Start Up No.1423: eternal printer woes?, Californians go private, Kim Dotcom faces US extradition, Denmark culls Covid mink, and more


Remember when opinion polls were reliable? Me neither. But the implications of their failure go beyond elections. CC-licensed photo by Marie Kendall on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Sober. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Rant: It’s 2020. Why do printers still suck? • WIRED

Simon Hill:

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Three years and a couple of printers later, sick of being gouged for ink cartridges that always seem to run out at the worst moment, I optimistically signed up for a printing subscription plan. The idea is you are charged a flat fee based on how many pages you print each month, and the printer automatically orders ink refills when it’s running low. Reading this back, I can only cringe at my naivety.

Things were fine for the first few weeks. Then I made the mistake of turning the printer off. It doesn’t like to be turned off. It started emailing me, insisting that it needs to be turned on and connected to the internet so the subscription plan can work properly. Every time I turn it on, it prints an ink-heavy test page. It is incredibly good at printing test pages—it just won’t print the document you want.

Things got worse when I made the mistake of changing my internet service provider. I forgot about the printer for a while. Then I suddenly needed it (see step five). I didn’t have time to set up the Wi-Fi, so I plugged directly into the printer with a good old-fashioned cable. It refused to print. I refused to connect it to the internet, so it refused to print for me.

To get it working again I had to completely uninstall everything related to the printer, update my drivers, install three separate programs, carry it to another room to plug directly into my desktop, carry it back again, hold down the correct button sequence at the stroke of midnight, spin around three times, and recite the printer incantation into a mirror.

It’s finally connected and working … for now. But I know it’s only a matter of time before it betrays me again. One of these days, I will finally smash my nemesis to smithereens.

My printer shifts noisily in the background as I write this, mocking me, blissfully unaware of how close it teeters to oblivion.

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My experience (with HP Officejet printers) has been pretty much entirely positive: remains connected to the internet, does print, doesn’t screw up the paper. I’d love it to know how many sheets of paper it has left, and not to continually tell me that its ink is low – it’s like a baby bird demanding to be fed – but otherwise? Printers are great. We just happen not to need them these days.
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The polling crisis is a catastrophe for American democracy • The Atlantic

David A. Graham:

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Surveys badly missed the results, predicting an easy win for former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic pickup in the Senate, and gains for the party in the House. Instead, the presidential election is still too close to call, Republicans seem poised to hold the Senate, and the Democratic edge in the House is likely to shrink.

This is a disaster for the polling industry and for media outlets and analysts that package and interpret the polls for public consumption, such as FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times’ Upshot, and The Economist’s election unit. They now face serious existential questions. But the greatest problem posed by the polling crisis is not in the presidential election, where the snapshots provided by polling are ultimately measured against an actual tally of votes: As the political cliché goes, the only poll that matters is on Election Day. The real catastrophe is that the failure of the polls leaves Americans with no reliable way to understand what we as a people think outside of elections—which in turn threatens our ability to make choices, or to cohere as a nation.

…In every swing state but Arizona, Trump outperformed the FiveThirtyEight polling average. This is not to pick on FiveThirtyEight, which went to unusual lengths to ensure that its averages were accurate, but simply to indicate how far off the polls as a whole were.

…When an election can give a definitive answer to a question, by telling us which candidate or policy Americans prefer, the problems with polling matter less, though they make vote-counting more stressful. But anything that happens outside of the quadrennial and midterm elections is now murky. Earlier this summer, Trump took a hard line against protests for racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd. As I noted at the time, there was a quick and significant drop in the president’s polling, especially among white voters. Trump never recovered that support in polls, but if the polls were off, who knows whether that drop was real, or whether white attitudes about racial justice have really changed?

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This does matter, as he points out. There’s a lot of schadenfreude about pollsters (especially from Trump supporters), but if you don’t know the public mood, what the hell can you rely on for that metric?
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California’s Proposition 24 on consumer privacy passes • SFChronicle.com

Dustin Gardiner and Shwanika Narayan:

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California’s Proposition 24, which would expand the state’s landmark consumer privacy law, was passed by voters Tuesday night.

The initiative prohibits legislators from weakening the California Consumer Privacy Act, creates a state agency to enforce privacy protections, and gives people more control over how tech companies use their personal information, such as race or health data.

Privacy advocates led by Alastair Mactaggart, a wealthy San Francisco developer, proposed the measure because they say the existing law is at risk of being watered down in response to pressure from technology companies and business groups.

But Prop. 24’s key source of opposition was not tech firms. The measure was opposed by some privacy advocates, who said it was poorly written and would make it harder for low-income people to exercise their privacy rights.

