Start Up No.1268: Apple’s MacBook Air gets updated keyboard, Facebook zaps legitimate news, what is ESPN without sports?, and more


Small but potentially deadly: a quirk of bats’ immune systems make dangerous viruses even more deadly. CC-licensed photo by Jennifer Krauel on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Don’t touch your face! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

China’s farmers fear food shortages after coronavirus restrictions • Financial Times

Sun Yu:

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Chinese farmers face a daunting planting season as they grapple with a shortage of labour, seed and fertiliser in the wake of a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus.

A Qufu Normal University survey last month of village officials in 1,636 counties found that 60% of respondents were pessimistic or very pessimistic about the planting season. 

The dismal mood has raised fears of a food shortage in the world’s most populous nation after disease control measures, led by traffic restrictions, took a toll on farming activity.

“China’s agricultural industry has collapsed without the free flow of labour and raw materials,” said Ma Wenfeng, an analyst at CnAgri, a consultancy in Beijing.

Chinese farms rely heavily on migrant workers and are struggling to find enough labourers after public transport was suspended to help stem the outbreak. 

Less than a third of local adults from 104 villages in 12 inland provinces had travelled outside their hometown for work after the lunar new year, according to Wuhan university. Normally, between 80% and 90% of adults would be working elsewhere. 

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We’re all looking at rents and mortgages. We should be looking at second-order effects – food shortages, and so higher food prices – and third-order effects such as unrest. Remember that the Arab Spring was triggered, in part, by rising wheat and thus bread prices.
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Facebook bug causes legitimate coronavirus posts to be marked as spam: executive • Reuters

Katie Paul:

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Facebook’s head of safety said on Tuesday a bug was responsible for posts on topics including coronavirus being erroneously marked as spam, prompting widespread complaints from users of both its flagship app and photo-sharing app Instagram.

“This is a bug in an anti-spam system, unrelated to any change in our content moderator workforce,” Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president for integrity, said on Twitter.

“We’ve restored all the posts that were incorrectly removed, which included posts on all topics – not just those related to COVID-19. This was an issue with an automated system that removes links to abusive websites, but incorrectly removed a lot of other posts too,” he said.

Facebook users shared screenshots with Reuters of notifications they had received saying articles from prominent news organizations including Axios and The Atlantic had violated the company’s community guidelines.

One user said she received a message saying “link is not allowed” after attempting to post a Vox article about the coronavirus in her Instagram profile.

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You leave the AI alone in the office for ONE day and… but why (as someone said in a similar situation recently) is the mistake always on the wrong side?
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Coronavirus and COVID-19 • Nature

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The latest news and opinion from Nature on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.

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Nature is one of two principal science journals; the other is Science, which is also making its coronavirus content available for free. Authoritative content.
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The tech execs who don’t agree with ‘soul-stealing’ coronavirus safety measures • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

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Michael Saylor does not often send all-staff emails to the more than 2,000 employees at Microstrategy, a business intelligence firm headquartered in Tysons Corner, Virginia. So the chief executive’s 3,000-word missive on Monday afternoon with the subject line My Thoughts on Covid-19 got his employees’ attention.

“It is soul-stealing and debilliating [sic] to embrace the notion of social distancing & economic hibernation,” Saylor wrote in an impassioned argument against adopting the aggressive responses to the coronavirus pandemic that public health authorities are advising. “If we wish to maintain our productivity, we need to continue working in [our] offices.”

As companies around the world adjust to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, including by allowing their employees to work from home in compliance with the national guidelines of many governments, some executives are attempting to continue doing business as usual. The trend is notable in the tech industry, where computer-based work can generally be performed from anywhere, but where the culture has often rewarded innovative and “disruptive” leaders who buck conventional wisdom.

Saylor argued that the “economic damage” of social distancing and quarantines was greater than “the theoretical benefit of slowing down a virus” and suggested that it would make more sense to “quarantine the 40 million elderly retired, immune compromised people who no longer need to work or get educated”.

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Where’s he going to quarantine them, precisely? This is like the humour writer Robert Benchley, who pointed out that as bilharzia (river blindness) was spread by worms, all you need to do to prevent it was “hide all the worms”. I commend Benchley’s quotes in these variegated times.
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What will ESPN do without sports during the coronavirus? • Vulture

Patrick Hruby:

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From March Madness to Major League Baseball, auto racing to international soccer, leagues and events have been suspended, postponed, and outright canceled, all in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The result for the sports world is an abrupt and unplanned hiatus — an indefinite, all-encompassing athletic shutdown that has left ESPN, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports,” facing a vast programming void. In March and April alone, ESPN will have to replace 60 lost NBA regular season and playoff games, 28 MLS matches, the entire NCAA women’s basketball tournament, and a number of other games and events. Moreover, its extended universe of ancillary programming — radio shows, podcasts, online articles, talk shows like Pardon the Interruption, news shows such as SportsCenter, and gambling and fantasy sports content — depends heavily on games being played, points being scored, and trash being talked.

