Start Up No.1601: how Ted Lasso was created, how QR codes track you (even on menus), why are UK Covid cases down?, and more


A recurrent proposal is that the Olympics should abandon dope testing altogether. Could that be done safely – and what would happen? CC-licensed photo by France Olympique on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Five gold rings, but not Christmas. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


‘Ted Lasso’ is back, but no longer an underdog • The New York Times

Jeremy Egner interviews the creators and actors in the hit show:

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Q: What was it about the character, and the concept, that felt as if it could support a longer story?

Jason Sudeikis: The theme and tone of it was just something that was bouncing around in my head. I didn’t want to do the arc of son of a bitch to saint — it had already been crushed by Ricky Gervais as David Brent. So it was like, What about just playing a good guy?

The thing Bill and I talked about in the pitch was this antithesis of the cocktail of a human man who is both ignorant and arrogant, which lo and behold, a Batman-villain version of it became president of the United States right around the same time. What if you played an ignorant guy who was actually curious? When someone used a big word like “vernacular,” he didn’t act like he knew it, but just stops the meeting like, “Question, what does that mean?”

And also the idea of just saying please and thank you — I remember holding doors for people when I first got hired at “Saturday Night Live,” and they would stop, thinking I’m going to hit them in the butt or something. It was always really funny to me, and so it was based on those observations about what was going on with society and discourse, and lack of manners, all rolled into one.

Q: But you also get into darker things Ted’s dealing with, like panic attacks. Why was that important to you?

Sudeikis: We had to work backward, because if you’re going to play this nice guy at a certain age who’s married, then why does he take this job? Well, things must not be great at home. It was always about revealing. I’m going to butcher the Mark Twain quote, but every person’s life is a comedy, a drama and a tragedy. So we had to honour those other two elements, because the comedy part was baked into the premise of the fish-out-of-water, bungling idiot who doesn’t know what he’s doing. And the mustache, obviously.

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“An ignorant guy who’s curious”. A simple recipe for a wonderful series.
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The day the good internet died • The Ringer

Katie Baker loved Google Reader, back in 2011: it made sense of the (internet) world. Then Google killed it:

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It’s the year 2021, and I can’t get enough of the internet. This is an admission of defeat. It’s an acknowledgment of my worst tic, the one where I lie in bed until 3 or 4 a.m. and pull-to-refresh, pull-to-refresh, pull-to-refresh, until Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or my email—or, in my lowest moments, Nextdoor—brings me something, anything new.

Sometimes it’s that blasted “oh hello, are you doomscrolling?” Twitter bot getting retweeted into my feed, or a growth-hacking prompt asking for a time you were so totally you back in the day. Sometimes it’s a blurry photo of a former coworker’s third kid with the caption “tfw you’re the third kid…” or a comment thread in which a friendly neighbor unironically and repeatedly calls the California governor “Gavin Newsuck.” Often it’s sponsored content, and I can never tell which service’s offerings leave me more unsettled: Twitter’s bizarre ads and sponsored posts tend to feature either days-old, extremely specific midgame NBA score updates or The 15 Wacky Photobombs You Have to See To Believe!, whereas on Instagram, the DTC marketing strikes are so hyper-targeted, so surgically precise, that they’re able to routinely home in on exactly the lamp made out of 3D-printed corn that I’ve always wanted in my life.

Such is the duality of the internet these days: It is both worse and better than ever, growing tackier as it strives for bespoke, hosting information so limitless that you can’t find any of it anymore.

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I set my browser to remember 366 days of browsing. Beyond that, it’s either lost or if it matters then it will come back again.
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QR codes are here to stay. So is the tracking they allow • The New York Times

Erin Woo:

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QR codes — essentially a kind of bar code that allows transactions to be touchless — have emerged as a permanent tech fixture from the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants have adopted them en masse, retailers including CVS and Foot Locker have added them to checkout registers, and marketers have splashed them all over retail packaging, direct mail, billboards and TV advertisements.

But the spread of the codes has also let businesses integrate more tools for tracking, targeting and analytics, raising red flags for privacy experts. That’s because QR codes can store digital information such as when, where and how often a scan occurs. They can also open an app or a website that then tracks people’s personal information or requires them to input it.

