Start Up No.1495: an mRNA vaccine for (mice with) malaria, phone boxes reach end of line, what odds on the UK rejoining the EU?, and more


Sanitising hands and surfaces doesn’t make any difference to the spread of Covid. So why do we keep on doing it? CC-licensed photo by Hazel Nicholson on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not disinfected. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How public-health messaging over coronavirus, the pandemic and the vaccine backfired • The Atlantic

Zeynep Tufekci:

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Five key fallacies and pitfalls have affected public-health messaging, as well as media coverage, and have played an outsize role in derailing an effective pandemic response. These problems were deepened by the ways that we—the public—developed to cope with a dreadful situation under great uncertainty. And now, even as vaccines offer brilliant hope, and even though, at least in the United States, we no longer have to deal with the problem of a misinformer in chief, some officials and media outlets are repeating many of the same mistakes in handling the vaccine rollout.

The pandemic has given us an unwelcome societal stress test, revealing the cracks and weaknesses in our institutions and our systems. Some of these are common to many contemporary problems, including political dysfunction and the way our public sphere operates. Others are more particular, though not exclusive, to the current challenge—including a gap between how academic research operates and how the public understands that research, and the ways in which the psychology of coping with the pandemic have distorted our response to it.

Recognizing all these dynamics is important, not only for seeing us through this pandemic—yes, it is going to end—but also to understand how our society functions, and how it fails. We need to start shoring up our defenses, not just against future pandemics but against all the myriad challenges we face—political, environmental, societal, and technological. None of these problems is impossible to remedy, but first we have to acknowledge them and start working to fix them—and we’re running out of time.

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Tufekci, as I keep saying, has an astonishing ability to cut through the noise in any situation. If I were in charge of anything bigger than a skiff, I’d be calling her for advice regularly. I think her background as a sociologist gives her that skill at understanding what is important, and what is just people being thoughtless people.

(Her five fallacies are: risk compensation, rules in place of mechanisms and intuitions, scolding and shaming, harm reduction, and the balance between knowledge and action. But of course you really should read it for yourself.
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First vaccine to fully immunize against malaria builds on pandemic-driven RNA tech • The Academic Times

Monisha Ravisetti:

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Making a vaccine for malaria is challenging because its associated parasite, Plasmodium, contains a protein that inhibits production of memory T-cells, which protect against previously encountered pathogens. If the body can’t generate these cells, a vaccine is ineffective. But scientists recently tried a new approach using an RNA-based platform. 

Their design circumvented the sneaky protein, allowed the body to produce the needed T-cells and completely immunized against malaria. The patent application for their novel vaccine, which hasn’t yet been tested on humans, was published by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on Feb. 4.

“It’s probably the highest level of protection that has been seen in a mouse model,” said Richard Bucala, co-inventor of the new vaccine and a physician and professor at Yale School of Medicine.

The team’s breakthrough could save hundreds of thousands of lives, particularly in developing nations.

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OK, but: IN MICE. Many a slip between murine and human. Still: this is the third mRNA vaccine we’ve seen in testing: after Covid, there was multiple sclerosis, and now this. The latter two, of course, in mice only so far.
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What do you miss least about pre-lockdown life? • eRambler

Jez Cope:

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The first thing that leaps to my mind is commuting. At various points in my life I’ve spent between one and three hours a day travelling to and from work and I’ve never more than tolerated it at best. It steals time from your day, and societal norms dictate that it’s your leisure and self-care time that must be sacrificed. Longer commutes allow more time to get into a book or podcast, especially if not driving, but I’d rather have that time at home rather than trying to be comfortable in a train seat designed for some mythical average man shaped nothing like me!

The other thing I don’t miss is the colds and flu! Before the pandemic, British culture encouraged working even when ill, which meant constantly coming into contact with people carrying low-grade viruses. I’m not immunocompromised but some allergies and residue of being asthmatic as a child meant that I would get sick two or three times a year. A pleasant side-effect of the COVID precautions we’re all taking is that I haven’t been sick for over 12 months now, which is amazing!

