About charlesarthur

Freelance journalist - technology, science, and so on. Author of "Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the battle for the internet".

Start Up No.1283: the 5G conspiracy theory’s origins, Google bans Zoom, life in the ICU, Foxconn’s pricey ventilator factory, and more


New facial recognition systems can pick out who you are even when you’re wearing a mask. CC-licensed photo by Zadi Diaz on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Another day done. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory tore through the internet • WIRED UK

James Temperton:

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Almost all of the conspiracy theory posts linking 5G to coronavirus make use of tired, debunked tropes about non-ionising radiation, chemtrails and “deep state” plots to use vaccines to control people and remotely shut down their organs. Most of the time, such unsubstantiated and outlandish claims remain more or less hidden inside the communities that believe in them. But with coronavirus as a peg, they were always bound to go viral.

“The coronavirus has created the perfect environment for this message to spread,” says Josh Smith, senior researcher at Demos, a think tank. “Like many conspiracy theories, the idea that 5G is to blame for the uncertain, frightening situation we find ourselves in is a comfort. It provides an explanation, and a scapegoat, for the suffering caused by this pandemic; as well as – cruelly – suggesting a way we might stop it: take down the masts and the virus will go away.” If only it were that simple. And, worryingly, the conspiracy theories themselves aren’t as simple as they first appear.

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Terrific piece by Temperton, who traces a major link of the “5G coronavirus” nonsense back to a local article in a Dutch Belgian newspaper on January 22 quoting a Dutch Belgian GP talking the usual nonsense about “radiation”. Though I think this would have happened anyway; if not him, someone else would have made it up, because the link was too tempting. 5G: in China! Coronavirus: in China!
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Google bans Zoom videoconferencing software from employees’ computers • Buzzfeed News

Pranav Dixit:

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Google has banned the popular videoconferencing software Zoom from its employees’ devices, BuzzFeed News has learned. Zoom, a competitor to Google’s own Meet app, has seen an explosion of people using it to work and socialize from home and has become a cultural touchstone during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, Google sent an email to employees whose work laptops had the Zoom app installed that cited its “security vulnerabilities” and warned that the videoconferencing software on employee laptops would stop working starting this week.

“We have long had a policy of not allowing employees to use unapproved apps for work that are outside of our corporate network,” Jose Castaneda, a Google spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News. “Recently, our security team informed employees using Zoom Desktop Client that it will no longer run on corporate computers as it does not meet our security standards for apps used by our employees. Employees who have been using Zoom to stay in touch with family and friends can continue to do so through a web browser or via mobile.”

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There are about 293 Google messaging apps, aren’t there? But none of those quite cuts it. The security point is reasonable enough. But it’s telling that people aren’t using Google Duo (its video messaging app – I had to look it up), isn’t it?
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Wearing a mask won’t stop facial recognition anymore: the coronavirus is prompting facial recognition companies to develop solutions for those with partially covered faces • Abacus

Masha Borak:

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If you’ve been walking around your city recently believing that the face mask you wear to protect you from the coronavirus is also fooling facial recognition cameras, then we have bad news for you: Facial recognition is evolving.

New forms of facial recognition can now recognize not just people wearing masks over their mouths, but also people in scarves and even with fake beards. And the technology is already rolling out in China because of one unexpected event: the coronavirus outbreak.

Over the last several weeks, the deadly Covid-19 disease has forced millions of people across China to don surgical masks and N95 respirators. This has led China’s AI champion SenseTime to adapt its facial recognition product to identify people wearing these masks, according to an announcement from the company last week.

But this technology isn’t exactly new. Stanford University postdoctoral fellow Amarjot Singh and his team published research on disguised face identification (DFI) in 2017. Their algorithm made a breakthrough in recognizing people wearing eyeglasses, fake beards, scarves and hard hats.

“Face recognition identifies a person by locating several key points on the face and connecting them together to form a unique person-specific signature,” Singh explained.

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Now it depends on detecting hundreds of points around the eyes and nose. But it’s only going to have the eyes to work with.
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Watchsmith review: create your own Apple Watch complications • MacStories

Ryan Christoffel:

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Watchsmith, the latest app from David Smith, was birthed from the inability to create third-party watch faces on the Apple Watch. As Smith has previously explained, while third-party faces may never be possible, several first-party faces already offer significant room for customization. The Infograph face, for example, contains eight different complication slots; if a rich array of third-party complications were available, you could build a highly customized watch face using the existing faces provided by Apple.

Watchsmith exists to provide that rich set of complications. The app offers 37 types of complications, each adaptable to different watch faces and complication slots, and all fully customizable so they can look exactly the way you prefer. Additionally, Watchsmith offers scheduling functionality to cause different complications to appear on your Watch at different times throughout the day.

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Very neat idea. Haven’t tried it myself yet, but the illustrations are very promising.
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Foxconn will produce ventilators at its controversial Wisconsin plant • The Verge

Jon Porter:

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Foxconn’s Wisconsin plant, the controversial recipient of billions of dollars in tax subsidies and the focus of multiple Verge investigations, will produce ventilators with medical device firm Medtronic. The partnership was announced by Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak in an interview with CNBC, who said that Foxconn will be manufacturing ventilators based on its PB-560 design in the next four to six weeks.

Foxconn’s Wisconsin plant was first announced way back in 2017 as a $10bn LCD factory. It was labeled the “eighth wonder of the world” by President Trump, but Foxconn’s plans for the site appear to have changed repeatedly over the years. At various points, Foxconn has said that it would build a smaller LCD factory, no factory at all, or that it would produce other items like a robot coffee kiosk. Now, it appears the factory will, in part at least, produce ventilators, after its planned opening next month.

Medtronic’s CEO was unable to share the numbers of ventilators that Foxconn will produce during his interview with CBNC.

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Never lived up to any of its promises. The most incredible boondoggle.
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How to look your best on a video call • The Verge

Becca Farsace:

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I’ve been on enough video calls this week to know that everyone could use a little help looking their best. From virtual weddings to work meetings, we all suddenly have to be on camera in our homes, and as a Verge video director and host, I’m no stranger to having to be camera-ready at all times and in imperfect spaces.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been optimizing my own video chat setup: from knowing where to sit to get the best light, to choosing the right microphone, to just staying comfortable. Here are my tips and tricks to becoming the video call MVP you were meant to be.

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All good tips (lighting, camera height, testing and so on) which are worth noting, even for these AL (after-lockdown) times. It’s all BC (before coronavirus) and AL, isn’t it.
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Fingerprint cloning: myth or reality? • Cisco Talos Intelligence Group

Paul Rascagnere:

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Fingerprint authentication became commonly available on phones with the launch of Apple TouchID in the iPhone 5S in 2013. That technology was bypassed shortly after being released. Since then, the technology evolved into three main kinds of sensors: optic, capacitance and ultrasonic.

Our tests showed that — on average — we achieved an ~80% success rate while using the fake fingerprints, where the sensors were bypassed at least once. Reaching this success rate was difficult and tedious work. We found several obstacles and limitations related to scaling and material physical properties. Even so, this level of success rate means that we have a very high probability of unlocking any of the tested devices before it falls back into the pin unlocking. The results show fingerprints are good enough to protect the average person’s privacy if they lose their phone. However, a person that is likely to be targeted by a well-funded and motivated actor should not use fingerprint authentication.

We developed three threat models use cases to match real world scenarios. As a result the reader should compare the result to a home security system. If you want it to stop well funded actors like national security agencies from spying on your house, this may not provide enough resistance to be effective. For a regular user, fingerprint authentication has obvious advantages and offers a very intuitive security layer. However, if the user is a potential target for funded attackers or their device contains sensitive information, we recommend relying more on strong passwords and token two-factor authentication.

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Basically, don’t worry about it. The lengths they had to go to make the process seem like something out of Mission Impossible.
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Fears of crisis in UK car finance market as owners seek payments help • The Guardian

Patrick Collinson:

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Around nine out of 10 of the 2.3m new cars sold in a typical year in Britain are paid for using some sort of financing provided by an FLA (Finance and Leasing Association) member. The most common purchase method has been personal contract plans (PCP), where a buyer puts down a deposit and then rents the vehicle for two to three years at a monthly cost, typically around £250.

Volkswagen and Ford said they have already introduced emergency measures to help customers. VW, whose brands include Audi, Seat and Skoda, said it is taking “exceptional steps” to help lease-buyers keep hold of their vehicle.

It said customers will be offered a “breathing space” of up to 60 days in which it won’t chase the driver for payment or rack up fees. It said it will also consider extending the period of time for the buyer to pay off the debt.

The FLA said other forbearance measures may include payment breaks, payment reductions or waiving interest…

…Problems in the UK car loans market may pale into insignificance compared with the colossal scale of auto lending in the US, which totals $1.3tn (£1tn). Some of it has been securitised into bonds that bear echoes of “subprime” lending common before the financial crisis of 2007-08.

Around $30bn of new subprime vehicle loans were issued in 2019, and there have been reports of some lenders verifying the income of just 8% of borrowers – whose loans are then bundled into bonds sold on Wall Street as an income stream for investors. However, the US Federal Reserve has already stepped in with a programme to support “asset-backed securities”, including bonds holding auto loans.

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Wonder if Americans will get the same holidays on their car loans.
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As an ICU doctor, I see the crisis unfold one person at a time. Here’s what it looks like • The Guardian

Shaan Sahota is a junior doctor working in London, who was redeployed from surgery to critical care, and now looks after patients who have been intubated:

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We talk about coronavirus all the time, but it’s often in terms of a bigger picture. I find it hard to make sense of that bigger picture from the frontline. In a crisis of scale I want to tell the story I’ve seen – the story of a pandemic unfolding one person at a time.

The expanded ICU is a surreal world. I don layers of stifling PPE to enter into “Covid zones” – zip-entry plastic marquees within converted hospital bays. I enter a ward full of unconscious patients. There’s no chatter, just beeping monitors over the rhythmic hiss of pressured air. I spend every 12-hour shift caring for two or three patients. It’s humbling, often manual work. I’m adjusting their anaesthesia agents and checking their urine hourly to balance their fluids. I’m placing pillows under pressure points so they don’t end up with lasting damage during their paralysis. I suction secretions from their airways.

I’m working the hardest I can, delaying toilet breaks, for a patient who I have never seen open their eyes, let alone breathe for themselves. It’s a difficult environment to work in.

I trawl through medical notes to find my patients in a time before they were paralysed and sedated and put on to a ventilator, to catch a glimpse of the person they are. I try to get to know them through the jewellery they used to wear, now safe in a tray at their sides. I conjure them up from sketched details in their past medical notes.

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A deeply moving piece.
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Special report: Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm • Reuters

Stephen Grey and Andrew MacAskill:

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With Brexit done [on January 31], [Boris] Johnson had the chance to focus on other matters the following month, among them the emerging virus threat. But leaving the European Union had a consequence.

Between February 13 and March 30, Britain missed a total of eight conference calls or meetings about the coronavirus between EU heads of state or health ministers – meetings that Britain was still entitled to join. Although Britain did later make an arrangement to attend lower-level meetings of officials, it had missed a deadline to participate in a common purchase scheme for ventilators, to which it was invited. Ventilators, vitally important to treating the direst cases of COVID-19, have fallen into short supply globally. Johnson’s spokesman blamed an administrative error…

…According to emails and more than a dozen scientists interviewed by Reuters, the government issued no requests to labs for assistance with staff or testing equipment until the middle of March, when many abruptly received requests to hand over nucleic acid extraction instruments, used in testing. An executive at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford said he could have carried out up to 1,000 tests per day from February. But the call never came.

“You would have thought that they would be bashing down the door,” said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. By April 5, Britain had carried out 195,524 tests, in contrast to at least 918,000 completed a week earlier in Germany.

Nor was there an effective effort to expand the supply of ventilators.

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Thorough piece; so many missed opportunities, but also so much institutional inertia against doing anything. Mix in a little bit of dogma around Brexit, and you have a recipe for calamity.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1282: NHS coronavirus app shows mission creep, WhatsApp cuts group sharing, YouTube bans 5G conspiracies, block that Cobol!, and more


Could AI help interpret chest CT scans during the coronavirus crisis? CC-licensed photo by Simon Lee on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The NHS coronavirus app could track how long you spend outside • WIRED UK

Gian Volpicelli:

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The NHS is drawing up plans that could see it expand the remit of its coronavirus contact-tracing app to enforce social distancing by warning people if they spend too much time outside.

The smartphone app, currently under development at the health service’s innovation unit NHSX, is expected to be released within weeks. Its main purpose has been reported as “contact-tracing”: it would keep tabs of users’ encounters with their contacts through Bluetooth, and then automatically notify those people if a user is infected with coronavirus.

Internal documents seen by WIRED reveal that the people working on the project are exploring whether the app could be retooled with extra functions that could allow it to boost social distancing measures that have been in place since March 23.

These distancing measures could be accomplished by using the app to notify users if they spend more than one hour out of their houses by nudging them to go back home, or to warn them if they are coming too close to other groups of people who have downloaded the app.

WIRED understands that the decision to assess the potential addition of these features was taken following a meeting between health secretary Matt Hancock, the government’s chief scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, and NHSX CEO Matthew Gould.

At this stage, the inclusion of such features is still only hypothetical.

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Mission creep at its finest. Only meant to note who you get close to, but instead starts bothering you about how long you’ve been out.
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Hospitals deploy AI tools to detect Covid-19 on chest scans • IEEE Spectrum

Megan Scudellari:

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AI-powered analysis of chest scans has the potential to alleviate the growing burden on radiologists, who must review and prioritize a rising number of patient chest scans each day, experts say. And in the future, the technology might help predict which patients are most likely to need a ventilator or medication, and which can be sent home.

“That’s the brass ring,” says Matthew Lungren, a pediatric radiologist at Stanford University Medical Center and co-director of the Stanford Center for Artificial Intelligence in Medicine and Imaging. “That would be the killer app for this.”

Some companies are selling their tools, others have released free online versions, and various groups are organizing large crowdsourced repositories of medical images to generate new algorithms.

“The system we designed can process huge amounts of CT scans per day,” says Hayit Greenspan, a professor at Tel-Aviv University and chief scientist of RADLogics, a healthcare software company that recently announced one such AI-based system. “The capability for quickly covering a huge population is there.” 

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So this could turn out to be an important proving ground for AI-based medicine. Though detecting the “ground glass” markings on lungs in scans isn’t hard, and the patients will often be showing plenty of distress by that time.
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Facebook’s WhatsApp battles coronavirus misinformation • WSJ

Newley Purnell:

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In one of the biggest changes WhatsApp has made to a core feature, the company said Tuesday that its more than two billion users globally can now send along frequently forwarded messages they receive to only one person or group at a time, down from five.

In recent weeks the company has “seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation,” the company said.

WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that enables users to click an icon next to frequently forwarded messages—those forwarded at least five times—to search the web for their contents and verify them before sending the message to others, a WhatsApp spokeswoman said.

World-wide, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, have been battling misinformation related to the coronavirus on their platforms. The European Union is reviving an alliance formed last year with U.S. tech companies to fight online political disinformation, now focusing on false information about the coronavirus.

While those platforms moderate content users post and can eliminate problematic material, all WhatsApp messages are encrypted. That helps turbocharge the spread of messages on WhatsApp, analysts say, since they can’t be traced to their original senders.

Though WhatsApp’s new measures apply globally and misinformation is passed on everywhere, the problem is particularly acute in developing countries such as India, its biggest market by users, with 400 million.

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So reducing the number of people a viral message can reach from five to one. Sort of… flattening the curve?
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Silicon Valley is going all out to fight coronavirus. That’s a risky move • POLITICO

Mark Scott:

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By doing all that they can to quell online falsehoods, protect at-risk workers and vaccinate much of the digital world from COVID-19, Silicon Valley and its counterparts across the Western world have acknowledged the crucial, systemic role they play in society — a position that is only growing more entrenched as the years go by.

They have also pulled back the curtain on how far these companies are able to go to regulate their own platforms. While the tech industry claims that much of what happens online is out of its hands, cannot be touched because of people’s right to freedom of expression or is based on people’s decisions to work independently, the current crisis has debunked those assertions once and for all.

Sure, governments too have shown their inability, so far, to create new binding rules for everything from stopping the rise of misinformation to creating a new playbook for the gig economy.

To be fair, tech companies have mostly stepped up to the plate to help combat COVID-19. But in doing so, they’ve handed regulators the perfect weapon in their broader push to regulate these platforms: clear examples of how the industry could police itself.

That will likely have serious consequences for Silicon Valley and others well after the coronavirus pandemic is finally brought under control.

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Coronavirus: YouTube tightens rules after David Icke 5G interview • BBC News

Leo Kelion:

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YouTube has banned all conspiracy theory videos falsely linking coronavirus symptoms to 5G networks.

The Google-owned service will now delete videos violating the policy. It had previously limited itself to reducing the frequency it recommended them in its Up Next section.

The move follows a live-streamed interview with conspiracy theorist David Icke on Monday, in which he had linked the technology to the pandemic. YouTube said the video would be wiped.

