Start Up No.1297: how and who at Apple and Google developed contact tracing, US meat prices to rise, Covid-19’s mechanism mystery, and more


This year’s CES in Las Vegas delivered on this promise: there was a chance to catch the disease millions of others would later get. CC-licensed photo by John Biehler on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. How’s the pulse oximeter doing? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple iPhone contact tracing: how it came together • CNBC

Christina Farr:

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In mid-March, with Covid-19 spreading to almost every country in the world, a small team at Apple started brainstorming how they could help. They knew that smartphones would be key to the global coronavirus response, particularly as countries started relaxing their shelter-in-place orders. To prepare for that, governments and private companies were building so-called “contact tracing” apps to monitor citizens’ movements and determine whether they might have come into contact with someone infected with the virus.

Within a few weeks, the Apple project – code-named “Bubble” – had dozens of employees working on it with executive-level support from two sponsors: Craig Federighi, a senior vice president of software engineering, and Jeff Williams, the company’s chief operating officer and de-facto head of healthcare. By the end of the month, Google had officially come on board, and about a week later, the companies’ two CEOs Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai met virtually to give their final vote of approval to the project.

That speed of development was highly unusual for Apple, a company obsessed with making its products perfect before releasing them to the world. Project Bubble also required that Apple join forces with its historic rival, Google, to co-develop technology that could be used by health authorities in countries around the world.

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The team that Apple had includes some incredible names, such as Bud Tribble, who was on the original Macintosh team in the 1980s, and also the co-inventor of the Signal messaging app. What I can’t understand is why any country thinks it’s going to devise a better app system than Apple coordinating with Google – which the UK’s NHS seems to think it will. The Open Rights Group pointed out that it probably won’t, but if it really believes that it should publish how its app will work.
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A Covid-infected attendee emerges from CES, a massive tech conference in January • APM Reports

Angela Caputo, Sasha Aslanian, and Will Craft:

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When a doctor phoned Michael Webber on Monday with the results of his antibody test for the coronavirus, her first word was filled with irony: “Congratulations.” He had tested positive, meaning that the 49-year-old who divides his time between Texas and France had been infected with the virus and recovered.

While millions of people worldwide will likely have antibody tests that return positive results, Webber’s outcome offers new insight into how the virus may have begun to spread. He was among more than 170,000 people who attended the Consumer Electronics Show between Jan. 7 and 10 in Las Vegas, a four-day event that attracted technology professionals from around the world.

Speculation has been whipping around social media for months that the virus might have incubated during CES and was sprayed worldwide when attendees traveled home. However, Webber’s disclosure of his test result to APM Reports is the first indication that the virus was likely circulating at the conference.

Webber’s revelation comes at the same time that public health officials in Northern California, including Silicon Valley, reported three newly confirmed coronavirus deaths. One of those deaths was in early February, which signals that the virus was probably spreading in the United States weeks earlier than previously thought…

…A little more than 100 people attended from Wuhan, home to the first recorded outbreak in late 2019, according to conference organizers.

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The conference business is going to take a long, long time to recover. Probably as long as it takes to develop a vaccine. Which in turn means a lot of airline and hotel business won’t come back.

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As Chinese propaganda on Covid-19 grows, US social media must act • The Washington Post

Vanessa Molter, Renee DiResta and Alex Stamos:

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in the midst of the messaging war over the coronavirus, several Chinese state media launched a new Facebook ad offensive. Talking points include emphasizing the Chinese government’s alleged transparency in its pandemic response and promoting the idea that Beijing’s sharing of covid-19 information was helping the world battle the pandemic. Chinese state media have also covered coronavirus-related protests in the United States, while avoiding mention of police clashes in China on their English-language social media presence.

Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google (which owns YouTube) already search for and disable networks of fake accounts run by foreign government-aligned organizations. While such efforts can deal a significant blow to the kinds of activity we saw from Russia in 2016, China’s behavior has demonstrated that the disinformation game is broader than fake social media accounts. US platforms should take steps to avoid being complicit in Beijing’s state-driven propaganda.

First, these platforms should not allow paid political advertisements from media outlets registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Twitter has banned all state media ads after Chinese state media ads against the Hong Kong protesters on Twitter caused a backlash. Facebook and YouTube still allow, and financially benefit from, Chinese state media ads on their platforms, even though these outlets are registered under FARA. This means the US government must continue to be aggressive about rooting out state media and mandating foreign agents register.

Second, platforms should disable the capability for official blue-checked diplomatic or state media accounts to block other accounts…

…Finally, tech platforms should consider banning state media and government-representative accounts run by countries that block their own citizens from accessing these platforms. Such a move could be costly in financial terms: While many U.S. tech platforms are blocked from being visible to Chinese citizens, Chinese companies can still buy advertisements for global consumers. Up to 10% of Facebook’s ad revenue comes from China.

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Molter and DiResta work at the Stanford Internet Observatory; Stamos used to be Facebook’s chief security officer.
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Sharp knives, high friction and tomatoes • Tribonet

Evan Zabawski:

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The easiest and safest way to slice a tomato is to use a sharp knife. The counterintuitive reason a sharp knife slices more easily through a tomato is that it has higher friction, albeit only on the knife’s edge.

