Start Up No.1265: Twitter’s stalled cleanup, get bouncing!, the other benefits of trees to cities, and much more on coronavirus


We’ve got a lot more to tell you, unfortunately. CC-licensed photo by duncan c on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Try them at home. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


A quick note: most of the links here (after the first few) are, you’ll find, about coronavirus. That’s because this is probably going to be an important week in the course of the infection: slowing it down now could save many lives in the longer term. Also, there’s not a lot of technology news going around.

Stay distant, stay well.


The history of the trampoline • Smithsonian Magazine

David Kindy:

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When 16-year-old George Nissen of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, attended the circus in 1930, an idea started to form within the young gymnast’s mind. He watched the aerialists drop from their perches up high in the big top and land with a soft bounce on the safety net below.

Could he create a contraption that would allow a person to keep on bouncing?

It would take a number of years and a few failed prototypes, but Nissen finally found success. His invention, which he labeled a “tumbling device,” was granted a patent 75 years ago on March 6, 1945. He later received a registered trademark for “Trampoline,” which came from el trampolín, the Spanish word for “diving board.”…

…World War II is when the trampoline’s potential began to bounce into view. The military latched on to it as a training device for pilots, to allow them to learn how to reorient themselves to their surroundings after difficult air maneuvers. The pilots practiced pirouetting in midair on the trampolines to simulate combat conditions.

That relationship with the military would later extend to the space program, thanks in part to a fortuitous meeting. Near the end of World War II, Nissen was introduced to a young pilot who had gone through the trampoline training. Both were in the Navy and so shared that fraternal bond. They hit it off and became friends for life.

The pilot was Scott Carpenter, who would later become one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts. Together, they would help introduce the trampoline into space training at NASA and eventually create a game known as Spaceball. Two people would face off on a three-sided trampoline with a frame in the middle featuring a hole. While bouncing to and fro, one competitor would throw the ball through the hole and the other would have to stop it to save a point. (Watch it being played.)

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Never saw that on Star Trek, did you.
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Jack Dorsey’s push to clean up Twitter stalls, researchers say • WSJ

Deepa Seetharaman:

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Twitter said there have been delays in getting research projects off the ground, caused in part by employee turnover and shifting priorities within the company [eg fighting off activist investors looking to oust Jack Dorsey – CA], but added it would continue to build tools to minimize abuse.

“I think you can absolutely combine serving healthy conversation with growth,” Nick Pickles, Twitter’s global director of public-policy strategy, said.

Two academic teams who initially set out to work with Twitter have abandoned their plans, while another group is struggling to get some of the data initially promised. Members of Twitter’s advisory council of researchers, activists and other experts say they feel boxed out by the company.

Since his tweets on the issue, Mr. Dorsey has grown less involved with academics and activists who have volunteered to help Twitter, according to researchers and activists involved in those initiatives.

Twitter declined to make Mr. Dorsey available for comment.

“We had expectations that we’d be able to influence the world with our expertise,” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “It’s disappointing.”

Ms. Simon-Thomas is a member of Twitter’s more than 40-person Trust and Safety Council, set up in 2016 as a forum for experts to advise the company on how to prevent abuse on the platform.

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As much as anything, seems to be caused by staff turnover at Twitter, and some indifference on Dorsey’s part – though he might reasonably think he can delegate it.
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How London’s trees help boost the local economy • CityLab

Feargus O’Sullivan:

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London’s leafy streets and gardens have long been prized for their beauty — and more recently their ability to counteract carbon emissions and improve air quality. But the value of urban trees can also be measured with money. A new report from Britain’s Office of National Statistics estimates tree cover saved the capital more than £5bn ($6.56bn) from 2014 to 2018 through air cooling alone. Additionally, by keeping summer temperatures bearable for workers, trees prevented productivity losses of almost £11bn.

The estimates underline just how vital the role trees play is in making cities comfortable and functional in a warming world — particularly in London. An unusually long, hot summer in 2018 pushed cost savings estimates to their highest level to date.  

Part of the study’s purpose is to promote planting trees and maintaining green spaces, according to Hazel Trenbirth, a member of the ONS’ Natural Capital team, which looks at cost savings of greenery across the U.K.

“Britain’s trees have a value that goes far beyond what you can get from chopping them down,” she said.

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Yay trees! They also remove pollutants and of course sequester a growing amount of carbon.
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Facebook is shutting down MSQRD, the AR selfie app it acquired in 2016 • The Verge

Taylor Lyles:

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On April 13th, Facebook will remove the MSQRD app from both the Android and iOS app stores. Facebook purchased MSQRD in 2016, and the AR app played a key role in boosting Facebook’s internal portfolio of AR image and video tools. One of those tools, Spark AR, lets you create custom face filters for Facebook and Instagram.

