Start Up No.1295: Germany goes with Apple/Google, Britons reject the old ‘normal’, America’s standards exclusion, the Difficult Times poem, and more

The story of the man who died after ingesting fish tank cleaner pills looks much darker after details emerged about his marriage. CC-licensed photo by Joegoauk Goa on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. It’s probably.. Monday? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Germany flips to Apple-Google approach on smartphone contact tracing • Reuters

Douglas Busvine and Andreas Rinke:


Chancellery Minister Helge Braun and Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a joint statement that Berlin would adopt a “decentralised” approach to digital contact tracing, thus abandoning a home-grown alternative that would have given health authorities central control over tracing data.

In Europe, most countries have chosen short-range Bluetooth “handshakes” between mobile devices as the best way of registering a potential contact, even though it does not provide location data.

But they have disagreed about whether to log such contacts on individual devices or on a central server – which would be more directly useful to existing contact tracing teams that work phones and knock on doors to warn those who may be at risk.

Under the decentralised approach, users could opt to share their phone number or details of their symptoms – making it easier for health authorities to get in touch and give advice on the best course of action in the event they are found to be at risk.

This consent would be given in the app, however, and not be part of the system’s central architecture.

Germany as recently as Friday backed a centralised standard called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), which would have needed Apple in particular to change the settings on its iPhones.

When Apple refused to budge there was no alternative but to change course, said a senior government source.

In their joint statement, Braun and Spahn said Germany would now adopt a “strongly decentralised” approach.


Contrast with, for example, Vietnam where the contact tracing app broadcasts a fixed ID per person and has lots of holes. Apple and Google are aiming to keep governments from building up monolithic databases, and it’s surprising that Germany, of all countries, wouldn’t see why that’s a good idea.
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Coronavirus: only 9% of Britons want life to return to ‘normal’ once lockdown is over • Sky News

Lucia Binding:


Only 9% of Britons want life to return to “normal” after the coronavirus outbreak is over, a survey suggests.

People have noticed significant changes during the lockdown, including cleaner air, more wildlife and stronger communities.

More than half (54%) of 4,343 people who took part in the YouGov poll hope they will make some changes in their own lives and for the country as a whole to learn from the crisis.

And 42% of participants said they value food and other essentials more since the pandemic, with 38% cooking from scratch more.

The survey found that 61% of people are spending less money and 51% noticed cleaner air outdoors, while 27% think there is more wildlife.

Two-fifths said there is a stronger sense of community in their area since the outbreak began and 39% say they are catching up with friends and family more.


“Stop the world, I want to get off” was a 1961 play, but became a phrase. Now the world has stopped for many people, and they’ve realised that they wanted it to turn slightly differently. The trouble is, when it restarts, you won’t get much choice about what part of “normal” does and doesn’t come back.
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The fight with Huawei means America can’t shape tech rules • The Economist


…for the past year technology companies with operations in America have been frozen out of some standard-setting as an accidental consequence of the American government’s attack on the Chinese tech giant, Huawei.

This started with the addition of Huawei to the entity list in May 2019. That made it illegal for any company to export products to Huawei that had been made in America. Tech-company lawyers looked at the regulations and decided that the law prohibited interaction with Huawei during the course of standard-setting, too. They worried that, in the course of discussion, American-made technologies would in effect be transferred to Huawei, placing their employer in breach of the rules.

That legal decision created a problem. Huawei plays a big role in setting standards on artificial intelligence, 5g and other connectivity technologies, so avoiding interactions with the firm while simultaneously getting involved in the rigorous nerdery of standard-setting was impossible. As a result, some companies with American operations have removed themselves from the standard-setting processes in which they used to join. In areas where Huawei is active, this has left America voiceless in setting the tech rules of the future.

The effect has been particularly acute at standards bodies that convene outside America, where the organisers are less inclined to make arrangements to accommodate firms that are subject to export-control rules. At those meetings, in some instances, Huawei and other Chinese companies have had a voice where American companies have not.


Perverse, unintended consequences.
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Who is the “we” in “We are causing climate change\u201d? • Slate

Genevieve Guenther, writing in 2018:


Instead of thinking of climate change as something we are doing, always remember that there are millions, possibly billions, of people on this planet who would rather preserve civilization than destroy it with climate change, who would rather have the fossil-fuel economy end than continue. Those people are not all mobilized, by any means, but they are there. Most people are good.

But remember, too, that there are others, some of them running the world, who seem to be willing to destroy civilization and let millions of people die in order that the fossil-fuel economy to continue now. We know who those people are. We are not those people.

