Tag: Science & Technology

Supreme Court Hears States Beg For Your Bucks

Online shoppers have gotten used to seeing that line on checkout screens before they click “purchase.” But a case before the Supreme Court could change that.

At issue is a rule stemming from two, decades-old Supreme Court cases: If a business is shipping to a state where it doesn’t have an office, warehouse or other physical presence, it doesn’t have to collect the state’s sales tax.

That means large retailers such as Apple, Macy’s, Target and Walmart, which have brick-and-mortar stores nationwide, generally collect sales tax from customers who buy from them online. But other online sellers, from 1-800 Contacts to home goods site Wayfair, can often sidestep charging the tax.

More than 40 states are asking the Supreme Court to reconsider that rule in a case being argued Tuesday. They say they’re losing out on “billions of dollars in tax revenue each year, requiring cuts to critical government programs” and that their losses compound as online shopping grows. But small businesses that sell online say the complexity and expense of collecting taxes nationwide could drive them out of business.

Large retailers want all businesses to “be playing by the same set of rules,” said Deborah White, the president of the litigation arm of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents more than 70 of America’s largest retailers.

For years, the issue of whether out-of-state sellers should collect sales tax had to do mostly with one company: Amazon.com. The online giant is said to account for more than 40 percent of U.S. online retail sales. But as Amazon has grown, dotting the country with warehouses, it has had to charge sales tax in more and more places.

President Donald Trump has slammed the company, accusing it of paying “little or no taxes” to state and local governments. But since 2017, Amazon has been collecting sales tax in every state that charges it. Third-party sellers that use Amazon to sell products make their own tax collection decisions, however.

 

The case now before the Supreme Court could affect those third-party Amazon sellers and many other sellers that don’t collect taxes in all states — sellers such as jewelry website Blue Nile, pet products site Chewy.com, clothing retailer L.L. Bean, electronics retailer Newegg and internet retailer Overstock.com. Sellers on eBay and Etsy, which provide platforms for smaller sellers, also don’t collect sales tax nationwide.

States generally require consumers who weren’t charged sales tax on a purchase to pay it themselves, often through self-reporting on their income tax returns. But states have found that only about 1 percent to 2 percent actually pay.

States would capture more of that tax if out-of-state sellers had to collect it, and states say software has made sales tax collection simple.

Out-of-state sellers disagree, calling it costly and extraordinarily complex, with tax rates and rules that vary not only by state but also by city and county. For example, in Illinois, Snickers are taxed at a higher rate than Twix because foods containing flour don’t count as candy. Sellers say free or inexpensive software isn’t accurate, more sophisticated software is expensive and that collecting tax nationwide would also subject them to potentially costly audits.

“For small businesses on tight margins, these costs are going to be fatal in many cases,” said Andy Pincus, who filed a brief on behalf of eBay and small businesses that use its platform.

 

The case now before the Supreme Court involves South Dakota, which has no income tax and relies heavily on sales tax for revenue. South Dakota’s governor has said the state loses out on an estimated $50 million a year in sales tax that doesn’t get collected by out-of-state sellers.

In 2016 the state passed a law requiring those sellers to collect taxes on sales into the state, a law challenging the Supreme Court precedents. The state, conceding it could win only if the Supreme Court reverses course, has lost in lower courts.

South Dakota says the high court’s previous decisions don’t reflect today’s world. The court first adopted its physical presence rule on sales tax collection in a 1967 case dealing with a catalog retailer. At the time, the court was concerned in part about the burden collecting sales tax would place on the catalog company. The court reaffirmed that ruling in 1992.

It’s unclear how the justices might align on the question this time. But three justices — Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy — have suggested a willingness to rethink those decisions. Kennedy has written that the 1992 case was “questionable even when decided” and “now harms states to a degree far greater than could have been anticipated earlier.”