During the interview, Mr Icke falsely claimed there “is a link between 5G and this health crisis”.
And when asked for his reaction to reports of 5G masts being set on fire in England and Northern Ireland, he responded: “If 5G continues and reaches where they want to take it, human life as we know it is over… so people have to make a decision.” Several users subsequently called for further attacks on 5G towers in the comments that appeared alongside the feed.

Mr Icke also falsely claimed that a coronavirus vaccine, when one is developed, will include “nanotechnology microchips” that would allow humans to be controlled. He added that Bill Gates – who is helping fund Covid-19 vaccine research – should be jailed. His views went unchallenged for much of the two-and-a-half-hour show.

The interview was watched by about 65,000 people as it was streamed, some of whom clicked an on-screen button to trigger payments to make their live chat reactions stand out.

YouTube only deleted the content after the session had ended, despite being aware of the broadcast while it was ongoing.

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So that was one day from “demoting” to “removing”.
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The intrepid mother and son who unraveled a geographic hoax • Atlas Obscura

Matthew Taub:

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It was 3 a.m. on a nearly deserted island, and two hikers were badly lost. Roger Dickey and his mother, Ellie Talburtt, had been exploring Michigan’s Isle Royale—the least-visited national park in the United States—and were trying to recover the trail in the island’s murky and bewildering woods. This was not what they had had in mind for a mother-son getaway, no matter how good a story it would make if things turned out okay.

What had brought them there, and into this rather dicey situation, was something called Moose Boulder, a kind of geological matryoshka [Russian doll-within-a-doll-within-a-doll]. Here’s what makes Moose Boulder special, from the outside in: Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake, and its largest island is Isle Royale, whose largest lake is called Siskiwit, whose largest island is called Ryan. According to Wikipedia, at least, Ryan Island is home to a seasonal pond called Moose Flats that, when flooded, contains its own island—Moose Boulder. This makes it “the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake in the world.” Pity it’s not in Greenland, it could have gone all the way.

Spoiler: Mother and son made it out alive, but it wasn’t because they stumbled on a geological/hydrological anomaly that they could use to get their bearings. They couldn’t have, because, despite what the internet has to say, Moose Boulder almost surely doesn’t exist…

…By now, the odds seemed overwhelming to Dickey that Moose Boulder was a myth, a spasm of the internet’s imagination that had managed to proliferate and live on. But still, something didn’t quite add up. There was a missing piece to the puzzle that stopped Dickey short of declaring it all a hoax. He had found another article about Moose Boulder, published in 2009, that cited Wikipedia as its source of information. But the information about Moose Boulder had been added to Siskiwit Lake’s Wikipedia page in 2012. It was like a scene in a bad horror movie in which someone gets a phone call from a dead person.

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Wonderful writing; a sort of shaggy dog story, except it’s a boulder.
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NJ’s 40-year-old system increases delays for unemployment checks amid coronavirus crisis • NorthJersey.com

Ashley Balcerzak and Scott Fallon:

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Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said a plan to increase phone lines, train additional staff to handle claims and provide laptops to workers at home will help ease the crushing amount of claims being sought amid the economic meltdown brought upon by the virus. 

“There is nothing I want more than to put your hard-earned benefits into your family budget sooner,” he said at Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily coronavirus briefing.

Recently jobless New Jerseyans have experienced heavy lag times or issues while trying to collect unemployment insurance, partly due to a “clunky” 1980s computer  system that the Department of Labor still depends upon to process claims and issue checks.

“We literally have a system that is forty-plus years old,” Murphy said.

“There will be lots of postmortems and one of them on our list will be: how did we get here when we literally need COBOL programmers,” Murphy said of the outdated computer language.

Weekly unemployment insurance applications skyrocketed in recent weeks as Murphy ordered nonessential retail businesses closed and New Jerseyans to stay at home.

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Who had “Cobol” in their forecasts for 2020’s in-demand programming languages?
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The COBOL problem • S.Lott-Software Architect

Steve Lott:

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Objection: Yes, But, The COBOL Is Complicated

No. It’s not.

It’s a lot of code working around language limitations. There aren’t many design patterns, and they’re easy to find.

• Read, Validate, Write. The validation is quirky, but generally pretty easy to understand. In the long run, the whole thing is a JSONSchema document. But for now, there may be some data cleansing or transformation steps buried in here.
• Merged Reading. Execute the Transaction. Write. The transaction execution updates are super important. These are the state changes in object classes. They’re often entangled among bad representations of data.
• Cached Data. A common performance tweak is to read reference data (“Lookups”) into an array. This was often hellishly complex because… well… COBOL. It was a Python dict, for the love of God, there’s nothing to it. Now. Then. Well. It was tricky.
• Accumulators. Running totals and counts were essential for audit purposes. The updates could be hidden anywhere. Anywhere. Not part of the overall purpose, but necessary anyway.
• Parameter Processing. This can be quirky. Some applications had a standard dataset with parameters like the as-of-date for the processing. Some applications prompted an operator. Some had other quirky ways of handling the parameters.

The bulk of the code isn’t very complex. It’s quirky. But not complicated.

The absolute worst applications were summary reports with a hierarchy. We called these “control break” reports. I don’t know why. Each level of the hierarchy had its own accumulators. The data had to be properly sorted. It was complicated. 

Do Not Convert these. Find any data cleansing or transformation and simply pour the data into a CSV file and let the users put it into a spreadsheet.

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13-inch MacBook Pro with mini-LED display may arrive next month • BGR

Yoni Heisler:

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A new leak from Jon Prosser — who has been accurate with respect to Apple rumours in the past — claims that Apple may release a refreshed 13in MacBook Pro next month. Incidentally, Prosser adds that a display upgrade from 13in to 14in is a “big possibility.”

Lending credence to Prosser’s prediction is that Ming-Chi Kuo — who has a stellar record when it comes to Apple rumours — issued an investor note last month claiming that Apple will replace its 13-inch MacBook Pro with a 14.1in model. What’s more, Kuo said that the 14.1in model will boast a mini-LED display.

The inclusion of mini-LED displays on the MacBook Pro line would certainly be compelling as the technology allows for thinner and lighter displays. Further, the technology should also provide markedly better picture quality thanks to high contrast, local dimming, and impressive wide color gamut performance.

Mini-LED displays are rather expensive, so if this particular rumor pans out, it will likely be exclusive Apple’s pricier notebooks. Meanwhile, there are also rumors that Apple will release a 5G iPad Pro with a mini-LED display later this year.

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Mini-LED can offer higher contrast ratio, better brightness, greater power efficiency and doesn’t have OLED’s burn-in or degradation problems. It’s also pricey.

Still, at a time when everyone is finding it hard to focus on anything but That Story, distractions are nice.
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It’s a “cold war every day” inside this group at Apple • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz:

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A group inside Apple called Information Systems & Technology, or IS&T, builds much of the company’s internal technology tools — from servers and data infrastructure to retail and corporate sales software — and operates in a state of tumult.

IS&T is made up largely of contractors hired by rival consulting companies, and its dysfunction has led to a rolling state of war. “It’s a huge contractor org that handles a crazy amount of infrastructure for the company,” one ex-employee who worked closely with IS&T told me. “That whole organization is a Game of Thrones nightmare.”

Interviews with multiple former IS&T employees and its internal clients paint a picture of a division in turmoil, where infighting regularly prevents the creation of useful software, and whose contract workers are treated as disposable parts.

“There’s a Cold War going on every single day,” Archana Sabapathy, a former IS&T contractor who did two stints in the division, told me. Sabapathy’s first stint at IS&T lasted more than three years, the second only a day. Inside the division, she said, contracting companies such as Wipro, Infosys, and Accenture are constantly fighting to fill roles and win projects, which are handed out largely on the basis of how cheaply they can staff up to Apple’s needs.

“They’re just fighting for the roles,” Sabapathy told me. “That’s all they care about, not the work, not the deliverables, the effort they put in, or even talent. They’re not looking for any of those aspects.”

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This is an extract from Kantrowitz’s forthcoming book, about strategies and cultures inside various companies. I found this extract puzzling: is it somehow saying that this is holding Apple back? Or that it’s surprising that some work is contracted? Or that this work is contracted? It seems a really nothing story – and a little oversourced from Quora.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1281: the roots of the 5G conspiracy, has Google found a new Covid-19 symptom?, a child’s unpredictable future, getting gamers to stay in, and more


Does this mobile phone mast have 5G equipment? Most people can’t tell – but that doesn’t stop some CC-licensed photo by Ivan Radic on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

YouTube moves to limit spread of false coronavirus 5G theory • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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YouTube will reduce the amount of content spreading conspiracy theories about links between 5G technology and coronavirus that it recommends to users, it has said, as four more attacks were recorded on phone masts within 24 hours.

The online video company will actively remove videos that breach its policies, it said. But content that is simply conspiratorial about 5G mobile communications networks, without mentioning coronavirus, is still allowed on the site.

YouTube said those videos may be considered “borderline content” and subjected to suppression, including loss of advertising revenue and being removed from search results on the platform.

“We also have clear policies that prohibit videos promoting medically unsubstantiated methods to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment, and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us,” a YouTube spokesperson said.

“We have also begun reducing recommendations of borderline content such as conspiracy theories related to 5G and coronavirus, that could misinform users in harmful ways.”

The company’s decision to reduce the visibility of content linked to the false theory came as Vodafone said that two of its own masts, and two it shares with O2, were targeted. Three other masts were subjected to arson attacks last week.

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That was Sunday; the count is now up to 20. But how do you reduce the infectivity of stupidity? What’s more is that it’s rarely 5G kit that’s actually being damaged.
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May 2019: Mapping the anti-5G campaign • Global Disinformation Index

Ben Decker in May 2019:

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Fifth generation (5G) wireless technology has become a flashpoint of conflict dominating our news and social feeds – from the EU to the US. Arguments against 5G range on everything from health concerns to national security.

Mainstream media has even entered into the discussions. Just on May 21, Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked his viewers: “Are 5G networks medically safe?” Carlson was not alone in publicly voicing these concerns in recent weeks. On Facebook, anti-5G Pages promoted over a dozen Irish politicians who were “against 5G” and running in European and local Irish elections in May.

But it is a narrative arc whose design demonstrates a large-scale disinformation campaign that dates back at least two years. The New York Times has tried to trace some of its genesis, based on its investigation into RT America’s latest “reporting”  around “the coming ‘5G Apocalypse.”

At the GDI, we have mapped the anti-5G narrative being pushed across both American and European social media echo chambers, producing a chronological timeline which starts in 2017. This broader overview helps to demonstrate the slow and steady impact of what we’ll refer to as an adversarial narrative against 5G. A forthcoming GDI study will look at this in more detail.

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So basically the idiots just needed something to latch onto.

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1998: Immune system ‘attacked by mobile phones’ • BBC News

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Radiation from mobile phones can severely damage the human immune system, a scientist has claimed.

Biologist Roger Coghill has long campaigned for health warnings to be attached to mobile phones, which he has already linked to headaches and memory loss.

His latest research suggests the microwaves generated by mobile phones may damage the ability of white blood cells to act as the “policemen” of the body, fighting off infection and disease.

Mr Coghill took white blood cells, known as lymphocytes, from a donor, keeping them alive with nutritients and exposed them to different electric fields.

He found that after seven-and-a-half hours, just 13% of the cells exposed to mobile phone radiation remained intact and able to function, compared with 70% of cells exposed only to the natural electromagnetic field produced by the human body.

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Ah, Roger Coghill. Read a couple of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science entries about him: one and two. Go on, you deserve a laugh.
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Google searches can help us find emerging Covid-19 outbreaks • The New York Times

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz:

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To see the potential information lying in plain sight in Google data, consider searches for “I can’t smell.” There is now strong evidence that anosmia, or loss of smell, is a symptom of Covid-19, with some estimates suggesting that 30-60% of people with the disease experience this symptom. In the United States, in the week ending this past Saturday, searches for “I can’t smell” were highest in New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Michigan — four of the states with the highest prevalence of Covid-19. In fact, searches related to loss of smell during this period almost perfectly matched state-level disease prevalence rates.

Google searches for the phrase “loss of smell” align closely with the number of positive cases of coronavirus. The inability to smell could be an early warning sign that someone is infected.

Vasileios Lampos, a computer scientist at University College London, and other researchers have found that a bevy of symptom-related searches — loss of smell as well as fever and shortness of breath — have tracked outbreaks around the world.

Because these searches correlate so strongly with disease prevalence rates in parts of the world with reasonably good testing, we can use these searches to try to find places where many positive cases are likely to have been missed.

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He thinks, based on Google search data for symptoms – what people are asking Google – that “eye pain” might be another symptom. (I think it’s more like “joint pain”; that people feel generalised pressure and pain from the infection ahead of it getting bad.)
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How the cell phones of spring breakers who flouted coronavirus warnings were tracked • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan:

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Facebook and Google confirmed to CNN Business in March that they were exploring ways to use aggregated, anonymized data to help in the US coronavirus effort. The location data conversations were part of a series of interactions between the White House and the tech industry about how Silicon Valley could can contribute to the response to the pandemic.

The potential embrace of such technologies by the US government is leaving privacy advocates feeling uneasy.

David Carroll, an associate professor at The New School in New York and a privacy campaigner who has worked for years exposing Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal, warned the coronavirus pandemic could be used as a way to undermine American civil liberties.

“Pandemics offer an urgent justification to surrender to surveillance that informs response efforts. But privacy protections, especially related to health data, are among the first to be rescinded in this type of emergency,” Carroll told CNN Business on Wednesday.

“Beyond taking pains to exploit our location data responsibly and temporarily, we need to ensure that when we return to normal, we do the work of dismantling the pandemic panopticon and finish overdue reform in the United States, which includes improving how we enforce fundamental data protection rights around the world,” he added. “Otherwise pandemic-level surveillance capabilities will surely be abused.”

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As everyone says, the question is how you turn it off afterwards. The ratchet is hard to resist.
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Foursquare merges with Factual, another location-data provider • WSJ

Sahil Patel:

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Foursquare, which first gained fame for an app that allowed people to share their location with friends, pivoted in recent years to providing location data and software to businesses including marketers and ad agencies, helping them see how well their ads steered people to their stores and restaurants.

While the Placed deal improved Foursquare’s ability to gauge the effectiveness of ads by measuring foot traffic, the merger with Factual will build on its ad-targeting capabilities, executives said.

Factual’s location software helps marketers home in on customer segments, for instance, people who have visited certain car dealerships in the last 30 days. Factual or Foursquare’s data is already integrated into the digital advertising platforms of companies that include Oracle Corp., Roku Inc. and The Trade Desk Inc.

“Location data has tremendous power because of intent,” said Factual founder Gil Elbaz.

Foursquare already allows advertisers to target different audience groups, but Factual’s underlying data set is better, said Foursquare Chief Executive David Shim, who will continue in the role after the deal closes.

“When it comes to audience segments, Factual is No. 1; we’re not No. 1,” Mr. Shim said. “Foursquare is No. 1 when it comes to attribution and ad effectiveness, when it comes to app developer tools.”

Foursquare, which is based in New York, and Factual, based in Los Angeles, together generated more than $150m in revenue last year, executives said. The combined company will operate as Foursquare Labs Inc.

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When you let random apps have your location data, you’re basically giving them money. Lots of money, over time.
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AI can’t predict how a child’s life will turn out even with a ton of data • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:

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Three sociologists at Princeton University asked hundreds of researchers to predict six life outcomes for children, parents, and households using nearly 13,000 data points on over 4,000 families. None of the researchers got even close to a reasonable level of accuracy, regardless of whether they used simple statistics or cutting-edge machine learning.

“The study really highlights this idea that at the end of the day, machine-learning tools are not magic,” says Alice Xiang, the head of fairness and accountability research at the nonprofit Partnership on AI.

The researchers used data from a 15-year-long sociology study called the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, led by Sara McLanahan, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton and one of the lead authors of the new paper. The original study sought to understand how the lives of children born to unmarried parents might turn out over time. Families were randomly selected from children born in hospitals in large US cities during the year 2000. They were followed up for data collection when the children were 1, 3, 5, 9, and 15 years old.

McLanahan and her colleagues Matthew Salganik and Ian Lundberg then designed a challenge to crowdsource predictions on six outcomes in the final phase that they deemed sociologically important. These included the children’s grade point average at school; their level of “grit,” or self-reported perseverance in school; and the overall level of poverty in their household. Challenge participants from various universities were given only part of the data to train their algorithms, while the organizers held some back for final evaluations. Over the course of five months, hundreds of researchers, including computer scientists, statisticians, and computational sociologists, then submitted their best techniques for prediction.

The fact that no submission was able to achieve high accuracy on any of the outcomes confirmed that the results weren’t a fluke.

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Quit trying to make Quibi happen • Engadget

Devindra Hardawar:

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Nobody asked for Quibi. Nobody, that is, except for Jeffrey Katzenberg, the founder of Dreamworks Pictures and famed Hollywood producer. Where other mobile video startups failed, like Samsung’s long-forgotten Milk Video and Verizon’s own Go90 (RIP), Katzenberg figured he could succeed by pouring money (somehow he’s raised $1.75 billion so far!) into top talent and well produced shows. At CES in January, Quibi also revealed its core innovation, Turnstyle, which allows you to seamlessly switch between portrait and landscape video playback modes. 