Finally, I don’t miss having so little control over my environment. One of the things that working from home has made clear is that there are certain unavoidable aspects of working in my shared office that cause me sensory stress, and that are completely unrelated to my work. Working (or trying to work) next to a noisy automatic scanner; trying to find a light level that works for 6 different people doing different tasks; lacking somewhere quiet and still to eat lunch and recover from a morning of meetings or the constant vaguely-distracting bustle of a large shared office.

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I bet a lot of people really don’t want to go back to commuting – for the cost, as much as the time. But equally, I bet there’s a lot who really do want to get away from their home surroundings, and wallow in a totally different milieu.
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E Day • Archiepyedia

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The first known celebration of e Day is believed to have occurred on January 27 1983, thus predating the very first Pi day by over five years. This happened when a group of second-year mathematics undergraduates at the University of Unter Über Schlesswig Holstein decided that they had had enough of calculus and were instead going to get blind drunk on several crates of low-quality, high-strength Weissbier. The resulting rampage through the town is estimated to have caused twenty-four million deutschmarks’ worth of damage. However, the ringleaders avoided any punishment by pointing out the date, 27/1/83, and claiming that they were in fact celebrating the transcendental mathematical constant to five significant figures. Despite strong suspicions that this was a complete coincidence, the university and municipal authorities eventually backed down.

There were no further celebrations of e Day for several years after this, as mathematics departments in universities throughout the world maintained a state of high alert in case of any repetition of the Unter Über Schlesswig Holstein incident. However, when the first Pi Day went off without any apparent problems in 1988, a small celebration of e Day was allowed in 1990 and has continued thereafter.

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You’ve heard of Pi day. Are you sure there isn’t an e day? (Via Jonathan Pinnock)
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Convenience of public phone boxes near end of line • Financial Times

Nic Fildes:

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About half of Britain’s 40,000 public telephone boxes are set to disappear from the streets as BT scraps kiosks that attract more visitors wanting to “spend a penny” than make a 60p phone call.

The telecoms company’s phone booths, including 7,000 traditional red phone boxes, still handle about 33,000 calls a day, despite universal mobile phone ownership. Yet more than half the boxes lose money and about a third do not handle a single phone call in any given month.

Gerry McQuade, head of BT’s wholesale unit which runs the pay phones business, said he has speeded up plans to cull 20,000 phone boxes and focus on profitable locations. “Very few of them make any money as it stands. In aggregate, it costs us more to collect the money than the phone boxes generate,” he said.

BT has already reduced its phone box estate from a peak of 92,000 in 1992 before the advent of mobile phones reduced the relevance of the traditional pay phone. The number of calls made in phone boxes has dropped 80% from its peak and continues to dwindle at a rate of about 20% a year.

Most of the boxes have become a burden for the company, which has to repair smashed panes of glass and clean up the mess when members of the public use the pay phone as a public convenience.

The annual cost of repairing phone boxes hit £7m five years ago and the company still struggles with illegal activity in some locations where phone boxes can be used to organise drug deals.

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Probably also a proxy for landlines overall. I’d love to know how many home movers now don’t attach a phone to their landline (which is generally required for providing broadband).
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Politics Odds: UK 5/1 to rejoin EU by 2026 as Brexit bites • Betfair

Max Liu:

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The UK is 5/1 to rejoin the European Union amid growing concerns that the Brexit trade deal has left the country poorer and less secure.

So far the government has played down claims from businesses and fisherman that the deal has damaged their exports and ignored concerns from the valuable performing arts sector.

But this week a group of Conservatives said the deal had left the UK “less safe and less secure” and called for Boris Johnson to reopen talks with the EU about security co-operation.

Dominic Grieve and David Lidington, a former attorney general and de facto deputy prime minister respectively, lead the calls. They both voted Remain and were vocal critics of the government’s handling of Brexit, so you might conclude that it’s a case of the usual Remainer suspects trying to scupper the outcome.

On the other hand, as the reality of Brexit bites it could be that this is a taste of things to come.

