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:

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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:

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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?

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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[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.”

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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:

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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”:

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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

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