Start Up No.1632: the cryptocruise cockup, El Salvador gets laser eyes, driver shortage hits drugs, new Apple MagSafe?, and more


The Japanese knotweed in the UK is almost all derived from a single female plant that doesn’t reproduce. It’s done pretty well, hasn’t it. CC-licensed photo by ☼☼Jo Zimny Photos☼☼ on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The disastrous voyage of Satoshi, the world’s first cryptocurrency cruise ship • The Guardian

Sophie Elmhirst:

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he announced the venture on Reddit: “So, I am buying a cruise ship and naming it MS Satoshi … AMA.” The responses were quick (“Need an apprentice aviation mechanic?” “I know how to use a yo-yo! Any room for me??”) and included the inevitable sceptics. (“Anyone remember the good old days of the Fyre festival?”) But plenty took the proposition seriously and wanted to go over the small print. (“Where is power coming from? Gas? Internet? Food? Water? Toiletries? What taxes will she be subject to?”)

Elwartowski answered every question with grave attention to detail. There would be generators at first, followed quickly by solar power. This would be an eco-friendly crypto-ship. High-speed wireless internet would come from land; utilities would be included in the fees at first, but would be metered when the systems were upgraded: “You don’t want to have pay for someone else’s mining rig in their cabin,” he wrote, referring to the resource-intensive computational process that introduces new crypto “coins” into the system. As for tax, you would not pay any on earnings made from ventures based in territory beyond Panama. You would be free to make, or mine, as much money as you liked. It would be a remote worker’s regulatory paradise.

But as the Reddit Q&A continued, Elwartowski’s meticulous responses revealed some of the more knotty practicalities of life on board. It turned out that the only cooking facilities would be in the restaurant. For safety reasons, no one was allowed to have a microwave in their rooms – though some cabins had mini-fridges, noted Elwartowski, determinedly sidestepping the point. He offered residents a 20% discount at the restaurant and mentioned that some interested cruisers had already talked about renting part of the restaurant kitchen so they could make their own food.

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Of course you guessed that this libertarian dream went wonky. In its way, this reminds me of the (true) story about the libertarians who tried to take over a New Hampshire town that also had a resident population of bears.
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El Salvador’s bitcoin gamble is off to a rocky start • WIRED UK

Gian Volpicelli:

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Crucial details regarding how the adoption of bitcoin will play out in practice are still unclear, or have only been disclosed in recent days. A government regulation issued on August 27 established that Salvadoran banks will have to offer the exchange of bitcoin for dollars and vice versa – when carried out through a government-backed wallet – without charging commissions; the regulation also requires that all companies providing bitcoin-related services register with a government body, and adopt anti-money laundering measures (it is not clear what the penalties would be for failing to do so.)

“This was done a week and a half before September 7,” says Mario Aguiluz, chief sales officer of IBEX Mercado, a Guatemalan firm that sells bitcoin exchange and payment solutions, which also operates in El Salvador. “You really have to ask whether the government is ready. It’s a mixed bag.”

There is also a dearth of information about the government’s own bitcoin wallet, called Chivo. It’s known that it will work in concert with 200 Chivo ATM machines where users would be able to exchange their bitcoin for cash, free of commissions (a recent Economist story reports a five% fee being charged when converting dollars into bitcoins, although the publication must have used a third-party wallet), and that each Chivo wallet will come complete with $30 worth of bitcoin as a government freebie. What we do not know is who exactly has developed the wallet or the ATM machines, and what technology will underpin it.

According to Chris Hunter, co-founder of bitcoin firm Galoy, such plans are changing “almost hour-by-hour”. Hunter, whose bitcoin payment service in the Salvadoran coastal village of El Zonte reportedly inspired the nationwide project, says that the situation was still “very fluid” as of early September. As recently as last week, he was convinced that Chivo would not be able to use the lightning network, a system that dramatically speeds up bitcoin transactions, which would otherwise take several minutes to be confirmed. “Now, it seems pretty clear to me – if you asked me to make a wager – that it will be enabled as of Tuesday,” Hunter says. El Salvador’s government did not reply to a request for comment.

