Start Up No.1278: how the UK government screwed up Covid testing, more Zoom hacks, Dark Sky alternatives, YouTube plans TikTok ‘rival’, and more


He’s going to be missed and mourned. Farewell, and thanks for all the answers, Jack Schofield. CC-licensed photo by Aleks on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Stay well. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘Absolutely wrong’: how UK’s coronavirus test strategy unravelled • The Guardian

Sarah Boseley:

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Ministers have been flailing. What has emerged is a picture of confusion and uncertainty at the top, with ministers making promises they cannot keep and apparently with little comprehension of the global tussle for tests that may make it impossible for the UK to buy its way belatedly out of the problem.

The UK is now competing with every other nation to obtain the kits it needs, particularly the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which tells someone whether they have Covid-19 or not.

The Guardian has been told that presidents and prime ministers are trying to outbid each other to secure these kits and their components, which are in short supply. The US also has woken up to the need to test – and is telling companies that export them that America must come first.

No wonder, perhaps, the UK now finds itself struggling to increase testing to 25,000 a day for hospital patients and health workers, let alone meet its ambition – once stated but now seldom mentioned – to reach 100,000 a day, to include other key workers.

“In all countries we have prime ministers calling the CEOs and diagnostic companies to try to get hold of the stocks. Indonesia and Peru we know have offered to order several million tests and send private planes to pick the tests up. There is more going on behind the scenes to secure supplies,” said Dr Catharina Boehme, chief executive of the non-profit Geneva-based Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, which is a WHO collaborating centre.

The companies are trying to be responsible, she said. “They supply small quantities to each country to give sufficient supplies for a number of days and then ship on a very frequent basis. But there is clearly this move in the US where several companies have openly declared they can’t supply anyone outside the US.”

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Terrific piece; clearly there’s a sort of intergovernmental eBay, where they’re all just upping their bids wildly. The antigen tests being proposed are apparently 90% sensitive to Covid-19 (so a 90% true positive rate? So a false positive rate of 10%?) and 90% specific (which I take to mean if it’s positive, there’s a 90% chance that it’s reacting to SARS-Cov2). Someone better than me at Bayesian maths can figure out the chances you’re antibody-positive to SARS-Cov2 if the test is positive: I think it’s 89%.
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Time to kick the ‘Good Times’ delusion to the curb • FierceWireless

Geoff Blaber of analysts CCS Insight:

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I’ve read reports about how the situation could be a boon for virtual reality over the next few months. I get the theory around escapism, but thinking that folks will splash out on headsets to play Beat Saber when they can’t make the next mortgage payment is devoid of reality.

Not all can remember what happened when the dot com bubble burst or the financial crisis of 2008. Others weren’t old enough to have experienced it. Others are still on the sugar high of the last decade. Even as pensions and investments decline, the “Good Times Delusion” means some are finding it hard to equate these factors with their own business and circumstances. It’s been that long since we’ve seen this kind of financial and economic turmoil that those who aren’t among the first wave to be affected are numb to the potential consequences…

I don’t want to be seen as overly pessimistic. The hope is that this is a short term jolt to the system from which the economy sees a swift V-shaped recovery. This isn’t the structural economic downturn of 2008. But this could also prove to be more of U or even L shaped recovery. I’m not an economist so it’s not for me to determine where we’re heading, but these scenarios have all played a role in our forecast revisions.

Whatever the scenario, it won’t just be the hospitality industry and Uber drivers that are affected. If a start-up such as OneWeb – the SoftBank-backed low earth orbit satellite communications company with over $3bn in funding – is on the rocks, you can bet that many others are going to follow, and spending is going to tighten from top to bottom of the economy.

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As he also says in the piece, assume that everything from here forward will focus on profit before growth.
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Ex-NSA hacker drops new zero-day doom for Zoom • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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Patrick Wardle, a former NSA hacker and now principal security researcher at Jamf, dropped the two previously undisclosed flaws on his blog Wednesday, which he shared with TechCrunch.

The two bugs, Wardle said, can be launched by a local attacker — that’s where someone has physical control of a vulnerable computer. Once exploited, the attacker can gain and maintain persistent access to the innards of a victim’s computer, allowing them to install malware or spyware.

Wardle’s first bug piggybacks off a previous finding. Zoom uses a “shady” technique — one that’s also used by Mac malware — to install the Mac app without user interaction. Wardle found that a local attacker with low-level user privileges can inject the Zoom installer with malicious code to obtain the highest level of user privileges, known as “root.”

Those root-level user privileges mean the attacker can access the underlying macOS operating system, which are typically off-limits to most users, making it easier to run malware or spyware without the user noticing.

The second bug exploits a flaw in how Zoom handles the webcam and microphone on Macs. Zoom, like any app that needs the webcam and microphone, first requires consent from the user. But Wardle said an attacker can inject malicious code into Zoom to trick it into giving the attacker the same access to the webcam and microphone that Zoom already has.

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Attackers can use Zoom to steal users’ Windows credentials with no warning • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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Users of Zoom for Windows beware: the widely used software has a vulnerability that allows attackers to steal your operating system credentials, researchers said.

Discovery of the currently unpatched vulnerability comes as Zoom usage has soared in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. With massive numbers of people working from home, they rely on Zoom to connect with co-workers, customers, and partners. Many of these home users are connecting to sensitive work networks through temporary or improvised means that don’t have the benefit of enterprise-grade firewalls found on-premises.

Attacks work by using the Zoom chat window to send targets a string of text that represents the network location on the Windows device they’re using. The Zoom app for Windows automatically converts these so-called universal naming convention strings—such as //attacker.example.com/C$—into clickable links. In the event that targets click on those links on networks that aren’t fully locked down, Zoom will send the Windows usernames and the corresponding NTLM hashes to the address contained in the link.

Attackers can then use the credentials to access shared network resources, such as Outlook servers and storage devices.

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Well, it’s been 24 hours, after all.
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Democrats say Google’s COVID-19 ad ban is a gift to Trump • Protocol

Emily Birnbaum:

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“I totally understand if they want to ban for-profit entities from talking about coronavirus,” he said. “They’re trying to avoid people price-gouging face masks and selling fake cures, and generally exploiting the crisis for profit. But that’s an entirely separate use-case from nonprofit organizations trying to spread accurate information about the situation and holding elected officials accountable for the life-and-death decisions they are currently making.”

The Trump campaign and Republicans across the country also are not allowed to run advertisements right now. But the democratic strategists argue that the CDC and White House’s messaging, which are permitted by Google, fall under Trump’s purview.

“For Google to basically say that the Trump administration is the only entity that is allowed to talk about the most important issue in politics really puts their thumb on the scale of the incumbent president and against anyone who is really looking to challenge him,” said Eli Kaplan, a founding partner of Rising Tide Interactive, a digital marketing firm for Democratic political organizations and progressive nonprofits.

A Google spokesperson told Protocol that the company proactively instituted the policy at the beginning of February when it noticed a flurry of advertisers throwing their messages onto coronavirus-related terms in order to drive traffic. While Google announced the ban in general terms earlier this month, its effect on political messaging is only now being recognized.

“We are currently blocking ads related to coronavirus under our sensitive events policy, with exception of government PSAs on important health information,” a Google spokesperson told Protocol in a statement. “This policy applies to all advertisers equally, including all political advertisers.”

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Google’s policy says “On Google Ads we are blocking all ads capitalising on the coronavirus”. Be interesting to see how “capitalising” the CDC and WH messaging is judged to be.
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Six Dark Sky alternatives for Android weather watchers • The Verge

Barbara Krasnoff:

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If you’re an Android user with Dark Sky and you’re wondering where to go now for your weather report, there are a few alternatives to choose from. But first, here are a couple of things to consider.

Several Android weather apps have been found to ask for more permissions than they need and to have shared location data with advertisers and other third parties. These privacy issues are detailed in a Vice article by Jason Koebler.

One suggestion is to simply use the weather app that Google supplies with its OS. A way to get that somewhat elusive app to live on your home screen is described on GadgetHacks.com. We tried it, and it works quite nicely.

If the Google app isn’t enough for you, here are six alternatives. All have free versions with ads, and all have paid versions that not only remove the ads but add other features.

Besides the price of each app, I’ve also listed all the various permissions requested as listed on its Google Play entry.

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So it turns out there are lots of alternative weather data sources. The pant-wetting over Apple buying up a single one of them looks more and more hyperbolic – as such things often are.
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COVID19 patients describe a loss of smell and taste • News Medical

Dr Liji Thomas:

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a significant citation comes from South Korea, where testing has been carried out on a mass scale. Here, 30% of 2,000 patients who tested positive first presented with the loss of smell. All of these were mild cases. The statement says, “These patients might be some of the hitherto hidden carriers that have facilitated the rapid spread of COVID-19.”

The British physicians are backed by American ENT specialists. The website of the American Academy of Otolaryngology now carries the information that many stories have come in indicating that anosmia or hyposmia (a reduced sense of smell) and ageusia are significant COVID-19 symptoms, often seen in patients who later turned out to be positive on virus tests, though they had no other symptoms.

The website advises that if the patient’s anosmia or hyposmia cannot be satisfactorily accounted for by allergies or sinusitis, the physician should think immediately of testing for coronavirus. The condition should lead to the recommendation that the patient self-isolate as well.

In Italy’s worse-affected areas too, doctors say they have found that anosmia and ageusia are telltale signs that an apparently healthy person is harboring the virus and is probably spreading it to others. Marco Metra, cardiology chief at Brescia’s main hospital, which has 700 coronavirus patients out of a total of 1,200 patients, says, “Almost everybody who is hospitalized has this same story. The patient says, ‘My wife has just lost her smell and taste, but otherwise she is well.’ So she is likely infected, and she is spreading it.”

German virologist Hendrik Streeck personally interviewed coronavirus patients in Germany’s Heinsberg district, by house to house visiting. He reports an even higher percentage – about 66% – of the over 100 patients he met with mild coronavirus infection had loss of smell and taste lasting for several days.

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A team at Harvard reckons it’s because some cells in the olfactory epithelium (in your nose, helps you smell) have ACE2, the protein that SARS-Cov2 attacks to enter into cells. There seems to be an implication of a link between mildness and anosmia. (Certainly has been for me.)
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AI tool predicts which coronavirus patients get deadly ‘wet lung’ • Yahoo News

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The tool discovered several surprising indicators that were most strongly predictive of who went on to develop so-called acute respiratory disease syndrome (ARDS), a severe complication of the COVID-19 illness that fills the lungs with fluid and kills around 50% of coronavirus patients who get it. 

The team applied a machine learning algorithm to data from 53 coronavirus patients across two hospitals in Wenzhou, China, finding that changes in three features – levels of the liver enzyme alanine aminotransferase (ALT), reported body aches, and haemoglobin levels – were most accurately predictive of subsequent, severe disease.

Using this information along with other factors, the tool was able to predict risk of ARDS with up to 80% accuracy.

By contrast, characteristics that were considered to be hallmarks of COVID-19, like a particular pattern in lung images called “ground glass opacity,” fever, and strong immune responses, were not useful in predicting which of the patients with initially mild symptoms would get ARDS. 

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Age and sex weren’t strong predictors. Really would like to see how well this applies with a much larger dataset.
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Jack Schofield, Guardian’s Ask Jack tech columnist, dies at 72 • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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Jack Schofield, the Guardian’s former computer editor and author of its technology advice column, Ask Jack, for almost 20 years, has died aged 72.

Schofield was taken to hospital following a heart attack on Friday night and died on Tuesday afternoon.

The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, said: “Jack Schofield was one of the first true technology and computing experts in British journalism. In more than 35 years writing for the Guardian, he saw (and foresaw) the rise of personal computers, the advent of the internet, Google, smartphones and much more. His Ask Jack column was an essential and expert guide for generations of Guardian readers. Our thoughts are with Jack’s family and friends at this sad time.”

Schofield had written for the paper since 1983, initially as a columnist for the new computing pages, called Futures Micro Guardian. His first column, on how to buy a home “micro”, walked the reader through the difficult process of picking one of the many microcomputers available in Britain at the time, ultimately recommending the £400 Acorn BBC Model B or, for the budget conscious, the £100 Sinclair Spectrum.

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Jack is fondly remembered by many who grew up reading his work in The Guardian. He wrote briefly for ZDNet after 2010, when he took voluntary redundancy from the paper as it tried to cut costs; but he was back freelancing for The Guardian almost as soon as it could hire him back.

He was an editor’s dream: his output was tireless, precise and incredibly punctual; he wasn’t precious about his copy. The thing that most annoyed him about the newer offices was the ban on smoking, which meant his iconic pipe had to stay unlit, at least when indoors. He had a knack for staying abreast of developments and the mental flexibility not to resist them; he was the first person to mention Google to me – in 1998 or 1999.

The one element of computing technology he couldn’t fathom was Apple’s success. Jack had a utilitarian view of IT, perhaps because he’d seen it from the wires-and-transistors era; he didn’t understand why people would pay extra for something that he didn’t perceive as having value, ie the user experience. As a result, I don’t recall him recommending Apple gear for anything, ever.
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YouTube plans ‘Shorts’ to rival TikTok • The Information

Alex Heath and Jessica Toonkel:

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YouTube is planning to release a rival to TikTok, the hugely popular video-sharing app, by the end of the year, according to two people familiar with the matter.

YouTube is currently planning Shorts, its answer to TikTok, as a feature inside its existing mobile app. Shorts will include a feed of brief videos posted by users inside the Google-owned app and will take advantage of the video service’s catalog of licensed music, songs from which will be available to use as soundtracks for the videos created by users, said the people. The move represents the most serious effort yet by a Silicon Valley tech company to combat the rise of TikTok, a rare example of a Chinese-owned social media app that has become a global hit.

A YouTube spokesperson declined to comment.

TikTok, owned by Beijing-based tech firm ByteDance, has catapulted into pop culture over the past year, attracting celebrities and young people to its service. A big part of the app’s appeal is its editing tools, which let users easily sync music clips to their videos and share them to an endless, algorithmically sorted feed on the app’s main screen.

While ByteDance hasn’t disclosed TikTok’s numbers, the app saw an estimated 842 million first-time installations from the Apple and Google app stores in the 12 months ended March 31, up 15% from the comparable period that ended March 31 of last year, according to SensorTower, a mobile data research firm. By comparison, the number of new installs of more mature apps like Facebook and YouTube was 693 million and 280 million, respectively, for the 12 months ended March 31, down 4% and 2% from the comparable period that ended March 31 of last year, SensorTower estimates.

TikTok may even be getting a bump from the coronavirus pandemic as more people hunker down in their homes and turn to online sources of entertainment. In March, TikTok saw 111 million first-time installs from the mobile app stores, up 11% from February, SensorTower said.

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I’m sure this will successfully rival TikTok in the same way that Google+ successfully rivalled Facebook.
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China concealed coronavirus outbreak extent: US intelligence • Bloomberg

Nick Wadhams and Jennifer Jacobs:

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China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country, under-reporting both total cases and deaths it’s suffered from the disease, the US intelligence community concluded in a classified report to the White House, according to three US officials.

The officials asked not to be identified because the report is secret and declined to detail its contents. But the thrust, they said, is that China’s public reporting on cases and deaths is intentionally incomplete. Two of the officials said the report concludes that China’s numbers are fake.

The report was received by the White House last week, one of the officials said.

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That’s it. That’s all there is to this story – all the rest of it is publicly available stuff. We don’t get by how much China is reckoned to have undercounted the number of cases or deaths, whether it affects any of the calculations, whether it affected the decisions in the past two days (almost certainly not; those rely on the Imperial College modelling).

Bloomberg, let’s not forget, is the news source which was also tipped off by “US intelligence sources” about “tiny chips that China is inserting into servers used by Amazon, Apple and others”. That story (by different writers) has never, ever been confirmed, indirectly or otherwise.

For a news organisation that is so determined to use circumlocutions like “people not authorised to talk about the matter” – hell, just say “anonymous sources” and get it over with – Bloomberg seems very happy to carry water for the US’s propaganda efforts, which is what this amounts to, absent more information about the contents of the study.

And it’s not just the writers. What sort of editor approves a non-story like this? Estimates about underreporting from China have been floating around for months. This isn’t news just because some spook types are trying to produce a diversion.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1277: Zoom get clobbered (but doesn’t care), consumers doubt personal data benefit, Apple buys Dark Sky, Covid-19 forecasts by US state, and more


what sort of SF novel are we really living through? The author of ‘Arrival’ can explain. CC-licensed photo by Patricia Wong on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

Ted Chiang explains the disaster novel we all suddenly live in • Electric Literature

Halimah Marcus interviews science fiction writer Chiang, whose short story became the film Arrival:

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HM: Do you see aspects of science fiction (your own work or others) in the coronavirus pandemic? In how it is being handled, or how it has spread?

