Wave Powered Boat

I’ve thought for a long time that using waves to generate electricity was the (groan) wave of the future, but I never thought of a wave powered boat.

Two fins mounted side by side beneath the bow move up and down with the incoming waves and generate dolphin-like kicks that propel the boat forward. “Waves are a negative factor for a ship—they slow it down,” says Yutaka Terao, an engineering professor at Tokai University in Japan who designed the boat’s propulsion system. “But the Suntory can transform wave energy into propulsive power regardless of where the wave comes from.”

At present this doesn’t move the boat very fast, but waves are more consistently available than wind and I would expect that as the technology develops it might become more competitive. Score another win for biomimetics.

Vitamin C, Chromium and Cancer

There’s no doubt that vitamin C (a.k.a. ascorbic acid) is good for you in general, but via Effect Measure comes news that in one very particular circumstance it might play a role in how hexavalent chromium causes cancer.

Work done by Anatoly Zhitkovich and his colleagues and students at Brown University has revealed that chromate carcinogenicity depends on the failure of a repair system for DNA damage, the kind called DNA mismatch repair. Here is the provisional picture as assembled by that group. Ascorbate is a strong potentiator of chromate metabolism from the VI form to the III form.

As the article also explains, it’s the VI (hexavalent) form that gets into the cell and the III form that causes cancer. The real lesson here, though, has little to do with cancer or the particular chemicals involved and a lot to do with how we think about the chemistry that happens within our bodies. This is an excellent example of how studying a single substance – hexavalent chromium – by itself can cause us to miss or misunderstand how it works within the actual chemical milieu we care about. Forms and combinations of chemicals do matter, so we can’t just say that all pills containing the same active ingredient – e.g. brand name vs. generic – are really the same. We have to weigh the specific evidence about how absorption rates and interactions and so on might actually influence results.

Taxing Intellectual Property

There’s a story on Slashdot about the very simple but intriguing notion that if intellectual property is to be treated as peer to real property then perhaps it should be subject to property tax. Among other effects, it is suggested that such an approach might limit the “dog in the manger” (my own term) behavior of using patents and copyrights to prevent others from using an idea while simultaneously not using it oneself. This is not just an abstract concern, either; such behavior is at the core of companies buying up patents for innovations that could undercut their business, or amassing huge patent portfolios as a “war chest” to fight off patent-infringement suits brought against them. If the intellectual-property system is to satisfy its supposed purpose of “enhancing the progress of science and useful arts” then creating an economic disincentive for abuse contrary to that purpose seems like a good thing. One important question does remain unresolved, though:

by milsoRgen
On the face of it, I love that idea. The bigger question would be how do you determine the value of the IP to assess it for taxation.

I’m sort of inclined to say that self-evaluation might be sufficient, because there’s a built-in disincentive for undervaluing one’s assets. If you intend to sue someone for infringement, you might be in an awkward situation if the claimed damages are greater than the claimed value and you might be subject to penalties for the early undervaluation. I think it would also be reasonable to allow for valuations to be challenged just like validity already can be. Few companies would want to risk being the subject of a challenge that they know they’d lose, especially if the penalty for an egregious undervaluation could be loss of the patent or copyright.

P.S. It might seem a bit silly for little old me to link to something on big old Slashdot, but I’ve come to the general conclusion that it’s not worth trying to have a serious discussion on it or practically any other online free-for-all. At least for the next while, I intend to express my online opinions here instead, and conduct any follow-on discussion within the blogosphere (which, flawed as it is, still seems better than forums).

Fair Tax, Foul Tax

I’ve written many times before about the So Called Fair Tax and the characteristic dishonesty of its proponents, not so much here but elsewhere. Nonetheless, I was amazed and dismayed by the sheer mendacity of Boston University professor Laurence Kotlikoff in his Why Democrats should love the FairTax in today’s Boston Globe. I guess we all have a lot to learn about tax policy from someone whose salary comes out of tax-exempt dollars even as he is employed by a for-profit institution and engages in partisan political activity. He starts by repeating the common deception that the SCFT is 23% and not 30%.

Take Mr. Megabucks, who is sitting on $65 million and wants to buy a jet like Oprah Winfrey’s – a 10-passenger, $50 million Global Express XRS. Under the FairTax, the jet costs him an extra $15 million because of the 30 percent sales tax. Mr. Megabucks gets the jet, but the extra $15 million, which he had budgeted for Beluga caviar, Dom Pérignon, and other flight snacks, goes to Uncle Sam.

