Start Up No.1511: Google’s dead-end searches, lab leak theory redux, Iceland’s volcano up close, airlines mull vaccine ‘passports’, and more


The Apple HomePod mini has a sensor to measure ambient temperature and pressure. Why? CC-licensed photo by Jazz Guy on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Unavailable as an NFT. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

In 2020, two thirds of Google searches ended without a click • SparkToro

Rand Fishkin:

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Here are the headline statistics from the data:

• SimilarWeb analyzed ~5.1 trillion Google searches in 2020
• These searches took place on a panel of more than 100 million mobile and desktop devices from which SimilarWeb collects clickstream data
• Of those 5.1 trillion searches, 33.59% resulted in clicks on organic search results
• 1.59% resulted in clicks on paid search results
• The remaining 64.82% completed a search without a direct, follow-up click to another web property
• Searches resulting in a click are much higher on desktop devices (50.75% organic CTR, 2.78% paid CTR)
• Zero-click searches are much higher on mobile devices (77.22%)

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There’s a lot to chew over in this. Some of the cases where there’s no click must be from Google’s factboxes – where the result is on the page already without any need to click. Mobile is bigger than desktop. And there are more paid clicks, almost certainly because on mobile now the whole of the first page of results comprises ads.

For Fishkin’s audience of website owners, though, this is mostly bad news. Zero-click searches mean people aren’t coming to them from Google. And the paid clicks? It’s the websites doing the advertising who are paying for that. Which of course in the end is you. Whereas organic search is free to them and to you.
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Why the COVID lab-leak theory in Wuhan shouldn’t be dismissed • USA Today

Alison Young is an investigative journalist in Atlanta who has done extensive work looking at laboratory accidents in the US:

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According to documents I obtained recently using the federal Freedom of Information Act, U.S. laboratories reported more than 450 accidents during 2015 through 2019 while experimenting with some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens – those subject to federal regulation because they “pose a severe threat” to health and also have the potential to be turned into bioweapons. These pathogens, which the U.S. government calls “select agents,” include anthrax, Ebola, plague, deadly strains of avian influenza and types of SARS coronaviruses.

The safety breaches reported to the U.S. Federal Select Agent Program – which is jointly run by the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – ranged from animal bites and needle sticks to failures of safety equipment and mistakes that resulted in infectious particles becoming airborne inside labs.

In nearly all reported cases, regulators deemed the breaches serious enough to put workers at risk of becoming infected, the program’s annual reports to Congress show. As a result, more than 660 U.S. scientists and other lab workers involved in the incidents underwent medical assessment or treatment with preventative medications.

The good news is that almost none of these lab workers got sick, according to the reports, which provide only statistics and no personalized details. But a few – without realizing it – became infected, going about their lives at home and in public for months. Their exposures were identified only because their lab happened to conduct annual blood tests, checking for antibodies to research pathogens, something that federal regulators don’t require. Fortunately, the organisms they were working with were types of bacteria that, while dangerous, don’t spread easily from person to person. 

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The big gap in the “Wuhan lab leak” hypothesis is that there’s no evidence the virus we now identify as SARS-Cov-2 was ever in there. (That’s one of the giant gaps that proponents of the hypothesis never admit.) Provide that, and you’re almost there with the case. (You’d also need to show that it escaped, though that would be almost a foregone conclusion.) China, however, would never allow the sort of investigation that would enable that to be proved or disproved. (And if it’s not found, that still isn’t absolute proof.)
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I captured the Iceland volcano eruption from up close • Petapixel

Iurie Belegurschi:

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It finally happened. Every year we’ve seen it on the news: another volcano in Iceland was going to erupt. The truth is: Iceland has so many volcanoes and there is more than one overdue. But this year we could feel an eruption was getting closer.

Over the last month, we had many earthquakes — over 40,000 tremors, with two quakes as large as magnitude 5.6 — so an eruption was imminent. And a few days ago, the eruption finally happened.

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Amazing photos. That’s all there is to say.
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Apple HomePod mini has secret sensor for smart home thermostats • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

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Apple Inc.’s HomePod mini speaker launched last November with new features such as a home intercom system. But one part of the device has remained secret: a sensor that measures temperature and humidity. 

The Cupertino, California-based technology giant never disclosed this component and the device currently lacks consumer-facing features that use it. The company has internally discussed using the sensor to determine a room’s temperature and humidity so internet-connected thermostats can adjust different parts of a home based on current conditions, according to people familiar with the situation. The hardware could also let the HomePod mini automatically trigger other actions, say turning a fan on or off, depending on the temperature.

If Apple eventually enables the sensor, it would bolster a smart-home strategy that has sometimes lacked focus and trailed those of rivals. Amazon.com Inc.’s latest Echo speakers have temperature sensors, while Google’s Nest sells sensors that can be placed around homes and connect to its thermostats to adjust the temperature of each room. 

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“Confirmed by iFixit, which took apart one of the speakers after an inquiry from Bloomberg News.” Gurman getting an insider tip, clearly.