TC: While there has been plenty of fiction written about pandemics, I think the biggest difference between those scenarios and our reality is how poorly our government has handled it. If your goal is to dramatize the threat posed by an unknown virus, there’s no advantage in depicting the officials responding as incompetent, because that minimizes the threat; it leads the reader to conclude that the virus wouldn’t be dangerous if competent people were on the job. A pandemic story like that would be similar to what’s known as an “idiot plot,” a plot that would be resolved very quickly if your protagonist weren’t an idiot. What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire.

What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire.

HM: This pandemic isn’t science fiction, but it does feel like a dystopia. How can we understand the coronavirus as a cautionary tale? How can we combat our own personal inclinations toward the good/evil narrative, and the subsequent expectation that everything will return to normal?

TC: We need to be specific about what we mean when we talk about things returning to normal. We all want not to be quarantined, to be able to go to work and socialize and travel. But we don’t want everything to go back to business as usual, because business as usual is what led us to this crisis. COVID-19 has demonstrated how much we need federally mandated paid sick leave and universal health care, so we don’t want to return to a status quo that lacks those things. The current administration’s response ought to serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of electing demagogues instead of real leaders, although there’s no guarantee that voters will heed it. We’re at a point where things could go in some very different ways, depending on what we learn from this experience.

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Zoom meetings aren’t end-to-end encrypted, despite misleading marketing • The Intercept

Micah Lee and Yael Grauer:

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In Zoom’s white paper, there is a list of “pre-meeting security capabilities” that are available to the meeting host that starts with “Enable an end-to-end (E2E) encrypted meeting.” Later in the white paper, it lists “Secure a meeting with E2E encryption” as an “in-meeting security capability” that’s available to meeting hosts. When a host starts a meeting with the “Require Encryption for 3rd Party Endpoints” setting enabled, participants see a green padlock that says, “Zoom is using an end to end encrypted connection” when they mouse over it.

But when reached for comment about whether video meetings are actually end-to-end encrypted, a Zoom spokesperson wrote, “Currently, it is not possible to enable E2E encryption for Zoom video meetings. Zoom video meetings use a combination of TCP and UDP. TCP connections are made using TLS and UDP connections are encrypted with AES using a key negotiated over a TLS connection.”

The encryption that Zoom uses to protect meetings is TLS, the same technology that web servers use to secure HTTPS websites. This means that the connection between the Zoom app running on a user’s computer or phone and Zoom’s server is encrypted in the same way the connection between your web browser and this article (on https://theintercept.com) is encrypted. This is known as transport encryption, which is different from end-to-end encryption because the Zoom service itself can access the unencrypted video and audio content of Zoom meetings. So when you have a Zoom meeting, the video and audio content will stay private from anyone spying on your Wi-Fi, but it won’t stay private from the company.

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Everyone is crawling over Zoom in a way it never would have expected; years of technical debt are being exposed in days.
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Zoom is leaking peoples’ email addresses and photos to strangers • VICE

Joseph Cox:

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The issue lies in Zoom’s “Company Directory” setting, which automatically adds other people to a user’s lists of contacts if they signed up with an email address that shares the same domain. This can make it easier to find a specific colleague to call when the domain belongs to an individual company. But multiple Zoom users say they signed up with personal email addresses, and Zoom pooled them together with thousands of other people as if they all worked for the same company, exposing their personal information to one another.

“I was shocked by this! I subscribed (with an alias, fortunately) and I saw 995 people unknown to me with their names, images and mail addresses.” Barend Gehrels, a Zoom user impacted by the issue and who flagged it to Motherboard, wrote in an email.

Gehrels provided a redacted screenshot of him logged into Zoom with the nearly 1000 different accounts listed in the “Company Directory” section. He said these were “all people I don’t know of course.” He said his partner had the same issue with another email provider, and had over 300 people listed in her own contacts.

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Zoom is basically getting publicly red-teamed (attacked by hackers trying to break into every aspect of it). Mistakes like this though make you wonder how it can have pretended to be an enterprise offering.
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Zoom videoconferencing is very popular. It has bigger plans • Protocol

David Pierce with an oh-my-god-how-timely piece (which must have been researched just before everything got locked down):

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As the company got ready for its IPO roadshow last year, [cofounder Eric] Yuan made a decision: He wasn’t going on the roadshow. (Yuan said this, too, was hairier than it seems in retrospect: “Not only did I scare people, I even scared our board of directors.”) He did most of his investor meetings through Zoom, bringing in other employees to do virtual demos and betting the product would work well enough to convince the bankers. It did. Though it probably also helped Zoom’s case that it was the rare tech company that was both growing fast and already profitable.

Fast-forward a few months — more growth, rising stock — and here we are. There have been a few blips along the way, like last spring, when a security researcher found an issue in Zoom’s Mac app that would let any website add a user to a Zoom call and activate their camera without permission. The problem even affected users who had uninstalled Zoom from their computer, forcing Apple to release a patch to fix it. It was a core test of Zoom’s relentless focus on simplicity — the same feature that made it possible to click a link and suddenly be in a conference also made the system penetrable. Ultimately, Zoom tweaked the way it handled permissions and uninstalls going forward. And then kept growing.

Right now, Zoom is big, it’s profitable, and it’s growing like crazy. It cracked Okta’s list of the 15 most-used business tools in 2019, while also being one of the fastest-growing. According to one estimate, the company added more users in the first two months of 2020 than in all of 2019. In early March, it reported 61% more business customers than the year prior, with revenue up 88% year-over-year. More than 10 million people join a Zoom meeting every day. And, of course, the coronavirus bump has been significant: CFO Kelly Steckelberg recently told Yahoo Finance that at the end of January, Zoom was headed for 100 billion annual meeting minutes, “and that’s up pretty significantly since then.” For the last several days, it’s supplanted TikTok as the #1 free app in the iOS App Store.

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The challenge will be whether it wants to be business-facing or consumer-facing. They bring different demands: businesses want true security. Consumers aren’t that bothered; they like ease of use.
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Consumers don’t believe use of personal data leads to more relevant ads, report finds • Campaign US

Michael Heusner:

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While the use of consumer data is a widespread advertising and marketing tactic, the majority of people are still not okay with it and don’t believe it benefits them, according to a new GroupM report. 

The survey of nearly 14,000 middle income consumers in 23 countries found 61% of consumers are less inclined to use a product if their personal data is used for any purpose, while 56% of consumers want more control over their data.

“It is a staple of the advertising industry to claim that data collection benefits consumers because they are shown ads of greater relevance to them. In our study, only 18% of consumers believe that,” said Chris Myers, regional director, GroupM APAC.

But consumers are not powerless in this scenario. Many consumers are actively changing what they don’t like by adjusting privacy settings, deleting cookies and browser histories, and using extensions to mask their data.

Interestingly, the percentage of those who were okay with their data being used varied from as low as 38% in Indonesia to 75% in New Zealand, indicating a lack of uniformity on the issue across the world.

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I’m sure all the adtech companies will listen to this finding very, very carefully.
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What’s the smallest country that can fit everyone standing six feet apart? • Shrey Banga’s Blog

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Today’s xkcd got me wondering how much land would we need if everyone stood six feet apart.

Methodology: We are all but spherical cows

If we want everyone to keep a minimum distance of r from each other, the problem boils down to efficiently packing n circles of radius r in the smallest area possible.

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Have a guess. We’re talking about 7.77 billion people. (Clue: the most suitable two countries are both in Europe.) This is of course an update of British SF writer John Brunner’s postulation in 1968 that by 2010 the world population, then 3.5bn, would have grown to 7bn – he was correct, of course – and that you could fit them in standing-room-only fashion on Zanzibar.
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Kenyans spending most of their money on airtime • Kenya News Broadcast Service

Dominic Omondi:

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Airtime is now the single item that takes up the most income for Kenyans.

This is after the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) reviewed its Consumer Price Index (CPI).

After the review of the basket of goods and services used to compile CPI, KNBS gave airtime a weight of 5.496, the largest of any single consumer product.

Kenyans are putting more of their money in airtime than even rent, which had the heaviest weight three years ago from 2019. Kenyans, according to the review, are also spending more on airtime than on health or education.

Matatu fares and rent for a single room are the second and third consumer items respectively. Other expensive items that take a lot of money include white bread, milk, and beef with bones…

…Today, airtime is a need that most Kenyans can’t do without. Bitange Ndemo, a former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of ICT and currently a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, in an earlier interview, said airtime was no longer a luxury.

If anything, he observed, it was a matter of “life and death” for some individuals. “Airtime is so critical,” says Prof Ndemo. “Some people are using the airtime to call so they can find a kibarua (menial work).”

Between July 2016 and June last year, Kenyans spent a total of 75 billion minutes talking on their mobile phones, or 143,086 years. They sent a total of 55.2 billion SMSs during this period, according to the Communications Authority of Kenya.

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Dark Sky has a new home • Dark Sky

Adam Grossman:

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What happens to our existing products?

iOS App: There will be no changes to Dark Sky for iOS at this time. It will continue to be available for purchase in the App Store.

Android and Wear OS App: The app will no longer be available for download. Service to existing users and subscribers will continue until July 1, 2020, at which point the app will be shut down. Subscribers who are still active at that time will receive a refund.

Website: Weather forecasts, maps, and embeds will continue until July 1, 2020. The website will remain active beyond that time in support of API and iOS App customers.

API: Our API service for existing customers is not changing today, but we will no longer accept new signups. The API will continue to function through the end of 2021.

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Started, I believe, as a two-person $35,000 Kickstarter in October 2011. Always been terrific. There’s lots of chest-beating (especially among Android users) because lots of apps, on iOS and Android, use the API. They’ve got another 18 months, though, and there are other sources of weather data. It’s not clear whether Apple will make the data available after 2021; I’d guess not. Best guess, it gets rolled into iOS and Siri.

This does look like a late-stage consolidation: Apple and Google and smartphone OEMs (to a lesser extent) will try to buy up firms that make their platforms or products stand out.
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The long-term impacts of the pandemic on consumer purchasing preferences • Strategy Analytics

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The pandemic will have long-term impacts on what consumers want to purchase as well as how they purchase them. In addition to the inevitable increased use of delivery services for grocery and food, alternative shopping experiences such as Amazon Go’s contactless shopping experience – where consumers do not have to proceed through a checkout experience – will also see a boost in popularity.

For consumer electronics, where some devices such as smartphones are typically sold more on ‘in-hand’ experience, this pandemic presents a more challenging situation as consumers’ are less inclined to handle in-store displays.

Focus needs to shift to alternative ways of showcasing products. Previous Strategy Analytics research has shown that try-before-you-buy is a key use case for foldable phones and augmented reality. Consumers will need to be able to experience products and services outside the store as much as possible.

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Notable how Apple now lets you view its new products using augmented reality: could be an accidental must-have in the coming years.
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COVID-19: forecasts for the US and state-by-state • Healthdata.org

»

The charts below show projected hospital resource use based on COVID-19 deaths.

The projections assume the continuation of strong social distancing measures and other protective measures.

To view the methods used to produce the projections click here.

«

Visualisation and data collection by the University of Washington: currently forecasts a midrange of 84,000 deaths, with a range from 32,000 to 150,000.

A graphic showing how the 50 states’ trajectories will go would be good to see, but hard to produce, I guess.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1276: Twitter deletes Bolsonaro falsehoods, how the virus got here (and what we should do next), the coming car loan collapse, and more


We have not one but two stories about magnets – from poles apart. CC-licensed photo by John Keogh on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Before you recuperate, do you cuperate? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Twitter deleted two tweets from Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro for spreading coronavirus misinformation • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Broderick:

»

On Sunday, Twitter deleted two tweets by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro because they contained false or misleading information about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Twitter recently announced the expansion of its rules to cover content that could be against public health information provided by official sources and could put people at greater risk of transmitting COVID-19,” a spokesperson for the platform told BuzzFeed News.

The deleted tweets now redirect to Twitter’s rules and policies page.

According to Brazilian newspaper Folha, the deletions were the first time the site has taken action against content posted by Bolsonaro, first elected in October 2018.

It’s not the first time that the site has used its coronavirus policy to delete a post by a sitting head of state, which Twitter provides a wider latitude than for most users. Last week, the site deleted a post by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for promoting a “natural brew” to cure COVID-19.

In the tweets, Bosolonaro posted videos of himself taken during a walking tour in Brasília on Sunday, in which the president praised the use of anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine for treating the virus and encouraged an end to social distancing and isolation measures in the country.

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Twitter has essentially repurposed its rule against self-harm (ie teenage girls being encouraged to cut themselves) to encompass Covid-19, because it can kill you – its confirmed lethality age range now goes from infant to centenarian. Encouraging “coronavirus parties”, suggesting “cures” – all get deleted when found.

Trump’s social media team is probably too smart to fall foul of this, but it could be quite the impasse if they trip up.
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This fingerprint-verified smart lock can be foiled by a magnet • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

»

Tapplock, a company that makes fingerprint-verified locks, has had a rough time with its locks’ security. The company’s flagship lock, which has been available since 2019, is apparently easy to pop open with a magnet. YouTuber LockPickingLawyer published a video last week showing how he could use a powerful magnet to turn the motor inside the Tapplock One Plus, causing it to open. The entire process takes less than 30 seconds.

The Tapplock One Plus costs $99 and features a fingerprint sensor. It also has built-in Bluetooth, so people can unlock it using an app. In response to the video, Tapplock commented: “Wow! Shout out to LPL for finding this exploit. Working on a fix with magnetic shielding, will be back.”

This is a commendable reply, although it doesn’t do much for people who already bought the lock. Most companies ignore bug reports or fail to fix the flaw. It at least seems like Tapplock wants to figure out how to prevent this kind of attack.

«

It’s a version of the “Security” XKCD, really. Hang on to the magnet – we’ll have a use for it further down the page.
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Covid-19 is nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilisation • The Guardian

George Monbiot:

»

Even today, when the world has a total food surplus, hundreds of millions are malnourished as a result of the unequal distribution of wealth and power. A food deficit could result in billions starving. Hoarding will happen, as it always has, at the global level, as powerful people snatch food from the mouths of the poor. Yet, even if every nation keeps its promises under the Paris agreement, which currently seems unlikely, global heating will amount to between 3C and 4C.

Thanks to our illusion of security, we are doing almost nothing to anticipate this catastrophe, let alone prevent it. This existential issue scarcely seems to impinge on our consciousness. Every food-producing sector claims that its own current practices are sustainable and don’t need to change. When I challenge them, I’m met with a barrage of anger and abuse, and threats of the kind I haven’t experienced since I opposed the Iraq war…

…In the US, where 27 million people have no medical cover, some people are now treating themselves with veterinary antibiotics, including those sold, without prescription, to medicate pet fish. Pharmaceutical companies are failing to invest sufficiently in the search for new drugs. If antibiotics cease to be effective, surgery becomes almost impossible. Childbirth becomes a mortal hazard once more. Chemotherapy can no longer be safely practised. Infectious diseases we have comfortably forgotten become deadly threats. We should discuss this issue as often as we talk about football. But again, it scarcely registers.

Our multiple crises, of which these are just two, have a common root. The problem is exemplified by the response of the organisers of the Bath Half Marathon, a massive event that took place on 15 March, to the many people begging them to cancel. “It is now too late for us to cancel or postpone the event. The venue is built, the infrastructure is in place, the site and our contractors are ready.” In other words, the sunk costs of the event were judged to outweigh any future impacts – the potential transmission of disease, and possible deaths – it might cause.

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It takes a whole world to create a new virus, not just China • The Guardian

Laura Spinney:

»

you have to understand the forces putting those viruses in our path. They are political and economic. They have to do with the rise of industrial-scale farming concerns in China and the resulting marginalisation of millions of smallholder farmers. In order to survive, those farmers have moved into the production of more exotic species – animals that were once eaten only for subsistence. But the bigger operations have pushed the farmers out geographically too, as they have taken up more prime farming land. The smallholders have been forced closer to uncultivable zones such as forests, where bats – reservoirs for coronaviruses – lurk. The stars have aligned, and not in a good way, to channel bat viruses through intermediate mammalian hosts such as pangolins, and into humans.

Even so, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, the problem could still be regarded as uniquely Chinese. But there are two reasons why that’s not true. First, with the opening up of China, its agribusiness has ceased to be wholly Chinese-owned. It is a big recipient of foreign direct investment. Second, as the American pandemic expert, David Morens, and his colleagues pointed out last month in the New England Journal of Medicine, we’ve been watching a similar drama unfold over a much longer timescale with influenza – the disease that has caused more pandemics in the history of humanity than any other.