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Here’s what I don’t understand. If El Salvador wanted to make it easier for people to transfer money from other countries, why not set up its own cryptocoin and exchange, fix a rate with the dollar, and let El Salvadorans buy them in other countries to be exchanged in-country? And to be used in-country? Why use bitcoin, which is complex and liable to currency swings? (It fell by 10% on the day El Salvador made it legal.) Again, I still want to know what the PKIs for adopting bitcoin are.
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Exclusive: London hit with MDMA ‘drought’ because of shortage of lorry drivers • Metro News

Harrison Jones:

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London is experiencing an MDMA ‘drought’ due to Covid and Brexit disrupting supply lines, experts say.

The wider drugs trade is thought to have been hit hard by the two issues for a number of months, but a recent reduction in Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) transporting items across the UK is affecting supplies of some illegal substances.

The cocaine market has been particularly impacted over the last 18 months, while other areas outside the UK capital have also seen drugs shortages.

Numerous factors are involved and some experts are downplaying the impact of Covid and Brexit – adding that they may not be behind a record number of drugs deaths or any changes in purity levels.

But Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of drugs charity Release, told Metro.co.uk: ‘The availability of MDMA has been severely reduced in some parts of the UK, with people in London describing it as a drought.

‘This could certainly be a result of the reduction of HGVs carrying goods in from Europe, where illegal goods would usually be concealed amongst legal products, and where suppliers have prioritised getting in more lucrative drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.’

She explained: ‘Like many other goods that are imported into the UK, we are seeing the supply chain for some illicit substances affected, although as this is an unregulated market it is hard to pin it down… and it is likely the result of a number of different factors.’

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Wow. I thought raspberries was bad. But this is serious. (I like how this is “Exclusive”. I wonder – you know, just wondering aloud – how Jones came upon the story, if it’s exclusive, since a press release from Release would go to lots of outlets.)
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Climate impact of a transatlantic flight could cost global economy $3,000 • The Guardian

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A return flight from the UK to New York could cost the global economy more than $3,000 (£2,170) in the long run, owing to the effects of the climate crisis, according to a report.

Researchers examined the economic cost of the climate crisis and found it would cut about 37% from global GDP this century, more than twice the drop experienced in the Great Depression.

For every tonne of carbon dioxide emitted, the global economy would be $3,000 worse off by the end of the century, they estimated.

The research was conducted by experts from Cambridge University, University College London and Imperial College London, as well as international partners from Switzerland, Germany, the US and Austria.

Most estimates had assumed fires, floods, droughts and other impacts of the climate crisis did not affect economic growth, the authors said, but there was “mounting evidence to the contrary”.

“Climate change makes detrimental events like the recent heatwave in North America and the floods in Europe much more likely,” said Dr Chris Brierley from University College London. “If we stop assuming that economies recover from such events within months, the costs of warming look much higher than usually stated.”

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There’s more to come on topics like this: scientists are not sitting around now. Not clear here whether it’s a per-passenger or per-seat or per-plane.
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Need another book? Try Social Warming, my latest, about how social media sows and amplifies division.


New Apple MagSafe charger spotted in FCC alongside four new phones • The Verge

Jon Porter:

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Apple could have a new version of its iPhone MagSafe charging puck on the way. A new FCC listing for a “Magnetic Charger” first spotted by blogger Dave Zatz shows an accessory with a new model name (A2548) that looks otherwise identical to Apple’s existing charger (A2140). The new charger has been tested with a variety of devices including four marked as “New Phone,” which almost certainly correspond to Apple’s anticipated iPhone 13 models.

There aren’t too many hints about what’s new in the official FCC documents. 9to5Mac notes that it’s been tested with all four existing iPhone 12 models (marked as “Legacy Phone”) as well as the four unannounced devices, which suggests this new MagSafe charger should be compatible with both generations. And there’s also a diagram showing the puck being used to charge a pair of AirPods. That’s something the existing MagSafe charger can technically already do, although it won’t magnetically attach to the AirPods case like it will with the latest iPhones.

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Bit by bit, everything about Apple’s announcement next week (apart really from names and prices) is leaking out, as happens every year. The formal video (no physical press show – wait another year?) is Tuesday next week. One expects that’s when iOS 14 will be released too.
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Could in-person conversations tone down the culture wars? • FT

Jemima Kelly:

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While I can think of countless instances on social media in which anyone who dares to even question these ideas [about wokeness] is attacked viciously by online mobs, I can’t recall a single recent IRL (in real life) conversation in which I have come across the same lack of nuance and censorious moral grandstanding.

