Start Up No.1515: speaking against Covid passports, life as a “cable guy”, the rise of fleeceware apps, the best use for NFTs, and more


There’s a global toilet paper shortage (and too many wipes). Can add-on bidets solve both problems? CC-licensed photo by Melissa Bube on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Immune (to your herbicidal batterings). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Give pause before you raise a glass to the prospect of a vaccine passport • The Guardian

Stephanie Hare:

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the Conservatives have announced plans to introduce a bill to make photo ID mandatory from 2023 for all UK-wide and English elections. There’s no obvious need for it: there was only one conviction for “personation” fraud in the UK in 2019.

Then, again, there would be no need to make photo ID mandatory at elections if people could simply use their “vaccine passport” – because, once we’ve built a system that links our identity to our health data and made this a condition of re-entering pubs, cinemas or concerts, or even our workplace, we could link it to other data too, public or private.

This could be used by more than just pub landlords or election officials. The data on our vaccine passports could be used by the police, just as Singapore’s authorities admitted in January to using contact-tracing data.

All this – effectively, as I say, a stealth national ID card without the necessary debate – when we don’t even know if vaccine passports would help to solve our biggest problem: stopping the spread of the virus. We don’t know how long immunity lasts. We don’t know to what extent vaccines reduce transmission, or by how much, or whether this varies depending on which vaccine we’ve had.

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She is, in case it’s not obvious, very much against the whole idea.
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I was a cable guy. I saw the worst of America • HuffPost

Lauren Hough:

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I can’t tell you about a specific day as a cable tech. I can’t tell you my first customer was a cat hoarder. I can tell you the details, sure. That I smeared Vicks on my lip to try to cover the stench of rugs and walls and upholstery soaked in cat piss. That I wore booties, not to protect the carpets from the mud on my boots but to keep the cat piss off my soles. I can tell you the problem with her cable service was that her cats chewed through the wiring. That I had to move a mummified cat behind the television to replace the jumper. That ammonia seeped into the polyester fibers of my itchy blue uniform, clung to the sweat in my hair. That the smell stuck to me through the next job.

But what was the next job? This is the stuff I can’t remember — how a particular day unfolded. Maybe the next job was the Great Falls, Virginia, housewife who answered the door in some black skimpy thing I never really saw because I work very hard at eye contact when faced with out-of-context nudity. She was expecting a man. I’m a 6-foot lesbian. If I showed up at your door in a uniform with my hair cut in what’s known to barbers as the International Lesbian Option No. 2, you might mistake me for a man. Everyone does. She was rare in that she realized I’m a woman. We laughed about it. She found a robe while I replaced her cable box. She asked if I needed to use a bathroom, and I loved her.

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I referred to this on Friday, with the Amazon worker stuff. But I don’t seem to have ever linked to it, which is an amazing oversight. Perhaps because it came out on 30 December 2018.

Give yourself a drink and some time. It’s amazing. Includes former US VP Dick Cheney. What she says to him is marvellous.
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Toilet paper shortage could return due to shipping container crisis • Bloomberg

Fabiana Batista:

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The world really doesn’t need more toilet paper problems. But unfortunately the biggest producer of wood pulp — the raw material for products including bath tissue — is warning that the global crunch in shipping containers could start creating supply snags.

Suzano SA primarily ships its pulp in cargo vessels known as break bulk. With demand surging for ships that carry ribbed steel containers, the squeeze is starting to spill over to break bulk and threatens to delay the company’s shipments, Chief executive officer Walter Schalka said in an interview.

Of course that’s happening at a time when demand for residential toilet paper has gone way up and consumers have taken to stockpiling and panic buying. Schalka is concerned that the shipping problems are going to snowball and only get worse from here. Significant disruptions to the pulp trade could eventually impact supplies of toilet paper if producers don’t have ample inventories.

Sao Paulo-based Suzano is already concerned about the risk of exporting less in March than the company had expected, and being forced to roll over some shipments into April, Schalka said. With competition increasing for cargo vessels, break-bulk ships are berthing at the company’s terminals less often than usual.

“All the South American players which export through break bulk have faced this risk,” he said.

