed through this program.

Unfortunately, like everything involving bureaucracy, there is a rather long form you need to fill out when reporting someone. It’s also important to have some specific details, so calling up and reporting your ex just to make his or her life difficult probably won’t get you anywhere.

4. Typos Can Get You Audited

When people are suspected, they face an audit. So what can you do to avoid it being you? Experts say that some of the main reasons people get audited have nothing to do with what they claimed. For example, make sure you have no typos before you submit your form. Inexact spelling probably means inexact numbers and can trigger an audit. And audits aren’t proportional across all tax brackets: Half of all individual filers who get audited make under $25,000 a year.

5. It’s All Lincoln’s Fault

The IRS was created during the Civil War to manage the first income tax. The Revenue Act of 1862 was an emergency war measure that was based off of the income tax that Great Britain had recently implemented. The tax, and the number of people who had to pay it, increased every year of the war. By the time General Lee surrendered, 10% of all Union households had paid the tax, and it contributed 21% of the North’s war revenue.

6. The Income Tax Was Once Ruled Unconstitutional

In 1894 the income tax was revived for the first time since the Civil War. But just a year later, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional because it was a direct tax, and not apportioned among the states on the basis of population, which is the only tax the Constitution originally allowed for. The 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913 to allow for direct taxation.

7. Some People Claim the 16th Amendment is Not Valid

Tax protesters argue that the income tax is still unconstitutional because the amendment creating it was never properly ratified. While they cite many reasons for this, the main argument is that the language of the proposed amendment that was sent to some of the states for approval was slightly different than what was actually ratified. However, the amendment has been upheld every single time its legitimacy has been challenged in court.

8. The IRS Enforced Prohibition

When the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act. This act gave the head of the IRS responsibility for making sure no alcoholic beverages were manufactured, sold, or transported in the United States. It wasn’t until eleven years later, when it was more than obvious that illegal alcohol was directly tied to organized crime, that enforcement duties were passed to the Department of Justice. After Prohibition ended, the IRS continued to regulate alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, until the ATF became its own bureau in 1972.

9. The IRS Put Al Capone Behind Bars

Since the IRS was watching bootleggers, they also zeroed in on their finances. Despite being tied to murders, bribery, pimping, and illegal gambling, in 1931 it was Al Capone’s failure to file tax returns that finally put the infamous gangster in jail.

10. We Are All Terrible at Doing Our Taxes

Out of 228 million American adults who pay taxes each year, 82 million choose to get theirs done by a professional. Of those 82 million, 40% would rather cut their own hair than do their own taxes.

Accountant or no, people do try to get in some crazy deductions, although according to professional accountants men are far more likely than women to claim odd things. Women also tend to be more prepared and calmer when it comes to filing.

But for those taxpayers who still haven’t filed by the time April rolls around, 68% say they waited so long because of simple procrastination or laziness, while only 26% said it was because of confusion about the process.

It’s not just the laymen who get tripped up by the complexities of the tax code. In 2005, the tax preparation company H&R Block admitted that they had overstated the company’s earnings in 2003 and 2004 by over $91 million. They blamed "insufficient resources" in their corporate tax accounting department.

11. It Could Be a Lot Worse

In 1918, Congress passed the Revenue Act which increased income tax to help pay for World War I. Those in the highest tax bracket shelled out 77%.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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