Start Up No.1269: the pandemic plan Trump’s team ignored, UK gov tracking Londoners, Netflix degrades to ease the load, nobody’s eating out, and more


Those fitness measurements are going to start feeling a lot more annoying as social isolation bites. CC-licensed photo by Forth With Life 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. “We are in a race between education and catastrophe”, as HG Wells said. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Coronavirus outbreak: a cascade of warnings, heard but unheeded • The New York Times

David Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan and Michael Crowley:

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The outbreak of the respiratory virus began in China and was quickly spread around the world by air travelers, who ran high fevers. In the United States, it was first detected in Chicago, and 47 days later, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By then it was too late: 110 million Americans were expected to become ill, leading to 7.7 million hospitalized and 586,000 dead.

That scenario, code-named “Crimson Contagion,” was simulated by the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services in a series of exercises that ran from last January to August.

The simulation’s sobering results — contained in a draft report dated October 2019 that has not previously been reported — drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.
The draft report, marked “not to be disclosed,” laid out in stark detail repeated cases of “confusion” in the exercise. Federal agencies jockeyed over who was in charge. State officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and states went their own ways on school closings.

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The story makes clear that those at the lower levels had done the exercise multiple times, and knew what to do; but that message wasn’t allowed to permeate up. When you’re only allowed to pass good news up, the organisation becomes fragile.
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UK government using mobile location data to tackle outbreak • Sky News

Alexander Martin:

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The government is working with mobile network O2 to analyse anonymous smartphone location data to see whether people are following its social distancing guidelines, Sky News has learned.

The partnership began following a tech summit at Number 10, where officials discussed coronavirus outbreak planning with representatives from the UK’s largest phone networks.

A spokesperson for O2 confirmed that the company was providing aggregated data to the government so it could observe trends in public movements, particularly in London.

The project will not be able to track individuals and is not designed to do so…

…Network operators are able to determine the location of individual phones to varying levels of accuracy, and most have tools which would show mobile devices as single dots on a map.

This is not the level of access the government is seeking.

In order to comply with data protection law, which considers combining multiple datasets a “high risk” activity, the government has only asked O2 for its location data, rather than asking all the UK mobile networks.

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Legal, but a slippery slope.
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Hey fitness apps, stop shaming us while we social distance • Gizmodo

Victoria Song:

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App notifications can be helpful reminders to keep moving and maintain your fitness routine—in normal times. These are not normal times.

The hourly alerts my smartwatch sends me to get up and walk around were annoying before social distancing was a thing. Now they’re driving me insane. Is it because these notifications are a clear reminder my gadgets and apps have no idea Covid-19 is taking the world by storm? Or is it the indignity that comes with an app shaming me for doing the responsible thing and staying indoors? Maybe I’m just upset that these notifications keep jolting me back to the reality of this godawful timeline.

For what it’s worth, experts have said you can still go outside to exercise, provided you stay six feet away from other humans and avoid touching your face. Walks and runs have kept me sane as I spent most of my day sequestered in a 550-square-foot studio apartment with my partner and our two pets. But you know what I don’t need? A notification from my Apple Watch telling me that usually my activity rings are much further along by now. Yeah, I know. But even as I rationalize I’m not a Bad Person for continuing to run outside four times a week, it sucks to be reminded that I’m limited to an hour or so a day of stretching my legs…

…A quick poll of my coworkers revealed that I am not alone in my fitness app-induced anxiety. Strava has apparently bugged one coworker to start an activity. No, YOU start an activity, Strava. We are currently chained to our keyboards producing content and social distancing. The Samsung Health app shamed another coworker, while several noted their Apple Watches have chided them over unclosed rings.

I know I can turn all these notifications off. I’ll probably get around to it at some point. But in the meantime, we could all probably use a cathartic, collective venting session.

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Apple finally admits Microsoft was right about tablets • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Apple has spent the past 10 years trying to convince everyone that the iPad and its vision of touch-friendly computing is the future. The iPad rejected the idea of a keyboard, a trackpad, or even a stylus, and Apple mocked Microsoft for taking that exact approach with the Surface. “Our competition is different, they’re confused,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook as he stood onstage to introduce the new Macs and iPads six years ago. “They chased after netbooks, now they’re trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs. Who knows what they will do next?”

Every iPad has transformed into a Surface in recent years, and as of this week, the iPad Pro and Surface Pro look even more alike. Both have detachable keyboards, adjustable stands, trackpads, and styluses. With iPadOS getting cursor and mouse support this week, Apple has finally admitted that Microsoft was right about tablets. Let me explain why…

…Despite the hardware additions, Apple persisted with its touch-first vision for the iPad. Using a keyboard with the iPad was an ergonomic disaster. You’d have to lift your hands away from the keyboard to touch the screen and adjust text or simply navigate around the OS. It didn’t feel natural, and the large touch targets meant there was no precision for more desktop-like apps. Alongside Apple’s refusal to bring touchscreen support to the Mac, it was clear something had to change.

The first signs of a new direction for the iPad arrived with iPadOS and the hints at cursor support last year. Apple is now introducing trackpad and mouse support fully in iPadOS, and you can use an existing Bluetooth device. Unlike pointer support you’d find in Windows or macOS, Apple has taken a clever approach to bringing it to a touch-friendly OS like iPadOS. The pointer only appears when you need it, and it’s a circular dot that can change its shape based on what you’re pointing at. That means you can use it for precision tasks like spreadsheets or simply use multitouch gestures on a trackpad to navigate around iPadOS.

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Apple gets there in the end with the best solutions. Sometimes it’s quick (iPhone), sometimes it’s reaallly slow, as here.
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Netflix to slow Europe transmissions to avoid broadband overload • The Guardian

Mark Sweney:

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Netflix has agreed to slow down the speed at which it delivers shows to subscribers to reduce its traffic across Europe by 25% – a measure that may affect picture quality for some viewers – in a deal with the EU to ensure that broadband networks perform adequately as millions of people confined to their homes go online.

Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings agreed to slow the bit rate at which it delivers programming, which determines the size and quality of video and audio files, across Europe and the UK for 30 days. Netflix has 51 million users across Europe, including 11 million in the UK.

The agreement comes after talks with Thierry Breton, the industry commissioner of the EU’s executive arm, the European commission.

“Following the discussions between commissioner Thierry Breton and Reed Hastings – and given the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus – Netflix has decided to begin reducing bit rates across all our streams in Europe for 30 days,” said a Netflix spokesman.

“We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for our members.”

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You probably won’t notice the difference unless you’re paying for the top-end 4K package. Certainly, there is a notable rise in traffic across the London Linx (internet exchange) in the past couple of days.
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The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2 • Nature Medicine

Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Institute, and others, use genetic analysis to figure out quite where the novel coronavirus came from:

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identifying the closest viral relatives of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in animals will greatly assist studies of viral function. Indeed, the availability of the RaTG13 bat sequence helped reveal key RBD mutations and the polybasic cleavage site.

The genomic features described here may explain in part the infectiousness and transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimized RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.

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It’s come to something when scientists feel they have to answer the question “OMG WHAT IF IT WAS CREATED BY US IN A LABORATORY??”
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Good Judgment Project 2.0

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Curious about how you size up against world-class problem-solvers and forecasters – and about how much better your can get?

Our starter exercise will be a coronavirus forecasting tournament that will let your benchmark your performance against a range of benchmarks, from dart-tossing chimps to seasoned professionals and Superforecasters.

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Yes, it’s superforecasting, this time focussing on coronavirus. There is an ongoing superforecasting set of questions on the normal Good Judgement site; the one linked here is a new project which is running for three months, and wants slightly more time and attention. You might find you have both.
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The state of the restaurant industry • OpenTable

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As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps people home and some cities, states, and countries limit restaurant operations, our community of nearly 60,000 restaurants faces unprecedented challenges. We’ve summarized the data we have from the restaurants on our platform and are updating it daily.

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The numbers are horrific. Australia is the outlier, down “only” 43%. Canada is down 94% (at the time of writing). It’s practically impossible to imagine the knock-on effects that this is having on lives and economies. And yet the vast majority of us (and you in particular) should survive, just on the statistics of it. Yet we can’t ignore the risk that “business as usual” would do, not just in spreading it to vulnerable populations, but the opportunity cost it creates. If someone aged 60 is on a ventilator with Covid-19, that ventilator isn’t available to someone aged 20 who has been in a road accident. (Thanks Richard B for the link.)
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COVID-19 and Italy: what next? • The Lancet

Professor Andrew Remuzzi and Prof Guiseppe Remuzzi:

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Italy has had 12 462 confirmed cases according to the Istituto Superiore di Sanità as of March 11, and 827 deaths. Only China has recorded more deaths due to this COVID-19 outbreak. The mean age of those who died in Italy was 81 years and more than two-thirds of these patients had diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, or cancer, or were former smokers.

It is therefore true that these patients had underlying health conditions, but it is also worth noting that they had acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pneumonia, needed respiratory support, and would not have died otherwise. Of the patients who died, 42·2% were aged 80–89 years, 32·4% were aged 70–79 years, 8·4% were aged 60–69 years, and 2·8% were aged 50–59 years (those aged >90 years made up 14·1%). The male to female ratio is 80% to 20% with an older median age for women (83·4 years for women vs 79·9 years for men).

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What I found worth noting is the huge disparity in male v female, which has also been seen in China and Sweden. (No data I know of from Iran.) Alasdair Allan on Twitter pointed out that this might be due to lung damage from smoking many years ago: if men were heavier smokers than women 40 years ago (and up to the present day), that might be an explanation. The Tobacco Atlas suggests that deaths from smoking-related diseases has a 72:28 male:female split in Italy, which seems confirmatory – except if you investigate the numbers for Sweden, they’re 1:1 from smoking deaths.

Even so, it’s a point to bear in mind if you’ve ever smoked for an extended period in your life.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1268: Apple’s MacBook Air gets updated keyboard, Facebook zaps legitimate news, what is ESPN without sports?, and more


Small but potentially deadly: a quirk of bats’ immune systems make dangerous viruses even more deadly. CC-licensed photo by Jennifer Krauel 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. Don’t touch your face! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

China’s farmers fear food shortages after coronavirus restrictions • Financial Times

Sun Yu:

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Chinese farmers face a daunting planting season as they grapple with a shortage of labour, seed and fertiliser in the wake of a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus.

A Qufu Normal University survey last month of village officials in 1,636 counties found that 60% of respondents were pessimistic or very pessimistic about the planting season. 

The dismal mood has raised fears of a food shortage in the world’s most populous nation after disease control measures, led by traffic restrictions, took a toll on farming activity.

“China’s agricultural industry has collapsed without the free flow of labour and raw materials,” said Ma Wenfeng, an analyst at CnAgri, a consultancy in Beijing.

Chinese farms rely heavily on migrant workers and are struggling to find enough labourers after public transport was suspended to help stem the outbreak. 

Less than a third of local adults from 104 villages in 12 inland provinces had travelled outside their hometown for work after the lunar new year, according to Wuhan university. Normally, between 80% and 90% of adults would be working elsewhere. 

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We’re all looking at rents and mortgages. We should be looking at second-order effects – food shortages, and so higher food prices – and third-order effects such as unrest. Remember that the Arab Spring was triggered, in part, by rising wheat and thus bread prices.
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Facebook bug causes legitimate coronavirus posts to be marked as spam: executive • Reuters

Katie Paul:

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Facebook’s head of safety said on Tuesday a bug was responsible for posts on topics including coronavirus being erroneously marked as spam, prompting widespread complaints from users of both its flagship app and photo-sharing app Instagram.

“This is a bug in an anti-spam system, unrelated to any change in our content moderator workforce,” Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president for integrity, said on Twitter.

“We’ve restored all the posts that were incorrectly removed, which included posts on all topics – not just those related to COVID-19. This was an issue with an automated system that removes links to abusive websites, but incorrectly removed a lot of other posts too,” he said.

Facebook users shared screenshots with Reuters of notifications they had received saying articles from prominent news organizations including Axios and The Atlantic had violated the company’s community guidelines.

One user said she received a message saying “link is not allowed” after attempting to post a Vox article about the coronavirus in her Instagram profile.

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You leave the AI alone in the office for ONE day and… but why (as someone said in a similar situation recently) is the mistake always on the wrong side?
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Coronavirus and COVID-19 • Nature

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The latest news and opinion from Nature on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.

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Nature is one of two principal science journals; the other is Science, which is also making its coronavirus content available for free. Authoritative content.
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The tech execs who don’t agree with ‘soul-stealing’ coronavirus safety measures • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

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Michael Saylor does not often send all-staff emails to the more than 2,000 employees at Microstrategy, a business intelligence firm headquartered in Tysons Corner, Virginia. So the chief executive’s 3,000-word missive on Monday afternoon with the subject line My Thoughts on Covid-19 got his employees’ attention.

“It is soul-stealing and debilliating [sic] to embrace the notion of social distancing & economic hibernation,” Saylor wrote in an impassioned argument against adopting the aggressive responses to the coronavirus pandemic that public health authorities are advising. “If we wish to maintain our productivity, we need to continue working in [our] offices.”

As companies around the world adjust to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, including by allowing their employees to work from home in compliance with the national guidelines of many governments, some executives are attempting to continue doing business as usual. The trend is notable in the tech industry, where computer-based work can generally be performed from anywhere, but where the culture has often rewarded innovative and “disruptive” leaders who buck conventional wisdom.

Saylor argued that the “economic damage” of social distancing and quarantines was greater than “the theoretical benefit of slowing down a virus” and suggested that it would make more sense to “quarantine the 40 million elderly retired, immune compromised people who no longer need to work or get educated”.

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Where’s he going to quarantine them, precisely? This is like the humour writer Robert Benchley, who pointed out that as bilharzia (river blindness) was spread by worms, all you need to do to prevent it was “hide all the worms”. I commend Benchley’s quotes in these variegated times.
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What will ESPN do without sports during the coronavirus? • Vulture

Patrick Hruby:

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From March Madness to Major League Baseball, auto racing to international soccer, leagues and events have been suspended, postponed, and outright canceled, all in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The result for the sports world is an abrupt and unplanned hiatus — an indefinite, all-encompassing athletic shutdown that has left ESPN, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports,” facing a vast programming void. In March and April alone, ESPN will have to replace 60 lost NBA regular season and playoff games, 28 MLS matches, the entire NCAA women’s basketball tournament, and a number of other games and events. Moreover, its extended universe of ancillary programming — radio shows, podcasts, online articles, talk shows like Pardon the Interruption, news shows such as SportsCenter, and gambling and fantasy sports content — depends heavily on games being played, points being scored, and trash being talked.

“What is going to be on the air in lieu of live sports and talking about live sports?” Bilas says. “I don’t know the answer to that. That’s above my pay grade. What I know is that everything is on hold. There’s a level of uncertainty to business being conducted that I have never seen before.”

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Just waiting for the tennis at Wimbledon to be cancelled. Except when would they play it? The French Open, played on clay, has been postponed to September – when the weather should still be fine. (Quite what size of crowd they’ll allow is a separate question.) Grass, though, has a limited season. The end of August would probably be the limit.
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Russia deploying coronavirus disinformation to sow panic in West, EU document says • Reuters

Robin Emmott:

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Russian media have deployed a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, generate panic and sow distrust, according to a European Union document seen by Reuters.

The Kremlin denied the allegations on Wednesday, saying they were unfounded and lacked common sense.

The EU document said the Russian campaign, pushing fake news online in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French, uses contradictory, confusing and malicious reports to make it harder for the EU to communicate its response to the pandemic.

“A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing,” said the nine-page internal document, dated March 16, using the name of the disease that can be caused by the coronavirus.

“The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries…in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies,” the document produced by the EU’s foreign policy arm, the European External Action Service, said.

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Outbreak • Melting Asphalt

Kevin Simler has a range of simulations of disease outbreaks, including transmissibility, infectivity and so on. Here’s one about travel:

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Here’s another unrealistic assumption we’ve been making: we’ve been allowing people to interact only with their immediate neighbors.

What happens when we let people travel farther afield? (We’re still assuming 4 encounters per day, a parameter we’ll expose in the next section.)