Flu viruses that infect animals, including poultry and pigs, have periodically spilled over into humans ever since we domesticated those animals millennia ago. But the factory farms that produce our food today ratchet up the virulence of those flu viruses just before they spill over. This ratcheting up has been documented in Europe, Australia and the US more than it has in poor or emerging economies, and it’s what gave rise to the last flu pandemic in 2009.

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Spinney wrote a book about the 1918 Flu Pandemic, which came out last year; she spent a lot of time promoting it, pointing out the risks we were still running to radio and TV hosts who were frequently just that bit too disbelieving that anything like that could happen again. After all, look how much better our medicine is now! Look at how modern our equipment is! The ancient Greeks called it hubris.
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Facebook’s fact checkers fight surge in fake coronavirus claims • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:

»

There is no coronavirus vaccine available for dogs being withheld from humans.

It isn’t necessary to close your windows because military helicopters will start spraying disinfectant.

And baby-formula manufacturers aren’t sending freebies to people who call their customer hotlines.

These are among the viral social-media memes debunked by Lead Stories, a fact-checking site co-founded by Los Angeles entrepreneur Alan Duke…

The former CNN producer’s company, Lead Stories, helps Facebook and other social-media platforms limit the spread of virus-related misinformation by flagging it as false. Business is booming, thanks to a surge of posts that are both dangerous and harder to track than many other forms of what is known as fake news.

The claims that Lead Stories debunks are then labeled as false on Facebook, which limits their spread and links to Lead Stories’ reviews. A staffer combs the platform looking to identify and label duplicates that spring up.

Already ramping up with funding from Facebook to combat misinformation in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Mr. Duke and others in the industry have pivoted to coronavirus almost full-time.

“We’ve maxxed out all our goals for the month,” he said halfway through March, referring to the company’s contractual targets for Facebook fact-check volumes. Lead Stories continues to review Facebook and Instagram content, and review material from Twitter, YouTube and other platforms that don’t pay it, posting fact checks to its own site. Since its first coronavirus fact check in mid-January, Lead Stories has fact checked more than 200 viral coronavirus claims.

«

But – let’s be clear – not removed it. Claims like that can be utterly untrue, but Facebook won’t remove them.
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Australian astrophysicist gets magnets stuck up nose while inventing coronavirus device • The Guardian

Naaman Zhou:

»

The 27 year-old astrophysicist, who studies pulsars and gravitational waves, said he was trying to liven up the boredom of self-isolation with the four powerful neodymium magnets.

“I have some electronic equipment but really no experience or expertise in building circuits or things,” he told Guardian Australia.

“I had a part that detects magnetic fields. I thought that if I built a circuit that could detect the magnetic field, and we wore magnets on our wrists, then it could set off an alarm if you brought it too close to your face. A bit of boredom in isolation made me think of that.”

However, the academic realised the electronic part he had did the opposite – and would only complete a circuit when there was no magnetic field present.

“I accidentally invented a necklace that buzzes continuously unless you move your hand close to your face,” he said.

“After scrapping that idea, I was still a bit bored, playing with the magnets. It’s the same logic as clipping pegs to your ears – I clipped them to my earlobes and then clipped them to my nostril and things went downhill pretty quickly when I clipped the magnets to my other nostril.”

Reardon said he placed two magnets inside his nostrils, and two on the outside. When he removed the magnets from the outside of his nose, the two inside stuck together. Unfortunately, the researcher then attempted to use his remaining magnets to remove them.

«

Can’t put it any better than this tweet from Nik Knight: “Turns out the Venn diagram of things 5 year-olds do when they are bored and things astrophysicists do when they are bored is a circle.”
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Trump won the internet. Democrats are scrambling to take it back • The New York Times

Jim Rutenberg and Matthew Rosenberg:

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In the three years since Hillary Clinton’s humiliating 2016 defeat, the Democrats have been urgently scrambling to reorder the digital equation, an all-hands-on-deck effort that has drawn a range of new donors, progressive activists and operatives together with veterans of the tech-forward Obama campaigns and the old-line contributors and party regulars of the Bill Clinton era.

So far, the Democrats and their allies have produced new apps to organize volunteers and register voters, new media outlets to pump out anti-Trump content and a major new data initiative to drive what the party hopes will be the biggest voter-mobilization effort in its history.

But while Mr. Trump and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, have brought conservatives together to build a technological juggernaut for 2020, the Democratic effort has been slowed by the party’s deep-rooted rivalries and divisions.

It has been marked by tension between longtime strategists and party officials, who believe the party need not reinvent the wheel, and moneyed Silicon Valley newcomers who speak of “innovation cycles,” “risk capital” and “disruption” and view the old guard as financially invested in a losing model.

There is lingering resentment over who is at fault for the party’s sorry digital state — whether former President Barack Obama left behind an aging and insufficient party infrastructure as his priorities shifted to his own legacy, or Mrs. Clinton failed to continue the party’s trend of innovation. For their part, many of Senator Bernie Sanders’s adherents are loath to play with what they deride as “the establishment.”

«

The Democrats have three problems: Biden is from the stone age, Sanders’s supporters are irrationally willing to run a scorched-earth campaign, and they have no message besides not being Trump (though that’s a pretty big message for some people). Their advantages: Trump is killing his own voters in Michigan and Florida. Let’s see how that plays out.
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February 2020: global smartphone sales show resilience with a 14% decline • Counterpoint Research

»

As COVID-19, unfortunately, spreads like wildfire around the globe, its impact on the technology industry is unprecedented. The global February smartphone sales, as a result, showed weakness, but the decline was no more than 14% lower than February 2019; not as bad as the industry had feared.

However China, the initial epicenter of the epidemic, did show a huge 38% decline, but is showing signs of a rebound already. Overall, global smartphone sales in February showed weakness in many markets as consumers became cautious. But with the growth of online channels, we saw sales shifting from offline to online. Offline sales in China fell more than 50% during February. But this fall was partially offset with stronger online sales, so the overall drop at 38%, was not so severe.

«

This is a counterpoint (ahem) to the Strategy Analytics announcement a week ago that global shipments had fallen by 38%; Counterpoint thinks it’s not so bad. March however will surely plumb a new low for smartphones, even though laptops and tablets may well have rocketed – those home offices and schools don’t equip themselves.
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Loan defaults on car PCPs threaten £110bn finance sector • The Times

Robert Lea:

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The extent of buying on the never-never through financial products such as personal contract purchase plans (PCPs) has been described as a ticking time bomb and has already come under scrutiny by the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority.

With vast numbers being laid off or furloughed on lower pay, motor finance lenders are scrabbling to offer payment holidays or contract extensions. The motor trade fears that among the seven million who have borrowed to acquire a car in the past three years, many will have to return the keys. That in turn could decrease the residual value of vehicles and leave motorists and finance companies out of pocket.

Car finance is the second largest lending market after mortgage borrowing with vehicles typically the next biggest monthly outgoing for households after accommodation costs. More than nine in ten of all new cars sold in Britain are on some form of financing with the dominant model being PCPs.

In a PCP the motorist pays an upfront amount (usually 10% of the value of the car) and then makes payments typically over three years. At the end of the period, the driver either hands back the keys, makes a “balloon payment” to take ownership or, as the car dealers prefer, trades in to a new model and restarts on another three-year process.

In the past three years, motorists took out nearly £58bn of finance to buy cars, 80% of it through PCPs. According to the Finance and Leasing Association, a further £51.5bn was made available for purchases.

«

As the Sage of Omaha said, it’s only when the tide goes out that you know who’s been swimming naked.
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The coronavirus crisis and the Trump o’clock follies • The New Yorker

Susan B. Glasser:

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Even more striking were the results of a CBS/YouGov poll, released this week, in which respondents were asked what sources of information about the coronavirus they found most credible. Democrats rated medical professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention most highly. Trump came in last among this group, at fourteen%. But, for Republicans, Trump came in at the top, with ninety% saying that they trusted the President’s information about the coronavirus, making him tied for first place with medical professionals. The poll shows that, even when their own lives are literally at stake, a significant subset of the American population no longer believes in almost anything other than the President.

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And those lives are being lost and endangered: in Florida, at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, by people who think it’s a media hoax.

It’s a brutal sorting by reality of people who refuse to engage with it.
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Total cost of her COVID-19 treatment: $34,927.43 • Time

Abigail Abrams:

»

hen Danni Askini started feeling chest pain, shortness of breath and a migraine all at once on a Saturday in late February, she called the oncologist who had been treating her lymphoma. Her doctor thought she might be reacting poorly to a new medication, so she sent Askini to a Boston-area emergency room. There, doctors told her it was likely pneumonia and sent her home.

Over the next several days, Askini saw her temperature spike and drop dangerously, and she developed a cough that gurgled because of all the liquid in her lungs. After two more trips to the ER that week, Askini was given a final test on the seventh day of her illness, and once doctors helped manage her flu and pneumonia symptoms, they again sent her home to recover. She waited another three days for a lab to process her test, and at last she had a diagnosis: COVID-19.

A few days later, Askini got the bills for her testing and treatment: $34,927.43. “I was pretty sticker-shocked,” she says. “I personally don’t know anybody who has that kind of money.”

Like 27 million other Americans, Askini was uninsured when she first entered the hospital. She and her husband had been planning to move to Washington, D.C. this month so she could take a new job, but she hadn’t started yet. Now that those plans are on hold, Askini applied for Medicaid and is hoping the program will retroactively cover her bills. If not, she’ll be on the hook.

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I think this could be one of those “you owe the bank a million pounds, you have a problem; you owe the bank a billion dollars, the bank has a problem” things. If enough people get these bills and can’t pay them, there will be a reckoning: I expect people will band together and challenge these bills.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1275: what the Imperial studies really say, how to survive the next year, RIP Playboy, Zoom stops sneaking to Facebook, and more


Want to know how he felt? Plenty of webcams can do that for you now. CC-licensed (but maybe copyrighted) photo by James Vaughan on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. From the discomfort of my bed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The social media archetypes we’ve become during Covid-19 quarantine • Forge

Kelli María Korducki:

»

t’s rare that we all find ourselves going through the same crisis. Of course, the way the coronavirus pandemic is affecting us varies depending on our circumstances — things like employment, health, housing, and access to material resources. But we are pretty much all stuck inside, scared, bored, overwhelmed, and following the evolving story of a global pandemic and the economic havoc it’s wreaking. We are all extremely online right now, and you have probably noticed that some online pandemic archetypes have emerged.

They’re not just the characters we see on Twitter, Facebook, and in Zoom hangouts. If we’re being truthful, we see a lot of them within ourselves — sometimes all in the span of a single week, or day.

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Tag yourself. I think I’m The Optimist. Special mention though to the inclusion of this one:

»

Loaf Lady: She only started baking two weeks ago but the burnished crust on her no-knead bread is unrivaled. She’s not bragging of course, but here: look at the open crumb on this slice.

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Let’s flatten the coronavirus confusion curve • FT Alphaville

Jemima Kelly:

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A wave of confusion and misinformation spread rapidly across the internet on Thursday, like . . . a virus.

But you can always count on Alphaville to flatten the confusion curve; to squash the stupefaction sombrero, if you will. So here we are. 

There are currently a few strands of befuddlement, all of which we will attempt to address here. Loosely they are as follows:

• That the lead author of the influential Imperial College report on strategies to slow the spread of coronavirus, Neil Ferguson, had drastically revised his models, and had even “admitted he was wrong”.

• That the reason for this revision was that he had now realised that the number of people infected was actually far higher than he had initially thought. (The reason this link was made by some people was because of another study, by Oxford university, that suggested up to 68% of the UK’s population might already be infected; we will also briefly address those findings.) 

• That the idea that 2/3 of the people who might die from Covid-19 are people who “would die anyway” was a new idea and another reason to think that models were being revised and that maybe we have all overreacted to this. 

• That this is all going to be over by Easter.

So, we’ll take them one by one. Here goes . . . 

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This is necessary reading: it sets out what has and hasn’t changed. It’s excellent journalism because it marshals the facts, while also being entertaining. Part of the FT’s “Someone Is Wrong On The Internet” series, which isn’t short on raw material, especially now.
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How not to lose your mind in the Covid-19 age • Tim Harford

Harford has a practical approach:

»

Get a piece of paper. Make a list of all the projects that are on your mind. David Allen, author of the cult productivity manual Getting Things Done, defines a project as “any multistep outcome that can be completed within a year”. So, yes: anything from trying to source your weekly groceries to publishing a book.

That list should have three kinds of projects on it.

First, there are the old projects that make no sense in the new world. For those that can be mothballed until next year, write them down and file them away. Others will disappear forever. Say your goodbyes. Some part of your subconscious may have been clinging on, and I’m going to guess that ten seconds of acknowledging that the project has been obliterated will save on a vague sense of unease in the long run.

Second, there are the existing projects, some of which have become more complicated in the mid-pandemic world. Things that you might previously have done on automatic may now require a little thought. Again, a few moments with a pen and paper will often tell you all you need to know: what’s changed? What do I now need to do? What, specifically, is my next action? Write it down.

Third, there are brand new projects. For me, for example, I need to rewrite the introduction to my forthcoming book (‘How To Make The World Add Up’, since you were wondering). It’s going to seem mighty strange without coronavirus references in it. Many of us need to devote more than a little attention to the sudden appearance of our children at home. Some of us need to hunt for new work; others, for a better home-office set-up. Many of us are now volunteering to look after vulnerable neighbours.  In each case, the drill is the same: sketch out the project, ask yourself what the very next step is, and write it down.

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RIP Playboy, unlikely midwestern symbol of sexual revolution • Chicago magazine

Edward McLelland:

»

Playboy magazine died last week, at age 66, of complications related to the novel coronavirus. The magazine, which last year became an ad-free quarterly costing $25, was losing $5 million a year. A relic of an era when pornography could only be found on paper, Playboy kept publishing only due to the sentimentality of its founder, Hugh Hefner, who died in 2017 at age 91. Its Spring 2020 issue will be the last before it goes online-only…

…While Hefner’s detractors would later observe that he applied a grim Protestant work ethic to amassing women, money, and art — Time magazine called him a “dour sybarite” — his middle class, Midwestern background was the source of Playboy’s mass appeal. At its peak, in the early 1970s, Playboy sold seven million copies a month.

Playboy was always middlebrow: a square’s idea of sophistication. Even when it tried to be highbrow, it was middlebrow. The magazine was notorious for publishing “second-tier fiction by first-rate writers.” If John Updike couldn’t sell a short story to The New Yorker, he could always peddle it to Playboy.

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I think this wins the prize for the best opening sentence (“intro” in the UK, “lede” in the US) this month. Hefner originally wanted to call it “Stag Party”, but that was taken. I suppose it would have sold just as well.
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Network of fake QR code generators will steal your bitcoin • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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A network of Bitcoin-to-QR-code generators has stolen more than $45,000 from users in the past four weeks, ZDNet has learned.

The nine websites provided users with the ability to enter their Bitcoin address, a long string of text where Bitcoin funds are stored, and convert it into a QR code image they could save on their PC or smartphone.

Today, it’s a common practice to share a Bitcoin address as a QR code and request a payment from another person. The receiver scans the QR code with a Bitcoin wallet app and sends the requested payment without having to type a lengthy Bitcoin addresses by hand. By using QR codes, users eliminate the possibility of a mistype that might send funds to the wrong wallet.

Last week, Harry Denley, Director of Security at the MyCrypto platform, ran across a suspicious site that converted Bitcoin addresses into QR codes.

While many services like this exist, Denley realized that the website was malicious in nature. Instead of converting an inputted Bitcoin (BTC) address into its QR code equivalent, the website always generated the same QR code — for a scammer’s wallet.

This meant that if a user shared the QR code with someone else, or placed it on a website to request donations, all money would be sent to the scammer’s Bitcoin address.

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Somehow it’s reassuring to know that people are continuing to climb the greasy pole of bitcoin scams in the face of everything else that’s going on.
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This is not cozy: AI attempts the Great British Bake Off • AI Weirdness

Janelle Shane:

»

’m a big fan of comforting TV, and one of my go-tos is the Great British Bake Off. It’s the cheerful clarinet-filled soundtrack, the low-stakes baking-centric tension, and the general good-natured kindness of the bakers to one another.

What better way to spread cheer and baked deliciousness than to train an algorithm to generate more images in the style of a beloved baking show?

I trained a neural net on 55,000 GBBO screenshots and the results, it turns out, were less than comforting.

What went terribly, terribly wrong?

This project was doomed from the beginning, despite using a state-of-the-art image-generating neural net called StyleGAN2. NVIDIA researchers trained StyleGAN2 on 70,000 images of human faces, and StyleGAN2 is very good at human faces – but only when that’s ALL it has to do. As we will see, when it had to do faces AND bodies AND tents AND cakes AND hands AND random squirrels, it struggled, um, noticeably.