Brazil is the world’s top supplier of pulp, and Suzano accounts for about a third of global supplies of hardwood pulp, the type used to produce toilet papers.

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So this is part one of the problem…
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Pandemic wipes create sewer-clogging fatbergs • Bloomberg

Gerald Porter:

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Even before the pandemic, Americans were already flushing far too many wipes into the sewer system. After a year of staying at home, the pipe-clogging problem has gotten worse.

Just ask Larry Hare, who says he immediately observed the change from his vantage point as the manager at a wastewater reclamation facility in Des Moines, Iowa.  

Sewer backups are up 50%, and he attributes this to the flushing of wipes, which don’t break down in water like toilet paper. “We’ve always had the problem, but it just hasn’t been as big a problem as it is currently,” Hare said.

With consumers cleaning everything from counters to doorknobs in hopes of thwarting the coronavirus, sanitary wipes are more popular than ever. In the 12 months through late January, their sales surged 75%, according to data from Nielsen. But the blockages they create when flushed – dubbed fatbergs – have become a costly headache. The Des Moines Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority has spent more than $100,000 over the past year and deployed specialized block-clearing trucks about 30 times, according to Hare. Similar problems are plaguing cities and towns across the US, and they’re being forced to spend more and more on fixing the problem. 

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…and another…
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Bidet makers see their moment and scramble to make a splash • WSJ

Christopher Mims:

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In the midst of a global pandemic, relatively inexpensive add-on bidets—widespread in many parts of the world but never popular in the US—are experiencing a hyperaccelerated transition through the life cycle of a new direct-to-consumer fad. Suddenly these bidet companies are approaching their “Casper Moment,” when a fad becomes a new consumer-goods category, epitomized by a handful of companies. This draws the attention of competitors as well as consumers—and requires tough choices about how best to take advantage of demand that may prove fleeting.

“We’re having the cultural moment that we spent the past five years preparing for and we’re not going to blow it,” says Mr. Ojalvo, who previously spent nearly a decade at Amazon’s Audible unit.

Launched in relative obscurity, bidet specialists including Tushy and Omigo spent investor cash on customer acquisition through targeted advertising on Instagram, Facebook, Google and Amazon. It’s the classic direct-to-consumer playbook, popularized by Casper, Allbirds and Dollar Shave Club: simple product, sophisticated marketing.

…Spikes in sales of bidets could have long-term implications for the entire toilet-paper industry, says Svetlana Uduslivaia, head of home and tech research at Euromonitor. Research suggests that households that adopt them reduce their toilet-paper consumption by up to 75%, she adds. In Japan, 80% of households with two or more people have bidets, but it took decades for the country to reach that level of adoption.

Market penetration of bidets in the US is in the single digits. Historically, that may be because Americans associated them with bordellos, sexuality and other matters that seemed vaguely scandalous and French. But demand began spiking in early March. On March 8, Chicago-based BioBidet, which was incorporated in 2008, got an unprecedented 4,000 orders for its entry-level SlimEdge bidet attachment on Amazon alone. Almost immediately, BioBidet ordered more than 50,000 more bidets from its suppliers in East Asia, says senior marketing director James Amburgey.

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Problem, solved!
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Fleeceware apps on mobile app stores • Avast

Jakub Vávra:

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Researchers at Avast have discovered a total of 204 fleeceware applications [apps with excessive subscription fees] with over a billion downloads and over $400 million in revenue on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. The purpose of these applications is to draw users into a free trial to “test” the app, after which they overcharge them through subscriptions which sometimes run as high as $3,432 per year. These applications generally have no unique functionality and are merely conduits for fleeceware scams. Avast has reported the fleeceware applications to both Apple and Google for review.

The fleeceware applications discovered consist predominantly of musical instrument apps, palm readers, image editors, camera filters, fortune tellers, QR code and PDF readers, and ‘slime simulators’. While the applications generally fulfil their intended purpose, it is unlikely that a user would knowingly want to pay such a significant recurring fee for these applications, especially when there are cheaper or even free alternatives on the market.

It appears that part of the fleeceware strategy is to target younger audiences through playful themes and catchy advertisements on popular social networks with promises of ‘free installation’ or ‘free to download’. By the time parents notice the weekly payments, the fleeceware may have already extracted significant amounts of money.

