Start Up No.1633: El Salvador’s rocky start, why science struggles with airborne disease, another fusion startup, TikTok in trouble?, and more


Business seats on planes might be sitting very empty for the next few months – and maybe longer. CC-licensed photo by dtrzolek on Flickr.

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


El Salvador’s bitcoin experiment is a warning to other countries • CNN

Charles Riley, CNN Business:

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What went wrong [on the first day of bitcoin being legal tender in El Salvador]?

• “Chivo Wallet,” a storage app created by the government, wasn’t immediately available on major app stores. By the end of the day, it had appeared on Apple and Huawei platforms.
• Hundreds of people marched against bitcoin in various protests across the capital city, the Financial Times reported.
• The price of bitcoin started the day around $53,000 before plunging by as much as 19%, according to data from Coinbase. The digital currency has since recovered some losses to trade near $46,270.

President Nayib Bukele, a right-wing populist who is the driving force behind the bitcoin initiative, took the dramatic price drop in his stride. “Buying the dip,” he quipped on Twitter. He also joined online crypto supporters in praising major companies such as McDonald’s (MCD) for accepting bitcoin as payment.

Supporters have argued that adopting bitcoin as legal tender will help Salvadorans avoid costly fees on remittances from abroad, which totalled nearly $6bn last year — around a quarter of GDP.

Bukele may succeed in ironing out the initial technical glitches, but the biggest risks from bitcoin will persist long into the future.

El Salvador does not have a currency of its own, instead relying on the US dollar. Adding another currency to the mix that’s prone to wild changes in value will further complicate the government’s budget and tax planning.

It’s also a nightmare for households and businesses, who now have to devote time and resources to deciding whether to hold their funds in dollars or bitcoin. With crypto prices prone to wild swings, the stakes are high.
Another risk: Adopting bitcoin as legal tender may also encourage crime to flourish, according to the International Monetary Fund, which agreed to provide $389m in emergency funding to El Salvador in April 2020.

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One techbro proudly proclaimed how he had paid for his $5 meal with bitcoin, which prompted this rejoinder:

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At the time of posting this meal cost ~$5.00. Two hours later it would’ve cost $4.11. And right now it would cost ~$4.71. All the while a protest has started in the city over the adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender in El Salvador.

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That last illustrates a lot of the problem. It’s inflationary! It’s deflationary! It’s bloody unstable.
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Fusion startup builds 10-foot-high, 20-tesla superconducting magnet • Ars Technica

John Timmer:

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On Tuesday, Commonwealth Fusion Systems announced that it hit a key milestone on its roadmap to bringing a demonstration fusion plant online in 2025. The company used commercial high-temperature superconductors to build a three-meter-tall magnet that could operate stably at a 20-tesla magnetic field strength. The magnet is identical in design to the ones that will contain the plasma at the core of the company’s planned reactor.

Giving yourself less than 10 years to solve a problem that an entire research field has been struggling with for decades is ambitious, but it reflects how relevant fusion could be to the climate crisis we’re facing. Several of the company’s leaders mentioned climate change as an inspiration for their work.

“The vision is simple: Can fusion energy be in time to make a difference to climate change?” said Dennis Whyte of MIT. “That’s what everybody on this team was dedicated to going toward. Fusion is the energy source that the world needs, and it needs [it] kind of fast. And we’re on the brink of harnessing that for humankind.”

Waiting for decades to get to fusion will allow renewable power to expand its current cost advantage over all other forms of energy generation. And the time will give engineers the opportunity to learn how to manage the challenges of the intermittency of wind and solar power. So fusion risks being irrelevant by the time it’s a solved problem.

That’s why by 2025, Commonwealth Fusion Systems wants to have a reactor that will break even—i.e., a system in which fusion reactions release as much energy as is needed to start them. That milestone will be followed by what the company hopes will be a commercially viable fusion plant in the early 2030s.