I was intrigued by that technology at the time. The company’s chief product officer, Tom Conrad, the former CTO of Pandora and Snapchat product VP, also seemed excited about its potential. Still, it was hard to truly judge Quibi until I got a look at some of its shows. And after spending a few days with the app, which launches today, I can’t say I’m impressed. Sure, Katzenberg and crew managed to bring some professional-looking “quick bites” of entertainment to phones, but the shows I’ve seen aren’t nearly as compelling as anything on Netflix or Hulu. And their slick production values makes it harder to connect with Quibi shows than your favorite YouTube personality. 

Why, exactly, would anyone want to pay $5 a month (it’s also launching with a 90-day free trial) for this stuff – especially when you still have to deal with ads and can’t even watch it on other screens? Quibi CEO Meg Whitman had an answer for me at CES, though it’s not entirely convincing: “We think we’re a third category of this on-the-go viewing opportunity that people will make room for in their entertainment budget, because it’s going to be great content for a mobile use-case.”

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Looks really smart now, launching an app for commuters at a time when nobody’s commuting.
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British government starts pushing social distancing via in-game ads • Ars Technica

Kyle Orland:

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As governments around the world urge their citizens to “Stay at home, save lives,” the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is using in-game advertising to get that message in front of a younger audience of video game players.

The messaging is already appearing through in-game banners in Codemasters’ Dirt Rally 2.0, which will be offered as a free PlayStation Plus title this month. Rebellion titles like Sniper Elite and Strange Brigade, meanwhile, will display the message before the start of each game. And King’s Candy Crush Saga will insert the PSA amid the usual interstitial advertising for millions of free-to-play players.

“At Codemasters we came to realize that technology within our games, which enables the remote updating of banners within the virtual environment, could be repurposed to assist with the coronavirus communication effort,” Codemasters VP of Business Development Toby Evan-Jones said in a statement. “It’s fantastic to see conversations already being sparked amongst our community.”

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I’d have thought that the sort of people who are both playing games *and* noticing the ads in them are probably the least in need of any advice to stay home, but I guess every little helps.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1280: the 5G coronavirus madness, marooned in paradise, our Tiger King world, wear a mask!, Italy’s uneasy peace, and more


RCGS Resolute: a cruise liner not to be messed with, as Venezuela’s navy learnt CC-licensed photo by David Larson on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them on a precautionary basis. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Broadband engineers threatened due to 5G coronavirus conspiracies • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:

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Telecoms engineers are facing verbal and physical threats during the lockdown, as baseless conspiracy theories linking coronavirus to the roll-out of 5G technology spread by celebrities such as Amanda Holden prompt members of the public to abuse those maintaining vital mobile phone and broadband networks.

Facebook has removed one anti-5G group in which users were being encouraged to supply footage of them destroying mobile phone equipment, with some contributors seemingly under the pretence that it may stop the spread of coronavirus and some running leaderboards of where equipment had been targeted.

Video footage of a 70ft (20 metre) telephone mast on fire in Birmingham this week has also circulated widely alongside claims it was targeted by anti-5G protesters. Network operator EE told the Guardian that its engineers were still on site assessing the cause of the fire but it “looks likely at this time” that it was an arson attack.

The company said it would be working with the police to find the culprits. It said: “To deliberately take away mobile connectivity at a time when people need it more than ever to stay connected to each other, is a reckless, harmful and dangerous thing to do. We will try to restore full coverage as quickly as possible, but the damage caused by the fire is significant.”

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Celebrities promoting the idea that the coronavirus is somehow linked to 5G. It’s insane. To be so divorced from the capacity for rational thinking is one thing; not to be able to see how it might affect your fans is quite another. I do wonder if the celebrities will be called to account on the Monday morning TV shows, or if that would be seen as spreading the nonsense.
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They were the last couple in paradise. Now their resort life continues • The New York Times

David Zweig:

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By Sunday, they were the only guests at their resort, the Cinnamon Velifushi Maldives, which normally is at capacity this time of year, catering to some 180 guests. (“Room rates start at $750 a night,” its website still says.) The resort comprises the entirety of its speck of an island. There is nowhere to go. The couple reign like benign yet captive sovereigns over their islet. The days are long and lazy. They sleep in, snorkel, lounge by the pool, repeat.

The resort’s full staff are at hand, because of the presence of the two guests. Government regulations won’t allow any Maldivians to leave resorts until after they undergo a quarantine that follows their last guests’ departure. Accustomed to the flow of a bustling workday, and the engagement with a full house of guests, most of the staff, having grown listless and lonely, dote on the couple ceaselessly. Their “room boy” checks on them five times a day. The dining crew made them an elaborate candlelit dinner on the beach. Every night performers still put on a show for them in the resort’s restaurant: Two lone audience members in a grand dining hall.

At breakfast, nine waiters loiter by their table. Hostesses, bussers and assorted chefs circulate conspicuously, like commoners near a celebrity. The couple has a designated server, but others still come by to chat during meals, topping off water glasses after each sip, offering drinks even though brimming cocktail glasses stand in full view, perspiring. The diving instructor pleads with them to go snorkeling whenever they pass him by.

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Such fabulous tales that are being thrown up by this most disruptive of circumstances. (Soon after this, the couple were told by the embassy to vacate – to another five-star resort, where all the South Africans are being gathered.)
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Why this crisis is a turning point in history • New Statesman

John Gray:

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A situation in which so many of the world’s essential medical supplies originate in China – or any other single country – will not be tolerated. Production in these and other sensitive areas will be re-shored as a matter of national security. The notion that a country such as Britain could phase out farming and depend on imports for food will be dismissed as the nonsense it always has been. The airline industry will shrink as people travel less. Harder borders are going to be an enduring feature of the global landscape. A narrow goal of economic efficiency will no longer be practicable for governments.

The question is, what will replace rising material living standards as the basis of society? One answer green thinkers have given is what John Stuart Mill in his Principles of Political Economy (1848) called a “stationary-state economy”. Expanding production and consumption would no longer be an overriding goal, and the increase in human numbers curbed. Unlike most liberals today, Mill recognised the danger of overpopulation. A world filled with human beings, he wrote, would be one without “flowery wastes” and wildlife. He also understood the dangers of central planning. The stationary state would be a market economy in which competition is encouraged. Technological innovation would continue, along with improvements in the art of living.

In many ways this is an appealing vision, but it is also unreal. There is no world authority to enforce an end to growth, just as there is none to fight the virus…

…the notion persists that pandemics are blips rather than an integral part of history. Lying behind this is the belief that humans are no longer part of the natural world and can create an autonomous ecosystem, separate from the rest of the biosphere. Covid-19 is telling them they cannot. It is only by using science that we can defend ourselves against this pestilence. Mass antibody tests and a vaccine will be crucial. But permanent changes in how we live will have to be made if we are to be less vulnerable in future.

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The word people are throwing around for this situation is “Ballardian” – as in, like a work by JG Ballard. True, though which one?
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Tiger King reflects our world back to us – one run by megalomaniacs and amateurs • The Guardian

Jessa Crispin:

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Tiger King’s most powerful message might be about the people who have been elected and selected to keep us safe, to give wise counsel, and steer us through this crisis. Most true-crime entertainment sings love songs to cops, giving us smart, eager detectives who just can’t get that one unsolved case out of their heads, who will tirelessly pursue truth and justice, no matter how long it takes. These men, and it’s almost always men, will be haggard and aged, so we can imagine all of their hard work and sleepless nights.

Instead, Tiger King shows authorities for how they actually often are: fumbling, inadequate and drunk on power. The detective faced with finding Carole Baskin’s missing husband: well, gee, I don’t know, maybe one day we’ll find something or someone will say something. The prosecutor who may well be relying on the testimony of a liar to ensure the conviction of a defendant: well, golly, he sure seemed credible to me, seeing as how he said exactly the thing I wanted him to say.

I switched between watching Tiger King and the news and it’s like there’s no difference between the two. The lead member of the White House coronavirus taskforce: well, shucks, I sure do think America is doing the best job in the world with testing and treating coronavirus patients. The president who for months insisted the coronavirus was a minor problem until it had spread to the largest number of cases in the world: well, gee whiz, America is the best, we’re doing the best, we’re going to be fine, and hey, why don’t I put my son-in-law with no experience in anything in charge of this. And meanwhile the numbers of diagnosed patients and fatalities just keep spiraling upward.

The pathologies on display in Tiger King – the drive for power, the constant need for more, the willingness to remove any obstacle to what you desire, even by using violence – underlie a society that can’t take care of its sick or poor, that can’t pass regulations that would reduce real suffering.

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I watched Tiger King, by the end of which I felt profoundly sorry for the tigers and lions, and glad for the rare moments when they could assert themselves. The tigers are us, aren’t they?
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Let’s all wear a mask • Idle Words

Maciej Cieglowski:

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Here are the ways wearing a mask will help you as an individual:

• A mask is a barrier that keeps you from touching your nose and mouth. By now you’ve probably noticed how irresistibly drawn your hands are to your face, far more than you would have guessed possible before paying attention to it. Masks make it harder to indulge that habit, as well as other unconscious habits like nose-picking, nail-biting, chewing on pens, or licking your finger when you count money.

• Wearing a mask is a mental reminder that things are not normal. Just like many religions ask believers to wear a special garment to keep them mindful of their duty to God, having a mask on your face can help you remember that you are in a situation that calls for special behavior.

• Masks are somewhat uncomfortable, a helpful feature when we’re trying to limit time spent in public places. Wearing one out in the world gives you an incentive to get your business done quickly so you can go home, scrub your hands, and paw at your naked face in voluptuous luxury.

•Masks can help you remember to wash your hands. If you form an association between handwashing and touching your mask, it becomes harder to forget to wash your hands when you come home and take your mask off.

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I guess the masks I’ve got for DIY sanding will pass muster then.
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Boeing 787s must be turned off and on every 51 days to prevent ‘misleading data’ being shown to pilots • The Register

Gareth Corfield:

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According to the directive itself, if the aircraft is powered on for more than 51 days this can lead to “display of misleading data” to the pilots, with that data including airspeed, attitude, altitude and engine operating indications. On top of all that, the stall warning horn and overspeed horn also stop working.

This alarming-sounding situation comes about because, for reasons the directive did not go into, the 787’s common core system (CCS) stops filtering out stale data from key flight control displays. That stale data-monitoring function going down in turn “could lead to undetected or unannunciated loss of common data network (CDN) message age validation, combined with a CDN switch failure”.

Solving the problem is simple: power the aircraft down completely before reaching 51 days. It is usual for commercial airliners to spend weeks or more continuously powered on as crews change at airports, or ground power is plugged in overnight while cleaners and maintainers do their thing.

The CDN is a Boeing avionics term for the 787’s internal Ethernet-based network. It is built to a slightly more stringent aviation-specific standard than common-or-garden Ethernet, that standard being called ARINC 664. More about ARINC 664 can be read here.

Airline pilots were sanguine about the implications of the failures when El Reg asked a handful about the directive. One told us: “Loss of airspeed data combined with engine instrument malfunctions isn’t unheard of,” adding that there wasn’t really enough information in the doc to decide whether or not the described failure would be truly catastrophic. Besides, he said, the backup speed and attitude instruments are – for obvious reasons – completely separate from the main displays.

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Pilots always sound sanguine, even when they’re terrified. It’s the training. Sounds like a clock overflow problem, of course, though finding where it is in the system is easier said than done.
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The WHO has failed us again • UnHerd

Ian Birrell:

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Taipei officials said in late December they tipped off WHO — through a warning system designed for exchange of such facts — that medical staff in China were becoming ill: a clear indication of human-to-human transmission. But this critical information was not shared, since Taiwan was excluded from a key WHO platform; indeed, the body did not even bother to reply. “An opportunity to raise the alert level both in China and the wider world was lost,” Chen Chien-jen, Taiwan’s vice-president and an epidemiologist, told The Financial Times.

It took until the end of January before Tedros finally proclaimed coronavirus to be a public health emergency of international concern — by which time it had spread to 19 nations on four continents. Some experts defend his pragmatic need to work with China to contain the outbreak, despite scepticism over data. And despite WHO’s sluggishness to declare a pandemic, the body has been hailed for subsequent work to marshall global efforts to contain the virus. Yet when this crisis is concluded, there needs to be accountability for actions that have again damaged its credibility.

WHO was guilty of disastrous inaction over the deadly ebola outbreak six years ago, when its slack approach was accused of fuelling death and suffering. The terrible epidemic killed more than 11,000 people in three west African nations, provoking fear and paralysing these countries, as I saw for myself in Liberia.

Yet when Médecins Sans Frontières begged the world for help and warned the disease was out of control, it was rebuked by a WHO spokesman on social media. Only after four more months did this body, which is supposed to show global leadership, concede that  there was an international health emergency. A devastating inquiry by British and US experts accused it of “the most egregious failure” for failing to sound the alarm.

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As bureaucracies grow they tend to become self-sustaining and self-protecting, more interested in threats to themselves than to those they’re meant to protect. If the bureaucracy is meant to respond to global health threats, that’s not good.
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Singing stops in Italy as fear and social unrest mount • The Guardian

Angela Giuffrida and Lorenzo Tondo:

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Tensions are building across the poorest southern regions of Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia as people run out of food and money. There have been reports of small shop owners being pressured to give food for free, while police are patrolling supermarkets in some areas to stop thefts. The self-employed or those working on contracts that do not guarantee social benefits have lost salaries, and many small businesses may never reopen.

Paride Ezzine, a waiter in Palermo, Sicily, no longer gets his salary. “Obviously, due to the lockdown, the restaurant closed,” he said. “I have a wife and two children and we’re living off our savings. But I don’t know how long they will last. I asked my bank to postpone payment instalments – they said no. This situation is bringing us to our knees.”

The ramifications of the lockdown, which is poised to be extended until at least Easter, are also affecting the estimated 3.3 million people in Italy who were working off the books, of whom more than 1 million live across Campania, Sicily, Puglia and Calabria, according to the most recent figures from CGIA Mestre, a Venice-based small business association.

A billboard in Naples reads: ‘All together, without fear.’ Photograph: Carlo Hermann/AFP via Getty Images
“In reality, we don’t know how many are working in the black as these numbers are only estimates,” said Giovanni Orsina, a politics professor at Luiss University in Rome. “However, a significant number of people live day to day, doing occasional jobs. There are also many shopkeepers, or professionals working for themselves, who may have moderate reserves that will run out the longer they’re in lockdown.”

Amid the brewing social unrest, the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said €4.3bn (£3.8bn) from a solidarity fund would immediately be advanced to all municipalities and an additional €400m would go to mayors for conversion into food stamps. But mayors have protested that the funds, especially the €400m for food vouchers, are insufficient.

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This is yet another proximate risk from coronavirus: social unrest when – or if – the social contract breaks down.
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All across the United States, the coronavirus is killing more men than women, data show – The Washington Post

Chris Mooney, Sarah Kaplan and Brady Dennis :

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The Washington Post identified 37 states that provide a breakdown of how many men, and how many women, have tested positive for covid-19. In 30 of those states, including the large outbreaks in Massachusetts, Michigan and Washington, women had a higher number of reported cases, though not always by a large margin. In several large states, including California and Florida, and in the vast outbreak in New York City, the data swing the other way toward male cases, leaving an ambiguous picture overall.

Fewer states provide an analysis of the differing numbers of deaths among men and women. But at least 13 with substantial death numbers reported that data. (The Post did not analyze some states, like Alaska, where the death numbers remain small.) In every one of those states, men died more frequently, and that was the case even if they made up fewer total cases of the disease to begin with.

That’s also true in the city with the country’s biggest outbreak. As of Friday, men made up 59% of overall hospitalizations in New York City and 62% of more than 1,800 fatalities.

“I’ve seen more males that need immediate respiratory support — to be intubated or supplemental oxygen,” Jackson said. “That’s been the major difference. They come in sicker.”

Men in New York are dying at a disproportionately high rate, even when accounting for the fact that male cases are more numerous to begin with. Men make up 55% of cases there, but 62% of deaths…

…For almost all infectious diseases, women are able to mount a stronger immune response then men, [a doctor] said. Women with acute HIV infections have 40% less viral genetic material in their blood than men. They are less susceptible to the viruses that cause hepatitis B and C. Men infected with coxsackie viruses — which in severe cases can cause inflammation of heart tissue — are twice as likely to die of the disease.

That holds true even in other animals. Female birds show higher antibody responses to infection than males, especially during mating season. The immune cells that eat up microbes and cellular debris are less active in male lizards than in their female counterparts.