Remember as well that there are degrees of complicity. Without structural changes paid for collectively, most of us have no alternative but to use fossil fuels to some degree. As individuals, we must do the very best we can. But constrained choices are not akin to the unthinking complicity of the 10% who produce 50% of global emissions every year by taking multiple long-haul flights for pleasure travel, heating their homes instead of putting on a sweater, and driving swollen SUVs that they replace every few years. Nor are constrained choices akin to the deep and shameful complicity of the many in the print and television news media who refuse to mention climate change even in the stories about climate change effects they’re already reporting.


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A poem made up of the first lines of emails I’ve received while quarantining • The Washington Post

Jessica Salfia:


In these uncertain times
as we navigate the new normal,
are you willing to share your ideas and solutions?
As you know, many people are struggling.
I know you are up against it:
the digital landscape.
We share your concerns.
As you know, many people are struggling.


There’s more. It’s lovely. Also the first poem here since its inception.
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Man who died ingesting fish tank cleaner remembered as intelligent, levelheaded engineer • Washington Free Beacon

Alana Goodman:


friends of 68-year-old Gary Lenius, the Arizona man who passed away last month from drinking a fish tank cleaner that contained an ingredient, chloroquine phosphate, that Trump had touted as a potential coronavirus cure, say they are still struggling to understand what drove an engineer with an extensive science background to do something so wildly out of character.

These people describe Lenius as intelligent and levelheaded, not prone to the sort of reckless and impulsive behavior he reportedly engaged in on the day he died. This account is based on interviews with three people who knew Lenius well and paints a picture of a troubled marriage characterized by Wanda Lenius’s explosive anger.

“What bothers me about this is that Gary was a very intelligent man, a retired [mechanical] engineer who designed systems for John Deere in Waterloo, Iowa, and I really can’t see the scenario where Gary would say, ‘Yes, please, I would love to drink some of that Koi fish tank cleaner,'” one of his close friends told the Washington Free Beacon. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Lenius passed away on March 22 after he and his wife, Wanda Lenius, drank sodas that she had mixed with a fish tank cleaner not intended for human consumption, Wanda Lenius told the Free Beacon…

…Those who knew the couple said they sensed tension in the marriage. “Wanda would constantly berate Gary in public,” said a source who asked that all identifying information be withheld. “Everyone was embarrassed for him, but he outwardly did not seem to care much.”

“In our opinion, their marriage was seen outwardly to be as one-sided as a marriage possibly could be: Gary worshiped Wanda,” this person said, adding that his wife “would routinely call him a ‘doofus'” and humiliate him in public.

Lenius’s friend recalled Wanda Lenius destroying her husband’s aircraft model collection after he returned home late for a meal. “These planes take many dozens and sometimes hundreds of hours to complete,” said the friend. “Gary did not get angry, he simply junked the planes that were not repairable and fixed the rest. That is the Gary I knew, he would never get upset, he just accepted what happened and carried on.”


The story clearly isn’t “dumb man thought this would make him safe”. I wonder if we’ll hear more on a true crime podcast in a year or so. (Thanks Jim for the link.)
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Congress can’t rebuild US infrastructure until America rebuilds Congress • Vox

Ezra Klein, responding to Marc Andreessen’s “Time To Build” blogpost:


It’s become a running joke in Washington that every week is “infrastructure week.” But we’re not rebuilding American infrastructure.

The question, then, is why don’t we build? What’s stopping us?

Here’s my answer: the institutions through which Americans build have become biased against action rather than toward it. They’ve become, in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s term, “vetocracies,” in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. That’s true in the federal government. It’s true in state and local governments. It’s even true in the private sector.

I’m not against soliciting more ideas of what to build. But what we need is sustained funding, focus, and organizing to make building in America possible again. And that requires patiently engaging with the kinds of institutions that frustrate builders.

That the US government has become a dysfunctional vetocracy is obvious. Hell, I wrote a whole book about it. But in short: America’s system of checks and balances requires unusual and even extraordinary levels of consensus to pass legislation. First, you need the agreement of the House, the Senate, the White House, and, increasingly, the Supreme Court.

More granularly, congressional power is diffused across committees. The Senate has built in a supermajority requirement, known as the filibuster, which effectively raises the threshold for passage from 51 votes to 60 votes.

