Start Up No.1292: Covid-19’s subtle killing, HCL tests show no benefits, Huawei caught fibbing (again), China targets Uyghurs via iOS, and more


If America’s going to pull out of its economic dive, it needs to start building real infrastructure – but is the spirit there? CC-licensed photo by Alan Burnett on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Pulse oximeters ahoy. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

IT’S TIME TO BUILD • Andreessen Horowitz

Marc Andreessen:

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Why aren’t we building Elon Musk’s “alien dreadnoughts” — giant, gleaming, state-of-the-art factories producing every conceivable kind of product, at the highest possible quality and lowest possible cost — all throughout our country?

You see it in transportation. Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?

Is the problem money? That seems hard to believe when we have the money to wage endless wars in the Middle East and repeatedly bail out incumbent banks, airlines, and carmakers. The federal government just passed a $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package in two weeks! Is the problem capitalism? I’m with Nicholas Stern when he says that capitalism is how we take care of people we don’t know — all of these fields are highly lucrative already and should be prime stomping grounds for capitalist investment, good both for the investor and the customers who are served. Is the problem technical competence? Clearly not, or we wouldn’t have the homes and skyscrapers, schools and hospitals, cars and trains, computers and smartphones, that we already have.

The problem is desire. We need to *want* these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. The problem is regulatory capture. We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things. And the problem is will. We need to build these things.

And we need to separate the imperative to build these things from ideology and politics. Both sides need to contribute to building.

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This is a stirring post; it would sound terrific as a speech coming from a presidential candidate (though it would be a lot more convincing coming from some than others). It’s a rousing vision of a potential future. (So I left the capitals in the post title.)

There has been criticism of this post, though: Andreessen is the person who famously proclaimed that “software is eating the world”, because it could scale so quickly once it had mapped what it was replacing. But factories, vaccines, buildings, trains, aircraft aren’t software. They’re things. You can drop them on your foot, and that demands care (and regulations) so that you don’t screw everything up calamitously. Getting aircraft software wrong has bigger effects than getting AirBnB software wrong, as Boeing could tell you.
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Dead and free: the new American Dream • Eudaimonia and Co

Umair Haque:

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Trump doesn’t just revel in cruelty, domination, hostility, and aggression — he revels in such things because he has genuinely never experienced true care, warmth, empathy, grace, or love. All his relationships are obvious proof of that. Men like Trump are made from just such a lack of love in childhood — and they try to fill that void forever, knowing that if love is beyond them, then at least maybe they can command obedience with fear.

Now, all that strikes a chord in a certain kind of American. The American who’s been just as traumatized and wounded as Trump. Not by inadequate parenting, in their case — but by a broken society. There’s the abandoned formerly upwards middle class white, the declining working class one, and so forth. They have been left in a profoundly hostile and aggressive world, one which feels perpetually threatening, frightening, unsafe — the world of American capitalism, where the most predatory and ruthless win everything, and the weak perish.

What they’ve learned, though, is just the same perverse lesson the unloved child does. They’ve learned to be like their oppressors — to value being predatory, ruthless, hostile, selfish, greedy. They have learned to punch down, seeking Mexican babies to blame for all their problems — instead of a badly broken system of predatory capital, helmed by billionaires, whose fake “thinktanks” and the propaganda they churn out teaches the very victims of that system to be it’s greatest proponents.

How else do you explain the bizarre spectacle of that kind of American crying to be “liberated” from lockdown? They feel they need to “go back to work” — not that they need massively more support from the government, which so far has offered them the equivalent of one week, though it’s already been a month, and going to be more. They don’t see any fault in the system — they want to go back to being cogs in its machine. They are willing to sacrifice their own health and that of their loves ones to do so. They’re martyrs for capitalism.

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This is the counterpoint to Andreessen’s post. Who’s going to build, and how? What will be their reward, in the short and the long term? Are those “builders” going to be rewarded in line with their importance to the economy?
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Coronavirus class conflict is coming • The Atlantic

Olga Khazan:

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To find out how these rifts might escalate, I spoke with 15 experts on the sociology and politics of class. When the dust settles, there’s of course a chance that low-income workers might end up just as powerless as they were before. But history offers a precedent for plagues being, perversely, good for workers. Collective anger at low wages and poor working protections can produce lasting social change, and people tend to be more supportive of government benefits during periods of high unemployment. One study that looked at 15 major pandemics found that they increased wages for three decades afterward. The Plague of Justinian, in 541, led to worker incomes doubling. After the Black Death demolished Europe in the 1300s, textile workers in northern France received three raises in a year. Old rules were upended: Workers started wearing red, a color previously associated with nobility.

