Smoking, coronavirus, and the deaths of Chinese men

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Good afternoon, readers.

What a week it’s been for coronavirus news. My colleague Erika Fry eloquently summed up the latest updates from public health organizations about the death and infection toll from the pathogen (and, given the ever-evolving nature of this story, the numbers have already shifted, with more than 2,000 now reported dead).

I think one of the most interesting developments is the growing evidence that China’s massive smoking rate is, at best, making the outbreak more difficult to contain—and at worst increasing the number of infections and deaths among certain populations.

The demographic at the highest risk is Chinese men, especially middle-aged to older patients. It’s well known that China is one of the world’s largest consumers of tobacco products. But while reporting this story, I learned some eye-popping facts about just how deep the smoking problem extends in the country.

For instance: More than 52% of Chinese males aged 15 and over are regular smokers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), compared with just 2.7% of females.

So what does this have to do with coronavirus? For one, it might help explain why the mortality rate from the pathogen is so much higher among men (2.8%) than in women (1.7%).

“The question is whether smoking has a direct impact on the coronavirus,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, tells me. “And preliminary evidence suggests that may be the case.”

That’s due to a combination of factors that Hotez and Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, explained to me—including the higher prevalence, in smokers, of a certain biomarker that the current coronavirus strain clings to.

Smoking can also undermine the immune system and increase the risk for underlying respiratory illnesses that are exacerbated by coronavirus. In short, the habit could potentially create a perfect public health storm.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee
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The score was Tesla 0, electrical tape 1 in an automated driving test

Researchers were able to trick a Tesla vehicle into speeding by putting a strip of electrical tape over a speed limit sign, spotlighting the kinds of potential vulnerabilities facing automated driving systems.

Technicians at McAfee placed the piece of tape horizontally across the middle of the “3” on a 35 mile-per-hour speed limit sign. The change caused the vehicle to read the limit as 85 miles per hour, and its cruise control system automatically accelerated, according to research released by McAfee on Wednesday.

McAfee says the issue isn’t a serious risk to motorists. No one was hurt and the researcher behind the wheel was able to safely slow the car.

But the findings, from 18 months of research that ended last year, illustrate a weakness of machine learning systems used in automated driving, according to Steve Povolny, head of advanced threat research at McAfee. Other research has shown how changes in the physical world can confuse such systems.

The tests involved a 2016 Model S and Model X that used camera systems supplied by Mobileye, now a unit of Intel. Mobileye systems are used by several automakers though Tesla stopped using them in 2016.

Tests on Mobileye’s latest camera system didn’t reveal the same vulnerability, and Tesla’s latest vehicles apparently don’t depend on traffic sign recognition, according to McAfee.

Tesla didn’t respond to emails seeking comment on the research.

“Manufacturers and vendors are aware of the problem and they’re learning from the problem,” Povolny said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of blind spots in this industry.”

To be sure, the real-world threats of such an occurrence today are limited. For one, self-driving cars are still in the development phase, and most are being tested with safety drivers behind the wheel. Vehicles with advanced driver-assist systems that are available now still require the human to be attentive.

And the McAfee researchers were only able to trick the system by duplicating a certain sequence involving when a driver-assist function was turned on and encountered the altered speed limit sign. Manufacturers are also integrating mapping technology into systems that reflect the proper speed limit.

“It’s quite improbable that we’ll ever see this in the wild or that attackers will try to leverage this until we have truly autonomous vehicles, and by that point we hope that thes

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Ethereum, Bitcoin’s closest rival, faces its moment of truth

Six floors of a downtown Denver event space hum with hundreds of coders and entrepreneurs who have come to discuss and celebrate the cryptocurrency Ethereum. The governors of Colorado and Wyoming drop by, strolling past rainbow wall decor and posing with the Bufficorn, a shaggy mascot that is a cross between a buffalo and a unicorn.

The occasion is the third annual gathering of ETHDenver, as the event is known, and it comes at a critical juncture for Ethereum. The cryptocurrency has long been the clear No. 2 to Bitcoin, and its current circulating value is a robust $30 billion—about one sixth of its bigger rival. Now, Ethereum is on the cusp of a major upgrade that boosters believe will overcome congestion problems that have long bedeviled its network.

The outcome of the upgrade, called ETH2, will be critical to the future of Ethereum, which launched in 2015, and whose blockchain now serves as a ledger of record for of applications even other cryptocurrencies. It will also determine whether Ethereum remains the go-to platform for so-called smart contracts.

The ability to create these contracts—digital agreements between parties that Ethereum’s platform will perform certain functions on their behalf—has opened up a new world in which individuals can turn services like investments and betting, over to machines. It’s a big advance from the relatively narrow constraints of Bitcoin, whose blockchain creates a transaction record but is incapable of smart contracts.

A prominent example of smart contracts—and a hot topic at ETHDenver—is the emerging field of decentralized finance, or DeFi, which promises to let people borrow and lend without a banking intermediary. Instead DeFi users rely on Ethereum’s blockchain to administer, record and pay out their transactions.

According to Richard Ma, a former commodities trader who now runs a firm called Quantstamp, approximately 50,000 people already participate in DeFi activity. He predicts this number will soon balloon as services become more user-friendly, and points to the more than $1 billion worth of Ethereum already locked up in smart contracts.

The mood in Denver was also buoyant thanks to Ethereum’s hyper-positive culture, which has allowed its community of developers to avoid some of the schisms and infighting that has often plagued the world of Bitcoin.

“Ethereum is about unicorns and rainbows. The tone of the culture is super-welcoming,

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