Start Up No.1485: what “accept cookies” really means, why surfaces don’t spread Covid, a Facebook smartwatch?, and more

The WHO’s findings from Wuhan suggest a less dangerous form of Covid-19 was circulating there unnoticed for some time. CC-licensed photo by quapan on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Pourquoi c’existe?. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What do you actually agree to when you accept all cookies? • Conrad Akunga, Esquire

Conrad Akunga:


I have been writing software for exactly twenty years now. In the course of this I have learnt very many things, which I hope to journal over time.

One of them is this: people don’t read instructions.

You almost certainly haven’t read the Windows EULA. You haven’t read the iTunes EULA. You haven’t read the Linux GPL, or the licenses of any software.

Don’t worry. This is normal. You are not alone.

The same issue comes into play in our online existence. We heavily use the internet. And thanks to a thing called the GDPR we increasingly see banners like these [image of typical GDPR banner not bothered with because, hell, you’ll see enough of them today].

And, like almost everybody, the instant you saw one of these you clicked Accept and moved on with your life.

You didn’t click around to learn more, did you?

You are not alone.

The question is – what exactly are you agreeing to when you click Accept All?

So today I set out to actually see what it is one agrees to when they accept all.


As with the EULA for your computer software, you won’t actually read all of this post. But you’ll skim it and think bloody hell, is all this infrastructure really necessary?
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WHO Wuhan mission finds possible signs of wider original outbreak in 2019 • CNN

Nick Paton Walsh:


Investigators from the World Health Organization (WHO) looking into the origins of coronavirus in China have discovered signs the outbreak was much wider in Wuhan in December 2019 than previously thought, and are urgently seeking access to hundreds of thousands of blood samples from the city that China has not so far let them examine.

The lead investigator for the WHO mission, Peter Ben Embarek, told CNN in a wide-ranging interview that the mission had found several signs of the more wide-ranging 2019 spread, including establishing for the first time there were over a dozen strains of the virus in Wuhan already in December. The team also had a chance to speak to the first patient Chinese officials said had been infected, an office worker in his 40s, with no travel history of note, reported infected on December 8.

The slow emergence of more detailed data gathered on the WHO’s long-awaited trip into China may add to concerns voiced by other scientists studying the origins of the disease that it may have been spreading in China long before its first official emergence in mid-December.
Embarek, who has just returned to Switzerland from Wuhan, told CNN: “The virus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding.”

China seizes on lack of WHO breakthrough in Wuhan to claim coronavirus vindication
The WHO food safety specialist added the team had been presented by Chinese scientists with 174 cases of coronavirus in and around Wuhan in December 2019. Of these 100 had been confirmed by laboratory tests, he said, and another 74 through the clinical diagnosis of the patient’s symptoms.


Think back to last week’s Wired article about how the Kent variant very probably emerged from someone in whom the virus was replicating for a long time, keeping just ahead of their weakened immune system which couldn’t quite stamp it out. (Thanks G for the link.)

Now imagine that someone in China with a similarly weakened immune system was infected by a precursor to SARS-Cov-2: a version which couldn’t spread to other humans for whatever reason. They could have had that for months before the virus hit the mutation jackpot inside them and became something that hooked on to ACE2 and had an efficient spike protein.

And, you ask, where did that person get infected? If they had a weak immune system, it could have been from any of the places where humans interact with animals such as bats and pangolins. They’d have been a target for a virus just able to get a toehold in the human body.
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Coronavirus is in the air — there’s too much focus on surfaces • Nature

The Editorial Board:


A year into the pandemic, the evidence is now clear. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted predominantly through the air — by people talking and breathing out large droplets and small particles called aerosols. Catching the virus from surfaces — although plausible — seems to be rare, according to this Lancet paper.

Despite this, some public-health agencies still emphasize that surfaces pose a threat and should be disinfected frequently. The result is a confusing public message when clear guidance is needed on how to prioritize efforts to prevent the virus spreading.

