Start Up No.1493: the Mars Easter egg, the bitcoin key generator that leaked, scrap the F-35?, how music’s growth outpaced payments, and more


Is the world’s future – one with far fewer people? A new book, Empty Planet, suggests so. CC-licensed photo by Tim Samoff on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Contains unhidden messages. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

There’s a hidden message in the parachute of NASA’s Mars rover • The Verge

Joey Roulette:

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The parachute that helped NASA’s Perseverance rover land on Mars last week unfurled to reveal a seemingly random pattern of colors in video clips of the rover’s landing. But there was more to the story: NASA officials later said it contained a hidden message written in binary computer code.

Internet sleuths cracked the message within hours. The red and white pattern spelled out “Dare Mighty Things” in concentric rings. The saying is the Perseverance team’s motto, and it is also emblazoned on the walls of Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the mission team’s Southern California headquarters.

The parachute’s outer ring appears to translate to coordinates for JPL: 34°11’58” N 118°10’31” W.

Allen Chen, the entry, descent, and landing lead for Perseverance, dared the public to figure the message out during a press conference on Monday. “In addition to enabling incredible science, we hope our efforts in our engineering can inspire others,” he said.

“Sometimes we leave messages in our work for others to find for that purpose, so we invite you all to give it shot and show your work.”

Adam Steltzner, Perseverance’s chief engineer, confirmed the message late Monday night on Twitter.

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Maxence Abela and his father (a software engineer at Google – talk about a team with an advantage) were the first to figure this out. (His sister’s cartoon about it is sweet.) No easy task, given that it uses 10-bit coding (not 8-bit) and you have to start in the right place. Very reminiscent of the method used to send messages to Earth by the survivor in The Martian. Now, of course, everyone’s going to be too busy looking for Easter eggs in everything about Perseverance to listen to its discoveries.
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BitcoinPaperWallet ‘back door’ responsible for millions in missing funds, research suggests • Coindesk

Colin Harper:

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It was just past midnight on Jan. 7, 2020, when “Nick Wendell” (a pseudonym) lost half a million dollars in bitcoin.

Bitcoin’s price was roaring toward $40,000, and Wendell was moving some of his bitcoin to a paper wallet generated by BitcoinPaperWallet.com. These wallets allow you to store your private key on a PDF that can then be printed out or saved as a computer file.

Within a minute of depositing 14.5 BTC, worth over $500,000 at the time (and now worth over $700,000), it was all gone. Someone had swept the funds from Wendell’s wallet and, after playing blockchain hopscotch across multiple addresses, sent them to the Binance exchange.

The situation set Wendell’s world spinning.

“Within one minute I realized what happened and it felt like I was falling but [wouldn’t] hit the ground for several minutes. I remember walking in circles around the kitchen as if I were dizzy,” Wendell told CoinDesk.

Wendell is one of at least half a dozen users who claim to have lost dizzying sums to the paper wallet. A quick Google search reveals posts on Reddit, Bitcointalk and elsewhere that tell several individual accounts of a multi-million dollar collective heist: someone with access to the site appears to be filching user funds through a back door in the code that gives them access to private keys.

In fact, some users of the most popular bitcoin paper wallet generator on Google’s search ranking claim to have collectively lost millions of dollars worth of bitcoin over the past two years, CoinDesk has learned.

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Because, as some researchers discovered, the private keys it generates get sent to whoever runs the site. That’s sneaky smart. The site’s owner might want to check his own privacy: there are going to be angry people out there.
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The music industry makes more money but has more mouths to feed • Financial Times

Will Page is formerly Spotify’s chief economist, is the author of ‘Tarzan Economics’ due out in April (and, I recall, was one of the few voices inside the music industry talking sense about the internet’s effects in the early 2000s):

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In 1984, a mere 6,000 music albums were released in the UK. Today, streaming services make available a similar volume — 55,000 new songs — every single day. 

There are not only more songs, but more musicians. Since Spotify launched in 2009, the number of British songwriters has increased by 115% to 140,000 and the ranks of UK recording artists have ballooned 145% to 115,000. Twenty years ago, there were five UK major labels and at most two dozen independent distributors; today Spotify hosts music from 751 suppliers.

Unsurprisingly, there are also more genres to classify all these songs. In 2000, the industry classified all the world’s music into no more than a dozen-and-a-half genres. Today, Spotify’s “everynoise” acoustic map tracks 5,224 genres, including Coptic hymns, Russian romanticism and the new lockdown hit of shanty, of course.

Music was one of the first industries hit by digital disruption. Its fate shows the rest of us the future. When digitisation removes barriers to entry, there is so much more of everything. 

…A UK parliamentary inquiry, which I submitted evidence to, has highlighted this dichotomy. Politicians have been pummelled with angry testimony about the industry. Mercury Prize-nominated Nadine Shah told MPs, “I’m critically acclaimed but I don’t make enough money from streaming and am struggling to pay my rent . . . I am just not being paid fairly for the work.”