“Although online businesses may not have a physical presence in some states, the Web has, in many ways, brought the average American closer to most major retailers,” he wrote in suggesting the days of inconsistent sales tax collection may be numbered. “A connection to a shopper’s favorite store is a click away regardless of how close or far the nearest storefront.”

The TED Conference On Big Ideas Is Putting Its Money Where Its Mouth IsIs

The big-idea Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conference is now backing up its talk on world-changing innovations with big money.

The organizers of the conference known for deep thinking discussions announced Wednesday it has raised $400 million for projects with “the potential to create massive, global change.”

The new initiative known as the Audacious Project will replace the annual $1 million TED prize awards which have been allocated since 2005, with a hefty bump in funding.

TED organizers say the project will fund “collaborative philanthropy for bold ideas” and announced the first awards to organizations working on innovative ideas for health care, justice, agriculture and the environment.

“In some ways, it’s the most ambitious thing TED has ever been involved with,” TED curator Chris Anderson said before taking to the stage to announce the project in Vancouver.

“It’s like trying to recreate what an IPO does, but instead of investing in shares to make money we are investing in dreams to make change.”

Inside TED, they coined the acronym “APO,” for Audacious Project Offering.

Anderson has encouraged TED’s influential community to act on big ideas that win their hearts or minds at annual conferences.

Each year, the project will identify up to five ideas that stand out as “thrillingly bold” with a credible path to execution.

Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of legendary Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, took to the TED stage to help unveil the project, saying it could change millions of lives for the better by turning bold ideas for good into action.

“We must dream alongside and amplify those voices,” she told the TED audience.

TED said pledges for the project came from Skoll Foundation, Virgin Unite, Dalio Foundation, The Bridgespan Group and others.

– Oceans to Heavens –

The slate of those being backed by the project consisted of The Environmental Defense Fund; The Bail Project; GirlTrek; Sightsavers, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

US-based Bail Project will manage a nationwide fund to help people post bond to get out of jail while their guilt or innocence is determined.

The Environmental Defense Fund wants to track methane pollution from space with a network of satellites.

“Cutting methane emissions from the global oil and gas industry is the fastest thing we can do right now to put the brakes on climate change,” said EDF president Fred Krupp.

The Woods Hole institution plans to uncover the secrets of a mysterious layer of ocean some 200 to 1,000 meters (600 to 3,000 feet) deep considered integral to the marine food ecosystem and the earth’s climate.

GirlTrek in the US will train activists to improve the health of black women by getting them walking more.

Sightsavers aims to eliminate trachoma, a treatable disease that can blind people and remains a bane in low-income communities.

“We are in a moment where humans more than ever what to change the future,” Anderson said.

“The money is out there; people want to spend it on good ideas.”

– Daring to dream –

Anyone in the world is free to pitch their dreams online at an audaciousproject.org website with a handful picked annually, according to TED.

“We are looking for projects that are capable of impacting at least millions of lives in some way, or at a planetary scale,” Anderson said.

“Almost the single biggest hope is that this process unlocks dreams that entrepreneurs never dared put forward before.”

Since starting as an intimate gathering on the California coast 34 years ago, TED has grown into a global media platform with a stated devotion to “ideas worth spreading.”

TED has a massive following for its trademark presentations in which speakers strive to give “the talk of their lives” in 18 minutes.

The theme of the annual TED conference this week in Vancouver is “Age of Amazement,” but with a keen eye on unintended consequences.

SpaceX Set To Launch Planet Hunter TESS On Monday

With the crippled Kepler orbital equipment almost out of fuel, NASA is preparing the launch of its newest planet-hunting spacecraft, TESS.

TESS, short for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will be carried into space by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on April 16. With a little help from the moon’s gravity, the satellite will achieve a high Earth orbit, offering the probe wide, unobstructed views of the night sky. The probe will orbit Earth twice for every one lunar orbit.

