Start Up No.1406: China’s worrying food shortage, the Excel virus screwup, whither America after Trump?, dry Venice, and more

The US CDC is finally acknowledging that coronavirus spreads by a method more like cigarette smoke than spitting. CC-licensed photo by Shannon Holman on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. A little oxygen aperitif for monsieur? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

China pushes ‘clean plate’ push amid food supply squeeze • The Washington Post

Eva Dou:


On the surface, China’s campaign to encourage mealtime thrift has been a cheerful affair: with soldiers, factory workers and schoolchildren shown polishing off their plates clean of food.

But behind the drive is a harsh reality. China does not have enough fresh food to go around — and neither does much of the world.

The pandemic and extreme weather have disrupted agricultural supply chains, leaving food prices sharply higher in countries as diverse as Yemen, Sudan, Mexico and South Korea. The United Nations warned in June that the world is on the brink of its worst food crisis in 50 years.

“It’s scary and it’s overwhelming,” Arif Husain, chief economist of the United Nations World Food Program, said in an interview. “I don’t think we have seen anything like this ever.”

In China, the two foods in the tightest spots are pork and corn, with the nation’s pigs hit hard by African swine fever and much of the year’s corn crop ruined by floods. But fresh foods of all stripes are in short supply, too, due to the coronavirus pandemic and flooding — from eggs, to seafood, to leafy green vegetables.

Beijing has declared it is not in a food crisis, and says it has enough reserve wheat to help feed its people for a year. Still, China’s leadership has watched uneasily as pork prices soared 135% in February, and floods washed away vegetable crops.

And for China’s leadership, there is a worrisome legacy. The country has a long history of food shortages sparking political unrest.


This is a big, big story that of course is being overlooked because of *waves hands at all this*. If China is short of food, everyone’s going to have a problem pretty soon. Oh, and there’s Brexit on the way too.
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Excel: why using Microsoft’s tool caused Covid-19 results to be lost • BBC News

Leo Kelion:


The issue was caused by the way [Public Health England, or PHE] brought together logs produced by commercial firms paid to analyse swab tests of the public, to discover who has the virus.

They filed their results in the form of text-based lists – known as CSV files – without issue. PHE had set up an automatic process to pull this data together into Excel templates so that it could then be uploaded to a central system and made available to the NHS Test and Trace team, as well as other government computer dashboards.

The problem is that PHE’s own developers picked an old file format to do this – known as XLS.
As a consequence, each template could handle only about 65,000 rows of data rather than the one million-plus rows that Excel is actually capable of.

And since each test result created several rows of data, in practice it meant that each template was limited to about 1,400 cases. When that total was reached, further cases were simply left off.

For context, Excel’s XLS file format dates back to 1987. It was superseded by XLSX in 2007. Had this been used, it would have handled 16 times the number of cases. At the very least, that would have prevented the error from happening until testing levels were significantly higher than they are today.

But one expert suggested that even a high-school computing student would know that better alternatives exist.

“Excel was always meant for people mucking around with a bunch of data for their small company to see what it looked like,” commented Prof Jon Crowcroft from the University of Cambridge. “And then when you need to do something more serious, you build something bespoke that works – there’s dozens of other things you could do. But you wouldn’t use XLS. Nobody would start with that.”


I’d bet that XLS was used because that was the lowest common denominator that was assured to work across the computers in use in the civil service. Ironic that if they’d been less Microsoft-oriented and more “make it work on every platform”, they’d have stuck with CSV, which is like a raw database, and not had this problem.
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Algorithm discovers how six simple molecules could evolve into life’s building blocks • Chemistry World

Patrick Hughes:


Despite hundreds of demonstrations that various organic reactions can take place under the conditions on early Earth, the scientific community still only has a piecemeal understanding of how the building blocks of life emerged. That’s because the number of possible combinations of these reactions is so large that the number of molecules generated quickly jumps into the tens of thousands. While synthesising and analysing so many compounds is difficult, it could in principle be sorted using a computer.

Now, researchers have done just that. A team led by Bartosz Grzybowski and Sara Szymkuć from the Polish Academy of Sciences encoded all 500 known prebiotic reactions and a feedstock of six precursors – water, hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen and methane – into open-use platform Allchemy. The algorithm then used encoded mechanistic chemistry rules to produce a map of their combinations.

Running the program for seven generations, each time combining the generated molecules with what came before, the researchers ended up with almost 35,000 compounds including 50 biotic ones. The program was able to find many prebiotic syntheses previously described in the literature, for example 10 pathways leading to the DNA component adenine. But it also discovered 24 entirely new pathways to biotic compounds – more than 20 of which the team experimentally validated.