In its most recent public guidance, updated last October, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised: “Avoid touching surfaces, especially in public settings, because someone with COVID-19 could have touched them before. Clean surfaces regularly with standard disinfectants.” A WHO representative told Nature in January that there is limited evidence of the coronavirus being passed on through contaminated surfaces known as fomites. But they added that fomites are still considered a possible mode of transmission, citing evidence that SARS‑CoV-2 RNA has been identified “in the vicinity of people infected with SARS-CoV-2”. And although the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website that surface transmission is “not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads”, it also says that “frequent disinfection of surfaces and objects touched by multiple people is important”.

This lack of clarity about the risks of fomites — compared with the much bigger risk posed by transmission through the air — has serious implications. People and organizations continue to prioritize costly disinfection efforts, when they could be putting more resources into emphasizing the importance of masks, and investigating measures to improve ventilation.


The WHO has looked out of touch the entire way through this pandemic. From its assurance that Covid didn’t spread between humans, to its advice on fomites, it’s appeared two steps behind.
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Analysis: Shell says new ‘Brazil-sized’ forest would be needed to meet 1.5C climate goal • Carbon Brief

Josh Gabbattiss:


For the first time, Shell has released a “pathway” showing how the world could potentially meet the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C.

This marks a significant shift in attitude towards action on climate change, given that only six years ago executives at the oil-and-gas major were sceptical about warming not breaching 2C. It now says that the 1.5C goal could be achieved by 2100 with CO2 emissions reaching “net-zero” by 2058.

A pivotal moment came in 2018 when Shell outlined a ”plausible” route to meeting the Paris Agreement’s “well-below 2C” goal, including seeing “peak oil” in 2025 with “peak gas” following a decade later.

However, Carbon Brief analysis of Shell’s new “Sky 1.5” scenario shows that, despite its ”highly ambitious” framing, it is, in fact, nearly identical to its 2C predecessor. Shell’s vision of a continued role for oil, gas and coal until the end of the century remains essentially the same.

Aside from the temporary impact of Covid-19, the major difference between the two scenarios is the “extensive scale-up of nature-based solutions”, specifically planting trees over an “area approaching that of Brazil”.


A new forest the size of Brazil. Not sure there are that many Brazil-sized spaces currently available for tree planting. We really need something to get carbon out of the atmosphere.
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A “predatory” stop-sign camera is terrorizing my neighborhood • Defector

Dave McKenna:


This particular stop-sign camera’s fortunes, however, may well have turned when it flashed at Deepak Gopalakrishna. 

Gopalakrishna happens to be a transportation engineer with a specialty in road safety. He’s lived in Petworth for years and told me he hadn’t ever gotten a ticket on Kansas Avenue NW until this summer. He started asking around and found that just about everybody else on his block had also gotten multiple $100 fines. He said his professional background and personal leanings have had him support pro-bike, “not car-friendly” programs like the Vision Zero project. And he said he has no fixed bias against speed cameras and red light cameras. But the rate at which he’d been nailed told him that this stop-sign camera had to go.

“I’ve got five tickets,” Gopalakrishna told me. “Before I found out about the first one, I’d gotten four more.”

Gopalakrishna FOIA’d for information on the equipment being used by the city for its stop-sign camera setup and just how many tickets had been issued at that one intersection. He learned that the stop-sign cam’s sensor in Petworth, a Smartmicro UMrr-11 Type 44 Radar Antenna, had been recalibrated on June 5, 2020. A ticket boom commenced soon after.

Data from MPD shows that in June 2020, the camera in question snapped 82 violators. Then there were 2,850 tickets in July 2020 (compared to 231 tickets in July 2019). Then the camera started flashing like paparazzi in Cannes: From August through November, a total of 17,216 tickets were issued. That’s $1,721,600 from one camera at one intersection in just four months. 


Turns out there’s no legal definition of “coming to a full stop”. Which means the camera operator can essentially define infractions as they like.
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Report: Facebook plotting Apple Watch competitor for as soon as 2022 • 9to5Mac

Michael Potuck:


A new scoop from The Information says Facebook is developing an Apple Watch competitor with a focus on health and messaging. The possible smartwatch launch from the social media giant could happen as soon as 2022.

Based on four anonymous sources close to the project, The Information’s report says that Facebook is planning to include a cellular connection with its smartwatch so it could work without a smartphone. The Facebook wearable would have a tight integration with Facebook Messenger, but health features could be compatible with popular fitness platforms like Peloton.