This raises the question: If the problem is embedded in the structure of the US government, how did the US ever do anything big? The short answer is that for most of our political history, two unusual conditions held. First, the parties were ideologically mixed, which made compromise easier. Second, one party was usually electorally dominant, which gave the party in the minority a reason to compromise: If you can’t win, you may as well deal.

Both those conditions have dissolved.


America’s political system has become sclerotic, and unless something dramatic happens – a colossal Senate takeover by the Democratic Party in November? – it might never be able to fix itself.
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Internet speech will never go back to normal • The Atlantic

Jack Goldsmith is a Harvard Law School professor and Andrew Keane Woods is professor of law at the University of Arizona College of Law:


the “extraordinary” measures we are seeing are not all that extraordinary. Powerful forces were pushing toward greater censorship and surveillance of digital networks long before the coronavirus jumped out of the wet markets in Wuhan, China, and they will continue to do so once the crisis passes. The practices that American tech platforms have undertaken during the pandemic represent not a break from prior developments, but an acceleration of them.

As surprising as it may sound, digital surveillance and speech control in the United States already show many similarities to what one finds in authoritarian states such as China. Constitutional and cultural differences mean that the private sector, rather than the federal and state governments, currently takes the lead in these practices, which further values and address threats different from those in China. But the trend toward greater surveillance and speech control here, and toward the growing involvement of government, is undeniable and likely inexorable.

In the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong. Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values…

…America’s private surveillance system goes far beyond apps, cameras, and microphones. Behind the scenes, and unbeknownst to most Americans, data brokers have developed algorithmic scores for each one of us—scores that rate us on reliability, propensity to repay loans, and likelihood to commit a crime. Uber bans passengers with low ratings from drivers. Some bars and restaurants now run background checks on their patrons to see whether they’re likely to pay their tab or cause trouble. Facebook has patented a mechanism for determining a person’s creditworthiness by evaluating their social network.

These and similar developments are the private functional equivalent of China’s social-credit ratings, which critics in the West so fervently decry. The U.S. government, too, makes important decisions based on privately collected pools of data. The Department of Homeland Security now requires visa applicants to submit their social-media accounts for review. And courts regularly rely on algorithms to determine a defendant’s flight risk, recidivism risk, and more.


The comparison with China is unwise, though you can see why they do it. But “China was largely right and the US was largely wrong” is a big mistake. China prevented people talking about the novel coronavirus. People died as a result.
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Switching from MacBook to Chromebook: is Chrome OS good enough? • Android Police

Manuel Vonau:


I could break down the verdict into this sentence: Chrome OS is a great browser, but it isn’t a great OS. My experience reminds me of the one I had on the iPad (pre-iOS 13, I should note). A lot of things are great for a specific set of purposes, but once I leave that comfort zone, I start running into issues that make me want to return to a proper desktop OS. On my Chromebook, the situation got better once I stopped trying to run Android and Linux apps and stuck with capable web apps as much as possible instead. However, I still miss my familiar, friction-free image editing software on the machine, and I’d love to see proper third-party cloud storage support.

I still think my Chromebook can have a valid spot in my workflow, just like my iPad used to be great for reading tons of texts during university. I must admit that it took long until the Chromebook grew on me, though — I can’t say that about the iPad, which has always been fun and enjoyable to interact with, despite its limitations. That’s my personal situation, though. I recognize that there are many people who need more than a browser or tablet to get their job done, and I know there’s a big fraction who would be perfectly fine with a Chromebook since they just need something to check mails, shop Amazon, and surf the news on a familiar laptop form factor.


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‘Nobody told us about the coronavirus pandemic’ • BBC News

Jessica Sherwood:


In 2017, Elena Manighetti and Ryan Osborne decided to take the plunge many dream of – they quit their jobs, bought a boat and decided to travel around the world.

They asked their families to keep in touch, but with one rule: no bad news.

The couple, who lived in Manchester, were travelling across the Atlantic ocean from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean last month when, unbeknownst to them, a new and deadly coronavirus was spreading across the world.

After 25 days at sea, and with little communication with the outside world, the couple planned to dock on a small island in mid-March.

But upon getting phone signal while still off-shore, they discovered the island’s borders were closed and found out the world had been suffering from a global pandemic they’d heard nothing about.

“In February we’d heard there was a virus in China, but with the limited information we had we figured by the time we got to the Caribbean in 25 days it would all be over,” Elena says.

“When we arrived we realised it wasn’t over and the whole world had been infected,” adds Ryan.


