30 April 2020

Wired: “The biggest reason not to ditch your iPhone for Android? WhatsApp”

The world’s most popular messaging service, with more than two billion users, has a somewhat baffling flaw. But why? According to WhatsApp, it’s because of a technical knot that’s fiendishly difficult to unpick. “There is a difference in the formats in which the data is stored in the Android and iOS apps, as the database schemas are different”, a spokesperson explains. On an iPhone, iOS backs up WhatsApp chats to iCloud. On Android, backups go to Google Drive. And the two systems don’t like talking to one another.

Simply put, the two backup formats are completely different to one another. That’s mostly down to security. Create a backup for WhatsApp on an iPhone and the file is created to be securely stored on iCloud. Do the same on Android and the file is created to be securely stored on Google Drive. But as the two systems have different security requirements, it isn’t currently possible to transfer one backup to another operating system.

James Temperton

I stumbled upon this complication almost two years ago, when I decided to abandon the iPhone and switch to Android, and it’s disappointing to see nothing has improved since. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a reason not to switch phones, but it’s certainly one of the bigger headaches. At the time, I also searched in vain for a decent solution to migrate my WhatsApp chat history, but in the end I resigned myself to simply making manual backups of more important conversations.

20 April 2020

Vanity Fair: “Behold Dune: An Exclusive Look at Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, and more”

Villeneuve intends to create a Dune that has so far only existed in the imagination of readers. The key, he says, was to break the sprawling narrative in half. When Dune hits theaters on December 18, it will only be half the novel, with Warner Bros. agreeing to tell the story in two films, similar to the studio’s approach with Stephen King’s It and It Chapter Two. I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie, says Villeneuve. The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details.

For Villeneuve, this 55-year-old story about a planet being mined to death was not merely a space adventure, but a prophecy. No matter what you believe, Earth is changing, and we will have to adapt, he says. That’s why I think that Dune, this book, was written in the 20th century. It was a distant portrait of the reality of the oil and the capitalism and the exploitation—the overexploitation—of Earth. Today, things are just worse. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also a call for action for the youth.

Anthony Breznican

If you’ve been following my blog closely, you might have noticed I am a huge fan of the Dune series, finding references to it in the most unexpected circumstances. It was great hearing that a new film adaptation is in the works, but nevertheless I remained cautious about my expectations. I am not really a fan of Denis Villeneuve’s work so far – I’ve watched Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 but came away unimpressed. His films, in my opinion at least, are good at creating a certain atmosphere, but not at dealing with real substance, which makes him unsuited at directing a movie that should be first and foremost about substance and meaning.

14 April 2020

Electronic Frontier Foundation: “The Challenge of Proximity Apps for COVID-19 Contact Tracing”

We cannot solve a pandemic by coding the perfect app. Hard societal problems are not solved by magical technology, among other reasons because not everyone will have access to the necessary smartphones and infrastructure to make this work.

Finally, we should not excessively rely on the promise of an unproven app to make critical decisions, like deciding who should stop sheltering in place and when. Reliable applications of this sort typically go through many rounds of development and layers of testing and quality assurance, all of which takes time. And even then, new apps often have bugs. A faulty proximity tracing app could lead to false positives, false negatives, or maybe both.

Andrew Crocker, Kurt Opsahl, & Bennett Cyphers

Another hot topic for discussion lately, besides the benefits of wearing masks in public, has been the various proposals and initiatives to track people infected with coronavirus using mobile technologies – in this case individual tracking, not aggregated tracking like we saw from Google. Some of them are already in place, for example in Hong Kong and a growing number of countries around the world, others are being discussed, as in the European Union and San Francisco. And, as everything moves at an accelerated pace in 2020, late last week, Apple and Google announced a partnership to create a decentralized contact tracing system that will work across iOS and Android. There are many critical takes online, starting with the article above, because this is a situation where purely technological solution can be of limited use.

12 April 2020

The Wall Street Journal: “Airbnb’s Coronavirus Crisis: Burning Cash, Angry Hosts and an Uncertain Future”

As it grew, the company spent big. Its total costs rose to $5.3 billion last year, from $2.6 billion in 2017, outstripping an 85% increase in revenue over the same period, from $2.6 billion to $4.8 billion, according to a copy of its financial statements.