As you pull the travel radius slider below, you’ll see a sample of the encounters that the center person will have on any given day. (We can’t draw everyone’s encounters because it would get too crowded. You’ll just have to use your imagination.) Note that in our model, unlike in real life, each day brings a new (random) set of encounters.

Note that if you restrict travel from the beginning (e.g., to a radius of 2 units), you can slow the infection down a great deal.

But what happens when you start with unrestricted travel, let the infection spread pretty much everywhere, and only restrict travel later?

In other words, how early in the infection curve do you have to curtail travel in order for it to meaningful slow the outbreak?

Go ahead, try it. Start with a travel radius of 25. Then play the simulation, pausing when you get to about 10% infected. Then reduce the travel radius to 2 and play it out. What happens?
Takeaway: travel restrictions are most useful when they’re applied early, at least for the purpose of flattening the curve. (So let’s get them in place!)

But travel restrictions can help even in the later stages of an outbreak, for at least two reasons:

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Apple announces new MacBook Air with improved keyboard, faster performance, and more storage • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro is no longer the company’s only laptop with a reliable keyboard. This morning, Apple announced a revamped MacBook Air with an improved scissor-switch keyboard, branded as the “Magic Keyboard” like the Pro, that ditches the controversial butterfly mechanism of the previous-generation model. It has the same 1mm of keyboard travel and inverted-T arrow keys as the 16-inch Pro.

The new Air also offers double the performance, according to Apple, featuring 10th-gen Intel Ice Lake processors (Y-series) up to a 1.2GHz quad-core Core i7. And it delivers 80% improved graphics performance, as the Air now features Intel Iris Plus Graphics. It comes with twice the storage as the prior machine — now starting with 256GB. You can configure it all the way up to 2TB.

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The Air is Apple’s best-selling laptop, and so best-selling PC. Indicative that Apple has moved to update the keyboard here, so soon after introducing the retina-screen version of the Air – which was July. The butterfly keyboard will surely be wiped out of its products by the end of the year.
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Apple announces new iPad Pro with trackpad support and a wild keyboard cover • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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the 11-inch and 12.9-inch sizes look identical to last year’s models, but there’s a new processor and new camera system inside them both. Apple’s headline feature is that it has a LIDAR scanner to go along with its camera for depth sensing and AR, but what most people are going to notice is that very new keyboard that you can get with it.

The keyboard unfolds and elevates the iPad to a more comfortable viewing position, as you can see above. It also has a trackpad on it. Apple says, “Rather than copying the experience from macOS®, trackpad support has been completely reimagined for iPad. As users move their finger across the trackpad, the pointer elegantly transforms to highlight user interface elements.” You can see very brief examples of it in use in the video below.

Apple is calling it a “Magic Keyboard,” matching the branding it recently used on the redesigned and improved MacBook keyboard. It is backlit, supports USB-C passthrough charging, and has a “smooth angle adjustment.” Unfortunately, it won’t be available until May, but it will be compatible with last year’s iPad Pros as well. And speaking of “unfortunately,” it will cost a whopping $299 for the 11-inch model and $349 for the 12.9-inch version.

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The compatibility with last year’s models is helpful, even if the price isn’t. I really don’t get the need for a LIDAR scanner. Meanwhile, the mouse support brings it closer and closer to a Mac.
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Lessons from Italy’s hospital meltdown. ‘every day you lose, the contagion gets worse’ • WSJ

Marcus Walker and Mark Maremont:

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Dr. Carr said he and other U.S. physicians have had informal calls with Italian doctors in recent weeks. “It’s terrible to hear them talk, but it benefits us to learn from it,” he said. One lesson, he said, is to build capacity for the expected influx of Covid-19 patients before it’s needed. Mount Sinai is clearing out space and creating new ICU beds, he said.

Bergamo shows what happens when things go wrong. In normal times, the ambulance service at the Papa Giovanni hospital runs like a Swiss clock. Calls to 112, Europe’s equivalent of 911, are answered within 15 to 20 seconds. Ambulances from the hospital’s fleet of more than 200 are dispatched within 60 to 90 seconds. Two helicopters stand by at all times. Patients usually reach an operating room within 30 minutes, said Angelo Giupponi, who runs the emergency response operation: “We are fast, in peacetime.”

Now, people wait an hour on the phone to report heart attacks, Dr. Giupponi said, because all the lines are busy. Each day, his team fields 2,500 calls and brings 1,500 people to the hospital. “That’s not counting those the first responders visit but tell to stay home and call again if their condition worsens,” he said.

Ambulance staff weren’t trained for such a contagious virus. Many have become infected and their ambulances contaminated. A dispatcher died of the disease Saturday. Diego Bianco was in his mid-40s and had no prior illnesses.

“He never met patients. He only answered the phone. That shows you the contamination is everywhere,” a colleague said. Mr. Bianco’s co-workers sat Sunday at the operations center with masks on their faces and fear in their eyes.

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The full article gives a glimpse of the apocalypse that is overwhelming hospitals. I’ll say it again: we’re terrible at comprehending exponential growth (which epidemics are in their early stages), and they quickly overtake our arithmetically-scaling facilities.
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Coronavirus outbreak raises question: why are bat viruses so deadly to humans? • ScienceDaily

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A new University of California, Berkeley, study finds that bats’ fierce immune response to viruses could drive viruses to replicate faster, so that when they jump to mammals with average immune systems, such as humans, the viruses wreak deadly havoc.

Some bats — including those known to be the original source of human infections — have been shown to host immune systems that are perpetually primed to mount defenses against viruses. Viral infection in these bats leads to a swift response that walls the virus out of cells. While this may protect the bats from getting infected with high viral loads, it encourages these viruses to reproduce more quickly within a host before a defense can be mounted.

This makes bats a unique reservoir of rapidly reproducing and highly transmissible viruses. While the bats can tolerate viruses like these, when these bat viruses then move into animals that lack a fast-response immune system, the viruses quickly overwhelm their new hosts, leading to high fatality rates.

“Some bats are able to mount this robust antiviral response, but also balance it with an anti-inflammation response,” said Cara Brook, a postdoctoral Miller Fellow at UC Berkeley and the first author of the study. “Our immune system would generate widespread inflammation if attempting this same antiviral strategy. But bats appear uniquely suited to avoiding the threat of immunopathology.”

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It also makes bats surprisingly long-lived, weighed against their size and heart rate. And they shed more viruses if their habitat is disrupted – eg by people burning down forests, capturing them for food, etc.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1267: US considers smartphone tracking, meet Mr ‘Invoice Barr’, Windows 10 passes 1 billion active, and more (coronavirus)


Will coronavirus make events like this – Times Square on New Year’s Eve – a forgotten idea? CC-licensed photo by Bill Larkin 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 12 links for you. Wash your hands again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Location data gathered by Facebook, Google, other tech companies could be used to battle coronavirus spread • The Washington Post

Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg :

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The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak.

Public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection, according to three people familiar with the effort, who requested anonymity because the project is in its early stages.

Analyzing trends in smartphone owners’ whereabouts could prove to be a powerful tool for health authorities looking to track coronavirus, which has infected more than 180,000 people globally. But it’s also an approach that could leave some Americans uncomfortable, depending on how it’s implemented, given the sensitivity when it comes to details of their daily whereabouts. Multiple sources stressed that -— if they proceed — they are not building a government database.

In recent interviews, Facebook executives said the U.S. government is particularly interested in understanding patterns of people’s movements, which can be derived through data the company collects from users who allow it. The tech giant in the past has provided this information to researchers in the form of statistics, which in the case of coronavirus, could help officials predict the next hotspot or decide where to allocate overstretched health resources.

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First China, then Iran, then Israel. This stuff creeps in, always just to help, then won’t get rolled back.
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‘Invoice Barr’ and the ‘second modification’: how article spinning works • Lead Stories

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Have you ever encountered an article that just seemed a little off? The structure of the article moves along normally, with sentences and paragraphs. But every once in a while, you stumble on a strange word or an idiom that seems out of place? Readers might assume that these articles were written by people who learned English as a second language or that someone made a typo. Sometimes, the strange words come along with such frequency, the reader can barely make sense of anything. They might assume that the article originated in another language and was translated to English by a computer program rather than a person.

These hard-to-read articles are typically the result of a process called “article spinning.” They were not composed by a writer struggling with English, but began as perfectly legible prose, and the stories were then modified (or mangled) with an automated plagiarism helper tool. It used to be that click-baiters limited the spinning to the body of the article, but recently, there has been a trend to include the headlines as well.

Things get really confusing when the article spinner substitutes other words for people’s names. This spun article reposted by TECHLABS.CLUB was taken from NewsThud. The word “invoice” has been showing up in many recent headlines replacing the word or name, Bill. Here’s another. This one, as the photo’s watermark attests, was lifted from the ALLOD network. Smileings.com, one of the fly-by-night clickbait sites from Pakistan, first appeared with links on Facebook on February 18, 2020.

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Hilarious, if it weren’t so desperate and unsettling. People click on this stuff.
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A critical internet safeguard is running out of time • WIRED

Lily Hay Newman:

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Shadowserver scans more than 4 billion IP addresses—almost the entire public internet—every day and puts together activity reports based on the findings for more than 4,600 network operators, as well as the national computer security incident response teams of 107 countries. Shadowserver also hosts a repository of 1.2 billion malware samples, similar to Google’s VirusTotal, that’s freely accessible. In all, the organization hosts more than 11.6 petabytes of threat intelligence and malware-related data. But all of that is just for starters.

The real ghost-escape potential comes from the fact that Shadowserver doesn’t just monitor incidents, it also actively works to contain them. The organization has a vast “honeypot” and “sinkholing” infrastructure. The former lures attackers and records details about them, while the latter diverts malicious traffic into a sort of digital black hole and away from its intended target.

Shadowserver says it sinkholes up to 5 million IP addresses per day, neutralizing malicious firehoses of data that would otherwise spew from botnets and disruptive malware. More than four years after researchers exposed the iOS and macOS malware known as XcodeGhost, for example, Shadowserver still has more than half a million devices connecting to its sinkhole in an attempt to talk to the malware’s command and control infrastructure. The organization also runs what it calls a “registrar of last resort,” which takes control of malicious domain names to disrupt criminal infrastructure, so malware can’t phone home to follow a hacker’s commands.

On top of all of this, Shadowserver collaborates very actively with law enforcement groups all over the world to use its own infrastructure and expertise in massive coordinated operations. In recent years, for example, Shadowserver participated in 2016’s Avalanche takedown and 2019’s Goznym takedown. The organization says its goal is always to help law enforcement make arrests and remediate damage to victims.

«

Funded by Cisco for 15 years; now the funding is being cut. Needs about $400k in the next few weeks; $1.7m after that to survive the year. Seems like some internet billionaire could find that.
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Facebook plans $1,000 bonuses to help employees during coronavirus crisis • The Information

Jessica Toonkel and Alex Heath:

»

Facebook will pay a $1,000 bonus to every employee, one of the first big companies to offer workers cash to help them during the coronavirus outbreak. It follows a similar move by enterprise software firm Workday on Monday.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the announcement early Tuesday in an internal company notice, saying that the company wants to support employees working remotely because of the pandemic, said two people familiar with the matter.

The company, which employed nearly 45,000 full-time employees at the end of last year, also said it would give all employees an “exceeds” rating for their first six-month review of 2020. That means all full-time employees also could earn significant bonuses for the period, the people said. In 2019, the median compensation for Facebook employees was $228,651.

…Facebook on Tuesday also announced in a blog post that it is offering $100 million in cash grants and ad credits to small businesses to help them during the pandemic. Up to 30,000 small businesses around the world will be eligible for the grants and ad credits, the company said.

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SoftBank-owned patent troll, using monkey selfie law firm, sues to block Covid-19 testing, using Theranos patents • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

»

Irell & Manella has now filed one of the most utterly bullshit patent infringement lawsuits you’ll ever see. They are representing “Labrador Diagnostics LLC” a patent troll which does not seem to exist other than to file this lawsuit, and which claims to hold the rights to two patents (US Patents 8,283,155 and 10,533,994) which, you’ll note, were originally granted to Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos — the firm that shut down in scandal over medical testing equipment that appears to have been oversold and never actually worked. Holmes is still facing federal charges of wire fraud over the whole Theranos debacle.

However, back in 2018, the remains of Theranos sold its patents to Fortress Investment Group. Fortress Investment Group is a SoftBank-funded massive patent troll. You may remember the name from the time last fall when Apple and Intel sued the firm, laying out how Fortress is a sort of uber-patent troll, gathering up a bunch of patents and then shaking down basically everyone. Lovely, right?

So, this SoftBank-owned patent troll, Fortress, bought up Theranos patents, and then set up this shell company, “Labrador Diagnostics,” which decided that right in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic it was going to sue one of the companies making Covid-19 tests, saying that its test violates those Theranos patents, and literally demanding that the court bar the firm from making those Covid-19 tests.

A bit more background here: the company they’re suing, BioFire, recently launched three Covid-19 tests built off of the company’s FilmArray technology. And that’s what “Labrador” (read: SoftBank) is now suing over.

«

It’s like a game of Consequences, written by a lunatic.
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We’re not going back to normal • MIT Technology Review

Gideon Lichfield, on the implications of the Imperial College paper which has persuaded the US and UK governments to radically alter their plans about social distancing:

»

This isn’t a temporary disruption. It’s the start of a completely different way of life.

In the short term, this will be hugely damaging to businesses that rely on people coming together in large numbers: restaurants, cafes, bars, nightclubs, gyms, hotels, theaters, cinemas, art galleries, shopping malls, craft fairs, museums, musicians and other performers, sporting venues (and sports teams), conference venues (and conference producers), cruise lines, airlines, public transportation, private schools, day-care centers. That’s to say nothing of the stresses on parents thrust into home-schooling their kids, people trying to care for elderly relatives without exposing them to the virus, people trapped in abusive relationships, and anyone without a financial cushion to deal with swings in income.

There’ll be some adaptation, of course: gyms could start selling home equipment and online training sessions, for example. We’ll see an explosion of new services in what’s already been dubbed the “shut-in economy.” One can also wax hopeful about the way some habits might change—less carbon-burning travel, more local supply chains, more walking and biking.

But the disruption to many, many businesses and livelihoods will be impossible to manage. And the shut-in lifestyle just isn’t sustainable for such long periods.

So how can we live in this new world? Part of the answer—hopefully—will be better healthcare systems, with pandemic response units that can move quickly to identify and contain outbreaks before they start to spread, and the ability to quickly ramp up production of medical equipment, testing kits, and drugs. Those will be too late to stop Covid-19, but they’ll help with future pandemics.

«

We have barely begun to comprehend the extent of this. For years our healthcare systems have been run closer and closer to the margins, because we thought a pandemic, while possible, just wouldn’t have that big an effect; that it would look like the flu, not a totally novel virus.
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Meeting virtually is the new reality • The Star

Arthur Cockfield:

»

In the shorter term, a remote society promotes greater use of more mundane videoconferencing technologies like Skype, Zoom, WebX and GoToMeeting. For teachers, these technologies form part of “learning management systems” that allow for live or taped lectures. They can also be used for online meetings.

A few years ago, I chaired a committee that reviewed a large-scale research project at the University of Montreal. The whole thing took place online via Skype with forty participants scattered about the world. Everything ran seamlessly. And there was a bonus: because only my head was visible on everyone’s computer screens, I was able to type tricky French sentences into Google Translate without anyone noticing.

Beyond scary viruses, international travellers also increasingly question the value of travelling due to carbon emissions from jet fuel. Governments, schools and workplaces may additionally embrace a remote society to promote cost-savings.

Once we learn to live in a remote society, there may be no going back.

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Covid-19: ibuprofen should not be used for managing symptoms, say doctors and scientists • The BMJ

Michael Day:

»

Scientists and senior doctors have backed claims by France’s health minister that people showing symptoms of covid-19 should use paracetamol (acetaminophen) rather than ibuprofen, a drug they said might exacerbate the condition.

The minister, Oliver Veran, tweeted on Saturday 14 March that people with suspected covid-19 should avoid anti-inflammatory drugs. “Taking anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, cortisone . . .) could be an aggravating factor for the infection. If you have a fever, take paracetamol,” he said.

