Start Up No.1282: NHS coronavirus app shows mission creep, WhatsApp cuts group sharing, YouTube bans 5G conspiracies, block that Cobol!, and more


Could AI help interpret chest CT scans during the coronavirus crisis? CC-licensed photo by Simon Lee on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The NHS coronavirus app could track how long you spend outside • WIRED UK

Gian Volpicelli:

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The NHS is drawing up plans that could see it expand the remit of its coronavirus contact-tracing app to enforce social distancing by warning people if they spend too much time outside.

The smartphone app, currently under development at the health service’s innovation unit NHSX, is expected to be released within weeks. Its main purpose has been reported as “contact-tracing”: it would keep tabs of users’ encounters with their contacts through Bluetooth, and then automatically notify those people if a user is infected with coronavirus.

Internal documents seen by WIRED reveal that the people working on the project are exploring whether the app could be retooled with extra functions that could allow it to boost social distancing measures that have been in place since March 23.

These distancing measures could be accomplished by using the app to notify users if they spend more than one hour out of their houses by nudging them to go back home, or to warn them if they are coming too close to other groups of people who have downloaded the app.

WIRED understands that the decision to assess the potential addition of these features was taken following a meeting between health secretary Matt Hancock, the government’s chief scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, and NHSX CEO Matthew Gould.

At this stage, the inclusion of such features is still only hypothetical.

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Mission creep at its finest. Only meant to note who you get close to, but instead starts bothering you about how long you’ve been out.
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Hospitals deploy AI tools to detect Covid-19 on chest scans • IEEE Spectrum

Megan Scudellari:

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AI-powered analysis of chest scans has the potential to alleviate the growing burden on radiologists, who must review and prioritize a rising number of patient chest scans each day, experts say. And in the future, the technology might help predict which patients are most likely to need a ventilator or medication, and which can be sent home.

“That’s the brass ring,” says Matthew Lungren, a pediatric radiologist at Stanford University Medical Center and co-director of the Stanford Center for Artificial Intelligence in Medicine and Imaging. “That would be the killer app for this.”

Some companies are selling their tools, others have released free online versions, and various groups are organizing large crowdsourced repositories of medical images to generate new algorithms.

“The system we designed can process huge amounts of CT scans per day,” says Hayit Greenspan, a professor at Tel-Aviv University and chief scientist of RADLogics, a healthcare software company that recently announced one such AI-based system. “The capability for quickly covering a huge population is there.” 

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So this could turn out to be an important proving ground for AI-based medicine. Though detecting the “ground glass” markings on lungs in scans isn’t hard, and the patients will often be showing plenty of distress by that time.
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Facebook’s WhatsApp battles coronavirus misinformation • WSJ

Newley Purnell:

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In one of the biggest changes WhatsApp has made to a core feature, the company said Tuesday that its more than two billion users globally can now send along frequently forwarded messages they receive to only one person or group at a time, down from five.

In recent weeks the company has “seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation,” the company said.

WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that enables users to click an icon next to frequently forwarded messages—those forwarded at least five times—to search the web for their contents and verify them before sending the message to others, a WhatsApp spokeswoman said.

World-wide, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, have been battling misinformation related to the coronavirus on their platforms. The European Union is reviving an alliance formed last year with U.S. tech companies to fight online political disinformation, now focusing on false information about the coronavirus.

While those platforms moderate content users post and can eliminate problematic material, all WhatsApp messages are encrypted. That helps turbocharge the spread of messages on WhatsApp, analysts say, since they can’t be traced to their original senders.

Though WhatsApp’s new measures apply globally and misinformation is passed on everywhere, the problem is particularly acute in developing countries such as India, its biggest market by users, with 400 million.

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So reducing the number of people a viral message can reach from five to one. Sort of… flattening the curve?
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Silicon Valley is going all out to fight coronavirus. That’s a risky move • POLITICO

Mark Scott:

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By doing all that they can to quell online falsehoods, protect at-risk workers and vaccinate much of the digital world from COVID-19, Silicon Valley and its counterparts across the Western world have acknowledged the crucial, systemic role they play in society — a position that is only growing more entrenched as the years go by.

They have also pulled back the curtain on how far these companies are able to go to regulate their own platforms. While the tech industry claims that much of what happens online is out of its hands, cannot be touched because of people’s right to freedom of expression or is based on people’s decisions to work independently, the current crisis has debunked those assertions once and for all.

Sure, governments too have shown their inability, so far, to create new binding rules for everything from stopping the rise of misinformation to creating a new playbook for the gig economy.