However, as The Information notes, consumers trusting Facebook with health data may be an uphill battle:


The wrist device is expected to work via a cellular connection, without needing a smartphone. Facebook additionally plans to allow the device to connect to the services or hardware of health and fitness companies, such as Peloton Interactive, the maker of internet-connected exercise bikes. Given its spotty track record with user privacy, Facebook could face blowback from consumers with its wrist wearable, especially related to health aspects of the device.


As far as the OS, this first smartwatch is expected to run on Google’s Android but that Facebook is also developing its own OS for future wearables.


To be sold at cost, in order to push sales. Recall that this didn’t work out well when Facebook made a phone with HTC, though it seems to have gone OK with its Portal product. Now, since we’re talking about health-monitoring devices from surveilling companies…
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What to do when your health and fitness goals turn against you • WIRED UK

Becca Caddy:


I’ve reviewed many different health and fitness tracking devices over the years, and, at times, I became overly concerned with hitting specific goals each day – to the point where I’d feel panicked or like a failure if my wearable told me I hadn’t burned enough calories or taken enough steps.

I’ve since learned this behaviour wasn’t motivated by fitness challenges or an interest in my health – which would have been my excuses at the time. Instead, this focus on everything my fitness tracker was telling me about my body, my health and my food intake had exacerbated problems I’d had with disordered eating in my teens. Except now I had a smart device strapped to my wrist making the worries about food and weight all that more difficult to escape from.

A growing pile of evidence suggests I’m not alone in finding that excessive tracking can worsen or, possibly, even cause an unhealthy preoccupation with health and fitness.

One 2018 study from Loughborough University and the University of Warwick found that 65% of young people in their sample reported using monitoring tools (this included both fitness trackers and calorie counting apps).

Those who used these tools exercised more compulsively and had more problems with dietary restraint, concerns about weight and shape, exercising for weight control and purging behaviours – which in this case meant exercising to work off calories – than those that didn’t.


Facebook wouldn’t find a way to make you anxious about your health readings, I’m sure.
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Rise of the Barstool conservatives • The Week

Matthew Walther:


Trump’s greatest achievement, one that speaks far more than his actual record in office to his business acumen, was recognizing that in the 2012 presidential election, the old [conservative] movement vein had been exhausted and that a much richer one was awaiting exploration.

What Trump recognized was that there are millions of Americans who do not oppose or even care about abortion or same-sex marriage, much less stem-cell research or any of the other causes that had animated traditional social conservatives. Instead he correctly intuited that the new culture war would be fought over very different (and more nebulous) issues: vague concerns about political correctness and “SJWs,” opposition to the popularization of so-called critical race theory, sentimentality about the American flag and the military, the rights of male undergraduates to engage in fornication while intoxicated without fear of the Title IX mafia.

Whatever their opinions might have been 20 years ago, in 2021 these are people who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, accept pornography, homosexuality, drug use, legalized gambling, and whatever GamerGate was about. On economic questions their views are a curious and at times incoherent mixture of standard libertarian talking points and pseudo-populism, embracing lower taxes on the one hand and stimulus checks and stricter regulation of social media platforms on the other.

I have come to think of the people who answer to the above description as “Barstool conservatives,” in reference to the popular sports website, especially its founder and CEO, Dave Portnoy. For many years the political significance of Barstool was implicit at best, reflected mainly in its conflicts with Deadspin and other members of the tacitly liberal sports journalism establishment.


This definitely captures something about what was going on. Though don’t forget that many of Trump’s supporters were hardly in the first flush of youth. I do think that Walther is accurate in identifying a segment of the young white male American population which thinks like this. It’s a libertarian streak that has probably been amplified by the internet, which would explain why it has risen so much compared to 20 years ago. The puzzle is how Trump identified it. Through his awful children, perhaps?
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Clubhouse users’ raw audio may be exposed to Chinese partner • Bloomberg

Jamie Tarabay:


Clubhouse, the popular app that allows people to create digital discussion groups, says it’s reviewing its data security practices after the Stanford Internet Observatory found potential vulnerabilities in its infrastructure that could allow external access to users’ raw audio data.