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This site turns unsolicited dick pics into revenge NFTs • Input

Matthew Wille:

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The rapid proliferation of NFT technology has given way to some very, erm, creative applications. Just about anyone can mint a piece of art — or an AI-created masterpiece — with a little research and some dedication. Zoe Scaman, creative strategist and founder of Bodacious, might just take the cake with her take: using NFT technology to prove a point about men who send unsolicited nudes:

“I’ve figured out a way to stop the Twitter DM bad behaviour. From now on, if you send me an unsolicited dick pic or a shitty message, I’m going to turn it into an NFT, etching it onto the blockchain with your name attached as the artist. You want it gone? You’ll have to pay me.”

Scaman, with a little help from a duo by the name of Very Serious, turned this idea into a real website. NFT the DP was born into the world on March 24, with simple instructions to help even the least tech-savvy amongst us turn dick pics into cash:

Though Scaman didn’t come up with the idea herself — she’s since clarified that the inspiration came from a post in an NFT community Facebook group — she and Very Serious have turned that inspo into an actually helpful website. Cyber-flashers beware.

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At last a good use for them. (Meanwhile, this is my question about NFTs.)
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How a coronavirus variant tore into an English island – and the world •

Andrew Macaskill and Andrew Marshall:

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The first breakthrough came in early December, when Andrew Rambaut, a British evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh, got a tipoff from a scientist thousands of miles away. The scientist, a Brazilian named Tulio de Oliveira, had noticed an unusual set of mutations on the virus when investigating a spike in cases in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. In doing so, De Oliveira had uncovered the so-called South African variant, which has blunted the effectiveness of some vaccines.

Based on this tip, Rambaut began combing Britain’s genome databases, and B.1.1.7 stood out for two reasons. First, it had quickly accumulated a startling number of mutations, 23 in all. Second, Rambaut noticed that eight of those mutations were on the spike protein, which helps the virus lock on to human cells. This was significant because it potentially affected how transmissible the virus is.

More proof was needed. That’s when Volz, the genetic epidemiologist, got involved, working out how fast B.1.1.7 was spreading.

He said that COG-UK’s surveillance data showed a rapid rise in samples of B.1.1.7. “The scale of that growth was faster than anything I had seen before,” Volz said.  

By Dec. 7, Volz had come up with an estimate by comparing the growth of B.1.1.7 with other variants that the new variant was 70% more transmissible. Even so, Volz was confused – initially – because variants sometimes show fast growth spikes, then fizzle out. But “the more we studied it, the more concerning it became,” he said.

…Tracking a variant by sequencing its entire genome is accurate but slow. But Barrett, the statistical geneticist, made a discovery that speeded up the process.

Standard, gene-based Covid tests don’t sequence an entire genome. They look for three genes, and come back positive if at least two are clearly detected. By December, some laboratories had noticed that an unusual number of positive tests were failing to detect one of those three targeted genes. Barrett was asked to work out why, and soon found the answer: The tests were failing to detect the gene because a variant had mutated it. And that variant was B.1.1.7.

This meant COG-UK’s scientists could now track the new variant through Covid tests with the missing gene.

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Absorbing. All from the little Isle of Sheppey off the Kent coast.
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No, bitcoin is not “the ninth-most-valuable asset in the world” • Financial Times

Jemima Kelly:

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The first problem is that bitcoin is not of course a company — nor even, we would argue, an asset — so working out its “market cap” is a non-starter. As some of you might remember, it was originally designed to be a currency that could be used to buy actual things! And although it fails to meet all the criteria that would make it a currency, it does have one thing in common with it: its price is underpinned by sheer faith. The difference being that with fiat currencies, that faith is effectively placed in the governments of the nation states who issue them, whereas for bitcoin, the faith is placed in . . . the hope that other people will keep having the faith. A faith in faith, if you will.

In the context of companies, the “market cap” can be thought of as loosely representing what someone would have to pay to buy out all the shareholders in order to own the company outright (though in practice the shares have often been over- or undervalued by the market, so shareholders are often offered a premium or a discount).

