Start Up No.1287: how the virus nearly crushed finance, Apple offers transport data, US hospitals chop jobs, should science publishing slow down?, and more


Pork might abruptly get pricier in the US, after a major processing plant shut down. CC-licensed photo by Brett Spangler on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. I have that power. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How coronavirus almost brought down the global financial system • The Guardian

Adam Tooze:

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A rout like the one that began on 9 March has a perverse logic. When fund managers face withdrawals from the people whose money they manage, they need cash and have to choose which assets to sell first. They might prefer to sell the riskiest investments, but those can be disposed of only for a large loss. So instead, they attempt to sell their most liquid and safe assets – government bonds. That means the prices of those bonds fall, dragging them into the maelstrom. This has the knock-on effect of unravelling a basic relationship on which many investors rely: typically, when shares go down, bonds go up, and vice versa. So to protect yourself against risk, you buy a portfolio made up of both. If everything works as it’s supposed to, the swings should balance each other out. But in the panic that began on 9 March, this was no longer happening: rather than balancing out, the price of shares and bonds were collapsing together. The only thing that anyone wanted to hold was cash, and what they wanted most of all were dollars. The surging US dollar in turn spread the pressure worldwide to everyone who owed money in that currency.

The Fed had desperately tried to halt the run. To signal its willingness to support the economy and ease the pressure on the world economy from the strong dollar, it had brought forward an interest rate cut that had been expected for the middle of the month. But with the darkening horizon, lower interest rates did little to help. Who would borrow or invest under such circumstances? Confidence was broken. Just how badly would become clear over the following two weeks.

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Fascinating and thorough writeup. (One extra thing to know, if you aren’t familiar with the stock/bond dance: a bond’s “yield” is how much it pays compared to its price. So if you buy it for $100 and it pays back $1 per year, it’s a 1% yield. If you sell it to someone who buys it for $95, it will still pay $1 – that’s because it’s a bond – so its yield to them is above 1%. If you sell it to someone for $105, its yield for them is lower than 1%. If lots of people bid to buy bonds, because they’re liquidating their shares as they fall, the bond’s face price goes up, so its yield goes down. OK? Now read the article.)
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Apple makes mobility data available to aid COVID-19 efforts • Apple

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Apple today released a mobility data trends tool from Apple Maps to support the impactful work happening around the globe to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This mobility data may provide helpful insights to local governments and health authorities and may also be used as a foundation for new public policies by showing the change in volume of people driving, walking or taking public transit in their communities. To learn more about COVID-19 mobility trends, visit apple.com/covid19/mobility.

Maps does not associate mobility data with a user’s Apple ID, and Apple does not keep a history of where a user has been. Using aggregated data collected from Apple Maps, the new website indicates mobility trends for major cities and 63 countries or regions. The information is generated by counting the number of requests made to Apple Maps for directions. The data sets are then compared to reflect a change in volume of people driving, walking or taking public transit around the world. Data availability in a particular city, country, or region is subject to a number of factors, including minimum thresholds for direction requests made per day.

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Tested on Tuesday night, it doesn’t seem to have a huge number of cities in the UK: London, Birmingham, Manchester, but not Liverpool, or Swansea, Cardiff, Glasgow or Edinburgh. Wonder if it will be expanded over time.
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US for-profit healthcare sector cuts thousands of jobs as pandemic rages • The Guardian

Michael Sainato:

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Healthcare is a trillion-dollar industry in the US, where hospitals and clinics are overwhelmingly run as businesses, and patients are the core of their revenue cycle. Americans are expected to have means to pay for their treatment, usually through expensive insurance linked to their jobs, though about 28 million people were uninsured in 2018, according to Kaiser Family Foundation.

“If you run healthcare as a business, if someone isn’t profitable for you, you lay [people] off. And that’s what we’re seeing,” said Dr David Himmelstein, distinguished professor of public health at City University of New York’s Hunter College and a lecturer in medicine at Harvard medical school. “The hospitals – exactly during a time of greatest need – are saying they don’t need these people.

“We have a healthcare system where you excel in normal times by stressing what’s needed the least, and then when we have an emergency and the need is greatest, you’re in financial trouble because you’re geared to do what’s profitable.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43,000 healthcare jobs were lost in March 2020, and the job losses in healthcare have increased as shutdowns persist through the pandemic. The HealthLandscape and American Academy of Family Physicians issued a report estimating by June 2020, 60,000 family medical practices will close or scale back, affecting 800,000 workers.

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The perverse incentives of the US healthcare system, starkly laid out: laying people off when the need is forecast to be highest.
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Disinformation on social media is deadlier than ever • Dame Magazine

Brooke Binkowski works at the fact-checking site Truth Or Fiction:

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now we’re at a major inflection point in social media’s history, the point that my colleagues and I tried to stop the world from getting to — now disinformation is quite literally a matter of life or death.

Twitter has stepped up here and there, suspending some accounts and deleting some tweets. Facebook, despite claiming it has the ability to limit the spread of false information by “80 percent,” has done almost nothing but warp discourse still more by even allowing their fact-checking initiatives, such as they are, to be twisted and politicized into oblivion.