The SIO confirmed that Agora Inc., a Shanghai-based start-up with offices in Silicon Valley, provides back-end infrastructure to Clubhouse and sells a “real-time voice and video engagement platform.”

User IDs are transmitted in plaintext over the internet, making them “trivial to intercept,” the Observatory noted. User IDs are like a serial number, not the username of the person. Agora would likely have access to users’ raw audio, potentially providing access to the Chinese government, it said.

“Any observer of internet traffic could easily match IDs on shared chatrooms to see who is talking to whom,” the SIO said in its Twitter feed about its findings. “For mainland Chinese users, this is troubling.”

SIO, a program at Stanford University that studies disinformation on the internet and social media platforms, said it observed metadata from a Clubhouse chatroom “being relayed to servers we believe to be hosted in” China. Analysts also saw audio being relayed “to servers managed by Chinese entities and distributed around the world,” their report noted.


This is all totally predictable. There will also at some point be a hack of user IDs, and there will be an influx of Nazis, and…
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Why does the Apple TV still exist? • Six Colors

Jason Snell:


Why does this product still exist, and is there anywhere for it to go next? [John] Gruber and [Ben] Thompson [in an episode of their podcast Dithering] suggest that perhaps the way forward is to lean into an identity as a low-end gaming console. Maybe amp up the processor power, bundle a controller, and try to use Apple Arcade to emphasize that this is a box that is for more than watching video.

The thing is, that’s really been the story of the Apple TV for the last few years, and so far as I can tell, it’s basically gone nowhere. Apple isn’t Nintendo or Sony or Microsoft when it comes to gaming. Apple’s track record with gaming products isn’t solid, to say the least. It’s hard for me to see this succeeding—but it doesn’t mean Apple won’t try.

The other possibility that I’ve come up with is to merge the Apple TV with some other technologies in order to make something more than just a simple TV streamer. Gaming can be a part of that, yes, but there needs to be more. Broader HomeKit support, perhaps with support for other wireless home standards, would help, as would a much more sophisticated set of home automations.

And if Apple really wants to continue to play in the home-theater space, I’ve been saying for years that there’s room for an Apple SoundBar, that could integrate the big sound of HomePod with the Apple TV software to create a solid music and video experience.

Then there’s the final possibility: no more Apple TV. Removing it simplifies Apple’s product naming scheme (Apple TV is a hardware box, an app, and a streaming service, but not yet a dessert topping), and allows the company to focus on other things—perhaps including other home-themed products that might be more up its alley.


He’s right: as a streaming box, it’s very expensive. It has the other functions like controlling HomeKit, but I suspect that’s still quite niche. But Apple may be saying that it’s dead already by simply ignoring it, as it did with its Airport range of wireless modems. (Thompson made this point, and I agree.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1485: what “accept cookies” really means, why surfaces don’t spread Covid, a Facebook smartwatch?, and more

  1. I believe it’s pretty well established that Trump didn’t have any political master plan. He ran for president as a publicity stunt to raise his national TV profile, and ending up winning! It’s like a twisted horror version of the cliche movie plot where the plainspoken outsider runs against the insider establishment, and triumphs via appealing to The People. Except in this case, the plainspeaking and appeal was more to the id than superego.

    I think the article’s author is getting at one of the most atypical aspects of Trump, that despite his wealth he absolutely refuses to send out all the intellectual professional signifiers common to a politician. He doesn’t do culture war by presenting as a pious religious conservative. He does culture war by presenting as a blue collar working guy, even though he was born rich and got even richer. There’s more than enough material for a political science thesis in that topic.

    • I’d also argue, that the reason Trump won the first time and people remain so loyal, is really only because he is such a useful shill. No matter if you are Jewish, or White Christian, antiabortion and other key affluent groups, Trump is just a tool.

      They really don’t care about him, and are playing this as a long game. in 25-years, if there has been a war with Iran, abortion is illegal or so restrictive it might as well be, etc. no one will remember that Trump was a great advocate for these things, but they’ll remember he sucked all the air out of the room while all the real work was being done in the dark.

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