His comments seem to have stemmed in part from remarks attributed to an infectious diseases doctor in south west France. She was reported to have cited four cases of young patients with covid-19 and no underlying health problems who went on to develop serious symptoms after using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in the early stage of their symptoms. The hospital posted a comment saying that public discussion of individual cases was inappropriate.

«

Just so you know. If you’re actually able to find any paracetamol.
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Sonos will release a new app and operating system for its speakers in June • The Verge

Chris Welch:

»

Switching to a new OS will result in expanded capabilities, according to Sonos. Sonos S2 will allow for higher-resolution audio, whereas right now the company’s speakers are limited to CD-quality lossless audio. The revamped software underpinnings could let Sonos go hi-fi in the same way as Amazon’s Echo Studio. It could also finally result in Sonos adopting Dolby Atmos for home theatre sound in the next Playbar, Playbase, or Beam.

Sonos S2 will also allow for usability enhancements (there will be improved room groups functionality in June) and “more connected and personal experiences,” according to the company. There aren’t many details on the latter just yet, but in past conversations with Sonos employees, they’ve hinted at a future in which your Sonos speakers might automatically start playing a certain playlist or podcast when you arrive home (or wake up in the morning) based on your listening patterns…

This forward-looking plan requires making a break from legacy Sonos products. The company has said that these devices will no longer receive new features as of May since they lack the necessary processing power, though they’ll still get bug fixes and security patches. “We will work with our partners to keep your music and voice services working for as long as we can,” Sonos reiterated today.

«

Legacy products: the original Sonos Play:5, Zone Players, and Connect / Connect:Amp devices manufactured between 2011 and 2015. A mixed network will only be able to be controlled on the “old” app, which will be renamed S1.

I’ve never felt the need for higher-resolution audio from Sonos, but can believe that being able to put Atmos on the box is an important marketing thing.
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Windows 10 surpasses 1 billion monthly active devices worldwide • Windows Central

:

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Microsoft has today announced that Windows 10 is now in use on over one billion devices across the globe, finally hitting a milestone that it has been striving to achieve ever since Windows 10 first launched back in 2015. Initially, the company wanted to reach a billion devices by 2017, but the death of Windows Phone and the fact that many Windows 7 users didn’t take the free upgrade to Windows 10 meant it was unable to reach that goal.

Windows 10 is the number one desktop platform in the world, and has been for some time. It’s in use on more devices than Windows 7, which is estimated to have around 300 million users still using it, even after support has ended. Users across 200 different countries are using Windows 10 today on PCs, IoT, HoloLens, Xbox, and Server…

There are over 80,000 different models and configurations of laptops and 2-in-1’s that run Windows 10, from over 1,000 different PC manufacturers ranging from Dell to Chuwi…

Even with a billion devices, Microsoft has had trouble getting developers to build apps using its modern app platform exclusive to Windows 10. Now that Windows 7 is out of support, and Windows 10 has hit a billion, perhaps that will change over the next decade.

«

I doubt it will change significantly unless some sort of AR- or VR-enabled desktop becomes hugely important. The odds of that happening have shortened dramatically, though.
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Top five notebook vendors see shipments plunge in February • Digitimes Research

Jim Hsaio:

»

Global top-five notebook brands saw their combined shipments nosedive nearly 40% on month and 38% on year in February as the notebook supply chain, which has over 90% of production capacity in China, was seriously disrupted in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, according to Digitimes Research.

Among the global top-5 brands, only Dell and Lenovo shipped over one million notebooks in February. Dell, which had its ODM partners keep some workers at plants to work during the Lunar New Year holidays, had an on-month shipment decline only larger than those of Lenovo and Asustek, and was the largest brand worldwide for the second consecutive month in February, Digitimes Research’s numbers show.

Lenovo’s in-house production lines in Hefei achieved a production resumption rate of nearly 60% in February, allowing its shipment to be above par.

«

Then again, might be an abrupt pull in demand in the west with everyone suddenly working from home.
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How epidemiologists understand the novel coronavirus • The New Yorker

Isaac Chotiner (whose telephone interviews are the most probing you’ll ever read) talking to Justin Lessler of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health :

»

JL: I don’t think we have a great sense of exactly why children are not getting sick. We have some good ideas of why older adults may be dying at higher rates than younger adults and children. But why children may not be getting sick at all or getting seriously enough ill to ever show up in the data is a little less clear.

IC: Are there theories for why this is the case with older adults?

JL: In terms of the older adults, I think there are three main theories. The first is that one of the receptors involved in this virus is also associated with cardiovascular disease, and that it might be exacerbating cardiovascular disease, which tends to be very present in older adults. A second is that older adults are just more frail, and that the populations that have been impacted have a high concentration of frailty. We will have a sense of how true that is as the disease enters populations where frailty is more evenly distributed across the population. But I think people think it’s a little more than that. A third theory is that it could be some sort of immunological priming. The idea is that somehow people above a certain age have been exposed to a version of coronavirus early in their lives that somehow immunologically primed them to have a more severe reaction to the current virus. I think evidence is still unclear around those theories, but they may be starting to form around one or the other.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1266: TikTok shuns the ugly, Apple fined by French, bitcoin’s squeezed miners, penguins!, and lots more coronavirus news


Monterey Bay Aquarium isn’t letting humans in, and this fella wants a videoconference. CC-licensed photo by Karen 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 12 links for you. Coronavirus at the end. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

TikTok told moderators: suppress posts by the “ugly” and poor • The Intercept

Sam Biddle, Paulo Victor Ribeiro and Tatiana Dias:

»

The makers of TikTok, the Chinese video-sharing app with hundreds of millions of users around the world, instructed moderators to suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform, according to internal documents obtained by The Intercept. These same documents show moderators were also told to censor political speech in TikTok livestreams, punishing those who harmed “national honor” or broadcast streams about “state organs such as police” with bans from the platform.

These previously unreported Chinese policy documents, along with conversations with multiple sources directly familiar with TikTok’s censorship activities, provide new details about the company’s efforts to enforce rigid constraints across its reported 800 million or so monthly users while it simultaneously attempts to bolster its image as a global paragon of self-expression and anything-goes creativity. They also show how TikTok controls content on its platform to achieve rapid growth in the mould of a Silicon Valley startup while simultaneously discouraging political dissent with the sort of heavy hand regularly seen in its home country of China.

«

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Live cams • Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium is closed to the public. Or the physical public – but the virtual public is more than welcome: they have penguins and all sorts:

»

Tune in to a web cam.

Be delighted by the antics of our sea otters or mellow out to the hypnotic drifting of our jellies. With ten live cams to choose from, you can experience the wonder of the ocean no matter where you are.

«

See? The animals and fish aren’t concerned.
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Apple fined record €1.1bn by French competition regulator • The Guardian

Angela Monaghan:

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Apple has been fined a record €1.1bn (£990m) by antitrust regulators in France for engaging in anti-competitive agreements with two wholesalers. The penalty imposed on the US tech giant is the largest ever handed out to a company by the Autorité de la Concurrence.

Commenting on the move, Isabelle de Silva, head of the French competition watchdog, said: “Apple and its two wholesalers agreed to not compete against each other and prevent resellers from promoting competition between each other, thus sterilising the wholesale market for Apple products.”

The watchdog said Apple had conspired with the two wholesalers, Tech Data and Ingram Micro, and behaved in such a way that aligned prices and limited wholesale competition for Apple products such as Apple Mac computers and iPads, but not iPhones.

The other two French companies were also fined. Tech Data was handed a €76m penalty and Ingram Micro was ordered to pay €63m.

«

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Industry body warns most airlines could go broke by May • Financial Times

Jamie Smyth and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson:

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The airline industry is warning that it must shed jobs and obtain state support to survive the coronavirus crisis, as a respected aviation consultancy predicted that most of the world’s carriers could go broke by May. 

United Airlines in the US and Air New Zealand have told staff that they will begin redundancy processes, as travel restrictions force carriers to slash capacity and ground tens of thousands of aircraft. 

Air New Zealand said on Monday that it would slash international capacity by 85% and cut domestic capacity by almost a third in April and May. The carrier, which employs 8,000 people, said it would consult with trade unions about redundancies.

That followed news from United that it is planning to halve its capacity for April and May, and has warned its nearly 100,000 employees of “painful” cuts to its payroll.

The severe measures came as the Centre for Aviation, a consultancy, warned that by the end of May most airlines would be bankrupt due to the unprecedented travel restrictions that are being rolled out by governments around the world. 

«

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Bitcoin price crash forces miners off network • Decrypt

Robert Stevens:

»

“Most hash rate lost was from China, I know this based on our own customers, plus seeing a lot of the Chinese pools (with more older gen machines) lose hash rate,” Thomas Heller, global business director at F2Pool, told Decrypt. “The more prepared Chinese miners with [Antminer] S9’s have been selling large scale amounts of S9’s over the past few months, primarily to countries with even cheaper power, such as Russia/CIS region, Middle East, etc.”

“With the prices where they are now ($4,600), more hash rate will go offline in the coming days/weeks, if the price doesn’t turn around,” he added.

The main issue is that the drop in prices has made mining less profitable. Bitcoin mining profitability has fallen to $0.09 per TH [terahash], down 80% from a recent high of $0.44 in July 2019.

“It’s an extremely tough time for miners,” Heller said. And it doesn’t look like that will end any time soon.

«

That’s the problem for bitcoin miners: the investment is upfront, and begins depreciating as soon as it’s installed. As long as bitcoin rises in value, everything’s fine. But it’s not rising.
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Twitter takes down coronavirus tweets from John McAfee, David Clarke, and others • The Verge

Kim Lyons:

»

Twitter has removed several tweets by prominent accounts that made misleading claims about the novel coronavirus pandemic, as the company says it’s following a “zero-tolerance approach to platform manipulation and any other attempts to abuse our service at this critical juncture.”

A Twitter spokesperson says the platform removed three posts by David Clarke, who tweets under the handle @SheriffClarke, because the tweets violated its policy against encouraging self-harm. All three of the tweets in question referred to the pandemic in some way, as noted by Jared Holt at watchdog site Right Wing Watch.

In one, Clarke linked to an article about bars and restaurants being ordered to close because of the novel coronavirus and added “Time to RISE UP and push back. Bars and restaurants should defy the order. Let people decide if they want to go out.” In another, he encouraged people to “get back to reasonableness” and “stop buying toilet paper,” and a third removed tweet suggested people “take to the streets.”

«

Again, howcome it’s so feasible to do it now, but not at other times when there’s clear misinformation, for example around vaccines?
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Verily’s coronavirus screening site is basically unusable • Input Mag

Matthew Welle:

»

Project Baseline is not a public health site with the power to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus. Rather, it’s a pilot program with a very limited scope that isn’t actually useful for anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. In fact, the screening program prompts users with symptoms to seek help elsewhere.

How exactly is this meant to fight the coronavirus again?

For starters, Project Baseline is only available to those living in either Santa Clara or San Mateo counties in California. The project has nothing at all to offer for those who reside outside of these areas.

Say you do live in one of these two counties. You’re coughing, have a fever, and are generally very scared that you’ve contracted COVID-19. You log onto Project Baseline seeking assistance in finding a testing facility nearby. The site prompts you with an opening question about your symptoms: “Are you currently experiencing severe cough, shortness of breath, fever, or other concerning symptoms?”

You click yes. Project Baseline provides you with an answer: “We suggest that you seek medical attention.”

«

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Amazon is selling dozens of e-books with dubious coronavirus advice • VICE

Abigail Beall:

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Since the start of the year, a handful of e-books have been published on Amazon claiming to offer expert advice on how to survive coronavirus. Now, a search for “coronavirus” on the Kindle store brings up 860 results. At best, these books are profiting from repurposing information already widely available, and at worst they are spreading conspiracy theories.

The people behind the books are using pseudonyms, fake reviews and buzzwords to make their way to the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists. And they mostly seem to be getting away with it, too.

Some of the books are using names of official departments to appear legitimate. One entitled Coronavirus Disease: A Practical Guide for Preparation and Protection, which is available to buy on the Kindle store for £6.71, has listed one of its authors as ‘U.S. Dep. of Health & Human Services’. The real HHS confirmed to VICE this was not an official publication.

Others are using fake authors and fake reviews to sell copies.

«

Amazon has removed some, but by no means all, of the scam books.
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Coronavirus and 3D printing • 3D Printing Media Network

Davide Sher:

»

the hospital in Brescia (near one of the hardest-hit regions for coronavirus infections) urgently needed valves (in the photo) for an intensive care device and that the supplier could not provide them in a short time. Running out of the valves would have been dramatic and some people might have lost their lives. So [Nunzia Vallini] asked if it would be possible to 3D print them.

After several phone calls to fablabs and companies in Milan and Brescia and then, fortunately, a company in the area, Isinnova, responded to this call for help through its founder-CEO Cristian Fracassi, who brought a 3D printer directly to the hospital and, in just a few hours, redesigned and then produced the missing piece.

On the evening of Saturday 14th (the next day) Massimo [Temporelli, founder of the FabLab in Milan] reported that “the system works”. At the time of writing, 10 patients are accompanied in breathing by a machine that uses a 3D printed valve. As the virus inevitably continues to spread worldwide and breaks supply chains, 3D printers – through people’s ingenuity and design abilities – can definitely lend a helping hand. Or valve, or protective gear, or masks, or anything you will need and can’t get from your usual supplier.

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Microsoft Teams goes down just as Europe logs on to work remotely • The Verge

Tom Warren:

»

Microsoft’s chat and communications tool, Microsoft Teams, is down across Europe this morning. The outage started just as thousands of workers started to sign into the service and attempt to work remotely amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Microsoft Teams users are currently experiencing issues signing into the service and sending messages. “We’re investigating messaging-related functionality problems within Microsoft Teams,” says a Microsoft support Twitter account.

The timing is less than ideal, just as many businesses are encouraging employees to work remotely and collaborate using services like Microsoft Teams. Even schools are also using tools like Microsoft Teams for remote education, with some schools in The Netherlands instructing students to log into the service today for digital questions.

«

A classic “you had one job” moment. But the strain of corporate VPNs and other remote-working systems is going to be immense this week. Slack is definitely going to find out whether it has earned its place in the world.
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To track coronavirus, Israel moves to tap secret trove of cellphone data • The New York Times

David Halbfinger, Isabel Kershner and Ronen Bergman:

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has authorized the country’s internal security agency to tap into a vast and previously undisclosed trove of cellphone data to retrace the movements of people who have contracted the coronavirus and identify others who should be quarantined because their paths crossed.

The unprecedented move to use data secretly gathered to combat terrorism for public health efforts was authorized on Sunday by Mr. Netanyahu’s holdover cabinet. It must still be approved by Parliament’s Secret Services Subcommittee.

The subcommittee met Monday afternoon but ended its discussions after 4 p.m. — when a new Parliament was to be sworn in — without holding a vote, essentially stopping the approval process.

The existence of the data trove and the legislative framework under which it is amassed and used have not previously been reported. The plan to apply it to fighting the virus, alluded to only vaguely by Mr. Netanyahu, has not yet been debated by lawmakers or revealed to the public.

The idea is to sift through geolocation data routinely collected from Israeli cellphone providers about millions of their customers in Israel and the West Bank, find people who came into close contact with known virus carriers, and send them text messages directing them to isolate themselves immediately.

«

And the difference between this and China is..?
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China’s first confirmed Covid-19 case traced back to November 17 • South China Morning Post

Josephine Ma:

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The first case of someone in China suffering from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, can be traced back to November 17, according to government data seen by the South China Morning Post.

Chinese authorities have so far identified at least 266 people who were infected last year, all of whom came under medical surveillance at some point.

Some of the cases were likely backdated after health authorities had tested specimens taken from suspected patients.

Interviews with whistle-blowers from the medical community suggest Chinese doctors only realised they were dealing with a new disease in late December.

Scientists have been trying to map the pattern of the early transmission of Covid-19 since an epidemic was reported in the central China city of Wuhan in January, two months before the outbreak became a global health crisis.

Understanding how the disease spread and determining how undetected and undocumented cases contributed to its transmission will greatly improve their understanding of the size of that threat.
According to the government data seen by the Post, a 55-year-old from Hubei province could have been the first person to have contracted Covid-19 on November 17.