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America after Trump • Medium

Tim Wu:


whatever the electoral results, nearly half the country will have voted Republican, and in some States, by overwhelming majorities. The question will be, with the tables turned, when is it worth pushing parts country that want genuinely different things into following a national lead?

To be sure, I strongly believe there are an enormous number of areas — largely economic matters — where majorities, indeed supermajorities of the entire population want stuff that is the Democratic party’s agenda. Take the pricing practices of the pharmaceutical industry: it isn’t as if the population of Kentucky thinks there’s something great about charging whatever you can get away with to sick and dying patients.There are lots of areas where the whole country is unified in its desire for change. Higher taxes for the ultra-wealthy. A restoration of the balance between corporate power and the rights of employees. Paid parental leave. The list goes on.

…returning some semblance of unity and national purpose will definitely depend on picking the right battles in Washington D.C. And those, to my mind, are usually those that involve the excesses of private power that we all suffer under, the inequality of wealth and income that isn’t restricted to one part of the country or another.

In many of the areas I mentioned, the real dynamic is not really left versus right, but actually the People versus Congress. In other words, there are things that everyone wants done, but the institutions of government, most clearly Congress, just won’t act.


This is so true. The US legislature has been sclerotic for years, because it has ceased to try to improve the lives of its people – since the passage of the ACA.
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CDC acknowledges Covid-19 can spread via tiny air particles • WSJ

Caitlin McCabe and Betsy McKay:


The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said tiny particles that linger in the air can spread the coronavirus, revising its guidelines on the matter just a few weeks after the health agency had acknowledged a role for the particles and then abruptly removed it.

The guidelines on how the coronavirus spreads were initially updated last month to acknowledge a role, and possibly the primary one, played by tiny aerosol particles in spreading the virus. But the agency removed the changes only days later, saying a draft version of the proposed changes had been posted in error.

In its latest revisions to the guidelines Monday, the CDC acknowledged a role for the tiny airborne particles, though the latest wording says they aren’t the main way the virus spreads.


So close, yet whiffed at the last minute. Contrast the letter in Science magazine on the same day from a group of American scientists:


There is overwhelming evidence that inhalation of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) represents a major transmission route for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). There is an urgent need to harmonize discussions about modes of virus transmission across disciplines to ensure the most effective control strategies and provide clear and consistent guidance to the public. To do so, we must clarify the terminology to distinguish between aerosols and droplets using a size threshold of 100 μm, not the historical 5 μm. This size more effectively separates their aerodynamic behavior, ability to be inhaled, and efficacy of interventions.

Viruses in droplets (larger than 100 μm) typically fall to the ground in seconds within 2m of the source and can be sprayed like tiny cannonballs onto nearby individuals. Because of their limited travel range, physical distancing reduces exposure to these droplets. Viruses in aerosols (smaller than 100 μm) can remain suspended in air for many seconds to hours, like smoke, and be inhaled. They are highly concentrated near an infected person, so they can infect people most easily in close proximity. But aerosols containing infectious virus can also travel more than 2 m and accumulate in poorly ventilated indoor air, leading to superspreading events.


There’s so much denial going on about how aerosols are the principal cause of spread. It’s quite weird. Think of coronavirus as infectious smoke, with some heavy smokers and lots of very light smokers, and you’re there. The problem: you can’t tell who the heavy smokers are.
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The Ulez countdown: Londoners have a year to ditch old polluting cars • The Guardian

Miles Brignall:


Hundreds of thousands of Londoners – and many more who regularly drive into the capital – have a year to get rid of vehicles that do not adhere to new emissions standards to be rolled out across the capital or face paying £12.50 a day every time they get behind the wheel.

On 25 October 2021, London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) is being expanded from its current limit – within the congestion charge zone in central London – to include most of the capital.

This will mean that the original area will be 18 times bigger and include all the streets inside the North and South Circular Roads.

It’s been described as one of the most radical anti-pollution policies in the world. Millions of people will find themselves in the low-emissions area, and many will find that their existing car simply isn’t worth keeping.

Anyone driving a petrol car that does not meet Euro 4 standards – typically any car sold before 2006 – will have to pay the daily charge.

But the bigger shock is that diesel cars that do not hit the Euro 6 standard – which is most cars bought before September 2015 – will also not comply. In both cases, owners will have to pay the £12.50 a day, even if they drive just a mile down the road.