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Cruise ship sunk Venezuelan Navy ship after being fired at and rammed. Don’t mess with RESOLUTE • Maritime Bulletin

Mikhail Voytenko:

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Cruise ship with 35 maintenance crew on board (no passangers) was positioned outside Venezuelan territorial waters, when she was approached by NAIGUATA and ordered to sail to Puerto Moreno on Isla De Margarita. Warning shots were fired, Master of RESOLUTE (RESOLUTE indeed!) refused to obey and maintained her course. From RESOLUTE owner statement:

… the navy vessel approached the starboard side at speed with an angle of 135° and purposely collided with the RCGS RESOLUTE. The navy vessel continued to ram the starboard bow in an apparent attempt to turn the ship’s head towards Venezuelan territorial waters. While the RCGS RESOLUTE sustained minor damages, not affecting vessel’s seaworthiness, it occurs that the navy vessel suffered severe damages while making contact with the ice-strengthened bulbous bow of the ice-class expedition cruise vessel RCGS RESOLUTE and started to take water…

NAIGUATA sank, but RESOLUTE, as it came out, didn’t flee, she “…remained for over one hour in vicinity of the scene and reached out to MRCC Curacao, and sailed away only after receiving the order to resume passage full ahead by the MRCC and that further assistance is not required”.

So, there’s nothing much else left to talk about, except to laugh and to applaud RESOLUTE Master. Not many – if any – similar cases in naval history, when defenceless passenger ship sunk Navy battleship, and went away with it.

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You might have been hearing bits of this story over the weekend, and it’s absolutely true. There are photos of Resolute in (non-Venezuelan) dock, and its starboard bow is scraped to hell.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1279: ‘Contagion’ writer on what to expect, no more 5G conspiracies?, Bird Zooms 406 out of work, WeWork founder to lose a billion, and more


What if the BBC was funded by a levy on your internet connection rather than your TV ownership? CC-licensed photo by Karl Baron on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Comfortable yet? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

BBC suggests broadband ISP levy to replace UK TV licence fee • ISPreview UK

Mark Jackson:

»

in its response to the Government’s consultation, the BBC has also said that they’re willing to consider alternative funding models, such as one linked directly to an existing household bill.

Extract from the BBC’s Response:

»

In some countries the TV licence, or equivalent, is linked directly to an existing common household bill. For example it is collected through electricity bills in Italy and the equivalent of council tax bills in France. Another option to consider as the UK progresses towards universal access could be broadband bills.

This would be a significant change for the UK and we are not, at this stage, advocating it. It does however raise an interesting question as to whether the current system could be made much simpler, more efficient and more automated. We are open to exploring this further.

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We suspect that consumers would not be universally welcoming of having their broadband bills so directly linked to the BBC TV Licence, particularly since most regard internet access as being an essential service but many would not hold the broadcaster’s own content to that same level of importance. Not that the content they create isn’t good, but broadband is simply on a different level and with other challenges.

The idea also raises complicated questions about how such a system might be imposed across such a diverse UK market, which may be dominated by a handful of major ISPs but is also home to hundreds of smaller providers. Such a levy would be quite a noticeable change and is certain to require regulatory approval, so as not to trigger penalty-free exit clauses (usually occurring when a provider imposes a mid-contract price hike).

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People already have levies on their electricity bill to pay for desirable things (green electricity production). Why not look at how it’s done in France and Italy? If you’re going to have a national broadcaster, it seems sensible to have its income base as wide as possible; and it’s internet-supplied, so that would be a logical place to tap.
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‘Contagion’ writer Scott Burns on the coronavirus and parallels with his film • The Washington Post

Michele Norris interviewed Burns:

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Q: Many people are turning to you because your “Contagion” screenplay seemed to predict the global pandemic. What do people want to know when they reach out?

It is sad, and it is frustrating. Sad because so many people are dying and getting sick. Frustrating because people still don’t seem to grasp the situation we are now in and how it could have been avoided by properly funding the science around all of this. It is also surreal to me that people from all over the world write to me asking how I knew it would involve a bat or how I knew the term “social distancing.” I didn’t have a crystal ball — I had access to great expertise. So, if people find the movie to be accurate, it should give them confidence in the public health experts who are out there right now trying to guide us.

People also want to know what I think will happen next. My sense is that we are still very much in the first act of this story — how it will go from here depends on how both the people and the government react in the days ahead. I never contemplated a federal response that was so ignorant, misguided and full of dangerous information. I thought our leaders were sworn to protect us. I don’t get to write this story this time. This is a story we are all writing together…

Q: Was there some hidden message that you left in the film to find our best selves or to stay calm instead of panic?

Yeah, I think the intention in the film — and there are a few scenes where you do see basic human kindness in the face of panic — is that this is an opportunity for a country, as divided as we are, to find common cause. And one of the things that epidemiologist Larry Brilliant has said to me over the years is that love is a big part of survival in these situations. Do you love someone enough to take care of yourself and to respect their vulnerability? Do you have a basic compassion for people less fortunate than you? Dr. Brilliant, you know, had always said to me, “There is, in every one of these, an opportunity for people to become heroic in the way that they respect and treat each other.”

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Scoop: Google to lift advertising ban on coronavirus topics • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Google will begin to allow some advertisers to run ads across its platforms that address the coronavirus, according to a Google memo sent to clients and obtained by Axios.

Democrats have argued that in banning attack ads targeting President Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including on YouTube, Google was shielding his campaign in a critical election year.

The broad ban had also stopped consumer advertisers, like retail and packaged goods companies, as well as corporate social responsibility advertisers like nonprofits, from running messaging about the virus.

According to the memo, sent from Google’s Head of Industry Mark Beatty to political advertising clients, Google is beginning to phase in advertisers who want to run ads related to COVID-19, prioritizing those advertisers that are working directly on this issue.

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That ban didn’t last long. Wonder if Google is feeling the pinch at all on advertising yet.
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UK media outlets told not to promote baseless 5G coronavirus theories • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:

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British broadcasters are being warned that they face sanctions from the media regulator if they give airtime to false health advice about coronavirus, after a Sussex radio station was given a severe warning for broadcasting baseless conspiracy theories that the pandemic is linked to the rollout of 5G phone networks.

Members of the public complained after hearing a broadcast on the community radio station Uckfield FM, in which a woman introduced as a “registered nurse” claimed, without any evidence, that the rollout of 5G phone technology in Wuhan was connected to the outbreak and that the virus had been created in a lab.

It later emerged that she was a practitioner of alternative medicines, while the media regulator said it was “not aware of any reputable scientific evidence to corroborate such a contentious claim which runs contrary to all official advice, both in the UK and internationally, about coronavirus.”

Ofcom confirmed it was actively monitoring television and radio stations that might be broadcasting potentially harmful views about the causes and origins of Covid-19 that have “the potential to undermine people’s trust in the advice of mainstream sources of information” during the crisis.

Baseless suggestions that coronavirus is linked to 5G have spread widely in recent weeks on WhatsApp, Facebook groups, and on the fast-growing community website NextDoor – all of which have the ability to reach vastly more people than a small community radio station in Sussex but are much less regulated.

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“Here’s the news the MSM won’t tell you!”
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Here’s how Bird laid off 406 people in two minutes • dot.LA

Ben Bergman:

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Travis VanderZanden, 41, a former top Uber executive who founded Bird only three years ago, had abruptly cancelled the previous Thursday’s regular biweekly all-hands meeting, referred to internally as Birdfams. He had not addressed Bird’s thousand-plus employees since they were forced to leave their offices, so most employees assumed he was giving an update on the company’s response to the worsening global pandemic.

But some grew suspicious when they noticed the guest list and host were hidden and they learned only some colleagues were included. It was also unusual they were being invited to a Zoom webinar, allowing no participation, rather than the free-flowing meeting function the company normally uses. Over the next hour, employees traded frantic messages on Slack and searched coworkers’ calendars to see who was unfortunate enough to be invited…

…[At 1030] thinking there were technical difficulties, some employees logged-off and were never able to return to the meeting. Then, after five minutes of dead air that seemed like an eternity, a robotic-sounding, disembodied voice came on the line.

The woman began by acknowledging “this is a suboptimal way to deliver this message.” Then she cut to the chase: “COVID-19 has also had a massive impact on our business, one that has forced our leadership team and our board of directors to make extremely difficult and painful decisions. One of those decisions is to eliminate a number of roles at the company. Unfortunately your role is impacted by this decision.”

The meeting was scheduled to last half an hour but ended up going for only two minutes. Towards the end of the monologue, as the woman started talking about the future of Bird, she sounded like she was getting choked up and was trying to hold back tears.

“It felt like a Black Mirror episode,” Alvauaje said. “This ominous voice came over and told us we were losing our jobs.”

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Next step will be to get an AI to read it out, won’t it? In a nicely manicured voice. Using Google Plex.
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How Google ruined the internet • Superhighway 98

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In 1998, the velocity of information was slow and the cost of publishing it was high (even on the web). Google leveraged those realities to make the best information retrieval system in the world.

Today, information is free, plentiful and fast moving; somewhat by design, Google has become a card catalog that is constantly being reordered by an angry, misinformed mob.

The web was supposed to forcefully challenge our opinions and push back, like a personal trainer who doesn’t care how tired you say you are. Instead, Google has become like the pampering robots in WALL-E, giving us what we want at the expense of what we need. But, it’s not our bodies that are turning into mush: It’s our minds.

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The main Superhighway 98 site itself is quite a throwback: 100 links, each to a site with a specific, identifiably useful purpose. I can’t find who the author is.
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WeWork founder Adam Neumann loses out as SoftBank scraps share buyout • CNN

Sherisse Pham:

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SoftBank is walking away from a sizeable chunk of its WeWork rescue package, which included a near billion dollar windfall for ousted founder Adam Neumann.

The Japanese tech company has backed out of a plan to buy $3bn worth of shares in the coworking startup from existing shareholders and investors, according to statements from SoftBank and a special committee of WeWork’s board.

SoftBank’s chief legal officer, Rob Townsend, said in a statement on Thursday that the share purchase was subject to certain conditions agreed to in October.

“Several of those conditions were not met, leaving SoftBank no choice but to terminate the tender offer,” he said.

Shares in SoftBank (SFTBY) closed up 2.5% in Tokyo following the announcement.

The about face cuts deep for Neumann — the October agreement had included an offer to buy up to $975m worth of the WeWork founder’s shares — and is further evidence that SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son is stepping back from his trademark high-risk investment strategy after the company’s shares cratered earlier this year.

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World’s tiniest violin factory overwhelmed with global demand.
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Where America didn’t stay home even as the virus spread • The New York Times

James Glanz, Benedict Carey, Josh Holder, Derek Watkins, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Rick Rojas and Lauren Leatherby:

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Stay-at-home orders have nearly halted travel for most Americans, but people in Florida, the Southeast and other places that waited to enact such orders have continued to travel widely, potentially exposing more people as the coronavirus outbreak accelerates, according to an analysis of cellphone location data by The New York Times.

The divide in travel patterns, based on anonymous cellphone data from 15 million people, suggests that Americans in wide swaths of the West, Northeast and Midwest have complied with orders from state and local officials to stay home. Disease experts who reviewed the results say those reductions in travel — to less than a mile a day, on average, from about five miles — may be enough to sharply curb the spread of the coronavirus in those regions, at least for now.

“That’s huge,” said Aaron A. King, a University of Michigan professor who studies the ecology of infectious disease. “By any measure this is a massive change in behavior, and if we can make a similar reduction in the number of contacts we make, every indication is that we can defeat this epidemic.”

But not everybody has been staying home.

In areas where public officials have resisted or delayed stay-at-home orders, people changed their habits far less. Though travel distances in those places have fallen drastically, last week they were still typically more than three times those in areas that had imposed lockdown orders, the analysis shows.

A half-dozen of the most populous counties where residents were traveling widely last week are in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis resisted calling for a statewide lockdown until Wednesday. People in Jacksonville, Tampa, Daytona Beach, Lakeland and surrounding areas continued to travel much more than people in other parts of the country, putting those areas at a higher risk for outbreaks in the coming weeks.

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Nearly as many people writing it as tracked. The data is remarkable, and the argument that “in the rural areas you can’t stay put” doesn’t quite gel: many of those have very dense cities too. The other eye-opener is that this data can be acquired at all. You’re not going to see this in European publications.
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Zoom announces 90-day feature freeze to fix privacy and security issues • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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The challenges of supporting 200 million users compared to just 10 million a few months ago are significant enough, but the privacy and security issues that have been uncovered recently present greater challenges for the company. Zoom is https://blog.zoom.us/wordpress/2020/04/01/a-message-to-our-users/ and focusing on its security and privacy issues instead. “Over the next 90 days, we are committed to dedicating the resources needed to better identify, address, and fix issues proactively,” explains Yuan. “We are also committed to being transparent throughout this process.”

All of Zoom’s engineering resources will now be focused on safety and privacy issues, and the company is planning a “comprehensive review” with third-parties to ensure it’s handling the security of these new consumer cases properly.

Zoom is also committing to releasing a transparency report to share the number of requests from law enforcement and governments for user data. It’s something that digital rights advocacy groups have called on Zoom to release. Zoom is also “enhancing” its bug bounty program, consulting with other chief information security officers across the industry, and using white box penetration tests to identify other security bugs.

Yuan will also hold a weekly webinar on Wednesdays at 10AM PT / 1PM ET to discuss privacy and security updates for Zoom as it tackles its response over the next 90 days.

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Good; rather like Microsoft (belatedly) focussing on security after the Swiss cheese of Windows XP. Impressive that it comes exactly a day after Ben Thompson pointed out this was what it should do in his Stratechery newsletter.
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‘Rats out of the sewers’: ad fraudsters are leaping on the coronavirus crisis • Digiday

Lara O’Reilly:

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Website traffic is surging. But with advertisers adding coronavirus-related keywords to their block lists and others pausing spend altogether, ad prices on news sites are low. With less competition in the auction, low quality ads — and even publishers’ own house ads — are now making their way to the most prized ad slots on homepages. The fraudsters have quickly leaped into action.

Clean.io, a company that offers malvertising protection to publishers, found there was a surge in malvertising campaigns starting Mar. 11. Clean.io’s “global threat level” — a percentage calculation of the number of threats clean.io blocked divided by the number of pageviews it behaviorally analyzed — was 50 times higher during the surge to the end of March relative to the start of the month.  Around 1% of all pageviews Clean.io analyzed over the past two weeks were impacted by malicious ads, compared with a very low baseline of around 0.02% at the beginning of the month.

The U.S. has seen a significantly higher increase in malvertising compared with the rest of the world over the last month, according to Clean.io. The company said it analyzed the JavaScript within ads on tens of thousands of sites and apps that generate tens of billions of monthly page views.

The market forces of lower ad prices and extraordinarily high traffic “have basically brought the rats out of the sewers,” said Clean.io CEO Matt Gillis.

Ad fraud tends to spike over weekends and holidays as more people switch to personal devices versus work devices that tend to have better security settings. But with the majority of people now at home, there are more opportunities for bad actors to pounce.

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Rats is the word.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Yesterday I wondered whether we could figure out how accurate a SARS-Cov-2 test which said it had 90% specificity, 90% sensitivity was. Gordon McKenzie writes: “These are specific medical statistics which can take a bit of getting your head around. They relate to the population as a whole, they don’t tell you a lot about any single individual test.

“Sensitivity is True Positive / (True Positive + False Negative). This is a measure of how likely you are to find everyone that has the disease. So, 90% sensitivity means you’ll find 90 of every 100 with the lurgy. Specificity is the other side of that coin. 90% specificity means you’ll correctly identify 90 of every 100 who are healthy (TN / (TN+FP)).

“What’s interesting is that these two factors don’t tell you how likely your individual test result is to be correct. For that you need the Positive and Negative Predictive Values. Without more data, those don’t just drop out.”

In other words: we don’t know. Await more information.

Start Up No.1278: how the UK government screwed up Covid testing, more Zoom hacks, Dark Sky alternatives, YouTube plans TikTok ‘rival’, and more


He’s going to be missed and mourned. Farewell, and thanks for all the answers, Jack Schofield. CC-licensed photo by Aleks on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Stay well. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘Absolutely wrong’: how UK’s coronavirus test strategy unravelled • The Guardian

Sarah Boseley:

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Ministers have been flailing. What has emerged is a picture of confusion and uncertainty at the top, with ministers making promises they cannot keep and apparently with little comprehension of the global tussle for tests that may make it impossible for the UK to buy its way belatedly out of the problem.

The UK is now competing with every other nation to obtain the kits it needs, particularly the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which tells someone whether they have Covid-19 or not.

The Guardian has been told that presidents and prime ministers are trying to outbid each other to secure these kits and their components, which are in short supply. The US also has woken up to the need to test – and is telling companies that export them that America must come first.

No wonder, perhaps, the UK now finds itself struggling to increase testing to 25,000 a day for hospital patients and health workers, let alone meet its ambition – once stated but now seldom mentioned – to reach 100,000 a day, to include other key workers.

“In all countries we have prime ministers calling the CEOs and diagnostic companies to try to get hold of the stocks. Indonesia and Peru we know have offered to order several million tests and send private planes to pick the tests up. There is more going on behind the scenes to secure supplies,” said Dr Catharina Boehme, chief executive of the non-profit Geneva-based Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, which is a WHO collaborating centre.

The companies are trying to be responsible, she said. “They supply small quantities to each country to give sufficient supplies for a number of days and then ship on a very frequent basis. But there is clearly this move in the US where several companies have openly declared they can’t supply anyone outside the US.”