Slicing is actually stretching the tomato and, like most materials, a tomato is weaker when stretched than when compressed. Stretching the tomato skin creates a tearing force that opens a crack in the skin, thus beginning the slice.

A dull knife edge is relatively round and smooth, which glides smoothly across the skin as the knife is drawn across the tomato. Sometimes it can slide so smoothly near the edge of the previous slice that the knife slips off the tomato—hopefully away from the hand holding the tomato.

A sharp knife edge has a more jagged and peaked edge that generates much more friction as it is dragged across the tomato. A sharp edge is producing a shear force that reaches the same local critical stress using much less downward force, which enables greater control of the knife as it moves downward.

Once the crack has formed, the natural stress focused at the advancing crack is generally sufficient to propagate the cut at a much lower nominal stress, reducing the required force to slice the rest of the way through the tomato.

Other foods, like cheese, exhibit a nonlinear relationship between applied stress and the resulting deformation, meaning they can stiffen when deformed sufficiently. This nonlinear feedback leads to a frictionally locked situation when using a dull knife, where the knife progresses easily at first but then slows as both the cheese stiffens and the knife blade itself experiences the friction of the surrounding cheese.

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So now you know the difference between tomatoes and cheese. I’d never thought that sharpened knife edges were rough or jagged; I thought they were supremely fine, down to atomic thickness.
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More meat market madness • Jayson Lusk

Lusk is a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University:

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Plant closures and slow-downs from COVID-19 have reached such levels that it will be impossible for consumers not to notice effects on meat prices or availability in the coming weeks. If the full page ad in the New York Times wasn’t enough to convince you, below is some updated data on animal processing numbers and wholesale beef and pork prices.


Estimated daily hog and cattle slaughter are both down almost 50% compared to this time last year

Less meat being produced means less meat available for grocery stores to buy. As a result grocery stores and consumers are bidding up the price of the available supplies. Wholesale beef prices have skyrocketed, and have reached a level (at least in nominal terms) we haven’t seen in at least a decade. Wholesale pork prices have also increased significantly from the dip a few weeks ago, but as of today, they remain below where they were in 2019.

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Trump has said he’ll order the meat plants to remain open as “critical infrastructure”. But if the workers get ill, the plants can’t function – and anyway, there’s less meat for them to process. Prices are going to go up and/or there will be shortages.
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Telecoms paranoia, 5G vs Covid-19 (and phones turning into human heads) • The Royal Factor

David Eckhoff recalls his time working in customer services in BT back in the 1980s:

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Regulars included ‘dreamers’, who insisted their phones rang all through the night. With these we put a check on their lines to test for incoming calls and always found that their phones never rang at night. Most took this well and once their brains knew it was a dream they could sleep through. Some resented the ‘invasion of privacy’ but were unable to explain what privacy we had invaded.

It was at this time that telecoms paranoia was joined by accusations of health issues. Cordless phones had been launched and despite them being massive and ceasing to work ever again after thunderstorms they were very popular. But not so popular with some neighbours.

“My daughter’s had psoriasis ever since next door got a cordless phone,” I was told by one person. This was new territory then, and I wasn’t sure what to say other than that sounds ridiculous, which I wasn’t allowed to say. So I said I’d contact our laboratories and see what they had to say.

“That sounds ridiculous,” said the boffins.

In the meantime I got a call from the neighbour, who said her neighbour had told her I had ‘forbidden’ her to use her cordless phone. I assured her that I hadn’t and contacted the original caller to say that not only did she or I not have the right to tell anyone not to use a perfectly legal device, it was scientific opinion that a cordless phone was not the cause of her daughter’s psoriasis. I suggested she got some proper medical opinion from her GP and discussed with her what my friends with this condition did, and this did not include distancing themselves from cordless phones.

After some other roles I moved into PR, working with journalists. This went so well that I left my job and set up my own PR agency. Here I took on the PR for a business which had developed ‘mini-masts’, amongst other technology. These were devices that could be attached to lampposts and telegraph poles to boost the mobile signal in areas where this was a problem.

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But now he had two problems, as he was to discover. And they were going to breed.
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New device turns almost any screen into a touchless touchscreen • Android Authority

Dave LeClair:

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A group of former Samsung engineers is putting their heads together to create a new device called Glamos. It uses LIDAR technology to turn just about any screen into a fully interactive touchscreen.

Well, it functions as a touchscreen of sorts, but you don’t actually have to touch anything to interact with it. Instead, Glamos detects motion and sends a signal to the device telling it what to do.

This creates a situation where a user can control a laptop, smart TV, smartphone, or tablet without actually needing to put their hands on anything but the air within a 180-degree area. For devices with a touchscreen already installed, this will let users interact with them from a distance, which could prove useful for situations where their hands are dirty or they’re doing a presentation from the other side of the room. An example cited by the creators is using a tablet to manage a recipe. Instead of washing their hands to change pages, the user can swipe the air, keeping their tablet clean.