…Even as the UK considers whether to update music copyright rules, everyone else should be watching this industry as a living demonstration of what happens when barriers to entry fall. The pie definitely grows, but the number of creators wanting a piece of it grows even faster.

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The US Air Force just admitted the F-35 stealth fighter has failed • Forbes

David Axe:

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As conceived in the 1990s, the [F-35] program was supposed to produce thousands of fighters to displace almost all of the existing tactical warplanes in the inventories of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

The Air Force alone wanted nearly 1,800 F-35s to replace aging F-16s and A-10s and constitute the low end of a low-high fighter mix, with 180 twin-engine F-22s making up the high end.

But the Air Force and Lockheed baked failure into the F-35’s very concept. “They tried to make the F-35 do too much,” said Dan Grazier, an analyst with the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.

There’s a small-wing version for land-based operations, a big-wing version for the Navy’s catapult-equipped aircraft carriers and, for the small-deck assault ships the Marines ride in, a vertical-landing model with a downward-blasting lift engine.

The complexity added cost. Rising costs imposed delays. Delays gave developers more time to add yet more complexity to the design. Those additions added more cost. Those costs resulted in more delays. So on and so forth.

Fifteen years after the F-35’s first flight, the Air Force has just 250 of the jets. Now the service is signaling possible cuts to the program.

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A program to solve all the past problems onto which too many things are added? Sounds like every government project ever. This one just happened to cost multiple billions.
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The world might actually run out of people • WIRED

Megan Molteni:

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YOU KNOW THE story. Despite technologies, regulations, and policies to make humanity less of a strain on the earth, people just won’t stop reproducing. By 2050 there will be 9 billion carbon-burning, plastic-polluting, calorie-consuming people on the planet. By 2100, that number will balloon to 11 billion, pushing society into a Soylent Green scenario. Such dire population predictions aren’t the stuff of sci-fi; those numbers come from one of the most trusted world authorities, the United Nations.

But what if they’re wrong? Not like, off by a rounding error, but like totally, completely goofed?

That’s the conclusion Canadian journalist John Ibbitson and political scientist Darrell Bricker come to in their newest book, Empty Planet, due out February 5th. After painstakingly breaking down the numbers for themselves, the pair arrived at a drastically different prediction for the future of the human species. “In roughly three decades, the global population will begin to decline,” they write. “Once that decline begins, it will never end.”

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Is this a scary forecast? Or a reassuring one, of a world where people don’t have to fight each other for resources and the planet can, er, heal?
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Funky electronics chain Fry’s is no more • Associated Press

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Fry’s Electronics, the go-to chain for tech tinkerers looking for an obscure part, is closing for good.

The company, perhaps even more well known for outlandish themes at some of its stores, from Aztec to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” said Wednesday in an online posting that the COVID-19 pandemic had made it impossible to continue.

Fans immediately took to Twitter to post images and memories (good and bad).

The chain was concentrated on the West Coast, but had 31 stores in nine states. It was founded 36 years ago.

Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData, called it “the end of an era, and a sad day” for an army of loyal customers.

The pandemic has done heavy damage to retailers, but Fry’s was already getting hammered by online competition and a battle between heavy-hitters Best Buy and Amazon.com.

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In the UK, the equivalent was a store chain called Maplin, which had all sorts of fun electronics gizmos and gadgets, and closed in March 2018.
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Texas electric bills were $28 billion higher under deregulation • WSJ

Tom McGinty and Scott Patterson:

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Nearly 20 years ago, Texas shifted from using full-service regulated utilities to generate power and deliver it to consumers. The state deregulated power generation, creating the system that failed last week. And it required nearly 60% of consumers to buy their electricity from one of many retail power companies, rather than a local utility.

Those deregulated Texas residential consumers paid $28bn more for their power since 2004 than they would have paid at the rates charged to the customers of the state’s traditional utilities, according to the Journal’s analysis of data from the federal Energy Information Administration.

…None of this was supposed to happen under deregulation. Backers of competition in the electricity-supply business promised it would lower prices for consumers who could shop around for the best deals, just as they do for cellphone service. The system would be an improvement over monopoly utilities, which have little incentive to innovate and provide better service to customers, supporters of deregulation said.

“If all consumers don’t benefit from this, we will have wasted our time and failed our constituency,” then-state Sen. David Sibley, a key author of the bill to deregulate the market, said when the switch was first unveiled in 1999. “Competition in the electric industry will benefit Texans by reducing monthly rates,” then-Gov. George W. Bush said later that year.

…From 2004 through 2019, the annual rate for electricity from Texas’s traditional utilities was 8% lower, on average, than the nationwide average rate, while the rates of retail providers averaged 13% higher than the nationwide rate, according to the Journal’s analysis.

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There are 9.6m households in Texas, with an average 2.85 people each: if we take it that that’s 5.8m households (60% of the total) who overpaid $28bn over 16 years, that’s about $300 extra per year per household on a bill of about $2,300.