The US has long been the sole holdout among rich nations when it comes to paid sick leave and other job protections. Now that some workers are getting these benefits for the coronavirus, they might be hard for businesses to claw back. If your boss let you stay home with pay when you had COVID-19, is he really going to make you come in when you have the flu?

“Is this going to be an inflection point where Americans begin to realize that we need government, we need each other, we need social solidarity, we are not all cowboys, who knew?” said Joan Williams, a law professor at UC Hastings and the author of White Working Class.

Many experts said one likely result of this outbreak will be an increase in populist sentiment. But it is not yet clear whether it will be leftist populism, in the style of Senator Bernie Sanders, or conservative populism, in the style of President Donald Trump. Leftist populism will likely emphasize the common struggle of the laid off, the low-paid, and the workers derided by their bosses as expendable.

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The infection that’s silently killing coronavirus patients • The New York Times

Richard Levitan:

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Even patients without respiratory complaints had Covid pneumonia. The patient stabbed in the shoulder, whom we X-rayed because we worried he had a collapsed lung, actually had Covid pneumonia. In patients on whom we did CT scans because they were injured in falls, we coincidentally found Covid pneumonia. Elderly patients who had passed out for unknown reasons and a number of diabetic patients were found to have it.

And here is what really surprised us: These patients did not report any sensation of breathing problems, even though their chest X-rays showed diffuse pneumonia and their oxygen was below normal. How could this be?

We are just beginning to recognize that Covid pneumonia initially causes a form of oxygen deprivation we call “silent hypoxia” — “silent” because of its insidious, hard-to-detect nature.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs in which the air sacs fill with fluid or pus. Normally, patients develop chest discomfort, pain with breathing and other breathing problems. But when Covid pneumonia first strikes, patients don’t feel short of breath, even as their oxygen levels fall. And by the time they do, they have alarmingly low oxygen levels and moderate-to-severe pneumonia (as seen on chest X-rays). Normal oxygen saturation for most persons at sea level is 94% to 100%; Covid pneumonia patients I saw had oxygen saturations as low as 50%.

To my amazement, most patients I saw said they had been sick for a week or so with fever, cough, upset stomach and fatigue, but they only became short of breath the day they came to the hospital. Their pneumonia had clearly been going on for days, but by the time they felt they had to go to the hospital, they were often already in critical condition.

In emergency departments we insert breathing tubes in critically ill patients for a variety of reasons. In my 30 years of practice, however, most patients requiring emergency intubation are in shock, have altered mental status or are grunting to breathe. Patients requiring intubation because of acute hypoxia are often unconscious or using every muscle they can to take a breath. They are in extreme duress. Covid pneumonia cases are very different.

A vast majority of Covid pneumonia patients I met had remarkably low oxygen saturations at triage — seemingly incompatible with life — but they were using their cellphones as we put them on monitors.

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This disease has more and more strange, deadly quirks. The most notable is the death rate difference between sexes; now this. The good advice in the article: buy a pulse oximeter, which tells you how well your lungs are oxygenating your blood. (Thanks George, who advised I get one when I was ill.) It will tell you how you’re doing. Anything from £20 to £80, but what price not dying?
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More deaths, no benefit from malaria drug in VA virus study • Associated Press

Marilynn Marchione:

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A malaria drug widely touted by President Donald Trump for treating the new coronavirus showed no benefit in a large analysis of its use in U.S. veterans hospitals. There were more deaths among those given hydroxychloroquine versus standard care, researchers reported.

The nationwide study was not a rigorous experiment. But with 368 patients, it’s the largest look so far of hydroxychloroquine with or without the antibiotic azithromycin for COVID-19, which has killed more than 171,000 people as of Tuesday.

The study was posted on an online site for researchers and has has not been reviewed by other scientists…

…About 28% who were given hydroxychloroquine plus usual care died, versus 11% of those getting routine care alone. About 22% of those getting the drug plus azithromycin died too, but the difference between that group and usual care was not considered large enough to rule out other factors that could have affected survival.