To be fair, tech companies have mostly stepped up to the plate to help combat COVID-19. But in doing so, they’ve handed regulators the perfect weapon in their broader push to regulate these platforms: clear examples of how the industry could police itself.

That will likely have serious consequences for Silicon Valley and others well after the coronavirus pandemic is finally brought under control.

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Coronavirus: YouTube tightens rules after David Icke 5G interview • BBC News

Leo Kelion:

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YouTube has banned all conspiracy theory videos falsely linking coronavirus symptoms to 5G networks.

The Google-owned service will now delete videos violating the policy. It had previously limited itself to reducing the frequency it recommended them in its Up Next section.

The move follows a live-streamed interview with conspiracy theorist David Icke on Monday, in which he had linked the technology to the pandemic. YouTube said the video would be wiped.

During the interview, Mr Icke falsely claimed there “is a link between 5G and this health crisis”.
And when asked for his reaction to reports of 5G masts being set on fire in England and Northern Ireland, he responded: “If 5G continues and reaches where they want to take it, human life as we know it is over… so people have to make a decision.” Several users subsequently called for further attacks on 5G towers in the comments that appeared alongside the feed.

Mr Icke also falsely claimed that a coronavirus vaccine, when one is developed, will include “nanotechnology microchips” that would allow humans to be controlled. He added that Bill Gates – who is helping fund Covid-19 vaccine research – should be jailed. His views went unchallenged for much of the two-and-a-half-hour show.

The interview was watched by about 65,000 people as it was streamed, some of whom clicked an on-screen button to trigger payments to make their live chat reactions stand out.

YouTube only deleted the content after the session had ended, despite being aware of the broadcast while it was ongoing.

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So that was one day from “demoting” to “removing”.
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The intrepid mother and son who unraveled a geographic hoax • Atlas Obscura

Matthew Taub:

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It was 3 a.m. on a nearly deserted island, and two hikers were badly lost. Roger Dickey and his mother, Ellie Talburtt, had been exploring Michigan’s Isle Royale—the least-visited national park in the United States—and were trying to recover the trail in the island’s murky and bewildering woods. This was not what they had had in mind for a mother-son getaway, no matter how good a story it would make if things turned out okay.

What had brought them there, and into this rather dicey situation, was something called Moose Boulder, a kind of geological matryoshka [Russian doll-within-a-doll-within-a-doll]. Here’s what makes Moose Boulder special, from the outside in: Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake, and its largest island is Isle Royale, whose largest lake is called Siskiwit, whose largest island is called Ryan. According to Wikipedia, at least, Ryan Island is home to a seasonal pond called Moose Flats that, when flooded, contains its own island—Moose Boulder. This makes it “the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake in the world.” Pity it’s not in Greenland, it could have gone all the way.

Spoiler: Mother and son made it out alive, but it wasn’t because they stumbled on a geological/hydrological anomaly that they could use to get their bearings. They couldn’t have, because, despite what the internet has to say, Moose Boulder almost surely doesn’t exist…

…By now, the odds seemed overwhelming to Dickey that Moose Boulder was a myth, a spasm of the internet’s imagination that had managed to proliferate and live on. But still, something didn’t quite add up. There was a missing piece to the puzzle that stopped Dickey short of declaring it all a hoax. He had found another article about Moose Boulder, published in 2009, that cited Wikipedia as its source of information. But the information about Moose Boulder had been added to Siskiwit Lake’s Wikipedia page in 2012. It was like a scene in a bad horror movie in which someone gets a phone call from a dead person.

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Wonderful writing; a sort of shaggy dog story, except it’s a boulder.
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NJ’s 40-year-old system increases delays for unemployment checks amid coronavirus crisis • NorthJersey.com

Ashley Balcerzak and Scott Fallon:

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Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said a plan to increase phone lines, train additional staff to handle claims and provide laptops to workers at home will help ease the crushing amount of claims being sought amid the economic meltdown brought upon by the virus. 

“There is nothing I want more than to put your hard-earned benefits into your family budget sooner,” he said at Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily coronavirus briefing.

Recently jobless New Jerseyans have experienced heavy lag times or issues while trying to collect unemployment insurance, partly due to a “clunky” 1980s computer  system that the Department of Labor still depends upon to process claims and issue checks.

“We literally have a system that is forty-plus years old,” Murphy said.

“There will be lots of postmortems and one of them on our list will be: how did we get here when we literally need COBOL programmers,” Murphy said of the outdated computer language.

Weekly unemployment insurance applications skyrocketed in recent weeks as Murphy ordered nonessential retail businesses closed and New Jerseyans to stay at home.