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Terrific piece; clearly there’s a sort of intergovernmental eBay, where they’re all just upping their bids wildly. The antigen tests being proposed are apparently 90% sensitive to Covid-19 (so a 90% true positive rate? So a false positive rate of 10%?) and 90% specific (which I take to mean if it’s positive, there’s a 90% chance that it’s reacting to SARS-Cov2). Someone better than me at Bayesian maths can figure out the chances you’re antibody-positive to SARS-Cov2 if the test is positive: I think it’s 89%.
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Time to kick the ‘Good Times’ delusion to the curb • FierceWireless

Geoff Blaber of analysts CCS Insight:

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I’ve read reports about how the situation could be a boon for virtual reality over the next few months. I get the theory around escapism, but thinking that folks will splash out on headsets to play Beat Saber when they can’t make the next mortgage payment is devoid of reality.

Not all can remember what happened when the dot com bubble burst or the financial crisis of 2008. Others weren’t old enough to have experienced it. Others are still on the sugar high of the last decade. Even as pensions and investments decline, the “Good Times Delusion” means some are finding it hard to equate these factors with their own business and circumstances. It’s been that long since we’ve seen this kind of financial and economic turmoil that those who aren’t among the first wave to be affected are numb to the potential consequences…

I don’t want to be seen as overly pessimistic. The hope is that this is a short term jolt to the system from which the economy sees a swift V-shaped recovery. This isn’t the structural economic downturn of 2008. But this could also prove to be more of U or even L shaped recovery. I’m not an economist so it’s not for me to determine where we’re heading, but these scenarios have all played a role in our forecast revisions.

Whatever the scenario, it won’t just be the hospitality industry and Uber drivers that are affected. If a start-up such as OneWeb – the SoftBank-backed low earth orbit satellite communications company with over $3bn in funding – is on the rocks, you can bet that many others are going to follow, and spending is going to tighten from top to bottom of the economy.

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As he also says in the piece, assume that everything from here forward will focus on profit before growth.
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Ex-NSA hacker drops new zero-day doom for Zoom • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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Patrick Wardle, a former NSA hacker and now principal security researcher at Jamf, dropped the two previously undisclosed flaws on his blog Wednesday, which he shared with TechCrunch.

The two bugs, Wardle said, can be launched by a local attacker — that’s where someone has physical control of a vulnerable computer. Once exploited, the attacker can gain and maintain persistent access to the innards of a victim’s computer, allowing them to install malware or spyware.

Wardle’s first bug piggybacks off a previous finding. Zoom uses a “shady” technique — one that’s also used by Mac malware — to install the Mac app without user interaction. Wardle found that a local attacker with low-level user privileges can inject the Zoom installer with malicious code to obtain the highest level of user privileges, known as “root.”

Those root-level user privileges mean the attacker can access the underlying macOS operating system, which are typically off-limits to most users, making it easier to run malware or spyware without the user noticing.

The second bug exploits a flaw in how Zoom handles the webcam and microphone on Macs. Zoom, like any app that needs the webcam and microphone, first requires consent from the user. But Wardle said an attacker can inject malicious code into Zoom to trick it into giving the attacker the same access to the webcam and microphone that Zoom already has.

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Attackers can use Zoom to steal users’ Windows credentials with no warning • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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Users of Zoom for Windows beware: the widely used software has a vulnerability that allows attackers to steal your operating system credentials, researchers said.

Discovery of the currently unpatched vulnerability comes as Zoom usage has soared in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. With massive numbers of people working from home, they rely on Zoom to connect with co-workers, customers, and partners. Many of these home users are connecting to sensitive work networks through temporary or improvised means that don’t have the benefit of enterprise-grade firewalls found on-premises.

Attacks work by using the Zoom chat window to send targets a string of text that represents the network location on the Windows device they’re using. The Zoom app for Windows automatically converts these so-called universal naming convention strings—such as //attacker.example.com/C$—into clickable links. In the event that targets click on those links on networks that aren’t fully locked down, Zoom will send the Windows usernames and the corresponding NTLM hashes to the address contained in the link.

Attackers can then use the credentials to access shared network resources, such as Outlook servers and storage devices.

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Well, it’s been 24 hours, after all.
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Democrats say Google’s COVID-19 ad ban is a gift to Trump • Protocol

Emily Birnbaum:

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“I totally understand if they want to ban for-profit entities from talking about coronavirus,” he said. “They’re trying to avoid people price-gouging face masks and selling fake cures, and generally exploiting the crisis for profit. But that’s an entirely separate use-case from nonprofit organizations trying to spread accurate information about the situation and holding elected officials accountable for the life-and-death decisions they are currently making.”

The Trump campaign and Republicans across the country also are not allowed to run advertisements right now. But the democratic strategists argue that the CDC and White House’s messaging, which are permitted by Google, fall under Trump’s purview.

“For Google to basically say that the Trump administration is the only entity that is allowed to talk about the most important issue in politics really puts their thumb on the scale of the incumbent president and against anyone who is really looking to challenge him,” said Eli Kaplan, a founding partner of Rising Tide Interactive, a digital marketing firm for Democratic political organizations and progressive nonprofits.

A Google spokesperson told Protocol that the company proactively instituted the policy at the beginning of February when it noticed a flurry of advertisers throwing their messages onto coronavirus-related terms in order to drive traffic. While Google announced the ban in general terms earlier this month, its effect on political messaging is only now being recognized.

“We are currently blocking ads related to coronavirus under our sensitive events policy, with exception of government PSAs on important health information,” a Google spokesperson told Protocol in a statement. “This policy applies to all advertisers equally, including all political advertisers.”

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Google’s policy says “On Google Ads we are blocking all ads capitalising on the coronavirus”. Be interesting to see how “capitalising” the CDC and WH messaging is judged to be.
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Six Dark Sky alternatives for Android weather watchers • The Verge

Barbara Krasnoff:

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If you’re an Android user with Dark Sky and you’re wondering where to go now for your weather report, there are a few alternatives to choose from. But first, here are a couple of things to consider.

Several Android weather apps have been found to ask for more permissions than they need and to have shared location data with advertisers and other third parties. These privacy issues are detailed in a Vice article by Jason Koebler.

One suggestion is to simply use the weather app that Google supplies with its OS. A way to get that somewhat elusive app to live on your home screen is described on GadgetHacks.com. We tried it, and it works quite nicely.

If the Google app isn’t enough for you, here are six alternatives. All have free versions with ads, and all have paid versions that not only remove the ads but add other features.

Besides the price of each app, I’ve also listed all the various permissions requested as listed on its Google Play entry.

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So it turns out there are lots of alternative weather data sources. The pant-wetting over Apple buying up a single one of them looks more and more hyperbolic – as such things often are.
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COVID19 patients describe a loss of smell and taste • News Medical

Dr Liji Thomas:

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a significant citation comes from South Korea, where testing has been carried out on a mass scale. Here, 30% of 2,000 patients who tested positive first presented with the loss of smell. All of these were mild cases. The statement says, “These patients might be some of the hitherto hidden carriers that have facilitated the rapid spread of COVID-19.”

The British physicians are backed by American ENT specialists. The website of the American Academy of Otolaryngology now carries the information that many stories have come in indicating that anosmia or hyposmia (a reduced sense of smell) and ageusia are significant COVID-19 symptoms, often seen in patients who later turned out to be positive on virus tests, though they had no other symptoms.

The website advises that if the patient’s anosmia or hyposmia cannot be satisfactorily accounted for by allergies or sinusitis, the physician should think immediately of testing for coronavirus. The condition should lead to the recommendation that the patient self-isolate as well.

In Italy’s worse-affected areas too, doctors say they have found that anosmia and ageusia are telltale signs that an apparently healthy person is harboring the virus and is probably spreading it to others. Marco Metra, cardiology chief at Brescia’s main hospital, which has 700 coronavirus patients out of a total of 1,200 patients, says, “Almost everybody who is hospitalized has this same story. The patient says, ‘My wife has just lost her smell and taste, but otherwise she is well.’ So she is likely infected, and she is spreading it.”

German virologist Hendrik Streeck personally interviewed coronavirus patients in Germany’s Heinsberg district, by house to house visiting. He reports an even higher percentage – about 66% – of the over 100 patients he met with mild coronavirus infection had loss of smell and taste lasting for several days.

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A team at Harvard reckons it’s because some cells in the olfactory epithelium (in your nose, helps you smell) have ACE2, the protein that SARS-Cov2 attacks to enter into cells. There seems to be an implication of a link between mildness and anosmia. (Certainly has been for me.)
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AI tool predicts which coronavirus patients get deadly ‘wet lung’ • Yahoo News

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The tool discovered several surprising indicators that were most strongly predictive of who went on to develop so-called acute respiratory disease syndrome (ARDS), a severe complication of the COVID-19 illness that fills the lungs with fluid and kills around 50% of coronavirus patients who get it. 

The team applied a machine learning algorithm to data from 53 coronavirus patients across two hospitals in Wenzhou, China, finding that changes in three features – levels of the liver enzyme alanine aminotransferase (ALT), reported body aches, and haemoglobin levels – were most accurately predictive of subsequent, severe disease.

Using this information along with other factors, the tool was able to predict risk of ARDS with up to 80% accuracy.

By contrast, characteristics that were considered to be hallmarks of COVID-19, like a particular pattern in lung images called “ground glass opacity,” fever, and strong immune responses, were not useful in predicting which of the patients with initially mild symptoms would get ARDS. 

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Age and sex weren’t strong predictors. Really would like to see how well this applies with a much larger dataset.
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Jack Schofield, Guardian’s Ask Jack tech columnist, dies at 72 • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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Jack Schofield, the Guardian’s former computer editor and author of its technology advice column, Ask Jack, for almost 20 years, has died aged 72.

Schofield was taken to hospital following a heart attack on Friday night and died on Tuesday afternoon.

The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, said: “Jack Schofield was one of the first true technology and computing experts in British journalism. In more than 35 years writing for the Guardian, he saw (and foresaw) the rise of personal computers, the advent of the internet, Google, smartphones and much more. His Ask Jack column was an essential and expert guide for generations of Guardian readers. Our thoughts are with Jack’s family and friends at this sad time.”

Schofield had written for the paper since 1983, initially as a columnist for the new computing pages, called Futures Micro Guardian. His first column, on how to buy a home “micro”, walked the reader through the difficult process of picking one of the many microcomputers available in Britain at the time, ultimately recommending the £400 Acorn BBC Model B or, for the budget conscious, the £100 Sinclair Spectrum.

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Jack is fondly remembered by many who grew up reading his work in The Guardian. He wrote briefly for ZDNet after 2010, when he took voluntary redundancy from the paper as it tried to cut costs; but he was back freelancing for The Guardian almost as soon as it could hire him back.

He was an editor’s dream: his output was tireless, precise and incredibly punctual; he wasn’t precious about his copy. The thing that most annoyed him about the newer offices was the ban on smoking, which meant his iconic pipe had to stay unlit, at least when indoors. He had a knack for staying abreast of developments and the mental flexibility not to resist them; he was the first person to mention Google to me – in 1998 or 1999.

The one element of computing technology he couldn’t fathom was Apple’s success. Jack had a utilitarian view of IT, perhaps because he’d seen it from the wires-and-transistors era; he didn’t understand why people would pay extra for something that he didn’t perceive as having value, ie the user experience. As a result, I don’t recall him recommending Apple gear for anything, ever.
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YouTube plans ‘Shorts’ to rival TikTok • The Information

Alex Heath and Jessica Toonkel:

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YouTube is planning to release a rival to TikTok, the hugely popular video-sharing app, by the end of the year, according to two people familiar with the matter.

YouTube is currently planning Shorts, its answer to TikTok, as a feature inside its existing mobile app. Shorts will include a feed of brief videos posted by users inside the Google-owned app and will take advantage of the video service’s catalog of licensed music, songs from which will be available to use as soundtracks for the videos created by users, said the people. The move represents the most serious effort yet by a Silicon Valley tech company to combat the rise of TikTok, a rare example of a Chinese-owned social media app that has become a global hit.

A YouTube spokesperson declined to comment.

TikTok, owned by Beijing-based tech firm ByteDance, has catapulted into pop culture over the past year, attracting celebrities and young people to its service. A big part of the app’s appeal is its editing tools, which let users easily sync music clips to their videos and share them to an endless, algorithmically sorted feed on the app’s main screen.

While ByteDance hasn’t disclosed TikTok’s numbers, the app saw an estimated 842 million first-time installations from the Apple and Google app stores in the 12 months ended March 31, up 15% from the comparable period that ended March 31 of last year, according to SensorTower, a mobile data research firm. By comparison, the number of new installs of more mature apps like Facebook and YouTube was 693 million and 280 million, respectively, for the 12 months ended March 31, down 4% and 2% from the comparable period that ended March 31 of last year, SensorTower estimates.

TikTok may even be getting a bump from the coronavirus pandemic as more people hunker down in their homes and turn to online sources of entertainment. In March, TikTok saw 111 million first-time installs from the mobile app stores, up 11% from February, SensorTower said.

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I’m sure this will successfully rival TikTok in the same way that Google+ successfully rivalled Facebook.
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China concealed coronavirus outbreak extent: US intelligence • Bloomberg

Nick Wadhams and Jennifer Jacobs:

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China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country, under-reporting both total cases and deaths it’s suffered from the disease, the US intelligence community concluded in a classified report to the White House, according to three US officials.

The officials asked not to be identified because the report is secret and declined to detail its contents. But the thrust, they said, is that China’s public reporting on cases and deaths is intentionally incomplete. Two of the officials said the report concludes that China’s numbers are fake.

The report was received by the White House last week, one of the officials said.

«

That’s it. That’s all there is to this story – all the rest of it is publicly available stuff. We don’t get by how much China is reckoned to have undercounted the number of cases or deaths, whether it affects any of the calculations, whether it affected the decisions in the past two days (almost certainly not; those rely on the Imperial College modelling).

Bloomberg, let’s not forget, is the news source which was also tipped off by “US intelligence sources” about “tiny chips that China is inserting into servers used by Amazon, Apple and others”. That story (by different writers) has never, ever been confirmed, indirectly or otherwise.

For a news organisation that is so determined to use circumlocutions like “people not authorised to talk about the matter” – hell, just say “anonymous sources” and get it over with – Bloomberg seems very happy to carry water for the US’s propaganda efforts, which is what this amounts to, absent more information about the contents of the study.

And it’s not just the writers. What sort of editor approves a non-story like this? Estimates about underreporting from China have been floating around for months. This isn’t news just because some spook types are trying to produce a diversion.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1277: Zoom get clobbered (but doesn’t care), consumers doubt personal data benefit, Apple buys Dark Sky, Covid-19 forecasts by US state, and more


what sort of SF novel are we really living through? The author of ‘Arrival’ can explain. CC-licensed photo by Patricia Wong on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ted Chiang explains the disaster novel we all suddenly live in • Electric Literature

Halimah Marcus interviews science fiction writer Chiang, whose short story became the film Arrival:

»

HM: Do you see aspects of science fiction (your own work or others) in the coronavirus pandemic? In how it is being handled, or how it has spread?

TC: While there has been plenty of fiction written about pandemics, I think the biggest difference between those scenarios and our reality is how poorly our government has handled it. If your goal is to dramatize the threat posed by an unknown virus, there’s no advantage in depicting the officials responding as incompetent, because that minimizes the threat; it leads the reader to conclude that the virus wouldn’t be dangerous if competent people were on the job. A pandemic story like that would be similar to what’s known as an “idiot plot,” a plot that would be resolved very quickly if your protagonist weren’t an idiot. What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire.

What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire.

HM: This pandemic isn’t science fiction, but it does feel like a dystopia. How can we understand the coronavirus as a cautionary tale? How can we combat our own personal inclinations toward the good/evil narrative, and the subsequent expectation that everything will return to normal?

TC: We need to be specific about what we mean when we talk about things returning to normal. We all want not to be quarantined, to be able to go to work and socialize and travel. But we don’t want everything to go back to business as usual, because business as usual is what led us to this crisis. COVID-19 has demonstrated how much we need federally mandated paid sick leave and universal health care, so we don’t want to return to a status quo that lacks those things. The current administration’s response ought to serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of electing demagogues instead of real leaders, although there’s no guarantee that voters will heed it. We’re at a point where things could go in some very different ways, depending on what we learn from this experience.

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Zoom meetings aren’t end-to-end encrypted, despite misleading marketing • The Intercept

Micah Lee and Yael Grauer:

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In Zoom’s white paper, there is a list of “pre-meeting security capabilities” that are available to the meeting host that starts with “Enable an end-to-end (E2E) encrypted meeting.” Later in the white paper, it lists “Secure a meeting with E2E encryption” as an “in-meeting security capability” that’s available to meeting hosts. When a host starts a meeting with the “Require Encryption for 3rd Party Endpoints” setting enabled, participants see a green padlock that says, “Zoom is using an end to end encrypted connection” when they mouse over it.