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Huge, expensive precision equipment? Yup. Not quite generating as much power as goes in? Yup. Going to be usable Real Soon Now Well Maybe Not That Soon? Yup. More of the classic elements of a fusion story.
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How TikTok serves up sex and drug videos to minors • WSJ

Rob Barry, Georgia Wells, John West, Joanna Stern and Jason French:

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TikTok served one account registered as a 13-year-old at least 569 videos about drug use, references to cocaine and meth addiction, and promotional videos for online sales of drug products and paraphernalia. Hundreds of similar videos appeared in the feeds of the Journal’s other minor accounts.

TikTok also showed the Journal’s teenage users more than 100 videos from accounts recommending paid pornography sites and sex shops. Thousands of others were from creators who labeled their content as for adults only.

Still others encouraged eating disorders and glorified alcohol, including depictions of drinking and driving and of drinking games.

The Journal shared with TikTok a sample of 974 videos about drugs, pornography and other adult content that were served to the minor accounts—including hundreds shown to single accounts in quick succession.

Of those, 169 were removed from the platform before the Journal shared them—whether by their creators or TikTok couldn’t be determined. Another 255 were removed after being shared with the company, among them more than a dozen portraying adults as “caregivers” entering relationships with people pretending to be children, called “littles.”

The woman in the role-playing video said she wished TikTok did a better job of keeping adult content out of minors’ feeds.

“I do have in my bio that is 18+ but I have no real way to police this,” she wrote in a message. “I do not agree with TikTok showing my content to someone so young.”

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Give it a few days and there will be furious Republicans pointing out that TikTok is based in China and has a secret algorithm and is debasing America’s youth.
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Climeworks is opening the world’s biggest carbon removal machine • Quartz

Tim McDonnell:

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The fossil fuel economy must be run in reverse, effectively. The simplest and lowest-cost way to do that—planting trees—requires a lot of land relative to the scale of intervention that’s needed. So a handful of companies have been tinkering with “direct air capture” (DAC)—essentially, big CO2-sucking machines.

The largest DAC plant in the world will open Sept. 8 in Iceland. Operated by the Swiss engineering startup Climeworks, the plant, known as Orca, will annually draw down a volume of emissions equivalent to about 870 cars. Orca will boost total global DAC capacity by about 50%, adding to the dozen or so smaller plants that are already operational in Europe, Canada, and the US.

The plant is composed of eight boxes about the size of shipping containers, each fitted with a dozen fans that pull in air. CO2 is filtered out, mixed with water, and pumped into deep underground wells, where over the course of a few years it turns to stone, effectively removing it from circulation in the atmosphere.

The Orca launch follows on the heels of a $10m contract Climeworks inked last week with reinsurance giant Swiss Re. The insurance company was essentially buying an undisclosed volume of carbon offset credits to count against its own carbon footprint. Climeworks hasn’t publicly disclosed its price per ton, but a Swiss Re press release described it as “several hundred dollars.”

This business model—the sale of offsets—is how Climeworks is approaching a key problem for the nascent DAC industry: How to make money. The alternative is to sell the captured CO2 to manufacturers who can use it as a raw material for cement and other products, or to oil companies that, ironically, use it to help dredge up more oil. But those customers are more accustomed to prices around $100 per ton.

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Sorry, eight hundred and seventy cars? And that gives DAC capacity a 50% boost, so up from about 1,700 cars? (Unfortunately this seems to be correct.) We also aren’t told quite how this is powered. It’s geothermal energy, right? Right??
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Why is email still so terrible? • Vox

Sara Morrison:

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Think of how many emails you get and what they say. Think of all the services that use your email address to grant you access to your account and reset your password for it. Think of all the information about you that those accounts contain. Now think of what could happen if those emails went to someone else.

Mat Honan doesn’t have to imagine that, because a version of it happened to him in 2012. A hacker tricked Apple into giving him access to Honan’s iCloud account, which was the recovery email for his Gmail account, which was the recovery email for his Twitter account. Honan’s Apple and Google accounts were erased, his Twitter was taken over, and his MacBook and iPhone were remotely wiped. Unsurprisingly, Honan has some thoughts on this topic.

