Monday 19th September 2016
The EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has no specific concern’s about the Irish tax system
Commissioner also says EU has no plans afoot to harmonise corporation tax
The EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager.
The European Commission has “no specific concern” about the Irish tax system and is not planning to harmonise corporate tax system, according to competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager.
The competition commissioner, who has ordered Apple to pay €13 billion in back taxes to the Republic, was speaking as she began a three-day visit to the United States.
“We don’t have a specific concern about Ireland,” she said.
“We do very specific case work. If there are reasons for concern, well then we may open investigations. But there can be obvious reasons why you want to place your business in Ireland [in particular because it] has an attractive corporate tax rate of 12.5 per cent.”
The European Union has no intention of trying to harmonise corporate tax rates, she said.
With many large US multinationals having European bases in Ireland, there have been fears that the Apple decision, which both Ireland and Apple are appealing, is a foretaste of things to come for the Irish economy.
However, Ms Vestager seemed keen to dispel the notion that she is on the cusp of launching a slew of similar investigations.
‘Very, very thorough’
“We are very, very thorough. We don’t just open a case in the spur of the moment. Because we need to write an opening decision where we state our concerns, and in order to do that of course we have been asking questions beforehand.”
The commission has been given some 1,000 examples of tax rulings by EU member state governments, she said.
Having reviewed these rulings, she said most of them were “very well done” with “no selective advantages” given to companies.
The Government has stressed that Ireland has not been fined in the Apple case, which involved a ruling that the company should repay tax. But the commissioner pointed out that enforcement of EU state rules does not work with punishments or fines.
“Where I was raised in the western part of Denmark, the most awkward thing you could ever do was to take back a gift” and this was effectively what was being requested here, she said. “You rely on the uncomfortable inconvenience of a member state having to take back a selective benefit or advantage that they wanted to give.”
The Government denies that its arrangement with Apple, which has had a base in the country since 1980 and employs nearly 6,000 in its Cork offices, constituted illegal state aid.
Ms Vestager is meeting officials in the US administration and Congress and speaking at academic conferences in Washington and New York. Asked if the Apple decision had created transatlantic tensions, she said: “Even though we may disagree on this decision, when it comes to global tax issues, we are very very much on the same page.”
This is especially the case in light of OECD and G20 initiatives to create rules which make it more difficult for companies to legally avoid tax, she added.
Ms Vestager said it was hearings on Apple’s tax arrangements held by the US Senate that led the commission to open its investigation.
“We do not have a national bias,” she said, adding that of the 150 EU decisions taken between 2000 and 2015 where member states were required to recover illegal state aid, only 2 per cent involved US companies.
She was equally adamant that the case did not represent an attempt by the EU to assume tax-raising powers. “We are not trying to become, and we are not now, a tax authority. We enforce competition rules.”
Ireland and Apple intend to appeal the commission’s decision at the EU Court of Justice.
Irish property study reveals an appetite to buy
But potential purchasers say there’s a lack of suitable properties on the market…
Almost one-third of Ireland’s adult population have said that they are at least contemplating buying a residential property during the next year, according to the KBC Bank Ireland’s Home Buyer survey.
49% of respondents believe that it is a good time to buy a house, with 14% thinking that it’s a bad time, and 37% remaining undecided.
When asked if the Central Bank’s mortgage lending measures had affected their plans 44% said that they will not have an impact – while the remaining 56% said that it had either affected the kind of property that they would consider buying, prolonged the period that they will wait before they buy, or meant that they will need to rely on family supports or other loans to support a purchase.
The average period of time added to raise this money is between one and two years.
Of those looking for a home, 29% said that they had seen no properties which suited their needs. 60% saw between one to five properties on the markets which they considered suited to their needs – while the remaining 11% had seen a greater number.
Interestingly, 48% of respondents plan to buy a property on their own – while 52% want to find a property with someone else.
One-third stated that the Brexit result has affected their plans.