As Business Insider pointed out, following the acquisition, Facebook promised that MSQRD would remain a standalone app and continue to provide updates, but the tech giant stopped supporting the app by the end of 2016.

Over the last several years, face filtering has become a popular feature on social media apps, with Instagram and Snapchat offering built-in face-swapping tools. Because of their popularity, an app like MSQRD may have seemed unnecessary for many.

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The implication seems to be that AR is just becoming part of the software, rather than a necessarily separate thing.
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How to talk to your kids about coronavirus • PBS KIDS for Parents

Deborah Farmer Kris:

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Earlier this week, I overheard my kids engaged in a round of “I heard” and “Did you know?” while they were getting ready for bed.

“I heard that Margaret’s dad has it,” said my six-year-old.

“Did you know that it’s the worst sickness ever?” added my eight-year-old.

Neither statement is accurate, but they were revealing: I had thought my initial conversations with my kids about COVID-19 had been good enough. But with adults, kids at school and the news all hyper-focused on this coronavirus outbreak, my reassuring voice needed to be a little louder.

A favorite Mister Rogers’ quote ran through my mind: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

So before lights out, we talked. I asked what they had heard about the coronavirus. We got it all out — their questions, their “I heards” and their fears. The rest of the conversation had three themes.

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Worth reading. Kids need to know that they’re safe – which, thankfully, seems to be true.
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The man who saw the pandemic coming • Nautilus

Kevin Berger interviews Dennis Carroll, an expert in zoonotic diseases who set up a USAID project in 2009 to forecast what might come from animals:

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Have there been disturbances in their environments that have brought bats closer to us?

DC: The disturbances in their environments are us. We’ve penetrated deeper into ecozones we’ve not occupied before.

KB: What’s a telling example of our incursion?

DC: In Africa, we see a lot of incursion driven by oil or mineral extraction in areas that typically had few human populations. The problem is not only moving workers and establishing camps in these domains, but building roads that allow for even more movement of populations. Roads also allow for the movement of wildlife animals, which may be part of a food trade, to make their way into urban settlements. All these dramatic changes increase the potential spread of infection.

KB: Are spillover events more common now than 50 years ago?

DC: Yes. EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO, and others, looked at all reported outbreaks since 1940. They came to a fairly solid conclusion that we’re looking at an elevation of spillover events two to three times more than what we saw 40 years earlier. That continues to increase, driven by the huge increase in the human population and our expansion into wildlife areas. The single biggest predictor of spillover events is land-use change—more land going to agriculture and more specifically to livestock production.

I’m stunned by the absolute absence of global dialogue for what is a global event.

KB: Is there something specific about a virus that makes it zoonotic?

DC: You can argue viruses aren’t living organisms. They’re sheets of proteins encapsulating some DNA or RNA. Beyond that, they have no machinery to be able to live on their own. They’re looking for an ecosystem that has all of the other cellular machinery essential for replication. They can’t live outside another animal population. They need that animal to replicate. And we’re just one more animal. We think of ourselves as something special. But viruses are infecting us with exactly the same purpose they infect a bat or a civet cat.

«

Carroll’s funding at USAID wasn’t renewed in 2019. He’s now at the Global Virome Project, which “aims to find the majority of unknown viruses before they find us”.

Its February 2018 press release is headlined “Ambitious Global Virome Project could mark end of pandemic era”. Ah well.
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Coronavirus tracked: the latest figures as the pandemic spreads • Financial Times

Steve Bernard and Cale Tilford:

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The virus’s proliferation has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, meaning it is spreading rapidly in different parts of the world. More than 140 countries have confirmed cases so far. 

The coronavirus has now taken hold in Europe, with the largest number of confirmed cases in Italy. In most western countries case numbers have been increasing by about 33% a day, a sign that other countries may soon be facing the same challenge as Italy.

The Asian city-state of Singapore and the territory of Hong Kong are on a different trajectory in terms of the growth in case numbers. The rate of increase has so far been relatively contained through rapid and strict measures.

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At 33% per day (ie, 1.33^y), after seven days you have a sevenfold increase; after 14 days, a 54-fold increase. That’s cases, mind you, not necessarily infections, which could easily be higher.

