Start Up No.1527: UK variant isn’t more deadly (phew), lessons from building Teslas, Clubhouse’s 1.3m user database scraped, and more


A poll suggests that a lot of business-class seats might go begging on flights as travellers cut back or have video meetings. CC-licensed photo by Simply Aviation on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Very infectious. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UK variant isn’t linked to more severe disease or death, study finds • NBC News

Denise Chow:

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People infected with the more contagious coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom did not experience more severe symptoms and were not at higher risk of death, according to a new study published Monday.

Scientists are struggling to pin down the nature of the UK variant, which has become the dominant strain across Europe and, as of last week, in the United States. Chief among the questions: Is the variant more deadly?

The study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, looked at data from last fall [autumn, dammit – Ed.] in the UK, shortly after the variant was first detected. It soon spread rapidly, eventually becoming the dominant strain circulating in the country.

The new findings add to scientists’ ever-evolving understanding of the UK variant, known as B.1.1.7, at a crucial time in the pandemic, as it and other variants are circulating widely in other countries.

Researchers looked at Covid-19 patients who were admitted to University College London Hospital and North Middlesex University Hospital from Nov. 9 to Dec. 20. The scientists sequenced virus samples from 341 patients, finding that 58% were positive for the UK variant and that 42% had been infected with a different strain.

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March 10: UK variant has worse death rate – study in the BMJ. Confusing, really. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Google is poisoning its reputation with AI researchers • The Verge

James Vincent:

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The company’s decision to fire Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell — two of its top AI ethics researchers, who happened to be examining the downsides of technology integral to Google’s search products — has triggered waves of protest. Academics have registered their discontent in various ways. Two backed out of a Google research workshop, a third turned down a $60,000 grant from the company, and a fourth pledged not to accept its funding in the future. Two engineers quit the company in protest of Gebru’s treatment and just last week, one of Google’s top AI employees, a research manager named Samy Bengio who oversaw hundreds of workers, resigned. (Bengio did not mention the firings in an email announcing his resignation but earlier said he was “stunned” by what happened to Gebru.)

“Not only does it make me deeply question the commitment to ethics and diversity inside the company,” Scott Niekum, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who works on robotics and machine learning, told The Verge. “But it worries me that they’ve shown a willingness to suppress science that doesn’t align with their business interests.

…It’s likely there will be more protest and more resignations, too. After Bengio left the company, Mitchell tweeted, “Resignations coming now bc people started interviewing soon after we were fired,” and that “job offers are just starting now; more resignations are likely.” When asked for comment on these and other issues highlighted in this piece, Google offered only boilerplate responses.

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Smart reporting. Internal and external problems for Google?
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Israel may have destroyed Iranian centrifuges simply by cutting power • The Intercept

Kim Zetter:

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The explosion and blackout at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran over the weekend raised the specter of past sabotage — including the Stuxnet cyberattack that took out some of Natanz’s centrifuges between 2007 and 2010 as well as an explosion and fire that occurred there last July — destroying about three-fourths of a newly opened plant for the assembly of centrifuges.

Government officials and news reports gave conflicting accounts of what caused the latest blasts, the extent of damage, and Iran’s capacity to quickly recover. Initial reports said there was no harm to the Natanz facility, but Iranian officials later acknowledged damage to its centrifuges.

And while media accounts have suggested saboteurs focused on taking out the facility’s electric supply, David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C., believes the aim was to destroy centrifuges. Power is easy to restore even when electrical equipment is damaged, allowing enrichment work to quickly resume. But an abrupt blackout that also takes out backup power would have destroyed some centrifuges, Albright says, since they need to be powered down slowly. Failure to do so leads to vibrations that can cause centrifuge rotors and bellows to become damaged and in some cases disintegrate, which is what Albright suspects occurred.

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Rather than a cyberattack, a la Stuxnet, seems to have been a simple (but targeted) explosion. The reading of this action (by Israel) is that it’s trying to tell the US and allies that it doesn’t want the return of the JCPOA (the US-Iran agreement which limited Iran’s nuclear powers, but which others thought was used to exceed those limits).