But when reached for comment about whether video meetings are actually end-to-end encrypted, a Zoom spokesperson wrote, “Currently, it is not possible to enable E2E encryption for Zoom video meetings. Zoom video meetings use a combination of TCP and UDP. TCP connections are made using TLS and UDP connections are encrypted with AES using a key negotiated over a TLS connection.”

The encryption that Zoom uses to protect meetings is TLS, the same technology that web servers use to secure HTTPS websites. This means that the connection between the Zoom app running on a user’s computer or phone and Zoom’s server is encrypted in the same way the connection between your web browser and this article (on https://theintercept.com) is encrypted. This is known as transport encryption, which is different from end-to-end encryption because the Zoom service itself can access the unencrypted video and audio content of Zoom meetings. So when you have a Zoom meeting, the video and audio content will stay private from anyone spying on your Wi-Fi, but it won’t stay private from the company.

«

Everyone is crawling over Zoom in a way it never would have expected; years of technical debt are being exposed in days.
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Zoom is leaking peoples’ email addresses and photos to strangers • VICE

Joseph Cox:

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The issue lies in Zoom’s “Company Directory” setting, which automatically adds other people to a user’s lists of contacts if they signed up with an email address that shares the same domain. This can make it easier to find a specific colleague to call when the domain belongs to an individual company. But multiple Zoom users say they signed up with personal email addresses, and Zoom pooled them together with thousands of other people as if they all worked for the same company, exposing their personal information to one another.

“I was shocked by this! I subscribed (with an alias, fortunately) and I saw 995 people unknown to me with their names, images and mail addresses.” Barend Gehrels, a Zoom user impacted by the issue and who flagged it to Motherboard, wrote in an email.

Gehrels provided a redacted screenshot of him logged into Zoom with the nearly 1000 different accounts listed in the “Company Directory” section. He said these were “all people I don’t know of course.” He said his partner had the same issue with another email provider, and had over 300 people listed in her own contacts.

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Zoom is basically getting publicly red-teamed (attacked by hackers trying to break into every aspect of it). Mistakes like this though make you wonder how it can have pretended to be an enterprise offering.
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Zoom videoconferencing is very popular. It has bigger plans • Protocol

David Pierce with an oh-my-god-how-timely piece (which must have been researched just before everything got locked down):

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As the company got ready for its IPO roadshow last year, [cofounder Eric] Yuan made a decision: He wasn’t going on the roadshow. (Yuan said this, too, was hairier than it seems in retrospect: “Not only did I scare people, I even scared our board of directors.”) He did most of his investor meetings through Zoom, bringing in other employees to do virtual demos and betting the product would work well enough to convince the bankers. It did. Though it probably also helped Zoom’s case that it was the rare tech company that was both growing fast and already profitable.

Fast-forward a few months — more growth, rising stock — and here we are. There have been a few blips along the way, like last spring, when a security researcher found an issue in Zoom’s Mac app that would let any website add a user to a Zoom call and activate their camera without permission. The problem even affected users who had uninstalled Zoom from their computer, forcing Apple to release a patch to fix it. It was a core test of Zoom’s relentless focus on simplicity — the same feature that made it possible to click a link and suddenly be in a conference also made the system penetrable. Ultimately, Zoom tweaked the way it handled permissions and uninstalls going forward. And then kept growing.

Right now, Zoom is big, it’s profitable, and it’s growing like crazy. It cracked Okta’s list of the 15 most-used business tools in 2019, while also being one of the fastest-growing. According to one estimate, the company added more users in the first two months of 2020 than in all of 2019. In early March, it reported 61% more business customers than the year prior, with revenue up 88% year-over-year. More than 10 million people join a Zoom meeting every day. And, of course, the coronavirus bump has been significant: CFO Kelly Steckelberg recently told Yahoo Finance that at the end of January, Zoom was headed for 100 billion annual meeting minutes, “and that’s up pretty significantly since then.” For the last several days, it’s supplanted TikTok as the #1 free app in the iOS App Store.

«

The challenge will be whether it wants to be business-facing or consumer-facing. They bring different demands: businesses want true security. Consumers aren’t that bothered; they like ease of use.
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Consumers don’t believe use of personal data leads to more relevant ads, report finds • Campaign US

Michael Heusner:

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While the use of consumer data is a widespread advertising and marketing tactic, the majority of people are still not okay with it and don’t believe it benefits them, according to a new GroupM report. 

The survey of nearly 14,000 middle income consumers in 23 countries found 61% of consumers are less inclined to use a product if their personal data is used for any purpose, while 56% of consumers want more control over their data.

“It is a staple of the advertising industry to claim that data collection benefits consumers because they are shown ads of greater relevance to them. In our study, only 18% of consumers believe that,” said Chris Myers, regional director, GroupM APAC.

But consumers are not powerless in this scenario. Many consumers are actively changing what they don’t like by adjusting privacy settings, deleting cookies and browser histories, and using extensions to mask their data.

Interestingly, the percentage of those who were okay with their data being used varied from as low as 38% in Indonesia to 75% in New Zealand, indicating a lack of uniformity on the issue across the world.

«

I’m sure all the adtech companies will listen to this finding very, very carefully.
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What’s the smallest country that can fit everyone standing six feet apart? • Shrey Banga’s Blog

»

Today’s xkcd got me wondering how much land would we need if everyone stood six feet apart.

Methodology: We are all but spherical cows

If we want everyone to keep a minimum distance of r from each other, the problem boils down to efficiently packing n circles of radius r in the smallest area possible.

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Have a guess. We’re talking about 7.77 billion people. (Clue: the most suitable two countries are both in Europe.) This is of course an update of British SF writer John Brunner’s postulation in 1968 that by 2010 the world population, then 3.5bn, would have grown to 7bn – he was correct, of course – and that you could fit them in standing-room-only fashion on Zanzibar.
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Kenyans spending most of their money on airtime • Kenya News Broadcast Service

Dominic Omondi:

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Airtime is now the single item that takes up the most income for Kenyans.

This is after the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) reviewed its Consumer Price Index (CPI).

After the review of the basket of goods and services used to compile CPI, KNBS gave airtime a weight of 5.496, the largest of any single consumer product.

Kenyans are putting more of their money in airtime than even rent, which had the heaviest weight three years ago from 2019. Kenyans, according to the review, are also spending more on airtime than on health or education.

Matatu fares and rent for a single room are the second and third consumer items respectively. Other expensive items that take a lot of money include white bread, milk, and beef with bones…

…Today, airtime is a need that most Kenyans can’t do without. Bitange Ndemo, a former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of ICT and currently a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, in an earlier interview, said airtime was no longer a luxury.

If anything, he observed, it was a matter of “life and death” for some individuals. “Airtime is so critical,” says Prof Ndemo. “Some people are using the airtime to call so they can find a kibarua (menial work).”

Between July 2016 and June last year, Kenyans spent a total of 75 billion minutes talking on their mobile phones, or 143,086 years. They sent a total of 55.2 billion SMSs during this period, according to the Communications Authority of Kenya.

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Dark Sky has a new home • Dark Sky

Adam Grossman:

»

What happens to our existing products?

iOS App: There will be no changes to Dark Sky for iOS at this time. It will continue to be available for purchase in the App Store.

Android and Wear OS App: The app will no longer be available for download. Service to existing users and subscribers will continue until July 1, 2020, at which point the app will be shut down. Subscribers who are still active at that time will receive a refund.

Website: Weather forecasts, maps, and embeds will continue until July 1, 2020. The website will remain active beyond that time in support of API and iOS App customers.

API: Our API service for existing customers is not changing today, but we will no longer accept new signups. The API will continue to function through the end of 2021.

«

Started, I believe, as a two-person $35,000 Kickstarter in October 2011. Always been terrific. There’s lots of chest-beating (especially among Android users) because lots of apps, on iOS and Android, use the API. They’ve got another 18 months, though, and there are other sources of weather data. It’s not clear whether Apple will make the data available after 2021; I’d guess not. Best guess, it gets rolled into iOS and Siri.

This does look like a late-stage consolidation: Apple and Google and smartphone OEMs (to a lesser extent) will try to buy up firms that make their platforms or products stand out.
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The long-term impacts of the pandemic on consumer purchasing preferences • Strategy Analytics

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The pandemic will have long-term impacts on what consumers want to purchase as well as how they purchase them. In addition to the inevitable increased use of delivery services for grocery and food, alternative shopping experiences such as Amazon Go’s contactless shopping experience – where consumers do not have to proceed through a checkout experience – will also see a boost in popularity.

For consumer electronics, where some devices such as smartphones are typically sold more on ‘in-hand’ experience, this pandemic presents a more challenging situation as consumers’ are less inclined to handle in-store displays.

Focus needs to shift to alternative ways of showcasing products. Previous Strategy Analytics research has shown that try-before-you-buy is a key use case for foldable phones and augmented reality. Consumers will need to be able to experience products and services outside the store as much as possible.

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Notable how Apple now lets you view its new products using augmented reality: could be an accidental must-have in the coming years.
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COVID-19: forecasts for the US and state-by-state • Healthdata.org

»

The charts below show projected hospital resource use based on COVID-19 deaths.

The projections assume the continuation of strong social distancing measures and other protective measures.

To view the methods used to produce the projections click here.

«

Visualisation and data collection by the University of Washington: currently forecasts a midrange of 84,000 deaths, with a range from 32,000 to 150,000.

A graphic showing how the 50 states’ trajectories will go would be good to see, but hard to produce, I guess.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1276: Twitter deletes Bolsonaro falsehoods, how the virus got here (and what we should do next), the coming car loan collapse, and more


We have not one but two stories about magnets – from poles apart. CC-licensed photo by John Keogh on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Before you recuperate, do you cuperate? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Twitter deleted two tweets from Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro for spreading coronavirus misinformation • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Broderick:

»

On Sunday, Twitter deleted two tweets by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro because they contained false or misleading information about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Twitter recently announced the expansion of its rules to cover content that could be against public health information provided by official sources and could put people at greater risk of transmitting COVID-19,” a spokesperson for the platform told BuzzFeed News.

The deleted tweets now redirect to Twitter’s rules and policies page.

According to Brazilian newspaper Folha, the deletions were the first time the site has taken action against content posted by Bolsonaro, first elected in October 2018.

It’s not the first time that the site has used its coronavirus policy to delete a post by a sitting head of state, which Twitter provides a wider latitude than for most users. Last week, the site deleted a post by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for promoting a “natural brew” to cure COVID-19.

In the tweets, Bosolonaro posted videos of himself taken during a walking tour in Brasília on Sunday, in which the president praised the use of anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine for treating the virus and encouraged an end to social distancing and isolation measures in the country.

«

Twitter has essentially repurposed its rule against self-harm (ie teenage girls being encouraged to cut themselves) to encompass Covid-19, because it can kill you – its confirmed lethality age range now goes from infant to centenarian. Encouraging “coronavirus parties”, suggesting “cures” – all get deleted when found.

Trump’s social media team is probably too smart to fall foul of this, but it could be quite the impasse if they trip up.
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This fingerprint-verified smart lock can be foiled by a magnet • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

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Tapplock, a company that makes fingerprint-verified locks, has had a rough time with its locks’ security. The company’s flagship lock, which has been available since 2019, is apparently easy to pop open with a magnet. YouTuber LockPickingLawyer published a video last week showing how he could use a powerful magnet to turn the motor inside the Tapplock One Plus, causing it to open. The entire process takes less than 30 seconds.

The Tapplock One Plus costs $99 and features a fingerprint sensor. It also has built-in Bluetooth, so people can unlock it using an app. In response to the video, Tapplock commented: “Wow! Shout out to LPL for finding this exploit. Working on a fix with magnetic shielding, will be back.”

This is a commendable reply, although it doesn’t do much for people who already bought the lock. Most companies ignore bug reports or fail to fix the flaw. It at least seems like Tapplock wants to figure out how to prevent this kind of attack.

«

It’s a version of the “Security” XKCD, really. Hang on to the magnet – we’ll have a use for it further down the page.
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Covid-19 is nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilisation • The Guardian

George Monbiot:

»

Even today, when the world has a total food surplus, hundreds of millions are malnourished as a result of the unequal distribution of wealth and power. A food deficit could result in billions starving. Hoarding will happen, as it always has, at the global level, as powerful people snatch food from the mouths of the poor. Yet, even if every nation keeps its promises under the Paris agreement, which currently seems unlikely, global heating will amount to between 3C and 4C.

Thanks to our illusion of security, we are doing almost nothing to anticipate this catastrophe, let alone prevent it. This existential issue scarcely seems to impinge on our consciousness. Every food-producing sector claims that its own current practices are sustainable and don’t need to change. When I challenge them, I’m met with a barrage of anger and abuse, and threats of the kind I haven’t experienced since I opposed the Iraq war…

…In the US, where 27 million people have no medical cover, some people are now treating themselves with veterinary antibiotics, including those sold, without prescription, to medicate pet fish. Pharmaceutical companies are failing to invest sufficiently in the search for new drugs. If antibiotics cease to be effective, surgery becomes almost impossible. Childbirth becomes a mortal hazard once more. Chemotherapy can no longer be safely practised. Infectious diseases we have comfortably forgotten become deadly threats. We should discuss this issue as often as we talk about football. But again, it scarcely registers.

Our multiple crises, of which these are just two, have a common root. The problem is exemplified by the response of the organisers of the Bath Half Marathon, a massive event that took place on 15 March, to the many people begging them to cancel. “It is now too late for us to cancel or postpone the event. The venue is built, the infrastructure is in place, the site and our contractors are ready.” In other words, the sunk costs of the event were judged to outweigh any future impacts – the potential transmission of disease, and possible deaths – it might cause.

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It takes a whole world to create a new virus, not just China • The Guardian

Laura Spinney:

»

you have to understand the forces putting those viruses in our path. They are political and economic. They have to do with the rise of industrial-scale farming concerns in China and the resulting marginalisation of millions of smallholder farmers. In order to survive, those farmers have moved into the production of more exotic species – animals that were once eaten only for subsistence. But the bigger operations have pushed the farmers out geographically too, as they have taken up more prime farming land. The smallholders have been forced closer to uncultivable zones such as forests, where bats – reservoirs for coronaviruses – lurk. The stars have aligned, and not in a good way, to channel bat viruses through intermediate mammalian hosts such as pangolins, and into humans.

Even so, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, the problem could still be regarded as uniquely Chinese. But there are two reasons why that’s not true. First, with the opening up of China, its agribusiness has ceased to be wholly Chinese-owned. It is a big recipient of foreign direct investment. Second, as the American pandemic expert, David Morens, and his colleagues pointed out last month in the New England Journal of Medicine, we’ve been watching a similar drama unfold over a much longer timescale with influenza – the disease that has caused more pandemics in the history of humanity than any other.

Flu viruses that infect animals, including poultry and pigs, have periodically spilled over into humans ever since we domesticated those animals millennia ago. But the factory farms that produce our food today ratchet up the virulence of those flu viruses just before they spill over. This ratcheting up has been documented in Europe, Australia and the US more than it has in poor or emerging economies, and it’s what gave rise to the last flu pandemic in 2009.

«

Spinney wrote a book about the 1918 Flu Pandemic, which came out last year; she spent a lot of time promoting it, pointing out the risks we were still running to radio and TV hosts who were frequently just that bit too disbelieving that anything like that could happen again. After all, look how much better our medicine is now! Look at how modern our equipment is! The ancient Greeks called it hubris.
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Facebook’s fact checkers fight surge in fake coronavirus claims • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:

»

There is no coronavirus vaccine available for dogs being withheld from humans.

It isn’t necessary to close your windows because military helicopters will start spraying disinfectant.

And baby-formula manufacturers aren’t sending freebies to people who call their customer hotlines.

These are among the viral social-media memes debunked by Lead Stories, a fact-checking site co-founded by Los Angeles entrepreneur Alan Duke…

The former CNN producer’s company, Lead Stories, helps Facebook and other social-media platforms limit the spread of virus-related misinformation by flagging it as false. Business is booming, thanks to a surge of posts that are both dangerous and harder to track than many other forms of what is known as fake news.

The claims that Lead Stories debunks are then labeled as false on Facebook, which limits their spread and links to Lead Stories’ reviews. A staffer combs the platform looking to identify and label duplicates that spring up.

Already ramping up with funding from Facebook to combat misinformation in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Mr. Duke and others in the industry have pivoted to coronavirus almost full-time.

“We’ve maxxed out all our goals for the month,” he said halfway through March, referring to the company’s contractual targets for Facebook fact-check volumes. Lead Stories continues to review Facebook and Instagram content, and review material from Twitter, YouTube and other platforms that don’t pay it, posting fact checks to its own site. Since its first coronavirus fact check in mid-January, Lead Stories has fact checked more than 200 viral coronavirus claims.

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But – let’s be clear – not removed it. Claims like that can be utterly untrue, but Facebook won’t remove them.
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Australian astrophysicist gets magnets stuck up nose while inventing coronavirus device • The Guardian

Naaman Zhou:

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The 27 year-old astrophysicist, who studies pulsars and gravitational waves, said he was trying to liven up the boredom of self-isolation with the four powerful neodymium magnets.

