Julie-Ann Hutchinson and Kyle Burton, Baltimore-based health care professionals, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure their 40-person St. Louis wedding last September ran smoothly. They hired a “covid safety officer,” a nurse who, for $60 an hour for five hours, checked temperatures, asked guests how they felt, and handed out sanitizer and masks.
“My father came up with this idea, simply because he didn’t want family members to have to monitor the group and tell them to stand six feet apart,” Hutchinson said. “He wanted there to be an impartial neutral party.” That made sense to the couple but Hutchinson admits she thought, “He’s being ridiculous. Like what do I Google, ‘bouncer’? You can’t hire on TaskRabbit for this role. How do you even Google this?”
In the end, Burton’s aunt worked in the local military veterans hospital and knew someone who could help out, and the couple found themselves relieved of having to police their relatives. “I thought we were pandemic extra,” Hutchinson said (their wedding was profiled in the New York Times). “But it was a relief. She [the covid safety officer] would stare them down if they [guests] positioned themselves too closely.”
Neither Hutchinson nor Burton would change anything. “The conflict we faced was that we wanted to make the most of our time with our loved ones,” Burton says. “We had the option to delay the wedding entirely but we wanted to celebrate our love for each other and we wanted our family with us.”
Meet the covid concierge
The two couples—Niemer and Backstrom, Hutchinson and Burton—were lucky: They were able to use a connection to find a person on short notice at a relatively low cost to monitor their wedding. But for couples who don’t find such a monitor adequate nor have healthcare connections, “private covid concierge testing” is now a service you can buy in for your big day.
Asma Rashid’s boutique medical office in the Hamptons offered 35-minute turnaround testing for clients wanting to party last summer in the area’s beach houses. She’s already received requests for weddings this summer, including one she is helping a couple plan where vaccinations are explicitly required. “You’re not allowed to enter the party without proof of vaccination,” she says. “It’s not an honorary system.”
Rashid did not provide her rate, but similar services are popping up quickly online and aren’t cheap, ringing in at around $100 per test. One company, EventDoc, offers a deal for $1,500 testing for 20 guests in New York and Florida. Veritas, a Los Angeles-based startup, is gearing up for a busy wedding season outside its usual core clientele of film production crews who are required by law to be tested regularly. The company offers rapid tests for $75-$110 depending on the size of the group.
“We’ve been approved to do vaccinations by California,” says cofounder Kristopher Sims. The firm aims to eventually offer vaccinations at pre-wedding gatherings like bridal showers so guests are vaccinated in time for the wedding day—for a fee.
The demand for covid concierge services is not limited to weddings; summer graduations, bar/bat mitzvahs, quinceaneras, and any other gathering is fair game. But weddings are the most lucrative and dependable, spawning an emerging industry of rapid testing and verification services for those who can afford it. For a wedding list of even 10, those costs can quickly add up.
“That’s where the challenge is: Big tech is creating a solution for the rich but in reality, it’s the masses that need it,” Ramesh Raskar says. Raskar is a professor at MIT’s Media Lab and is in the process of launching PathCheck, a paper card with a QR code that proves you are vaccinated. “It’s like a certificate,” Raskar says. When a person arrives at a venue, their QR code is checked along with a form of photo ID; if both check out, the person is permitted to enter.
On the surface, PathCheck ticks a lot of boxes: It’s pretty secure and, because Media Lab is a nonprofit, it is free—so far. And PathCheck is a paper product rather than a digital one, making it especially attractive for undocumented immigrants, the elderly, and those without internet access.
Tools like PathCheck are one possible route toward opening up safe, large gatherings to a person without much economic means in the United States. But it has drawbacks: PathCheck has to gain traction for people to trust and use it. And, as Veritas’s Sims and Capello note, there is currently no straightforward, national way to verify a person vaccinated in one state in another state. Even if there was—vaccine passports are far from an uncontroversial option.
Weddings have been another example of how the pandemic has exacerbated inequity. The decision to have a safe wedding—any gathering, really—this year has been dictated by wealth and access. Some couples can afford to have a medical professional moonlight as a covid bouncer or send at-home PCR tests. Others can’t and have to make the difficult decision to either cut their guest list down and hope for the best—or just wait until the summer and hope enough people have been vaccinated.
That won’t change soon. Sure, President Joe Biden has said every American adult is eligible for a vaccine by April 19, but children will remain unvaccinated for some time, and the April 19 date does not account for the bottleneck of people wanting vaccines but unable to access them because of demand. While it might be safe to assume most people are fully vaccinated by June, it will be hard to actually know—unless, of course, you have the money to find out.
On the other hand, wedding season might be a boon for pushing those who are vaccine hesitant toward getting a vaccine simply because of FOMO. In Israel, life is mostly back to pre-pandemic normality after its massive vaccination campaign, helped along by incentivizing vaccine skeptics to get the vaccine so they can be part of social activities, according to a recent JAMA article.