Administrative costs increased 113% between 2017 and 2019 as the company hired thousands of employees and built out a corporate headquarters in the trendy San Francisco neighborhood known as SOMA, or “South of Market”. As Airbnb struggled to police crime on its platform, spending on safety also has increased, the Journal has reported.

By the beginning of this year, some Airbnb board members were pressuring Mr. Chesky to cut costs, according to people familiar with the discussions.

When the coronavirus hit China and then Europe, Airbnb’s bookings plummeted. In Beijing, little more than 1,600 bookings were made between March 1 and March 7, down 96% from the Jan. 5 to Jan. 11 period, according to AirDNA, an analytics firm that tracks the short-term rental market.

Kirsten Grind, Jean Eaglesham & Preetika Rana

Among the more immediate consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, the travel industry is suffering from a massive blow – I would even say something close to a near-death experience. Its tech disruptor Airbnb is similarly affected, but from my perspective I think they will face harder times ahead. The article above reports that the company is borrowing at an interest rate of 10% above the London interbank rate, a very expensive cash influx, which suggests investors have low confidence that Airbnb can deliver and repay its debts. It’s not so much a question of profitability, as (variable) costs may be slashed quickly in case of crisis, but rather of cash flow. With bookings evaporating in their most lucrative markets and the company pledging to refund bookings in quarantined cities through mid-May, Airbnb is facing a couple of months at least with next to zero incoming cash from its business, and larger than usual payments.

11 April 2020

The Guardian: “The weird magic of eiderdown”

The practice of poisoning or sedating eiders’ predators was once widespread in Iceland, carried out by farmers and government officials alike. Such techniques may have saved the lives of countless ducks, but they have historically proved highly destructive to the island’s ecosystem. In the early 1980s, for example, more than 4,000 ravens were killed per year under the country’s pest control programme. Worse, the disappearance of Iceland’s white-tailed eagle, which almost went extinct in the 1960s, has been attributed partly to the activities of eiderdown farmers. Although eagle numbers have now recovered, their torrid history speaks of what Andri Snær Magnason, himself an eiderdown farmer, calls the “dark side” of the eiderdown trade: however virtuous harvesters may be, they have a strong incentive to kill any species that threatens the prized bird.

The recent history of the Westfjords is really the story of rural depopulation, of a vanishing culture next to the Arctic Circle. Over the past decade, countless farmers have packed up and left the region, tired of the weather, isolation and poor roads. The region’s tunnels and bridges, intended to increase mobility, have served as escape routes, emptying the fjords of Icelanders. “The government is always making it harder for people”, Magnús said. “There’s so little money in it, being a farmer, it’s becoming a lifestyle choice.”

Unlike many livestock farms in the Westfjords, eider farms are still populated, their down a source of stable income. Faced with rising costs and falling profits, the brothers stopped sheep-farming in 1990. Instead, they chose to specialise in eiderdown. “It’s like a family thing”, Alexíus said. “Everybody helps out.”

Edward Posnett

I’m generally fascinated by all things Iceland, so I couldn’t skip this article about… farming duck feathers… I was a bit puzzled by the tone of the writer, a kind of silent awe, as if it’s some sort of unique activity – maybe it’s unknown in the UK, but down pillows are still pretty common in Romania, as is plucking ducks and geese. Sadly, in this case, it’s also a story about the heavy human impact on the fragile island ecosystem of Iceland – as the massive culling of trees, which Icelanders are now painstakingly trying to grow back. Most traditional activities can’t be practiced at the large scale necessary for our globalized world, so I think it’s best to find alternatives, both for the farmers and for the products, rather than continuing to harm the environment with excessive farming.