And then there’s this, dumped right at the end of the piece:

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Before the discontinuation of the larger HomePod, the company had been working on an updated version for release in 2022. It has also been developing new speakers with screens and cameras, but such a launch isn’t imminent.

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“New speakers with screens and cameras”. Isn’t that.. an iPad? There is, though, a terrific rant by John Siracusa in the “RIP Homepod” chapter on the recent Accidental Tech Podcast about all the things the HomePod could have done if only Apple had given it more inputs – let’s say, optical, line-in, Bluetooth just for starters. As he points out, Apple could even have got people to buy a third box, not just a ridiculously expensive stereo pair of HomePods, if it had only done it right.
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Transmission of SARS-Cov-2 during border quarantine and air travel, New Zealand (Aotearoa) • Emerging Infectious Diseases journal

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The strategy in New Zealand (Aotearoa) to eliminate coronavirus disease requires that international arrivals undergo managed isolation and quarantine and mandatory testing for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Combining genomic and epidemiologic data, we investigated the origin of an acute case of coronavirus disease identified in the community after the patient had spent 14 days in managed isolation and quarantine and had 2 negative test results.

By combining genomic sequence analysis and epidemiologic investigations, we identified a multibranched chain of transmission of this virus, including on international and domestic flights, as well as a probable case of aerosol transmission without direct person-to-person contact. These findings show the power of integrating genomic and epidemiologic data to inform outbreak investigations.

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The key thing is that a transmission case in a hotel which they thought happened through people touching surfaces turned out instead to be via aerosols.

There are, as far as I know, no documented cases shown to be due solely to surface contact. Indoor aerosols, on the other hand… yet we’re still told to wash our hands, use sanitiser, and so on. (Thanks Richard for the link.)
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Qantas boss: governments ‘to insist’ on vaccines for flying • BBC News

Jonathan Josephs:

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The boss of Australian airline Qantas has told the BBC that “governments are going to insist” on vaccines for international travellers.

Coronavirus vaccines are seen as crucial to reviving an industry that saw worldwide passenger numbers fall 75.6% last year.

Chief executive Alan Joyce said many governments were talking about vaccination as “a condition of entry”.

Even if they weren’t, he thought the airline should enforce its own policy. “We have a duty of care to our passengers and to our crew, to say that everybody in that aircraft needs to be safe,” Mr Joyce said.

He believes that would justify changing the terms and conditions on which tickets are booked.

And Mr Joyce thinks passengers would be willing to accept the change. “The vast majority of our customers think this is a great idea – 90% of people that we’ve surveyed think it should be a requirement for people to be vaccinated to travel internationally.”

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The idea of “Covid passports” is going to go from “maybe” to “good idea” to “definitely” to “you’re not going anywhere without it”. Rather as yellow fever vaccination certificates used to be.
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Biden nominates Lina Khan, a vocal critic of Big Tech, to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) • The New York Times

Cecilia Kang:

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President Biden on Monday nominated Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission, installing a vocal critic of Big Tech into a key oversight role of the industry.

If her nomination is approved by the Senate, Ms. Khan, 32, would fill one of two empty seats earmarked for Democrats at the F.T.C.

Ms. Khan became recognized for her ideas on antitrust with a Yale Law Journal paper in 2017 called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” that accused Amazon of abusing its monopoly power and put a critical focus on decades-old legal theories that relied heavily on price increases as the underlying measure of antitrust violations.

She served as a senior adviser to Rohit Chopra when he was F.T.C. commissioner. Most recently, she was a leading counsel member to a 16-month-long investigation of online platforms and competition by the House antitrust subcommittee. As a result, Democratic leaders on the subcommittee called for the breakup of Big Tech and legislation to strengthen enforcement of competition violations across the economy.

“As consumers, as users, we love these tech companies,” Ms. Khan said in an interview with The New York Times in 2018. “But as citizens, as workers, and as entrepreneurs, we recognize that their power is troubling. We need a new framework, a new vocabulary for how to assess and address their dominance.”

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Khan and Tim Wu (at the National Economic Council) will be pretty formidable. “Big tech” has an interesting few years ahead.
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Jack Dorsey’s first tweet sold as an NFT for an oddly specific $2,915,835.47 • The Verge

Kim Lyons:

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After it spent just over two weeks on the market, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has sold his first tweet as an NFT for the weirdly specific figure of $2,915,835.47. The winning bidder was Sina Estavi, who had held the high bid since offering $2.5 million on March 6th. He upped his bid to this number at the last moment (and if anyone can tell us what that figure represents, we’d love to hear your theories).

Dorsey put the tweet up for digital auction as an NFT — non-fungible token — a digital good that lives on the Ethereum blockchain, on March 5th. Bids were handled on a platform called Valuables by Cent that lets people make offers on tweets that are “autographed by their original creators.”

…The bids on Dorsey’s succinct first tweet “just setting up my twttr” from March 21st, 2006, quickly escalated, and Dorsey later said he would end the bidding on the tweet’s 15th anniversary. According to the time stamp on Cent, Estavi made his final, winning bid on Monday afternoon, and according to Reuters, paid using the Ether cryptocurrency in the amount of 1630.5825601 ETH. Estavi, CEO of blockchain company Bridge Oracle, told Reuters he was “thankful.”