But this won’t be enough.

The truth is that the same people who profess to so proudly uphold the First Amendment to defend racial epithets to the death almost always are mysteriously silent when Trump attacks established, respected journalists on live television — except to cheer him on. The truth is that these people want to be free to say whatever they like — but also free from the consequences of saying whatever they like. That has bent a necessary public discussion into a sick farce, and badly affected the world’s responses to a deadly pandemic.

And this is what social media needs to do, now, today: Deplatform the proudly ignorant disinformers pushing snake oil and false hopes. Do so swiftly and mercilessly. They will whine about freedom of speech. They will cry about censorship. Let them.

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She’s uncompromising: Laura Ingraham, Trump, Bolsonaro – ban them if they step over the line.
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How Google plans to push its coronavirus tracing feature to Android phones • VICE

Joseph Cox:

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Android is infamous for having a patchy at best update cycle, with some devices receiving updates and others going without. So how is the company going to push this feature out?

On a call with reporters Monday, Google said it was using the Play Services mechanism to update phones with the contact-tracing system. Not to be confused with the Play Store, Play Services is used to push new features to apps such as Google Maps or install new APIs without requiring a full update of the Android operating system itself.

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That was always going to be how it worked, though. It’s a completely reliable way for Google to get low-level updates out to phones going right back to 2015. Apple, presumably, will roll it out as part of a system update.
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Coming April 18: control your Zoom data routing • Zoom Blog

Brendan Ittelson is chief technology officer at Zoom:

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Beginning April 18, every paid Zoom customer can opt in or out of a specific data center region. This will determine the meeting servers and Zoom connectors that can be used to connect to Zoom meetings or webinars you are hosting and ensure the best-quality service.

Starting April 18, with respect to data in transit, Zoom admins and account owners of paid accounts can, at the account, group, or user level:

• Opt out of specific data center regions
• Opt in to specific data center regions

You will not be able to change or opt out of your default region, which will be locked. The default region is the region where a customer’s account is provisioned. For the majority of our customers, this is the United States.  

This feature gives our customers more control over their data and their interaction with our global network when using Zoom’s industry-leading video communication services.

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Zoom is responding quickly to the criticisms people are making. This is clearly about concerns over data being routed through China.
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Google readies its own chip for future Pixels and Chromebooks • Axios

Ina Fried:

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Google has made significant progress toward developing its own processor to power future versions of its Pixel smartphone as soon as next year — and eventually Chromebooks as well, Axios has learned.

The move could help Google better compete with Apple, which designs its own chips. It would be a blow to Qualcomm, which supplies processors for many current high-end phones, including the Pixel.

The chip, code-named Whitechapel, was designed in cooperation with Samsung, whose state-of-the-art 5-nanometer technology would be used to manufacture the chips, according to a source familiar with Google’s effort. Samsung also manufactures Apple’s iPhone chips, as well as its own Exynos processors.

In recent weeks, Google received its first working versions of the chip. However, the Google-designed chips aren’t expected to be ready to power Pixel phones until next year. Subsequent versions of Google’s chip could power Chromebooks, but that’s likely to be even further off.

In addition to an 8-core ARM processor, Whitechapel will also include hardware optimized for Google’s machine-learning technology. A portion of its silicon will also be dedicated to improving the performance and “always-on” capabilities of Google Assistant, the source said.

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That’s a big investment for something which is only going to power a few million devices – a couple of% of the world market at best.
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Will we face a meat shortage due to the coronavirus pandemic? • Poynter

Al Tompkins:

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This week, Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said it was shutting down its pork production facility because workers at the plant tested positive for COVID-19 and are linked to 238 cases in the community. One plant and one company may not seem like much, but this one outlet produces up to 5% of all American pork. Smithfield said it is “the number one U.S. producer of packaged meats.”

The plant intended to be closed for a few days, but South Dakota’s governor ordered it closed for two weeks. That’s 3,700 workers off the production line. Now, Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan said, “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.” He added that the nation’s meat supply is “perilously close” to the edge.

He said this because Smithfield is not the only meat plant to close or cut production. 

Tyson Foods suspended production at an Iowa pork plant and said it was due to, “more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 involving team members at the facility. In an effort to minimize the impact on our overall production, we’re diverting the livestock supply originally scheduled for delivery to Columbus Junction to some of our other pork plants in the region.”

National Beef Packing also suspended operations in Iowa.

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Now we will find out how much slack the American pork (and beef) supply chain has. Oh, and if you liked ketchup..
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Coronavirus puts farmworkers like me at risk • Fast Company

Pavithra Mohan:

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The community of Immokalee, Florida, is home to 25,000 farmworkers and the state’s thriving tomato industry, which is responsible for a third of the tomatoes produced across the US. Since 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has significantly improved working conditions for farmworkers in Florida, most of whom are migrant workers.