Now $15 million is 23 percent of $65 million – so the FairTax cost Mr. Megabucks 23 percent of his wealth. Precisely the same outcome would arise were Uncle Sam to directly tax Mr. Megabuck’s $65 million in wealth at a 23 percent rate, leaving him with $50 million to buy the jet at the original price.

Um, no. You don’t get to change the figure by comparing it to a different kind of tax. In any honest discussion of sales, consumption, or value-added taxes, adding 30% to the untaxed amount is a 30% tax. In fact it’s even worse than that. As others have pointed out, the tax rate necessary for the SCFT to be revenue-neutral might actually be as high as 44%. But wait, you say, why should it be revenue-neutral? Surely we should address spending as well? Surely we should, but that’s a separate issue. The only fair way to compare tax plans or tax policies is by considering their revenue-neutral forms. Proposing a tax plan that’s not revenue neutral without identifying what government functions would be eliminated to make it comparable with alternatives is just another form of deception.

This equivalence is no coincidence; taxing consumption is mathematically identical to taxing the resources used to buy consumption – current wealth holdings plus wages as they are earned.

No, because timing matters. Taxing income at the time it is earned is not mathematically identical to taxing consumption at a later time. Ask any real accountant, financial planner, or economist.

The beauty of the FairTax is that taxing wealth at a 23 percent rate generates enough revenue to reduce workers’ marginal tax brackets to 23 percent. This is dramatically lower than the 30 percent to 45 percent marginal tax bracket confronting most workers under our combined income and payroll taxes.

Is a 23% uniform rate really lower than a 30-45% marginal rate? The answer depends on how the brackets are defined, how the income or expenditure is distributed, etc. To claim without qualification that the mis-stated SCFT rate is lower is, again, deceptive.

Our tax system is regressive because none of the corpus – the principal – of the wealth of the rich, including our more than 400 billionaires, is subjected to taxation. Instead they pay taxes only on the income earned on their wealth. But this income comes primarily as capital gains, which are taxed at only 15 percent. Furthermore, capital gains taxes are levied only when wealth holders realize their gains – when they sell their appreciated assets.

Hey, if the SCFT is so good because it approximates a tax on wealth, how about . . . ummm . . . actually taxing wealth? It’s called a property tax, or in some cases an estate or inheritance tax. A true tax on wealth would not exempt the latter, nor would it exempt wealth held by non-persons, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

What’s even more telling than what Kotlikoff says is what he avoids saying, which is that a salient feature of the SCFT is that it eliminates tax on corporations. This is usually justified by claiming that taxes on corporations are passed on to consumers anyway, which is simply not true. A corporation’s costs are sometimes passed on to employees or suppliers or society in general, such as when they cut corners on employee safety or pollution abatement and society gets stuck with the consequences. Similarly, not all of a corporation’s profits go to investors. Some goes to executives, and some is retained by the company to finance growth. Both costs and profits might also be shipped overseas, either for real or as a tax dodge. (BTW, some people object to mentioning corporations because the majority of corporations are small businesses, but the majority of dollars flowing through corporations does so through big ones and counting for tax purposes is by dollar. In this context, “corporation” effectively means those large enterprises that hire armies of tax accountants and lawyers.) Eliminating taxes on corporations means shrinking the tax base, and shrinking the base means increasing the rate to achieve the aforementioned revenue neutrality.

So let’s strip away all of the BS, expressing the SCFT simply and honestly. If you offered the American people the opportunity to get rid of income and payroll taxes, in return for paying 40% more for everything they buy, while rich inheritors and big corporations paid nothing, do you think they’d go for it? Would people who panic over the prospect of double-digit annual inflation embrace 40% instantaneous inflation, even when it’s couched in soothing “tax relief” terms? Not likely. Any attempt to change that by misrepresenting the rate, failing to mention changes in bases and distributions, or pretending that the government will pay itself tax on its own internal transfers to make the numbers look better, is just an attempt to deceive. Democrats aren’t against the SCFT because they don’t understand it; they’re against it because they do understand it. Unlike their Republican brethren, they’d rather propose something that actually works than something that just panders to people’s hatred of the income tax as it exists today.