Companies, of course, have real-world assets with economic value. And there are ways to analyse them to work out whether they are over- or undervalued, such as price-to-earnings ratios, net profit margins, etc.

With bitcoin, the whole value proposition rests on the idea of the network. If you took away the coinholders there would be literally nothing there, and so bitcoin’s value would fall to nil. Trying to value it by talking about a “market cap” therefore makes no sense at all.

…[also, ] real liquidity — the actual available supply of bitcoin — is very low indeed. That’s quite obvious even without knowing the stats above from the price moves — you don’t see smooth ups and downs like you might expect in other markets where the demand is coming from real supply-and-demand dynamics rather than speculation, but sudden lurches upwards and cliff-like drops.

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FT Alphaville, where this is published (and is free to read) suggests that bitcoin isn’t an asset, but a liability. Wonder how it will be recorded in Tesla’s accounts.
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Are electric cars really better for the environment? • WSJ

Russell Gold,Jessica Kuronen,Elbert Wang:

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For every mile driven, generating the electricity for the Tesla emits 34% of the emissions associated with making and burning the gasoline consumed in the RAV4 engine.

At 20,600 miles, the greenhouse gas emissions from building and driving the two cars are roughly the same, according to the University of Toronto analysis.

Then the Tesla pulls ahead. By the century mark, the lifetime emissions of the RAV4 are 77% more than the Model 3.

Their consumer value remains somewhat similar. The total cost of buying a RAV4, filling it with gasoline, maintaining it and then reselling it at 100,000 miles nets out to $33,500, according to Consumer Reports. For the Model 3? A bit more at $34,800.

By the time we get to 200,000 miles, the lifespan of a typical car, the emissions comparison isn’t even close. Building and operating the RAV4 has generated 78 tons of greenhouse gases. The Model 3 has generated less than half: 36 tons.

The Model 3 also comes out ahead in Consumer Reports’s total cost of ownership, at $49,800 to $51,000.

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Hitting targets for carbon (non-)emissions effectively requires all US states to mandate EV sales by 2035. That’s going to be a tough one.
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The curious case of Florida’s pandemic response • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson:

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Yes, Florida is seeing falling COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. But so is just about everywhere else. And its overall pandemic performance is just about typical. (Some have questioned the veracity of the state’s public COVID-19 data, but I’m assuming for the purposes of this piece that its numbers are accurate.) Florida ranks 27th in deaths per capita, with higher proportional fatalities than Washington, D.C., California, and 22 other states. That’s not a resounding “vindication,” even if Florida’s economic performance blew everybody else’s out of the water.

As far as I can tell, though, it didn’t. At 4.8%, its unemployment rate is 18th in the country, and not meaningfully different from that of the median states, South Carolina and Virginia, at 5.3%. Real-time data tracking state spending and employment show that Florida is doing, again, no better than average. Compared with January 2020, its consumer spending is down 1%, which is right in line with the national average. Its small-business revenue is down about 30%—again, almost exactly the national average. These statistics may be missing something. But the national narrative of an exceptionally white-hot Florida economy doesn’t match the statistical record of its performance.

Political tug-of-wars over Governor DeSantis’s record and photos of swimsuit parties are currently guiding the debate over coronavirus policies. But guided by statistics, I would have identified a different pandemic hero. Vermont has the second-lowest COVID-19 death rate in the country (just behind Hawaii) and the third-lowest unemployment rate (after South Dakota and Utah). To the extent that winning a pandemic is possible, Vermont really is winning the pandemic.

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One of the biggest problems with reporting on the pandemic is simply getting what seem to be correct numbers. Don’t forget that Florida fired its Covid data curator, who then launched her own dashboard.
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Ever Given Ever Ywhere • Glitch

Garrett Dash Nelson:

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Why should the Suez Canal have all the fun? From the comfort of home you can get the Ever Given stuck wherever you want it. Drag and zoom the map to move this big old boat somewhere else. Click the rotate button to get it wedged perfectly.

Hit the “to scale” button to make it approximately the right size. Or you can make it whatever size you feel like: get it stuck in a swimming pool or across the entire Atlantic Ocean.

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It’s the Boaty McCanalFace of our year.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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