Diet is vital for the prevention of Alzheimer’s
Each year, September 21st marks World Alzheimer’s Day. An estimated 55,000 Irish people currently have dementia, with about 60% of them having Alzheimer’s disease (AD). And due to our ageing population, figures are expected to rise exponentially.
AD is characterised by the formation of amyloid ‘tangles’ and ‘plaques’ in the shrinking brain. These clumps destroy brain cells and interfere with its chemical messaging functions, particularly of acetylcholine, which deals especially with memory. Age is of course the primary risk factor, but others are equally important – diabetes, cardiovascular issues, genetics, infections, stress and nutritional deficiencies. An overview of more than 300 studies last August found that the number one protective factor was a healthy diet.
One consideration is that cognitive health is directly linked to heart health, and that both are strongly determined by blood levels of a toxic compound called homocysteine. Reducing those levels, by taking high strength B vitamins, would therefore be the first plan of action. Research has shown between 30% and 90% less brain shrinkage in people with early signs of AD when given B6, B12 and folic acid, which boost the conversion of homocysteine into that vital acetylcholine in the same way as the drugs given to people with AD do.
Inflammation (partly as a result of poor gut bacterial balance) is a central feature, as is oxidative damage to the cells, so taking a good probiotic and eating plenty of antioxidants in brightly coloured plant foods is the second prong of attack, along with exercising regularly (in the sunshine for important vitamin D). Inactivity raises the risk of AD by 70%, while sex has been shown to light up the relevant areas of the brain. And be sure to visit your dentist regularly – a strong connection has been established between gum disease and amyloid clumping.
Eating plenty of anti-inflammatory omega 3 and vitamin D-rich oily fish, and the healthy oils in olive oil, avocadoes, nuts and seeds is of proven benefit to those most at risk, but avoid trans/hydrogenated fats altogether, as they markedly accelerate cognitive decline. While research shows that a diet high in healthy fats reduces risk by 44%, a diet high in sugar and refined (white) grains increases the risk by a staggering 89%. Another study showed accelerated shrinkage in the part of the brain involved in memory in those on a Western diet of processed and fried meats, crisps and soft drinks.
The latest research on diet includes: a moderate coffee intake can reduce risk by 18%, broccoli slows the degeneration of acetylcholine while egg yolks help to make it; avocado boosts blood flow to the brain, and the antioxidants in kale make your brain ‘younger’. A chemical called resveratrol, in red wine, raspberries and dark chocolate, can strengthen the barrier that blocks harmful molecules from accessing the brain.
An anti-inflammatory and antioxidant Indo/ Mediterranean diet, based on colourful vegetables and fruit, greens, oily fish, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, olive oil, green tea and a little red wine, is widely accepted by as the very best model for the prevention and control of AD (figures are lower in Mediterranean countries). Olive oil contains compounds that can halt the build up of those plaques.
A connection has long been made between AD and exposure to aluminium. This is disputed, but it might be wise to eat foods rich in silicon, which counteracts aluminium. More recent research has pointed to high levels of copper in the blood of AD sufferers, and we know that copper makes it harder for the brain to get rid of amyloid proteins. It is, however, in a great variety of foods and necessary for health, so the answer is to take a supplement of zinc, which is antagonistic: the higher your zinc levels, the lower those of copper.
This January it was suggested that BMAA, a toxic compound produced by algae in Irish lakes and reservoirs and so present in some seafood and plants, is contributing to our Alzheimer’s ‘epidemic’, so this will doubtless be the focus of further research. As will the revelation that the brains of sufferers contain unusual yeasts and fungi. In more practical terms: while some studies show that being slightly overweight is far more protective than being underweight, it’s just been shown that the inflammation associated with obesity causes the brain to age ten years faster, so it really is a balancing act. Also in January, Canadian scientists found that chronic exposure to anxiety and stress hormones—also inflammatory–damage and shrink the relevant parts of the brain. And finally, a study out this April involving 5,000 people with insomnia found them to be 43% more likely to develop dementia in later life; there’s no doubt that lifestyle issues are key.