Yet weirdly, Israel’s action probably stymied Iran and could push it back towards the JCPOA.
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Siri reveals Apple Event planned for Tuesday, April 20 • MacRumors

Sami Fathi:

»

Siri has apparently prematurely revealed that Apple plans to hold an event on Tuesday, April 20, where the company is expected to reveal brand new iPad Pro models and possibly its long-awaited AirTags trackers.

Upon being asked “When is the next Apple Event,” Siri is currently responding with, “The special event is on Tuesday, April 20, at Apple Park in Cupertino, CA. You can get all the details on Apple.com.” The event will likely be a pre-recorded affair without media in attendance and should be live-streamed on Apple’s website and YouTube channel.

Siri is not providing the information in all instances and will in some cases simply refer you to Apple’s website for information on events, but multiple MacRumors editors and readers have seen the premature information across Apple devices including iPhone, iPad, Mac, and HomePod.

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Once the event had been announced, Siri stopped doing that. Would love to know how the suggestion of “ask Siri when the next Apple event is” got going, because it’s not the sort of thing you get up in the morning and ask. Perhaps a little birdie in Apple PR said a word in someone’s ear…

As to speculation – it’s the time of year for iPads and, perhaps, AirTags (as the rival products won’t launch until June or so). Not expected: Macs.
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Is content moderation a dead end? • Benedict Evans

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I wonder how far the answers to our problems with social media are not more moderators, just as the answer to PC security was not virus scanners, but to change the model – to remove whole layers of mechanics that enable abuse. So, for example, Instagram doesn’t have links, and Clubhouse doesn’t have replies, quotes or screenshots. Email newsletters don’t seem to have virality.

Some people argue that the problem is ads, or algorithmic feeds (both of which ideas I disagree with pretty strongly – I wrote about newsfeeds here), but this gets at the same underlying point: instead of looking for bad stuff, perhaps we should change the paths that bad stuff can abuse. The wave of anonymous messaging apps that appeared a few years ago exemplify this – it turned out that bullying was such an inherent effect of the basic concept that they all had to shut down. Hogarth contrasted dystopian Gin Lane with utopian Beer Street – alcohol is good, so long as it’s the right kind. 

Of course, if the underlying problem is human nature, then you can still only channel it. No-one robs payroll trucks anymore, but I get lots of messages asking me to send my life savings to Nigeria. Moving enterprise applications to the cloud created phishing, and a sandboxed OS creates a bigger market for zero-day exploits. But, we did manage to fix cities, mostly. So I wonder how differently newsfeeds and sharing will work in five years, and how many more new social companies will shift assumptions about mechanics and abuse.

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It’s an important topic. I have my own suggestion for how to minimise the problem, which I put forward in my forthcoming book. Available for preorder, publication in June.
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Who Has Your Face? • Electronic Frontier Foundation

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A majority of Americans are in face recognition databases in use by the government. Photos you provide for identification are often shared, without your consent, with law enforcement, the FBI, ICE, and others. Those agencies use flawed facial recognition technology to compare your face with those in mugshots, social media images, and other photos of people suspected of committing crimes, potentially putting you at risk of being misidentified and invading your privacy. Learn who has YOUR face:

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Even if (like me) you don’t live in the US, but have visited there, you’ll be on multiple databases. Worth trying.
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Clubhouse data leak – 1.3m SQL database leaked online • CyberNews

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Days after scraped data from more than a billion Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, collectively speaking, was put for sale online, it looks like now it’s Clubhouse’s turn. The upstart platform seems to have experienced the same fate, with an SQL database containing 1.3 million scraped Clubhouse user records leaked for free on a popular hacker forum.

The leaked database contains a variety of user-related information from Clubhouse profiles, including:

• User ID
• Name
• Photo URL
• Username
• Twitter handle
• Instagram handle
• Number of followers
• Number of people followed by the user
• Account creation date
• Invited by user profile name

Clubhouse has issued a statement about the incident on social media, saying they have not experienced a breach of their systems. The company said that the data is already publicly available and that it can be accessed by “anyone” via their API.

…According to CyberNews senior information security researcher Mantas Sasnauskas, the posting of scraped Clubhouse user data reveals a potential privacy issue within the social media platform itself: “The way the Clubhouse app is built lets anyone with a token, or via an API, to query the entire body of public Clubhouse user profile information, and it seems that token does not expire.”

Sasnauskas argues that even though the Clubhouse privacy policy does not allow unauthorized data mining and data scraping, the platform should go beyond simply stating it in the rules.