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Wow! Excepppppppppt: if you look at the market predictor, it’s offering 1-10 (a bet of £10 gets you £11) on remaining out. So if you bet £10 on staying out, and £1 on going back in, if we stay out: you lose nothing. If we go back in, you win £6, losing £5 in total. Funny kind of game.
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Dispo, David Dobrik’s photo-sharing app, is taking off • The New York Times

Taylor Lorenz:

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Dispo, a new photo-sharing app that mimics the experience of using a disposable camera, is taking off. People are clamoring for invites to test the beta version. Early adopters are praising its social features. And investors are betting big on its future.

In the app, users frame photographs through a small rectangular viewfinder. There are no editing tools or captions; when the images “develop” — i.e. show up on your phone at 9 a.m. the next day — you get what you get. Multiple people can take photos on the same roll, as might happen with a real disposable camera at a party.

“When I used to go to parties with my friends, they would have disposable cameras all throughout the house, and they’d urge people to take pictures throughout the night,” said David Dobrik, a YouTube star and a founder of the app. “In the morning, they’d collect all the cameras and look back at the footage and be like, ‘What happened last night?’” (He used an expletive for emphasis.)

He and his friends loved the serendipity of scrolling through fleeting and forgotten moments. “It would be like the ending of ‘The Hangover’ every morning,” Mr. Dobrik, 24, said. He started posting his developed photographs on a dedicated Instagram account in June 2019, and quickly racked up millions of followers. Other influencers and celebrities, including Tana Mongeau and Gigi Hadid, soon started their own “disposable” accounts; their fans followed suit.

Sensing a trend, Mr. Dobrik sought to recreate the disposable-camera experience digitally, as an antidote to the obsession with getting the perfect shot. “You never looked at the picture, you never checked the lighting,” he said of using disposables. “You just went on with your day, and in the morning you got to relive it.”

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Delayed gratification: who would have guessed that we were in the mood for it after a year of on-off lockdowns. This does sound a bit like Hipstamatic, which had a similar Polaroid-picture feel, but was thoroughly steamrollered by Instagram because it lacked social features.

Expected future app: something that mimics taking a picture with film, where you have to do some gesture to wind it on.
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Apple fans are obsessed with this TikToker’s awesome iPhone hack • BGR

Yoni Heisler:

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Say, for example, you want to move eight applications from your home screen to the second page of apps on your device. Normally, you’d press down on an app and select the “Edit Home Screen” option from the contextual menu. Once the apps started wiggling, you’d manually drag each application, one by one, from the home screen to the second page of apps. Needless to say, this can quickly get tedious, especially if you’re trying to move apps from the home screen to, say, the fifth page of apps on your iPhone.

This iPhone trick, however, allows you to simultaneously select multiple applications and move them to another page all at once. Here’s how it works.

To get started, long-press on an app icon until the contextual menu appears. From there, select the “Edit Home Screen” selection. Once the applications start wiggling, press down on an application you’d like to move to another page and move it slightly in any direction. You’ll want to make sure that you keep your finger pressed down on the app the entire time. From there, with your finger still on the screen, take your other finger and simply tap every other application you’d like to move to another page. Upon doing so, you’ll see every newly-tapped application be whisked away to the first app icon’s location. It may seem like you’re adding all of the apps into a folder, but that’s not the case.

Once you’ve selected every app you want to move, drag the collection of app icons to the right or left, depending on which page you want to move them to. Upon doing that, all of the selected apps will re-appear on the new page.

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The video makes it look like the simplest, most obvious thing ever. But: though I wasn’t aware of it, it’s been available since iOS 11, in 2017. Touch interfaces hide their complexity through the lack of a menu bar.
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How heat pumps help homeowners fight climate change • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:

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we expend energy glorifying electric cars. For this year’s Super Bowl, General Motors spent millions on a star-studded ad celebrating its ambitious electric-vehicle plans. It was surprising, but not out of place. Less surprisingly, no heat-pump ads aired during the big game. Even if trust in the grid can be improved, electric heat faces one big problem: Transitioning off natural gas just isn’t as sexy as solar panels or electric cars. Unless you’re a contractor or an HVAC nerd, you probably don’t think much about your heating and cooling systems. They are hidden in attics and basements and utility closets, tucked away on roofs or in side yards. These machines go almost entirely unconsidered unless they break down. Nobody shows off their new water heater when friends come over the way they might show off a Tesla in the garage.