While TESS’s scientific mission is largely the same as Kepler’s — image transiting exoplanets — the probe will use a different approach. Whereas Kepler focused on small fields of view for long periods of time, TESS will take a wider, more comprehensive view.

“TESS is designed to image almost all of the night sky — using four wide angle cameras — in long vertical strips called sectors,” Natalia Guerrero, MIT scientist and researcher on the TESS mission, told UPI.

TESS scientists have divided the sky into long strips called sectors. Each hemisphere contains 13 sectors, and over the next three years, TESS will survey, sector by sector, the Southern Hemisphere and then the Northern Hemisphere.

During each sector scan, TESS’s four cameras will capture 30-minute exposures. The four images will be stacked on top of each other by the satellite’s computer and transmitted back to Earth.

In addition to organizing the sky into sectors, TESS scientists have identified 200,000 especially bright stars likely to host transiting exoplanets. Each stellar target is highlighted by a so-called postage stamp.

Exposures of each postage stamp will be stacked on top of each other every two minutes and beamed back to Earth. These postage stamp observations are expected to identify planetary systems located much closer to Earth than those found by Kepler.

Data captured by TESS will go through the same image-processing pipeline used for Kepler observations. Basic algorithms will process images and identify the dimming patterns created when exoplanets pass across the face of their host star.

Scientists will review the transit events identified via computer analysis and highlight targets for follow-up observations.

“From the depth of the transit and the frequency light curve, we can back out the size of the planet and distance from its host star,” Guerrero said.

But, like Kepler, TESS is designed to survey the sky, not carry out in-depth investigations. Scientists will rely on other telescopes, both ground and space-based, to observe transiting objects in greater detail. Through follow-up investigations, astronomers will be able to estimate an exoplanet’s mass and the composition of its atmosphere, as well as its habitability.

TESS scientists will focus much of their analysis on the two-minute cadence of images of postage stamped targets, but the satellite’s biggest surprises may be more likely to be revealed by the full frame images. In addition to capturing transits, the full-frame images will record observations of thousands of stars.

“The full frame images will serve as really rich repositories of data,” Guerrero said. “They will be made public and will be a wonderful opportunity for the astronomical community and really any interested parties.”

“We’re very excited about the citizen science efforts that will be inspired by these images,” Guerrero said.

Aussies Seek Information About Interstellar Visitor

A telescope in outback Western Australia has been used to listen to a mysterious cigar-shaped object that entered our solar system late last year.

The unusual object – known as ‘Oumuamua – came from another solar system, prompting speculation it could be an alien spacecraft. So astronomers went back through observations from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope to check for radio transmissions coming from the object between the frequencies of 72 and 102 MHz – similar to the frequency range in which FM radio is broadcast.

While they did not find any signs of intelligent life, the research helped expand the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) from distant stars to objects closer to home.

When ‘Oumuamua was first discovered, astronomers thought it was a comet or an asteroid from within the solar system. But after studying its orbit and discovering its long, cylindrical shape, they realised ‘Oumuamua was neither and had come from interstellar space.

Telescopes around the world trained their gaze on the mysterious visitor in an effort to learn as much as possible before it headed back out of the solar system, becoming too faint to observe in detail.

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Steven Tingay, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said the MWA team did not initially set out to find ‘Oumuamua.

“We didn’t set out to observe this object with the MWA but because we can see such a large fraction of the sky at once, when something like this happens, we’re able to go back through the data and analyse it after the fact,” Professor Tingay said.

“If advanced civilizations do exist elsewhere in our galaxy, we can speculate that they might develop the capability to launch spacecraft over interstellar distances and that these spacecraft may use radio waves to communicate. Whilst the possibility of this is extremely low, possibly even zero, as scientists it’s important that we avoid complacency and examine observations and evidence without bias.”

The MWA is located in Western Australia’s remote Murchison region, one of the most radio-quiet areas on the planet and far from human activity and radio interference caused by technology. It is made up of thousands of antennas attached to hundreds of “tiles” that dot the ancient landscape, relentlessly observing the heavens day after day, night after night.

