Start Up No.1812: why plastics recycling won’t work, Qualcomm wants a chunk of Arm, no Apple headset this year?, and more


Don’t look up, but venture capitalists reckon there’s money in them thar asteroids. CC-licensed photo by Kevin Gill on Flickr.

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


Operational note: the UK is having bank holidays on Thursday and Friday, but The Overspill will continue. Next week, however, it’ll be on a break all week.


Plastic recycling doesn’t work and will never work • The Atlantic

Judith Enck and Jan Dell:

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The problem with recycling plastic lies not with the concept or process but with the material itself.

The first problem is that there are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics. They all include different chemical additives and colorants that cannot be recycled together, making it impossible to sort the trillions of pieces of plastics into separate types for processing. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) bottles cannot be recycled with PET#1 clamshells, which are a different PET#1 material, and green PET#1 bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET#1 bottles (which is why South Korea has outlawed colored PET#1 bottles.) High-density polyethylene (HDPE#2), polyvinyl chloride (PVC#3), low-density polyethylene (LDPE#4), polypropylene (PP#5), and polystyrene (PS#6) all must be separated for recycling.

Just one fast-food meal can involve many different types of single-use plastic, including PET#1, HDPE#2, LDPE#4, PP#5, and PS#6 cups, lids, clamshells, trays, bags, and cutlery, which cannot be recycled together. This is one of several reasons why plastic fast-food service items cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S.

Another problem is that the reprocessing of plastic waste—when possible at all—is wasteful. Plastic is flammable, and the risk of fires at plastic-recycling facilities affects neighboring communities—many of which are located in low-income communities or communities of color.

Unlike metal and glass, plastics are not inert. Plastic products can include toxic additives and absorb chemicals, and are generally collected in curbside bins filled with possibly dangerous materials such as plastic pesticide containers.

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We can’t recycle plastics, we can’t have fusion (though we can have fission – it’s safe and it works), the news on climate isn’t that encouraging. The search for good news goes on.
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AstroForge aims to succeed where other asteroid mining companies have failed •Ars Technica

Eric Berger:

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The founders of the company, Jose Acain and Matt Gialich, said in an interview they were well aware of the challenges of deep space mining when starting AstroForge earlier this year.

“When you say asteroid mining, people laugh at you,” Gialich said. “They’re like, ‘OK, here’s some crazy guys that did too many drugs and thought this would be a cool idea.’ But the reality is that we can take this from the realm of science-fiction into the realm of something we can actually do.”

Both NASA and the Japanese space agency, JAXA, have now successfully collected material from asteroids in deep space, he said. Of course, both did so at a much smaller scale, aiming to bring only small amounts of material back to Earth for scientific study. But the Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx missions have demonstrated that gleaning material from an asteroid is technically feasible.

Gialich said AstroForge seeks to lower the price of these missions. And unlike its now-defunct predecessors, which were designing spacecraft that ultimately would have cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, AstroForge plans to use commercial space technology that already exists for its missions.

Last week AstroForge announced that it had closed a $13m round of “seed plus” funding, which was led by Initialized Capital, with investments from Seven Seven Six, EarthRise, Aera VC, Liquid 2, and Soma. The company presently has seven employees, and this will allow that number to double. AstroForge is planning a launch in January 2023 of a small satellite to perform a refining demonstration in low Earth orbit. After that, the company is planning two more missions into deep space, and this funding will provide the runway to carry AstroForge that far.

“We don’t need that much capital,” Gialich said. The company plans to design spacecraft small enough to fly as part of rideshare launches. “We’re going after this by bringing along a very, very small spacecraft to mine asteroids. So our first return mission is not going to return trillions of dollars. It’s not going to return billions of dollars. It’s going to return tens of millions of dollars.”

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There’s so much that has to go just right, and the timescales stretch over years, and it would be so easy for what comes back to be pure, useless ash. But there’s a big group of people in California whose principal aim is to make SF stories happen. So they get money.
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How wiring innovation is quietly driving the EV revolution • Aptiv

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Traditional wiring is not the first place one normally looks for electric vehicle (EV) innovation, but recent advancements are having a significant impact on the EV story because they’re providing OEMs with two things they desperately need in their EV architectures: less mass and more space.

Aptiv’s system engineers know how to reduce the number of cables and splices and how to squeeze out every millimeter of excess cable through precise optimization of the electrical distribution systems in concert with applying new technologies. Take Aptiv’s recent innovations in aluminum cabling, for example. Aptiv’s PACE Award-winning Selective Metal Coating technology allows OEMs to replace copper wiring with lighter aluminum cabling that is adding up to big benefits for OEMs.

How big? With our aluminum cable as part of an optimized architecture, one leading EV company reduced wiring mass in its 2017 model by 10% and removed 150 meters of cabling. Similarly, another vehicle customer shed 11 kilograms and 400 meters of cabling from its popular 2018 truck. And yet another customer reduced the mass of the electrical distribution system on its 2018 SUV platform by 15%, thanks to Aptiv’s optimization efforts, which eliminated 300 meters of cabling.