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Already well-funded – £100 for a single one. But apart from the recipe/tablet situation, when would it be any better than using a physical remote, especially since you could in theory activate it by mistake? Isn’t this just Samsung’s “Air Gesture” stuff, which always seemed more of a gimmick than a feature?
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Why don’t some coronavirus patients sense their alarmingly low oxygen levels? • Science

Jennifer Couzin-Frankel:

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In serious cases of COVID-19, patients struggle to breathe with damaged lungs, but early in the disease, low saturation isn’t always coupled with obvious respiratory difficulties. Carbon dioxide levels can be normal and breathing deeply is comfortable—“the lung is inflating so they feel OK,” says Elnara Marcia Negri, a pulmonologist at Hospital Sírio-Libanês in São Paulo. But oxygen saturation, measured by a device clipped to a finger and in many cases confirmed with blood tests, can be in the 70s, 60s, or 50s. Or even lower. Although mountain climbers can have similar readings, here the slide downward, some doctors believe, is potentially “ominous,” says Nicholas Caputo, an emergency physician at New York City Health + Hospitals/Lincoln.

Hypotheses about what causes it are emerging. Many doctors now recognize clotting as a major feature of severe COVID-19. Negri thinks subtle clotting might begin early in the lungs, perhaps thanks to an inflammatory reaction in their fine web of blood vessels, which could set off a cascade of proteins that prompts blood to clot and prevents it from getting properly oxygenated.

Negri developed this idea after treating a woman whose breathing troubles coincided with circulatory problems in her toes. Negri’s team gave the woman heparin, a common blood thinner, and not only her toes but her breathing recovered

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Probably all going to pile into heparin now, aren’t we?
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We still don’t know how the coronavirus is killing us • NY Mag

David Wallace-Wells:

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strokes, several doctors who spoke to the Post theorized, could explain the high number of patients dying at home — four times the usual rate in New York, many or most of them, perhaps, dying quite suddenly. According to the Brigham and Women’s guidelines, only 53% of COVID-19 patients have died from respiratory failure alone.

It’s not unheard of, of course, for a disease to express itself in complicated or hard-to-parse ways, attacking or undermining the functioning of a variety of organs. And it’s common, as researchers and doctors scramble to map the shape of a new disease, for their understanding to evolve quite quickly. But the degree to which doctors and scientists are, still, feeling their way, as though blindfolded, toward a true picture of the disease cautions against any sense that things have stabilized, given that our knowledge of the disease hasn’t even stabilized.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic is not just a public-health crisis but a scientific one as well. And that as deep as it may feel we are into the coronavirus, with tens of thousands dead and literally billions in precautionary lockdown, we are still in the very early stages, when each new finding seems as likely to cloud or complicate our understanding of the coronavirus as it is to clarify it. Instead, confidence gives way to uncertainty.

In the space of a few months, we’ve gone from thinking there was no “asymptomatic transmission” to believing it accounts for perhaps half or more of all cases, from thinking the young were invulnerable to thinking they were just somewhat less vulnerable, from believing masks were unnecessary to requiring their use at all times outside the house, from panicking about ventilator shortages to deploying pregnancy massage pillows instead. Six months since patient zero, we still have no drugs proven to even help treat the disease. Almost certainly, we are past the “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” stage of this pandemic. But how far past?

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Trump’s daily intelligence briefing book repeatedly cited virus threat • The Washington Post

Greg Miller and Ellen Nakashima:

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US intelligence agencies issued warnings about the novel coronavirus in more than a dozen classified briefings prepared for President Trump in January and February, months during which he continued to play down the threat, according to current and former US officials.

The repeated warnings were conveyed in issues of the President’s Daily Brief, a sensitive report that is produced before dawn each day and designed to call the president’s attention to the most significant global developments and security threats.

For weeks, the PDB — as the report is known — traced the virus’s spread around the globe, made clear that China was suppressing information about the contagion’s transmissibility and lethal toll, and raised the prospect of dire political and economic consequences.

But the alarms appear to have failed to register with the president, who routinely skips reading the PDB and has at times shown little patience for even the oral summary he takes two or three times per week, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified material.

The advisories being relayed by US spy agencies were part of a broader collection of worrisome signals that came during a period now regarded by many public health officials and other experts as a squandered opportunity to contain the outbreak.

As of Monday, more than 55,000 people in the United States had died of covid-19.

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As someone observed, if they really wanted Trump to pay attention, they should have bought an advert on Fox News’s morning show. (As the US Postal Service did this week.) Or guested on it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1297: how and who at Apple and Google developed contact tracing, US meat prices to rise, Covid-19’s mechanism mystery, and more

  1. My CSA meat suppler pointed out that it doesn’t matter if the meat processing plants reopen, it’s a bad idea because they have no where to put the processed meat. Since China shut down meat has been piling up in storage and it’s almost maxed out. So it doesn’t matter what Trump says, many plants won’t reopen just yet, until there’s storage. (I posted a plot on my twitter feed)

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