Start Up No.1690: omicron puzzles, Israel v Iran in cyberwar, the problem with quantified athletes, why carbon taxes work, and more


The Bajau people can hold their breath for exceptionally long times because of a genetic mutation. CC-licensed photo by Borneo Child Aid on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Enthusiastic infection. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


WHO says too early to understand Omicron severity • Bloomberg via Yahoo

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The 13 omicron cases identified in the Netherlands on Sunday suggest the new variant already has a strong foothold in Europe, with more countries reporting cases. It will “inevitably” arrive in the US, Anthony Fauci said, and that Americans should get vaccines and boosters as prevention. Airline travel is beginning to recall the first days of the pandemic.

Moderna chief medical officer Paul Burton said he suspects omicron may elude current vaccines and, if so, a reformulated shot could be available early next year.

…The World Health Organization is urging caution after two South African health experts, including the doctor who first sounded the alarm about the omicron variant, indicated that symptoms linked to the coronavirus strain have been mild so far.

The initial reported infections were among university students, WHO said, adding that younger patients tend to have milder symptoms.

“Understanding the level of severity of the omicron variant will take days to several weeks,” WHO said in a statement, adding that “there is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with omicron are different from those from other variants.”

European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde said vaccination drives in poorer countries must be improved. “We won’t be protected until we are all vaccinated,” Lagarde told Italy’s Rai 3 in a live television interview. “If some companies can deliver packages everywhere, I’m sure we can do that with vaccines too.”

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Of course they decided not to call it “nu” – sounds too like “new” -, or the next option, “xi” because “it’s a common surname. So omicron it is. Two weeks to figure out how virulent it is and how aggressive.
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Israel and Iran broaden cyberwar to attack civilian targets • The New York Times

Farnaz Fassihi and Ronen Bergman:

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Millions of ordinary people in Iran and Israel recently found themselves caught in the crossfire of a cyberwar between their countries. In Tehran, a dentist drove around for hours in search of gasoline, waiting in long lines at four gas stations only to come away empty.

In Tel Aviv, a well-known broadcaster panicked as the intimate details of his sex life, and those of hundreds of thousands of others stolen from an LGBTQ dating site, were uploaded on social media.

For years, Israel and Iran have engaged in a covert war, by land, sea, air and computer, but the targets have usually been military or government related. Now, the cyberwar has widened to target civilians on a large scale.

In recent weeks, a cyberattack on Iran’s nationwide fuel distribution system paralyzed the country’s 4,300 gas stations, which took 12 days to have service fully restored.

That attack was attributed to Israel by two US defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments. It was followed days later by cyberattacks in Israel against a major medical facility and a popular LGBTQ dating site, attacks Israeli officials have attributed to Iran.

The escalation comes as American authorities have warned of Iranian attempts to hack the computer networks of hospitals and other critical infrastructure in the United States. As hopes fade for a diplomatic resurrection of the Iranian nuclear agreement, such attacks are only likely to proliferate.

Hacks have been seeping into civilian arenas for months. Iran’s national railroad was attacked in July, but that relatively unsophisticated hack may not have been Israeli. And Iran is accused of making a failed attack on Israel’s water system last year.

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The essence of cyberwar is that it’s almost certain to involve collateral damage to civilians. A Sky TV series called COBRA, featuring a beleaguered (but actually capable) Prime Minister, had a series-long storyline which was one cyberattack after another, which all looked close to feasible, amplified by social media unrest – which is what would really cause the problems.
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Improving digital public forums’ role in democracy • Imagining the Internet

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862 respondents answered the yes-no question [“Looking ahead to 2035, can digital spaces and people’s use of them be changed in ways that significantly serve the public good – yes or no?”]

61% said they either hope or expect that by 2035 digital spaces and people’s uses of them WILL change in ways that significantly serve the public good. However, because some wrote that this is merely their hope and others listed one or more extremely difficult hurdles to overcome before that outcome can be achieved, the numeric finding of 61 is not fully indicative of the challenge of accomplishing this.

39% said they expect that by 2035, digital spaces and people’s uses of them WILL NOT change in ways that significantly serve the public good.

It is important to note that a large share of those who chose “yes” – that online public spaces will improve significantly by 2035 – said it was their “hope” only and/or also wrote in their answers that the changes between now and then could go either way. They often listed one or more difficult hurdles to overcome before that outcome can be achieved. The simple quantitative results are not fully indicative of the complexities of the challenges. The important findings are found in the respondents’ rich, deep qualitative replies.The full 160-page report includes full details.

