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Hong Kong Crackdowns, Extinction Reversals, and the Return of Supersonic Flights
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Hong Kong Crackdowns, Extinction Reversals, and the Return of Supersonic Flights

A tech potpourri.

Hello and happy Thursday! 

Considering the positive response from last week’s newsletter (and because my brain is still very much in a slow August mode), I thought I’d again gist and comment on a few diverse tech stories. For those who prefer the usual essays, don’t worry, they’re not going anywhere. But I may try to do one of these potpourri-style newsletters once a month or so. Also, at the excellent request of one reader—who describes themself as a “hyperintelligent sentient cosmic plant thing”—the commentary on each story will be preceded by the abbreviation HWIT (“Here’s What I’m Thinking”). Okay, let’s get to it! 

Hong Kong Crackdown Hits Facebook 

The Hong Kong government has arrested two men suspected of hosting and publishing online content that “promotes feelings of ill-will,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The detentions are part of a larger government effort to quiet dissent as it comes further under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  

Soon after the arrests, multiple Facebook groups and pages where users share anonymous opinions about the Hong Kong and Chinese governments were taken down—including a “Civil Servant Secrets” page that had more than 200,000 followers. When asked if authorities had requested the shuttering of these pages, a spokesperson for the platform’s parent company, Meta, declined to comment. But they did offer an assurance that no user data associated with the pages was provided to Hong Kong authorities.  

The actions are just the latest effort to quell any dissent after Beijing passed stringent “national security” laws in 2020 against terrorism, subversion, secession, and collusion with foreign forces. Previous arrests were mainly individuals who openly called for the overthrow of the Chinese-controlled government or other explicit resistance. The latest shutdowns, however, include pages where frustrated parents vented about school closures and poor government services. From the WSJ:

“Hong Kong’s citizens are treading carefully,” said Sandra Marco Colino, law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, calling the pages’ closure pre-emptive and not necessarily indicative that any laws have been broken. 

She said the uncertain circumstances in which the social-media administrators were arrested, combined with the national-security law’s vagueness and severe penalties for violations, have “understandably instilled fear in the admins of social media groups sharing anonymous posts which often touched upon politically sensitive topics.” 

HWIT: The CCP cannot allow any resistance to erode its control and every government that comes under its influence will be refashioned to quash dissent and restrict freedom of expression. The autocrats in Beijing are supremely sensitive about popular resistance because they sit atop a massive population in China that could never be controlled if it coalesced against them. Minimizing this risk also requires controlling the populations in other territories like Hong Kong that might inspire popular domestic movements in the Chinese mainland. Importantly, many in the West said China would never assert such control in Hong Kong because it would be so economically costly and wouldn’t make “rational sense.” Well, it would seem Chinese President Xi Jinping has other priorities than those who think the world operates on strict economic rationales.  

De-Extinctifying the Thylacine 

The biotech firm Colossal Biosciences is teaming up with scientists in Australia to de-extinct the thylacine (aka the “Tasmanian tiger”)—a marsupial about the size and shape of a wolf, according to the company website. While the Australian government officially protected the animal in 1936, it was hunted out of existence later that same year by farmers and ranchers who didn’t like its proclivity to decimate livestock. Colossal, however, thinks it can bring the strange animal back and even wants to reintroduce it into the wild. 

Company and government scientists are rounding up Thylacine genomes from embryos and even young specimens that have been preserved, comparing them to a near relative called a quoll, and eventually hope to “fill in the gaps” with marsupial stem cells using gene editing tools and IVF. 

“This partnership will drive the development of new technologies with immediate conservation applications for marsupials which are currently facing major ecological pressures as well as underpinning the de-extinction of the unique marsupial apex predator, the thylacine,” said Andrew Pask, one of the lead researchers on the project. 

But this isn’t Colossal’s first foray into de-extinction. The company also has an effort to clone a woolly mammoth—or at least what it calls a “cold-resistant elephant with all of the core biological traits of the Woolly Mammoth.” The company says the new animal will be different from the original in that it will be genetically edited so that it can “inhabit the same ecosystem previously abandoned by the Mammoth’s extinction.”  

HWIT: How could this possibly go wrong *cough* Indominus rex *cough*. Seriously, though, it would be cool to have technology that would not only allow us to bring back some species of animals, but—more importantly—to prevent the extinction of the ones we currently have. That said, there are obviously a lot of ethical and practical considerations for this work. Ethically, should we manufacture and manipulate life in this way? Practically, do we understand how the reintroduction of these animals might impact the contemporary ecosystem? The hard truth is that these questions don’t matter in one sense because the technology to do this is emerging and someone is going to do it. I hate that because it’s ill-considered and potentially massively disruptive. But it’s also the type of scientific experimentation that allows us to potentially grow genetically tailored organs for those in need of a transplant. Of course, we regulate these types of experiments in the West, but in other parts of the world, not so much. 

 American Airlines Goes Boom 

American Airlines says it will purchase 20 supersonic airplanes from Boom Supersonic, according to a company press release, with an option for another 40 aircraft. The deal follows Boom’s agreement last year with United Airlines for 15 supersonic planes.  

Both airlines are acquiring Boom’s Overture airframe, a plane designed to carry 65-80 passengers at Mach 1.7 (about twice as fast as today’s commercial aircraft). Boom claims its planes will be able to fly between London and Miami in less than five hours at a cost that is comparable to today’s business-class tickets.  

Founded in 2014 by Blake Scholl and located in Denver, Colorado, Boom has been developing the Overture for nearly seven years. The company has yet to select an engine maker but is in advanced talks with Rolls-Royce. Even so, more than 130 Overtures have been ordered by American, United, and Japan Airlines.  

British Airways and Air France are the only airlines who have flown commercial supersonic planes, but these flights came to an end after a fatal Concorde crash in 2000. Soon thereafter, safety concerns and the high costs of tickets appeared to doom supersonic flights. Boom says this will all change by 2029, when the first Overture jets are scheduled to carry commercial passengers. 

HWIT: I dig it. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the privilege of taking a supersonic flight, but I would if I could. There have been a lot of technological advancements in materials, manufacturing, and avionics since the construction of the Concorde, so it’s not hard to believe the economics of these planes may finally make sense. While you’re here, here are some cool Concorde facts I found: 

  • Only 20 Concordes were ever built. 

  • The standard fare from London to New York in 2003 was about $6,000. 

  • The Concorde used nearly 7,000 gallons of fuel per hour. 

  • Concorde passengers consumed nearly 1 million bottles of champagne. 

  • The first round-the-world flight by a British Airways Concorde was on November 8, 1986, and took 29 hours and 59 minutes. 

  • Rockstar Rod Stewart once flew his hairstylist to America on Concorde to fix a bad haircut. 

That’s it for this edition of The Current. Be sure to comment on this post and to share this newsletter with your family, friends, and followers. You can also follow me on Twitter (@KlonKitchen). Thanks for taking the time and I’ll see you next week! 

Klon Kitchen is a managing director at Beacon Global Strategies and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.