Start Up No.1433: how Finland and Norway beat Covid, Google Pay relaunches (again?), why is sand soft?, Chrome speeds up, and more


Oil companies fuelled vehicles; now they want your money to take carbon out of the atmosphere. CC-licensed photo by Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. If you can handle them. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Finland and Norway avoid Covid-19 lockdowns but keep the virus at bay • WSJ

Bojan Pancevski:

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In the north of Europe, Finland and Norway boast the West’s lowest rates of mortality linked to Covid-19 and a low incidence of coronavirus infections even though they have kept their economies and societies largely open while lockdowns returned to the continent.

While Sweden has captured global attention with its refusal to adopt mandatory restrictions—a policy now being reversed in the face of spiraling infections and deaths—its two northern neighbors now stand out as the closest Western equivalents to Asian nations that have managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic.

Their recipe: a brief, targeted lockdown in March, followed by tight border controls with mandatory testing and quarantine for all travelers.

Elsewhere in Europe, strict lockdowns in the spring helped bring infections down, but as most of the continent reopened borders, summer travelers turned into incubators for a new and bigger wave of infections, according to epidemiologists and policy makers. Even as governments reimpose draconian restrictions, borders across Europe remain largely open.

The Nordic policy mix could offer lessons for Western governments that are scrambling to bridge the gap until vaccines become widely available and whose latest lockdowns are causing public frustration and exacting a rising economic toll.

“Life is much closer to normal here than in most countries,” said Katja Kähkönen, a theater director from Tampere in Finland. Ms. Kähkönen’s new piece premiered on Saturday in front of a reduced audience under distancing rules that have roughly halved the number of people allowed to attend concerts and dine at restaurants.

After the show, she and her colleagues visited an Italian restaurant while a rock concert was taking place in a nearby bar—a scene now unimaginable in most European countries.

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Something about the fable of the tortoise and the hare, maybe.
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Google Pay’s massive relaunch makes it an all-encompassing money app • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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Google Pay for both Android and iOS is relaunching with a giant array of new features. It turns the app from something that most people think of as a tap-to-pay card repository or peer-to-peer payment system into a much more ambitious service. The new app begins rolling out across the United States today.

The new version of the app will have three new tabs: “Pay,” which includes peer-to-peer payments as well as your transaction history using tap-to-pay; “Explore,” which will be a place where Google will offer deals and discounts; and finally, “Insights,” which will allow you to connect your bank accounts to get a searchable overview of your finances.

You will even be given the option to allow Google Pay to crawl your Gmail inbox and your Google Photos account to look for receipts. Google will use OCR technology to auto-scan them and integrate them into your finance tracking.

In 2021, Google will partner with some banks to directly offer fully online checking and savings accounts inside Google Pay — a service Google is calling “Plex.”

Not all of these services are strictly new for Google, but this will mark the first time they’re unified into a single app. In doing so, Google Pay is now arguably a direct competitor to a wide array of other apps and services, including Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, PayPal, Venmo, Square Cash, Intuit’s Mint, Simplifi, Truebill, Shop, and also online banks like Ally. That is a lot of companies that will have to contend with Google making a high-profile push into their market.

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Isn’t trying to compete with so many things overreach? And that’s quite a lot of delving into your personal accounts that you have to allow.
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Oil companies want to get even richer sucking their own emissions out of the air • Vice

Jennifer Johnson:

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Last week, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports sounded the apocalypse alarm, claiming the planet may have already passed a “point of no return” for global heating.

To stop the “self sustaining” melting of permafrost, its authors contend that humanity must now build 33,000 plants to suck carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air. The paper was rapidly rebuked by climate scientists, who claimed that the model it’s based on is overly simplistic.

What is not in dispute, however, is the fact that CO2 must be drawn out of the atmosphere to keep temperatures within manageable limits. Most climate change mitigation pathways that warn warming must be limited to 1.5C or 2C include some form of carbon dioxide removal, be it via a mass reforestation programme or a more futuristic scheme.

Technologies which might help us don’t exist on a large scale yet, but there are a number of organisations developing them today. Ironically, a lot of our would-be saviours are fossil fuel producers – the companies that put so much CO2 into the atmosphere to begin with.

In late October, a consortium of six energy firms – including Shell, BP and French oil giant Total – announced intentions to develop a huge carbon capture and storage (CCS) project off of England’s east coast. The initiative will see the companies siphon off the CO2 emissions from industrial facilities at Teesside and Humberside, and pipe them into a saline aquifer beneath the bed of the North Sea. Theoretically, they would stay locked away there forever, instead of being released into the atmosphere and contributing to the greenhouse effect.

If successful, the consortium says it could eventually sequester almost half of the UK’s industrial emissions beneath the North Sea. The project is meant to be up and running by 2026. With only around 20 CCS facilities in operation around the world, it could constitute a major step forward for the technology. However, questions about the true environmental credentials of CCS remain.

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Often forgotten that it’s not enough to stop adding GHGs to the atmosphere; you need to remove them too in order to ameliorate warming.
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What makes sand soft? • The New York Times

Randall Munroe (who writes the XKCD strip):

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No one understands how sand works.