The Legislature passed the California Consumer Privacy Act in 2018, though enforcement of the law didn’t start until July 2020. It allows consumers to tell businesses not to sell their data and to demand that they delete the information altogether.

Opponents of the law have pushed for numerous changes in the Legislature, without success. Mactaggart said he fears it could eventually be weakened.

“During these times of unprecedented uncertainty, we need to ensure that the laws keep pace with the ever-changing ways corporations and other entities are using our data,” Mactaggart said when the initiative qualified for the ballot.

Prop. 24 seeks to enshrine the state’s existing privacy law so legislators can make changes only to strengthen privacy.

«

Welcome to what Europe’s had for a few years, California. When is the rest of America joining?
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Kim Dotcom can be extradited to US but can also appeal • BBC News

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A long-running effort to extradite file-sharing site mogul Kim Dotcom to the US has been left in limbo after a Supreme Court decision in New Zealand.

The court ruled that he can be returned to the US to face copyright charges – but has also overturned another lower court’s decision, effectively granting him the right to appeal.

Mr Dotcom himself described the ruling as a “mixed bag”. The legal wrangling is likely to continue.

The court ruled that Kim Dotcom and his three co-accused were liable for extradition on 12 of the 13 counts the FBI is seeking to charge them with.

But it also ruled that the Court of Appeal had erred in dismissing judicial review requests from Mr Dotcom, and granted him the right to continue with them.

The FBI alleges that Megaupload facilitated copyright infringement on a huge scale, but Mr Dotcom’s lawyers argue that the website was never meant to encourage copyright breaches.

If he is extradited, he faces a lengthy jail term.

«

Think he really should have worked on the pardon strategy rather than the not-getting-extradited strategy: the latter almost always fails, the former at least has some chance of paying off.
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Denmark to cull millions of minks over mutated coronavirus • The Local

Agence France-Presse:

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Denmark, the world’s biggest producer of mink fur, said Wednesday it would cull all of the country’s minks after a mutated version of the new coronavirus was detected at its mink farms and had spread to people.

The mutation “could pose a risk that future (coronavirus) vaccines won’t work the way they should,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told a press conference, adding: “It is necessary to cull all the minks.”

“The mutated virus could thereby have serious negative consequences for the whole world’s response to the ongoing pandemic,” she said.

Danish police estimated that between 15 and 17 million minks would need to be put down.

Twelve people are currently registered as infected with a mutated form of the coronavirus in Denmark, according to news wire Ritzau. The mutated virus is reported to respond weakly to antibodies.

Denmark’s mink industry is the largest of its kind in the world, normally producing 12-13 million skins annually.

Coronavirus has been detected at 207 Danish mink farms, Frederiksen said.

«

This feels like a weird and under-reported story. Coronavirus sequenced via minks doesn’t provoke a strong antibody response?
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All systems go for UK’s £55M fusion energy experiment • Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

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One of the biggest challenges in fusion research has been to extract the amount of excess heat from the plasma. UKAEA’s scientists now plan to test a new exhaust system called the ‘Super-X divertor’ at MAST Upgrade.

This system is designed to channel plasma out of the machine at temperatures low enough for its materials to withstand – meaning that components can last much longer. The approximate tenfold reduction in heat arriving at the internal surfaces of the machine has the potential to be a game-changer for the long-term viability of future fusion power stations.

MAST Upgrade will be the forerunner of the UK’s prototype fusion power plant, Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (“STEP”), due for completion by 2040.

STEP – which UKAEA is designing in an initial £220m programme funded by the UK Government – will be based on MAST Upgrade’s ‘spherical tokamak’ fusion concept. The spherical tokamak could offer a route to a compact fusion power plant. The success of MAST Upgrade is another step along the way to designing future fusion power facilities, which could have an important role as part of a future portfolio of low-carbon energy.

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We’re turning the corner on fusion power. Just like we’re turning the corner on coronavirus. There’s always the suspicion that we’re just going around in circles.
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Silk Road bitcoins worth $1bn change hands after seven years • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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A billion dollars worth of bitcoins linked to the shuttered darknet market Silk Road has changed hands for the first time in seven years, prompting renewed speculation about the fate of the illicit fortune.

Almost 70,000 bitcoins stored in the account which, like all bitcoin wallets, is visible to the public, had lain untouched since April 2013. The website was shut down by an FBI raid six months after they were deposited, and they have not moved since.

Late on Tuesday night, however, the full amount less a $12 (£9) transaction fee was transferred to a new bitcoin address, records show.

