This week’s stories see Bitcoin made a de facto currency in the EU, YouTube launching a paid subscription service, 23andMe offering health information (this time with FDA approval), with the special bonus of a gorgeous video of what the Northern Lights really look like by videographer Phil Hart. Read on!
Bitcoin The Currency
A landmark Bitcoin ruling in Europe this week has shown a difference in opinion from their American counterparts. Technically, in the US, Bitcoin is not a currency, but a commodity. But on Thursday, the European Court of Justice ruled that for tax purposes — specifically Value-Added Tax or VAT — Bitcoin is a currency. The outcome means that sales tax, which could have been as high as 20-25%, will not be applied to purchases or sales of the cryptocurrency, easing market worries that over-taxation would make the largest economy in the world decidedly unfriendly to Bitcoin. As a brief explanatory example: if I were to try using Bitcoin as a payment or remittance medium — buying Bitcoin, paying or sending in bitcoin, and changing back to local fiat currency — both the first and last steps might have been subject to taxation as purchases of a “product,” rather than just conversion between currencies. This may be partly responsible for a sudden rise in the price of Bitcoin over the last ten days from roughly $250 to roughly $295 (at the present moment). A possible relaxation in the Chinese stance toward the currency as well as the Winklevosses’ new Gemini exchange (which posted its highest one-day volume yet of over 625BTC on October 22) may also be fueling the surge. Check out the Wall Street Journal for more on the EU VAT decision.
This week YouTube (a subsidiary of Google, a subsidiary of Alphabet) announced a new subscription service, bringing it ever closer to Google Play. Here’s how it works: YouTube Red will cost about ten bucks a month, the same as a subscription to the Google Play streaming app. It’ll be thirteen bucks a month if you’re on an iOS device, because Apple’s charging an in-app purchase tax. Take it up with them, not me. Anyway, for that, you’ll get ad-free YouTube, including a new service called YouTube Music, which is looking a lot like Pandora for music videos. You’ll be able to play YouTube content offline and in the background (a feature long missing from YouTube’s native app), and next year when YouTube starts producing its own feature shows, you’ll get exclusive access to that, too. It sounds like it might be worth the price, if the content is good and you hate ads. It’ll also get you access to Google Play’s streaming service (and vice-versa) which sounds pretty good, too. Except not everybody is pleased (and for good reason): to make it work, YouTube has had to force content creators to sign a new agreement that lets YouTube make money off their content — and if they don’t, their videos are labeled as “private” and aren’t viewable anymore. Why? Because then Red customers would be paying to see less content than free customers. This has caused ESPN to withdraw all their YouTube content, and has other YouTubers up in arms. Time will tell whether it’ll be a coup like Google’s office/drive/mail integration or a flop like Google Plus. For more on the story, check out Gizmodo or TechCrunch.
23andMe Back in the Game
Back in 2013, DNA home-testing company 23andMe was required by the FDA to stop providing its users with “health information,” for example that users might be at higher risk of certain cancers or other genetically-linked diseases. The FDA had not, it claimed in its letter, been provided with enough evidence that the information they were providing was accurate. As such, the company scaled back on the services it was providing to customers — mostly just ancestry data — and started using the database of genetic information to start work on producing drugs. Now, the company has taken the steps to get FDA approval to go back to giving out at least some health information: something called “carrier status.” According to the new section on their website, they’ll be telling customers whether they “carry” the genes responsible for 35 or so conditions, which could conceivably be passed on to children. As they write on their site: “Carriers do not typically have the genetic condition, but they can pass a genetic variant down to their children. If both parents are carriers, there is a 25% chance their child will have the condition.” Conditions listed will include Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Anemia, Tay-Sachs Disease, and more. They’re also strongly suggesting genetic counseling before testing and again after if you’re found to be a carrier. The New York Times has more on the story.
Not-So Vegetarian? Not So Much
Last week, according to a widely-publicized story, up to a third of vegetarians were found to eat meat when they’d been drinking alcohol. This caused many self-indulgent guffaws from us meat eaters because — as many of us who’s tried and failed to be vegetarians will attest — it’s pretty easy to fall off that wagon when drunk and presented with tasty, tasty meat. But here’s the thing: nobody seems to have done that study. And the story seems to have been wholly made up by a UK-based coupon code website. It’s a stunning example of how confirmation bias disarms skepticism. The online skeptic and talented writer the Avocadbro has a great (and well-balanced) analysis of the situation, and you should totally go read it.
Here’s a rundown of this week’s stories here at This Week In Tomorrow, just in case you missed them. On Monday, I brought to your attention the giant steaming pile of crazy that is The Nibiruan Council; on Tuesday I talked about the new search for UFOs calling itself UFODATA; on Wednesday I covered the basics of the travelling wave reactor as a part of a new series on power generation of the future; on Thursday I hopped on the bandwagon and explained why Back To The Future Day isn’t the place to get upset about the commercialization of your nostalgia; and on Friday Lindsey facepalmed her way through a reaction to a young man who’s offended by the idea that he doesn’t look any different from a rapist (because rapists don’t have a “look”). Check them out if you haven’t yet!
Best of the Rest
There was way too much to cover this week, so here’s a long list of links you can check out for yourself.
- Xiaomi’s making a $300 mini-Segway (coming eventually)
- Scientists may have found evidence of the earliest life on Earth
- An anonymous scientist wrote a great rant about the Human Brain Project over at MathBabe
- Researchers have decided that you might be better off making your passwords poetic
- The Space Launch System has passed a critical review
- And Harvard has created a material with a refractory index of 0.
That’s all for today. I’ll leave you with a video made by photographer and videographer Phil Hart, who took a look at all the brightly-coloured videos online of the Northern Lights, as well as the paintings of Harald Moltke, and decided to make a video showing what they look like if you’re actually there (hint: not as colourful, slower, but still so, so impressive). You can watch the video below, or just go to Phil Hart’s website where he explains so much of how he made the video and why. Also, a serious hat tip to my favourite blogging astronomer Phil Plait for bringing this into my corner of the internet.
Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and techno-futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.