Similarly, Niemer and Backstrom said that the expected presence of two vulnerable people—Backstrom’s father, who has stage 4 lung cancer, and her 90-year-old grandmother—may have guilted people into getting the vaccine. “They [guests] knew the stakes,” Backstrom says. “Everyone was pretty much on their best behavior. We didn’t have guests who were stubborn and resistant.”
The Download: Algorithms’ shame trap, and London’s safer road crossings
This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.
How algorithms trap us in a cycle of shame
Working in finance at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, mathematician Cathy O’Neil got a firsthand look at how much people trusted algorithms—and how much destruction they were causing. Disheartened, she moved to the tech industry, but encountered the same blind faith. After leaving, she wrote a book in 2016 that dismantled the idea that algorithms are objective.
O’Neil showed how every algorithm is trained on historical data to recognize patterns, and how they break down in damaging ways. Algorithms designed to predict the chance of re-arrest, for example, can unfairly burden people, typically people of color, who are poor, live in the wrong neighborhood, or have untreated mental-health problems or addictions.
Over time, she came to realize another significant factor that was reinforcing these inequities: shame. Society has been shaming people for things they have no choice or voice in, such as weight or addiction problems, and weaponizing that humiliation. The next step, O’Neill recognized, was fighting back. Read the full story.
London is experimenting with traffic lights that put pedestrians first
The news: For pedestrians, walking in a city can be like navigating an obstacle course. Transport for London, the public body behind transport services in the British capital, has been testing a new type of crossing designed to make getting around the busy streets safer and easier.
How does it work? Instead of waiting for the “green man” as a signal to cross the road, pedestrians will encounter green as the default setting when they approach one of 18 crossings around the city. The light changes to red only when the sensor detects an approaching vehicle—a first in the UK.
How’s it been received? After a trial of nine months, the data is encouraging: there is virtually no impact on traffic, it saves pedestrians time, and it makes them 13% more likely to comply with traffic signals. Read the full story.
Check out these stories from our new Urbanism issue. You can read the full magazine for yourself and subscribe to get future editions delivered to your door for just $120 a year.
– How social media filters are helping people to explore their gender identity.
– The limitations of tree-planting as a way to mitigate climate change.
Podcast: Who watches the AI that watches students?
A boy wrote about his suicide attempt. He didn’t realize his school’s software was watching. While schools commonly use AI to sift through students’ digital lives and flag keywords that may be considered concerning, critics ask: at what cost to privacy? We delve into this story, and the wider world of school surveillance, in the latest episode of our award-winning podcast, In Machines We Trust.
Check it out here.
ICYMI: Our TR35 list of innovators for 2022
In case you missed it yesterday, our annual TR35 list of the most exciting young minds aged 35 and under is now out! Read it online here or subscribe to read about them in the print edition of our new Urbanism issue here.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 There’s now a crazy patchwork of abortion laws in the US
Overturning Roe has triggered a legal quagmire—including some abortion laws that contract others within the same state. (FT $)
+ Protestors are doxxing the Supreme Court on TikTok. (Motherboard)
+ Planned Parenthood’s abortion scheduling tool could share data. (WP $)
+ Here’s the kind of data state authorities could try to use to prosecute. (WSJ $)
+ Tech firms need to be transparent about what they’re asked to share. (WP $)
+ Here’s what people in the trigger states are Googling. (Vox)
2 Chinese students were lured into spying for Beijing
The recent graduates were tasked with translating hacked documents. (FT $)
+ The FBI accused him of spying for China. It ruined his life. (MIT Technology Review)
3 Why it’s time to adjust our expectations of AI
Researchers are getting fed up with the hype. (WSJ $)
+ Meta still wants to build intelligent machines that learn like humans, though. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI. (MIT Technology Review)
+ Understanding how the brain’s neurons really work will aid better AI models. (Economist $)
4 Bitcoin is facing its biggest drop in more than 10 years
The age of freewheeling growth really is coming to an end. (Bloomberg $)
+ The crash is a threat to funds worth millions stolen by North Korea. (Reuters)
+ The cryptoapocalypse could worsen before it levels out. (The Guardian)
+ The EU is one step closer towards regulating crypto. (Reuters)
5 Singapore’s new online safety laws are a thinly-veiled power grab
Empowering its authoritarian government to exert even greater control over civilians. (Rest of World)
6 Recommendations algorithms require effort to work properly
Telling them what you like makes it more likely it’ll present you with decent suggestions. (The Verge)
8 Inside YouTube’s meta world of video critique
Video creators analyzing other video creators makes for compelling watching. (NYT $)
+ Long-form videos are helping creators to stave off creative burnout. (NBC)
9 Time-pressed daters are vetting potential suitors over video chat
To get the lay of the land before committing to an IRL meet-up. (The Atlantic $)
10 How fandoms shaped the internet
For better—and for worse. (New Yorker $)
Quote of the day
“This is no mere monkey business.”