“I have some electronic equipment but really no experience or expertise in building circuits or things,” he told Guardian Australia.

“I had a part that detects magnetic fields. I thought that if I built a circuit that could detect the magnetic field, and we wore magnets on our wrists, then it could set off an alarm if you brought it too close to your face. A bit of boredom in isolation made me think of that.”

However, the academic realised the electronic part he had did the opposite – and would only complete a circuit when there was no magnetic field present.

“I accidentally invented a necklace that buzzes continuously unless you move your hand close to your face,” he said.

“After scrapping that idea, I was still a bit bored, playing with the magnets. It’s the same logic as clipping pegs to your ears – I clipped them to my earlobes and then clipped them to my nostril and things went downhill pretty quickly when I clipped the magnets to my other nostril.”

Reardon said he placed two magnets inside his nostrils, and two on the outside. When he removed the magnets from the outside of his nose, the two inside stuck together. Unfortunately, the researcher then attempted to use his remaining magnets to remove them.

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Can’t put it any better than this tweet from Nik Knight: “Turns out the Venn diagram of things 5 year-olds do when they are bored and things astrophysicists do when they are bored is a circle.”
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Trump won the internet. Democrats are scrambling to take it back • The New York Times

Jim Rutenberg and Matthew Rosenberg:

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In the three years since Hillary Clinton’s humiliating 2016 defeat, the Democrats have been urgently scrambling to reorder the digital equation, an all-hands-on-deck effort that has drawn a range of new donors, progressive activists and operatives together with veterans of the tech-forward Obama campaigns and the old-line contributors and party regulars of the Bill Clinton era.

So far, the Democrats and their allies have produced new apps to organize volunteers and register voters, new media outlets to pump out anti-Trump content and a major new data initiative to drive what the party hopes will be the biggest voter-mobilization effort in its history.

But while Mr. Trump and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, have brought conservatives together to build a technological juggernaut for 2020, the Democratic effort has been slowed by the party’s deep-rooted rivalries and divisions.

It has been marked by tension between longtime strategists and party officials, who believe the party need not reinvent the wheel, and moneyed Silicon Valley newcomers who speak of “innovation cycles,” “risk capital” and “disruption” and view the old guard as financially invested in a losing model.

There is lingering resentment over who is at fault for the party’s sorry digital state — whether former President Barack Obama left behind an aging and insufficient party infrastructure as his priorities shifted to his own legacy, or Mrs. Clinton failed to continue the party’s trend of innovation. For their part, many of Senator Bernie Sanders’s adherents are loath to play with what they deride as “the establishment.”

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The Democrats have three problems: Biden is from the stone age, Sanders’s supporters are irrationally willing to run a scorched-earth campaign, and they have no message besides not being Trump (though that’s a pretty big message for some people). Their advantages: Trump is killing his own voters in Michigan and Florida. Let’s see how that plays out.
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February 2020: global smartphone sales show resilience with a 14% decline • Counterpoint Research

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As COVID-19, unfortunately, spreads like wildfire around the globe, its impact on the technology industry is unprecedented. The global February smartphone sales, as a result, showed weakness, but the decline was no more than 14% lower than February 2019; not as bad as the industry had feared.

However China, the initial epicenter of the epidemic, did show a huge 38% decline, but is showing signs of a rebound already. Overall, global smartphone sales in February showed weakness in many markets as consumers became cautious. But with the growth of online channels, we saw sales shifting from offline to online. Offline sales in China fell more than 50% during February. But this fall was partially offset with stronger online sales, so the overall drop at 38%, was not so severe.

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This is a counterpoint (ahem) to the Strategy Analytics announcement a week ago that global shipments had fallen by 38%; Counterpoint thinks it’s not so bad. March however will surely plumb a new low for smartphones, even though laptops and tablets may well have rocketed – those home offices and schools don’t equip themselves.
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Loan defaults on car PCPs threaten £110bn finance sector • The Times

Robert Lea:

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The extent of buying on the never-never through financial products such as personal contract purchase plans (PCPs) has been described as a ticking time bomb and has already come under scrutiny by the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority.

With vast numbers being laid off or furloughed on lower pay, motor finance lenders are scrabbling to offer payment holidays or contract extensions. The motor trade fears that among the seven million who have borrowed to acquire a car in the past three years, many will have to return the keys. That in turn could decrease the residual value of vehicles and leave motorists and finance companies out of pocket.

Car finance is the second largest lending market after mortgage borrowing with vehicles typically the next biggest monthly outgoing for households after accommodation costs. More than nine in ten of all new cars sold in Britain are on some form of financing with the dominant model being PCPs.

In a PCP the motorist pays an upfront amount (usually 10% of the value of the car) and then makes payments typically over three years. At the end of the period, the driver either hands back the keys, makes a “balloon payment” to take ownership or, as the car dealers prefer, trades in to a new model and restarts on another three-year process.

In the past three years, motorists took out nearly £58bn of finance to buy cars, 80% of it through PCPs. According to the Finance and Leasing Association, a further £51.5bn was made available for purchases.

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As the Sage of Omaha said, it’s only when the tide goes out that you know who’s been swimming naked.
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The coronavirus crisis and the Trump o’clock follies • The New Yorker

Susan B. Glasser:

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Even more striking were the results of a CBS/YouGov poll, released this week, in which respondents were asked what sources of information about the coronavirus they found most credible. Democrats rated medical professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention most highly. Trump came in last among this group, at fourteen%. But, for Republicans, Trump came in at the top, with ninety% saying that they trusted the President’s information about the coronavirus, making him tied for first place with medical professionals. The poll shows that, even when their own lives are literally at stake, a significant subset of the American population no longer believes in almost anything other than the President.

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And those lives are being lost and endangered: in Florida, at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, by people who think it’s a media hoax.

It’s a brutal sorting by reality of people who refuse to engage with it.
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Total cost of her COVID-19 treatment: $34,927.43 • Time

Abigail Abrams:

»

hen Danni Askini started feeling chest pain, shortness of breath and a migraine all at once on a Saturday in late February, she called the oncologist who had been treating her lymphoma. Her doctor thought she might be reacting poorly to a new medication, so she sent Askini to a Boston-area emergency room. There, doctors told her it was likely pneumonia and sent her home.

Over the next several days, Askini saw her temperature spike and drop dangerously, and she developed a cough that gurgled because of all the liquid in her lungs. After two more trips to the ER that week, Askini was given a final test on the seventh day of her illness, and once doctors helped manage her flu and pneumonia symptoms, they again sent her home to recover. She waited another three days for a lab to process her test, and at last she had a diagnosis: COVID-19.

A few days later, Askini got the bills for her testing and treatment: $34,927.43. “I was pretty sticker-shocked,” she says. “I personally don’t know anybody who has that kind of money.”

Like 27 million other Americans, Askini was uninsured when she first entered the hospital. She and her husband had been planning to move to Washington, D.C. this month so she could take a new job, but she hadn’t started yet. Now that those plans are on hold, Askini applied for Medicaid and is hoping the program will retroactively cover her bills. If not, she’ll be on the hook.

«

I think this could be one of those “you owe the bank a million pounds, you have a problem; you owe the bank a billion dollars, the bank has a problem” things. If enough people get these bills and can’t pay them, there will be a reckoning: I expect people will band together and challenge these bills.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1275: what the Imperial studies really say, how to survive the next year, RIP Playboy, Zoom stops sneaking to Facebook, and more


Want to know how he felt? Plenty of webcams can do that for you now. CC-licensed (but maybe copyrighted) photo by James Vaughan on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. From the discomfort of my bed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The social media archetypes we’ve become during Covid-19 quarantine • Forge

Kelli María Korducki:

»

t’s rare that we all find ourselves going through the same crisis. Of course, the way the coronavirus pandemic is affecting us varies depending on our circumstances — things like employment, health, housing, and access to material resources. But we are pretty much all stuck inside, scared, bored, overwhelmed, and following the evolving story of a global pandemic and the economic havoc it’s wreaking. We are all extremely online right now, and you have probably noticed that some online pandemic archetypes have emerged.

They’re not just the characters we see on Twitter, Facebook, and in Zoom hangouts. If we’re being truthful, we see a lot of them within ourselves — sometimes all in the span of a single week, or day.

«

Tag yourself. I think I’m The Optimist. Special mention though to the inclusion of this one:

»

Loaf Lady: She only started baking two weeks ago but the burnished crust on her no-knead bread is unrivaled. She’s not bragging of course, but here: look at the open crumb on this slice.

«

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Let’s flatten the coronavirus confusion curve • FT Alphaville

Jemima Kelly:

»

A wave of confusion and misinformation spread rapidly across the internet on Thursday, like . . . a virus.

But you can always count on Alphaville to flatten the confusion curve; to squash the stupefaction sombrero, if you will. So here we are. 

There are currently a few strands of befuddlement, all of which we will attempt to address here. Loosely they are as follows:

• That the lead author of the influential Imperial College report on strategies to slow the spread of coronavirus, Neil Ferguson, had drastically revised his models, and had even “admitted he was wrong”.

• That the reason for this revision was that he had now realised that the number of people infected was actually far higher than he had initially thought. (The reason this link was made by some people was because of another study, by Oxford university, that suggested up to 68% of the UK’s population might already be infected; we will also briefly address those findings.) 

• That the idea that 2/3 of the people who might die from Covid-19 are people who “would die anyway” was a new idea and another reason to think that models were being revised and that maybe we have all overreacted to this. 

• That this is all going to be over by Easter.

So, we’ll take them one by one. Here goes . . . 

«

This is necessary reading: it sets out what has and hasn’t changed. It’s excellent journalism because it marshals the facts, while also being entertaining. Part of the FT’s “Someone Is Wrong On The Internet” series, which isn’t short on raw material, especially now.
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How not to lose your mind in the Covid-19 age • Tim Harford

Harford has a practical approach:

»

Get a piece of paper. Make a list of all the projects that are on your mind. David Allen, author of the cult productivity manual Getting Things Done, defines a project as “any multistep outcome that can be completed within a year”. So, yes: anything from trying to source your weekly groceries to publishing a book.

That list should have three kinds of projects on it.

First, there are the old projects that make no sense in the new world. For those that can be mothballed until next year, write them down and file them away. Others will disappear forever. Say your goodbyes. Some part of your subconscious may have been clinging on, and I’m going to guess that ten seconds of acknowledging that the project has been obliterated will save on a vague sense of unease in the long run.

Second, there are the existing projects, some of which have become more complicated in the mid-pandemic world. Things that you might previously have done on automatic may now require a little thought. Again, a few moments with a pen and paper will often tell you all you need to know: what’s changed? What do I now need to do? What, specifically, is my next action? Write it down.

Third, there are brand new projects. For me, for example, I need to rewrite the introduction to my forthcoming book (‘How To Make The World Add Up’, since you were wondering). It’s going to seem mighty strange without coronavirus references in it. Many of us need to devote more than a little attention to the sudden appearance of our children at home. Some of us need to hunt for new work; others, for a better home-office set-up. Many of us are now volunteering to look after vulnerable neighbours.  In each case, the drill is the same: sketch out the project, ask yourself what the very next step is, and write it down.

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RIP Playboy, unlikely midwestern symbol of sexual revolution • Chicago magazine

Edward McLelland:

»

Playboy magazine died last week, at age 66, of complications related to the novel coronavirus. The magazine, which last year became an ad-free quarterly costing $25, was losing $5 million a year. A relic of an era when pornography could only be found on paper, Playboy kept publishing only due to the sentimentality of its founder, Hugh Hefner, who died in 2017 at age 91. Its Spring 2020 issue will be the last before it goes online-only…

…While Hefner’s detractors would later observe that he applied a grim Protestant work ethic to amassing women, money, and art — Time magazine called him a “dour sybarite” — his middle class, Midwestern background was the source of Playboy’s mass appeal. At its peak, in the early 1970s, Playboy sold seven million copies a month.

Playboy was always middlebrow: a square’s idea of sophistication. Even when it tried to be highbrow, it was middlebrow. The magazine was notorious for publishing “second-tier fiction by first-rate writers.” If John Updike couldn’t sell a short story to The New Yorker, he could always peddle it to Playboy.

«

I think this wins the prize for the best opening sentence (“intro” in the UK, “lede” in the US) this month. Hefner originally wanted to call it “Stag Party”, but that was taken. I suppose it would have sold just as well.
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Network of fake QR code generators will steal your bitcoin • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

A network of Bitcoin-to-QR-code generators has stolen more than $45,000 from users in the past four weeks, ZDNet has learned.

The nine websites provided users with the ability to enter their Bitcoin address, a long string of text where Bitcoin funds are stored, and convert it into a QR code image they could save on their PC or smartphone.

Today, it’s a common practice to share a Bitcoin address as a QR code and request a payment from another person. The receiver scans the QR code with a Bitcoin wallet app and sends the requested payment without having to type a lengthy Bitcoin addresses by hand. By using QR codes, users eliminate the possibility of a mistype that might send funds to the wrong wallet.

Last week, Harry Denley, Director of Security at the MyCrypto platform, ran across a suspicious site that converted Bitcoin addresses into QR codes.

While many services like this exist, Denley realized that the website was malicious in nature. Instead of converting an inputted Bitcoin (BTC) address into its QR code equivalent, the website always generated the same QR code — for a scammer’s wallet.

This meant that if a user shared the QR code with someone else, or placed it on a website to request donations, all money would be sent to the scammer’s Bitcoin address.

«

Somehow it’s reassuring to know that people are continuing to climb the greasy pole of bitcoin scams in the face of everything else that’s going on.
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This is not cozy: AI attempts the Great British Bake Off • AI Weirdness

Janelle Shane:

»

’m a big fan of comforting TV, and one of my go-tos is the Great British Bake Off. It’s the cheerful clarinet-filled soundtrack, the low-stakes baking-centric tension, and the general good-natured kindness of the bakers to one another.

What better way to spread cheer and baked deliciousness than to train an algorithm to generate more images in the style of a beloved baking show?

I trained a neural net on 55,000 GBBO screenshots and the results, it turns out, were less than comforting.

What went terribly, terribly wrong?

This project was doomed from the beginning, despite using a state-of-the-art image-generating neural net called StyleGAN2. NVIDIA researchers trained StyleGAN2 on 70,000 images of human faces, and StyleGAN2 is very good at human faces – but only when that’s ALL it has to do. As we will see, when it had to do faces AND bodies AND tents AND cakes AND hands AND random squirrels, it struggled, um, noticeably.

«

Some of the images further on in the post really are very weird, but it’s the explanation of why it all went wrong that tells us how much further generative networks have to go yet.
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Update #2 on Microsoft cloud services continuity • Microsoft Azure

»

In response to health authorities emphasizing the importance of social distancing, we’ve seen usage increases in services that support these scenarios—including Microsoft Teams, Windows Virtual Desktop, and Power BI.

• We have seen a 775% increase of our cloud services in regions that have enforced social distancing or shelter in place orders.

• We have seen a very significant spike in Teams usage, and now have more than 44 million daily users. Those users generated over 900 million meeting and calling minutes on Teams daily in a single week.

• Windows Virtual Desktop usage has grown more than 3x.

• Government use of public Power BI to share COVID-19 dashboards with citizens has surged by 42% in a week.

«

I wish they’d put that 775% figure into actual numbers – as in, nearly sevenfold? Or is it nearly eightfold? Whichever, it’s very substantial, but also shows that the systems are up to the task.

In the meantime, how much busier do you think Zoom’s servers are? (And a little note: Zoom is now worth more on the stock market than all US airlines combined. Won’t last, but it’s quite the moment.)
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Public webcams show just how empty coronavirus has made our world • Android Police

Rita El Khoury:

»

The feeds that hit me the hardest were the ones from Italy (Venice and Assisi were really empty) and those from New York. I had to triple check the local time at one point, because I only saw 3 or 4 people walking around a normally busy street in New York… turns out it was half past noon. At the same time, I checked out a beachfront in Florida, which was thankfully empty. I’m hoping that’s a sign that silly Spring Breakers have stopped filling the beaches there.

As I delved deeper and deeper in the vacant streets of our world, I started wondering what those places looked like a week earlier, two, three,… When did the quarantine go into effect in each area? Were people social distancing and staying home even before the announcement was made official in their countries? So I went looking for apps that’d allow me to view a CCTV cam’s older history. I found Worldscope, which seemed awesome, until I discovered that it got all its snaps from Windy.com, and that lead me to Windy’s own app.

«

We’re all Will Smith in I Am Legend now. Or maybe Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, if you prefer originals: in the original book (called, confusingly enough, I Am Legend) humanity is struck down by a pandemic originating in bats which affects adults but to which children are immune.

There’s also a bunch of livestreams, including museum virtual tours, over at BGR.
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Zoom removes code that sends data to Facebook • VICE

Joseph Cox:

»

On Friday video-conferencing software Zoom issued an update to its iOS app which stops it sending certain pieces of data to Facebook. The move comes after a found it sent information such as when a user opened the app, their timezone, city, and device details to the social network giant.

When Motherboard analyzed the app, Zoom’s privacy policy did not make the data transfer to Facebook clear.