“Having email be your unique identifier has been such a bad idea for such a long time,” said Honan, whose relatively common name and email domain means he, too, gets “weird, misdirected stuff all the time,” including many emails related to a social networking site for doctors he believes his address was erroneously signed up for several years ago.

“It’s just completely preposterous to me that it is still used in that way,” he added. “It’s obviously so fraught and so easy to send the wrong stuff to the wrong people.”

Despite decades of pronouncements that email is dead, it is very much alive. Technology research firm Radicati Group estimates that 4.1 billion users worldwide send 319 billion emails every day.

“For all of its flaws, email is still, by most measures, the most effective communication tool ever devised in human history,” Andy Yen, CEO of ProtonMail, told me. “It’s one thing that everybody has.”

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Well, yes. If you were to suggest that instead of email we use some sort of biometric authentication, there would be howls from privacy and rights groups pointing out that that carries all sorts of risks if compromised. Nor would it allow you to create different personae for different elements of your online life. Email is like democracy – the worst way to do things apart from all the others.
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Why admitting Covid is airborne is so hard • The Air Letter

Jeremy Chrysler argues that the centuries of “miasma” theory (that diseases were spread by breathing in bad-smelling air) only yielded very reluctantly to germ theory – but that brought its own inertia:

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It took decades to complete, but once germ theory finally took hold it wouldn’t just be added to the idea that air carried disease, it would create a new foundation of understanding for all scientists who came after.

The foundational belief that the air carried disease was effectively abandoned and replaced by the understanding that germs did. 

In 1910, Charles Chapin helped finalize this replacement when he published The Sources and Modes of Infection, a seminal work in which he systematically argues that infections are spread by close contact, when one person spreads germs – bacteria, parasites, and the like – to another through direct contact. 

Unlike the superstitious miasma theory of old, contact transmission was supported by real evidence – organisms that could be observed and cultured from surfaces. Chapin even cites [cholera documenter John] Snow’s work – he was effectively describing contact transmission before it had a name – among many documented examples of historical contact transmission that weren’t then recognised as such. And Chapin saw little reason to consider airborne transmission at all given what we now knew. 

Thus, belief in airborne transmission was discarded in favor of germ theory.

Chapin writes of airborne spread, “…without denying the possibility of such infection, it may be fairly affirmed that there is no evidence that it is an appreciable factor in…our common contagious diseases. We are warranted, then, in discarding it…and devoting our chief attention to the prevention of contact infection. It will be a great relief to most persons to be freed from the specter of infected air, a specter which has pursued the race from the time of Hippocrates…” 

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Having bounced away from the idea of air as a carrier of disease, science has been very, very, very reluctant to let it back. Which is why you see people superstitiously (there’s no other word for it) squirting hand sanitiser as they go into shops.
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‘Forever changed’: CEOs are dooming business travel — maybe for good • BNN Bloomberg

Alexander Michael Pearson, Tara Patel and William Wilkes:

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From Pfizer Inc., Michelin and LG Electronics to HSBC Holdings, Hershey, Invesco and Deutsche Bank AG, businesses around the world are signaling that innovative new communications tools are making many pre- pandemic-era trips history.

Take Akzo Nobel NV, Europe’s biggest paint maker, for instance. At its Amsterdam headquarters, Chief Executive Officer Thierry Vanlancker has spent the past year watching his manufacturing head, David Prinselaar, flap his arms, madly gesticulate and seemingly talk to himself while “visiting” 124 plants by directing staff with high-definition augmented-reality headgear on factory floors. A task that meant crisscrossing the globe in a plane before is now done in a fraction of the time — and with no jet lag. For Vanlancker, there’s no going back.

“Trips to drum up business could drop by a third, and internal meetings by even more,” he said in an interview. “It’s a good thing for our wallets and helps our sustainability targets. Our customers have had a year of training, so it’s not a social no-no anymore to just reach out by video… There’s an enormous efficiency element.”

A Bloomberg survey of 45 large businesses in the U.S., Europe and Asia shows that 84% plan to spend less on travel post-pandemic. A majority of the respondents cutting travel budgets see reductions of between 20% and 40%, with about two in three slashing both internal and external in-person meetings. 