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Some of the images further on in the post really are very weird, but it’s the explanation of why it all went wrong that tells us how much further generative networks have to go yet.
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Update #2 on Microsoft cloud services continuity • Microsoft Azure

»

In response to health authorities emphasizing the importance of social distancing, we’ve seen usage increases in services that support these scenarios—including Microsoft Teams, Windows Virtual Desktop, and Power BI.

• We have seen a 775% increase of our cloud services in regions that have enforced social distancing or shelter in place orders.

• We have seen a very significant spike in Teams usage, and now have more than 44 million daily users. Those users generated over 900 million meeting and calling minutes on Teams daily in a single week.

• Windows Virtual Desktop usage has grown more than 3x.

• Government use of public Power BI to share COVID-19 dashboards with citizens has surged by 42% in a week.

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I wish they’d put that 775% figure into actual numbers – as in, nearly sevenfold? Or is it nearly eightfold? Whichever, it’s very substantial, but also shows that the systems are up to the task.

In the meantime, how much busier do you think Zoom’s servers are? (And a little note: Zoom is now worth more on the stock market than all US airlines combined. Won’t last, but it’s quite the moment.)
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Public webcams show just how empty coronavirus has made our world • Android Police

Rita El Khoury:

»

The feeds that hit me the hardest were the ones from Italy (Venice and Assisi were really empty) and those from New York. I had to triple check the local time at one point, because I only saw 3 or 4 people walking around a normally busy street in New York… turns out it was half past noon. At the same time, I checked out a beachfront in Florida, which was thankfully empty. I’m hoping that’s a sign that silly Spring Breakers have stopped filling the beaches there.

As I delved deeper and deeper in the vacant streets of our world, I started wondering what those places looked like a week earlier, two, three,… When did the quarantine go into effect in each area? Were people social distancing and staying home even before the announcement was made official in their countries? So I went looking for apps that’d allow me to view a CCTV cam’s older history. I found Worldscope, which seemed awesome, until I discovered that it got all its snaps from Windy.com, and that lead me to Windy’s own app.

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We’re all Will Smith in I Am Legend now. Or maybe Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, if you prefer originals: in the original book (called, confusingly enough, I Am Legend) humanity is struck down by a pandemic originating in bats which affects adults but to which children are immune.

There’s also a bunch of livestreams, including museum virtual tours, over at BGR.
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Zoom removes code that sends data to Facebook • VICE

Joseph Cox:

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On Friday video-conferencing software Zoom issued an update to its iOS app which stops it sending certain pieces of data to Facebook. The move comes after a found it sent information such as when a user opened the app, their timezone, city, and device details to the social network giant.

When Motherboard analyzed the app, Zoom’s privacy policy did not make the data transfer to Facebook clear.

“Zoom takes its users’ privacy extremely seriously. We originally implemented the ‘Login with Facebook’ feature using the Facebook SDK in order to provide our users with another convenient way to access our platform. However, we were recently made aware that the Facebook SDK was collecting unnecessary device data,” Zoom told Motherboard in a statement on Friday.

An SDK, or software development kit, is a bundle of code that developers often use to help implement certain features into their own app. The use of an SDK can also have the effect of sending certain data off to third-parties, however.

“The data collected by the Facebook SDK did not include any personal user information, but rather included data about users’ devices such as the mobile OS type and version, the device time zone, device OS, device model and carrier, screen size, processor cores, and disk space,” Zoom’s statement added.

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I think that with that dataset you could probably narrow things down pretty well. It’s not the user’s name, but near enough.

And notice that they could remove it without affecting the app functionality. In which case, why was it there to begin with?
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It doesn’t matter if anyone exists or not • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:

»

People do so much online, from work to shopping to socializing, that virtual life has colonized and become “real” life.

Yet the internet is a place where people go, and it has never ceased to be useful to think of it as one. As a place, it feels a lot like a crowded, modernist city. As it happens, that’s how some films, such as The Emoji Movie and Ralph Breaks the Internet choose to depict it: big, dense, urban expanses, which subdivide into towers and hovels representing apps, websites, and services. The global village has become a global metropolis.

There, in its crowded streets, the modernist experience recorded by Baudelaire, Gornick, and so many others breaks down. Web browsing once felt like “surfing,” to invoke another outmoded metaphor, along with the “cyberflâneur,” a very 1990s online reimagining of the 19th-century dandy. For a time, gliding across the internet in those costumes felt pleasurable. But no longer. The grimy streets of Facebook, the angry mobs of Twitter, the irritable swarm of neighbors on Nextdoor—the experience of the online crowd has long ceased to imbue energy. Mostly, it just drains it.

There are reasons for this. The delight of online life gave way to its moil, and the pleasure of online services has been eroded by their many downsides, from compulsion to autocracy. But the trouble is also partly quantitative. Even in a big, dense city like Paris or New York, there are only so many people one can encounter in Bryant Park or when alighting from the Châtelet metro stop. The physical constraints of an actual city, along with the apparatus of its built environment, put a lid on the totality of human bodies, faces, and spirits from which one might face estrangement or draw electrified energy.

«

Fascinating essay by Bogost (who is always worth reading), from the pre-lapsarian days when “crowds” were a thing.
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Kuo: Apple to launch several Macs with Arm-based processors in 2021, USB4 support coming to Macs in 2022 • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

»

Apple plans to launch several Mac notebooks and desktop computers with its own custom designed Arm-based processors in 2021, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said today in a research note obtained by MacRumors.

Kuo believes that Arm-based processors will significantly enhance the competitive advantage of the Mac lineup, allow Apple to refresh its Mac models without relying on Intel’s processor roadmap, reduce processor costs by 40% to 60%, and provide Macs with more hardware differentiation from Windows PCs.

Earlier this month, Kuo said Apple’s first Mac notebooks with Arm-based processors will launch in the fourth quarter of 2020 or the first quarter of 2021.

Kuo expects ASMedia Technology to become the exclusive supplier of USB controllers for Arm-based Macs, adding that the Taiwanese integrated circuit designer will benefit from Macs gaining support for USB4 in 2022.

USB4 converges the Thunderbolt and USB protocols as part of Intel’s goal to make Thunderbolt available on a royalty-free basis, which should result in wider and cheaper availability of Thunderbolt accessories like docks and eGPUs.

«

Wouldn’t have expected them to come later this year, given everything that’s (not) going on. Next year seems reasonable, and maybe by then we’ll have clearer ideas on how it’s going to bridge the software gap.

The fun question is: will there be RAM and processor options within each model, or do you just get what you’re given, as with iPhones and iPads? Presently, trying to pick between processors can be a huge, money-sucking pain: does it really make a difference? Will you notice the difference in five years?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1274: Facebook gets back to news, how the CDC screwed up, layoff by Zoom, drug dealing in the age of coronavirus, and more


An Intu-owned mall in the UK: unlikely to survive Covid-19. CC-licensed photo by JCDecaux Creative Solutions on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. I’m socially distant, you’re distant. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The coronavirus revives Facebook as a news powerhouse • The New York Times

Kevin Roose and Gabriel Dance:

»

As of Thursday, more than half the articles being consumed on Facebook in the United States were related to the coronavirus, according to an internal report obtained by The New York Times. Overall U.S. traffic from Facebook to other websites also increased by more than 50% last week from the week before, “almost entirely” owing to intense interest in the virus, the report said.

The report, which was posted to Facebook’s internal network by Ranjan Subramanian, a data scientist at the company, was a lengthy analysis of what it called an “unprecedented increase in the consumption of news articles on Facebook” over the past several weeks.

According to the report, more than 90% of the clicks to coronavirus content came from “Power News Consumers” and “Power News Discussers” — Facebook’s terms for users who read and comment on news stories much more frequently than the average user. The company is now considering several options for targeting those people with higher-quality information to make sure it is “being spread downstream.”

“These users are having an extraordinary impact on the coronavirus information diet of other Facebook users,” Mr. Subramanian wrote.

The report shows that Facebook is closely monitoring people’s news habits during a critical period and actively trying to steer them toward authoritative sources in what amounts to a global, real-time experiment in news distribution.

At times, Facebook itself seemed unsure which news sources users would turn to in a crisis, with Mr. Subramanian noting that “fortunately” many people were clicking on links from publishers that the company considers high-quality.

«

“Fortunately”.
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One brand’s block on ads around ‘coronavirus’ is starving some news sites of revenue • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

»

Fears that its ads would appear next to news stories about the coronavirus pandemic led one major global brand to drastically reduce the number of digital ads it placed on the websites of the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and the Washington Post in March, according to internal data obtained by BuzzFeed News. In total, more than 2 million ads were blocked from appearing on these sites in the first three weeks of the month.

The data paints the first specific picture of how a broad advertiser pullout has damaged the bottom lines at news sites at the same time as readership on those sites has spiked. The data showed high ad block rates for the brand in March on dozens of global news sites, including Der Spiegel, the Guardian, Canada’s Global News, and BuzzFeed News. So far this month, the brand’s ads were blocked more than 35 million times across more than 100 news sites in 14 countries.

A source, who declined to be named for fear of professional repercussions, provided BuzzFeed News with ad placement data for a major product division within a global Fortune 50 company. The company, which cannot be named due to the risk of exposing the source, typically spends roughly $3m a month advertising its products on news and technology sites.

«

Killing the sites that it will need to advertise on in the future. Can’t be Corona beer, surely.

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A list of British and Irish institutions that might not survive coronavirus • Gizmodo UK

Holly Brockwell:

»

It’s not just human beings that might not see the other side of the covid-19 crisis. Sadly some British businesses, brands and institutions may not survive either. Here’s a list of the ones we think are potentially on thin ice.

(Note: clearly, small businesses are at much higher risk than the ones listed here, but we can’t realistically list all of those).

(Another note: if you’re going to buy from any of the websites of these businesses anytime soon, we would recommend using a credit card to get Section 75 protection (over £100), and not to spend any money you can’t potentially afford to lose if it goes belly-up.)

«

Amazingly, some of them are less than 60 years old. Can’t argue with any of them. Would love to see a similar list for the US.
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Mount Sinai to begin the transfer of Covid-19 antibodies into critically ill patients • Inside Mount Sinai

»

The Mount Sinai Health System this week plans to initiate a procedure known as plasmapheresis, where the antibodies from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 will be transferred into critically ill patients with the disease, with the expectation that the antibodies will neutralize it.

The process of using antibody-rich plasma from COVID-19 patients to help others was used successfully in China, according to a state-owned organization, which reported that some patients improved within 24 hours, with reduced inflammation and viral loads, and better oxygen levels in the blood.

Mount Sinai is collaborating with the New York Blood Center and the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center laboratory in Albany, with guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and expects to begin implementing the treatment later this week.

«

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Internal emails show how chaos at the CDC slowed the early response to coronavirus • ProPublica

Caroline Chen, Marshall Allen and Lexi Churchill:

»

The CDC’s initial response to COVID-19, particularly its failure to initiate swift, widespread testing, has drawn intense criticism.

Nonetheless, the correspondence ProPublica obtained shows that the CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield, exuded confidence in communications with others at the agency.

On Jan. 28, when the CDC had confirmed five cases of the coronavirus, all in travellers who arrived from outside the country, he emailed colleagues to acknowledge it posed “a very serious public health threat,” but he assured them “the virus is not spreading in the U.S. at this time.”

That actually may not have been the case. The CDC confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in Washington on Jan 20. Trevor Bedford, a computational epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, has said he believes that the virus could have begun circulating in the state immediately after the traveler arrived in mid-January, based on his analysis of genetic data from the initial Washington cases.

The CDC said in its statement that Redfield’s comments were based on the data available at the time. “At no time, did he underestimate the potential for COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic,” the agency’s statement said.

«

Before I saw this, I was looking up when I first linked to coronavirus stories here. The first was January 20th, with a Guardian article about what it was. The next was a day or two later, to a story about a man who had returned to the US and gone about for four days before showing symptoms and falling ill.

It’s coming to something when a science and tech journalist gets this stuff on the radar sooner than the head of the CDC.

But Redfield wasn’t even Trump’s first choice (she had to stand down because she bought tobacco stock). Clearly, he wasn’t and isn’t up to the job.
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What it feels like to be laid off on Zoom during this crisis • Protocol

Biz Carson:

»

On Tuesday morning, around 100 TripActions customer support and customer success team members dialed into a Zoom call. Many joined the call happily smiling, expecting another team meeting or bonding activity amid the new work from home culture. Instead, according to people on the call Protocol spoke with, their boss launched into a spiel about the economy and coronavirus.

Then she announced that everyone on the call was being laid off.

“People were crying and people were panicking,” said one employee who was abruptly let go on the videoconference. “It was like 100 different videos of just chaos.”

The workers on that call represent around one-third of the people TripActions laid off on Tuesday. The company confirmed it let go of nearly 300 workers, around a quarter of the total staff, with layoffs hitting customer support, recruiting and sales the hardest, according to several current and former employees Protocol spoke with…

…Though it’s not clear there’s a better way to deliver such awful news, the format caused TripActions employees pain. “Why would you get everyone on a Zoom and deliver that announcement?” the same laid-off employee said. “I’d invested so much in that place, and I feel so fucked over. That’s why it’s so frustrating. We didn’t follow any of our company values today.”

«

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Drug dealers say coronavirus is already affecting supply and demand • VICE

David Hillier:

»

with borders closing, a countrywide economic crisis, and social distancing keeping punters away from pubs and clubs, it must be a troubling time for our nation’s peddlers of party supplies. I spoke to a handful and got the skinny on drug-dealing in the age of coronavirus.

THE COKE DEALER
“At the moment everything seems great. More people are buying coke because they are in their houses, bored. They are drinking at home and they invite a friend over and one thing leads to another and it turns into a house party and they order some coke. People are stressed out, there’s nothing to do, there’s only so many movies you can watch. People want to chinwag. All it takes is one drink really and they call us up.

“I sell most of my coke in bars and clubs. One pub I sell in is still quite lively, but apparently they have to shut down soon. The football pub is deserted because there’s no football, no-one buys from there anymore.

“There hasn’t really been an impact on supplies because the drought hasn’t hit yet, but there will be one I think. Importing will be harder. I can see it happening soon. I’ll have to start watering it down or charging more. The people I buy off will do the same.” — Nev , 39, from London

«

This was published on March 20. Hillier seems to specialise in stories about drugs: he also has quote from a psychedelics dealer, an MDMA/ketamine/etc dealer, and a cannabis dealer. Probably a good bet that things have got a lot tougher since last week. Perhaps these dealers are all disguising themselves as construction workers?

Also, do dealers count as self-employed?
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Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, 6 other telcos to help EU track virus • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee:

»

Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and five other telecoms providers have agreed to share mobile phone location data with the European Commission to track the spread of the coronavirus, lobbying group GSMA said on Wednesday.

The companies, including Telefonica, Telecom Italia , Telenor, Telia and A1 Telekom Austria met with EU industry chief Thierry Breton on Monday.

Worries about governments’ use of technology to monitor those in quarantine and track infections have intensified in recent weeks over possible privacy violations, with some raising the spectre of state surveillance.

The Commission will use anonymised data to protect privacy and aggregate mobile phone location data to coordinate measures tracking the spread of the virus, an EU official said.

To further assuage privacy concerns, the data will be deleted once the crisis is over, the official said, adding that the EU plan is not about centralising mobile data nor about policing people.

While anonymised data falls outside the scope of EU data protection laws, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) said the project does not breach privacy rules as long as there are safeguards.

«

This is quickly going to become a default; going out in public without a smartphone (or a phone; in Taiwan the tracking is done by mobile mast triangulation, and that’s probably the case here) will become an act of rebellion.
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Redmi reveals how much power 5G consumes over 4G • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:

»

Most 5G phones offer big batteries owing to the increased power consumption of early 5G modems and connectivity. But just how much more power does a 5G phone need over a 4G device?

Redmi general manager Lu Weibing has taken to Weibo to answer this question, claiming that 5G phones consume ~20% more power than a 4G phone. This suggests that a 20% increase in battery size is needed for a 5G phone to achieve the same endurance as a 4G variant (assuming everything else is equal).

«

Or that you’ll want an option to turn off 5G, which will give you a ton more battery life (or perhaps the same as you had before). Still unpersuaded that 5G will make any difference to our mobile lives for the next couple of years; the battery burnt on them will be wasted.
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Snopes on COVID-19 fact-checking • Snopes

Team Snopes (which fact-checks stuff):

»

in addition to encouraging social distancing (we were already a 100% remote work company), Snopes has:

• Rolled out several new policies allowing all employees to take the time they need to care for themselves and their family — all paid, and without impacting their accumulated time-off.

• Distributed unconditional cash bonuses of $750.00 to help our employees defray some immediate costs they face amid this public crisis.