As a result, QR codes have allowed some restaurants to build a database of their customers’ order histories and contact information. At retail chains, people may soon be confronted by personalized offers and incentives marketed within QR code payment systems.

“People don’t understand that when you use a QR code, it inserts the entire apparatus of online tracking between you and your meal,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Suddenly your offline activity of sitting down for a meal has become part of the online advertising empire.”

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No way that the adtech industry will want to let this narrow chance at getting more data slip.
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The math PhD who just shocked Olympic cycling • WSJ

Jason Gay on the Dutch women’s road cycling victor Anna Kiesenhofer, who zoomed away at the start of the race and never let up:

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Technology was a factor. In professional races, riders are equipped with earpieces that allow them to communicate with team personnel traveling behind in support cars. Riders listen for updates about the course and potential hazards—but also, importantly, they can be told what riders are up the road, and what sort of effort is needed to catch up. 

Olympic road racing allows no such technology. The riders have no radio contact with cars. They get time gap information from motorbikes on the course, or on occasions when they’re within earshot of team personnel, but this information delivery is spottier than someone in your ear, telling you exactly what’s going on.

This is apparently why the Dutch super team [back in the peloton] did not ramp up a ferocious pursuit of Kiesenhofer in the closing kilometers. After collecting the remains of the original breakaway, they thought the reel-in work was done. 

You may have seen it by now: the Dutch veteran racer van Vleuten, crossing the finish line next to the speedway grandstand, smiling, arms raised, under the impression that she’d won gold. She didn’t know Kiesenhofer had clinched it already. [A colossal, relatively, 75 seconds earlier]

Now there was heartbreak amid the surprise. A gold medal would have been a poetic result for van Vleuten. In 2016, she’d spent the night of the women’s road race in a hospital in Rio de Janeiro after a horrifying crash that occurred as she was leading the race, likely en route to gold.

Now gold eluded her again, in far more surreal fashion. 

Van Vleuten later confessed to “mixed feelings.” She was proud of her beautiful silver medal— the first of her career—but she sounded frustrated by the confusion and the lack of race radios to give clarity about what was going on.

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Always fascinating how one way or another, technology plays a key role in the winners.
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The transhuman Olympics • Applied Divinity Studies

“ADS” (I assume) suggests that we stop dope-testing at the Olympics:

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Freedom from unfair drug-testing is only the beginning. An improved Olympics would require radical overhaul, but could at least begin with the following principles:

1. No drug-testing of any kind. Since it’s not feasible to conduct an anti-doping regime, the process should be abandoned entirely in favor of harm reduction. The billions of dollars we currently spend on an antiquated anti-doping regime could instead be spent on developing safer steroid alternatives, and investigating the safety of existing compounds.

As basic mitigation against really extreme abuses, medals would be awarded on the day of competition, but not officially confirmed until the next 4-year cycle, after verifying that the athlete remains alive and in generally good health.

2. A permanent Olympic village and stadium. The process for selecting cities enables corruption, not to mention “high debt, wasteful infrastructure and onerous maintenance obligations“, as well as mass displacements, human rights violations, forced evictions, and the over-policing of vulnerable communities. Trying to host the cities in unsuitable environments also leads to athletes playing on “burning sand“ and risk of heat stroke alongside “oppressive humidity“. Instead, a permanent Olympic village should be built to host athletes year round. Since performance enhancing drugs will remain illegal in many countries, the village could also serve as a safe-haven where crucial drug categories are decriminalized, ensuring equal treatment for athletes regardless of country of origin…

3. Liberalize Equipment Restrictions. Nike’s Vaporfly lead to a record sub 2-hour marathon time by Eliud Kipchoge in 2019, but has since been banned in Olympic competition. This has a chilling effect on innovation, and hampers the development of improved athletic technology. The LZR Racer was subject to similar regulation, resulting in 93 new world records, before being banned for providing an “unfair advantage” in a newly invented phenomenon dubbed “technological doping“. This goes beyond mere cultural stagnation, it is the active impairment of technological innovation.