Now, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the group has turned its attention to sounding the alarm on the lack of protections for farmworkers who live and work in close quarters. At the time of writing, a Change.org petition by CIW calling on Florida governor Ron DeSantis to help protect farmworkers has more than 22,000 signatures. (Another group, Justice for Migrant Women, has organized a relief fund to support farmworkers and their families.)

Lupe Gonzalo, an organizer at CIW who has been a farmworker for 12 years, talked with Fast Company through a translator about the risks faced by agricultural workers, both in the fields and at home, and what can be done to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in farming towns such as Immokalee.

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There have been a handful of cases – so far – in Immokalee. It would be nice to think that these farmworkers will, like other Americans, receive a $1,200 booster from the government, but somehow I suspect it’ll go astray. America lives by WC Fields’s motto: never give a sucker an even break.

And just to repeat that figure: one-third of the tomatoes produced across the US, ketchup fans.
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Coronavirus tests science’s need for speed limits • The New York Times

Wudan Yan:

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The use and misuse of what’s posted on preprint servers is challenging the normal operations of these sites, and raising questions about how these and other forms of scientific publishing should function during a pandemic.

“Science is a conversation,” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, a physician and co-founder of Retraction Watch, a blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers. “Unfortunately people in times of crisis forget that science is a proposition and a conversation and an argument. I know everybody’s desperate for absolute truth, but any scientist will say that’s not what we’re dealing with.”

…Authors can withdraw their manuscript if they no longer stand behind the work. Among the Covid-19 papers that have been uploaded to both servers — 1,558 and growing — two have been withdrawn from bioRxiv and two from medRxiv.

Although preprints can rapidly add to important scientific discourse — a necessity during a pandemic — they often read like first drafts, and may contain language that risks misleading people who lack scientific expertise, says Samantha Yammine, a science communicator in Toronto. She says this creates problems when media outlets pick up on these studies…

…Dr. Inglis and his colleagues at bioRxiv and medRxiv have placed more limits on coronavirus submissions. On bioRxiv, scientists with expertise in outbreaks are taking a look at those papers. Since mid-February, they are rejecting manuscripts that propose possible coronavirus treatments solely based on computer modeling.

Some authors denied publication on the servers are understandably disappointed. “We might have been more willing to take this kind of work in the past,” Dr. Inglis said, “but now people are so desperate for things to work, I think it’s entirely OK for us to raise the bar to show more evidence.”

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‘White-collar quarantine’ over virus spotlights class divide • The New York Times

Noam Scheiber, Nelson D. Schwartz and Tiffany Hsu:

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across the country, there is a creeping consciousness that despite talk of national unity, not everyone is equal in times of emergency.

“This is a white-collar quarantine,” said Howard Barbanel, a Miami-based entrepreneur who owns a wine company. “Average working people are bagging and delivering goods, driving trucks, working for local government.”

Some of those catering to the well-off stress that they are trying to be good citizens. Mr. Michelson emphasized that he had obtained coronavirus tests only for patients who met guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rather than the so-called worried well.

Still, a kind of pandemic caste system is rapidly developing: the rich holed up in vacation properties; the middle class marooned at home with restless children; the working class on the front lines of the economy, stretched to the limit by the demands of work and parenting, if there is even work to be had.
“I do get that there are haves and have-nots,” said Carolyn Richmond, a Manhattan employment lawyer who is advising restaurant industry clients from her second home, on Long Island, as they engineer layoffs. “Do I feel guilty? No. But I do know that I am very lucky. I understand there’s a big difference between me and the people I work with every day.”

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And, as the story also points out, even the internet isn’t an equalising force: many households (guess what, the poorer ones) have dire broadband connections, if any at all. (Thanks to Jim for the link.)
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State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses • The Washington Post

Josh Rogin:

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In January 2018, the US Embassy in Beijing took the unusual step of repeatedly sending US science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which had in 2015 become China’s first laboratory to achieve the highest level of international bioresearch safety (known as BSL-4). WIV issued a news release in English about the last of these visits, which occurred on March 27, 2018. The US delegation was led by Jamison Fouss, the consul general in Wuhan, and Rick Switzer, the embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology and health. Last week, WIV erased that statement from its website, though it remains archived on the Internet.

What the US officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic…

…Inside the Trump administration, many national security officials have long suspected either the WIV or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab was the source of the novel coronavirus outbreak. According to the New York Times, the intelligence community has provided no evidence to confirm this. But one senior administration official told me that the cables provide one more piece of evidence to support the possibility that the pandemic is the result of a lab accident in Wuhan.

“The idea that it was just a totally natural occurrence is circumstantial. The evidence it leaked from the lab is circumstantial. Right now, the ledger on the side of it leaking from the lab is packed with bullet points and there’s almost nothing on the other side,” the official said.

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The NYT story says the US didn’t hear internal chatter in China that would be expected if someone had screwed up in a lab. I’d say that’s an important point. But it’s still a possibility, though very faint. The counterpoint is that so many of the original patients in Wuhan did have links to the Seafood Market. Where’s the lab-based explanation for that? (Thanks to Jim for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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