• Begun scaling back routine content production and special projects, focusing our efforts only where we think we can have significant impact given our strained resources (e.g., we are temporarily reducing our Daily Debunker newsletter delivery schedule from six to two days per week).

We recognize there has never been a greater need for the service our fact-checkers provide, so publishing less may seem counterintuitive. But exhausting our staff in this crisis is not the cure for what is ailing our industry.

We don’t have all the answers right now, but we do know we need everyone’s help. Here’s where you can begin:

• Please: Keep checking with CDC or WHO for the latest guidance on how to protect yourself during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell your friends to do the same.

• Support Snopes directly as a Founding Member. The greater the resources we have, the more fact-checkers we can hire. Many fact-checkers have similar programs.

• Get the word out that we need help. Alert advertisers, lenders, investors, influencers, and anyone else you know that Snopes and other fact-checkers need support. If you can help support our mission, contact us immediately.

«

As you might expect, Snopes is overwhelmed with the load of utter rubbish that’s being passed around.
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How will the coronavirus end? • The Atlantic

Ed Yong:

»

The world is experienced at making flu vaccines and does so every year. But there are no existing vaccines for coronaviruses—until now, these viruses seemed to cause diseases that were mild or rare—so researchers must start from scratch. The first steps have been impressively quick. Last Monday, a possible vaccine created by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health went into early clinical testing. That marks a 63-day gap between scientists sequencing the virus’s genes for the first time and doctors injecting a vaccine candidate into a person’s arm. “It’s overwhelmingly the world record,” Fauci said.

But it’s also the fastest step among many subsequent slow ones. The initial trial will simply tell researchers if the vaccine seems safe, and if it can actually mobilize the immune system. Researchers will then need to check that it actually prevents infection from SARS-CoV-2. They’ll need to do animal tests and large-scale trials to ensure that the vaccine doesn’t cause severe side effects. They’ll need to work out what dose is required, how many shots people need, if the vaccine works in elderly people, and if it requires other chemicals to boost its effectiveness.

“Even if it works, they don’t have an easy way to manufacture it at a massive scale,” said Seth Berkley of Gavi. That’s because Moderna is using a new approach to vaccination. Existing vaccines work by providing the body with inactivated or fragmented viruses, allowing the immune system to prep its defenses ahead of time. By contrast, Moderna’s vaccine comprises a sliver of SARS-CoV-2’s genetic material—its RNA. The idea is that the body can use this sliver to build its own viral fragments, which would then form the basis of the immune system’s preparations. This approach works in animals, but is unproven in humans. By contrast, French scientists are trying to modify the existing measles vaccine using fragments of the new coronavirus. “The advantage of that is that if we needed hundreds of doses tomorrow, a lot of plants in the world know how to do it,” Berkley said. No matter which strategy is faster, Berkley and others estimate that it will take 12 to 18 months to develop a proven vaccine, and then longer still to make it, ship it, and inject it into people’s arms.

It’s likely, then, that the new coronavirus will be a lingering part of American life for at least a year, if not much longer.

«

Thorough piece (which also points out why even hiding all the over-70s won’t work).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1273: Zoom welcomes trolls (unfortunately), surveil this!, Covid-19 as time machine, the news media “extinction event”, and more


Courtesy of Pablo Escobar (yes, him), you can now find these in Colombia. CC-licensed photo by Michael Cramer on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. No, you lock down. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Eames Chairs, economy plus, and cupcakes: so premiocre • The Atlantic

Amanda Mull:

»

The presence of many nice-enough choices without any meaningful way to distinguish among them is a fundamental dysphoria of modern consumerism. Anybody can track in intimate detail how the wealthy and stylish spend their money via social media, and just when you’ve learned exactly what you can’t have, the internet swoops in to offer a look-for-less utopia of counterfeits, rip-offs, and discount cashmere sweaters, perfectly keyed to the performance of a lifestyle that young Americans desperately want but can’t afford.

It was 2017, and Venkatesh Rao, a writer and management consultant, was having lunch at a fast-casual vegan chain restaurant in Seattle when the phrase premium mediocre popped into his head. It described the sensation he was having as he tucked into his meal—one of a not-unpleasant artificial gloss (airline seating with extra legroom; “healthy” chickpea chips that taste like Doritos; $40 scented candles) on an otherwise thoroughly unspecial experience. I had a similar eureka moment in early 2018, when the portmanteau premiocre came to me while I was trying to parse the discriminating features among mid-priced bed linens from several start-up brands. I found Rao’s observation while checking to see whether, against all odds, I had come up with an original idea. Instead, I’d noticed something that many others also saw wherever they looked, once they had heard the idea articulated.

When Rao mentioned “premium mediocre” to his wife, who was eating with him that day, she immediately got it. So did his Facebook friends and Twitter followers. “People had started noticing a pervasive pattern in everything from groceries to clothing, and entire styles of architecture in gentrifying neighborhoods,” he told me.

«

Hadn’t heard it until now. And if you hadn’t, it’s my gift to you.
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In video chats, familiar forms of online harassment make a comeback • NBC News

April Glaser, Ben Kesslen and Olivia Solon:

»

The Benjamins had been a victim of what’s become known as “Zoombombing,” a form of online harassment in which someone hijacks a group video call to show something inappropriate or unexpected. These offensive intrusions have been happening more frequently now that millions of people are forced to use video conferences to work, study, and communicate from home.

Cornelius Minor, an educator and an author, had a similar experience Thursday when he was invited to join a colleague’s open office hours on Zoom to talk with other educators about methods for teaching literacy. But not long after they began talking, a comment notification popped up at the bottom of the screen that cursed at Minor and called him the N-word.

…As classes, lectures and other educational activities move to videoconference tools during the coronavirus pandemic, Zoombombing has become another vector for organized harassment. Like other forms of online harassment, targets are disproportionately women, people of color, religious minorities and other marginalized groups.

In the Benjamins’ case, the racist hijacker had taken advantage of two things: the fact that they had publicized the link to their storytime to anyone interested, instead of limiting access to a select or registered few, and the fact that the default setting on Zoom allows any participant to share what’s on their screen with the group, replacing the host’s own camera feed.

Zoom has published a guide to locking down the app’s settings to mitigate the risk of uninvited guests joining. Users can also report these incidents to the company, a company spokeswoman said, so that Zoom can take “appropriate action” including deactivating a user’s account

“We have been deeply upset to hear about the incidents involving this type of attack,” the spokeswoman said.

«

Zoom wasn’t prepared to have its security model tested so thoroughly and quickly.
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Pablo Escobar’s hippos are filling vacant roles in Colombia’s ecosystems • Gizmodo

Dharna Noor:

»

When the Colombian national police assassinated the cocaine kingpin in 1993, he left behind four fully-grown hippopotamuses. They are considered one of the world’s top invasive species. A January study showed that their shit was contributing to algae blooms and screwing with local lakes’ chemistry–the implication being that the animals are gross pests that could ruin local ecosystems.

But in a new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on Monday, has a different view of the coke hippos. Specifically, the new research shows that the introduction of large non-native herbivores into ecosystems—like the hippos in Colombia—can actually restore ecologically beneficial traits to the area that may have been lost for thousands of years.

“While we found that some introduced herbivores are perfect ecological matches for extinct ones, in others cases the introduced species represents a mix of traits seen in extinct species,” study co-author John Rowan, a study co-author and biology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said in a statement.

Pablo’s hippos, for instance, are similar in diet and size to the now-extinct giant llamas that once roamed the area. They’re also similar in size and semiaquatic behavior to another extinct species, notoungulates, which have been gone for thousands of years. That allows them to fill two long-vacated roles in the Colombian ecosystem they were introduced to after Escobar died and they began to roam the countryside.

«

Filed under “Life finds a way”.
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We need a massive surveillance program • Idle Words

Maciej Cieglewski:

»

I am a privacy activist who has been riding a variety of high horses about the dangers of permanent, ubiquitous data collection since 2012.

But warning people about these dangers today is like being concerned about black mold growing in the basement when the house is on fire. Yes, in the long run the elevated humidity poses a structural risk that may make the house uninhabitable, or at least a place no one wants to live. But right now, the house is on fire. We need to pour water on it…

…Doctors and epidemiologists caution us that the only way to go back to some semblance of normality after the initial outbreak has been brought under control will be to move from population-wide measures (like closing schools and making everyone stay home) to an aggressive case-by-case approach that involves a combination of extensive testing, rapid response, and containing clusters of infection as soon as they are found, before they have a chance to spread.

That kind of case tracking has traditionally been very labor intensive. But we could automate large parts of it with the technical infrastructure of the surveillance economy. It would not take a great deal to turn the ubiquitous tracking tools that follow us around online into a sophisticated public health alert system…

…I continue to believe that living in a surveillance society is incompatible in the long term with liberty. But a prerequisite of liberty is physical safety. If temporarily conscripting surveillance capitalism as a public health measure offers us a way out of this crisis, then we should take it, and make full use of it. At the same time, we should reflect on why such a powerful surveillance tool was instantly at hand in this crisis, and what its continuing existence means for our long-term future as a free people.

«

Never expected to see him write those words. But if he can, then the time has probably come.
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More or Less, Coronavirus special • BBC Radio 4

»

We’ve dedicated this special episode to the numbers surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. Statistical national treasure Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter put the risks of Covid-19 into perspective. We ask whether young people are safe from serious illness, or if statistics from hospitalisations in the US show a high proportion of patients are under 50. We try to understand what the ever-tightening restrictions on businesses and movement mean for the UK’s economy, and we take a look at the mystery of coronavirus numbers in Iran.

«

The segment to listen to here is David Spiegelhalter, who has an utterly amazing – and clarifying – way to think about the risk of Covid-19: if you catch it, you compress your next year’s worth of the risk of dying into two weeks. It’s a sort of time machine of death.

Assuming, that is, that there are enough ventilators. Without them, he might have to recalculate.
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How to talk to coronavirus skeptics • The New Yorker

Isaac Chotiner talks to Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, who has focussed much of her career on examining distrust of science in the US:

»

Q: This idea that we reject science because it clashes with our beliefs or experience—how does that explain why people in Miami, whose homes are going to be flooded, reject global-warming science? Is it partisanship?

A: The phrase I used was implicatory denial. What we found in “Merchants of Doubt” was that the original merchants of doubt, the people who started the whole thing, way back in the late nineteen-eighties, didn’t want to accept the implication that capitalism, as we know it, had failed—that climate change was a huge market failure and that there was a need for some kind of significant government intervention in the marketplace to address it. So, rather than accept that implication, they questioned the science. Now these things get complicated. People are complicated. One of the things that’s happened with climate change over the last thirty years is that, because climate-change denial got picked up by the Republican Party as a political platform, it became polarized according to partisan politics, which is different than, say, vaccination rejection.

And so then it became a talking point for Republicans, and then it became tribal. So now you have this deeply polarized situation in the United States where your views on climate change align very, very strongly with your party affiliation. And now we see a cognitive dissonance. Let’s say you live in Florida, and you’re now seeing flooding on a rather regular basis. This is completely consistent with the scientific evidence, but you don’t accept it as proof of the science. You say, “Oh, well, we’ve always had flooding, or maybe it’s a natural variable.” You come up with excuses not to accept the thing that you don’t want to accept.

«

Chotiner is a terrific interviewer, but sometimes he can just let the interviewee run on. Oreskes is fascinating and makes you see the denialists in a whole new light.
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Toronto Symphony plays Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring from their homes • Ludwig Van Toronto

Michael Vincent:

»

Leave it up to musicians to find a way to keep the music going.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra Principal double bass, Jeff Beecher has corralled musicians from the orchestra to perform Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring from their homes.

Each played their part, with Beecher editing it all together with the help of a click-track.

See the wonder unfold here:

«

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How far-right media is weaponizing coronavirus • The Cut

Rebecca Traister:

»

Jiore Craig is a political consultant at a research firm, GQR Insights and Action, who has spent the past four years tracking the spread of disinformation online, much of it originating with, or being propagated by, the far-right political media — sites like Breitbart and Infowars. The Cut spoke to her about the patterns she’s seen and how they’re playing out in the midst of this pandemic.

Q: What’s your prediction about how disinformation spread will change as the pandemic rages on?

A: I think we’re going to see a lot of conspiracy theories being applied. But the bad actors don’t really know who to attack at the moment; it can’t quite be about government control, because Trump is the government. So there’s going to be a question of how to make it about the Democrats: maybe invoking false claims around martial law. You have Alex Jones and Infowars profiting off of readiness products because people are scared. We may get to the conspiracy that Democrats want to take away their guns and take away their rights. And I think both sides will start asking: Were you focused on people’s health or were you focused on politics-or-profits? Both sides will try to make it seem like the other side isn’t focused on the issue at hand.

«

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The coronavirus will hurt the news industry more than the 2008 financial collapse did • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

»

The toll of the coronavirus on the news media could be worse than the 2008 financial crisis, which saw newspapers experience a 19% decline in revenue, according to Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst with Newsonomics. “[Newspaper] advertising revenue is getting just wiped out,” Doctor told BuzzFeed News, saying it’s already “worse than in 2008 and 2009.”

For some publications, “this seems like for them truly it is the full extinction event. I don’t know how they come back,” he said.

Some outlets are better positioned to survive. Like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, the Seattle Times has a base of subscription revenue that can help it withstand the crisis. But other local newspapers and digital outlets in the US and Canada are unlikely to survive.

“I think there we will unfortunately see more closures of newspapers, more news deserts as a result of this,” Fisco said.

Doctor said many newspapers are already distressed businesses, and publicly traded chains like Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 250 local papers, are saddled with debt.

“These companies, many of them were now just in survival mode” before the coronavirus hit, he said.

«

Speaking of which (although the next story is also in Silverman’s story)…
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BuzzFeed slashing employee pay amid the coronavirus crisis • Daily Beast

Maxwell Tani:

»

BuzzFeed is cutting pay for its employees as the company attempts to weather the coronavirus pandemic.

In an internal memo on Wednesday, the company announced a graduated salary reduction for the majority of employees for the months of April and May, adding that company brass would meet with the news union to ratify the cuts.

Staffers in the lowest bracket—which includes anyone making under $65,000 annually—would experience a five-percent reduction, while those making between $65,000-$90,000 would experience a seven-percent cut. Other staff would take nearly a 10-percent pay cut, while executives would take between 14-to-25-percent in pay reduction. 

CEO Jonah Peretti confirmed in a note to staff that “I will not be taking a salary until we are on the other side of this crisis.”

Peretti added in the memo that the company was attempting to stave off layoffs by implementing the salary cut, limiting hiring and travel, and reducing real estate costs.

“I understand this will be a real hardship for everyone, but our goal is to make it possible for all of us to get through this,” Peretti said…

…“A lot of people are happy with this decision because there are no layoffs,” one BuzzFeed News staffer. “People are willing to make the sacrifice to keep their colleagues employed.”

«

Buzzfeed, which is venture-capital funded, is now offering a membership scheme rather like The Guardian’s: you like us, why not give us some money?
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Spotify attracts podcast fans but not much revenue—yet • The Information

Jessica Toonkel:

»

After acquisitions of companies like Gimlet Media and Bill Simmons’ The Ringer, it now has over 700,000 podcasts on the service, up from just a few thousand in 2018. It’s a programming expansion that could serve Spotify well in coming weeks, as the coronavirus crisis forces tens of millions of people in the US and Europe to stay inside—making streaming entertainment services of all kinds more important than ever.

But there are still big questions about whether the bet will pay off. A widely expected dip in advertising spending this year could slow Spotify’s hopes of building an ad business out of its podcasting empire. Without meaningful ad revenue, it is doubtful whether the company’s investment in podcasting, which has surpassed $600m, will end up being worth the money. 

Another issue: Spotify can’t rely on podcasts bringing in more subscribers. Less than 1% of the podcasts on the service are exclusive. In fact, many of the 200 podcasts that Spotify owns—including The Ringer’s popular sports and pop culture shows—are also available from other sources, including Apple and YouTube. That means people don’t need to sign up for Spotify to listen to the vast majority of its podcasts…

…Spotify also has to share some of what it earns in podcast ad revenue with some of the record labels that supply its music, The Information has learned. That’s a result of its longstanding agreements with the labels, which give them a royalty share of Spotify’s total revenue.

«

Given what’s likely to happen to advertising, it’s hard to imagine Spotify will earn back that money – but who could have predicted that it was making a bad bet a year ago? Spotify’s aim has always been to move to content where it doesn’t have to pay out huge amounts per play. Which podcasts do. Except, dammit, for that kicker about the labels. Though even that’s likely to be less than for music.
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‘I’m going to keep pushing.’ Anthony Fauci tries to make the White House listen to facts of the pandemic • Science

Jon Cohen:

»

Q: How are you managing to not get fired?