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People wondered yesterday why EVs should have an advantage over internal combustion engines (ICEs), because surely they both have wire harnesses to get electricity to the lights and so on? But as this and other pieces (including the original) make clear, EVs use different harnesses that are lighter and different.
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Qualcomm wants to buy a stake in Arm alongside its rivals • FT via Ars Technica

Anna Gross and Tim Bradshaw:

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The US chipmaker Qualcomm wants to buy a stake in Arm alongside its rivals and create a consortium that would maintain the UK chip designer’s neutrality in the highly competitive semiconductor market.

Japanese conglomerate SoftBank plans to list Arm on the New York Stock Exchange after Nvidia’s $66bn purchase collapsed earlier this year. However, the IPO has sparked concern over the future ownership of the company, given its crucial role in the global technology sector.

“We’re an interested party in investing,” Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm’s chief executive, told the Financial Times. “It’s a very important asset and it’s an asset which is going to be essential to the development of our industry.”

He added that Qualcomm, one of Arm’s biggest customers, could join forces with other chipmakers to buy Arm outright if the consortium making the purchase was “big enough.” Such a move could settle concerns over the corporate control of Arm after the upcoming IPO.

“You’d need to have many companies participating so they have a net effect that Arm is independent,” he said.

Arm, founded and headquartered in the UK, was listed in London and New York before SoftBank acquired it for £24.6bn in 2016 despite widespread concern about Britain’s most successful tech company falling into foreign hands.

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Why many lifelong smokers never get lung cancer, despite smoking a pack a day • Mashable

Danial Martinus:

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It’s widely accepted that smoking causes DNA mutations in normal lung cells, which then increase the probability of lung cancer. But up until recently, no one could explain why only a small minority of heavy smokers develop the disease, while the remainder go on to live their lives as usual.

The study, published in Nature Genetics, suggests that many smokers have natural ‘defence systems’ that are better at neutralizing the detrimental effects of smoking. Call them ‘better genes’ if you will. According to the researchers, the findings could point to the right direction when it comes to who (among smokers) to monitor closely for lung cancer, as opposed to taking a more reactive approach.

“This may prove to be an important step toward the prevention and early detection of lung cancer risk and away from the current herculean efforts needed to battle late-stage disease, where the majority of health expenditures and misery occur,” said Simon Spivack, co-senior author of the study.

…Looking at genetic profiles taken from the bronchi (the air passage that leads from the windpipe to the lungs) of 14 people who have never smoked and comparing them with samples taken from 19 light, moderate, and heavy smokers, the scientists found that the cells do mutate with natural age, and even more so in the lungs of smokers. However, like we said previously, not all smokers find themselves on the same boat.

“The heaviest smokers did not have the highest mutation burden,” Spivack revealed.

The data may suggest that the heavy smokers could have survived this long without much cell mutation solely due to ‘suppressed mutation’, meaning it was slowed or plateaued.

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Very much emphasising “the heavy smokers who have survived this long”. It makes sense that those who smoke a lot and don’t get cancer have some sort of protective mechanism, just as people who had sex with HIV-positive people and didn’t get HIV had a protective mechanism.
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Apple analyst says AR/VR headset won’t launch at WWDC, release coming next year • BGR

Chris Smith:

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[Bloomberg reporter Mark] Gurman says he’s “wary of expecting a full-blown presentation for developers and consumers next week.”

Echoing Gurman’s sentiments is Ming-Chi Kuo, a well-known insider [Overspill ed: he’s not an insider, he’s an external analyst who writes research notes for a company called TF International Securities] who has been accurate about Apple’s unreleased devices. The analyst took to Twitter to address Apple’s mixed reality headset. He said that Apple isn’t likely to launch the glasses at WWDC next week as the device isn’t ready for mass production.

Not only that, but Apple won’t even show realityOS at the event, Kuo speculated. “Apple’s competitors worldwide can’t wait to see the hardware spec and OS design for Apple’s AR/MR headset,” he said. That’s the reason why Apple would want to unveil the device so soon.

Kuo further added that competitors will “immediately kick off copycat projects and happily copy Apple’s excellent ideas, and hit the store shelves before Apple launches in 2023.”

Kuo’s take isn’t off. He might be speculating, but that doesn’t change the fact that many companies look up to Apple for inspiration. Whether it’s iPhone-related decisions or other devices. Apple will not be the first company to launch a mixed reality headset. But its approach might force competitors to rethink their own VR and AR gadgets.

Kuo still expects the mixed reality headset to be released in 2023. If that’s the case, then Apple will probably hold a launch event for the glasses several months before sales start.