I guess that’s one scenario that zombie apocalypse movies forgot about. I really didn’t think there would be anyone who hadn’t heard.
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Dominic Cummings and SAGE: advisory group’s veil of secrecy has to be lifted • The Conversation

Chris Tyler, on The Guardian’s story that Dominic Cummings, the PM’s political adviser, sat in on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE):


Political decisions should be informed by the science; the science should not be informed by the politics. This scenario raises the central question of this story: the independence of SAGE. The Guardian called it a “supposedly independent body” and the government in its statement about Cummings described SAGE as providing “independent scientific advice to the government”.

Interestingly, the notion of SAGE being independent appears nowhere in its 64 pages of guidelines. Even though everyone “knows” that SAGE should be independent, the government’s official guidelines do not recognise this “fact”. As a first step, the 2012 SAGE guidelines should now be updated to outline the role of SAGE – which should include “independence” – and instructions as to when and if it is appropriate for political advisers to be present and, if so, what role they should play.

In order for us to ascertain the role played by Cummings or any other future political adviser, the minutes of SAGE meetings must be made public. The government clearly believes that the advice provided to it by SAGE should be private, but that runs counter to its own guidance on how science advisory committees should work, which calls for “openness and transparency”.

The problem with not being open and transparent is that it is impossible for parliament, the media and researchers to scrutinise what is going on. What is the advice the government is being given? Is government really following that advice? Who is giving it?


When Cummings was ill with Covid-19, for about two weeks, the government’s response to the media had a much calmer tone. Now he’s back it’s angrier, more Trump-ish in its out-of-hand dismissals of well-sourced stories when then turn out to be correct, and important.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1295: Germany goes with Apple/Google, Britons reject the old ‘normal’, America’s standards exclusion, the Difficult Times poem, and more

  1. One big problem with speculating that the “chloroquine couple” is a true crime case is that the wife was in critical condition from it too (presumably that can be taken as true since it came from the hospital). Suppose that, hypothetically, she maliciously gave her husband the chloroquine intending to kill him. Then it seems difficult to see how she could calibrate an amount to drink herself so as to get “merely” ill enough to be convincing, but not also die. Now, it’s possible, people do all sorts of risky things in murder plots. But as schemes go, that strikes me as too elaborate for real life (i.e. give victim a fatal dose but take a serious but nonfatal dose oneself to throw off suspicion).

    One issue I have with this whole story is that I haven’t been able to find that chloroquine phosphate is actually used as a “fish tank cleaner” (which has been repeated endlessly). It’s used as a fish *medication*. That is, it’s a fish treatment, not to scrub away dirt. And in the US, people, particularly those without health insurance, do rather frequently take fish *antibiotics* (without notable harm) because even common medication is so expensive in the US health system. Taking it is still very dumb of course, but I could see how someone could come up with the idea.

    • I agree that if she was in “critical” condition, you’d think that it must be a really super-stupid mistake, rather than a murder plot. And she certainly did go to hospital.

      And yet. She seems to have been well enough not long after to give an interview to NBC. She doesn’t sound “in critical condition” there, and through all this we only have her word for the dosage that she and her husband took. I think there’s still a little to be confirmed here – relative dosages, and so on. We can’t ever know what the husband thought he was drinking. Helluva mystery.

      • Hmm … the exact words of the hospital press release are:

        “A man has died and his wife is under critical care after the couple, both in their 60s, ingested chloroquine phosphate, an additive commonly used at aquariums to clean fish tanks. Within thirty minutes of ingestion, the couple experienced immediate effects requiring admittance to a nearby Banner Health hospital.”

        They say “under critical care”, which may not be the same as in critical condition, and it’s a press release after all. And it looks like that’s where the fish tank cleaner part originated.

        Some quick searching shows that an overdose causes heart and breathing problems. But if the person gets prompt treatment and pulls through, it’s not unreasonable a few days later they could be well enough to do a brief interview.

        I wonder if they *thought* it was very similar to taking fish antibiotics. It isn’t. But that would be a thinking mistake that is a least understandable, even if very wrong.

      • Well, *she* seems to have been the one who did the mixing. Questions: 1) did _he_ know what he was drinking? 2) Is she really that stupid? 3) Did they in fact have the same dose?
        The point about him being an engineer is clearly what has the anonymous contributors in that story so puzzled. As though taking a Trump-implied “cure” would be very out of character. I did see a headline suggesting that the police aren’t looking to charge anyone, but it was comparatively old. I wonder if there will be any agitation from people who knew him for the police to ask more questions.

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