Professor Tingay said the research team was able to look back through all of the MWA’s observations from November, December and early January, when ‘Oumuamua was between 95 million and 590 million kilometres from Earth.

“We found nothing, but as the first object of its class to be discovered, `Oumuamua has given us an interesting opportunity to expand the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence from traditional targets such as stars and galaxies to objects that are much closer to Earth. This also allows for searches for transmitters that are many orders of magnitude less powerful than those that would be detectable from a planet orbiting even the most nearby stars.”

‘Oumuamua was first discovered by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii in October. Its name loosely means “a messenger that reaches out from the distant past” in Hawaiian, and is the first known interstellar object to pass through our solar system.

Combining observations from a host of telescopes, scientists have determined that ‘Oumuamua is most likely a cometary fragment that has lost much of its surface water because it was bombarded by cosmic rays on its long journey through interstellar space.

Researchers have now suggested there could be more than 46 million similar interstellar objects crossing the solar system every year. While most of these objects are too far away to study with current technologies, future telescopes such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will enable scientists to understand more about these interstellar interlopers.

“So once the SKA is online,” said Professor Tingay, “we’ll be able to look at large numbers of objects and partially balance out the low probability of a positive detection.”

NASA Learns to Predict Mudslide Threats In Real-Time

For the first time, scientists can look at landslide threats anywhere around the world in near real-time, thanks to satellite data and a new model developed by NASA.

The model, developed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland estimates potential landslide activity triggered by rainfall. Rainfall is the most widespread trigger of landslides around the world. If conditions beneath Earth’s surface are already unstable, heavy rains act as the last straw that causes mud, rocks or debris – or all combined – to move rapidly down mountains and hillsides.

global-landslide-hazard-assessment-model-for-situational-awareness-lhasa-lg

The model is designed to provide a more indepth understanding of where and when landslide hazards are present and improve estimates of long-term patterns. A global analysis of landslides over the past 15 years using the new open source Landslide Hazard Assessment for Situational Awareness model was published in a study released online on March 22 in the journal Earth’s Future.

“Landslides can cause widespread destruction and fatalities, but we really don’t have a complete sense of where and when landslides may be happening to inform disaster response and mitigation,” said Dalia Kirschbaum, a landslide expert at Goddard and co-author of the study. “This model helps pinpoint the time, location and severity of potential landslide hazards in near real-time all over the globe. Nothing has been done like this before.”

The model estimates potential landslide activity by first identifying areas with heavy, persistent and recent precipitation. Rainfall estimates are provided by a multi-satellite product developed by NASA using the NASA and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission, which provides precipitation estimates around the world every 30 minutes. The model considers when GPM data exceeds a critical rainfall threshold looking back at the last seven days.

In places where precipitation is unusually high, the model then uses a susceptibility map to determine if the area is prone to landslides. This global susceptibility map is developed using five features that play an important role in landslide activity: if roads have been built nearby, if trees have been removed or burned, if a major tectonic fault is nearby, if the local bedrock is weak and if the hillsides are steep.

If the susceptibility map shows the area with heavy rainfall is vulnerable, the model produces a “nowcast” identifying the area as having a high or moderate likelihood of landslide activity. The model produces new nowcasts every 30 minutes.

The study shows long-term trends when the model’s output was compared to landslide databases dating back to 2007. The team’s analysis showed a global “landslide season” with a peak in the number of landslides in July and August, most likely associated with the Asian monsoon and tropical cyclone seasons in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

“The model has been able to help us understand immediate potential landslide hazards in a matter of minutes,” said Thomas Stanley, landslide expert with the Universities Space Research Association at Goddard and co-author of the study.

“It also can be used to retroactively look at how potential landslide activity varies on the global scale seasonally, annually or even on decadal scales in a way that hasn’t been possible before.”