Once again, wild beliefs that The Market will fix everything are proven to be wrong. And people died because of this deregulation – it wasn’t just pricier bills.
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Google has finally added iOS’s privacy labels to Gmail • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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Google has finally added Apple App Store privacy labels to its Gmail app, almost a month after we ran an article wondering what was taking so long (via MacRumors). The app is the second major Google app to get the labels, after they were added to YouTube when it was updated earlier this month.

According to the privacy label, it doesn’t collect your name, physical address, or phone number (though as an email client, Gmail obviously collects your email address). Location data is also used for analytics and there are some features of the app that will request it as well. If you want to see the full label, there’s a video below [in the original post] that scrolls through.

It is worth noting that Apple’s app privacy labels are meant to show all the things that the app might access, not what information that app will access. For example, an app may only use location data when it needs to show you a map, but the privacy labels don’t make that clear — it’s just a binary used/not used. Also, the information in the labels is submitted by the company itself, and Apple doesn’t make promises about its accuracy.

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And yet it didn’t give an update for a bug on the Gmail app. Google’s clearly quite embarrassed about this. Or else it has just given up on updating its apps.
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Chess.com finds streaming success • Protocol

Hirsh Chitkara:

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In 2018, Chess.com acquired [a chess playing, solving, predicting] engine of its own, Komodo, which was once considered the best but has since been narrowly usurped by the open-source Stockfish project. Regardless, investment in engines has been another key to Chess.com’s success. Komodo offers post-game analysis, revealing player blunders and missed mate opportunities. Chess.com’s engineers have also developed dozens of opponent AI personalities for the community: Some are adaptive, meaning they adjust the skill of each move according to how well the opponent plays; others bring chess legends back to life, using old game logs to emulate their skill and style of play. Following the release of “The Queen’s Gambit,” Chess.com worked with Netflix to develop engines that simulated Beth Harmon’s gameplay from different periods in the show.

These factors are foundational to the success of Chess.com, but they haven’t been driving the incredible growth over the last year. That would be streaming.

“The first thing to understand is that this is many years in the making,” Nick Barton, VP of business development at Chess.com, told Protocol. “We’ve had a partnership going with Twitch since 2018 in which the onus was on Chess.com — because of our market position within the playing sphere, the size of our playing platform and the size of our player base — to try to grow what we would call now the middle class of streamers.”

Chess.com has showcased how investing in a streaming community can provide immense returns over time. Building out from a core group of Chess.com-sponsored streamers, chess has taken Twitch by storm. Throughout February, for instance, Chess.com has been hosting the latest iteration of its signature PogChamps tournament featuring Twitch megastars xQc, Rubius and Pokimane as well as rapper Logic and actor Rainn Wilson. Altogether, Twitch users watched 18.3 million hours of chess in January 2021 — nearly as much as they consumed in the entirety of 2019.

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From this I take it that people are quite bored in lockdowns, and rediscovering their past passions. And that Twitch is very compelling.
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The future of QAnon • Vox

Sean Illing:

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for the most die-hard QAnon followers, hope springs eternal! The next big prophecy is supposed to unfold on March 4, which had been Inauguration Day before the ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933 — and the day Trump will gloriously return to power and retake the White House, according to the febrile imaginings of the QAnon movement.

All of which is to say, QAnon is still with us, and may be with us for a while. Conspiracy theories are powerful precisely because they’re so flexible. They never have to cohere; they just have to explain what seems otherwise inexplicable and, above all, offer the believer a sense of direction in a complicated world.

With that in mind, it’s worth asking what might become of the QAnon movement. Assuming March 4 doesn’t go as expected, where do the followers of Q turn next? And what does it mean for our politics moving forward if QAnon shape-shifts into an even more nebulous cult?

To get some answers, I reached out to eight journalists and researchers who’ve covered the conspiracy beat over the past four years or so. Their responses, edited for clarity and length, are below.

There wasn’t a perfect consensus, but a couple of themes emerged. One, the way to think about QAnon is that it’s less a political movement than a religion. Two, that is precisely why QAnon will keep going even as its prophecies fail to materialize. Everyone agreed that QAnon will likely persist as a major factor in American politics.

If these experts are right, and I suspect they are, the problems driving the QAnon movement will probably get worse before they get better, if they get better at all.

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Nothing that “Q” predicted ever came true; it couldn’t, because it was all rubbish, carefully obfuscated so as not to mean anything except what people read into it. The fact that there aren’t any more “drops” (breadcrumbs of “information”) is the most interesting thing. What happened?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1493: the Mars Easter egg, the bitcoin key generator that leaked, scrap the F-35?, how music’s growth outpaced payments, and more

  1. The best description I heard of the F35 was that it was a complete success, in that the work was carefully divided so that every single Congressional representative had at least one company that got revenue from it. Of course, as a plane it’s no where near as good at doing the job as most of the vehicles it replaced (I still reckon the A-10 was one of the best aircraft ever made. The plane does one job, and it does it well, and it’s cheap: $10 million compared to $130 million + for the F35). Still, a good time to invest in companies making air fuel tankers as the F35 Navy edition only has something like a 900 mile range…..

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