—A lawsuit filed by Yuga Labs, the creators of the Bored Ape NFT collection, against conceptual artists Ryder Ripps, claims Ripps copied their distinctive simian artwork, Gizmodo reports.
The big story
This restaurant duo want a zero-carbon food system. Can it happen?
When Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint opened The Perennial, the most ambitious and expensive restaurant of their careers, they had a grand vision: they wanted it to be completely carbon-neutral. Their “laboratory of environmentalism in the food world” opened in San Francisco in January 2016, and its pièce de résistance was serving meat with a dramatically lower carbon footprint than normal.
Myint and Leibowitz realized they were on to something much bigger—and that the easiest, most practical way to tackle global warming might be through food. But they also realized that what has been called the “country’s most sustainable restaurant” couldn’t fix the broken system by itself. So in early 2019, they dared themselves to do something else that nobody expected. They shut The Perennial down. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
+ A look inside the UK’s blossoming trainspotting scene (don’t worry, it’s nothing to do with the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name.)
+ This is the very definition of a burn.
+ A solid science joke.
+ This amusing Twitter account compiles some of the strangest public Spotify playlists out there (Shout out to Rappers With Memory Problems)
+ Have you been lucky enough to see any of these weird and wonderful buildings in person?
The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions
What was the ruling?
The decision states that the EPA’s actions in a 2015 rule, which included caps on emissions from power plants, overstepped the agency’s authority.
“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’” the decision reads. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”
Only Congress has the power to make “a decision of such magnitude and consequence,” it continues.
This decision is likely to have “broad implications,” says Deborah Sivas, an environmental law professor at Stanford University. The court is not only constraining what the EPA can do on climate policy going forward, she adds; this opinion “seems to be a major blow for agency deference,” meaning that other agencies could face limitations in the future as well.
The ruling, which is the latest in a string of bombshell cases from the court, fell largely along ideological lines. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, and he was joined by his fellow conservatives: Justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas. Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
What is the decision all about?
The main question in the case was how much power the EPA should have to regulate carbon emissions and what it should be allowed to do to accomplish that job. That question was occcasioned by a 2015 EPA rule called the Clean Power Plan.
The Clean Power Plan targeted greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, requiring each state to make a plan to cut emissions and submit it to the federal government.
Several states and private groups immediately challenged the Clean Power Plan when it was released, calling it an overreach on the part of the agency, and the Supreme Court put it on hold in 2016. After a repeal of the plan during Donald Trump’s presidency and some legal back-and-forth, a Washington, DC, district court ruled in January 2021 that the Clean Power Plan did fall within the EPA’s authority.
How to track your period safely post-Roe
3. After you delete your app, ask the app provider to delete your data. Just because you removed the app from your phone does not mean the company has gotten rid of your records. In fact, California is the only state where they are legally required to delete your data. Still, many companies are willing to delete it upon request. Here’s a helpful guide from the Washington Post that walks you through how you can do this.
Here’s how to safely track your period without an app.
1. Use a spreadsheet. It’s relatively easy to re-create the functions of a period tracker in a spreadsheet by listing out the dates of your past periods and figuring out the average length of time from the first day of one to the first day of the next. You can turn to one of the many templates already available online, like the period tracker created by Aufrichtig and the Menstrual Cycle Calendar and Period Tracker created by Laura Cutler. If you enjoy the science-y aspect of period apps, templates offer the ability to send yourself reminders about upcoming periods, record symptoms, and track blood flow.
2. Use a digital calendar. If spreadsheets make you dizzy and your entire life is on a digital calendar already, try making your period a recurring event, suggests Emory University student Alexa Mohsenzadeh, who made a TikTok video demonstrating the process.
Mohsenzadeh says that she doesn’t miss apps. “I can tailor this to my needs and add notes about how I’m feeling and see if it’s correlated to my period,” she says. “You just have to input it once.”
3. Go analog and use a notebook or paper planner. We’re a technology publication, but the fact is that the safest way to keep your menstrual data from being accessible to others is to take it offline. You can invest in a paper planner or just use a notebook to keep track of your period and how you’re feeling.
If that sounds like too much work, and you’re looking for a simple, no-nonsense template, try the free, printable Menstrual Cycle Diary available from the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research.
4. If your state is unlikely to ban abortion, you might still be able to safely use a period-tracking app. The crucial thing will be to choose one that has clear privacy settings and has publicly promised not to share user data with authorities. Quintin says Clue is a good option because it’s beholden to EU privacy laws and has gone on the record with its promise not to share information with authorities.