Nature Medicine: “Respiratory virus shedding in exhaled breath and efficacy of face masks”

Our findings indicate that surgical masks can efficaciously reduce the emission of influenza virus particles into the environment in respiratory droplets, but not in aerosols12. Both the previous and current study used a bioaerosol collecting device, the Gesundheit-II (G-II)12,15,19, to capture exhaled breath particles and differentiated them into two size fractions, where exhaled breath coarse particles >5 μm (respiratory droplets) were collected by impaction with a 5-μm slit inertial Teflon impactor and the remaining fine particles ≤5 μm (aerosols) were collected by condensation in buffer. We also demonstrated the efficacy of surgical masks to reduce coronavirus detection and viral copies in large respiratory droplets and in aerosols (Table 1b). This has important implications for control of COVID-19, suggesting that surgical face masks could be used by ill people to reduce onward transmission.

Among the samples collected without a face mask, we found that the majority of participants with influenza virus and coronavirus infection did not shed detectable virus in respiratory droplets or aerosols, whereas for rhinovirus we detected virus in aerosols in 19 of 34 (56%) participants (compared to 4 of 10 (40%) for influenza and 8 of 23 (35%) for coronavirus). For those who did shed virus in respiratory droplets and aerosols, viral load in both tended to be low (Fig. 1). Given the high collection efficiency of the G-II (ref. 19) and given that each exhaled breath collection was conducted for 30 min, this might imply that prolonged close contact would be required for transmission to occur, even if transmission was primarily via aerosols, as has been described for rhinovirus colds20. Our results also indicate that there could be considerable heterogeneity in contagiousness of individuals with coronavirus and influenza virus infections.

Donald K. Milton & Benjamin J. Cowling

There’s a growing movement online towards wearing face masks all the time, even home-made fabric masks in absence of proper surgical masks, and this article is being passed around as supposed evidence in favor. Having read the conclusion quoted above – see also my highlights – I am getting a strong sense that these people have either not read the study, or are deliberately framing the results to justify their personal opinions. And that’s a dangerous path towards misinformation and ‘fake news’, towards the kind of twisted reasoning that led to the anti-vax movement.

10 April 2020

Spotify Newsroom: “How Social Distancing has shifted Spotify Streaming”

As people around the world have increasingly moved inside over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen music and podcast listening change in a variety of ways.

For example, with fewer people streaming from their cars during their daily commutes and an increase in working from home, more people are streaming across devices like computer desktops, TVs, smart speakers, and gaming consoles. There’s also been an increase in cooking- and housework-themed playlists, showing that people are primarily focusing on family and domestic tasks instead of music intended for get-togethers. Self-improvement podcasts (think wellness, meditation) are seeing an uptick as well.

In Italy and Spain, residents have taken to singing songs together from apartment balconies and windows, especially in honor of health care providers and first responders. Two of the songs sung in Italy have soared: streams of “Abbracciame” increased by 820% on March 13, and streams of “Azzurro” soared more than 715% on March 14. In Spain, streams of the ’80s track “Resistiré” (I Will Resist) by Duo Dinamico leapt by more than 435% starting March 15, after videos of the event started circulating on social media.

Spotify Newsroom

There have been a number of reports form various sources about drops in music streaming in the countries most affected by coronavirus and the associated social isolation, while others have mentioned shifts towards radio listening and classical music. It was only natural for habits to change as people were forced to spend more time at home, but it’s more likely a shift away from top hits to specialized tastes, than a permanent drop. We are spending less time commuting, and more time in a shared space at home, where other members of the family may have different music tastes – or, if a couple sharing an apartment is listening together, that means a single stream instead of two, if these people were listening separately before. Hopefully we will see music streaming on a clear rising trajectory, as under the current conditions it’s one of the few revenue streams left for artists, with touring postponed for who knowns how long.

The Guardian: “Justin Trudeau: the rise and fall of a political brand”

Within seconds of the opening bell, Brazeau pinned Trudeau against the ropes with an onslaught of heavy jabs. But the Conservative senator soon exhausted himself. Early in the second round, Trudeau seized on the opening, raining down blows on Brazeau. Less than a minute into the third round, as the Liberal MP continued to pummel his opponent, the referee halted the fight and declared Trudeau the winner.