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Who had “Cobol” in their forecasts for 2020’s in-demand programming languages?
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The COBOL problem • S.Lott-Software Architect

Steve Lott:

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Objection: Yes, But, The COBOL Is Complicated

No. It’s not.

It’s a lot of code working around language limitations. There aren’t many design patterns, and they’re easy to find.

• Read, Validate, Write. The validation is quirky, but generally pretty easy to understand. In the long run, the whole thing is a JSONSchema document. But for now, there may be some data cleansing or transformation steps buried in here.
• Merged Reading. Execute the Transaction. Write. The transaction execution updates are super important. These are the state changes in object classes. They’re often entangled among bad representations of data.
• Cached Data. A common performance tweak is to read reference data (“Lookups”) into an array. This was often hellishly complex because… well… COBOL. It was a Python dict, for the love of God, there’s nothing to it. Now. Then. Well. It was tricky.
• Accumulators. Running totals and counts were essential for audit purposes. The updates could be hidden anywhere. Anywhere. Not part of the overall purpose, but necessary anyway.
• Parameter Processing. This can be quirky. Some applications had a standard dataset with parameters like the as-of-date for the processing. Some applications prompted an operator. Some had other quirky ways of handling the parameters.

The bulk of the code isn’t very complex. It’s quirky. But not complicated.

The absolute worst applications were summary reports with a hierarchy. We called these “control break” reports. I don’t know why. Each level of the hierarchy had its own accumulators. The data had to be properly sorted. It was complicated. 

Do Not Convert these. Find any data cleansing or transformation and simply pour the data into a CSV file and let the users put it into a spreadsheet.

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13-inch MacBook Pro with mini-LED display may arrive next month • BGR

Yoni Heisler:

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A new leak from Jon Prosser — who has been accurate with respect to Apple rumours in the past — claims that Apple may release a refreshed 13in MacBook Pro next month. Incidentally, Prosser adds that a display upgrade from 13in to 14in is a “big possibility.”

Lending credence to Prosser’s prediction is that Ming-Chi Kuo — who has a stellar record when it comes to Apple rumours — issued an investor note last month claiming that Apple will replace its 13-inch MacBook Pro with a 14.1in model. What’s more, Kuo said that the 14.1in model will boast a mini-LED display.

The inclusion of mini-LED displays on the MacBook Pro line would certainly be compelling as the technology allows for thinner and lighter displays. Further, the technology should also provide markedly better picture quality thanks to high contrast, local dimming, and impressive wide color gamut performance.

Mini-LED displays are rather expensive, so if this particular rumor pans out, it will likely be exclusive Apple’s pricier notebooks. Meanwhile, there are also rumors that Apple will release a 5G iPad Pro with a mini-LED display later this year.

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Mini-LED can offer higher contrast ratio, better brightness, greater power efficiency and doesn’t have OLED’s burn-in or degradation problems. It’s also pricey.

Still, at a time when everyone is finding it hard to focus on anything but That Story, distractions are nice.
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It’s a “cold war every day” inside this group at Apple • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz:

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A group inside Apple called Information Systems & Technology, or IS&T, builds much of the company’s internal technology tools — from servers and data infrastructure to retail and corporate sales software — and operates in a state of tumult.

IS&T is made up largely of contractors hired by rival consulting companies, and its dysfunction has led to a rolling state of war. “It’s a huge contractor org that handles a crazy amount of infrastructure for the company,” one ex-employee who worked closely with IS&T told me. “That whole organization is a Game of Thrones nightmare.”

Interviews with multiple former IS&T employees and its internal clients paint a picture of a division in turmoil, where infighting regularly prevents the creation of useful software, and whose contract workers are treated as disposable parts.

“There’s a Cold War going on every single day,” Archana Sabapathy, a former IS&T contractor who did two stints in the division, told me. Sabapathy’s first stint at IS&T lasted more than three years, the second only a day. Inside the division, she said, contracting companies such as Wipro, Infosys, and Accenture are constantly fighting to fill roles and win projects, which are handed out largely on the basis of how cheaply they can staff up to Apple’s needs.

“They’re just fighting for the roles,” Sabapathy told me. “That’s all they care about, not the work, not the deliverables, the effort they put in, or even talent. They’re not looking for any of those aspects.”

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This is an extract from Kantrowitz’s forthcoming book, about strategies and cultures inside various companies. I found this extract puzzling: is it somehow saying that this is holding Apple back? Or that it’s surprising that some work is contracted? Or that this work is contracted? It seems a really nothing story – and a little oversourced from Quora.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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