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To be read in parallel with the Pew Internet writeup of the same question. (You may find one or the other version more accessible, or hitting the buttons of interest better.) It’s quite a timescale – as long as social networks have been around – and yet one-third are sure of no improvement, and the others only “hope or expect”. (Thanks Seth F for the links.)
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The trouble with troubleshooting • 80/20 Endurance

Matt Fitzgerald:

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where nontraumatic sports injuries are concerned, the person is “better off without” a diagnosis most of the time. For example, in a 2021 study by Indian researchers, forty-four individuals with low-back pain were given MRI’s, after which half of them were given a factual description of the findings and half were told that the findings were normal regardless of the results. Six weeks later, according to the study’s authors, members of the first group had a “more negative perception of their spinal condition, increased catastrophization, decreased pain improvement, and poorer functional status.” That’s not exactly an endorsement of diagnosis.

At first blush, all of this business about athletic pain and overmedicalization might seem to have nothing to do with Bob and Sally, our two hypothetical runners [mentioned earlier in the full article] who had difficulty adjusting to a shift in their daily run time. [Bob laughed it off, Sally was concerned because her run monitoring device said she was having a “bad workout”.] In fact, though, it has everything to do with it. Increasingly, the devices that athletes use to monitor and regulate their training are doing the same thing doctors and diagnostic tests do to athletes. As device features and metrics multiply (Garmin’s new “body battery” takes the cake), so does the number of things that can go wrong. Worse, at the same time these devices raise (mostly false) alarms, they insidiously drain athletes of their autonomy, lulling them into placing more and more trust into the plastic oracles on their wrists and less and less into their own perceptions and judgments.

Someone should do an experiment where sports devices are coded to randomly produce an alert message reading, “You’re having a terrible workout.” I’m willing to bet that a majority of today’s tech-dependent athletes would take this message seriously, rattled by it even if they’re in the middle of a terrific workout when it pops up.

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The Apple Watch doesn’t do that, though I do wonder how hard it would be to ignore if it did. The interaction of our perception of how well we’re doing with the objective measure is subtle, and it probably doesn’t help at all to have qualitative analysis stuck to it.
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Rare mutation among Bajau people lets them stay underwater longer • Gizmodo

George Dvorsky:

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At first glance, the spleen doesn’t seem a likely organ to help us hold our breath. Its primary functions are to filter blood as part of the immune system, fight bacteria, and to recycle red blood cells. But it also plays an important role during acute oxygen shortage, i.e. when we hold our breath for an extended period of time. When breathing stops, our bodies trigger a series of physiological changes: our heart rate slows down, the blood vessels in our extremities constrict, and our spleen shrinks down in size. When the spleen contracts like this, it releases oxygenated red blood cells, which provides an extra supply of oxygen to the bloodstream. The bigger the spleen, the greater amounts of freshly oxygenated blood.

Figuring this was a clue to extraordinary breath-holding ability, lead researcher Melissa Ilardo brought a portable ultrasound machine to southeast Asia to measure the size of Bajau spleens. Which, as the researchers themselves admit, was a bit werid.

“I basically just showed up at the house of the chief of the village, this bizarre, foreign girl [referring to herself] with an ultrasound machine asking about spleens,” said Ilardo in a statement, adding that “They’re the most welcoming people I’ve ever met.”

Results of the ultrasounds showed that Bajau individuals do indeed have larger spleens, and they’re larger that those found in unrelated neighboring populations. At first, this observation was attributed to differences in physical conditioning or physiological responses—but spleen sizes among diving and non-diving Bajau individuals did not vary in size, which suggested something else was going on. Something a bit more genetic.

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A related topic, if you’re going down to the undersea woods today: the secret to holding your breath (much, much) longer. Did *you* know the spleen was involved in oxygen capacity? I always wondered why doctors seem happy to lop it out.
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Why carbon taxes really work • Tim Harford

The Undercover Economist approves of them:

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The price of everything we buy is tied to the cost of resources required to make and deliver it. If something requires acres of land, tonnes of raw materials, megawatt-hours of energy and days of skilled labour, you can bet that it won’t come cheap. The link between price and cost is fuzzy but real. Yet carbon emissions have not been reflected in that cost.

A carbon tax changes that by making the climate impact as real a cost as any other. It sends a signal along all those supply chains, nudging every decision towards the lower-carbon alternative. A shopper may decide that a carbon-taxed T-shirt is too costly, but meanwhile the textile factory is looking to save on electricity, while the electricity supplier is switching to solar. Every part of the value chain becomes greener.

Large changes might well be achievable with a surprisingly subtle carbon tax. The International Monetary Fund has suggested that a tax of $75/ton of CO2 might be required, but even with a £100/tonne tax — nearly twice as much — the day-to-day pain would be less than most people expect.

In the UK, carbon dioxide emissions are less than six tonnes per person per year, plus two or three tonnes more to reflect the carbon footprint of imported goods. A £100/tonne tax that covered those emissions would raise the cost of living by just over £2 a day, and cover more than 5% of UK tax revenue. That’s not nothing: the government would be wise to send everyone a monthly lump sum in compensation. The burden would fall unevenly: those who spent a lot, flew a lot, drove a lot or heated big, draughty houses would pay more. It is unlikely that you would notice much impact on the price of bananas.