Perhaps some of the “consensus” that seems to have become so entrenched over the course of the pandemic might not be quite as widely shared as it appears to be. Maybe — though this might be a little optimistic — as we gradually return to face-to-face conversations, the culture wars that have raged online in recent months, often with real-world repercussions, might start to ebb.

One of the reasons the online discourse seems so polarised is the way that social media algorithms and 280-character limits favour simplistic and uncompromising points of view that play to a certain “side”. Also, those people who hold the most extreme views tend to share them more often. According to a poll by NGO More in Common, just 13% of the British population falls into the “progressive activist” category but they are about six times more likely than the other seven groups identified to share their political opinions on social media. The category of “loyal nationals”, who feel the most threated by immigration, are the second most likely to post their opinions online.

“We think we’re divided but the proportion that says we’re divided is lower than a few years ago,” says Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos-MORI, a polling group. “A lot of it is shouty media and shouty social media, and smallish numbers of people shouting at each other.”

It’s true that some of the blame must be taken by my profession. We, like the rest of the world, have been trapped online since early 2020 and have probably too often relied on social media as a gauge for how the general public thinks. “Journalism has always had the taxi driver bias — a journalist arrives in a new country and the people they speak to the most and first are taxi drivers,” says Martin Walker, a director at the Center for Evidence-Based Management. “Twitter is the new taxi driver.”

A further problem is that those of us who spend our time on the English-speaking internet falsely imagine that we are all living in the same society, when we are not. America is far more polarised than we are in Britain, and to a certain extent we have imported its culture wars (we even have a new Fox-News-alike channel dedicated to fighting them).

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It’s as if social media amplifies extreme opinions, which are then taken up by other media and amplified too. I could recommend a book on the topic.
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The rise and fall of ‘ZuckTalk’ • The New York Times

John Herrman:

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So, in spoken language, there are these things that just sort of show up over time, and then it seems like they’re everywhere, and so we call them trends, right? So in a world where there is more recorded speech than ever, and, um, more access to all of this speech, these changes can happen very fast, but they can also be harder to isolate, right? So there’s actually a whole field about this, and it’s actually called linguistics, and it’s a really good tool for understanding the world around us.

Right?

Maybe you know someone who talks like this. It’s a disorienting speaking style, one that marries supreme confidence with nervous filler words and a fear of pauses. Maybe you overhear this voice talking to a date about meme stocks.

Maybe you hear it pitching a counterintuitive regulatory proposal on TV, or on a podcast, explaining which complicated things are actually simple and which simple things are actually complicated. Maybe it’s an executive on an earnings call, in an interview or pacing around a stage, delivering a Jobsian message in a Gatesian tone.

Maybe you hear Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook. The style didn’t originate with him, nor is he responsible for its spread. He may, however, be its most visible and successful practitioner.

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The tic of “So…” at the beginning of a sentence was apparently noticed by Michael Lewis (yes, him) back in 2005 among Microsoft programmers. Now you hear it on every Today radio interview. This is a fascinating piece though about the vocal tics that you’ll recognise in all the passive-aggressive and defensive interviews of techbros (and gals) you’ll hear. (Via John Naughton.)
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Exclusive: Amazon considers more proactive approach to determining what belongs on its cloud service • Reuters

Sheila Dang:

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Amazon.com Inc plans to take a more proactive approach to determine what types of content violate its cloud service policies, such as rules against promoting violence, and enforce its removal, according to two sources, a move likely to renew debate about how much power tech companies should have to restrict free speech.

Over the coming months, Amazon will expand the Trust & Safety team at the Amazon Web Services (AWS) division and hire a small group of people to develop expertise and work with outside researchers to monitor for future threats, one of the sources familiar with the matter said.

It could turn Amazon, the leading cloud service provider worldwide with 40% market share according to research firm Gartner, into one of the world’s most powerful arbiters of content allowed on the internet, experts say.

AWS does not plan to sift through the vast amounts of content that companies host on the cloud, but will aim to get ahead of future threats, such as emerging extremist groups whose content could make it onto the AWS cloud, the source added.