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Initially attractive. However: how far *down* in sport would you allow drugs? Only the Olympics? But what about the qualifying competitions? World Championships? National championships? Regional championships? Regional competitions? Amateur competitions? Friendly competitions? As a proposal, it’s superficially attractive, but it unravels as soon as you pull at it. Would participants in Park Run do a line before heading off?

By contrast, I do like the suggestion that a random amateur should be included in each competition, to show TV viewers just how incredibly good the top-flight competitors are. (Via Nathan T.)
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MVT: a forensic tool to look for signs of infection in smartphone devices • Github

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Mobile Verification Toolkit (MVT) is a collection of utilities to simplify and automate the process of gathering forensic traces helpful to identify a potential compromise of Android and iOS devices.

It has been developed and released by the Amnesty International Security Lab in July 2021 in the context of the Pegasus project along with a technical forensic methodology and forensic evidence.

Warning: MVT is a forensic research tool intended for technologists and investigators. Using it requires understanding the basics of forensic analysis and using command-line tools. This is not intended for end-user self-assessment. If you are concerned with the security of your device please seek expert assistance.

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So, not to actually use (though do let me know if you’re capable of using this), but it’s good to know that this exists. Though I suppose we also need an accompanying file listing people who you can trust to install and run it.

Apple released a point-fix update to iOS on Monday which may be a fix for at least one of the vulnerabilities exploited here.
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Bleach peddler Kerri Rivera appears to have been raided by German police • Vice

Anna Merlan:

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Messages posted to a Telegram group run by Kerri Rivera, a pseudo-medical expert who advocates for the use of a dangerous bleach solution to “cure” autism and other serious illnesses, say she’s being criminally charged as a result of advice she gave to a parent. A person who said they were speaking on Rivera’s behalf posted a message, ostensibly written from her perspective, to her Telegram group on July 21; the message said that her home was raided by police on July 13 and that she is accused of causing bodily harm to a child whose parent she advised on Telegram. It also called the claim that she’d harmed the child “impossible.” 

Rivera is a longtime advocate for the use of chlorine dioxide, a substance that, when mixed with citric acid, forms a powerful and dangerous bleaching agent. She has falsely claimed it can “cure” autism and, more recently, suggested it can treat COVID-19. (Chlorine dioxide is also marketed under the name Miracle Mineral Solution, or MMS, most infamously by the Genesis II Church in Florida, run by a man named Mark Grenon. Grenon and three of his sons were recently indicted on charges related to their sale of MMS.)

Journalists and activists monitoring Rivera’s activities believe she moved several years ago to Bremerhaven, Germany. Bremerhaven police declined to comment on the reported raid, writing, “Unfortunately, we are not allowed to give you any information about individual persons for reasons of data protection.”

…Two activists, Fiona O’Leary and Melissa Eaton, both say they reported Rivera to German authorities. Eaton, a US-based activist who’s gone undercover in Facebook groups where parents are discussing giving their kids chlorine dioxide, told Motherboard that she reported Rivera to German police and consumer protection agencies.

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I was in touch with O’Leary and Eaton when I was writing Social Warming: they’re quoted in the chapter about social networks’ response to the pandemic. As they point out, Facebook in particular is lax about “treatments” such as Rivera’s (which harm children). But it seems like Germany’s police might be more interested.
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Covid cases in US may have been undercounted by 60%, study shows • The Guardian

Jessica Glenza:

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The study incorporated data on deaths, the number of tests administered each day and the proportion that come back positive. Importantly, it also incorporated data from studies of people randomly sampled for Covid-19 in Indiana and Ohio.

Random sample surveys provide strong evidence of actual prevalence of a disease because they do not rely on people seeking out tests, which often fail to capture asymptomatic infections.

Based on analysis of that data, researchers found as many as 65 million Americans may have been infected. Official tallies put the number at about 33 million. The University of Washington researchers estimated that 60% of all cases were missed, with only one in every 2.3 cases counted in Indiana and Ohio.

On Monday, the Covid case count maintained by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and commonly referred to by media outlets stood at nearly 34.5 million

Undercounts can “depend on the severity of the pandemic and the amount of testing in that state”, said Nicholas J Irons, a study co-author and postdoctoral student.