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OK, fine, all sit down again.
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Dominic Cummings: “I don’t like parties” • UnHerd

Suzanne Moore got an interview with the most fascinating person in politics who is not in politics:

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SM: When you put your call out for “weirdos and misfits”, people interpreted that as you wanting employees who would be totally dedicated to you.

DC: Partly. But it was also a call to Whitehall and Westminster. They’re full of very similar people who did very similar degrees at very similar universities. My view is that you need different kinds of people around. I think the Covid inquiry will show that groupthink was a very serious problem.

I put out that blog about “weirdos and misfits” in January 2020 [seeking to recruit them to his unit inside Downing St] and it became the foundation for recruiting. It did bring in some excellent women. By summer, 29-year-old women were sitting at the Cabinet table, saying to Matt Hancock, “you just said that it’s not growing exponentially and you’re wrong. Here’s the actual graph. Here’s what’s happening.”

A lot of people didn’t like what I had done, but I thought: “this is now working as it should”. You’ve got smart people, who know what the fuck they’re talking about, telling either ministers or senior civil servants who don’t know exponential growth from a hole in the ground: “Here’s the actual facts.” So, I’ve radically improved how decisions are taken. The advice to the Prime Minister, though he could still trolley around and fuck things up —which he did, obviously — was at least much better.

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There are lots of other things in the interview, but this one – about shaking up an existing hidebound system by intentionally going outside the normal hiring system – seemed to me one of the most widely applicable in the lessons it contains.
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To understand Elon Musk, you have to understand one particular ’60s sci-fi novel • Jacobin

Jordan Carroll:

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Elon Musk styles himself as a character out of science fiction, posing as an ingenious inventor who will send a crewed mission to Mars by 2029 or imagining himself as Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon, a farseeing visionary planning ahead centuries to protect the human species from existential threats. Even his geeky humor seems inspired by his love for Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

But while he may take inspiration from science fiction, as Jill Lepore has observed, he’s a bad reader of the genre. He idolizes Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain M. Banks while ignoring their socialist politics, and he overlooks major speculative traditions such as feminist and Afrofuturist science fiction. Like many Silicon Valley CEOs, he primarily sees science fiction as a repository of cool inventions waiting to be created.

Musk engages with most science fiction in a superficial manner, but he is a very careful reader of one author: Robert A. Heinlein. He named Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress from 1966 as one of his favorite novels. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a libertarian classic second only to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in its propaganda value for neoliberal capitalism. It inspired the creation of the Heinlein Prize for Accomplishments in Commercial Space Activities, which Musk won in 2011. (Jeff Bezos is another recent winner.)

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress popularized the motto “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” often used by defenders of capitalism and opponents of progressive taxation and social programs. It’s about a lunar colony that frees itself, via advanced and cleverly applied technology, from the resource-sucking parasitism of Earth and its welfare dependents. In this instance, it appears that Musk correctly caught the author’s drift.

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Carroll goes into some detail about the book, and points out – correctly, I suspect – how it fits into (or shaped?) Musk’s approach to the world, particularly about “technological solutionism” which posits that social or political problems just need a technical fix. Which extends even to Twitter, of course.
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These keyboarding Icelandic horses can respond to your work emails • My Modern Met

Arnesia Young:

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even on an incredible vacation, it can be hard to leave all your worries at the office—especially when you’re concerned about the mountain of important emails that will go unanswered in your absence. Luckily, Iceland has a very unique solution. In an incredibly odd yet brilliant tourism campaign, the island country is offering the services of their iconic Icelandic horses as email responders.

The exciting new program is called OutHorse Your Email, and it gives visitors the opportunity to disconnect, relax, and soak in all of the country’s majestic beauty while one of several highly trained and talented Icelandic horses responds to any pressing work correspondence. And even though this might seem like a big joke, don’t be so quick to doubt the administrative talent of the extraordinary Icelandic horse. And if you’re still skeptical, just take the word of the program’s own glowing endorsement.

“Nothing ruins a glacier hike like an email from your boss,” writes Inspired by Iceland in a description of the new tourism initiative. “Thankfully, Iceland’s very special horses will reply to your work emails so you can enjoy your vacation in peace (Seriously.)”

Currently, visitors can pick one of three horses to answer their emails while they enjoy their vacation. First, there’s Litla Stjarna Frá Hvítarholti, who “types fast, but might take a nap.” But if you prefer a horse that’s more “assertive. efficient.” and has “shiny hair,” then Hrímnir Frá Hvammi might be more your speed. And finally, there’s Hekla Frá Þorkellshóli, who’s “friendly” and “trained in corporate buzzwords.” But if you’re concerned about how a horse can manage to type a coherent email with their giant hooves, don’t worry. They’ve got their own custom horse-sized keyboards…Although, that still doesn’t necessarily guarantee coherency. They are horses, after all.

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I think this is not entirely serious, though it’s a clever way to make people (well, Americans) think about Iceland as a vacation. Europeans don’t worry about office emails when they’re on holiday (not “vacation”). (Via Benedict Evans.)
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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