Just in case anyone is not already convinced of the SCFT’s flaws, try reading DeLong’s or Bartlett’s even more thorough demolitions. If you’re looking for a genuinely reasonable alternative, try the Competitive Tax, which is basically a 10-14% VAT, plus a 25% tax on corporate income and personal income over $100K. It’s also simple, it’s really fair, and its advocates don’t rely on misrepresentation to sell it.

Fish Hiccups

Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish looks like the kind of book that inspires something akin to lust in me – science, but offbeat and with social/historical content mixed in as well. I can’t wait to devour it, especially after seeing that it addresses what I consider to be some of life’s great mysteries:

Or consider hiccups. Spasms in our diaphragms, hiccups are triggered by electric signals generated in the brain stem. Amphibian brain stems emit similar signals, which control the regular motion of their gills. Our brain stems, inherited from amphibian ancestors, still spurt out odd signals producing hiccups that are, according to Shubin, essentially the same phenomenon as gill breathing.

How’s that for an interesting info-nugget to share at dinner?

Verizon’s Sleazy DNS Trick

A while back, I wrote about how Verizon was defaulting FiOS users to slow DNS servers and suggested a workaround. I used the workaround for a while, then they broke those servers, so I went back to the defaults and things seemed OK for a while. Lately, though, they’ve found a new way to use DNS to annoy me and thousands of others. They have a new “Advanced Web Search” feature which pops up a Verizon search page whenever you click on a broken link or type in an incorrect URL. Unlike some people, I don’t think this is a particularly terrible thing in and of itself. What really bugs me, though, is that it keeps kicking in when it clearly shouldn’t. I mean, is it really credible that their DNS server can’t find Google? GOOGLE? Give me a break. That record’s requested and refreshed so frequently that there is exactly zero chance of the information it contains being truly unavailable, but several times just in the last few days I’ve tried to bring up Google Reader and ended up on Verizon’s stupid search page instead. This is just a sleazy way to create hits for their Yahoo-provided search results.

Cut it out, guys. If you want more traffic, provide more value. You only make yourselves look like creeps when you do stuff like this.

UPDATE: apparently Verizon does provide instructions for disabling this “feature” but hasn’t widely advertised them. What it boils down to is specifying your DNS server addresses statically instead of getting them automatically, which is less than ideal because then you won’t hear about it if they change (I got burned by this once before), and modifying the last octet for each server’s address from 12 to 14.

Leed Protactinium

A lot of people seem think – or at least would have the rest us believe – that being ecologically conscious means being utterly immune to humor or other joys of life, and that such a dreary mindset has all but killed certain professions. Therefore it’s nice to see someone in one of those professions a bit of eco-humor.

LEED has unveiled a new level of certification, Protactinium.

In order to qualify for the standard, building designers must commit to a lifetime of celibacy and staff the building exclusively with doe-eyed orphans from third world countries.

I particularly like the part about buildings levitating. The comments are good too. (Thanks, TreeHugger.)

Edmund Clarke wins Turing Award

The Turing Award is pretty much the highest honor bestowed in computing, the field’s equivalent of a Nobel or Pulitzer of Fields Medal in other fields. This year’s award goes to Edmund M. Clarke for his contributions to the concept of “model checking” (more about that at the link). As an owner of his Model Checking (with Grumberg and Peled), user of both SPIN and Murφ, and occasional dabbler in the field myself, this makes me happy. It’s a well deserved honor.

Nocturnal Solar Panels

This sounds like a joke, or a scam perpetrated on gullible greenies, but it’s not.

The technique involves the embedding of square spirals of conducting metal onto a sheet of plastic, each of which, referred to as a “nanoantenna,” just 1/25 the diameter of a human hair. The nanoantennas absorb infrared energy, which is absorbed by the earth during the day and released even hours after the sun goes down. The nanoantennas are thus able to harvest energy both during daytime hours and into the early evening. Because they can take in energy from both sunlight and the earth’s heat, the nanoantennas have a much higher efficiency (and potential applicability) than conventional solar cells.

Like the piezoelectric crowd power or rain power, I just love the idea of harvesting tiny little bits of energy efficiently enough and in sufficient numbers that the sum actually makes a difference.

(TreeHugger and Inhabitat are both great sites, by the way. If you follow those links, look around a bit while you’re there.)