“If you have a state with severe pandemic but limited testing, the undercount can be very high and you’re missing the vast majority of infections that are occurring,” he said. “Or, you could have a situation where testing is widespread and the pandemic is not as severe. There, the undercount rate would be lower.”

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The recorded cases in the UK will be an undercount too, particularly from the first wave when there weren’t enough tests. The ONS says we’re up to 92% of adults having antibodies (from the disease or immunisation). Cases would be miles below that, of course.
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What is behind the latest fall in cases of Covid across the UK? • The Guardian

Ian Sample:

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Is it because of the school holidays or testing?
There are no new cases without new testing. As Donald Trump declared in May last year: “If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.” Likewise, substantial changes in testing patterns can feed through into the case numbers. As schools closed in July for the summer holidays, student contact will have fallen off, reducing transmission, but testing will have fallen too, whether infections have declined or not. Given that school pupils have some of the highest rates of Covid in the country, a large shift in how often they test could feed into the decline in recorded cases. Difficulties in accessing testing because of capacity problems would have a similar impact, as would people choosing not to be tested. On this issue at least, an answer should come soon. The Office of National Statistics runs an infection survey that captures case numbers in the community each week. If that shows a decline soon, the trend will be far more convincing.

Could the ‘pingdemic’ be driving down cases?
Hundreds of thousands of people have been sent into isolation by the NHS app in recent weeks. That in itself has curbed, as intended, the spread of the virus. But frustration with being pinged, and widespread media coverage of the “pingdemic” that has raised awareness of the problem, have led some people to delete the app. Young people, who are less likely to be vaccinated and have the highest rates of infection, are deleting it more than others, if polling is reliable. Human behaviour is the toughest variable to predict in all of this.

What about the Euros?
One-off sporting events are not expected to drive vast numbers of new infections. But during the Euro 2020 tournament there was a solid rise in cases across the country among males aged between 15 and 44. That trend has now reversed. The steady increase in infections may have bumped up national case numbers, particularly in July, only for them to fall back the fortnight after the final. Prof Kao said a link to the football was “entirely plausible”.

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Blame it on the Euros? Seems very likely that if you pack a ton of people into pubs and sitting rooms and (to a lesser extent) public transport, you’re going to give Covid a wonderful boost.
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Meet the people who warn the world about new covid variants • MIT Technology Review

Cat Ferguson:

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In April 2020, a handful of prominent virologists in the UK and Australia proposed a system of letters and numbers for naming lineages, or new branches, of the covid family. It had a logic, and a hierarchy, even though the names it generated—like B.1.1.7—were a bit of a mouthful.

One of the authors on the paper was Áine O’Toole, a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Soon she’d become the primary person actually doing that sorting and classifying, eventually combing through hundreds of thousands of sequences by hand.

She says: “Very early on, it was just who was available to curate the sequences. That ended up being my job for a good bit. I guess I never understood quite the scale we were going to get to.”

She quickly set about building software to assign new genomes to the right lineages. Not long after that, another researcher, postdoc Emily Scher, built a machine-learning algorithm to speed things up even more. 

They named the software Pangolin, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a debate about the animal origin of covid. (The whole system is now simply known as Pango.)

The naming system, along with the software to implement it, quickly became a global essential. Although the WHO has recently started using Greek letters for variants that seem especially concerning, like delta, those nicknames are for the public and the media. Delta actually refers to a growing family of variants, which scientists  call by their more precise Pango names: B.1.617.2, AY.1, AY.2, and AY.3.

“When alpha emerged in the UK, Pango made it very easy for us to look for those mutations in our genomes to see if we had that lineage in our country too,” says Jolly. “Ever since then, Pango has been used as the baseline for reporting and surveillance of variants in India.”

Because Pango offers a rational, orderly approach to what would otherwise be chaos, it may forever change the way scientists name viral strains—allowing experts from all over the world to work together with a shared vocabulary. Brito says: “Most likely, this will be a format we’ll use for tracking any other new virus.”

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The complexity is colossal: from 524 sequences in March 2020 to 35,000 by May 2020. Whereas for flu in 2019, the total was just 40,000.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Order Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


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