Unlike solar panels, clean upgrades to home appliances also don’t produce social-signaling benefits—the neighbors can’t gawk at your greener home, and you can’t take pride in passersby noticing it. How do you make a heat pump sexy? “I don’t know,” Scott Blunk, Sacramento Municipal Utility District [SMUD]’s strategic business planner of electrification and energy efficiency, admitted. “I think the closest we have is cooking.” He means the blue flame of a stove, the only place in the home where a resident can see and hear and feel natural gas at work. Stove-top cooking is so essential to justifying home gas service, the fossil-fuel industry has poured resources into preserving the appliances’ appeal.

Even SMUD’s executives felt protective of kitchen gas. “You’re never going to get rid of my gas stove,” Blunk recalled them saying. So he bought them portable induction-cooking units (a kind of electric stove that transfers heat directly to cookware) to demonstrate that modern electric cooking heat wasn’t like the old wire coils they might remember from the 1950s.

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And yet heat upmps are amazingly efficient. That plus electric cars, you’re a long way towards the taget.
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Bill Gates explains why he still prefers Android over iPhone during interview on Clubhouse • 9to5Mac

Chance Miller:

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Gates has talked about his use of Android in the past, so Sorkin was curious [in an interview with Gates on Clubhouse] if his preference might have changed, given that he was speaking through a service that’s only available on iOS.

In response, the Microsoft founder explained that he still prefers an Android, but that he keeps an iPhone around to try out — and apparently for joining Clubhouse rooms. Gates’ reasoning for using Android is because manufacturers often pre-install Microsoft software:

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I actually use an Android phone. Because I want to keep track of everything, I’ll often play around with iPhones, but the one I carry around happens to be Android. Some of the Android manufacturers pre-install Microsoft software in a way that makes it easy for me. They’re more flexible about how the software connects up with the operating system. So that’s what I ended up getting used to. You know, a lot of my friends have iPhone , so there’s no purity.

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The reasoning here is a bit odd because you can download Microsoft apps from the App Store on iPhone, and even now adjust your default browser and email apps with iOS 14, so it’s not clear what Gates is referring to.

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Wouldn’t expect BillG to be up on the ins and outs of what iOS 14 has brought – he has very much better things to be concerned about – but there’s a wonderful irony in him appearing on (what is presently) an iPhone-only service. How did he get on there, exactly? Did someone loan him a phone? Did he switch his SIM into an iPhone? Inquiring minds need the detail.
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Google says it’s working to get ‘Hey Google’ working on Wear OS again • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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Activating the Google Assistant by saying “Hey Google” has been broken for months, according to a report from 9to5Google. Google tells The Verge it’s now working on a fix, saying that it’s “aware of the issues some users have been encountering” and will help its partners “address these and improve the overall experience.”

There are a good number of users reporting the issue — a post on Google’s Issue Tracker has almost a thousand stars. Reading through the thread, it’s clear that many users with different smartwatch models are all reporting the same issue going back to November 2020. They say the assistant isn’t completely unusable, as users are still able to trigger it with a long button-press, but if the voice-activation feature hasn’t been working for that long, it likely doesn’t help the perception that Google doesn’t care about Wear OS.

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First reported on November 9, 2020; implies that Google staff who use Wear OS don’t use that feature either. I think the phrase “Google doesn’t care about Wear OS” probably rolls it all up; Google’s now much more interested in making Fitbit its thing.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1495: an mRNA vaccine for (mice with) malaria, phone boxes reach end of line, what odds on the UK rejoining the EU?, and more

  1. Among my colleagues we had a company survey recently organized by our CEO. To note, we’re not going back until June and he wanted some idea what the office should consider before we do (whether we should have hot desks etc…). 40% wanted to work from home 100% off the time, 38% wanted to come in 1-2 days per week, 19% wanted to come in 4 days a week, and 3% 5 days a week. To me it’s the last statistic that’s the most interesting (and I suspect it’s roughly the same on Long Island where our other office is).

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