The move, which environmental groups say is years overdue and should lead to a dramatic improvement to London’s air quality, will leave the owners of some six-year-old cars, which could have just 24,000 miles on the clock, having to sell at a significant loss.

The AA has warned that up to 350,000 London motorists will be affected, with a further 160,000 hit if and when similar schemes in Birmingham, Coventry, Edinburgh and Glasgow get the go ahead.


There was a time when diesel vehicles were being pushed really hard by the government: the fuel was cheaper, there were subsidies for using them as company cars. Now they’re pretty much reviled for their role in generating particulate emissions.
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Google says ‘beauty’ filters are bad for your mental health, Pixel cameras won’t use them by default • Android Police

Corbin Davenport:


Most smartphones have offered some type of ‘beauty’ filter for years, which smooth out pimples, freckles, wrinkles, and other details in your face. There are a few studies that show such functionality can have a negative effect on mental health, and as a result, Google is now turning them off by default on its own phones and encouraging other OEMs to do the same.

“We set out to better understand the effect filtered selfies might have on people’s wellbeing,” Google said in a blog post, “especially when filters are on by default. We conducted multiple studies and spoke with child and mental health experts from around the world, and found that when you’re not aware that a camera or photo app has applied a filter, the photos can negatively impact mental wellbeing. These default filters can quietly set a beauty standard that some people compare themselves against.”

Google has created documentation for best practices when implementing face filters, recommending that they be off by default.


These are enormously popular in South Korea, in particular, and Japan and China. Not sure how many Pixels sell there. Quite the gesture, of course. A real strategy credit.
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Floodgates in Venice work in first major test • The New York Times

Elisabetta Povoledo:


After decades of bureaucratic delays, corruption and resistance from environmental groups, sea walls designed to defend Venice from “acqua alta,” or high water, went up on Saturday, testing their ability to battle the city’s increasingly menacing floods.

By 10 a.m., all 78 floodgates barricading three inlets to the Venetian lagoon had been raised, and even when the tide reached as high as four feet, water levels inside the lagoon remained steady, officials said.

“There wasn’t even a puddle in St. Mark’s Square,” said Alvise Papa, the director of the Venice department that monitors high tides.

Had the flood barriers not been raised, about half the city’s streets would have been under water, and visitors to St. Mark’s Square — which floods when the tide nears three feet — would have been wading in a foot and a half of water, he said.
“Everything dry here. Pride and joy,” tweeted Luigi Brugnaro, Venice’s newly re-elected mayor.

Designed some four decades ago to help save Venice from flooding, the mobile barrier system was delayed by cost overruns, corruption, and opposition from environmental and conservation groups. The cost of the system tripled from initial estimates, and a 2014 bribery scandal led to the arrest of the then-mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, and dozens of others, including politicians and businessmen involved in the project.


Yes, it’s the rest of Infrastructure Week! (Thanks Gregory.) Note that the impressive work on infrastructure (out of necessity) has recently from Italy: Venice floodgates, replacement of the Ponte Morandi, and stabilised the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
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Why the future of Delta and American Airlines may depend on frequent flyer miles • Marker

Byrne Hobart:


To remain solvent during the pandemic, airlines have raised cash by putting up for collateral typical aviation assets, including aircraft and landing slots or the rights to use a particular flight route (for example, Delta could borrow against a given route and, if it defaulted, the lender could sell that route to United). But perhaps more interesting, airlines have also collateralized their loyalty programs, popularized by frequent flyer miles and travel points accumulated with credit card purchases. A recent analysis of these loyalty and rewards programs by the Financial Times reveals significant data about just how big and profitable those programs are as a stand-alone business — and how dependent major airlines have become on them as a core revenue generator.

The Financial Times pegs the value of Delta’s loyalty program at a whopping $26bn, American Airlines at $24bn, and United at $20bn. All of these valuations are comfortably above the market capitalization of the airlines themselves — Delta is worth $19bn, American $6bn, and United $10bn. In other words, if you take away the loyalty program, Delta’s real-world airline operation — with hundreds of planes, a world-beating maintenance operation, landing rights, brand recognition, and experienced executives — is worth roughly negative $7bn. But economics of the loyalty program don’t work without a robust airline operation.

…The airline business was perfectly optimized for the economics of 2019, offering a mix of cheap-but-uncomfortable seats, lucrative last-minute business-class tickets, and, of course, a durable fintech business. Today, the fintech business is the only part of the airlines that investors are excited about, but if airlines dramatically scale back their flights and routes, those loyalty programs could become worthless, too.


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