The ease and efficiency of virtual software, cost savings and lower carbon emissions were the primary reasons cited for the cutbacks. According to the Global Business Travel Association, spending on corporate trips could slide to as low as US$1.24 trillion by 2024 from a pre-pandemic peak in 2019 of US$1.43
trillion. 

Business travel has “forever changed,” Greg Hayes, CEO of jet-engine maker Raytheon Technologies Corp., said in a Bloomberg Radio interview in July. About 30% of normal commercial air traffic is corporate-related but only half of that is likely mandatory, he said. While the market may eventually recover, sophisticated communication technologies have “really changed our thinking in terms of productivity,” Hayes said.

…“We don’t think business travel will ever return to 2019 levels,” said Will Hawkley, the global head of travel and leisure at KPMG LLP. “Corporates are looking at their bottom-line, their environmental commitments, the demand from employees for more flexible working and thinking: Why do I have to bring that back?”

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Your planet thanks you. (As you might expect, the makers of jet engines think this is all foofarah.)
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LG Chem develops foldable display material using new material technologies • LG

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LG Chem announced that it had developed the cover window for foldable IT devices called ‘Real Folding Window’ that applied specially developed coating materials to make the surface as hard as glass, while the folding parts as flexible as plastic.

Cover windows are core materials located on the outermost part of IT devices to protect the display from impact, while also delivering clear images.

It is featured by not only its durability and transmittance, but also the curved characteristics that can be folded flexibly.

A speaker from LG Chem said, “Unlike existing polyimide films and tempered glass-type materials, the cover window that applied LG Chem’s new coating technologies will maximize flexibility, while also providing optimized solutions for foldable phones such as making improvements to chronic issues like fold impressions on the connecting part of the screen.”

The ‘Real Folding Window’ that LG Chem developed coated a new material at a thickness of a few dozen micrometers on both sides of PET film, which is a type of thin plastic, to enhance heat-resistance and mechanical properties of plastic materials.

It is thinner compared to existing tempered glass and has the same hardness, but no cracking on the screen. The price competitiveness is superior compared to existing polyimide film and due to its outstanding flexibility, durability is maintained completely even when folding more than 200,000 times. LG Chem also made significant improvements to the fold lines that occur on the folding parts
of the screen.

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Probably some distance off, but you can see that LG is eyeing foldable screens here. The thought is always that they have to be for phones (because volume pushes the price down) but I wonder if that’s not too limiting; that there are actually many consumer uses around the home or in retail that wouldn’t have to break an existing paradigm which people generally seem pretty happy with.
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Confirmation of COVID-19 in deer in Ohio • US Department of Agriculture

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The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) today announced confirmation of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) in wild white-tailed deer in Ohio. These are the first deer confirmed with the SARS-CoV-2 virus worldwide, although earlier studies have shown both that deer can be experimentally infected with the virus and that some wild deer had antibodies to the virus.

Samples from the deer were collected between January and March 2021 by The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine as part of ongoing deer damage management activities. There were no reports of any deer showing clinical signs of infection.

Samples from the deer tested presumptive positive at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the cases were confirmed at NVSL. NVSL serves as an international reference laboratory and provides expertise and guidance on diagnostic techniques, as well as confirmatory testing for foreign and emerging animal diseases.

…We are still learning about SARS-CoV-2 in animals. Based on the information available, the risk of animals spreading the virus to people is considered to be low.

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Yes but first of all, we’re pretty confident that this virus, or its progenitor, was spread from animals to people. Secondly, this means there’s now a proven “animal reservoir” for Covid, which in turn means that it’s definitely endemic. (Also already shown to transmit from humans to mink, and back again.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Two, both relating to yesterday’s post: the forthcoming version of iOS is 15, not 14 (thanks, James and Stuart); the cost to GDP of each flight is per passenger (not per plane or per seat. Doesn’t that mean it’s better to fly empty? Surely it should be per seat…). Thanks, Cam.

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