“What is going to be on the air in lieu of live sports and talking about live sports?” Bilas says. “I don’t know the answer to that. That’s above my pay grade. What I know is that everything is on hold. There’s a level of uncertainty to business being conducted that I have never seen before.”

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Just waiting for the tennis at Wimbledon to be cancelled. Except when would they play it? The French Open, played on clay, has been postponed to September – when the weather should still be fine. (Quite what size of crowd they’ll allow is a separate question.) Grass, though, has a limited season. The end of August would probably be the limit.
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Russia deploying coronavirus disinformation to sow panic in West, EU document says • Reuters

Robin Emmott:

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Russian media have deployed a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, generate panic and sow distrust, according to a European Union document seen by Reuters.

The Kremlin denied the allegations on Wednesday, saying they were unfounded and lacked common sense.

The EU document said the Russian campaign, pushing fake news online in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French, uses contradictory, confusing and malicious reports to make it harder for the EU to communicate its response to the pandemic.

“A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing,” said the nine-page internal document, dated March 16, using the name of the disease that can be caused by the coronavirus.

“The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries…in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies,” the document produced by the EU’s foreign policy arm, the European External Action Service, said.

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Outbreak • Melting Asphalt

Kevin Simler has a range of simulations of disease outbreaks, including transmissibility, infectivity and so on. Here’s one about travel:

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Here’s another unrealistic assumption we’ve been making: we’ve been allowing people to interact only with their immediate neighbors.

What happens when we let people travel farther afield? (We’re still assuming 4 encounters per day, a parameter we’ll expose in the next section.)

As you pull the travel radius slider below, you’ll see a sample of the encounters that the center person will have on any given day. (We can’t draw everyone’s encounters because it would get too crowded. You’ll just have to use your imagination.) Note that in our model, unlike in real life, each day brings a new (random) set of encounters.

Note that if you restrict travel from the beginning (e.g., to a radius of 2 units), you can slow the infection down a great deal.

But what happens when you start with unrestricted travel, let the infection spread pretty much everywhere, and only restrict travel later?

In other words, how early in the infection curve do you have to curtail travel in order for it to meaningful slow the outbreak?

Go ahead, try it. Start with a travel radius of 25. Then play the simulation, pausing when you get to about 10% infected. Then reduce the travel radius to 2 and play it out. What happens?
Takeaway: travel restrictions are most useful when they’re applied early, at least for the purpose of flattening the curve. (So let’s get them in place!)

But travel restrictions can help even in the later stages of an outbreak, for at least two reasons:

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Apple announces new MacBook Air with improved keyboard, faster performance, and more storage • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro is no longer the company’s only laptop with a reliable keyboard. This morning, Apple announced a revamped MacBook Air with an improved scissor-switch keyboard, branded as the “Magic Keyboard” like the Pro, that ditches the controversial butterfly mechanism of the previous-generation model. It has the same 1mm of keyboard travel and inverted-T arrow keys as the 16-inch Pro.

The new Air also offers double the performance, according to Apple, featuring 10th-gen Intel Ice Lake processors (Y-series) up to a 1.2GHz quad-core Core i7. And it delivers 80% improved graphics performance, as the Air now features Intel Iris Plus Graphics. It comes with twice the storage as the prior machine — now starting with 256GB. You can configure it all the way up to 2TB.

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The Air is Apple’s best-selling laptop, and so best-selling PC. Indicative that Apple has moved to update the keyboard here, so soon after introducing the retina-screen version of the Air – which was July. The butterfly keyboard will surely be wiped out of its products by the end of the year.
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Apple announces new iPad Pro with trackpad support and a wild keyboard cover • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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the 11-inch and 12.9-inch sizes look identical to last year’s models, but there’s a new processor and new camera system inside them both. Apple’s headline feature is that it has a LIDAR scanner to go along with its camera for depth sensing and AR, but what most people are going to notice is that very new keyboard that you can get with it.

