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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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’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

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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

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