A: Well, that’s pretty interesting because to [Trump’s] credit, even though we disagree on some things, he listens. He goes his own way. He has his own style. But on substantive issues, he does listen to what I say.

Q: You’ve been in press conferences where things are happening that you disagree with, is that fair to say?

A: Well, I don’t disagree in the substance. It is expressed in a way that I would not express it, because it could lead to some misunderstanding about what the facts are about a given subject.

Q: You stood nearby while President Trump was in the Rose Garden shaking hands with people. You’re a doctor. You must have had a reaction like, “Sir, please don’t do that.”

A: Yes, I say that to the task force. I say that to the staff. We should not be doing that. Not only that—we should be physically separating a bit more on those press conferences. To his credit, the vice president [Mike Pence] is really pushing for physical separation of the task force [during meetings]. He keeps people out of the room—as soon as the room gets like more than 10 people or so, it’s, “Out, everybody else out, go to a different room.” So with regard to the task force, the vice president is really a bear in making sure that we don’t crowd 30 people into the Situation Room, which is always crowded. So, he’s definitely adhering to that. The situation on stage [for the press briefings] is a bit more problematic. I keep saying, “Is there any way we can get a virtual press conference?” Thus far, no. But when you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens. So, I’m going to keep pushing.

«

Fauci gave that interview on Sunday. On Monday, he was missing from the public briefing on coronavirus. People worried that Trump had been stupid enough to fire him. We’ll see if he was only stupid enough to ignore him.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1272: life with the (new) iPad Pro, let the cruise lines sink, Instagram founder on the coming US calamity, Peloton speeds up, and more


“They used them before the pandemic to put bits of metal and paper in…” CC-licensed photo by DM on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Keep your distance! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UK cash usage halves within days as shops close due to coronavirus • The Guardian

Patrick Collinson:

»

Cash usage in Britain has halved in the past few days, according to Link, which operates the UK’s biggest network of ATMs.

The closure of shops, a shift to contactless payments, plus concerns that notes may harbour the virus has contributed to the dramatic decline.

Link said the ATM system was operating at its normal standard and that it was working closely with banks and regulators to ensure cash continued to be available.

“Consumers’ ATM and cash use has fallen significantly, by around 50%, over the past few days and this is likely to continue as people move to follow the prime minister’s instructions to stay at home,” it said.

Some shops are refusing to accept cash during the crisis, demanding that customers pay by card only. Gareth Shaw, head of money at Which?, said: “We are concerned this will leave many vulnerable people unable to pay for the basics they need.

“Both the government and retailers need to find a way to ensure that the millions of people who rely on cash, and may not have a bank card, can still pay for essentials during this difficult time.”

On 23 March, shops and banks agreed to raise the limit for contactless payments, currently £30, to £45, but said some locations might not be ready for the higher limit until 1 April.

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Wonder how far down it will go: 75%, 90%? A country on lockdown for three weeks isn’t going to have much use for cash, except perhaps at petrol stations.
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Scientists discovered how to destroy the dreaded ‘forever chemical’ PFAS • OneZero

Drew Costley:

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Since the 1940s, PFAs [perfluorinated alkylated substances] have been used in a wide variety of products, like food packaging, nonstick pans, paints, cleaning supplies, and even smartphones. Because they don’t break down in the environment, they get into drinking water and other living organisms, many of which we eat. Since the body can’t digest them either, they accumulate inside of us, too.

“These pollutants are very persistent,” explains Bryan Wong, one of Yamijala’s co-authors on the paper, to OneZero. “They last for a long time.”

High levels of PFAs intake are linked to cancer as well as low birth weight and thyroid hormone disruption, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In his research, Yamijala used computer simulations to study the chemical structure of the PFAS that are the most ubiquitous in the environment: perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. The carbon-fluorine bond that acts as the backbone of these chemicals is one of the strongest bonds in organic chemistry, which is why they seem to last forever. But this is exactly what the team’s breakthrough addresses: When they exposed the compounds to excess electrons — a process called reduction — the bond with the fluorine atom broke.

What’s more, the broken molecules that resulted from the process had a domino effect on the remaining PFAs in the water. In the simulation, these smaller molecules accelerated the breaking down of the other PFA molecules.

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Pricey, though: 8-10cents per litre cleaned.
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Review: 100,000 miles and one week with an iPad Pro • TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino, who has used an iPad Pro as his main machine whenever out of the office (which has been a lot):

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With iPad Pro, no matter where I have been or what I have been doing, I was able to flip it open, swipe up and be issuing my first directive within seconds. As fast as my industry moves and as wild as our business gets, that kind of surety is literally priceless.

Never once, however, did I wish that it was easier to use.

Do you wish that a hammer is easier? No, you learn to hold it correctly and swing it accurately. The iPad could use a bit more of that.

Currently, iPadOS is still too closely tethered to the sacred cow of simplicity. In a strange bout of irony, the efforts on behalf of the iPad software team to keep things simple (same icons, same grid, same app switching paradigms) and true to their original intent have instead caused a sort of complexity to creep into the arrangement.

I feel that much of the issues surrounding the iPad Pro’s multi-tasking system could be corrected by giving professional users a way to immutably pin apps or workspaces in place — offering themselves the ability to “break” the multitasking methodology that has served the iPad for years in service of making their workspaces feel like their own. Ditch the dock entirely and make that a list of pinned spaces that can be picked from at a tap. Lose the protected status of app icons and have them reflect what is happening in those spaces live.

The above may all be terrible ideas, but the core of my argument is sound. Touch interfaces first appeared in the 70’s and have been massively popular for at least a dozen years by now.

The iPad Pro user of today is not new to a touch-based interface and is increasingly likely to have never known a computing life without touch interfaces.

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ARM-ed Mac: a mere matter of software • Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée on the still-mythical ARM Mac:

»

Looked at rationally, moving x86 macOS apps to an ARM-ed Mac should would work almost as well in Reality as in the well-ordered country of Theory. There are always niggling details, such as flushing out “clever” programming tricks and shortcuts that will no longer work on ARM (think x86 machine-language code), or implicit number representation conventions that, by their very implicitness, don’t translate directly. (The latter is analogous to a human language idiom that can’t be literally translated: ‘Yeah, yeah…’ takes on the opposite meaning when translated as ‘Oui, oui…’.) None of this is lethal, the bugs get caught and the apps soon work correctly on the new ARM-based macOS.

That’s the theory, but for developers, and Apple, there’s a much bigger problem: iOS.

Last quarter, Mac represented a little less than 8% of Apple’s revenue, while iOS devices (iPhone and iPad) amounted to more than 67% of the company’s $92B for the Xmas period. That disparity translates to about 2M apps for iOS and less than 10% of that number for macOS. Understandably, app developers are much more interested in iOS than in macOS, something that could slow the ARM-ed Mac transition. Mythical man-month fallacies aside, where would a rational app developer invest months of engineering resources?

«

As he also points out, it’s not just a tickbox in compiling the app: a Mac app brings different expectations of what interactions it will offer, how its windows will work, what mouse interaction enables. And beyond that, does it mean that iOS somehow subsumes macOS – that we move backwards from a multi-user Unix sibling to a locked-down single-user one? I’m sure Apple would love to move to ARM Macs, if only to cut chip costs. But I suspect these software questions are the big, big obstacle.

Yet isn’t it nice to be thinking about something other than Voldemort?
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Don’t bail out the cruise industry • The Verge

Sean O’Kane, making a blistering case:

»

They’re bad corporate actors. These companies use the protections offered by the countries they are incorporated in as a shield. They make passengers sign over a ton of rights before they even come aboard. Many employees often face long hours and brutal working conditions. Worst of all…

They pollute the air and oceans. Every fossil fuel-powered mode of transportation pollutes the air, but cruise ships are among the worst. They emit more sulfur dioxide than all of the passenger vehicles in Europe combined. Cruise ships also pollute the oceans by dumping waste. Not just illegally, for which these companies have been repeatedly fined, but also in some cases with impunity, again thanks to protections afforded by the laws of the countries where they’re incorporated. And where they’ve been caught, there have been coverups.

They aren’t necessary. You can make a compelling argument that the airlines should be bailed out because they are a type of transportation we’ve become reliant on. (Whether they should be, or what strings should be attached, is a whole other argument that has already been competently made by Aaron Gordon at Vice and Tim Wu at The New York Times.) Cruise ships are not essential, though. Nobody gets on a cruise ship because they need to go to Turks and Caicos.

«

As he also points out, they’re structured in such a way that they’re not even US companies, and they anyway pay zero US federal tax. Let the governments of Panama, Liberia and Bermuda (where the three biggest cruise companies are registered) bail them out. After all, that’s why they registered their businesses in those countries, isn’t it? Because they trusted their governments to act in their best interests?
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The US just crossed a dangerous threshold • systrom

Kevin Systrom:

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I suspect history will show that the early action in California saved countless lives. At the same time, I worry the hesitation–if only for a few days–in New York might be one of the largest public policy mistakes of our generation.

The last conclusion, and one that I will revisit again in upcoming posts, is that it’s a mistake to analyze a country as a whole. After all, California has 40 million residents – Italy has 60m. The line between states and countries starts to blur. You can aggregate regions any way you want, but you will always get a clearer picture by analyzing the component parts. In this case, we have states – each of which has a very different trajectory.

Once you look at this chart, you can’t unsee New York’s line. Not only is it just as mature as Washington State (the state with the first infection, which arguably garnered most of the media attention for the last couple of weeks), but it has an order of magnitude more cases in the same time. New York is currently hugging the ‘doubles every two days’ line – which for a state of of nearly 20 million people should give you pause.

But don’t let the largest states get all your attention. The chart above shows that Michigan (1,328), New Jersey (2,860) and Illinois (1,285) have grown far more quickly in a shorter number of days. At the age each of those reached 1,000, New York was sitting in the hundreds.

Of course, this might be because of increased testing and therefore cases. It’s possible New York missed cases and is now catching up. Regardless, you should watch these states over the next week. They are all bigger and growing faster than New York at the same age and that doesn’t bode well.

«

You might recall Systrom from apps such as, er, Instagram. He’s very used to log graphs (they used to call them snail charts) as a critical way to measure exploding growth.
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Instagram to remove coronavirus related content from recommendations • Reuters

Amal S:

»

Facebook Inc’s Instagram said on Tuesday it would remove coronavirus-related content and accounts from recommendations and its “explore” option, unless posted by or belonging to credible health organizations.

“We will also start to downrank content in feed and Stories that has been rated false by third-party-fact checkers,” the photo-sharing platform added.

«

Love to know how they define this. Notice that they’re not saying “delete”, because Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp doesn’t mind you being completely wrong, and even misleading. The worst it will do is to make it harder (not impossible) for your content to spread. Unless, of course, you include an unexposed nipple.
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UK app aims to help researchers track spread of coronavirus • The Guardian

Nicola Davis:

»

[Professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, Tim] Spector said the app would shed light both on symptoms and the geographical spread of the disease.

“The immediate thing is we will get known clusters of disease at different levels of severity all over the country and we will know what is going on,” he said.

While the app is available to the general public, the team has also asked 5,000 twins and their families across the UK – who are already part of a wider research project – to use the app. Should these participants show signs of Covid-19, they will be sent a kit so that they can be tested for the disease.

With the twins already having shared a large array of data with the team, from their genetic information to the makeup of their gut microbes, the researchers say they hope the work may help to shed light on why only some people become infected, and why some develop more severe symptoms than others.

“What we will be able to do is, very fast, work out whether genes play a role or not, because we just compare the identical and the non-identical twins – we can do that in a few days,” said Spector.

“The speed of what we are trying to do here is important – we put this whole project together in five days which would normally take about five months,” he added, noting there is no NHS equivalent. “If we got a million people reporting every day, that is an amazing tool for the epidemiologists.”

«

The idea is that you use it and report your health status even if (especially if) you are well. The app is at https://covid.joinzoe.com/. They put it together in five days.
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Peloton pushes on with live classes despite New York City coronavirus shutdown • The Verge

Natt Garun:

»

Though Peloton offers thousands of on-demand videos in its library, many users prefer live classes as they feel their workouts are more effective when they can race against other riders on a live leaderboard. In recent weeks, the live classes have also become riders’ daily reprieve from the stresses of the current news cycle. Last week, more than 12,000 people streamed into Peloton VP of fitness programming Robin Arzon’s class, which was held without the usual live audience. The instructor shouted out words of encouragement while refraining from directly referencing the coronavirus, played music with family-friendly lyrics, and nodded to frontline workers like nurses and doctors.

“Robin, we all needed you today and you showed up. I smiled a lot, but got my good cry during Rise Up,” Stephanie K. shared in Peloton’s official Facebook group. “I felt the togetherness of the Peloton community this morning, so thank you.”

Before the coronavirus shutdown, Peloton’s in-studio classes were in high demand, with most classes fully booked and some sold out weeks in advance. Live riders are now hoping Peloton can continue to safely offer the classes to support their mental and physical health during the pandemic.

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They suddenly look like the smartest company in the world. Since listing last September, the stock value is down 5% – but the Dow Jones is off by 27%. That advert from December doesn’t look so stupid either, eh.
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Coronavirus: Britons saying final goodbyes to dying relatives by videolink • The Guardian

Sarah Marsh:

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People are having to use videolinks to say their last goodbyes to dying relatives with Covid-19 because hospitals are curtailing visits to prevent spread of the virus.

In a sad scene that is increasingly being played out out across the country, in the early hours of Tuesday morning a patient with coronavirus was taken off a ventilator at a hospital in south-east London.

His wife and two children were unable to be with him but watched at home via videolink, after agreement from staff in the intensive treatment unit.

A matron familiar with the case, who did not wish to be named, said the wife had been offered the opportunity of being there in person but without the children and at her own risk so she requested the family be able to watch it from home instead.

The matron told the Guardian: “It is heartbreaking that he died without his family being able to hold his hands or giving him a goodbye kiss but at least they saw him in his final moments.

“If it’s something we [NHS staff] can do for people in this difficult crisis, it’s the least we can do. Not everybody can see or handle these things but giving that option to everybody is something we can do to perhaps make the pain go away. We know there are many more to come.”

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The world after coronavirus • Financial Times

Yuval Noah Harari (un-paywalled) on how surveillance could become a feature of future life “for our own good”:

»

As a thought experiment, consider a hypothetical government that demands that every citizen wears a biometric bracelet that monitors body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day. The resulting data is hoarded and analysed by government algorithms. The algorithms will know that you are sick even before you know it, and they will also know where you have been, and who you have met. The chains of infection could be drastically shortened, and even cut altogether. Such a system could arguably stop the epidemic in its tracks within days. Sounds wonderful, right?

The downside is, of course, that this would give legitimacy to a terrifying new surveillance system. If you know, for example, that I clicked on a Fox News link rather than a CNN link, that can teach you something about my political views and perhaps even my personality. But if you can monitor what happens to my body temperature, blood pressure and heart-rate as I watch the video clip, you can learn what makes me laugh, what makes me cry, and what makes me really, really angry. 

It is crucial to remember that anger, joy, boredom and love are biological phenomena just like fever and a cough. The same technology that identifies coughs could also identify laughs. If corporations and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse, they can get to know us far better than we know ourselves, and they can then not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings and sell us anything they want — be it a product or a politician. Biometric monitoring would make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking tactics look like something from the Stone Age. Imagine North Korea in 2030, when every citizen has to wear a biometric bracelet 24 hours a day. If you listen to a speech by the Great Leader and the bracelet picks up the tell-tale signs of anger, you are done for.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1271: Taiwan’s ‘electronic quarantine fence’, have a (distant) Netflix party!, the inevitable scams, goodbye Starsky Robotics, and more


Think hard enough, and you can turn it into a bird – if you’re an AI. CC-licensed photo by Derek Keats on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. I practise social distancing, you’re on lockdown. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Taiwan’s new ‘electronic fence’ for quarantines leads wave of virus monitoring • Reuters

Yimou Lee, Farah Master, Khanh Vu, Patpicha Tanakasemipipat and Ardhana Arivandan:

»

Taiwan, which has won global praise for its effective action against the coronavirus, is rolling out a mobile phone-based “electronic fence” that uses location-tracking to ensure people who are quarantined stay in their homes.

Governments around the world are combining technology and human efforts to enforce quarantines that require people who have been exposed to the virus to stay in their homes, but Taiwan’s system is believed to be the first to use mobile phone tracking for that purpose.

“The goal is to stop people from running around and spreading the infection,” said Jyan Hong-wei, head of Taiwan’s Department of Cyber Security, who leads efforts to work with telecom carriers to combat the virus.

The system monitors phone signals to alert police and local officials if those in home quarantine move away from their address or turn off their phones. Jyan said authorities will contact or visit those who trigger an alert within 15 minutes.