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Well, yes. It’s irresponsible. If people can scrape data, they will. Also: useful to know precisely how big Clubhouse is.
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OnePlus Watch review: the worst smartwatch i’ve ever used • Gizmodo

Victoria Song:

»

It’s rare for a flagship gadget to fail on every single front, and yet the OnePlus Watch has managed to pull it off.

Every little thing went wrong when I tested this watch. It tracked every activity inaccurately. It said I was sleeping when I was awake. My step counts were off by more than 10,000 steps. I changed my measurements to the imperial system, but sometimes it showed me data using the metric system anyway, just for fun. I went to test a marquee feature that the company touted during its announcement, only to find out that actually it wouldn’t be available at launch.

When I sat down to write this review, I wondered if it was too harsh to call this the worst smartwatch ever made. After all, it could at the very least deliver notifications. My wrist then buzzed with the fury of a thousand angry bees as I simultaneously got 40 notifications for emails that were sent four hours earlier. It’s impossible to overstate how bad this smartwatch is at its job.

…I’d say it’s inoffensive on the wrist, except for the fact that it also looks like I’m wearing a dinner plate.

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She does go into detail, but it’s mostly like someone putting a a piece of paper through a shredder again and again. She really did not like it. As a reminder, OnePlus chose not to go with Google’s Wear OS, but to write its own.
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MachinePix Weekly #36: Milo Werner, former head of new product introduction, Tesla • MachinePix Weekly

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Kane Hsieh: What are some things that people may not realize or appreciate about shipping EVs [electric vehicles], especially compared to ICE [internal combustion engines]?

[Ms] Milo Werner: One, EVs have very few moving parts. The cost of maintenance on EVs is dramatically less, which is why the cost of ownership is so different for electric cars.

They’re also much more modular than a traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. When you import a car into Europe, you can avoid the import tariff by assembling half of the value of the vehicle in the EU. For an ICE vehicle, think about assembling the engine and transmission: getting to that dollar value is really difficult. In an EV, the dollar value of the motor and battery is about 40–50% the price of the car. So the way Tesla imported vehicles into Europe in 2015 was to install the battery and motor in the receiving country. It’s a few dozen bolts to install the battery and drive unit.

KH: I recently switched to an EV Zero and I don’t miss the gas engine or shifting at all.

MW: For a long time, I drove a biodiesel VW Golf. Moving from a Golf to a Model S was like night and day; I’ll never go back.

KH: As you look to the future, what opportunities will EVs unlock for us?

MW: One of the biggest opportunities that I see on the horizon is the integration of vehicles to grid and home. A lot of people are installing batteries in their homes—but in the US, the energy consumption of a home is so much greater than what a home battery can provide. The home battery is not a viable backup solution. Even if batteries were free, the solar power installed on a standard US residential roof cannot charge a battery that would support your home for 24 hours. Eight-plus hours maybe, but it’s just not possible for 24 hours.

If you’re driving around a 100kWh battery, that’s going to support your home for up to three days.

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Read it all for the wildest reason why a Tesla production line was stopped: you’d never guess it.
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Business travellers planning to cut future flights, poll finds • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

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Most business travellers in the UK will take fewer flights than they used to, according to a poll, thanks to increased use of video conferencing. Only a third expected to return to the same level of flying as before the coronavirus pandemic, once travel restrictions are lifted.

The huge reduction in air travel caused by Covid-19 had no impact on the work life or productivity of the majority of the business flyers, the poll found, with one in five saying the shutdown had had a positive impact.

Carbon emissions from aviation were growing at 5.7% a year before the pandemic, despite many countries committing to cut all emissions to net zero by 2050 to tackle the climate crisis. Green campaigners argue that the aviation shutdown provides an opportunity to put the sector on a sustainable trajectory.

Business-class seats provide most of airlines’ revenues but result in more emissions than those in the economy cabin because of the greater space occupied by each passenger.

Business fliers also fly far more frequently than most holidaygoers, with 10% of those in the poll taking more than 10 flights in the year up to the first lockdown in March 2020. Bill Gates recently estimated that more than 50% of business travel would end as companies adopted online meetings and cut costs.

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So… lots of cut-price business-class seats? Airlines are going to be struggling for a while, seems like.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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