The keyboard unfolds and elevates the iPad to a more comfortable viewing position, as you can see above. It also has a trackpad on it. Apple says, “Rather than copying the experience from macOS®, trackpad support has been completely reimagined for iPad. As users move their finger across the trackpad, the pointer elegantly transforms to highlight user interface elements.” You can see very brief examples of it in use in the video below.

Apple is calling it a “Magic Keyboard,” matching the branding it recently used on the redesigned and improved MacBook keyboard. It is backlit, supports USB-C passthrough charging, and has a “smooth angle adjustment.” Unfortunately, it won’t be available until May, but it will be compatible with last year’s iPad Pros as well. And speaking of “unfortunately,” it will cost a whopping $299 for the 11-inch model and $349 for the 12.9-inch version.

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The compatibility with last year’s models is helpful, even if the price isn’t. I really don’t get the need for a LIDAR scanner. Meanwhile, the mouse support brings it closer and closer to a Mac.
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Lessons from Italy’s hospital meltdown. ‘every day you lose, the contagion gets worse’ • WSJ

Marcus Walker and Mark Maremont:

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Dr. Carr said he and other U.S. physicians have had informal calls with Italian doctors in recent weeks. “It’s terrible to hear them talk, but it benefits us to learn from it,” he said. One lesson, he said, is to build capacity for the expected influx of Covid-19 patients before it’s needed. Mount Sinai is clearing out space and creating new ICU beds, he said.

Bergamo shows what happens when things go wrong. In normal times, the ambulance service at the Papa Giovanni hospital runs like a Swiss clock. Calls to 112, Europe’s equivalent of 911, are answered within 15 to 20 seconds. Ambulances from the hospital’s fleet of more than 200 are dispatched within 60 to 90 seconds. Two helicopters stand by at all times. Patients usually reach an operating room within 30 minutes, said Angelo Giupponi, who runs the emergency response operation: “We are fast, in peacetime.”

Now, people wait an hour on the phone to report heart attacks, Dr. Giupponi said, because all the lines are busy. Each day, his team fields 2,500 calls and brings 1,500 people to the hospital. “That’s not counting those the first responders visit but tell to stay home and call again if their condition worsens,” he said.

Ambulance staff weren’t trained for such a contagious virus. Many have become infected and their ambulances contaminated. A dispatcher died of the disease Saturday. Diego Bianco was in his mid-40s and had no prior illnesses.

“He never met patients. He only answered the phone. That shows you the contamination is everywhere,” a colleague said. Mr. Bianco’s co-workers sat Sunday at the operations center with masks on their faces and fear in their eyes.

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The full article gives a glimpse of the apocalypse that is overwhelming hospitals. I’ll say it again: we’re terrible at comprehending exponential growth (which epidemics are in their early stages), and they quickly overtake our arithmetically-scaling facilities.
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Coronavirus outbreak raises question: why are bat viruses so deadly to humans? • ScienceDaily

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A new University of California, Berkeley, study finds that bats’ fierce immune response to viruses could drive viruses to replicate faster, so that when they jump to mammals with average immune systems, such as humans, the viruses wreak deadly havoc.

Some bats — including those known to be the original source of human infections — have been shown to host immune systems that are perpetually primed to mount defenses against viruses. Viral infection in these bats leads to a swift response that walls the virus out of cells. While this may protect the bats from getting infected with high viral loads, it encourages these viruses to reproduce more quickly within a host before a defense can be mounted.

This makes bats a unique reservoir of rapidly reproducing and highly transmissible viruses. While the bats can tolerate viruses like these, when these bat viruses then move into animals that lack a fast-response immune system, the viruses quickly overwhelm their new hosts, leading to high fatality rates.

“Some bats are able to mount this robust antiviral response, but also balance it with an anti-inflammation response,” said Cara Brook, a postdoctoral Miller Fellow at UC Berkeley and the first author of the study. “Our immune system would generate widespread inflammation if attempting this same antiviral strategy. But bats appear uniquely suited to avoiding the threat of immunopathology.”

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It also makes bats surprisingly long-lived, weighed against their size and heart rate. And they shed more viruses if their habitat is disrupted – eg by people burning down forests, capturing them for food, etc.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1268: Apple’s MacBook Air gets updated keyboard, Facebook zaps legitimate news, what is ESPN without sports?, and more

  1. In answer to your question, “why (as someone said in a similar situation recently) is the mistake always on the wrong side?”, isn’t this because the other form of mistake – removing borderline content that is within the rules but is generally seen as undesirable – attracts very little in the way of complaint? i.e. it might be happening just as often but we don’t get to hear about it as those involved are less likely to complain and when they do they’re less likely to get listened too?

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