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Plus a quick tour of measures in other Asian countries. Again, the question becomes how far you’re prepared to let government intrude.
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Trump signals growing weariness with coronavirus social distancing as he grows concerned about the economy • The Washington Post

Josh Dawsey, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Jeff Stein and John Wagner :

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President Trump is weighing calls from some Republican lawmakers and White House advisers to scale back steps to contain the coronavirus despite the advice of federal health officials as a growing number of conservatives argue that the impact on the economy has become too severe, according to several people with knowledge of the internal deliberations.

Loosening restrictions on social distancing would override the internal warnings of senior U.S. health officials, including Anthony S. Fauci, who have said that the United States has not yet felt the worst of the pandemic.

“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump said in a tweet late Sunday. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”

The 15-day period is set to end on March 30.

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The Department of Bad Ideas is definitely in the ascendant. Ending quarantine will mean that hospitals are overwhelmed, key workers go sick, and people anyway avoid all the businesses they were told to stay away from. And a ton of Trump voters will die.

The UK just went into lockdown for at least three weeks.
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Here’s why we’ll never treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as the coronavirus • HuffPost UK

Amy Westervelt:

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At this point, the coronavirus is directly benefiting almost no one. Vaccine manufacturers may see some profit eventually. Digital service providers like Zoom are seeing their value rocket, and the growth in demand for products and deliveries from Amazon looks set to further widen the gap between Jeff Bezos and the next-richest person on earth.

But in general, mobilizing to flatten the curve of this pandemic benefits every citizen and business ― literally everyone. 

The billions that federal and state governments are committing to measures ranging from direct payments to citizens to grants and interest-free loans for small businesses to even the bailouts for major industries (whatever you think of them), should eventually help get money flowing through the economy again, and stabilize cratering financial markets. At least that’s the idea.

Mobilizing on climate change also benefits the general public and provides stability to the economy in the long run. But in the short term, it hurts the bottom lines of some big and very powerful industries. And therein lies the rub. How exactly do you get a coronavirus-style mobilization when it threatens the profits of a historically powerful minority? 

Comparing coronavirus to climate change is like comparing apples to the whole idea of fruit. Climate change is not one single issue or threat. It’s the hill we’re all dying on, made steeper by each wrong step, each failure to move. It persists because it is the result of a system that benefits the powerful, and those in power have mostly proven desperate not to give up that system.

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Not sure about the curve-flattening benefiting every citizen and business. Plenty will tell you right now that it has absolutely not, even if the effects that we can’t see are positive, especially when compared to how it would have been otherwise.

But the point about the powerful protecting their position in the face of challenges rings trues.
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New coronavirus test returns rapid results, but use may be limited • STAT News

Matthew Herper:

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A new diagnostic test for the novel coronavirus will return results in just 45 minutes, four times faster than existing machines.

But the test, emergency use of which was cleared by the Food and Drug Administration Wednesday, will likely be used in only the most urgent situations: triaging patients who are already in the hospital or the emergency room, and testing health care workers who might be infected to see if they can return to work.

“We don’t believe this technology should be used, at least initially, in a doctor’s office,” said David Persing, chief medical officer of Cepheid, the company that developed the test. “This is not a test for the worried well.”

Cepheid, of Silicon Valley, is a unit of Danaher, the Washington, D.C.-based medical conglomerate. The test will begin shipping by the end of the week.

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Incremental improvement. What is it that South Korea has that the US doesn’t?
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Free app lets you watch Netflix with friends while you’re quarantined • BGR

Zach Epstein:

»

An awesome Chrome browser plugin called Netflix Party is definitely a must-have while we’re all hunkered down in our homes trying to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The browser extension is available for both Windows and macOS devices, and it’s completely free to download and use. In a nutshell, Netflix Party transforms any movie or show you might be streaming into a shared experience with any of your friends and family who join the party. Playback is synchronized so that you’re all watching the same thing at the same time, and there’s even a group chat box you can open on the side of the screen so everyone can discuss whatever movie or series you’re all streaming.

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That’s a great idea. Back when Bill Gates was dating, he had a long-distance romance at one point, and he and his paramour would each rent a VHS tape of the same film, and settle down to watch it at the same time and discuss it over the phone. Technology has moved on a bit, but the principle is the same.
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Coronavirus scams are on the rise as panic over the virus spreads • BGR

Yoni Heisler:

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In a sad but perhaps unsurprising development, scammers are using the panic surrounding the coronavirus to prey upon unsuspecting victims. The problem began a few short weeks ago when fraudsters began initiating robocalls informing people that they can gain access to coronavirus testing kits if they’re willing to pay for it. Recall, home testing kits for the coronavirus simply don’t exist at this time.

Additionally, there have been reports of similar schemes wherein scammers promise individuals fake cures, non-functional respiratory masks, and lucrative work-from-home opportunities, all in an effort to swindle people out of money at the very point in time when they likely need it the most.

There have even been reports of brazen criminals donning white lab coats — while claiming to be from the Department of Health — and knocking on individual doors in Florida in an effort to sell fake testing kits to users. Once an individual opens their front door, they’re bum-rushed and subsequently robbed.

There has also been a discernible rise in the number of reported cyberattacks, an umbrella term that includes traditional hacking efforts and phishing attempts.

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Where there’s fear, there are scammers exploiting the fear.
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How to change a giraffe into a bird • AI Weirdness

Janelle Shane:

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When people study the ways that AI generates and detects images, they have to use something as a test problem. Delightfully, a recent paper decided to train an AI to transform pictures of giraffes into pictures of birds.

Why? Apparently, just to see if they could do it. And it’s a worthy challenge – they’re different sizes, completely different shapes, and giraffes are almost never seen diving for fish off the coast of Antarctica.

What they did was give the AI a set of 2,546 giraffe pictures and another independent set of 9,414 bird pictures, each with the giraffe and bird outlined. The AI was divided into two dueling parts, one of which was supposed to transform giraffes into birds, and the other of which was supposed to decide whether the picture it was looking at was a real bird or a fake giraffe-bird.

It could check its work against some pictures that it knew in advance were giraffes or birds, and adjust itself so its answers were generally more correct.

At the end of three weeks of training, it could do this:

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But read on for some of the more, well, challenging transformations.
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That Mitchell and Webb look: The Quiz Broadcast (all episodes) • YouTube

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This has been a big hit on YouTube: a series of sketches from 2009 or so about a post-apocalyptic quiz show whose prescient imperative, flashed on the screen, is REMAIN INDOORS. (Sound familiar?) There’s also now a podcast in which the four writers (who worked in teams of two) discuss how they came to write it: “we were approaching the woodchipper of the age of 40,” as one says of the sketches’ despondent mood. (If you don’t get it on iTunes, it’s the latest episode of “Rule Of Three”.)

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The end of Starsky Robotics • Starsky Robotics 10–4 Labs on Medium

Stefan Seltz-Axmacher was its CEO and co-founder:

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So what happened?

Timing, more than anything else, is what I think is to blame for our unfortunate fate. Our approach, I still believe, was the right one but the space was too overwhelmed with the unmet promise of AI to focus on a practical solution. As those breakthroughs failed to appear, the downpour of investor interest became a drizzle. It also didn’t help that last year’s tech IPOs took a lot of energy out of the tech industry, and that trucking has been in a recession for 18 or so months.

There are too many problems with the AV [autonomous vehicle] industry to detail here: the professorial pace at which most teams work, the lack of tangible deployment milestones, the open secret that there isn’t a robotaxi business model, etc. The biggest, however, is that supervised machine learning doesn’t live up to the hype. It isn’t actual artificial intelligence akin to C-3PO, it’s a sophisticated pattern-matching tool.

Back in 2015, everyone thought their kids wouldn’t need to learn how to drive. Supervised machine learning (under the auspices of being “AI”) was advancing so quickly — in just a few years it had gone from mostly recognizing cats to more-or-less driving. It seemed that AI was following a Moore’s Law Curve:


Source: TechTarget

Projecting that progress forward, all of humanity would certainly be economically uncompetitive in the near future. We would need basic income to cope, to connect with machines to stand a chance, etc.
Five years later and AV professionals are no longer promising Artificial General Intelligence after the next code commit. Instead, the consensus has become that we’re at least 10 years away from self-driving cars.

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Had no idea that trucking had been in a recession. But this feels like it was coming a long time. And it can’t even be blamed on you-know-what.
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Justice Department files its first enforcement action against Covid-19 fraud • Department of Justice

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The Department of Justice announced today that it has taken its first action in federal court to combat fraud related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  The enforcement action filed today in Austin against operators of a fraudulent website follows Attorney General William Barr’s recent direction for the department to prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of illegal conduct related to the pandemic.

As detailed in the civil complaint and accompanying court papers filed on Saturday, March 21, 2020, the operators of the website “coronavirusmedicalkit.com” are engaging in a wire fraud scheme seeking to profit from the confusion and widespread fear surrounding COVID-19.  Information published on the website claimed to offer consumers access to World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine kits in exchange for a shipping charge of $4.95, which consumers would pay by entering their credit card information on the website.  In fact, there are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine.  In response to the department’s request, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued a temporary restraining order requiring that the registrar of the fraudulent website immediately take action to block public access to it.

“The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division.  “We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers, whether they are defrauding consumers, committing identity theft, or delivering malware.”

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CAUCE spamfighters rally against corona health fraud affiliate programs • CyberCrime + Doing Time

Gary Warner:

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My email box is full of Coronavirus / COVID-19 frauds and scams.  I have Corona malware disguised as product catalogs.  I have fake World Health Organization emails asking me to donate my Bitcoin to them.  I have more than 30 fake breathing mask selling websites that my friends at ScamSurvivors and AA419 are helping to track.  But you know what makes me REALLY MAD?

The monsters who are using the same fake news websites to drive their affiliate-marketing program scams to sell Immunity Oil to people who are desperate to protect their families and loved ones.  As a member of the CAUCE Board (the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email) I immediately reached out to Neil Schwartzman, my personal spam fighting hero and the founder of CAUCE.  Even though we both know these are the same snake oil charlatans who have been in the spam business for a decade, perhaps now that they are putting people’s lives in true danger someone will finally do something to shut these scammers and spammers down.  (Note, I’m not speaking for CAUCE here, I’m just mentioning that I’m proud to fight spammers with them.)

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This goes into a lot of detail; it’s easy to forget that while snake oil has always been with us, there are now many more ways to sell it. Though if these efforts manage to shut down even a few of the scammers, that would be great.
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COVID-19 forces Samsung to shut down smartphone factory in India • SamMobile

Asif S:

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The company will shut down its smartphone manufacturing facility, which is located in Noida in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The factory, which was inaugurated in 2018, will be closed from March 23 to 25. It is the South Korean firm’s largest smartphone factory in the world and produces over 120 million smartphones every year. The company has also directed its employees in the marketing, R&D, and sales teams to work from home.

According to the latest reports, India has over 425 active cases of Coronavirus and eight deaths as of now. A Samsung spokesperson told ZDNet, “Following the Indian government’s policy, we will temporarily halt operations of our Noida factory until the 25th. We will work hard to make sure there is no setback in supplying our products.”

The company had closed its smartphone plant in Gumi earlier this month after it had discovered that some of the workers contracted COVID-19. Samsung then decided to shift smartphone production to Vietnam temporarily.

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It’s going to be whack-a-mole trying to stay ahead. But quite why Samsung thinks it’s going to find the same demand, I don’t know.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1270: time to kill targeted advertising?, the low-income workers at biggest risk, smartphone shipments crash, the cleaner air of lockdown, and more


Is this real or virtual? For Formula One, last weekend showed there’s little difference. CC-licensed photo by Marius Tatariu on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Hunker down. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why don’t we just ban targeted advertising? • WIRED

Gilad Edelman:

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[In January] Republican member of Congress, Ken Buck, was questioning another young tech executive, Basecamp cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson. “I don’t really care if they tell fifteen tee-shirt companies that I’m out looking for a tee-shirt,” Buck said. “It’s another thing when you’re trying to use that information in ways that I explicitly don’t want that information used. And so, what’s the answer there?” This was nothing new: a lawmaker in Washington who took for granted that our online behavior will be shared with advertisers, only then to wonder how one might contain the damage that ensues. But this time, his tech-world witness would reject the premise.

The solution to our privacy problems, suggested Hansson, was actually quite simple. If companies couldn’t use our data to target ads, they would have no reason to gobble it up in the first place, and no opportunity to do mischief with it later. From that fact flowed a straightforward fix: “Ban the right of companies to use personal data for advertising targeting.”

If Hansson’s proffer—that targeted advertising is at the heart of everything wrong with the internet and should be outlawed—sounds radical, that’s because it is. It cuts to the core of how some of the most profitable companies in the world make their money. The journalist David Dayen argued a similar case in 2018, for the New Republic; and since then, the idea has quietly been gaining adherents. Now it’s taken hold in certain parts of academia, think-tank world, and Silicon Valley.

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I’ve never seen an estimate for how much extra value these companies get from behavioural advertising. DuckDuckGo doesn’t use it, and it’s profitable. But Edelman suggests that Spotify, Netflix and Bumble (as examples) could still offer personalised content. I’m not sure about the distinction.
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Who is most at risk in the coronavirus crisis: 24 million of the lowest-income workers • Politico

Beatrice Jin and Andrew McGill:

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This week, unemployment claims soared as state and federal officials restricted public gatherings and shuttered stores to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Using wage data from the U.S. Department of Labor and working conditions surveys from O*NET, we analyzed those who are most vulnerable.

First, we looked at the bottom quarter of earners — people in jobs that pay less than $35,000 a year. Next, we narrowed that list to people who work at an arm’s length or less from others during their regular shifts, according to workforce survey data.

This group, nearly 24 million people — or about 15% of the American workforce — is at the highest risk of suffering injury from the COVID-19 pandemic. Among them are bartenders, paramedics, home health aides, janitors, drivers and more.

The chart below plots more than 600 jobs, arranging them by how much they pay and how much they involve human contact. We’ve highlighted the most-at-risk zone, using the criteria above. We’ve also shown a moderately-at-risk zone, which includes professions that pay the up to median wage and require contact equivalent to working in a shared office.

American workers at risk from Covid-19

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Formula 1 launches Virtual Grand Prix Series to replace postponed races • Formula 1

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Formula 1 has today announced the launch of a new F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, featuring a number of current F1 drivers. The series has been created to enable fans to continue watching Formula 1 races virtually, despite the ongoing COVID-19 situation that has affected this season’s opening race calendar.

The virtual races will run in place of every postponed Grand Prix, starting this weekend with the Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday March 22. Every subsequent race weekend will see the postponed real-world Formula 1 race replaced with a Virtual Grand Prix*, with the initiative currently scheduled to run until May**.

WATCH LIVE: F1 Esports racing with the Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix

The first race of the series will see current F1 drivers line up on the grid alongside a host of stars to be announced in due course. In order to guarantee the participants safety at this time, each driver will join the race remotely, with a host broadcast live from the Gfinity Esports Arena (or remotely if required) from 8:00pm (GMT) on Sunday March 22.

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Available on replay, I hope. I watched some of it, and found it utterly impossible to distinguish from the real thing. Though I didn’t watch the celebrations; less champagne splashing, at a guess.
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Global smartphone shipments tumble 38% yoy in February 2020 • Strategy Analytics

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According to the latest research from Strategy Analytics, global smartphone shipments tumbled 38% year-on-year in the month of February, 2020. It was the biggest fall ever in the history of the worldwide smartphone market.

Linda Sui, Director at Strategy Analytics, said, “Global smartphone shipments tumbled a huge 38% annually from 99.2m units in the month of February, 2019, to 61.8m in February, 2020. Smartphone demand collapsed in Asia last month, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, and this dragged down shipments across the world. Some Asian factories were unable to manufacture smartphones, while many consumers were unable or unwilling to visit retail stores and buy new devices.”

Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics, added, “February 2020 saw the biggest fall ever in the history of the worldwide smartphone market. Supply and demand of smartphones plunged in China, slumped across Asia, and slowed in the rest of the world. It is a period the smartphone industry will want to forget.”

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Oh, I think they’ll be able to forget it. The next couple of quarters will make that seem like the last hurrah.
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YouTube is letting millions of people watch videos promoting misinformation about coronavirus • Buzzfeed News

Joey D’Urso and Alex Wickham:

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YouTube has allowed videos promoting misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic to be viewed by millions of people, it can be revealed, leading campaigners to demand emergency legislation to remove “morally unacceptable” conspiracy theories from the platform.

Videos falsely claiming that coronavirus symptoms are actually caused by 5G phone signals or that it can be healed by prayer — as well as claims that the UK government is lying about the danger posed by the virus — have been viewed 7 million times, according to an analysis by the Center for Countering Digital Hate that has been shared with BuzzFeed News.