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So something of a step on from when it banned Wikileaks in December 2010 (which Amazon says wasn’t at the behest of the US State Department).
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How Facebook undermines privacy protections for its two billion WhatsApp users • ProPublica

Peter Elkind, Jack Gillum and Craig Silverman:

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WhatsApp messages are so secure, he said, that nobody else — not even the company — can read a word. As Zuckerberg had put it earlier, in testimony to the U.S. Senate in 2018, “We don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp.”

WhatsApp emphasizes this point so consistently that a flag with a similar assurance automatically appears on-screen before users send messages: “No one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them.”

Those assurances are not true. WhatsApp has more than 1,000 contract workers filling floors of office buildings in Austin, Texas, Dublin and Singapore, where they examine millions of pieces of users’ content. Seated at computers in pods organized by work assignments, these hourly workers use special Facebook software to sift through streams of private messages, images and videos that have been reported by WhatsApp users as improper and then screened by the company’s artificial intelligence systems. These contractors pass judgment on whatever flashes on their screen — claims of everything from fraud or spam to child porn and potential terrorist plotting — typically in less than a minute.

Policing users while assuring them that their privacy is sacrosanct makes for an awkward mission at WhatsApp. A 49-slide internal company marketing presentation from December, obtained by ProPublica, emphasizes the “fierce” promotion of WhatsApp’s “privacy narrative.” It compares its “brand character” to “the Immigrant Mother” and displays a photo of Malala ​​Yousafzai, who survived a shooting by the Taliban and became a Nobel Peace Prize winner, in a slide titled “Brand tone parameters.” The presentation does not mention the company’s content moderation efforts.

WhatsApp’s director of communications, Carl Woog, acknowledged that teams of contractors in Austin and elsewhere review WhatsApp messages to identify and remove “the worst” abusers. But Woog told ProPublica that the company does not consider this work to be content moderation, saying: “We actually don’t typically use the term for WhatsApp.” The company declined to make executives available for interviews for this article, but responded to questions with written comments.

…This article is the first to reveal the details and extent of the company’s ability to scrutinize messages and user data — and to examine what the company does with that information.

…WhatsApp reviewers gain access to private content when users hit the “report” button on the app, identifying a message as allegedly violating the platform’s terms of service. This forwards five messages — the allegedly offending one along with the four previous ones in the exchange, including any images or videos — to WhatsApp in unscrambled form, according to former WhatsApp engineers and moderators.

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This is essentially how WhatsApp moderators identify child abuse imagery and “terrorists”. So, dependent on user reports. As many have said, this doesn’t show that WhatsApp E2E is compromised.
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The Day of the Knotweed • Harper’s Magazine

Sam Knight:

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In 1847, the Japanese knotweed won a gold medal from the Society of Agriculture and Horticulture in Utrecht for being the most interesting new ornamental plant of the year. It was another century before biologists began to realize that a systemic collision was taking place: humanity’s project to connect the world was overriding the earth’s natural barriers of water, mountain, and desert. During World War II, globalized supply chains introduced 140 alien species of grass into the forests of Finland. In the early Fifties, the brown tree snake, a native of Australia, arrived in Guam, where it has wiped out twelve bird species and reached a population density of 13,000 snakes per square mile.

Biologists sometimes use the term “enemy-release hypothesis” to describe the ability of foreign creatures to overwhelm a new habitat. If there is a food supply and nothing trying to eat you, then even humble beings can become monsters. In the case of itadori, her roots found new vigor in the tarmacked towns and polluted waterways of industrial Europe. The two hundred or so insects that plagued her in Japan and the stronger rivals that stole her light were nowhere to be seen.

In the 1970s, a plant biologist named Ann Conolly published the first maps showing the spread of the knotweed across the U.K. In 1981, itadori became one of the first plants named under Britain’s Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it a criminal offense to release the weed into the wild. But like many other well-meaning pieces of paper intended to stop invasions, the law against the knotweed didn’t change a damned thing.

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A gentle, fascinating tour around how this invasive species has taken over chunks of Wales, having been tested in volcanic outlets and finding the slag heaps of mines much to its taste. The bad news: if it were ever to breed, we’d really be in trouble.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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