The future of Sex, Dating, and finding a Mate
Sex is one of the most powerful, fundamental human drives.
It’s caused wars… built and destroyed kingdoms and it occupies a significant percentage of most people’s thoughts.
As such, it’s worth a conversation about how exponential technologies will change our relationship with sex.
Dating in the Internet Age.
Dating in past generations was local and linear. You had access to a small number of potential mates based on where you lived, where you went to school and your social status.
In the 1960s, over 50% of marriages globally and 95% of marriages in India were arranged.
Today that number has dropped to less than 15% (globally).
In 1960, the median age at first marriage for the bride was 20 and the groom was 23 years old.
Today, the median age is closer to 29 for women and 30 for men.
A cultural shift is happening, and it’s changing the game.
Dating has gone digital. As such, it has gone from local and linear to global and exponential.
Today, 40 million Americans use online dating services (that’s about 40% of the single population in the U.S.), driving the creation of a $2.4 billion online dating industry. (Go here for a great online dating infographic.)
These services transcend geography and social strata. People are matched from around the world.
Between 1995 and 2005, there was exponential growth among heterosexual couples meeting online. (See the green line in the first chart here.) For same-sex couples, the online dating trend has been even more dramatic, with more than 60% of same-sex couples meeting online in 2008 and 2009. (See the green line in the second chart here).
The implications of this are staggering — besides moving the marriage age back, there are a number of sociological effects such as decision fatigue, gamification of dating, and the commoditization of people that will start to have population-level effects as mating behaviors change.
And this is just the beginning.
Dating and Exponential Tech
In the very near future, we will see machine learning / artificial intelligence-based matchmakers that will find the perfect match for you based upon everything from your genomics to your psychographics.
Once you’re on a date, your augmented reality glasses will give you real-time dating info, calling up any info you want to know, as you need to know it.
Perhaps you want to understand how she/he is feeling about you, and your AR camera is watching her pupillary dilation and capillary flushing.
Like all technology, these applications are double-edged swords. My hope is that this tech actually increases the number of successful, meaningful relationships in the world and, in turn, has a net positive impact.
But while dating is one side of the coin, sex is another… and the implications of exponential technology on sex can be shocking.
Sex and Exponential Tech
Today, sex has been digitized; as such, it has been dematerialized, demonetized and democratized.
Sex, in the form of pornography, is free, available to anyone with an Internet connection and pervasive across many platforms.
In 2015, just one pornography website reported that their users watched over 4.3 billion hours of porn (87 billion videos) that year.
The proliferation of Internet connectivity, online video players and streaming, mobile phones, and advertisement delivery networks have propelled pornography into a $97 billion industry.
This is causing a number of negative social phenomena.
More than half of boys and nearly a third of girls see their first pornographic images before they turn 13. In a survey of hundreds of college students, 93% of boys and 62% of girls said they were exposed to pornography before they turned 18.
“Pornography is influencing everything from how teens language and frame sexuality to how and why they pierce certain body parts to what they expect to give and receive in intimate relationships,” says Jill Manning, Ph.D, Witherspoon Institute.
In Japan, a growing population of men report that they *prefer* having “virtual girlfriends” over real ones (i.e., they believe they are “dating” virtual avatars that they largely control).
Forty-five percent of Japanese single women and 25 percent of Japanese single men aged 16 to 24 claim they aren’t even interested in sexual contact.
Given these trends, unless something happens to boost Japan’s birth rate, its population will shrink by a third between now and 2060. In other words, there is serious concern of significant UNDER population.
But again, this is only the beginning… as virtual reality (VR) becomes more widespread, one major application will inevitably be VR porn.
It will be much more intense, vivid, and addictive — and as AI comes online, I believe there will be a proliferation in AI-powered avatar and robotic relationships, similar to those characters depicted in the movies Her and Ex Machina.
