The Trillions of Dollars U.S. Companies Are Hoarding Overseas

From The Atlantic:

According to a new report from ISI Research, U.S. S&P 500 companies now have $1.9 trillion parked outside the country. Now, some of that is just multinational corporations profits overseas—yada, yada, yada, globalization. But a big part of it is tax avoidance. Tech and healthcare companies in particular have created byzantine systems of subsidiaries to channel earnings from high-tax to low-tax jurisdictions. Apple, as you might recall, figured out how to legally avoid paying any corporate income tax anywhere on its $30 billion of overseas profits. It set up Schrödinger’s shell company: an Irish subsidiary that didn’t owe Irish taxes because it was managed and controlled from the U.S., but didn’t owe U.S. taxes because it was incorporated abroad.

Illustrated with a photo of Tim Cook. Because Apple is one of the biggest tax evaders. Sure, it’s legal, but it shouldn’t happen this way.

I’ve discussed why Apple should pay taxes on overseas earning before

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New York Times Mobile App Plans to Dumb Readers Into Addiction

I’m a somewhat regular news reader. I’m not in any way obsessed or addicted – I can go a couple of days without checking the news on my computer or iPhone – but I do like to keep up with what’s going on. (Those who are obsessed with following the news might want to read Alain de Botton’s recent book, The News: A User’s Manual (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) to get a bit of perspective.)

I’m also a long-time reader of the New York Times. Back in the day, I used to read it on “paper,” and looked forward to getting the massive Sunday Times to read with brunch, bagels and coffee. In later years, I’ve followed the Times on the web, and found it to be a generally (though not always) reliable source of news.

When the New York Times launched digital subscriptions, its pricing kept me from reading it much. While I do think that newspapers (and their web sites) should not be free, I think the Times went too far. Not only do they have three different prices – one for web and smartphone access, one for web and tablet access, and one for “all digital” access – but it’s too expensive. Since I read news on at least two devices, I’d have to pay $8.75 a week, or a whopping $455 a year. Nope, that’s not going to happen.

But the New York Times is doubling down. They’ve announced a new app at SXSW which, for $8 a month, will provide “a curated feed of stories with specially crafted blurbs of key points, allowing readers to scroll down without tapping to get an idea of the most important news of the moment.” In other words, big pictures and a few words. Users will be able to click through and actually “read” the news as well, but the goal is to just blurb people into submission.

The New York Times has certainly lost its way. Not only is this a pedestrian idea, but the goal is to “addict” people to the news; executive editor Jill Abramson said, “I really believe that we will be, and I hate to use the word addicting, but addict a whole new audience to the New York Times.” This is exactly what de Botton talks about in his book, when he says, “We are in danger of getting so distracted by the ever-changing agenda of the news that we wind up unable to develop political positions of any kind. We may lose track of which of the many outrages really matters to us and what it was that we felt so passionately about only hours ago.” The New York Times is diluting the news in shiny, trying to get people “addicted,” rather than trying to inform. It’s lost its way.

I use Flipboard to read the news on my iPhone and iPad. It’s not great – it doesn’t have as many good sources as I’d like – but at least it lets you read full articles and keep up with what’s going on. I’d very much like to have a single, reliable source to read the news, but with the current pricing, and the future dumbing down of the news, that source won’t be the New York Times.

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Is Edward Snowden Really Saul Goodman?

Check for yourself. Here’s Snowden talking at the SXSW conference today:

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And here’s Saul Goodman:

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Take Saul, add the stubble and glasses, and I’m convinced.

Better call Snowden!

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PR Done Wrong

As a journalist, I get lots of pitches from PR people. Some people pitch me to talk about their products on Macworld, for whom I write as a freelancer. Others contact me to pitch me on topics for this blog. In some cases, I actually follow through on the pitches (including one which has led to a guest on next week’s The Committed podcast). But most pitches go right into the bit bucket, because they’re just wrong.

I wrote about how music PR people often get things very wrong, and most don’t really consider anything other than simply getting a journalist to reply. This is short-sighted, because every failure leads to less attention in the future. It doesn’t take much to get a journalist to ignore a PR person permantently.

In the past week, two of my Macworld colleagues have posted interesting thoughts on bad PR. I thought it would be useful to link to them, so any PR people who read this might try and do just a bit better.