Coffee provides an instructive example of how much of the change would be imperceptible. According to Mark Maslin and Carmen Nab of University College London, a kilogram of coffee beans delivered to the UK has a typical footprint of about 15 kilograms of CO2. If farmed and shipped more sustainably, the footprint is 3.5 kilograms. With a £100/tonne carbon tax, that’s either £1.50 or 35 pence. You can make dozens of coffees with a kilogram of beans, so coffee drinkers might not notice, but you can bet that behind the scenes farmers and shippers will be looking to push their costs away from £1.50 and towards 35 pence.

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The Handwavy Technobabble Nothingburger • Stephen Diehl

Diehl is annoyed (as he often is) by the empty promises of crypto:

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After twelve years of these technologies existing (roughly the same age as the iPhone) there is basically only one type of successful crypto business: exchanges which exist to trade more crypto. But the heart of this issue, and why there’s no other success stories, is because smart contracts tenuously look like a good idea until you actually try to build anything real that has to interact with the non-blockchain outside world. At which point they become too brittle, insecure, or strictly inferior to a centralized alternative.

In database terminology smart contracts are stored procedures that run one of the various incarnations of distributed databases these technologies are built on. In theory they act somewhat like self-automated vending machines but for more complex user interactions. In practice they act more like self-automated bug bounties which typically explode violently when certain exploits are issued against the coded logic, and at which point they spill all of the coins locked up in the contract.

These disasters happen about two or three times a week now because coding at that level of correctness required in a Javascript-like language with loose and ill-defined semantics is near impossible. When a contract does finally meet its end, the only recourse is begging or threats to return the stolen tokens. However it’s unclear that “stolen” is the right word because the contract was simply behaving exactly as instructed and therein lies the core reason why “code is law” is an absolutely rubbish idea.

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I was reminded of his point – that when people exploit these “smart contracts” to take millions, which they are then implored to give back, in a completely non-smart-contract human-to-human appeal, by a piece in the New Yorker about how Kurt Gödel said he’d found a recursive flaw in the US Constitution that left it open to becoming a constitutional dictatorship. And others explain how.
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Bitcoin exchanges face digital tax raid • Sunday Telegraph

James Titcomb:

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The UK tax office has informed online cryptocurrency exchanges that they are subject to the levy, which is designed to ensure tech firms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon pay more to the Exchequer.

HMRC said crypto assets “are not financial instruments” and do not qualify as commodities or money, meaning online exchanges that sell cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and ethereum are not able to claim an exemption for financial marketplaces.

The digital services tax, which came into force last year, places a 2% sales levy on online marketplaces, search engines and social media services that have a global revenue of over £500m and UK sales of over £25m.

It is expected to be phased out after a G20 tax deal earlier this year to punish avoidance, but remains in force until a replacement measure comes into effect.

Companies which may be hit by the levy include Coinbase, one of the world’s biggest exchanges. Its UK subsidiary reported sales of €21.2m (£18m) last year but the company recently reported that global revenues had quadrupled, meaning it is likely to pass the UK threshold in 2021.

CryptoUK, an industry body, is lobbying HMRC and The Treasury over the issue, saying it is unfair to treat cryptocurrencies differently to other financial assets. In the US, they have been treated as commodities.

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At the same time as this, crypto exchanges have to be licensed by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority. So crypto both is and isn’t a financial instrument: it is for the purposes of consumer protection, and it isn’t for the purposes of raising tax.
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The post-truth pandemic • Overmatter

Natasha Loder is health policy editor at The Economist:

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Imagine, for a moment, that a massive asteroid is hurtling towards our planet. You would think that science, technology, and facts would form the backbone of the response. World leaders would be expected to come up with a strategy, informed by the world’s most brilliant minds, for how to deflect the asteroid. Or failing that, preserve as many lives as possible.

The last couple of years have taught us something. Should this hypothetical asteroid threaten us a number of far more depressing scenarios seem likely. Some leaders will deny the asteroid exists, or lean on non-mainstream ideas that suggest the rock is actually going to whizz right past us. Other politicians would point out that a large asteroid impact is not so bad, really. You know, not much worse than a bad meteor shower.  And some would use the crisis to their advantage, spreading division along the way. Belief in the asteroid could even become a sort of political litmus test.

Over the last few years, one of the questions I’ve been asked the most often is what it was like to be a health journalist covering a pandemic. One thing that stood out was the volume of misinformation that spread from the early days, and the extent to which the infodemic was driven by political leaders and states. So much so, I started to think about the outbreak as a “post-truth pandemic” about halfway through 2020.

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She lists a lot of the things that the leaders of the free (and not-so-free) world did to make it all go so badly wrong.

The asteroid idea, as it happens, is the premise of Don’t Look Up, which is Netflix’s Christmas Eve film. I’d say it’s exactly on point.


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It’s still November, so enough time to order Social Warming, my latest book, on the widespread effects of social networks.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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