That victory was one of the first major triumphs in a branding campaign that helped to transform Trudeau from a politician widely derided as a lightweight into a global political superstar. “It wasn’t random”, Trudeau told Rolling Stone in 2017, referring to the boxing match. “I wanted someone who would be a good foil, and we stumbled upon the scrappy, tough-guy senator from an Indigenous community… I saw it as the right kind of narrative, the right story to tell.”

The sort of potent spectacle that characterised his fight with Brazeau was, until recently, a hallmark of Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister. Like Barack Obama, Trudeau seemed to understand better than other politicians how to adapt the old ideas of political marketeering to the new realities of social media. He was a master of the viral video clip or poignant photo that seemed to express the worthiness of his government and the virtue of his politics. He became, as a flurry of academic research has put it, the first prime minister of the Instagram age. “I think he’s probably the best national leader since Ronald Reagan at projecting a certain image”, says Warren Kinsella, a former Liberal strategist.

Ashifa Kassam

I haven’t watched Canadian politics closely (and with so much happening in the world, it’s rather complicated to do), but the stories from this article about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau don’t paint him in the best light. With Donald Trump as President in the US, the last thing we need are more politicians that focus on their image and personal brand more than their policies and the necessities of the countries they’re leading. In Trudeau’s case though, he seems to be managing the current crisis much better, even from isolation, so maybe there’s some substance behind the carefully constructed brand.

04 April 2020

The Guardian: “Boar wars: how wild hogs are trashing European cities”

Wild boar now number more than 10m in the EU, the group says. “Conflicts between humans and wild boar will increase”, says Baños. The numbers are putting more pressure on cities to manage the population of a pest that’s bigger than a rat, with behaviours more complex than a pigeon or stray cat.

Boar eradication strategies have been trialled, including contraception, poison and selective culling. In Berlin, the city pays a team of stadtjäger, or trained street hunters, to pick off nuisance wild boar within city limits. They have shot thousands, but there are still roughly 3,000 in the German capital, populating the city’s green outlying enclaves and parks and venturing on to streets at night, according to the German hunting lobby.

Barcelona takes a different approach. Shortly after the calamitous 2013 police shooting, the city hired a team of veterinary scientists from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). The vets practise a form of wildlife management on the streets of one of Europe’s most densely-populated cities. Their duties involve pre-planned kills – targeting females in their prime reproductive years and their young, rather than adult males – they also accompany police on late-night calls in case they are needed to euthanise a boar. During the day, they conduct citizen outreach efforts and supply data and reports to city officials about waste management and where the city is falling behind on trimming vegetation along roads, parks and squares. The effect of this partnership is that boar-human clashes in Barcelona have fallen by more than half, results that are gaining attention across Europe. “They’re doing great stuff”, Sebastian Vetter at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology in Vienna, told me.

Bernhard Warner

Fascinating article – I had no idea so many large European cities had wild boar problems, in particular Barcelona. In Romania it’s fairly common to encounter them in the countryside, where they constantly ravage crops and silos. The problems go beyond the occasional scared resident or upturned trash bin, because wild boars can carry and spread many human diseases, from tuberculosis to hepatitis E and influenza – something of greater concern as we are currently experiencing a pandemic originating from wildlife – and African swine fever, which regularly threatens the pig meat industry.

03 April 2020

The Verge: “Google uses location data to show which places are complying with stay-at-home orders — and which aren’t”

Google is using location data gathered from smartphones to help public health officials understand how people’s movements have changed in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. In a blog post early Friday morning, Google announced the release of its COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports.

The reports use data from people who have opted in to storing their location history with Google to help illustrate the degree to which people are adhering to government instructions to shelter in place and, where possible, work from home.

As global communities respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increasing emphasis on public health strategies, like social distancing measures, to slow the rate of transmission, the company said in a blog post. In Google Maps, we use aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are — helping identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded. We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19.

Casey Newton

While the pandemic is rapidly spreading through our interconnected world, networking and mobile technologies are also enabling new ways to track and possibly fight the disease. Along this Google initiative, Facebook is also sharing mobile location data with U.S. cities and states to evaluate the effectiveness of social distancing measures – unfortunately only in the U.S.