Chris Breen gives some very simple guidelines in an article on his blog, To get it right, don’t get it wrong. Chris, as a Macworld editor, gets far more pitches than me, and is more ruthless than I am. His Do and Don’t tips should be part of PR 101; but, unfortunately, they aren’t, and many PR people make the same mistakes.

Dan Frakes, another Macworld editor, has been tweeting “PR tips” for a while, and he has collected them here. Dan has been writing these for more than five years, and each one is inspired by real events; pitches he’s received or other PR errors he’s encountered in his work. Again, these are PR 101, but it shows how many tips PR people need.

I’ve encountered many of the problems that Chris and Dan mention, and it’s frustrating to see them all collected in this way. If you do PR, or if you’re working for a company that has a PR firm handling your products, you’d do well to read these two pages, to know what you should do and should avoid. Because you’ll never get coverage if you irk journalists.

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Is There a Bank in the UK that Doesn’t Suck?

Since I moved to England in April, I have had more problems with banks than in the nearly three decades I was in France. I’m constantly astounded by the complications of opening, maintaining and accessing bank accounts in this country. I’ve come to the conclusion that all banks in the UK must suck, and people are so used to this, they simply accept it and don’t demand better service.

Granted, when I first got here, I found the service – in one bank at least – to be much better than what I got from my bank in France, but that was the human side of the service. When you need something that involves “the system,” all bets are off.

From the very beginning, it was obvious that the banking system here is overly paranoid. Simply opening a bank account was an obstacle course. Since I was coming from outside the UK, the strict (and counter-productive) money laundering rules in the country make it very difficult to even open a personal bank account, let alone a business account. If you don’t have an address in the UK, you’re considered to be a possible criminal, and the only way I could get an account here was to open an account with HSBC France, which then sent a “letter of recommendation” to HSBC in the UK.

But then I needed a business account. That was even harder. As much as one very friendly person at HSBC wanted to open one, “the system” prevented him from doing so. Since I don’t have a credit rating in the UK, and credit ratings don’t exist in France, he had to admit defeat. I fell back on another bank, NatWest, which required the same information, but seemed a bit cavalier about my proof of address: a statement from HSBC was all they needed.

NatWest has terrible customer service; I only chose them because I had to have a business account, and I couldn’t get one from any other bank. It’s hard to contact the person who manages my account; I don’t have a direct email address (as I do at HSBC), and the only phone number I have goes to a call center, and is charged a premium rate. And I had to request a debit card three times before I finally got one.

So I figured that was going to be the hardest part of the process; that things would get better after the accounts were up and running. Nope. HBSC’s internet banking is down often – both the UK and the French sites, but never both at the same time. Today, I went to the HSBC branch to see an advisor with some questions about savings accounts and interest rates. I was told by the greeter that “the system is down,” so they couldn’t access any information about my account. Since the internet banking was down yesterday, I’m beginning to wonder what their uptime is.

The worst problem was with NatWest today. Banks in the UK have very convoluted security systems. (I’m used to France, where you have an account number and a password to access online banking; nothing more.) You start by answering a half-dozen security questions, then choose “memorable words,” then you get PIN numbers; several. For my NatWest account, I have three: one for my debit card, one for a card reader (a device which generates one-time codes that I need to carry out certain online operations), and on online banking PIN. I also have an online banking password, and a couple of other passwords.

People who work in computer security know that too much security leads to lax security. When you force users to have multiple PINs and passwords, they tend to choose ones that are easy to remember. I use 1Password on my Mac and iPhone, so I can record all of these passwords, but it’s still complicated.

When I went to log into my NatWest internet banking, I got locked out. I entered the information requested (1st number of your PIN; 4th number of your PIN; 7th character of your password; etc.), but the server didn’t like it. Since I’ve logged into this site many times, I highly doubt that the mistake was on my end, but with all the different PINs and passwords, it’s possible. No matter; I got locked out. I had to re-register for internet banking, which I can’t use until I get an activation code. By mail. Which will take about ten days.

So, for now, the only way I can access my business account information is by walking 20 minutes to the branch. As it’s in the center of York, there’s no parking anywhere nearby. (In the UK, it seems that banks are always in the centers of cities this size, with no branches on the outskirts where you might be able to park. It makes you wonder who they’re really serving…)

So, today, I got locked out of my business at one bank. I found that my other bank couldn’t answer my questions because their computer system was down. Yesterday, the online banking for the same bank was down. I sense a trend here.