That may sound absurd, but it’s sort of true. Understanding the flow of granular materials like sand is a major unsolved problem in physics.

If you build an hourglass and fill it with sand grains with a known range of sizes and shapes, there is no formula to reliably predict how long the sand will take to flow through the hourglass, or whether it will flow at all. You have to just try it.

Karen Daniels, a physicist at North Carolina State University who studies sand and other granular materials — a field actually called “soft matter” — told me that sand is challenging in part because the grains have so many different properties, like size, shape, roughness and more: “One reason we don’t have a general theory is that all of these properties matter.”

But understanding individual grains is only the start. “You have to care not just about the properties of the particles, but how they’re organized,” Dr. Daniels said. Loosely packed grains might feel soft because they have room to flow around your hand, but when the same grains are packed together tightly, they don’t have room to rearrange themselves to accommodate your hand, making them feel firm. This is part of why the surface layers of beach sand feel softer than the layers underneath: the grains in the deeper layers are pressed closer together.

Our failure to find a general theory of sand isn’t for lack of trying. For everything from agricultural processing to landslide prediction, understanding the flow of granular materials is extremely important, and we just aren’t very good at it.

“People who work in particulate handling in chemical engineering factories can tell you that those machines spend a lot of time broken,” Dr. Daniels said. “Anyone who’s tried to fix an automatic coffee grinder knows they get stuck all the time. These are things that don’t work very well.”

Luckily, we’re not totally in the dark, and can say a few things about what makes sand softer or harder.

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Absorbing read. All the things we have learned during lockdown.
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Google’s latest Chrome update delivers ‘largest performance gain in years’ • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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Google is wrapping up 2020 with what it claims are major performance enhancements to the company’s Google Chrome browser. “This month’s update represents the largest gain in Chrome performance in years,” Matt Waddell, Chrome’s director of product, wrote in a blog post. Sounds pretty exciting on the surface, no? Waddell says a slew of under-the-hood changes and optimizations have led to boosts to Chrome on several fronts.

The first has to do with tabs. Chrome now will prioritize your active tab over the others in the background, “reducing CPU usage by up to 5x and extending battery life by up to 1.25 hours (based on our internal benchmarks).” Google goes into greater detail on just what it’s doing to keep tabs in check (hint: it involves throttling JavaScript) at the Chromium blog. “We’ve done this without sacrificing the background features that users care about, like playing music and getting notifications.”

But even opening Chrome should feel faster. The browser now launches 25% faster — hopefully to where you’ll notice the difference. It loads pages up to 7% faster, “and does all of this using less power and RAM than before.”

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Or, you know, buy an M1 Mac and see it load faster and use less CPU. But how many people honestly notice how quickly a browser launches? Who launches it more than once a month?
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Google yanks Apple Silicon Chrome port after browser is found to ‘crash unexpectedly’ • The Register

Matthew Hughes:

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Google’s attempt to launch its Arm port of Chrome for Apple Silicon Macs got off to a rocky start after it was forced to pull the browser over stability concerns.

“Earlier today we updated our Chrome download page to include a new version of Chrome optimized for new macOS devices featuring an Apple processor,” Googler Craig wrote on the Chrome support pages. “We’ve discovered that the version of Chrome made available for download today may crash unexpectedly.”

At the time of writing, the macOS ARM64 port of the browser remains unavailable. Folks now face two options: use the standard x86_64 version, which will run happily on their Arm Mac via the Rosetta 2 emulation layer, or if they managed to download the Apple Silicon port, use a workaround that involves giving Chrome access to the Mac’s Bluetooth radio.

The emulated version shouldn’t prove unbearably slow. Benchmarks of Apple’s latest in binary translation tech shows Rosetta2 is roughly 20% slower than the native equivalents. Given this is a fairly brisk chip to begin with, performance is roughly comparable to what you’d get with a well-specced last-generation Mac.

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Very weird that they wouldn’t have spotted this much earlier. Didn’t they have M1 Macs to test it on? Did they just do it on the DTKs (Mac minis with A14 iPad chips) and hope that would suffice? But there’s been a revised build which, it says, will do the job.
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Apple will reduce App Store cut to 15% for most developers starting January 1st • The Verge

Nick Statt:

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Apple on Wednesday announced a reduction to its longstanding App Store commission rate — one of the most substantial changes to how iOS developers earn money in the history of the iPhone maker’s digital app marketplace — as part of a new program for small businesses.

The new App Store Small Business Program, as it’s called, will allow any developer who earns less than $1m in annual sales per year from all of their apps to qualify for a reduced App Store cut of 15%, half of Apple’s standard 30% fee, on all paid app revenue and in-app purchases.

The company says the “vast majority” of iOS app developers should be able to access the program, but Apple declined to say what percentage of its more than 28 million registered app makers would qualify. Apple also declined to specify how much of its App Store revenue would be affected by the reduced commission.

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Strange how they haven’t gone for a marginal (tax) rate where you’d pay 15% on the first $1m and then 30% after that – it would remove the incentive to simply take your app off the Store when you hit $999,999.