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Which is way earlier than was admitted.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1265: Twitter’s stalled cleanup, get bouncing!, the other benefits of trees to cities, and much more on coronavirus


We’ve got a lot more to tell you, unfortunately. CC-licensed photo by duncan c 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. Try them at home. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


A quick note: most of the links here (after the first few) are, you’ll find, about coronavirus. That’s because this is probably going to be an important week in the course of the infection: slowing it down now could save many lives in the longer term. Also, there’s not a lot of technology news going around.

Stay distant, stay well.


The history of the trampoline • Smithsonian Magazine

David Kindy:

»

When 16-year-old George Nissen of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, attended the circus in 1930, an idea started to form within the young gymnast’s mind. He watched the aerialists drop from their perches up high in the big top and land with a soft bounce on the safety net below.

Could he create a contraption that would allow a person to keep on bouncing?

It would take a number of years and a few failed prototypes, but Nissen finally found success. His invention, which he labeled a “tumbling device,” was granted a patent 75 years ago on March 6, 1945. He later received a registered trademark for “Trampoline,” which came from el trampolín, the Spanish word for “diving board.”…

…World War II is when the trampoline’s potential began to bounce into view. The military latched on to it as a training device for pilots, to allow them to learn how to reorient themselves to their surroundings after difficult air maneuvers. The pilots practiced pirouetting in midair on the trampolines to simulate combat conditions.

That relationship with the military would later extend to the space program, thanks in part to a fortuitous meeting. Near the end of World War II, Nissen was introduced to a young pilot who had gone through the trampoline training. Both were in the Navy and so shared that fraternal bond. They hit it off and became friends for life.

The pilot was Scott Carpenter, who would later become one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts. Together, they would help introduce the trampoline into space training at NASA and eventually create a game known as Spaceball. Two people would face off on a three-sided trampoline with a frame in the middle featuring a hole. While bouncing to and fro, one competitor would throw the ball through the hole and the other would have to stop it to save a point. (Watch it being played.)

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Never saw that on Star Trek, did you.
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Jack Dorsey’s push to clean up Twitter stalls, researchers say • WSJ

Deepa Seetharaman:

»

Twitter said there have been delays in getting research projects off the ground, caused in part by employee turnover and shifting priorities within the company [eg fighting off activist investors looking to oust Jack Dorsey – CA], but added it would continue to build tools to minimize abuse.

“I think you can absolutely combine serving healthy conversation with growth,” Nick Pickles, Twitter’s global director of public-policy strategy, said.

Two academic teams who initially set out to work with Twitter have abandoned their plans, while another group is struggling to get some of the data initially promised. Members of Twitter’s advisory council of researchers, activists and other experts say they feel boxed out by the company.

Since his tweets on the issue, Mr. Dorsey has grown less involved with academics and activists who have volunteered to help Twitter, according to researchers and activists involved in those initiatives.

Twitter declined to make Mr. Dorsey available for comment.

“We had expectations that we’d be able to influence the world with our expertise,” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “It’s disappointing.”

Ms. Simon-Thomas is a member of Twitter’s more than 40-person Trust and Safety Council, set up in 2016 as a forum for experts to advise the company on how to prevent abuse on the platform.

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As much as anything, seems to be caused by staff turnover at Twitter, and some indifference on Dorsey’s part – though he might reasonably think he can delegate it.
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How London’s trees help boost the local economy • CityLab

Feargus O’Sullivan:

»

London’s leafy streets and gardens have long been prized for their beauty — and more recently their ability to counteract carbon emissions and improve air quality. But the value of urban trees can also be measured with money. A new report from Britain’s Office of National Statistics estimates tree cover saved the capital more than £5bn ($6.56bn) from 2014 to 2018 through air cooling alone. Additionally, by keeping summer temperatures bearable for workers, trees prevented productivity losses of almost £11bn.

The estimates underline just how vital the role trees play is in making cities comfortable and functional in a warming world — particularly in London. An unusually long, hot summer in 2018 pushed cost savings estimates to their highest level to date.  

Part of the study’s purpose is to promote planting trees and maintaining green spaces, according to Hazel Trenbirth, a member of the ONS’ Natural Capital team, which looks at cost savings of greenery across the U.K.

“Britain’s trees have a value that goes far beyond what you can get from chopping them down,” she said.

«

Yay trees! They also remove pollutants and of course sequester a growing amount of carbon.
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Facebook is shutting down MSQRD, the AR selfie app it acquired in 2016 • The Verge

Taylor Lyles:

»

On April 13th, Facebook will remove the MSQRD app from both the Android and iOS app stores. Facebook purchased MSQRD in 2016, and the AR app played a key role in boosting Facebook’s internal portfolio of AR image and video tools. One of those tools, Spark AR, lets you create custom face filters for Facebook and Instagram.

As Business Insider pointed out, following the acquisition, Facebook promised that MSQRD would remain a standalone app and continue to provide updates, but the tech giant stopped supporting the app by the end of 2016.

Over the last several years, face filtering has become a popular feature on social media apps, with Instagram and Snapchat offering built-in face-swapping tools. Because of their popularity, an app like MSQRD may have seemed unnecessary for many.

«

The implication seems to be that AR is just becoming part of the software, rather than a necessarily separate thing.
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How to talk to your kids about coronavirus • PBS KIDS for Parents

Deborah Farmer Kris:

»

Earlier this week, I overheard my kids engaged in a round of “I heard” and “Did you know?” while they were getting ready for bed.

“I heard that Margaret’s dad has it,” said my six-year-old.

“Did you know that it’s the worst sickness ever?” added my eight-year-old.

Neither statement is accurate, but they were revealing: I had thought my initial conversations with my kids about COVID-19 had been good enough. But with adults, kids at school and the news all hyper-focused on this coronavirus outbreak, my reassuring voice needed to be a little louder.

A favorite Mister Rogers’ quote ran through my mind: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

So before lights out, we talked. I asked what they had heard about the coronavirus. We got it all out — their questions, their “I heards” and their fears. The rest of the conversation had three themes.

«

Worth reading. Kids need to know that they’re safe – which, thankfully, seems to be true.
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The man who saw the pandemic coming • Nautilus

Kevin Berger interviews Dennis Carroll, an expert in zoonotic diseases who set up a USAID project in 2009 to forecast what might come from animals:

»

Have there been disturbances in their environments that have brought bats closer to us?

DC: The disturbances in their environments are us. We’ve penetrated deeper into ecozones we’ve not occupied before.

KB: What’s a telling example of our incursion?

DC: In Africa, we see a lot of incursion driven by oil or mineral extraction in areas that typically had few human populations. The problem is not only moving workers and establishing camps in these domains, but building roads that allow for even more movement of populations. Roads also allow for the movement of wildlife animals, which may be part of a food trade, to make their way into urban settlements. All these dramatic changes increase the potential spread of infection.

KB: Are spillover events more common now than 50 years ago?

DC: Yes. EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO, and others, looked at all reported outbreaks since 1940. They came to a fairly solid conclusion that we’re looking at an elevation of spillover events two to three times more than what we saw 40 years earlier. That continues to increase, driven by the huge increase in the human population and our expansion into wildlife areas. The single biggest predictor of spillover events is land-use change—more land going to agriculture and more specifically to livestock production.

I’m stunned by the absolute absence of global dialogue for what is a global event.

KB: Is there something specific about a virus that makes it zoonotic?

DC: You can argue viruses aren’t living organisms. They’re sheets of proteins encapsulating some DNA or RNA. Beyond that, they have no machinery to be able to live on their own. They’re looking for an ecosystem that has all of the other cellular machinery essential for replication. They can’t live outside another animal population. They need that animal to replicate. And we’re just one more animal. We think of ourselves as something special. But viruses are infecting us with exactly the same purpose they infect a bat or a civet cat.

«

Carroll’s funding at USAID wasn’t renewed in 2019. He’s now at the Global Virome Project, which “aims to find the majority of unknown viruses before they find us”.

Its February 2018 press release is headlined “Ambitious Global Virome Project could mark end of pandemic era”. Ah well.
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Coronavirus tracked: the latest figures as the pandemic spreads • Financial Times

Steve Bernard and Cale Tilford:

»

The virus’s proliferation has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, meaning it is spreading rapidly in different parts of the world. More than 140 countries have confirmed cases so far. 

The coronavirus has now taken hold in Europe, with the largest number of confirmed cases in Italy. In most western countries case numbers have been increasing by about 33% a day, a sign that other countries may soon be facing the same challenge as Italy.

The Asian city-state of Singapore and the territory of Hong Kong are on a different trajectory in terms of the growth in case numbers. The rate of increase has so far been relatively contained through rapid and strict measures.

«

At 33% per day (ie, 1.33^y), after seven days you have a sevenfold increase; after 14 days, a 54-fold increase. That’s cases, mind you, not necessarily infections, which could easily be higher.

And that’s a hell of a thing. 33% per day. As I said last week, we’re really bad at comprehending exponential increase because it’s so rare in nature. A doctor pointed out to me that the spread of infection like this follows a logistic sigmoid curve (the classic S-shape). But in the early stage, you can’t see the difference between “exponential” and “logistic”; that’s not evident until you’re at the 50% mark and growth becomes “just” linear.
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xkcd: 2010 and 2020


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Contrary to Trump’s claim, Google is not building a nationwide coronavirus screening website • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

»

Google is not working with the US government in building a nationwide website to help people determine whether and how to get a novel coronavirus test, despite what President Donald Trump said in the course of issuing an emergency declaration for the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, a much smaller trial website made by another division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is going up. It will only be able to direct people to testing facilities in the Bay Area.

More than an hour after Trump’s press conference, a Google communications Twitter account passed along the following statement from Verily, which is a different company inside the Alphabet corporate umbrella:

»

We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time. We appreciate the support of government officials and industry partners and thank the Google engineers who have volunteered to be part of this effort.

«

Carolyn Wang, communications lead for Verily, told The Verge that the “triage website” was initially only going to be made available to health care workers instead of the general public. Now that it has been announced the way it was, however, anybody will be able to visit it, she said. But the tool will only be able to direct people to “pilot sites” for testing in the Bay Area, though Wang says Verily hopes to expand it beyond California “over time.”

«

Trump also thought it would sound impressive to say that 1,700 people were working on the website. In fact, Sundar Pichai put out a call for people to help on the site earlier in the week and received 1,700 responses. Of course nobody in the White House puts any store on accuracy.

But to anyone with experience building websites, saying 1,700 people are working on a new one is a terrifying idea. It would take forever. If you had 17 people, you’d get it done 100 times faster.
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Apple’s WWDC 2020 kicks off in June with an all-new online format • Apple

»

Apple today announced it will host its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June. Now in its 31st year, WWDC 2020 will take on an entirely new online format packed with content for consumers, press and developers alike. The online event will be an opportunity for millions of creative and innovative developers to get early access to the future of iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS, and engage with Apple engineers as they work to build app experiences that enrich the lives of Apple customers around the globe.

“We are delivering WWDC 2020 this June in an innovative way to millions of developers around the world, bringing the entire developer community together with a new experience,” said Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. “The current health situation has required that we create a new WWDC 2020 format that delivers a full program with an online keynote and sessions, offering a great learning experience for our entire developer community, all around the world. We will be sharing all of the details in the weeks ahead.”

«

I will admit that I laughed aloud when I saw this. It’s such a wonderful “hey, the supermarket shelves are half-full, not half-empty!” response to the coronavirus epidemic, while not using the words “coronavirus” or “Covid-19”; it just refers, once, to “the current health situation”.

Apple is also giving $1m to “local San Jose organisations” to try to offset revenue loss. At the average of 6,000 attendees, and let’s say another 1,000 associated visitors, that’s $142 each for the whole week. I think most attendees spend at least $1,000 in the week. That $6m gap gives you some idea of the revenue hit that many businesses are taking.

And that’s before we get into hotels’ and airlines’ lost revenues.
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Coronavirus forecast • Spatial Ecology and Evolution Lab

Ben Phillips, head of the lab:

»

I’ve made a shiny app that gives a ten-day forecast, by country, on likely numbers of coronavirus cases.

The app is designed to give people a sense of how fast this epidemic is progressing, as well as one of the key uncertainties; the true number of cases.

At the time of writing (13 March 2020), it is very impressive to see how things are progressing in China, Korea, and Japan, and quite alarming to see how things are progressing elsewhere.

The top graph gives the raw number of cases each day, with a ten-day projection. The projection is based on the bottom graph, which are the same data plotted on a log scale: exponential growth presents as a straight line on the log scale. So I fit a straight line to the last ten days of data, extrapolate it by ten days, and project that up onto the original scale in the top graph.

The method assumes that deaths do not go unnoticed, that the case fatality rate is about 2.5% and it takes about 17 days for people that are going to die to die. Under these assumptions we look at the number of deaths in a five day period, and estimate the number of infections required to generate these deaths (expected = deaths/0.025), we compare that to the number of new cases detected in the five day period 17 days earlier (observed), and use observed/expected to estimate a detection probability. Please take this number with a big dose of salt, but it does give you some indication of how good/bad it might be in each country.

«

I really do recommend that you take a look at the forecast app. The short version: we’ve got some real trouble ahead. On the basis of 10% of cases requiring hospital attention, all sorts of other healthcare elements (cancer diagnosis and treatment, road accidents, chronic treatments) are going to have to be heavily triaged.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1264: CNN finds Russian troll farm in Africa, Magic Leap for sale, coronavirus splits the US, password rules to forget, and more


Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip: an enforced brief encounter didn’t delight the NYT. CC-licensed photo by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Remember what the Hitchhiker’s Guide says. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

CNN tracks US social media trolls to Ghana, then Russia before 2020 vote – CNN

Clarissa Ward, Katie Polglase, Sebastian Shukla, Gianluca Mezzofiore and Tim Lister:

»

In 2016, much of the trolling aimed at the US election operated from an office block in St. Petersburg, Russia. A months-long CNN investigation has discovered that, in this election cycle, at least part of the campaign has been outsourced – to trolls in the west African nations of Ghana and Nigeria.

They have focused almost exclusively on racial issues in the US, promoting black empowerment and often displaying anger towards white Americans. The goal, according to experts who follow Russian disinformation campaigns, is to inflame divisions among Americans and provoke social unrest. The language and images used in the posts – on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – are sometimes graphic.

…In a statement Thursday, Facebook said that its “subsequent assessment benefited from our collaboration with a team of journalists at CNN” and it had “removed 49 Facebook accounts, 69 Pages and 85 Instagram accounts for engaging in foreign interference.”

Facebook said: “This network was in early stages of audience building and was operated by local nationals – witting and unwitting – in Ghana and Nigeria on behalf of individuals in Russia. It targeted primarily the United States.”

Facebook says that about 13,200 Facebook accounts followed one or more of the Ghana accounts and around 263,200 people followed one or more of Instagram accounts, about 65% of whom were in the US. Twitter told CNN that it had removed 71 accounts that had 68,000 followers.

«

Facebook didn’t allow any political ads by them because they’re outside the US. But they didn’t need ads. They used Facebook.
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Samsung Galaxy Z Flip Review: a folding phone that’s a dud • The New York Times

Brian X Chen:

»

Before I say how much I disliked this Samsung phone, let me let you in on a secret about tech product reviews: As gadgets have increased in speed, abilities and price over the last few years, tech companies have given product reviewers like me less time to test them.

When the companies provide us early access to their gadgets, they set a date and time for when reviewers can publish their verdicts before the products are released. More than a decade ago, we got two weeks, which felt like an ideal amount of time to properly explore a device’s pros and cons.

Today, we get about a week at most to try out and write about products like iPhones, Microsoft computers and Google Pixels. Samsung was even stingier: It allowed reviewers to test its new Galaxy Z Flip, a $1,380 smartphone with a foldable screen that debuted in mid-February, for only 24 hours.

This minimized review period screams “Buyer, beware” — especially since some Samsung products have had issues with durability and safety.