As I ask in the title of this article, is there a bank in this country that doesn’t suck?

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The Paywall Problem: Newspapers and Occasional Readers

I believe in newspapers, and depend on them to get news. I’m from a generation that had only newspapers – and pre-cable TV news – for daily information, and I still think they are important. I read a lot of news on the web, on many different sites, but I still depend mostly on newspaper websites to know what’s happening. (And I buy a “newspaper,” the print kind, every Sunday.)

Many newspapers have introduced paywalls, or paid access. The New York Times was the first major paper to do this, but their misguided pricing strategy (different prices depending on whether you want to read the paper on the web and a smartphone, or web and tablet) and high prices ($15 to $35 every four weeks) make it very expensive. The Washington Post is smarter; they offer the same price ($15 per four weeks) regardless of which device you want to use. Other papers have other byzantine approaches, instead of a simple one-time annual fee. The Wall Street Journal actually did this, in the early days of their paywall: they charged $50 a year for full access.

Paywalls for newspapers are inevitable, but they need to be implemented differently. Recently, I wanted to read a couple of articles on different newspaper sites. One was on the Wall Street Journal’s web site. This is a paper that I don’t read often, but I came across an article about William Faulkner’s literary estate that interested me. The Wall Street Journal has some good non-business coverage, but there’s no way that I’ll ever subscribe to it, as I’m not interested in 99% of what they publish.

The second article I wanted to read was about Shakespeare, and was on the Le Monde website. I was able to read a few paragraphs of the article, but would have needed to pay €2 to read the entire thing; in other words, more than the cost of a daily paper. (Le Monde charges €15 a month for digital access.)

The problem in both of these cases is that I’ll never become a regular reader of either of these papers. I used to live in France, but I don’t any more, and French news, which interests me, is not worth that much. And, as I said above, I don’t care enough about business news to pay for the Wall Street Journal.

So how can I read articles I want to see? Many people have discussed the idea of micro-payments, and the news industry is certainly one sector that needs them. I’d pay a nickel (or 5p) to read an article; considering the cost of a newspaper, that seems fair, especially since I’d still be seeing ads, and the newspaper would get revenue from that as well. But I wouldn’t buy, say, a credit for a paper like the Wall Street Journal, because I wouldn’t expect to use it often enough.

What we need is a broader micro-payment system for newspapers, and other print publications (I’d pay, say, a quarter, or 25p, to read a magazine article from the New Yorker). The ideal system would work with as many publications as possible, where you’d buy a credit, and be able to apply that credit to any participating publication. The idea isn’t new; it’s been floated by Walter Isaacson, The Wall Street Journal, and Google has set up such a system using Google Wallet, but I’ve never come across it in vivo.

For now, newspapers are shutting out readers, and losing money, by only offering expensive digital subscriptions, or by linking digital subscriptions to print subscriptions. It’s time for newspapers to realize that not everyone is wedded to their content, and that most people won’t pay for a specific paper, but want to read news from multiple sources. Micro-payments could change the way we consume news, and it could help keep newspapers afloat.

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Welcome to Kirkville 3.0

About nine years ago, I moved from a static-page website to a content management system (CMS), and changed from some 90s-era web pages to a more modern blog. At the time, my friend Rob Griffiths recommended Geeklog, which I used for several years, until I switched to WordPress. Today, I’ve made big changes to my blog, but you won’t see many of them.

Instead of changing platforms, I decided to change themes, buying the Enfold theme by Kriesi. While this one looks a lot like my previous theme, it’s got tons of features under the hood. It’s responsive – so its size changes according to the size of your browser window – and it’s adapted to mobile devices, such as iPads and iPhones.

It’s also more modern on the back end, but you, the reader, won’t see much of that (though you’ll see a neat effect when you scroll up and down on the page). It’s allowed me to simplify much of the content, making the sidebar less intrusive, and I’ve added a few static pages for information about me. (You can see them at the right of the header.)

Going down the line, I’ll be changing the layout a bit, using more graphical elements, and this theme allows me to create a number of different types of posts, other than just standard articles. So I hope to diversify a bit in the future.

After nine years, and 880 posts, I’m very happy to have refreshed this blog. Thanks for reading, and I hope you come by often.

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