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So, more Monopoly money payments. But Dorsey sent about 50 bitcoin, or $2.75m, to the Give Africa fund, which I hope has found a way to convert it into real folding stuff.

Meanwhile you can view the tweet for free here. Supplies are not limited.
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Major coronavirus variant found in pets for first time • AAAS

David Grimm:

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The variants of SARS-CoV-2 that keep emerging aren’t just a human problem. Two reports released this week have found the first evidence that dogs and cats can become infected by B.1.1.7, a recent variant of the pandemic coronavirus that transmits more readily between people and also appears more lethal in them. The finds mark the first time one of the several major variants of concern has been seen outside of humans.

B.1.1.7 was first identified in the United Kingdom and that’s where some of the variant-infected pets were found. The U.K. animals suffered myocarditis—an inflammation of the heart tissue that, in serious cases, can cause heart failure. But the reports offer no proof that the SARS-CoV-2 variant is responsible, nor that it’s more transmissible or dangerous in animals. “It’s an interesting hypothesis, but there’s no evidence that the virus is causing these problems,” says Scott Weese, a veterinarian at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College who specializes in emerging infectious diseases.

…Infected pets appear to have symptoms ranging from mild to nonexistent, and infectious disease experts say companion animals are likely playing little, if any, role in spreading the coronavirus to people.

The new variants might change that equation, says Eric Leroy, a virologist at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development who specializes in zoonotic diseases. In one of the new studies, he and colleagues analyzed pets admitted to the cardiology unit of the Ralph Veterinary Referral Centre in the outskirts of London. The hospital had noticed a sharp uptick in the number of dogs and cats presenting with myocarditis: From December 2020 to February, the incidence of the condition jumped from 1.4% to 12.8%.

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The blockchain is a dark forest • Something Interesting

KF:

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Trades made on decentralized exchanges like Uniswap are broadcast publicly to the entire network they are built on – anyone can see them. Eventually miners will add broadcast transactions to a block to confirm them – but miners don’t include transactions in the order they receive them, they include transactions in order from most to least profitable. It is totally possible (and even normal) for new transactions to “cut in line” in front of older transactions by offering to pay miners a higher fee.

So anyone on the Ethereum network can see any Uniswap trade, calculate how profitable it would be to front-run it [buy that amount ahead of the original buyer and sell it to them for a profit] and how much they would need to pay miners to be able to, and if there is money to be made execute the trade. In Ethereum trading circles this is sometimes called a “sandwich attack” since you enclose the original trade in between two trades of your own. An attacker can even bundle the transactions together so if they lose the front-running race the purchases just harmlessly fail instead of leaving them owning coins they never wanted.

If this sounds like free money to you, you’re not alone. There has been a boom in this kind of predatory trading, a natural consequence of the surge in popularity of decentralized exchanges themselves. But there is no such thing as risk-free yield and every predator is also prey. In this case the predator’s predator is Nathan Worsley, who built an elegant little trap to catch sandwich traders in the act:

Mr. Worsley wrote a smart contract called “Salmonella” and set up a small, completely artificial market for it on Uniswap. Salmonella looked and acted like an ordinary ERC-20 token in all ways but one: when it detected sandwich-trading it would silently confiscate 90% of the attacker’s payout while mimicking the logs of a successful attack. He then set up some tempting front-runnable transactions in the market as bait and let the sandwich traders walk into the trap. Over the course of the next few days he captured >100 ETH (~$176k at time of writing) before sandwich traders updated their strategies to detect and avoid his poison tokens.

This is one glimpse into what finance might look like in a truly decentralized world.

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Sounds delightful. Can’t wait. (Something Interesting is a Substack, of course, newsletter mostly about crypto stuff, if you want to get that.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1511: Google’s dead-end searches, lab leak theory redux, Iceland’s volcano up close, airlines mull vaccine ‘passports’, and more

  1. Charles – on COVD19 no documented cases shown to be due solely to surface contact.

    The virus can survive on surfaces for many days – I guess the only way you could catch it from your hands is to then touch your lips, bite your nails or picj your nose 🙂 I’m still very careful with things I touvch but I do agree with you that aerosole must be factors more infectious.

    I remember way back (I think it was the first BBC Horizon COVID19 special) where they covered research in Germany that traced infection back to a lady rteturning from Asia passing a salt seller to someone. I imagine that aerosoles could be part of this of course.

    “They forensically traced the virus to a Chinese employee who had caught the virus in China and brought it to the company’s headquarters. They discovered that the first person who caught it from the Chinese employee had had very limited interaction with her. In fact, the only interaction they had had was when one of them asked the other to pass the salt.”

    https://www.npr.org/2020/04/21/840522664/germany-says-it-has-identified-the-first-coronavirus-transmission-in-the-country

    • If you’re in a place where you can pass a salt cellar you’re surely able to breathe their air too. The things we believe.

  2. “there are more paid clicks, almost certainly because on mobile now the whole of the first page of results comprises ads”

    … and people still use Google!

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