Phoning in Your Tax Return
If you've often wished for a less painful way to file your income taxes, you might want to cast an envious eye toward Sweden. For the last five years, Swedish taxpayers have been able to file their taxes simply by opening a text message on their cell phones and entering an identification number and a security code they received by mail. Pretty cool, eh?
Well, there is a down side that might make such an approach a little less popular in the US. That text message is, in a sense, a formality. Sweden's equivalent of the IRS knows everything about its citizens' income. A taxpayer can only file by text message if they accept the tax authority's calculations and they take no deductions. This isn't as unusual as you might think, since Sweden's rules on deductions are fairly restrictive, so relatively few taxpayers are eligible.
If a Swedish taxpayer does want to take a deduction, though, he has an easier time than his American counterpart. He can get an online form that already has all the information on it that a cell phone filer accepts, so all he needs to do is make the changes rather than start from scratch. Cell phone and online filing have saved the government in Sweden such an enormous amount of time and money that they were able to change the filing deadline.
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Searching for the Moon's Origin
A major theory as to how the Earth's moon was formed may get a boost (or not) thanks to two NASA probes moving into a prime position to observe the possible aftermath of a 4.5 billion-year-old collision. The Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) program ordinarily keeps an eye on the sun, but the two probes involved will soon be passing through the Earth/Sun's L4 and L5 Lagrange points.
Lagrange points are spots where objects can be held in place due to orbital and gravitational forces; they come into existence any time a smaller body orbits a larger one. The Earth/Sun system's L4 and L5 points have not yet been visited, and scientists think they will find quite a bit of debris there. Specifically, they hope to find small asteroids that may have been left over from a Mars-sized planet that collided with Earth.
According to the theory, this hypothetical planet, dubbed Theia, smashed into Earth, and the moon coalesced from the outer layers of the rogue planet and Earth. If this theory turns out to be correct, it could explain certain aspects of the moon's geology, such as its very simple iron core. Thus, scientists working on this project hope to observe small asteroids in the L4 or L5 regions with STEREO's telescopes. NASA's Michael Kaiser notes that, if the asteroids turn out to have the same composition as the Earth and the moon, it will support the impact theory of the moon's development. If you would like to help with this project, NASA plans to put all of the images online as soon as they get them, so eagle-eyed amateurs can discover tiny objects that might be asteroids.
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New Band Instrument: the iPhone
So what would you make of a band named MoPhO? It's not a new rap group; it's Stanford University's newest musical ensemble. The name is short for Mobile Phone Orchestra. The group brings a whole new level of geekiness to performing in a band, because their instrument of choice is the iPhone.
Their conductor, Ge Wang, is an experienced electronic musician, having performed previously with Princeton's Laptop Orchestra. Wang created the application that enables the group to perform. Playing an iPhone equipped with this app involves touching a button on its screen to choose a tone, and then tilting, twisting, or shaking the device to change pitch and timbre.
So what kind of music does an iPhone orchestra perform? MoPhO does
a lot of improvisational numbers, but they're not afraid to tackle
more complicated pieces, including chamber music and pop covers.
For those performances, the group uses Ocarina, another Wang application
(which you can get from iTunes) to effectively turn their iPhones
into ocarinas. MoPhO has performed at MacWorld, playing "Stairway
to Heaven" wearing fingerless gloves with speakers sewn into
them. Perhaps future performances will include such classics as
"Ricki Don't Lose that Number" and "Operator."
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