«

The durability and safety worked out OK in the limited time, but the usability didn’t.
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Many older Americans are playing down the coronavirus threat while others opt for safety • The Washington Post

Darryl Fears and Brady Dennis:

»

As the coronavirus continues its spread across the world and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that older Americans are among those who face the highest risk of hospitalization and death, retirees from Florida to Alaska are weighing whether to continue living their normal lives or do whatever it takes to preserve them.

The Villages is one of the largest retirement developments in the United States, with 125,000 residents living on more than 1,000 acres. When asked on the “Villages Friendly Folks” Facebook page how they were managing the coronavirus, a majority of people sided with Przybylowicz, saying the crisis is being overblown.

Against mounting advice from federal and private health experts, many expressed a determination to move forward with travel excursions, such as cruises. But that is getting harder to do.

In recent days, the industry bowed to a federal directive forcing passengers 70 and older to provide a doctor’s note proving their fitness to sail. Two cruise operators, Princess and Viking, suspended operations for 60 days because of the coronavirus.

On Wednesday night, as President Trump was announcing a travel ban from Europe to the United States, hundreds of residents at The Villages freely roamed the sprawling property. Partygoers danced to the live music presented nightly, ignoring the warnings of the CDC to practice social distancing — “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings” and maintaining a distance of about six feet to guard against infection.

«

Let us now observe natural selection in action.
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Coronavirus divides tech workers into the ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ sick • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

»

why did it take a global pandemic for Amazon to consider that a policy that penalizes workers for taking unpaid time off when they are sick is fundamentally inhumane? Why is it still acceptable to put in place protective measures for some part of the workforce, but not for all? And when this outbreak – and the accompanying public pressure – subsides, will Amazon, Uber, Lyft and others go right back to the previous system of forcing the lowest-paid members of their workforces to either work while sick or go without pay?

The situation recalled to me the work of Jacob Remes, a history professor at New York University who studies disasters. Several years ago, when I interviewed Remes about homelessness, he told me: “What the category of disaster does is sort people into worthy poor and unworthy poor.” In America, if you are made homeless by a hurricane, you are considered “worthy” and are (usually) eligible for public relief or support. But if you are homeless due to job loss or eviction, you are generally viewed as unworthy – and scorned by politicians as a sponge on the system.

Coronavirus is now creating a new division – between the worthy sick and the unworthy sick.

“Because there is suddenly more generosity during a disaster, there’s also a lot more policing to make sure that the ‘bad poor’ don’t get any benefit,” Remes told me on Wednesday.

«

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AR headset pioneer Magic Leap considers sale • Financial Times

James Fontanella-Khan, Tim Bradshaw and Hannah Murphy:

»

Magic Leap, an early pioneer of augmented-reality headsets, is considering a sale after having held talks with several potential buyers, said people briefed about the matter. 

It was unclear whether the talks would lead to any transaction, said a person close to Magic Leap’s senior management, who added that the company was also considering raising a new round of funding. Magic Leap has been in talks with investors about raising up to $500m since late last year but the round has not yet closed. 

Despite several rounds of funding from global investors totalling more than $2bn, it is unclear how much Magic Leap would be worth. AT&T, the telecoms operator, acquired a small stake in the augmented-reality group in 2018 at a $6.3bn valuation. Bloomberg first reported news about a potential sale.

Magic Leap declined to comment.

«

I have linked to Magic Leap going back to 2015, but never believed that it was going to be a hit product. That’s $2bn those VCs are never going to see back. If it goes for $100m, it’ll be doing well – its patents are promised to JP Chase Morgan. It’s dead, Jim. (Reminds me of the joke from the days when Skoda was a terrible car brand: man goes to petrol station and asks “Can I get a petrol cap for my Skoda?” The mechanic thinks for a moment and replies “OK, it’s a fair exchange.”)
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Three old password rules that are dumb today • CNET

Laura Hautala:

»

Even though the tech industry is working on better alternatives to passwords, you’re going to be using them for an awfully long time. Some of the advice you’ve heard over the last couple of decades is outdated. Here’s a fresh look.

The core rules about password hygiene still stand. Use a different password for every account, and make your passwords hard to guess. But cybersecurity experts say you can toss out three old rules: Never write your passwords down, don’t tell anyone your passwords and change your passwords frequently.

That advice came from a different time, when the biggest threat was from a person with physical access to our computers. Now our lives are completely enmeshed with internet services and apps. Hackers can be anywhere in the world. As a result, we have to think differently about how to keep our accounts locked down.

«

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Analysis: facing virus outbreak, Trump’s tactics fall short • Associated Press

Jonathan Lemire:

»

“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” Trump declared.

Addressing the economic costs, he added, “This is not a financial crisis, this is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.”

But the virus has appeared impervious to the Republican president’s bluster.

The virus does not have a Twitter account and, unlike so many previous Trump foes, is resistant to political bullying or Republican Party solidarity. It has preyed on his lack of curiosity and fears of germs while exposing divides and inadequacies within senior levels of his administration. It has taken away Trump’s favorite political tool, his rallies, from which he draws energy and coveted voter information.

And eight months from Election Day, it has endangered his best reelection argument — a strong economy — just as Joe Biden, the candidate emerging from the Democratic field, seems poised to take advantage of a political landscape upended by the virus.

“Crises of varying degrees produce fascinating and often consequential elections: Think 1860, 1932, 1968, 2008. Such races turn on questions of chaos versus order and favor the candidate who seems to offer the best chance of bringing order to the country in times of uncertainty,” presidential historian Jon Meacham said. “What’s interesting about those examples is that incumbents, or candidates of the incumbent party, lost all of them.”

«

Recalls the Borowitz Report’s (satirical) headline: “Trump Plans to Destroy Coronavirus with an Incredibly Mean Tweet“.
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Coronavirus: why you must act now • Medium

Tomas Pueyo:

»

Here’s what I’m going to cover in this article, with lots of charts, data and models with plenty of sources:

• How many cases of coronavirus will there be in your area?
• What will happen when these cases materialize?
• What should you do?
• When?

When you’re done reading the article, this is what you’ll take away:

• The coronavirus is coming to you
• It’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly
• It’s a matter of days. Maybe a week or two
• When it does, your healthcare system will be overwhelmed
• Your fellow citizens will be treated in the hallways
• Exhausted healthcare workers will break down. Some will die
• They will have to decide which patient gets the oxygen and which one dies
• The only way to prevent this is social distancing today. Not tomorrow. Today
• That means keeping as many people home as possible, starting now…

If you have deaths in your region, you can use that to guess the number of true current cases. We know approximately how long it takes for that person to go from catching the virus to dying on average (17.3 days). That means the person who died on 2/29 in Washington State probably got infected around 2/12.
Then, you know the mortality rate. For this scenario, I’m using 1% (we’ll discuss later the details). That means that, around 2/12, there were already around ~100 cases in the area (of which only one ended up in death 17.3 days later).

Now, use the average doubling time for the coronavirus (time it takes to double cases, on average). It’s 6.2. That means that, in the 17 days it took this person to die, the cases had to multiply by ~8 (=2^(17/6)). That means that, if you are not diagnosing all cases, one death today means 800 true cases today.
Washington state has today 22 deaths. With that quick calculation, you get ~16,000 true coronavirus cases today.

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It’s really hard to grasp exponential growth, because normally we don’t come across it. (Yes, disease, but we’re not aware of the exponential multiplication inside our bodies.) Now, it’s here. (Thanks Walt F for the link.)
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Do us a favour • Science

H Holden Thorp is the editor-in-chief of the Science journals:

»

China has rightfully taken criticism for squelching attempts by scientists to report information during the outbreak. Now, the United States government is doing similar things. Informing Fauci and other government scientists that they must clear all public comments with Vice President Mike Pence is unacceptable. This is not a time for someone who denies evolution, climate change, and the dangers of smoking to shape the public message. Thank goodness Fauci, Francis Collins [director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)], and their colleagues across federal agencies are willing to soldier on and are gradually getting the message out.

While scientists are trying to share facts about the epidemic, the administration either blocks those facts or restates them with contradictions. Transmission rates and death rates are not measurements that can be changed with will and an extroverted presentation. The administration has repeatedly said—as it did last week—that virus spread in the United States is contained, when it is clear from genomic evidence that community spread is occurring in Washington state and beyond. That kind of distortion and denial is dangerous and almost certainly contributed to the federal government’s sluggish response. After 3 years of debating whether the words of this administration matter, the words are now clearly a matter of life and death.

And although the steps required to produce a vaccine could possibly be made more efficient, many of them depend on biological and chemical processes that are essential. So the president might just as well have said, “Do me a favor, hurry up that warp drive.”

«

The scientists are angry. (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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Bitcoin is also having a very, very bad day • TechCrunch

Romain Dillet on bitcoin’s plummet (presently down about $2,000 in a couple of days):

»

This isn’t just an accident. Bitcoin has been steadily going down for the past month. On February 19, you could still receive over $10,000 by selling 1 BTC.

Yesterday, the World Health Organization officially declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic. The US has taken additional measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, including travel restrictions from Europe to the US. Asian and European stock markets have had a rough trading day following the news.

Many believed that cryptocurrencies would be inversely correlated to stock markets. But economic confidence is also hurting cryptocurrencies. Uncertainty has led to today’s crypto asset selloff. You don’t want to keep trading positions in risky assets when it’s unclear whether the economy can recover from the coronavirus.

Other popular cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum, XRP and Bitcoin Cash are respectively down 28.3%, 23.2% and 31.1% over the past 24 hours. In other words, everything is red right now.

«

The idea that cryptocurrencies were in any way a secure asset was always a mirage. They’re speculative, rather than stable (in contrast to how gold is seen). Crypto will keep going down as long as people need actual cash, because it will get sold for something you can use to buy things.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1263: ‘surveillance creep’ at schools, why political writers can’t cover Covid-19, Sidewalk sidelined, work from home or not? and more


Whisper the app didn’t secure an online database. Not so magical, eh. CC-licensed photo by Aimee Ray 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. We told you, Dorries. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Secret-sharing app Whisper left users’ locations, fetishes exposed on the Web • The Washington Post

Drew Harwell:

»

Whisper, the secret-sharing app that called itself the “safest place on the Internet,” left years of users’ most intimate confessions exposed on the Web tied to their age, location and other details, raising alarm among cybersecurity researchers that users could have been unmasked or blackmailed.

The data exposure, discovered by independent researchers and shown to The Washington Post, allowed anyone to access all of the location data and other information tied to anonymous “whispers” posted to the popular social app, which has claimed hundreds of millions of users.
The records were viewable on a non-password-protected database open to the public Web. A Post reporter was able to freely browse and search through the records, many of which involved children: A search of users who had listed their age as 15 returned 1.3 million results.

The cybersecurity consultants Matthew Porter and Dan Ehrlich, who lead the advisory group Twelve Security, said they were able to access nearly 900 million user records from the app’s release in 2012 to the present day…

…The exposed records did not include real names but did include a user’s stated age, ethnicity, gender, hometown, nickname and any membership in groups, many of which are devoted to sexual confessions and discussion of sexual orientation and desires.

The data also included the location coordinates of the users’ last submitted post, many of which pointed back to specific schools, workplaces and residential neighborhoods.

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My best guess: an Amazon Web Services (AWS) data bucket. Data exposures like this are now almost always because someone forgetting to password-protect a bucket.

Also, whatever happened to Whisper? Is it dead? Or just in the Big App Sleep?
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‘Surveillance creep’ as cameras spread on campus • Financial Times

Carly Minsky:

»

[US tech firm] Gaggle claims to have prevented more than 700 suicides among the 5m students it monitors in the school year 2018-2019. Its rival Securly claims to have prevented more than 800 suicides across 15,000 schools, based on the screening of 5bn online activities.

But some experts are challenging this approach, which they warn is normalising intrusion into students’ lives and overriding concerns about privacy, freedom and the reliability of such technology.

Teachers, students and their parents are rarely kept informed about what data are collected and for what purposes, warns Emmeline Taylor, an academic at City University of London in the UK.

Cameras were initially introduced to safeguard against external intruders. Since then, they have been used to spot misbehaviour, and then on teachers to monitor their performance, she says. More recently, body-worn cameras on teachers have been trialled to document student behaviour in case of disciplinary disputes.

The repurposing of monitoring technology beyond its original use case is so common that there is a term for it: surveillance creep.

“The window of opportunity to define our cultural values about acceptable levels of scrutiny in schools is closing quite rapidly,” she says. “The next generation of students will already be normalised to surveillance.”

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Can political reporters handle the Covid-19 disinformation machine? • WIRED

Gilad Edelman:

»

A coronavirus pandemic would test the resilience of a number of institutions: hospitals, transit systems, global supply chains. We can add the mainstream media to that list. Objective news reporting is built on two bedrock principles: report the truth, and don’t pick sides. Trump’s unprecedented commitment to saying what is plainly untrue makes it hard to honor both principles at once. This puts news organizations into a terrible bind, especially when many conservatives—and the president himself—are ready to pounce at even the slightest whiff of liberal bias. That has always been true, but the stakes are suddenly higher. The coronavirus response is the first time Trump has been personally in charge of managing a crisis that is likely to cause a large number of American deaths. There’s no way around the fact that this is a political story as well as a public health one. If the mainstream press is ever going to figure out how to provide responsible reporting on Trump’s job performance, now’s the time.

The first pitfall to avoid is stenography: uncritically relaying what the president said without giving readers the relevant context. As the media blogger Dan Froomkin wrote over the weekend, an egregious example came after Trump blamed the shortage of tests on a rule adopted by the Obama administration that Trump has since overturned. You’ll be shocked to learn that there was no such rule. That didn’t stop headlines like “Criticized for Coronavirus Response, Trump Points to Obama Administration” (NYT) and “Trump Blames Obama Decision for Coronavirus Test Kit Shortage” (Bloomberg). Each story took several paragraphs to push back on Trump’s claim, and then only mildly. (“Experts on lab testing said they were unaware of any Obama-era rule that would have hindered the administration from authorizing lab-developed tests for the coronavirus in an emergency,” murmured the Bloomberg piece, nearly 500 words in.) Froomkin recommends pulling political reporters off the coronavirus story altogether, since they are the ones most trained to not pick sides.

«

Adam Rogers, also at Wired, did a masterfully restrained takedown of Trump’s nonsense at the CDC. It would be a cosmic irony if Trump, the germophobe, were to contract Covid-19 through his incompetence; a long-game payback of his administration’s pile of errors.
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Wash Your Lyrics

:

»

Wash Your Lyrics

Generate hand washing infographics based on your favourite song lyrics 🎶

All you need is the song title and artist. Type it in below and press Generate to instantly generate your poster.

Made by William (@neoncloth). This website wouldn’t be possible without
• Twinhelix for identifying bottlenecks and scaling the app (they’re awesome)
• Cloudflare for upgrading the site to a ‘Pro’ plan at no charge mid-virality
• Font Awesome for creating the glyphs used in the Wash Your Lyrics logo
• National Health Service (NHS) for the base poster that lyrics are written on
• Genius for providing a robust API for song information

«

Terrific fun. Bonus points for the most appropriate song. (I thought “Hand in Pocket” by Alanis Morrisette might work. “Brass in Pocket” by the Pretenders is pretty good. And if you want to try “The Mincer” by King Crimson for a bleak effect, you’re welcome.)

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The conspiracies are coming from inside the house • The Atlantic

Renée DiResta notes how in 2016, it took Russian effort to push people into wild partisan allegations online:

»

In 2020, though, the vitriol, conspiracies, and incessant allegations of rigging aren’t coming from outsiders. They’re being driven by real influencers in the United States—by verified users, many from within the media, and by passionate hyper-partisan fan groups that band together to drive the public conversation.

The bungled vote count at the Iowa caucus last month revealed the blazing incompetence of that state’s Democratic Party and Shadow Inc., the contractor it hired to design a vote-counting app. But it also revealed something far more troubling: deep suspicion and pervasive anger. Almost immediately after the announcement that results would be delayed, unfounded allegations proliferated on Twitter. Even blue-check Twitter users—people with verified identities and, often, affiliations with credible media institutions—quickly resorted to conspiratorial speculation about nefarious plots. Several high-profile Sanders surrogates claimed that the party was stalling because it was unhappy that results showed Bernie Sanders winning; others went a step further, suggesting that local party apparatchiks were outright rigging results for Pete Buttigieg. Some of these insinuations were retweeted by high-profile social-media accounts, including that of a sitting member of Congress.