VR porn promises to offer a virtual world filled with more sex, better sex, endless sex, and new varieties of sex.
The dark secret, however, is that the further a user goes into that fantasy world, the more likely their reality is to become just the opposite.
Many psychologists believe that VR porn may numb us to sexual desire and pleasure in the real world, leading to less and less satisfying sex.
For many, VR (as well as other exponential technologies such as robotics, sensors and AI) will act as a complete replacement for intimacy and human relationships, as it is more easily accessible, cheaper, on-demand, and, well, controllable.
As the father of two five-year-old boys, this is really concerning to me…That said, are there upsides too?
Perhaps a bit of intimacy (if even technological) for those who are infirmed, aged, crippled and thereby alone.
We shall see. One thing is for sure: as with every technology in history, from the printing press to VHS and the Internet, pornography will be on the front line funding the advance of technology.
Pigeons can now distinguish real words from gibberish????
(Centre picture) A pigeon scrutinizes a word (gibberish) during training.
Birds are rapidly building their reputation as a brainy bunch, and the latest credit goes to four pigeons who can visually recognize written words.
These pigeons were living in a lab in New Zealand where, over a span of two years, they learned to distinguish four-letter English words from nonsense words. For their training, a computer screen would flash words like “DOWN” or “GAME”, and non-words like “TWOR” or “NELD”, along with a star symbol. Each time the pigeons made a correct identification — pecking the word if it was a real one, or pecking the star symbol beneath a non-word — they were rewarded with a portion of wheat.
After the pigeons built up decent vocabularies (the star pupil acquired 58 words), the screen began flashing new words that they had never seen before. And even when faced with these novel words, the pigeons continued to pick out the real words from the non-words with impressive accuracy, according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
So how did they do it? How does a pigeon distinguish words from gibberish, based solely on how the strings of letters look on a screen?
“It appears that the pigeons are paying attention to pairs of letters in the words,” explains study lead author Damian Scarf, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Otoga, New Zealand. Letters that appear side-by-side are known as bigrams, and some bigrams occur more frequently than others. For example, “TH” is a high-frequency bigram, whereas the “CB” combination is far less common.
Over time, the pigeons came to pick up on these statistical properties of words.
“We looked at whether the pigeons’ performances were related to how frequent the letter pairs were in their vocab,” says Scarf. “Basically we found what you find with people, which is that the more common the letter pairs, the better they do at recognizing the word.”
They Weren’t Reading
Now, before we raise our hopes of seeing a pigeon sitting on a park bench, poring over a newspaper, it’s important to note that these trainees could not read. Reading requires not only the ability to visually recognize words, but also to decode the letter-sound relationships. The pigeons were missing that second half of the equation.
But what these birds did manage to learn is remarkable, and it might even explain why humans have an entire brain region devoted to recognizing written words, despite the fact that writing was only invented around 5,400 years ago. As Scarf and his colleagues note, that’s far too short a period for a new specialized brain area to have evolved from scratch, but more than enough time for an old neural mechanism to get repurposed.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
This process of “neuronal recycling” involves brain cells that were once devoted to spotting everyday objects, like rocks or trees, gradually learning to key in to new visuals, like the written word. Some scientists believe this is precisely how ancient people first developed reading skills, and a recent studyrevealed that monkey brains can be trained to visually process written words in much the same way.
But according to this latest study, visual word recognition is not limited to the realm of the primate brain. Indeed, bird brains, which are “neither genetically nor organizationally similar to [those of] humans,” are quite capable of taking an existing neural circuit and recycling it to process a visual word — or, as Scarf describes it, a “two-dimensional stimulus that’s not relevant in the real world.”
Though the capacity to recognize a series of printed strokes may be of little consequence to a pigeon, the research shows that a visual system separated from ours by more than 300 million years of evolution can be co-opted to perform a very human function.
So whether or not they care, for four pigeons in New Zealand, words are now jumping off the page.