And that’s a hell of a thing. 33% per day. As I said last week, we’re really bad at comprehending exponential increase because it’s so rare in nature. A doctor pointed out to me that the spread of infection like this follows a logistic sigmoid curve (the classic S-shape). But in the early stage, you can’t see the difference between “exponential” and “logistic”; that’s not evident until you’re at the 50% mark and growth becomes “just” linear.
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xkcd: 2010 and 2020


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Contrary to Trump’s claim, Google is not building a nationwide coronavirus screening website • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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Google is not working with the US government in building a nationwide website to help people determine whether and how to get a novel coronavirus test, despite what President Donald Trump said in the course of issuing an emergency declaration for the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, a much smaller trial website made by another division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is going up. It will only be able to direct people to testing facilities in the Bay Area.

More than an hour after Trump’s press conference, a Google communications Twitter account passed along the following statement from Verily, which is a different company inside the Alphabet corporate umbrella:

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We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time. We appreciate the support of government officials and industry partners and thank the Google engineers who have volunteered to be part of this effort.

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Carolyn Wang, communications lead for Verily, told The Verge that the “triage website” was initially only going to be made available to health care workers instead of the general public. Now that it has been announced the way it was, however, anybody will be able to visit it, she said. But the tool will only be able to direct people to “pilot sites” for testing in the Bay Area, though Wang says Verily hopes to expand it beyond California “over time.”

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Trump also thought it would sound impressive to say that 1,700 people were working on the website. In fact, Sundar Pichai put out a call for people to help on the site earlier in the week and received 1,700 responses. Of course nobody in the White House puts any store on accuracy.

But to anyone with experience building websites, saying 1,700 people are working on a new one is a terrifying idea. It would take forever. If you had 17 people, you’d get it done 100 times faster.
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Apple’s WWDC 2020 kicks off in June with an all-new online format • Apple

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Apple today announced it will host its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June. Now in its 31st year, WWDC 2020 will take on an entirely new online format packed with content for consumers, press and developers alike. The online event will be an opportunity for millions of creative and innovative developers to get early access to the future of iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS, and engage with Apple engineers as they work to build app experiences that enrich the lives of Apple customers around the globe.

“We are delivering WWDC 2020 this June in an innovative way to millions of developers around the world, bringing the entire developer community together with a new experience,” said Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. “The current health situation has required that we create a new WWDC 2020 format that delivers a full program with an online keynote and sessions, offering a great learning experience for our entire developer community, all around the world. We will be sharing all of the details in the weeks ahead.”

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I will admit that I laughed aloud when I saw this. It’s such a wonderful “hey, the supermarket shelves are half-full, not half-empty!” response to the coronavirus epidemic, while not using the words “coronavirus” or “Covid-19”; it just refers, once, to “the current health situation”.

Apple is also giving $1m to “local San Jose organisations” to try to offset revenue loss. At the average of 6,000 attendees, and let’s say another 1,000 associated visitors, that’s $142 each for the whole week. I think most attendees spend at least $1,000 in the week. That $6m gap gives you some idea of the revenue hit that many businesses are taking.

And that’s before we get into hotels’ and airlines’ lost revenues.
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Coronavirus forecast • Spatial Ecology and Evolution Lab

Ben Phillips, head of the lab:

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I’ve made a shiny app that gives a ten-day forecast, by country, on likely numbers of coronavirus cases.

The app is designed to give people a sense of how fast this epidemic is progressing, as well as one of the key uncertainties; the true number of cases.

At the time of writing (13 March 2020), it is very impressive to see how things are progressing in China, Korea, and Japan, and quite alarming to see how things are progressing elsewhere.

The top graph gives the raw number of cases each day, with a ten-day projection. The projection is based on the bottom graph, which are the same data plotted on a log scale: exponential growth presents as a straight line on the log scale. So I fit a straight line to the last ten days of data, extrapolate it by ten days, and project that up onto the original scale in the top graph.

The method assumes that deaths do not go unnoticed, that the case fatality rate is about 2.5% and it takes about 17 days for people that are going to die to die. Under these assumptions we look at the number of deaths in a five day period, and estimate the number of infections required to generate these deaths (expected = deaths/0.025), we compare that to the number of new cases detected in the five day period 17 days earlier (observed), and use observed/expected to estimate a detection probability. Please take this number with a big dose of salt, but it does give you some indication of how good/bad it might be in each country.

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I really do recommend that you take a look at the forecast app. The short version: we’ve got some real trouble ahead. On the basis of 10% of cases requiring hospital attention, all sorts of other healthcare elements (cancer diagnosis and treatment, road accidents, chronic treatments) are going to have to be heavily triaged.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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