Hydroxychloroquine made no difference in the need for a breathing machine, either.

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Would certainly like to know how it goes with preexisting conditions, but so far all that HCL has been shown to be good for is causing heart problems. How surprising that Trump and his performing monkey Rudy Guiliani should have backed a loser in an area neither understands.

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Not like the flu, not like car crashes, not like • The New Atlantis

Ari Schulman, Brendan Foht and Samuel Matlack:

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ow deadly is Covid-19 compared to seasonal flu, past pandemics, or car crashes?

To offer context, we have produced two charts showing coronavirus deaths along with deaths from other common causes in the past to which the disease has recently been compared. One chart shows deaths for the United States, the other for New York, the state hardest hit.


Note that the data sets begin at different points in the year (as marked on the left). Also note that the figures shown here are for new deaths each week, not for cumulative deaths.

The chart shows deaths per capita to allow for comparison of data from different years. Deaths are shown from:
• Covid-19, starting from February 17. (Covid Tracking Project)
• The 2017-18 flu season: This was the deadliest recent flu season. The chart shows one line for deaths attributed directly to flu, and another for deaths attributed to either flu or pneumonia. The smaller line is an undercount of flu-caused deaths, the larger is an overcount, with the real number lying somewhere in between. (More on this below.) The data begin on October 1, 2017, which the CDC considered the first week of that flu season. (CDC)
• Heart disease and cancer: The first and second leading causes of death in the United States. The chart shows total 2017 deaths averaged per week. (CDC)
• Car crashes: Weekly deaths beginning from January 1, 2018. (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)
• 1957-58 Asian flu pandemic: Weekly influenza and pneumonia deaths beginning from August 24, 1957. These data come from a contemporary CDC program that surveilled 108 American cities with a total population of about 50 million people. We have used that figure, rather than the total U.S. population at the time, to calculate deaths per million. (CDC)

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Richard Branson’s bailout plea proves there’s no one more shameless • The Guardian

Marina Hyde, in typically astringent form:

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Ultimately, it’s hard to see Branson as anything other than the classic “billionaire philanthropist” (is there any other kind of billionaire?) who declines to accept that public finances would be in rather better shape if people like them contributed their fair share. Philanthropy starts with paying tax. With the best will in the world, it isn’t enough to imply the only reason you operate out of a tax haven is because you like the weather.

Of course, Richard is very far from the only billionaire entity to act like this. Even the trillionaire firms, Amazon and Apple, do it too. Rather than contribute the full amount to various countries in the traditional way – like all the boring little nurses and teachers and ordinary people do – they get away with the absolute barest of minimums, then swoop in flashily with “aid” initiatives, with which they can be personally associated when something’s gone tits-up.

Take announcements from the likes of Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has made much of the fact that the company has donated millions of protective masks to US healthcare workers, but whose firm paid £3.8m in tax on £1.2bn UK sales not so long ago. (And this is before you even get to the Amnesty reports and lawsuits in which they are accused of aiding often lethal child labour in their cobalt supply chains in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Can the kids get a mask, Tim? No? OK, final offer: a trowel instead of a stick?)

Instead of the coronavirus crisis bringing some kind of reckoning for tax-avoiding opt-outs, it is simply making the biggest culprits even more shameless.

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New iOS exploit discovered being used to spy on China’s Uyghur minority • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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Security firm Volexity said today that it discovered a new iOS exploit that was being used to spy on China’s oppressed Uyghur minority.

The exploit, which Volexity named Insomnia, works against iOS versions 12.3, 12.3.1, and 12.3.2. Apple patched the iOS vulnerability behind this exploit in July 2019, with the release of iOS version 12.4.

Volexity said the Insomnia exploit was used in the wild between January and March 2020.

The exploit was loaded on the iOS devices of users visiting several Uyghur-themed websites. Once victims accessed the site, the Insomnia exploit was loaded on the device, granting the attacker root access.

Hackers used access to the device to steal plaintext messages from various instant messaging clients, emails, photos, contact lists, and GPS location data.

Volexity said the exploit was deployed by a threat actor the company is tracking under the name of Evil Eye.