Even so, it’s inching down towards 15%, doing it in stages (the second year of subscriptions is now at that level since 2016) – a sort of unboiling the frog.
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Climate deniers are claiming EVs are bad for the environment — again. Here’s why they’re wrong • DeSmog

Dana Drugmand:

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scientists recently warned that if the country has any hope of reaching the Paris climate targets of limiting warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), 90% of all light-duty cars on the road must be electric by 2050.

But the Competitive Enterprise Institute — a longtime disseminator of disinformation on climate science and supported by petroleum funding sources including the oil giant ExxonMobil and petrochemical billionaire Koch foundations — dismisses this imperative and instead tries to portray electrified transport as environmentally problematic in a paper titled, “Would More Electric Vehicles Be Good for the Environment?

“This is a grab bag of old and misleading claims about EVs [electric vehicles],” said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the clean transportation program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If you want to answer this question [posed by the report’s title], you have to also look at the question of what are the impacts of the current gasoline and diesel transport system, and this report just ignores that.”

The CEI report is authored by Ben Lieberman, a senior fellow at the institute who has a long track record of casting doubt on the science of climate change and the severity of climate risk. He subtly expresses this dismissal of the climate threat in the introduction of his paper, writing: “Niche status for EVs is not good enough for those who consider climate change an existential threat, especially since transportation contributes nearly one-third of American emissions of carbon dioxide.”

According to David Pomerantz, executive director of the watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute, Lieberman and CEI are not credible authorities on matters of climate policy, like increasing electric vehicle adoption, given their embrace of anti-science ideology.

“If someone has spent much of their career denying climate change is a problem, and now that person writes an opinion piece masquerading as a white paper essentially saying ‘EVs are bad because they don’t do enough to address climate change’ — and that person is writing on behalf of an entity funded by oil companies — perhaps we ought not take their arguments, all of which have been made and debunked before, in good faith,” Pomerantz told DeSmog via email.

Reichmuth agreed that Lieberman’s paper doesn’t appear to be written in good faith. “This is designed to try to create a both-sides, ‘I’m just asking questions’ narrative to slow the transition to electric vehicles down,” he said. “This isn’t a real assessment.”

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Perhaps there’s a parallel universe where right-wing Americans are all in favour of improving the environment. It would be nice to visit.
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Amid Utah’s COVID-19 surge, conspiracy theorists who don’t believe the increase in cases tried to enter a Utah ICU • Yahoo News

Azmi Haroun:

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With Utah posting record hospitalizations, according to the Utah Department of Health, conspiracy theorists tried to enter a hospital to prove the recent COVID-19 case surge was a hoax.

Utah is recruiting medical professionals from out of state and has reported that 85% of its intensive-care-unit beds are being used, with almost half related to COVID-19.

According to the statement from Intermountain Healthcare, “although these situations are few and isolated, stopping attempts to gain inappropriate access and responding to fake conspiracy theories diverts attention from providing lifesaving care provided at the hospitals.”

Conspiracy theorists have been attempting to sneak into the intensive-care unit at a hospital in Provo, Utah, according to the local news station KSL.

At a Provo City Council meeting last week, the Utah Valley Hospital administrator Kyle Hansen was providing an update on the hospital’s COVID-19 response and said roughly five people attempted to sneak into the hospital, questioning whether the ICUs were full, KSL reported.

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It would be a fabulous irony if they then caught it and found themselves inside there, wouldn’t it. Do Americans latch onto conspiracy theories more tightly than other people?
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Marissa Mayer is back and she wants to fix your address book • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

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Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer on Wednesday announced the launch of Sunshine, a consumer software start-up that is debuting with an address book app that relies on artificial intelligence.

Sunshine is Mayer’s first venture and return to the spotlight since stepping down from her role as Yahoo chief executive after the company’s $4.48bn sale to Verizon in 2017.

At launch, Mayer’s start-up is rolling out Sunshine Contacts, an address book app that relies on artificial intelligence to find and merge duplicate contacts, fill out incomplete information and continually keep that data up to date. The app integrates with the iOS Contacts app as well as Gmail and will be free to all iOS users with an invitation.

“The idea is that Sunshine Contacts basically becomes the brain that operates your contacts,” Mayer told CNBC. “Contacts, in our view, should be a living, changing thing.”

The app is also designed to make it easy to share your contact information with others, or keep that data updated for others. One feature, for example, allows users to change their contact info within the app and push it as an update to others who have their information and use Sunshine Contacts.

“As I’ve been working on contacts, some days I just get really upset and concerned that there are thousands of people out there who still have my Google email address or Yahoo email address,” said Mayer, before demonstrating the feature.

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Sigh. Not now, Marissa.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1433: how Finland and Norway beat Covid, Google Pay relaunches (again?), why is sand soft?, Chrome speeds up, and more

  1. Sunshine is going to require a lot of data to work properly. Alternatively, you could simply use Contact Plus, which hasn’t got a direct link to other address books, but can pull public data.

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