“Zoom takes its users’ privacy extremely seriously. We originally implemented the ‘Login with Facebook’ feature using the Facebook SDK in order to provide our users with another convenient way to access our platform. However, we were recently made aware that the Facebook SDK was collecting unnecessary device data,” Zoom told Motherboard in a statement on Friday.

An SDK, or software development kit, is a bundle of code that developers often use to help implement certain features into their own app. The use of an SDK can also have the effect of sending certain data off to third-parties, however.

“The data collected by the Facebook SDK did not include any personal user information, but rather included data about users’ devices such as the mobile OS type and version, the device time zone, device OS, device model and carrier, screen size, processor cores, and disk space,” Zoom’s statement added.

«

I think that with that dataset you could probably narrow things down pretty well. It’s not the user’s name, but near enough.

And notice that they could remove it without affecting the app functionality. In which case, why was it there to begin with?
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It doesn’t matter if anyone exists or not • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:

»

People do so much online, from work to shopping to socializing, that virtual life has colonized and become “real” life.

Yet the internet is a place where people go, and it has never ceased to be useful to think of it as one. As a place, it feels a lot like a crowded, modernist city. As it happens, that’s how some films, such as The Emoji Movie and Ralph Breaks the Internet choose to depict it: big, dense, urban expanses, which subdivide into towers and hovels representing apps, websites, and services. The global village has become a global metropolis.

There, in its crowded streets, the modernist experience recorded by Baudelaire, Gornick, and so many others breaks down. Web browsing once felt like “surfing,” to invoke another outmoded metaphor, along with the “cyberflâneur,” a very 1990s online reimagining of the 19th-century dandy. For a time, gliding across the internet in those costumes felt pleasurable. But no longer. The grimy streets of Facebook, the angry mobs of Twitter, the irritable swarm of neighbors on Nextdoor—the experience of the online crowd has long ceased to imbue energy. Mostly, it just drains it.

There are reasons for this. The delight of online life gave way to its moil, and the pleasure of online services has been eroded by their many downsides, from compulsion to autocracy. But the trouble is also partly quantitative. Even in a big, dense city like Paris or New York, there are only so many people one can encounter in Bryant Park or when alighting from the Châtelet metro stop. The physical constraints of an actual city, along with the apparatus of its built environment, put a lid on the totality of human bodies, faces, and spirits from which one might face estrangement or draw electrified energy.

«

Fascinating essay by Bogost (who is always worth reading), from the pre-lapsarian days when “crowds” were a thing.
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Kuo: Apple to launch several Macs with Arm-based processors in 2021, USB4 support coming to Macs in 2022 • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

»

Apple plans to launch several Mac notebooks and desktop computers with its own custom designed Arm-based processors in 2021, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said today in a research note obtained by MacRumors.

Kuo believes that Arm-based processors will significantly enhance the competitive advantage of the Mac lineup, allow Apple to refresh its Mac models without relying on Intel’s processor roadmap, reduce processor costs by 40% to 60%, and provide Macs with more hardware differentiation from Windows PCs.

Earlier this month, Kuo said Apple’s first Mac notebooks with Arm-based processors will launch in the fourth quarter of 2020 or the first quarter of 2021.

Kuo expects ASMedia Technology to become the exclusive supplier of USB controllers for Arm-based Macs, adding that the Taiwanese integrated circuit designer will benefit from Macs gaining support for USB4 in 2022.

USB4 converges the Thunderbolt and USB protocols as part of Intel’s goal to make Thunderbolt available on a royalty-free basis, which should result in wider and cheaper availability of Thunderbolt accessories like docks and eGPUs.

«

Wouldn’t have expected them to come later this year, given everything that’s (not) going on. Next year seems reasonable, and maybe by then we’ll have clearer ideas on how it’s going to bridge the software gap.

The fun question is: will there be RAM and processor options within each model, or do you just get what you’re given, as with iPhones and iPads? Presently, trying to pick between processors can be a huge, money-sucking pain: does it really make a difference? Will you notice the difference in five years?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1274: Facebook gets back to news, how the CDC screwed up, layoff by Zoom, drug dealing in the age of coronavirus, and more


An Intu-owned mall in the UK: unlikely to survive Covid-19. CC-licensed photo by JCDecaux Creative Solutions on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. I’m socially distant, you’re distant. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The coronavirus revives Facebook as a news powerhouse • The New York Times

Kevin Roose and Gabriel Dance:

»

As of Thursday, more than half the articles being consumed on Facebook in the United States were related to the coronavirus, according to an internal report obtained by The New York Times. Overall U.S. traffic from Facebook to other websites also increased by more than 50% last week from the week before, “almost entirely” owing to intense interest in the virus, the report said.

The report, which was posted to Facebook’s internal network by Ranjan Subramanian, a data scientist at the company, was a lengthy analysis of what it called an “unprecedented increase in the consumption of news articles on Facebook” over the past several weeks.

According to the report, more than 90% of the clicks to coronavirus content came from “Power News Consumers” and “Power News Discussers” — Facebook’s terms for users who read and comment on news stories much more frequently than the average user. The company is now considering several options for targeting those people with higher-quality information to make sure it is “being spread downstream.”

“These users are having an extraordinary impact on the coronavirus information diet of other Facebook users,” Mr. Subramanian wrote.

The report shows that Facebook is closely monitoring people’s news habits during a critical period and actively trying to steer them toward authoritative sources in what amounts to a global, real-time experiment in news distribution.

At times, Facebook itself seemed unsure which news sources users would turn to in a crisis, with Mr. Subramanian noting that “fortunately” many people were clicking on links from publishers that the company considers high-quality.

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“Fortunately”.
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One brand’s block on ads around ‘coronavirus’ is starving some news sites of revenue • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

»

Fears that its ads would appear next to news stories about the coronavirus pandemic led one major global brand to drastically reduce the number of digital ads it placed on the websites of the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and the Washington Post in March, according to internal data obtained by BuzzFeed News. In total, more than 2 million ads were blocked from appearing on these sites in the first three weeks of the month.

The data paints the first specific picture of how a broad advertiser pullout has damaged the bottom lines at news sites at the same time as readership on those sites has spiked. The data showed high ad block rates for the brand in March on dozens of global news sites, including Der Spiegel, the Guardian, Canada’s Global News, and BuzzFeed News. So far this month, the brand’s ads were blocked more than 35 million times across more than 100 news sites in 14 countries.

A source, who declined to be named for fear of professional repercussions, provided BuzzFeed News with ad placement data for a major product division within a global Fortune 50 company. The company, which cannot be named due to the risk of exposing the source, typically spends roughly $3m a month advertising its products on news and technology sites.

«

Killing the sites that it will need to advertise on in the future. Can’t be Corona beer, surely.

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A list of British and Irish institutions that might not survive coronavirus • Gizmodo UK

Holly Brockwell:

»

It’s not just human beings that might not see the other side of the covid-19 crisis. Sadly some British businesses, brands and institutions may not survive either. Here’s a list of the ones we think are potentially on thin ice.

(Note: clearly, small businesses are at much higher risk than the ones listed here, but we can’t realistically list all of those).

(Another note: if you’re going to buy from any of the websites of these businesses anytime soon, we would recommend using a credit card to get Section 75 protection (over £100), and not to spend any money you can’t potentially afford to lose if it goes belly-up.)

«

Amazingly, some of them are less than 60 years old. Can’t argue with any of them. Would love to see a similar list for the US.
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Mount Sinai to begin the transfer of Covid-19 antibodies into critically ill patients • Inside Mount Sinai

»

The Mount Sinai Health System this week plans to initiate a procedure known as plasmapheresis, where the antibodies from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 will be transferred into critically ill patients with the disease, with the expectation that the antibodies will neutralize it.

The process of using antibody-rich plasma from COVID-19 patients to help others was used successfully in China, according to a state-owned organization, which reported that some patients improved within 24 hours, with reduced inflammation and viral loads, and better oxygen levels in the blood.

Mount Sinai is collaborating with the New York Blood Center and the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center laboratory in Albany, with guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and expects to begin implementing the treatment later this week.

«

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Internal emails show how chaos at the CDC slowed the early response to coronavirus • ProPublica

Caroline Chen, Marshall Allen and Lexi Churchill:

»

The CDC’s initial response to COVID-19, particularly its failure to initiate swift, widespread testing, has drawn intense criticism.

Nonetheless, the correspondence ProPublica obtained shows that the CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield, exuded confidence in communications with others at the agency.

On Jan. 28, when the CDC had confirmed five cases of the coronavirus, all in travellers who arrived from outside the country, he emailed colleagues to acknowledge it posed “a very serious public health threat,” but he assured them “the virus is not spreading in the U.S. at this time.”

That actually may not have been the case. The CDC confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in Washington on Jan 20. Trevor Bedford, a computational epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, has said he believes that the virus could have begun circulating in the state immediately after the traveler arrived in mid-January, based on his analysis of genetic data from the initial Washington cases.

The CDC said in its statement that Redfield’s comments were based on the data available at the time. “At no time, did he underestimate the potential for COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic,” the agency’s statement said.

«

Before I saw this, I was looking up when I first linked to coronavirus stories here. The first was January 20th, with a Guardian article about what it was. The next was a day or two later, to a story about a man who had returned to the US and gone about for four days before showing symptoms and falling ill.

It’s coming to something when a science and tech journalist gets this stuff on the radar sooner than the head of the CDC.

But Redfield wasn’t even Trump’s first choice (she had to stand down because she bought tobacco stock). Clearly, he wasn’t and isn’t up to the job.
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What it feels like to be laid off on Zoom during this crisis • Protocol

Biz Carson:

»

On Tuesday morning, around 100 TripActions customer support and customer success team members dialed into a Zoom call. Many joined the call happily smiling, expecting another team meeting or bonding activity amid the new work from home culture. Instead, according to people on the call Protocol spoke with, their boss launched into a spiel about the economy and coronavirus.

Then she announced that everyone on the call was being laid off.

“People were crying and people were panicking,” said one employee who was abruptly let go on the videoconference. “It was like 100 different videos of just chaos.”

The workers on that call represent around one-third of the people TripActions laid off on Tuesday. The company confirmed it let go of nearly 300 workers, around a quarter of the total staff, with layoffs hitting customer support, recruiting and sales the hardest, according to several current and former employees Protocol spoke with…

…Though it’s not clear there’s a better way to deliver such awful news, the format caused TripActions employees pain. “Why would you get everyone on a Zoom and deliver that announcement?” the same laid-off employee said. “I’d invested so much in that place, and I feel so fucked over. That’s why it’s so frustrating. We didn’t follow any of our company values today.”

«

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Drug dealers say coronavirus is already affecting supply and demand • VICE

David Hillier:

»

with borders closing, a countrywide economic crisis, and social distancing keeping punters away from pubs and clubs, it must be a troubling time for our nation’s peddlers of party supplies. I spoke to a handful and got the skinny on drug-dealing in the age of coronavirus.

THE COKE DEALER
“At the moment everything seems great. More people are buying coke because they are in their houses, bored. They are drinking at home and they invite a friend over and one thing leads to another and it turns into a house party and they order some coke. People are stressed out, there’s nothing to do, there’s only so many movies you can watch. People want to chinwag. All it takes is one drink really and they call us up.

“I sell most of my coke in bars and clubs. One pub I sell in is still quite lively, but apparently they have to shut down soon. The football pub is deserted because there’s no football, no-one buys from there anymore.

“There hasn’t really been an impact on supplies because the drought hasn’t hit yet, but there will be one I think. Importing will be harder. I can see it happening soon. I’ll have to start watering it down or charging more. The people I buy off will do the same.” — Nev , 39, from London

«

This was published on March 20. Hillier seems to specialise in stories about drugs: he also has quote from a psychedelics dealer, an MDMA/ketamine/etc dealer, and a cannabis dealer. Probably a good bet that things have got a lot tougher since last week. Perhaps these dealers are all disguising themselves as construction workers?

Also, do dealers count as self-employed?
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Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, 6 other telcos to help EU track virus • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee:

»

Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and five other telecoms providers have agreed to share mobile phone location data with the European Commission to track the spread of the coronavirus, lobbying group GSMA said on Wednesday.

The companies, including Telefonica, Telecom Italia , Telenor, Telia and A1 Telekom Austria met with EU industry chief Thierry Breton on Monday.

Worries about governments’ use of technology to monitor those in quarantine and track infections have intensified in recent weeks over possible privacy violations, with some raising the spectre of state surveillance.

The Commission will use anonymised data to protect privacy and aggregate mobile phone location data to coordinate measures tracking the spread of the virus, an EU official said.

To further assuage privacy concerns, the data will be deleted once the crisis is over, the official said, adding that the EU plan is not about centralising mobile data nor about policing people.

While anonymised data falls outside the scope of EU data protection laws, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) said the project does not breach privacy rules as long as there are safeguards.

«

This is quickly going to become a default; going out in public without a smartphone (or a phone; in Taiwan the tracking is done by mobile mast triangulation, and that’s probably the case here) will become an act of rebellion.
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Redmi reveals how much power 5G consumes over 4G • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:

»

Most 5G phones offer big batteries owing to the increased power consumption of early 5G modems and connectivity. But just how much more power does a 5G phone need over a 4G device?

Redmi general manager Lu Weibing has taken to Weibo to answer this question, claiming that 5G phones consume ~20% more power than a 4G phone. This suggests that a 20% increase in battery size is needed for a 5G phone to achieve the same endurance as a 4G variant (assuming everything else is equal).

«

Or that you’ll want an option to turn off 5G, which will give you a ton more battery life (or perhaps the same as you had before). Still unpersuaded that 5G will make any difference to our mobile lives for the next couple of years; the battery burnt on them will be wasted.
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Snopes on COVID-19 fact-checking • Snopes

Team Snopes (which fact-checks stuff):

»

in addition to encouraging social distancing (we were already a 100% remote work company), Snopes has:

• Rolled out several new policies allowing all employees to take the time they need to care for themselves and their family — all paid, and without impacting their accumulated time-off.

• Distributed unconditional cash bonuses of $750.00 to help our employees defray some immediate costs they face amid this public crisis.

• Begun scaling back routine content production and special projects, focusing our efforts only where we think we can have significant impact given our strained resources (e.g., we are temporarily reducing our Daily Debunker newsletter delivery schedule from six to two days per week).

We recognize there has never been a greater need for the service our fact-checkers provide, so publishing less may seem counterintuitive. But exhausting our staff in this crisis is not the cure for what is ailing our industry.

We don’t have all the answers right now, but we do know we need everyone’s help. Here’s where you can begin:

• Please: Keep checking with CDC or WHO for the latest guidance on how to protect yourself during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell your friends to do the same.

• Support Snopes directly as a Founding Member. The greater the resources we have, the more fact-checkers we can hire. Many fact-checkers have similar programs.

• Get the word out that we need help. Alert advertisers, lenders, investors, influencers, and anyone else you know that Snopes and other fact-checkers need support. If you can help support our mission, contact us immediately.

«

As you might expect, Snopes is overwhelmed with the load of utter rubbish that’s being passed around.
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How will the coronavirus end? • The Atlantic

Ed Yong:

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The world is experienced at making flu vaccines and does so every year. But there are no existing vaccines for coronaviruses—until now, these viruses seemed to cause diseases that were mild or rare—so researchers must start from scratch. The first steps have been impressively quick. Last Monday, a possible vaccine created by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health went into early clinical testing. That marks a 63-day gap between scientists sequencing the virus’s genes for the first time and doctors injecting a vaccine candidate into a person’s arm. “It’s overwhelmingly the world record,” Fauci said.

But it’s also the fastest step among many subsequent slow ones. The initial trial will simply tell researchers if the vaccine seems safe, and if it can actually mobilize the immune system. Researchers will then need to check that it actually prevents infection from SARS-CoV-2. They’ll need to do animal tests and large-scale trials to ensure that the vaccine doesn’t cause severe side effects. They’ll need to work out what dose is required, how many shots people need, if the vaccine works in elderly people, and if it requires other chemicals to boost its effectiveness.

“Even if it works, they don’t have an easy way to manufacture it at a massive scale,” said Seth Berkley of Gavi. That’s because Moderna is using a new approach to vaccination. Existing vaccines work by providing the body with inactivated or fragmented viruses, allowing the immune system to prep its defenses ahead of time. By contrast, Moderna’s vaccine comprises a sliver of SARS-CoV-2’s genetic material—its RNA. The idea is that the body can use this sliver to build its own viral fragments, which would then form the basis of the immune system’s preparations. This approach works in animals, but is unproven in humans. By contrast, French scientists are trying to modify the existing measles vaccine using fragments of the new coronavirus. “The advantage of that is that if we needed hundreds of doses tomorrow, a lot of plants in the world know how to do it,” Berkley said. No matter which strategy is faster, Berkley and others estimate that it will take 12 to 18 months to develop a proven vaccine, and then longer still to make it, ship it, and inject it into people’s arms.

It’s likely, then, that the new coronavirus will be a lingering part of American life for at least a year, if not much longer.

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Thorough piece (which also points out why even hiding all the over-70s won’t work).
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