The Evil Eye group is believed to be a state-sponsored hacking unit operating at Beijing’s behest, and spying on China’s Uyghur Muslim minority.

This is the same group that Google and Volexity discovered in August 2019 using 14 iOS exploits to target Uyghurs since at least September 2016.

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China really is determined on this. While everything else is going on, the oppression of the Uyghurs continues. A fortunate distraction for China.
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Google’s head of quantum computing hardware resigns • WIRED

Tom Simonite:

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In late October 2019, Google CEO Sundar Pichai likened the latest result from the company’s quantum computing hardware lab in Santa Barbara, California, to the Wright brothers’ first flight.

One of the lab’s prototype processors had achieved quantum supremacy—evocative jargon for the moment a conventional computer does something seemingly impossible by harnessing quantum mechanics. In a blog post, Pichai said the milestone affirmed his belief that quantum computers might one day tackle problems like climate change, and the CEO also name-checked John Martinis, who had established Google’s quantum hardware group in 2014.

Here’s what Pichai didn’t mention: soon after the team had first got its quantum supremacy experiment working a few months earlier, Martinis says, he had been reassigned from a leadership position to an advisory one. Martinis tells WIRED that the change led to disagreements with Hartmut Neven, the longtime leader of Google’s quantum project.

Martinis resigned from Google early this month. “Since my professional goal is for someone to build a quantum computer, I think my resignation is the best course of action for everyone,” he adds.

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This is either a trivial personality clash or something very deep. So it seems worth noting just in case it’s the latter.
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Huawei caught using DSLR photos to promote its photography contest • Apple Insider

Amber Neely:

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Huawei has issued an apology after a “Shot on iPhone” contest winner discovered that the company was using photos shot on a DSLR to promote its smartphone photography contest.

The photos in question were discovered by Huapeng Zhao, who had won second place in the 2018 iPhone Photography awards for a photograph he’d taken with an iPhone 6. He’d recognized the promotional photos from elsewhere, suspecting that the images weren’t shot with a smartphone.

As it turns out, he was correct. The photos were the work of Su Tie, and had been previously shared on 500px, an online photography sharing platform. The pictures in question had been taken with a Nikon D850 —a DSLR that costs upwards of $3,000.

Huawei has since issued an apology on Weibo. The company noted that the photographs were supposed to be featured on Huawei’s Next-Image community, an alternative to popular photo-sharing platforms like 500px and Flickr, according to Abacus. Huawei notes that users can upload images taken by any device, including cameras.

It’s not clear whether or not Huawei had permission from the original photographer to post the image on their website.

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For those keeping count, this is the third time Huawei has been caught faking photo stuff in promotions by using DSLR photos in smartphone promotions.
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The iPad Magic Keyboard • Daring Fireball

John Gruber:

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Here’s why an iPad Magic Keyboard feels nothing like a MacBook: because it’s not actually magic. I mean that. It’s clever in several ways, but it cannot defy the laws of physics. An iPad Pro is so much heavier than a MacBook top case that of course the Magic Keyboard hinge system has to be not just a little stiffer than a MacBook hinge, but way stiffer. Your first impression, like mine, is likely to be off-base just because it’s so different. But once you start using it, just for a few minutes, you can feel why it has to be so different. It’s just an entirely different allocation of weight and center of gravity, by necessity.

You know how with a regular laptop, when you want to open it, you just set it down where you want it, closed, and you open the lid just by lifting it with one of your thumbs? Yeah, you cannot do that with this. Opening the iPad Magic Keyboard is a two-handed operation. Part of this is that the combination of the magnets and stiff primary hinge form a strong seal. But mainly it’s because the iPad with Magic Keyboard is so top-heavy.

ILLUSTRATIVE EXERCISE: Turn a MacBook Air upside down and try opening it one-handed. Even if you give yourself a little bit of an opening to break the initial magnetic seal, you can’t really open an upside down MacBook one-handed because as you try to raise the heavy part (which is now on top), the bottom part raises with it, because the hinge is stiffer than the bottom (the display half) is heavy. But that’s the weight distribution of the iPad with Magic Keyboard right-side up.

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What I hadn’t appreciated from the videos (all of them) is that the main, hefty hinge only has two positions: folded flat, and open, which it does to a specific angle. But then you can move the other hinge around. More like a docking station, really.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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