“Through blockchain analysis we can determine that these funds likely originated from the Silk Road,” said Tom Robinson, chief scientist at the cryptocurrency analysts Elliptic. “They left the Silk Road’s wallet back on 6 May 2012 when they were worth around $350,000 and then remained dormant for nearly a year, before being moved … in April 2013.”

From there, the funds have lain dormant. After the marketplace was shut down in late 2013, its founder and boss, 36-year-old San Franciscan Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to a double life sentence plus 40 years without possibility of parole. The FBI managed to seize 174,000 bitcoins, then worth about $100m, but an estimated 450,000 earned by the marketplace remain unaccounted for.

Robinson says it is unclear who moved the money. “The movement of these bitcoins today, now worth around $955m, may represent Ulbricht or a Silk Road vendor moving their funds,” he said. “However, it seems unlikely that Ulbricht would be able to conduct a bitcoin transaction from prison.”

One possibility is that an individual or group has managed to “crack” the wallet, effectively guessing its password and stealing the funds. A file that some claimed was an encrypted bitcoin wallet containing the keys to the funds has been circulated in cryptocurrency communities for the past year, and – if it is what it was claimed to be – then a combination of brute computing power and good luck could have successfully decrypted the wallet.

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If you think about it, investing in a gigantic rig to try to crack the passphrase would make financial sense. You could benefit by a billion dollars. How much are you going to invest? Up to $999,999,999 (OK then $999,999,987). Your only problem is cashflow ahead of your success.
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Silicon Roundabout dream fades with COVID-19 and Brexit • Business Insider

Martin Coulter on the scheme that was boosted by the Cameron government in November 2010 (I was at the launch speech):

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A change in Prime Minister in 2016 after the Brexit vote brought with it a rebranding: Tech City was redubbed “Tech Nation” in the months after Theresa May took power. But occupied by Brexit – which was supported by troublingly few in London’s elite business circles — May had to bat off accusations she “didn’t understand technology”.

The cluster around Silicon Roundabout has swollen, though perhaps not in the way originally intended. The area can boast homegrown fintech stars such as Monzo and Starling Bank, but that may really be down to the area’s proximity to London’s financial center, rather than its tech creds.

And while Google has established a startup hub in the area, the US giant’s main London campus is further north in Kings Cross. The only tech giant with a big presence in the area is Amazon.

It’s not clear what comes next for Silicon Roundabout

With the post-Brexit transition period looming and changes wrought by the coronavirus, Tech City may “never be the same again.”

Of the rumored tech IPOs set to come out of the UK in the next year – such as Darktrace, Deliveroo, and others – few are rooted near the Old Street roundabout.

One veteran CEO familiar with the area, who spoke to Business Insider on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending colleagues, said they felt the initiative had been a “waste of time and money.”

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I don’t think that’s quite fair. It has helped give birth to loads of companies and inspired a lot of entrepreneurs. Just because it hasn’t become self-sustaining doesn’t mean that enormous value, both financial and personal, hasn’t come through. People now know it as a reference point; it’s somewhere to be near, to have worked at. (And a side note: among the speakers at that David Cameron launch speech was Boris Johnson, who extemporised a load of nonsense. Cameron gave him side-eye the entire time.)
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The United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean • Science Advances

Kara Lavender Law and others from various oceanographic groups:

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Plastic waste affects environmental quality and ecosystem health. In 2010, an estimated 5 to 13 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic waste entered the ocean from both developing countries with insufficient solid waste infrastructure and high-income countries with very high waste generation.

We demonstrate that, in 2016, the United States generated the largest amount of plastic waste of any country in the world (42.0 Mt). Between 0.14 and 0.41 Mt of this waste was illegally dumped in the United States, and 0.15 to 0.99 Mt was inadequately managed in countries that imported materials collected in the United States for recycling.

Accounting for these contributions, the amount of plastic waste generated in the United States estimated to enter the coastal environment in 2016 was up to five times larger than that estimated for 2010, rendering the United States’ contribution among the highest in the world.

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Well that’s another mess to clear up.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1423: eternal printer woes?, Californians go private, Kim Dotcom faces US extradition, Denmark culls Covid mink, and more

  1. Throwing my HP Deskjet printer into a recycling centre skip in 2016 was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life. I did it with such gusto I nearly injured my shoulder.

    It was the most frustrating piece of technology I ever owned (declaring there is no paper when you have just ever so carefully loaded it; no way of turning off wifi when connected via USB, blocked inkjet nozzles requiring more test pages to be printed per year than actual documents, crap software etc etc.

    I’ve been printer-less ever since (helped by the move by airlines from printed boarding passes to in app versions)

    Just like home-working being a thing that has taken far too long to become a reality, the paperless office can’t come soon enough IMHO for so many reasons.

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