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.

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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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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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