Iowa wasn’t a one-off: After Joe Biden’s surprisingly strong performance in Tuesday’s primary, the hashtags #RiggedPrimary and #RiggedElection began trending on Twitter.

«

As she also points out, in 2016 only about 10% of Russian trolls’ content was political about candidates; most of it was just about exacerbating tribalism.
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You can’t fight city hall. But maybe you can fight Google • The New York Times

Ian Austen:

»

High-rises made from engineered wood would replace weed lots and underused warehouses along streets. Bike paths would melt snow. Giant awnings would shelter pedestrians from rain or blazing summer sun. Sensors would track residents’ every movement to optimize everything from traffic signals to underground armies of robots delivering parcels and discarding trash.

And all of it would meet ambitious environmental standards.

Critics pounced. How would [Google-owned] Sidewalk use the data it gathered from the streets, washrooms and even the garbage bins, they asked. Who would own the data? How would it be stored?

Several people, including Mr. Balsillie, rejected Sidewalk’s fundamental premise that algorithms, rather than politics, are the best way to design and run a city. And some argued that the project appeared to be a means of promoting concepts such as self-driving cars and other interests of Google, which, like Sidewalk, is a subsidiary of Alphabet.

“This is about corporate capture of governance and privatizing governments,” said Bianca Wylie, who has long pushed for citizen access to data and who co-founded Block Sidewalk, the largest group opposing the plan.

Sidewalk, she said, has “wonderfully intelligent people working there, and they care about cities.”

But, Ms. Wylie added, “The problem is that nobody gets to buy democracy and governance.”

«

Sidewalk is essentially a busted flush now: InLink, the company that was doing it in the UK has gone bust, owing about £35m, with the IP sold to British Telecom.
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Coronavirus: sorry, but working from home is overrated • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:

»

Fans of remote work often cite studies showing that people who work from home are more productive, like a 2014 study led by the Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom. The study examined remote workers at a Chinese travel agency and found that they were 13% more efficient than their office-based peers.

But research also shows that what remote workers gain in productivity, they often miss in harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking. Studies have found that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators, and that team cohesion suffers in remote work arrangements.

Remote workers also tend to take shorter breaks and fewer sick days than office-based ones, and in studies, many report finding it hard to separate their work from their home lives. That’s a good thing if you’re a boss looking to squeeze extra efficiency out of your employees, but less ideal if you’re someone trying to achieve some work-life balance.

Working in isolation can be lonely, which explains the popularity of co-working spaces like WeWork and The Wing. Even in Silicon Valley, where the tools that allow for remote work are being built, many companies are strict about requiring their workers to come into the office.

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2018: The open-plan office is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea • Signal v. Noise

David Heinemeier Hansson:

»

Not because there aren’t people who actually enjoy working in an open office, there are. Quite a few, actually. But they’re in the distinct minority. The vast majority of people either dislike the open office or downright hate it. So how is that going to work, exactly?

By force, of course! Open offices are more appealing to people in management because they needn’t protect their own time and attention as much. Few managers have a schedule that allows, or even requires, long hours of uninterrupted time dedicated to a single creative pursuit.

And it’s these managers who are in charge of designing office layouts and signing leases. It’s also these managers who are responsible for booking photo shots of the FUN-FUN office, giving tours to investors, and fielding interviews with journalists. The open office is an excellent backdrop for all those activities.

What it isn’t, though, is conducive to better collaboration. A new study shows that the number one argument for the open office, increased collaboration, is bullshit. Converting traditional offices with walls and doors and separation into open-plan offices causes face-to-face interaction to plummet, not rise. People try to shield their attention (and sanity!) by retreating into headphone-clad cocoons, and instead rely on instant messaging or email to interact. D’oh!

«

I’d love to see a comparative study of how well open-plan offices work for different jobs. In journalism, it can be quite effective. But in coding, maybe not. Of course now we’ve found a very, very different solution.
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Apple sells fewer than 500,000 smartphones in China in February amid coronavirus • Reuters

Brenda Goh:

»

China placed curbs on travel and asked residents to avoid public places in late January, just ahead of the Lunar New Year festival, a major gift-giving holiday. Those restrictions stayed largely in place through most of February.

In total, mobile phone brands sold a total of 6.34 million devices in February in China, down 54.7% from 14 million in the same month last year, data from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology showed (CAICT).

It was also the lowest level for February since at least 2012, when CAICT started publishing data.

«

So Apple was at the top of the story, right? Now let’s go a little further down:

»

Android brands, which include devices made by Huawei Technologies and Xiaomi, accounted for most of the drop, as they collectively saw shipments decline from 12.72m units in February 2019 to 5.85m, the data showed.

Shipments of Apple devices slumped to 494,000, from 1.27 million in February 2019. In January, its shipments had held steady at just over 2 million.

«

Proportionately, Apple had the bigger drop, but it’s the Android OEMs that will be feeling it. When China sneezes, they all catch cold, so to speak.
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iOS 14 reveals iPhone 9 and updated iPad Pro details, new Apple TV remote, AirTags, more • 9to5Mac

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»

Leaked iOS 14 code obtained by 9to5Mac corroborates many details about what to expect from Apple’s upcoming hardware refreshes, including the new iPad Pro, iPhone 9, and AirTags. Apple is also developing a new Apple TV remote, the code indicates.

According to the iOS 14 code, the upcoming iPad Pro refresh will include a new triple-lens camera array like previous supply chain reporting has suggested. This camera setup will include a time-of-flight 3D sensor, a wide-angle lens, an ultra-wide lens, and a telephoto lens. This is a major update from the current iPad Pro.

The time-of-flight sensor will likely lend itself to new augmented reality features. 9to5Mac reported earlier today that Apple is developing a new augmented reality application for iOS 14. The app will allow users to get more information about world around them via AR.

iOS 14 code also includes details about the upcoming iPhone 9, again corroborating past supply chain reporting. The iPhone 9 will support Touch ID as well as Express Transit capabilities. Apple is hoping to push iPhone 6 users — which does not feature support for Express Transit — to upgrade to the iPhone 9.

The new iPhone 9 or iPhone SE 2 is expected to be released this spring, likely alongside the release of iOS 13.4 (barring any major delays due to coronavirus.) The device will, of course, be supported by iOS 14, hence why details about it are included in the operating system details.

The iOS 14 code seen by 9to5Mac also includes new details about changes to the Apple TV. Prior versions of tvOS 13 code have revealed that Apple is working on a new Apple TV box, but iOS 14 also includes the tidbit that there will also be a new Apple TV remote.

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New Apple remote that is sympathetic to the human hand 🙏

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1262: when Google loses your house, dress to disappear completely, Ukraine’s coronavirus riots, how WeChat is losing attention, and more


A report says Apple has put off a spring launch of an iPhone. So what will it do instead? CC-licensed photo by Mark Mathosian 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. Now wash someone else’s hands. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What happens when Google Maps gets it wrong • The Washington Post

Amanda Ripley:

»

Two and a half years ago, my dad and his wife took an Uber from the airport to my house in Washington, D.C., as they’ve done many times before. Only this time, it took them to the wrong place: an empty lot by a cemetery, two miles from my house. My dad told the Uber driver it was not my house, but the driver didn’t believe him. His app had led him here, so it must be right!

They all sat there for a few minutes, staring at the driver’s phone, paralyzed by the startling gap that had opened between the app and reality.

This is how we discovered that Google Maps had two locations listed for our home. One was right, one was wrong. This seemed like a pretty minor problem in the scheme of things, and it was. For a while, I even thought it was kind of wonderful. We could be anonymous! Even Google didn’t know where we lived!

But over time, as Google Maps got embedded in more and more apps, the problem worsened. Google Maps is used by Uber, Instacart, Lyft, Door Dash and even something called the Zombie Outbreak Simulator.

The second-most-popular maps app in the United States is Waze. Guess who owns Waze? Google Maps again! Soon Waze had our address wrong, too. Eventually, almost everyone who tried to find our house was directed to the wrong place.

«

I once dated a woman whose road was a mountweazel – it was intentionally not included in the index of the London A-Z (we used to use paper-bound maps, kids). Finding her house the first time sure was a challenge.
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Dressing for the surveillance age • The New Yorker

John Seabrook:

»

When I told my children, both “Harry Potter” fans, that I was going to check out an invisibility cloak, they were excited. I’d learned of Goldstein’s cloak in a scientific paper that he and his students produced about their work. But when I saw Goldstein in his sweatshirt, which featured a foreground of blurry organic shapes in orange, like a display of horribly irradiated vegetables, with dark, vaguely human shapes above, I couldn’t imagine Harry or Hermione wizarding with one. The only recognizable shape (to me) was what appeared to be a traffic light just below the neckline. Considered more generously, the pattern loosely evoked Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” as it might appear at the bottom of a swimming pool painted by David Hockney.

Then Goldstein stepped in front of the camera, and the yolo detector did a double take. It couldn’t see him at all. The computer saw the chair behind him (“Chair,” the bounding box was labelled) but not the six-foot-tall, thirty-six-year-old man standing right in front of it—Goldstein Unbound. I, in my supposedly anonymous city duds, was instantly detected and labelled. It was like a conceit from William Gibson’s 2010 science-fiction novel, “Zero History,” in which a character wears a T-shirt so ugly that CCTV cameras can’t see it.

The pattern on the sweatshirt was an “adversarial image”—a kind of deep-learning optical illusion that stopped the algorithm from seeing the person wearing it. Unlike poison attacks, which seek to subvert surveillance systems with bad data, adversarial attacks are images that have been engineered to take advantage of flaws in the way computers see. They are like hacks, but for artificial intelligence. The security vulnerabilities of operating systems and computer networks are widely known, but deep-learning A.I. systems are still new and so complex that scientists don’t yet fully understand the kinds of hacks they are vulnerable to.

«

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Fake news and social media rumors about coronavirus caused this town to riot • Buzzfeed News

Christopher Miller:

»

By nightfall, the Ukrainian town of Novi Sanzhary, population 8,300, would be turned upside down, thrust into a state of panic and chaos stemming from residents’ fears that the novel coronavirus was going to bring death to this previously unheralded backwater.

Violence would soon break out, leading to nine police officers being injured, 24 people being arrested for rioting, with five officially charged, and a statement from President Volodymyr Zelensky describing the melee as “medieval” behavior. The government response would include visits not only by ministers but also by a celebrity TV doctor who tried to calm the town’s frayed nerves.

What caused it all? A toxic mix of limited information released by Ukraine’s authorities, disinformation spread by the public on social media, and a targeted fake news campaign from yet-to-be-identified malign actors, according to more than a dozen government officials, medical experts, and local residents interviewed by BuzzFeed News.

«

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The infinite scroll • Columbia Journalism Review

David Roth:

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It all happened in the way that decline generally happens in American culture, which is one anxious, hopeful, cynical capitulation at a time. We have compressed and corroded and finally collapsed what used to be the core of a publication—its relationship with its readers, and the basic notion that one should not make it hard for them to read.

It goes without saying that everyone involved is perpetually maxed-out and stressed and scrabbling for a dwindling and finite amount of money in an arbitrary and artificially constricted ad economy that runs on wobbly, untrustable, and easily manipulated data. (A friend who works in advertising operations described the work as “a game of catching falling knives.”)

In the last half-decade, ads have rapidly migrated from the sides and top of the page into the actual text. This is the result of pressures created by the transition from desktop computers to mobile devices. The ads need to get seen on a screen with no margins.

The ads that stalk you down the page reflect advertisers’ demands that their ads remain “in view.” And all the clammy unbidden video stuff is exactly as desperate as it looks. Not many people will watch video ads if given any choice in the matter. Taking choice out of the equation helps a lot.

Some sites have deliberately made the experience of reading them for free more assaultive, in order to bully readers into buying subscriptions. For the price of a small monthly indulgence on your end, it can all go back to normal and your laptop’s fan can finally turn off.

It’s a rolling, desperate, iterative exercise in seeing how bad things can become before readers finally stop coming at all. The pseudonymous author of the newsletter “Last Week In Ad Ops” describes it as “a decision that we know is bad, bad for our product, users, brand… but we do it anyway[,] often telling ourselves it’s ‘just for this quarter/client/order.’”

«

That point about how newspapers tried to make their content easier to read is completely forgotten. (Though I’d say The Guardian’s website does make that effort.)
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How WeChat is losing the war for users’ attention • WalktheChat

Thomas Graziani:

»

A couple of years ago, WeChat seemed like an unstoppable force. It was completely dominating the Chinese social media landscape, was beating Alibaba in payments and was making forays into e-commerce.

Fast-forward to 2020, and users are already spending more time on Douyin than they are on WeChat, swiping for hours between short videos. What went wrong?

It can seem easy to paint WeChat’s current demise by their inability to spot the short-video craze early.

I would, however, argue that WeChat started losing the battle earlier. WeChat neglected incremental changes that could have improved the platform.

Ten years ago, Facebook would frequently revamp its interface, each time creating an uproar among its users. Yet it kept going at it, constantly refining its user experience and design.

That’s something that WeChat didn’t do. The result: WeChat moments interface seems old fashioned compared to its Western competitors.

The App barely uses the phone screen, keeping pictures cluttered and forcing users to click in order to see them. Engagement buttons are also hidden in a sub-menu, making it harder for users to like photos or comments.

Facebook takes a very different approach, displaying engaging full-screen pictures and prominent actions calls to like and comment.

The truth is that WeChat has been innovating quite a bit: they launched payment, Mini-programs, and many other disruptive features that have changed the behavior of both users and businesses.

But WeChat has been looking down at small incremental changes. Tencent was apparently too afraid to make any modifications to its hit product which might anger or confuse users.

«

The inertia of success.
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Ring will require two-factor authentication starting today (Update: Blink verifying emails) • Android Police

Ryan Whitwam:

»

Ring has dealt with its fair share of privacy snafus (and then some), but its latest move might allay some of your fears. The Amazon-owned smart home company has instituted a new login policy, effective immediately. Now, you’ll need to enter a two-factor authentication (2FA) code every time you log into your account.

Ring follows in the footsteps of Google’s Nest, which made a similar move earlier this month. When you enter your username and password in the Ring app, you’ll get a one-time code via either email or SMS (your choice). Ring doesn’t mention authenticator apps as an option, unfortunately.

«

Two steps forward, one step back.
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Apple’s iPhone 9 release next month has reportedly been canceled • BGR

Chris Smith:

»

Apple is widely expected to unveil a slew of new products this month, including the affordable iPhone 9 (or iPhone SE 2, as it’s sometimes called) device that kept popping up in all sorts of rumors in the past few weeks, as well as a new iPad Pro generation. However, the new novel coronavirus threat has prompted Apple to revise is plans, and a leaker now says that not only is the March press event canceled, but Apple is also considering postponing the iPhone 9 announcement and release date. That all has to do with the COVID-19 outbreak that’s currently sweeping the globe with no end or even slowdown in sight.

Santa Clara County has just banned mass gatherings of people due to the increasing number of coronavirus cases in the region, and the ban will lift in early April, according to authorities.

As a result, Apple has reportedly decided to cancel the March press conference, which should have taken place on March 31st. That’s what sources familiar with the matter told FrontPageTech’s Jon Prosser. Apple has reportedly considered holding the event elsewhere or announcing the new products via an online-only press event. It’s unclear what will happen, but Apple still plans to launch a few new products in the coming months.

Now, for the really bad news: five separate sources told Prosser that the iPhone 9 won’t be among the products that are launched. Apple will not announce the new iPhone via a streaming event or a press release right now, and it won’t start selling it in early April as it was previously rumored.

«

I’d imagine it’s difficult for Apple to sell products that it probably doesn’t have in-country. China will have stopped production in the past couple of months. It’ll want to know when the product is ready before it announces it.
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Google cleans coronavirus misinformation on search, YouTube • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen and Gerrit De Vynck:

»

On YouTube, Google’s video service, the company is trying to quickly remove videos claiming to prevent the virus in place of seeking medical treatment. And some apps related to the virus have been banned from the Google Play app store, prompting complaints from developers who say they just want to help. An Iranian government app built to keep track of infections was also removed from the Play Store, ZDNet reported.