A YouTube account belonging to an American chiropractor called John Bergman has produced a series of videos on COVID-19 amassing more than a million views.

Bergman advocates using “essential oils” and vitamin C to treat the disease, against medical advice.

In another video, he falsely claims that hand sanitiser causes “hormone disorders, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes … weakens the immune system, plus it doesn’t work”.

This directly contradicts the principal medical advice from the UK’s National Health Service and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which urge people to wash their hands regularly and use hand sanitiser if soap and water is not available.

Bergman did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.

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This is where YouTube (and others) will really crash into the inherent conflicts in its business model: what if the information you’re letting people see is killing them?
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Why is the coronavirus so much more deadly for men than for women? • Los Angeles Times

Melissa Healy:

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The apparent gender gap in Italy echoes earlier statistics from other hard-hit countries. While preliminary, early accounts have suggested that boys and men are more likely to become seriously ill than are girls and women, and that men are more likely to die.

Italian health authorities last week reported that among 13,882 cases of COVID-19 and 803 deaths between Feb. 21 and Mar. 12, men accounted for 58% of all cases and 72% of deaths. Hospitalized men with COVID-19 were 75% more likely to die than were women hospitalized with the respiratory disease.

Those figures are in line with early accounts from China, where the novel coronavirus first appeared, and from South Korea, where detection and tracking of coronavirus infections have been very comprehensive.

An analysis of all COVID-19 patient profile studies filed in China from December 2019 to February 2020 suggests that men account for roughly 60% of those who are infected and become sick. And in a detailed accounting of 44,600 cases in mainland China as of Feb. 11, China’s Center for Disease Control reported that the fatality rate among men with confirmed coronavirus infections was roughly 65% higher than it was among women.

Even among children younger than 16, coronavirus may affect boys more than girls. In a recent report on 171 children and adolescents who were treated for COVID-19 at the Wuhan Children’s Hospital, 61% were male.

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It’s not (just) smoking. Women seem to fare better than men; it seems to be an immune system difference.
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In ‘Had I Known,’ Barbara Ehrenreich explains our current moment • The Washington Post

Helaine Olen:

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The book that turned her into household name was 2001’s best-selling “Nickel and Dimed,” about her time working undercover as a waitress, hotel housekeeper and Walmart clerk. It revealed a working-class world of physical and financial agony, all but invisible to the rest of America.

“I look for pain,” Ehrenreich told me about her life’s work. “I try to see where it’s coming from and what’s causing it.”

Now, the coronavirus epidemic is bringing all her research into play. “For 20 or 30 years now, the right has been trying to shrink government,” she told me in our follow-up Wednesday. “And the part of government they’ve tried to shrink is the part that we would normally think of as helping people.”
“We have no system of response, no way of coping,” she said. “The social infrastructure, the medical infrastructure is revealed as practically nonexistent.”

“We are beginning to understand how much we need a government, and a government that actually does things to help people. We don’t have one.”

The impacts are, as always, hitting the poor first and hardest. “Suppose your job is to clean houses, and people don’t want you to come into their house,” she says. “People will have no income at all.”

But it’s not just the poorest; the pandemic will reveal the long-standing financial weakness of the middle class. “Anybody who thinks they are out of danger … they’re fooling themselves.”

…And what, I ask, does Ehrenreich think our response to the coronavirus says about our ability to handle the challenge of climate change? She laughs. “You know what it means.”

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Traffic and pollution plummet as US cities shut down for coronavirus • The New York Times

Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich:

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In Los Angeles, as businesses and schools have closed this month and drivers have stayed off the roads, air pollution has declined and traffic jams have all but vanished.

Preliminary data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite show that atmospheric levels of nitrogen dioxide, which are influenced in large part by car and truck emissions, were considerably lower over Los Angeles in the first two weeks of March compared to the same period last year. The car-dependent city normally features some of the highest smog levels in the country.

Los Angeles’s famous rush-hour congestion has virtually disappeared. On Wednesday at 8 a.m., traffic in the city was moving 53% faster than it usually does on a Wednesday morning, according to data from INRIX, a company that analyzes traffic data from vehicle and phone navigation systems. At 5 p.m., when the freeways are typically congested, traffic was moving 71% faster than usual.

“There’s basically no rush hour anymore, or at least not what we would recognize as a rush hour,” said Trevor Reed, a transportation analyst at INRIX. He said that traffic has decreased even more sharply in the evening because that’s when people are normally running errands in addition to commuting home, but many of those activities have now been put on hold.

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It’s amazing. But unsustainable.
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Will the next James Bond film make more or less than its predecessors? • Good Judgment® Open

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What will be the U.S. domestic box office gross in the opening weekend for the next James Bond film No Time to Die?

No Time to Die, starring Daniel Craig for the fifth time as James Bond, is the 25th installment in the Bond movie franchise (Economist, IMDB). The film is scheduled to be released domestically on 25 November (formerly 8 April) 2020, and the outcome will be determined with “Domestic Weekend” data for the weekend of 27-29 November (formerly 10-12 April) 2020 as reported by Box Office Mojo (BoxOfficeMojo). The opening weekends for the last two Bond films totaled: 

Skyfall (2012): $88,364,714 (BoxOfficeMojo)

Spectre (2015): $70,403,148 (BoxOfficeMojo)

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This is a question on the superforecasting site, Good Judgment. Some of the answers astonish me. People really think that not only we will be going to the cinema in large numbers by November, they reckon we’ll be going in even larger numbers than in the past.

I don’t think so. My estimate would be 99% chance it will be lower. (You’d have to sign up to see the answers.) The present crowd forecast is 40% think it will gross as much more than Skyfall, 35% more than Spectre but less than Skyfall. Only 25% think it’ll do less than Spectre. I think they’ll adjust that.
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10 days that changed Britain: “heated” debate between scientists forced Boris Johnson to act on coronavirus • Buzzfeed News

Alex Wickham:

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While the scientific debate was raging last week between experts, officials and ministers in face-to-face meetings and over emails and text messages, Johnson’s government was publicly insisting that the scientific advice showed the UK did not yet have to bring in more stringent measures to fight the virus.

Political aides tacitly criticised other countries who had taken more dramatic steps, claiming Britain was being “guided by the science” rather than politics.

Towards the end of last week, some ministers and political aides at the top of the government were still arguing that the original strategy of home isolation of suspect cases — but no real restrictions on wider society — was correct, despite almost every other European country taking a much tougher approach, and increasing alarm among SAGE experts.

The thought of months or even a year of social distancing was simply not feasible, some in Johnson’s team still thought at that point. They continued to privately defend the controversial “herd immunity” approach outlined to the media by Vallance, even as other aides scrambled to claim the UK had never considered it to be policy.

And there was fury behind the scenes among members of Johnson’s team at the likes of Rory Stewart and Jeremy Hunt, who had been publicly saying the government had got it wrong.

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Terrific reporting. If the government had acted 10 days earlier, the epidemic would have been slower (not smaller) and the economy would have crashed. Because it acted when it did, the epidemic is faster, and the economy is going to crash.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1269: the pandemic plan Trump’s team ignored, UK gov tracking Londoners, Netflix degrades to ease the load, nobody’s eating out, and more


Those fitness measurements are going to start feeling a lot more annoying as social isolation bites. CC-licensed photo by Forth With Life on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. “We are in a race between education and catastrophe”, as HG Wells said. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Coronavirus outbreak: a cascade of warnings, heard but unheeded • The New York Times

David Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan and Michael Crowley:

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The outbreak of the respiratory virus began in China and was quickly spread around the world by air travelers, who ran high fevers. In the United States, it was first detected in Chicago, and 47 days later, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By then it was too late: 110 million Americans were expected to become ill, leading to 7.7 million hospitalized and 586,000 dead.

That scenario, code-named “Crimson Contagion,” was simulated by the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services in a series of exercises that ran from last January to August.

The simulation’s sobering results — contained in a draft report dated October 2019 that has not previously been reported — drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.
The draft report, marked “not to be disclosed,” laid out in stark detail repeated cases of “confusion” in the exercise. Federal agencies jockeyed over who was in charge. State officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and states went their own ways on school closings.

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The story makes clear that those at the lower levels had done the exercise multiple times, and knew what to do; but that message wasn’t allowed to permeate up. When you’re only allowed to pass good news up, the organisation becomes fragile.
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UK government using mobile location data to tackle outbreak • Sky News

Alexander Martin:

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The government is working with mobile network O2 to analyse anonymous smartphone location data to see whether people are following its social distancing guidelines, Sky News has learned.

The partnership began following a tech summit at Number 10, where officials discussed coronavirus outbreak planning with representatives from the UK’s largest phone networks.

A spokesperson for O2 confirmed that the company was providing aggregated data to the government so it could observe trends in public movements, particularly in London.

The project will not be able to track individuals and is not designed to do so…

…Network operators are able to determine the location of individual phones to varying levels of accuracy, and most have tools which would show mobile devices as single dots on a map.

This is not the level of access the government is seeking.

In order to comply with data protection law, which considers combining multiple datasets a “high risk” activity, the government has only asked O2 for its location data, rather than asking all the UK mobile networks.

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Legal, but a slippery slope.
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Hey fitness apps, stop shaming us while we social distance • Gizmodo

Victoria Song:

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App notifications can be helpful reminders to keep moving and maintain your fitness routine—in normal times. These are not normal times.

The hourly alerts my smartwatch sends me to get up and walk around were annoying before social distancing was a thing. Now they’re driving me insane. Is it because these notifications are a clear reminder my gadgets and apps have no idea Covid-19 is taking the world by storm? Or is it the indignity that comes with an app shaming me for doing the responsible thing and staying indoors? Maybe I’m just upset that these notifications keep jolting me back to the reality of this godawful timeline.

For what it’s worth, experts have said you can still go outside to exercise, provided you stay six feet away from other humans and avoid touching your face. Walks and runs have kept me sane as I spent most of my day sequestered in a 550-square-foot studio apartment with my partner and our two pets. But you know what I don’t need? A notification from my Apple Watch telling me that usually my activity rings are much further along by now. Yeah, I know. But even as I rationalize I’m not a Bad Person for continuing to run outside four times a week, it sucks to be reminded that I’m limited to an hour or so a day of stretching my legs…

…A quick poll of my coworkers revealed that I am not alone in my fitness app-induced anxiety. Strava has apparently bugged one coworker to start an activity. No, YOU start an activity, Strava. We are currently chained to our keyboards producing content and social distancing. The Samsung Health app shamed another coworker, while several noted their Apple Watches have chided them over unclosed rings.

I know I can turn all these notifications off. I’ll probably get around to it at some point. But in the meantime, we could all probably use a cathartic, collective venting session.

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Apple finally admits Microsoft was right about tablets • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Apple has spent the past 10 years trying to convince everyone that the iPad and its vision of touch-friendly computing is the future. The iPad rejected the idea of a keyboard, a trackpad, or even a stylus, and Apple mocked Microsoft for taking that exact approach with the Surface. “Our competition is different, they’re confused,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook as he stood onstage to introduce the new Macs and iPads six years ago. “They chased after netbooks, now they’re trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs. Who knows what they will do next?”

Every iPad has transformed into a Surface in recent years, and as of this week, the iPad Pro and Surface Pro look even more alike. Both have detachable keyboards, adjustable stands, trackpads, and styluses. With iPadOS getting cursor and mouse support this week, Apple has finally admitted that Microsoft was right about tablets. Let me explain why…

…Despite the hardware additions, Apple persisted with its touch-first vision for the iPad. Using a keyboard with the iPad was an ergonomic disaster. You’d have to lift your hands away from the keyboard to touch the screen and adjust text or simply navigate around the OS. It didn’t feel natural, and the large touch targets meant there was no precision for more desktop-like apps. Alongside Apple’s refusal to bring touchscreen support to the Mac, it was clear something had to change.

The first signs of a new direction for the iPad arrived with iPadOS and the hints at cursor support last year. Apple is now introducing trackpad and mouse support fully in iPadOS, and you can use an existing Bluetooth device. Unlike pointer support you’d find in Windows or macOS, Apple has taken a clever approach to bringing it to a touch-friendly OS like iPadOS. The pointer only appears when you need it, and it’s a circular dot that can change its shape based on what you’re pointing at. That means you can use it for precision tasks like spreadsheets or simply use multitouch gestures on a trackpad to navigate around iPadOS.

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Apple gets there in the end with the best solutions. Sometimes it’s quick (iPhone), sometimes it’s reaallly slow, as here.
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Netflix to slow Europe transmissions to avoid broadband overload • The Guardian

Mark Sweney:

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Netflix has agreed to slow down the speed at which it delivers shows to subscribers to reduce its traffic across Europe by 25% – a measure that may affect picture quality for some viewers – in a deal with the EU to ensure that broadband networks perform adequately as millions of people confined to their homes go online.

Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings agreed to slow the bit rate at which it delivers programming, which determines the size and quality of video and audio files, across Europe and the UK for 30 days. Netflix has 51 million users across Europe, including 11 million in the UK.

The agreement comes after talks with Thierry Breton, the industry commissioner of the EU’s executive arm, the European commission.

“Following the discussions between commissioner Thierry Breton and Reed Hastings – and given the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus – Netflix has decided to begin reducing bit rates across all our streams in Europe for 30 days,” said a Netflix spokesman.

“We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for our members.”

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You probably won’t notice the difference unless you’re paying for the top-end 4K package. Certainly, there is a notable rise in traffic across the London Linx (internet exchange) in the past couple of days.
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The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2 • Nature Medicine

Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Institute, and others, use genetic analysis to figure out quite where the novel coronavirus came from:

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identifying the closest viral relatives of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in animals will greatly assist studies of viral function. Indeed, the availability of the RaTG13 bat sequence helped reveal key RBD mutations and the polybasic cleavage site.

The genomic features described here may explain in part the infectiousness and transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimized RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.

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It’s come to something when scientists feel they have to answer the question “OMG WHAT IF IT WAS CREATED BY US IN A LABORATORY??”
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Good Judgment Project 2.0

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Curious about how you size up against world-class problem-solvers and forecasters – and about how much better your can get?

Our starter exercise will be a coronavirus forecasting tournament that will let your benchmark your performance against a range of benchmarks, from dart-tossing chimps to seasoned professionals and Superforecasters.

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Yes, it’s superforecasting, this time focussing on coronavirus. There is an ongoing superforecasting set of questions on the normal Good Judgement site; the one linked here is a new project which is running for three months, and wants slightly more time and attention. You might find you have both.
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The state of the restaurant industry • OpenTable

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As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps people home and some cities, states, and countries limit restaurant operations, our community of nearly 60,000 restaurants faces unprecedented challenges. We’ve summarized the data we have from the restaurants on our platform and are updating it daily.

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The numbers are horrific. Australia is the outlier, down “only” 43%. Canada is down 94% (at the time of writing). It’s practically impossible to imagine the knock-on effects that this is having on lives and economies. And yet the vast majority of us (and you in particular) should survive, just on the statistics of it. Yet we can’t ignore the risk that “business as usual” would do, not just in spreading it to vulnerable populations, but the opportunity cost it creates. If someone aged 60 is on a ventilator with Covid-19, that ventilator isn’t available to someone aged 20 who has been in a road accident. (Thanks Richard B for the link.)
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COVID-19 and Italy: what next? • The Lancet

Professor Andrew Remuzzi and Prof Guiseppe Remuzzi:

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Italy has had 12 462 confirmed cases according to the Istituto Superiore di Sanità as of March 11, and 827 deaths. Only China has recorded more deaths due to this COVID-19 outbreak. The mean age of those who died in Italy was 81 years and more than two-thirds of these patients had diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, or cancer, or were former smokers.

It is therefore true that these patients had underlying health conditions, but it is also worth noting that they had acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pneumonia, needed respiratory support, and would not have died otherwise. Of the patients who died, 42·2% were aged 80–89 years, 32·4% were aged 70–79 years, 8·4% were aged 60–69 years, and 2·8% were aged 50–59 years (those aged >90 years made up 14·1%). The male to female ratio is 80% to 20% with an older median age for women (83·4 years for women vs 79·9 years for men).

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What I found worth noting is the huge disparity in male v female, which has also been seen in China and Sweden. (No data I know of from Iran.) Alasdair Allan on Twitter pointed out that this might be due to lung damage from smoking many years ago: if men were heavier smokers than women 40 years ago (and up to the present day), that might be an explanation. The Tobacco Atlas suggests that deaths from smoking-related diseases has a 72:28 male:female split in Italy, which seems confirmatory – except if you investigate the numbers for Sweden, they’re 1:1 from smoking deaths.

Even so, it’s a point to bear in mind if you’ve ever smoked for an extended period in your life.
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