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“Do-something-itis” is the impulse behind all these coronavirus projects

April 28, 2020, 1:08 PM UTC

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There’s a certain repetitiveness to the coverage of the only story that matters right now. Perhaps that will change as companies quickly flood us with reports of their first-quarter earnings. The haves—grocers, tech companies selling digital products—will tell stories of surges among the wreckage of a global economy. The have nots—airlines and others in the travel or hospitality industry—will epitomize the wreckage itself.

I told you last week about Erika Fry’s spot-on coverage of how Seattle’s business community played its role in helping the city’s response. Now comes another several thousand words on the topic from Charles Duhigg in The New Yorker. Want more on Seattle? Watch Frontline’s “Tale of two Washingtons” comparing the response in Seattle with Washington, D.C.

Then there is the battle between surveillance and privacy. David Meyer explained last week that even privacy advocates may give a little so that governments can track the infected. Over the weekend, The Economist also noted that Europe’s privacy poo-bahs plan to give a bit. On Monday, The New Yorker asked: “Can We Track COVID-19 and Protect Privacy At The Same Time?” (The answer: Maybe.)

That article had a wonderful line, by the way. It quotes a Cambridge University researcher suggesting the Apple-Google contact tracing app project is an expression of “do-something-itis.” The impulse to do something is understandable. And we’ll look back on this as a time when much well-meaning spaghetti was thrown against the wall—and much didn’t stick.

Speaking of which, the U.K. appliance maker Dyson has cancelled a program to make ventilators after spending $25 million to develop them. It says the devices aren’t needed. That marks a tough stretch for Dyson, which last year terminated an even costlier electric car gambit.

Tough times, for sure. But interesting, too.


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This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


Please please me. As it becomes clear that the pandemic will require longer shutdowns, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile are extending customer protections through the end of June. The carriers are waiving some fees and data caps while pledging not to cancel service for customers who can't pay bills due to the outbreak.

Up, up and away. In another virtual product launch, drone maker DJI unveiled its upgraded Mavic Air 2. The new drone costs $800, can fly for 34 minutes (up from 21 minutes), and captures 4K video at 60 frames per second.

Pomp and happenstance. With so many senior graduation ceremonies cancelled, Facebook is stepping into the breech. The social network says it will hold a massive virtual graduation live on May 15 featuring speakers including Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Garner, and Lil Nas X.

Stop in the name of love. With cars having become, in some sense, rolling computers, they can now get pretty impressive upgrades just in software. Tesla is offering an update that lets its cars autopilot program recognize stop signs and traffic lights. These cars will slow at lights and signs, requiring the driver to press a pedal to proceed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it will "closely monitor" the program.

Rhapsody in bluetooth. Keeping up with the contact tracing app beat, Britain is following Australia's lead in not using the new Apple-Google tracing capability. Instead of relying on data stored on individual phones, as the tech giants suggest, the U.K. will centralize the information on government servers. 


The tech industry usually offers stories of A.I. projects succeeding, but a new study from Google shows the difficulty of using A.I. in the real world. The company trained an app with machine learning to diagnose diabetic retinopathy, which can cause blindness, from photos of patients eyes. It worked well in the lab, but less well in health clinics in Thailand, as Will Douglas Heaven reports for the MIT Technology Review.

Like most image recognition systems, the deep-learning model had been trained on high-quality scans; to ensure accuracy, it was designed to reject images that fell below a certain threshold of quality. With nurses scanning dozens of patients an hour and often taking the photos in poor lighting conditions, more than a fifth of the images were rejected.

Patients whose images were kicked out of the system were told they would have to visit a specialist at another clinic on another day. If they found it hard to take time off work or did not have a car, this was obviously inconvenient. Nurses felt frustrated, especially when they believed the rejected scans showed no signs of disease and the follow-up appointments were unnecessary. They sometimes wasted time trying to retake or edit an image that the AI had rejected.


E-commerce site Wayfair named Jim Miller as its chief technology officer. Miller, who has worked at Google, Cisco, and Amazon, was named acting CTO in August after John Mulliken retired...Longtime Expedia board member and former Tribune CEO Peter Kern was named chief executive of the struggling travel site. Chair Barry Diller pushed out former CEO Mark Okerstrom in December...Super-hyped short video service Quibi is losing Megan Imbres, its head of brand and content marketing...Speaking of losing execs at super-hyped startups, fintech darling Bakkt is losing its second CEO in under six months. Mike Blandina, who replaced Kelly Loeffler in December, is jumping to JPMorgan Chase. VP of M&A David Clifton gets the CEO job now...Famed venture capitalist Bill Gurley will not be part of the next fund at his firm, Benchmark...Top privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg is stepping down as executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, known as EPIC.


Square to suffer a ‘steep drop’ as many customers struggle to survive, analysts say By Danielle Abril

Houseparty CEO Sima Sistani meets the ‘massive technical challenge’ of coronavirus video chat demand By Emma Hinchliffe

IRS stimulus check portal: Try this trick if you are still getting ‘payment status not available’ By Lee Clifford

‘Deeply frustrated’: Tech issues and backlogs hit the SBA’s second round of PPP loans By Anne Sraders

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Maybe you weren't imagining it. The U.S. Navy released three previously classified videos of unidentified flying objects. Some think they constitute proof of alien visitors. Others just see a high-tech drone. What's your conclusion?

Aaron Pressman