The company is also giving up revenue. Pichai said in another recent memo that Google has blocked tens of thousands of ads “capitalizing” on the virus. It’s also pulled ads from YouTube videos that discuss Covid-19, while giving governments and NGOs free ad space on the video service.

“In a highly uncertain, fearful moment there will naturally be more disinformation,” said Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. “Right now, Google should absolutely emphasize results from the government agencies that can be trusted here, from research-based, evidence-based data.”

Despite such hands-on responses to the virus outbreak, Google stressed that it wasn’t manually changing search results. “Our systems are designed to automatically detect searches that may be related to topics like health and apply the same treatment of elevating reliable and authoritative sources in the results,” a company spokeswoman said.

As one of the first stops for people seeking all kinds of medical information online, the Alphabet Inc. unit has earned the nickname Dr. Google. This has been an uncomfortable role for the company. Medical experts have for years cautioned against going to the search engine for answers. And Google ads have sometimes been abused by unscrupulous businesses looking to take advantage of vulnerable people seeking medical help online.

«

Isn’t feeding things to not be shown into the AI system that drives search essentially the same thing as manually changing the results? Also, it takes this sort of crisis to make search elevate reliable and authoritative sources?
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The US isn’t ready for what’s about to happen • The Atlantic

Juliette Kayyem is a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security:

»

the officials now urging citizens to keep calm understand far more acutely than the general public how much else can go wrong. A municipal police chief in the Boston area recently urged me to imagine that a school district closed for even three weeks. Take just one child, raised by a single parent who is a police officer. The child is home, so the parent must stay home. Other officers in the same patrol will be affected even if they don’t have kids in school. Shifts will change, nonessential functions will be put off, and the department will have less flexibility to respond to problems unrelated to the epidemic—even as, with more teens unsupervised, rates of car accidents and certain crimes could well increase.

Emergency-response officials are hesitant to play out these dangers in public. This police chief asked me not to identify him because, like so many others in positions of responsibility, he worries that misgivings like his will become self-fulfilling prophecies—that citizens will panic if their local authorities give voice to their own doubts.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump and his administration have vacillated between ignoring the threat and making wildly unrealistic promises about it. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence promised 1.5 million coronavirus tests, but The Atlantic reported Friday that, according to all available evidence, fewer than 2,000 had been conducted in the United States. Trump himself is simply lying about basic facts about the COVID-19 response; despite the testing kit shortfall, he has publicly stated that everyone who wants to get tested can get tested.

«

As another article at The Atlantic says, Trump’s incompetence usually protects the US from the worst outcomes of his actions. This time, it will cause it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1261: Sensor Tower’s VPN data grab, Apple Watch to aim at kids, Twitter averts Dorseypocalypse, Google finds fish faces, and more


Guess where the big growth is in the music instrument business. CC-licensed photo by steve_cx 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. Now wash your hands, using your face. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Sensor Tower secretly owns ad blocker and VPN apps that collect user data • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

»

Sensor Tower, a popular analytics platform for tech developers and investors, has been secretly collecting data from millions of people who have installed popular VPN and ad-blocking apps for Android and iOS, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found. These apps, which don’t disclose their connection to the company or reveal that they feed user data to Sensor Tower’s products, have more than 35 million downloads.

Since 2015, Sensor Tower has owned at least 20 Android and iOS apps. Four of these — Free and Unlimited VPN, Luna VPN, Mobile Data, and Adblock Focus — were recently available in the Google Play store. Adblock Focus and Luna VPN were in Apple’s App Store. Apple removed Adblock Focus and Google removed Mobile Data after being contacted by BuzzFeed News. The companies said they continue to investigate.

Once installed, Sensor Tower’s apps prompt users to install a root certificate, a small file that lets its issuer access all traffic and data passing through a phone. The company told BuzzFeed News it only collects anonymized usage and analytics data, which is integrated into its products. Sensor Tower’s app intelligence platform is used by developers, venture capitalists, publishers, and others to track the popularity, usage trends, and revenue of apps.

Armando Orozco, an Android analyst for Malwarebytes, said giving root privileges to an app exposes a user to significant risk.

“Your typical user is going to go through this and think, Oh, I‘m blocking ads, and not really be aware of how invasive this could be,” he said.

«

The advertising around VPNs is so deceptive. For the vast majority of users, there’s no risk in using public Wi-Fi. This story demonstrates that using a VPN might be more risky.
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Apple Watch Series 6 and watchOS 7 to include ‘Infograph Pro’ with tachymeter, Schooltime and kids mode, sleep tracking, more • 9to5Mac

Zac Hall:

»

9to5Mac exclusively reported over the weekend that Apple Watch will gain the ability to detect blood oxygen saturation, a critical vital for maintaining heart and brain health. The new health feature isn’t the only change coming to Apple Watch Series 6 and watchOS 7…

…Apple appears to be developing the ability to set up and manage Apple Watches for kids using a parent’s iPhone. A single iPhone can already activate and pair with multiple Apple Watches, but only one watch can be used at a time and each watch is tied to the same account as the iPhone.

Under the new model, a parent could activate and manage an Apple Watch for a child without requiring a second iPhone. This method will also offer parental controls including managing trust contacts and available music.

Apple Watch parental controls go even further in iOS 14 and watchOS 7. A new feature called Schooltime will allow parents to manage which apps and complications can be used during certain hours like class time.

«

Smart move to aim to get the kids connected. Of course they’ll have figured out that you don’t want to pass on the parent’s messages to the kids.
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Twitter reaches deal with activist fund that wanted Jack Dorsey out • The New York Times

Kate Conger and Michael de la Merced:

»

Twitter said on Monday that it had reached a deal with Elliott Management, the activist investor that called for ousting the social media company’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey.

The agreement will keep Mr. Dorsey atop Twitter — at least for now — at a crucial time for the social network. It also avoids a potentially costly fight with Elliott, the $40bn hedge fund that has successfully shaken up many corporate boardrooms.

It also brings on board Silver Lake, one of Silicon Valley’s biggest investors in technology companies. Silver Lake agreed to invest $1bn in Twitter, money that would help finance the buyback of $2bn worth of stock.

As part of the agreement, both Egon Durban, Silver Lake’s co-chief executive, and Jesse Cohn, the Elliott executive who oversaw the Twitter campaign, will take seats on Twitter’s board. The board will search for a third independent director, with an emphasis on finding an expert in artificial intelligence and other technologies…

…But the settlement also lays the groundwork for eventually replacing Mr. Dorsey. Twitter agreed to create a new committee of five directors, including Mr. Durban and Mr. Cohn, that would study the company’s succession planning and leadership structure and recommend any changes by the end of the year.

«

Timed it perfectly for a buyback, then. Among the aims: grow “monetizable daily active users” by 20% or more. Gulp. But neither of the hedge funds may “comment on or influence, or attempt to influence, directly or indirectly, any Twitter policies or rules, or policy or rule enforcement decisions, related to the Twitter platform.”
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The music industry’s smash hit: heavy metal sounds from tiny metal boxes • WSJ

Ryan Dezember:

»

The pedals have earned the Akron, Ohio, company a passionate following among musicians, as well as applause from the federal government. Earthquaker Devices was named the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2019 exporter of the year.

Guitar pedals have been a bright spot in the music business. Gibson Brands and Guitar Center Holdings—a storied guitar maker and a ubiquitous retailer, respectively—have struggled with debt and weak sales. Sales of effects pedals were $125.5m in 2019, double what they were a decade earlier, according to Music Trades magazine.

Like craft-brewed beers, the pedals are produced by an eclectic mix of small and large makers. Buyers include pro musicians, weekend amateurs and stay-at-home guitar nerds. Like beer, one pedal usually leads to another.

“There are guys I know that have 60 overdrive pedals,” said Justin Norvell, executive vice president of products at Fender Instruments Corp., maker of the iconic Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars.

Some musicians string together a dozen or more effects pedals when they play. Mr. Stillman used 17 pedals, plus a tuner. The most popular pedals replicate the sustain and gritty texture of a vacuum-tube amp turned up to 10. Others make a guitar sound like an organ or replicate particular amps.

Avant-garde New York groups Uniform and Show Me the Body use so many pedals that they are arranged on tables and manipulated by hand as instruments. In many bands, including Mr. Stillman’s Relaxer, guitarists do a lot of toe-tapping and mid-song squatting to twist knobs for fine-tuning.

Fender CEO Andy Mooney was backstage at a U2 concert in 2017 and noticed the Irish rock group’s guitarist, The Edge, had 21 guitars, four amplifiers and too many effects pedals to count. Maybe 150 of them, he said.

«

If you want to see someone demonstrating what can be done with effects pedals, Steve Bullock will take you through it. (It does also call to mind Bill Bailey’s sketch about what U2’s music would sound like without effects pedals.)
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Pro-Trump climate denial group lays off staff amid financial woes, ex-employees say • HuffPost UK

Alexander Kaufman:

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The Illinois-based Heartland Institute ― which captured headlines last month for promoting a German teenager with ties to neo-Nazis as the climate denier’s alternative to acclaimed youth activist Greta Thunberg ― pink-slipped at least 10 staffers Friday, shedding what one former employee described as “more than half” the organization’s staff.

“Heartland is broke,” Nikki Comerford, the nonprofit’s events coordinator on staff for nearly 21 years, told a former colleague in a text message, a screenshot of which HuffPost reviewed.

Comerford blamed Frank Lasée, the former Wisconsin Republican state lawmaker who took over as Heartland’s president last July, for squandering the organization’s budget during his nascent tenure and leaving the group in dire financial straits. Another former employee accused Lasée of mismanaging the budget, and private Facebook posts from other current staffers expressed dismay over the state of the organization, but HuffPost could not independently verify the state of Heartland’s finances because the nonprofit’s tax filings for 2019 are not yet due.

“Frank Lasee spent all of our money in six months including the savings,” she wrote in a text. “They had to lay off more than half the staff today and more coming. What an asshole.”

«

So treating an important but finite resource as though it’s infinite has bad effects in the medium-to-long term? I feel as though there might be an underlying lesson here for the staff and former staff at the Heartland Institute, if only they were able to tease it out.
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Even mask-wearers can be ID’d, China facial recognition firm says • Reuters

Martin Pollard:

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Hanwang Technology Ltd, which also goes by the English name Hanvon, said it has come up technology that can successfully recognize people even when they are wearing masks.

“If connected to a temperature sensor, it can measure body temperature while identifying the person’s name, and then the system would process the result, say, if it detects a temperature over 38 degrees,” Hanwang Vice President Huang Lei told Reuters in an interview.

The Beijing-based firm said a team of 20 staff used core technology developed over the past 10 years, a sample database of about 6 million unmasked faces and a much smaller database of masked faces, to develop the technology,

The team began work on the system in January, as the coronavirus outbreak gathered pace, and began rolling it out to the market after just a month.

It sells two main types of products that use the technology. One performs “single channel” recognition that is best used at, for example, entrances to office buildings.

The other, more powerful, product is a “multi-channel” recognition system that uses “multiple surveillance cameras”.

It can identify everyone in a crowd of up to 30 people “within a second”, Huang says.

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Time between this getting tested, and it being used against Hong Kong protesters…
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Google parent Alphabet invents fish recognition system • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw and Leslie Hook:

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The three-year-old project, dubbed Tidal, is working with farms in Europe and Asia. It pairs underwater cameras with AI techniques such as computer vision to track species including salmon and yellowtail. 

The hope, according to Astro Teller, the director of X, is to reduce the world’s dependence on land-based proteins, such as beef, and to free the oceans from damaging fishing practices. 

“The oceans are falling apart thanks to us, thanks to humanity. So something has to change,” he said, discussing Tidal publicly for the first time. “No more [eating] fish isn’t really on the cards any time soon. What can we do to make it as good for the planet as possible?”

Grace Young, a research engineer on Tidal, added: “Developing technology for the underwater environment is really hard: it’s dark, it’s cold, it’s unforgiving, saltwater kills electronics, the pressure is crushing, the temperature can shift from above boiling to below freezing in a matter of metres.” 

The team of around a dozen X staff had to build a fresh data set of fish to train its algorithms, initially by filming in a paddling pool at its Silicon Valley headquarters. Its stereo camera rig, which is lowered into a farming enclosure, is able to track fish through their development, using their particular shapes and movements. 

“Some of these signals are happening in milliseconds,” said Neil Davé, who leads the Tidal project. “You’d be unable to see it with the human eye.”

Data and insights collected from Tidal’s system are sent to farmers to help them optimise feeding, reduce waste and maintain healthy fish, in the hopes of easing some environmentalists’ concerns about overuse of antibiotics. 

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But of course you’d have Leslie Hook writing your story about fish recognition.
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This neural net knows what smells good • AI Weirdness

Janelle Shane:

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Last week I trained a neural net on 1000 candles, and soon it was producing scents like Frozen Styrofoam, Volcanoes Comfort, Lemon Lime Decay, and Friendly Wetsuit. We have to just imagine what these would smell like (or in some cases, try not to imagine). But what if the neural net could describe them?

Amy Pollien offered to help out, developing a web scraping tool that could browse candle sites and collect the candle names and descriptions. After just 72 descriptions, though, she had to admit defeat. “The tool can’t tell the difference between the product description and hordes of enthused human users gushing about how “the scent of seagulls takes them back to fantasies of fresh wash hanging on the line” and I guess I’m OK with how I couldn’t anticipate that.”

I trained GPT-2 on this ridiculously tiny list of candle descriptions, but let it learn for only a few seconds before halting – if I let it go longer, it might memorize the examples. I didn’t expect much of a neural net trained under these circumstances, but when I asked it to generate text, I got things that – well, they WERE candle descriptions.

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After seeing this, I don’t know why they still bother with human copywriters.
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Huawei projects big drop in smartphone sales amid US sanctions • The Information

Juro Osawa:

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Huawei is projecting that its annual smartphone shipments will fall around 20% this year, in what would be its first year-on-year decline, as a result of US sanctions on its business. The rapidly spreading coronavirus, which has hurt manufacturing and retail sectors in China, could worsen that outlook.

Huawei shared its internal projection for 2020 in January among a limited number of managers in its consumer electronics division. The projection hasn’t previously been reported. The decline in Huawei’s shipments, after nearly a decade of rapid growth, stems from expected weak sales in Europe and other overseas markets. This decrease is a result of US sanctions that block the Chinese company from using Google’s mobile services, people familiar with the matter said. 

Last year, Huawei managed to grow its smartphone shipments to more than 240m units, despite the US sanctions put in place in May. As a result, it surpassed Apple, which shipped 198m phones, for the first time. That made Huawei the world’s second-largest smartphone maker after Samsung.

Huawei’s overseas smartphone sales didn’t collapse last year in part because the company could keep selling some of its old models that the Google ban didn’t affect. But this year, Huawei expects its shipments to fall to around 190m to 200m smartphones, according to these people. It’s hard to predict how many smartphones Apple will ship this year, as the virus has disrupted manufacturing of the iPhone, the company has said.

«

The ban on Google services really bit hard outside China at the end of last year, but it had China to keep it going. Now coronavirus has double-decimated sales there, and the rest of the world isn’t helping either.

My initial reaction was that Samsung will be the winner, but Covid-19 is hitting South Korea hard, so maybe not. Have to wonder how some of the smaller OEMs will fare in the cashflow squeeze they’re sure to feel: sales will be down, but when demand ramps up they might not have the product (or cash on hand) to meet it.
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Personal perspective on coronavirus: reflections from an angry Wuhan resident : goats and soda • NPR

Anonymous (you’ll understand why):

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The younger generations, born after 1995 and in the 2000s, have good impressions about the Chinese system, putting the nation before all because they have been living in an era of prosperity and have yet to experience adversity.

The things that happened during this outbreak have greatly surprised those kids. For example, a young man scolded others on Weibo in the early days of the outbreak. He accused them of spreading rumors and argued that if we don’t trust the government, there is nothing we can trust. Later, he said, when a member of his family was infected with the coronavirus but was unable to get treatment in the overcrowded hospital, he cursed and called for help.

When Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who first reported a mysterious SARS-like illness, died of the disease himself, a student commented on the internet: “It was just the virus that killed him, so we should focus on the epidemics.” But then the student’s dormitory was appropriated for quarantine patients — and he was shocked and dismayed.

This is the lesson these young people are learning. When someone says we can accomplish something but we must pay a price, do not rush to applaud.

One day you may become the price that is paid.

There is a saying in Chinese that has taken on new meaning in this coronavirus era: “When the stick hits my own head, I finally understand the pain — and why some others once cried out of pain.”

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1260: development in a coronavirus recession, Sonos stops bricking gear, the incom-parable prodigal techbro, muzzled conservatives, and more


The US moved onto Daylight Saving Time at the weekend – and might make it permanent in future CC-licensed photo by DocChewbacca 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. Now wash your face (but don’t use your hands). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The coronavirus recession and what it means for developers • Swyz

“Swyx” (that’s the name he gives):

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Some states (Alaska, Oklahoma, etc) will be disproportionately affected by the oil slump – and others (Seattle, NYC, etc) by the travel slump – so even if you don’t directly have anything to do with the travel and energy industry, you may work for someone that does. If they lose business, so do you. These things ripple out.

Startup fundraising will evaporate. VC’s are already highly attuned to this and Sequoia has already put out its warning – reminiscent of 2008’s RIP Good Times memo. Every investment is being made (or revoked) with this lens – VC’s react MUCH faster than normal people do, that’s kind of their whole job. They are also inclined to recognize asymmetric payoffs and exponential moves.

If you are a freelancer or agency: Clients will take longer – their own projects become more uncertain, they’ll magically receive more competitive proposals, they will book shorter contracts, they will renegotiate more things and change the deal abruptly. This exact thing is happening to the entire travel industry right now and will happen to you.

If you are an employee: Hiring will take longer. Same deal but now companies have to weigh your healthcare and WFH benefits against their downward revised cashflow projections. Regrettable layoffs can and will happen – nothing at first (because employers will try to hold the line), then we’ll see a flood of them (because employers run out of options).

If you work at Airbnb: you’re not getting an IPO. Sorry. The window was last year.

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Sonos getting rid of Recycle Mode that needlessly bricked its older devices • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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Sonos is doing away with Recycle Mode, a controversial part of the company’s trade-up program that rendered old devices inoperable in exchange for a 30% discount on a newer Sonos product. The trade-up program still exists, and customers who own eligible legacy products can get the same discount, but they’re no longer required to permanently brick devices that might still work just fine.

With the change, Sonos is now giving customers full control over what happens with the older gadgets they’re “trading” up from. They can choose to keep it, give it to someone, recycle it at a local e-waste facility, or send it to Sonos and let the company handle the responsible recycling part. Sonos quietly removed Recycle Mode from its app last week and replaced it with language asking anyone seeking the discount to call customer service. Within the next few weeks, Sonos will update its website with a new flow for the trade-up program that no longer includes Recycle Mode, and you won’t have to call anybody.

«

Finally, some good news.
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I went to CPAC to see how conservatives think big tech is censoring them • Gizmodo

Tom McKay:

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Gizmodo went to the belly of the beast, Conservative Political Action Conference 2020 (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, to ask conservatives whether they think social media companies are biased against them and what, specifically, they think they can’t say online anymore. We received a range of answers, ranging from the anecdotal and apocryphal to complaints about poor user support and enforcement of policies against misgendering and hate speech. We also looked into some of their accounts to see if we could figure out what the hell is going on. (Some of the interviews have been condensed for brevity.)

So, CPAC attendees, what can’t you say online anymore?

«

Sometimes great articles emerge from really simple premises.

Also: CPAC included folks who think that Covid-19 is a “deep state” hoax. A few days later it was confirmed that at least one attendee tested positive. Wonder if they’ve changed their mind.
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The prodigal techbro • The Conversationalist

Maria Farrell:

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The Prodigal Son is a New Testament parable about two sons. One stays home to work the farm. The other cashes in his inheritance and gambles it away. When the gambler comes home, his father slaughters the fattened calf to celebrate, leaving the virtuous, hard-working brother to complain that all these years he wasn’t even given a small goat to share with his friends. His father replies that the prodigal son ‘was dead, now he’s alive; lost, now he’s found’. Cue party streamers. It’s a touching story of redemption, with a massive payload of moral hazard. It’s about coming home, saying sorry, being joyfully forgiven and starting again. Most of us would love to star in it, but few of us will be given the chance.

The Prodigal Tech Bro is a similar story, about tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening. They suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found. They are warmly welcomed home to the center of our discourse with invitations to write opeds for major newspapers, for think tank funding, book deals and TED talks. These guys – and yes, they are all guys – are generally thoughtful and well-meaning, and I wish them well. But I question why they seize so much attention and are awarded scarce resources, and why they’re given not just a second chance, but also the mantle of moral and expert authority.

I’m glad that Roger McNamee, the early Facebook investor, has testified to the U.S. Congress about Facebook’s wildly self-interested near-silence about its amplification of Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential election. I’m thrilled that Google’s ex-‘design ethicist’, Tristan Harris, “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,“(startlingly faint praise) now runs a Center for Humane Technology, exposing the mind-hacking tricks of his former employer. I even spoke —critically but, I hope, warmly—at the book launch of James Williams, another ex-Googler turned attention evangelist, who “co-founded the movement”of awareness of designed-in addiction. I wish all these guys well. I also wish that the many, exhausted activists who didn’t take money from Google or Facebook could have even a quarter of the attention, status and authority the Prodigal Techbro assumes is his birthright.

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Farrell’s work is uniformly terrific. And this is very terrific.
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Google tracked his bike ride past a burglarized home. That made him a suspect • NBC News

Jon Schuppe:

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[Zachary] McCoy [who had received an email from Google saying the local police had demanded information about his Google account] worried that going straight to police would lead to his arrest. So he went to his parents’ home in St. Augustine, where, over dinner, he told them what was happening. They agreed to dip into their savings to pay for a lawyer.

The lawyer, Caleb Kenyon, dug around and learned that the notice had been prompted by a “geofence warrant,” a police surveillance tool that casts a virtual dragnet over crime scenes, sweeping up Google location data — drawn from users’ GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular connections — from everyone nearby.

The warrants, which have increased dramatically in the past two years, can help police find potential suspects when they have no leads. They also scoop up data from people who have nothing to do with the crime, often without their knowing ─ which Google itself has described as “a significant incursion on privacy.”

Still confused ─ and very worried ─ McCoy examined his phone. An avid biker, he used an exercise-tracking app, RunKeeper, to record his rides. The app relied on his phone’s location services, which fed his movements to Google. He looked up his route on the day of the March 29, 2019, burglary and saw that he had passed the victim’s house three times within an hour, part of his frequent loops through his neighborhood, he said.

“It was a nightmare scenario,” McCoy recalled. “I was using an app to see how many miles I rode my bike and now it was putting me at the scene of the crime. And I was the lead suspect.”

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“Geofence warrants” sound like a useful way of collecting suspects, but have led to wrongful arrest and conviction.
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More states moving to keep Daylight Saving Time permanent • Old Farmer’s Almanac

Catherine Boeckmann:

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Some constituencies profit from changing our clocks. 

For example, today, we drive our cars everywhere. The lobbying groups for convenience stores know this—and pushed hard for daylight saving time to last as long as possible. Extra daylight means more people shop in retail environments. Outdoor businesses such as golf courses and gardening supply stores report more profit with more daylight hours.  

Does DST really conserve energy? According to Congress, this is the main reason for the switch. When the Energy Policy Act extended the hours in 2007, Congress retained the right to revert back should the change prove unpopular or if energy savings are not significant. 

A Department of Energy report from 2008 found that the extended DST put in place in 2005 saved about 0.5% in total electricity use per day. However, the closer you live to the equator, where the amount of daylight varies little, the amount of electricity actually increased after the clocks were switched.

In Indiana, where I live, the change to DST in 2006 actually cost us. Matthew Kotchen, a Yale economist, found a 1% increase in electricity use in Indiana. Due to higher electricity bills and more pollution, Indiana’s change ended up costing consumers $9m per year. Further studies in 2008 showed that Americans use more domestic electricity when they practice daylight saving.

Today, as modern society marches forward, the energy argument may become obsolete. In terms of work, we’re not really a 9 to 5 society any more. Factories have different shifts. Office workers use the internet. Farmers will use daylight hours, no matter what. At home, our electricity demand is no longer based on sunrises and sunsets. We drive instead of walking, which means daylight saving actually increases gasoline use.

It’s quite possible we are now wasting energy. 

«

UK readers: our US brethren are an hour closer to us (because we haven’t changed yet, but they did on Sunday.) US senator for Florida Marco Rubio is pushing this; it was literally a subplot in the comedy series Veep. (And here’s more, on Buzzfeed from 2017.)
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A chronobiological evaluation of the acute effects of Daylight Saving Time on traffic accident risk • Current Biology

Josef Fritz, Trang VoPham, Kenneth Wright and Céline Vetter:

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There is evidence that the spring Daylight Saving Time (DST) transition acutely increases motor vehicle accident (MVA) risk (“DST effect”), which has been partly attributed to sleep deprivation and circadian misalignment. Because spring DST also shifts clock time 1 h later, mornings are darker and evenings brighter, changing illumination conditions for peak traffic density.

This daytime-dependent illumination change (“time of day effect”) is hypothesized to result in DST-associated afternoon and evening accident risk reductions. Furthermore, sunrise and local photoperiod timing depend on position in time zone. The sun rises at an earlier clock time in the eastern regions of a given time zone than in the western regions, which is thought to induce higher levels of circadian misalignment in the west than in the east (“time zone effect”).

This study evaluated the acute consequences of the DST transition on MVAs in a chronobiological context, quantifying DST, time of day, and time zone effects. We used large US registry data, including 732,835 fatal MVAs recorded across all states (1996–2017), and observed that spring DST significantly increased fatal MVA risk by 6%

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Abolishing it would prevent about 28 fatal accidents a year, they calculate. Doesn’t sound a lot, except to the people who are in them, and their families and friends, and..
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The word from Wuhan • London Review of Books 22 February 2020

Wang Xiuying, living in the Hot Zone:

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Chinese medicine has played a dubious role in all this. Many believe the virus originated in a wild animal market in Wuhan. Trading and eating wild animals isn’t uncommon in Asia, partly because traditional medicine holds that some animal parts have near-magical properties. Pangolin scales are supposed to help new mothers produce milk; manta ray gills clear the lungs and cure chickenpox; the penises of pandas, tigers and bears can do the same trick as Viagra; a bit of monkey brain can make you smarter. But the market in such delicacies has also been blamed for the transmission of viruses from animals to humans. Traditional Chinese medicine may have contributed to the outbreak of the epidemic but some cling to the hope that it may also come to the rescue. On 31 January the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica announced that a herbal mixture called shuanghuanglian might be effective against the coronavirus (the banlangen root was similarly said to treat SARS). Shuanghuanglian sold out even more quickly than face masks. People want to believe there’s a cure. It’s true that the concoction may soothe a sore throat – the only problem is that you might catch the virus while queuing to buy it.

Schools are suspended until further notice. With many workplaces also shut, notoriously absent Chinese fathers have been forced to stay home and entertain their children. Video clips of life under quarantine are trending on TikTok. Children were presumably glad to be off school – until, that is, an app called DingTalk was introduced. Students are meant to sign in and join their class for online lessons; teachers use the app to set homework. Somehow the little brats worked out that if enough users gave the app a one-star review it would get booted off the App Store. Tens of thousands of reviews flooded in, and DingTalk’s rating plummeted overnight from 4.9 to 1.4. The app has had to beg for mercy on social media: ‘I’m only five years old myself, please don’t kill me.’

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Also worth it for his description of how you get things done in China, metaphorically known as “throwing woks”.
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Who is Facebook’s mysterious “Lan Tim 2”? • Terence Eden’s Blog

Eden went investigating his “Off-Facebook Activity” from Facebook’s hilarious privacy doo-dah:

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Because I use the Firefox web browser, all my off-FB activity is kept private from Facebook. I don’t use FB to sign into things. I also run an ad-blocker. So I expected my “Off Facebook Activity” to be completely blank.
It wasn’t.

Who are Lan Tim 2? And what did I purchase from them? First up, let’s check that I’m as paranoid as I think I am…

Yup! I’ve connected nothing to my FB account.

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It turns out to be quite a mystery, with what sure looks like data misuse at the bottom of it.
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DuckDuckGo is good enough for regular use • www.bitlog.com

Jake Voytko decided to try DuckDuckGo for a month after Google’s desktop redesign which makes ads look like regular results:

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Let’s move away from Google’s competitive advantages. How does DuckDuckGo perform for most of my search traffic? DuckDuckGo does a good job. I haven’t found a reason to switch back to Google.

I combed through my browser’s history of DuckDuckGo searches. I compared it to my Google search history. When I fell back to Google, I often didn’t find what I wanted on Google either.

Most of my searches relate to my job, which means that most of my searches are technical queries. DuckDuckGo serves good results for my searches. I’ll admit that I’m a paranoid searcher: I reformat error strings, remove identifiers that are unique to my code, and remove quotes before searching. I’m not sure how well DuckDuckGo would handle copy/pasted error strings with lots of quotes and unique identifiers. This means that I don’t know if DuckDuckGo handles all technical searches well. But it does a good job for me.

There are many domains where Google outperforms DuckDuckGo. Product search and local search are some examples. I recently made a window plug. It was much easier to find which big-box hardware stores had the materials I need with Google. I also recently bought a pair of ANC headphones. I got much better comparison information starting at Google. Google also shines with sparse results like rare programming error messages. If you’re a programmer, you know what I’m talking about: imagine a Google search page with three results. One is a page in Chinese that has the English error string, one is a forum post that gives you the first hint that you need to solve the problem, and one is the error string in the original source code in Github. DuckDuckGo often returns nothing for these kinds of searches.

Even though Google is better for some specific domains, I am confident that DuckDuckGo can find what I need. When it doesn’t, Google often doesn’t help either.

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I’ve been using DDG literally for years – perhaps a decade. I like the fact that you can just copy the URL of a search result, and it’s the actual URL, not a Google-obfuscated mess.
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The man who refused to freeze to death • BBC Future

William Park:

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The survivors [of a fishing boat capsize] found themselves separated from shore by three miles (5km) of 5-6C (41-43F) sea. An average person will survive in water colder than 6C for about 75 minutes. Accounts of people surviving for longer are anecdotal and few. In laboratories, test subjects begin to suffer adverse effects within 20 or 30 minutes before they are pulled out. To swim three miles in these seas would take hours.

Seawater cannot get really, really cold like air. Seawater freezes at about -1.9C (28.6F), but around Iceland in March the sea is just above freezing. It is theoretically possible to get frostbite in cold water, then, but very unlikely.

On the keel of the upturbed boat, however, the sub-feezing air temperature was taking its toll. The fishermen’s wet shirts, sweaters and jeans were quickly exacerbating their coldness. Staying put was not an option.

“When you come out of the water you get evaporative cooling,” says [professor of physiology at the University of Portsmouth, Mike] Tipton . “This is a really potent way of losing heat from the body.” Ordinarily you would want to strip off and put dry clothing on, but in the absence of that, climbing into a large plastic bag will reduce evaporative cooling and convective cooling.

“If you get someone wet at 4C and they have got a litre of water in their clothing; if all of that water evaporates they are going to have a fall in body temperature of 10C,” says Tipton. “If you put them through the same scenario and then put them in a plastic bag they can use their body to heat up that water. It is contained in the bag so it cannot evaporate away. Those people lost half a degree, so they were 20 times better off.”

Tipton says one of the big successes his team at the University of Portsmouth have had was to encourage the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to ditch their expensive foil space blankets in favour of cheap, tough, plastic survival bags. Space blankets, the kind that are wrapped around marathon runners at the end of races, are good at protecting against radiative heat loss, but less good when it comes to evaporative heat loss, because they do not trap fluid. In a survival situation, a plastic bag would be far more useful.

Without a plastic survival bag, and now in the cold air with the seawater evaporating off him, Friðþórsson’s risk of freezing cold injuries was very high.

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Amazing stuff in this; not just about swimming, but also land.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified