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It’s not too late to cancel Thanksgiving



What’s your plan for Thanksgiving? Americans caught between the dire reality of an out-of-control pandemic and a desire to celebrate the national holiday with family may be tempted to believe that maybe they can manage the risks.

I’ve been thinking through my own planned turkey day gathering, an outdoor event in a rural setting with perhaps 15 people, including several older people and a couple of teenagers whose social distancing has been unverifiable at best. To me, being outdoors mitigates most of the risk of coronavirus transmission, yet as the day approaches I am having second thoughts. I think I might cancel Thanksgiving.

So what’s the actual risk? A helpful dashboard from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Event Risk Planning Tool, shows estimated odds that a member of your holiday party will bring the covid-19 virus to dinner. That chance depends on where you live and how large the group is, and the model assumes all visitors are locals, but not already in your pod. What’s plain is no matter where you are in the US, the risk isn’t zero.

I ran some numbers, as others have, and here’s what I found. For a party of 20 neighbors in Brunswick, Maine, near where my family lives, there’s a 5% chance someone will have the virus, based on that state’s background rate of infection. A gathering of just 10 people in the hot spot of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, meanwhile, brings a 67% chance. Dinner for 50 residents near New Orleans? A 28% chance. For a gathering of five in San Francisco, which has managed to suppress the pandemic fairly well, the odds are lower: about 2.5%.

These models assume people at your gathering aren’t already in the same household—eating with the people you see every day wouldn’t change your risk. Yet like it or not, Americans will be moving and mingling by the millions, and taking the virus with them. Kids are coming back from college, and other people are going forward with long-delayed visits to relatives.

The AAA, which every year makes a prediction of holiday travel, projects a drop of at least 10% from 2019, to about 50 million travelers, mostly making car trips. That’s a lot people, but it’s the biggest year-over-year decline since the recession of 2008. And AAA has put also an asterisk on its projection, saying travel could dip even more steeply with last-minute cancellations.

The travel group itself suggests “staying home” as the best way to protect against getting sick. (If you do travel by car, as most Thanksgiving travelers do, it says to “be sure to pack face masks, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, and a thermometer to help protect and monitor your health.”)

One problem for Thanksgiving decisions in the US is an absence of clear messaging from Washington, DC. Instead of pardoning a turkey on the White House lawn, maybe President Trump should give us some advice on getting together. But so far, he hasn’t mentioned it. According to MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes, “Right now, if we had [an] administration that cared one whit about protecting Americans, there would be national coordinated messaging all over the place about making Thanksgiving virtual this year (or outdoors where weather permits)!”

Local ordinances and rules also vary widely, and in many places were tightened this week. Maine still permits outdoor gatherings of up to 100 (and up to 50 indoors). In Maine, most out-of-state visitors are supposed to quarantine for two weeks on arrival, while in California, LA County has recommended that its citizens not travel out of state. If they do, they’re supposed to quarantine for 14 days on their return. Both Boston and New York City have introduced evening curfews on bars and restaurants. New Mexico yesterday introduced a tough, two-week stay at home order.

But in the end, it’s mostly up to you. “I think each family is going to have to make a risk assessment about the risk and benefit of what we all feel is such an important tradition,” said Anthony Fauci, the nation’s chief infectious disease doctor. He said he was planning dinner at home with his wife, and a visit with his three daughters over Zoom. “Make your own decision. What kind of risk are you willing to take?” he said.

I ran a poll online about my own Thanksgiving plan, and most people thought it was too risky. While there’s scant evidence of coronavirus transmission out of doors, some said being outside wasn’t a magic bullet, while others felt the group was too big.

To me, gathering in an open, outdoors space is the best way to hack the Thanksgiving conundrum. Even if one of your party has the virus, there are few examples of the virus being spread outdoors.

The jury is still out on whether cold weather, per se, makes the virus easier to transmit, although dry, heated indoor air may assist the spread—and enclosed spaces definitely do. It’s being inside with other people for an extended time—which is more likely in cold seasons—that’s the largest risk factor. So far, November has been unseasonably warm in much of the US, making outdoor gatherings easier to pull off.

If you do want to manage the risk, one way is to combine various precautions, using what the virologist Ian Mackay, at the University of Queensland in Australia, calls the “Swiss cheese” model of prevention. While no single precaution is perfect—each slice of cheese has holes—taken together, steps like wearing masks, hand-washing, and keeping rooms well ventilated will push down the risk.

Testing and quarantine is another strategy. It’s time to start this procedure for Thanksgiving if you haven’t already—avoiding contact with other people for several days gives you a chance to see if you get symptoms (which usually, but not always, develop within five days). Since many infected people have no symptoms, getting a test is also important. Tests can still be hard to come by, though.

Another fact to bear in mind is that the chances of someone having covid at your holiday event, as projected by the Georgia Tech app, are in constant flux. Given how fast and widely the virus is spreading, those risks are going to be substantially higher by Thanksgiving. Coronavirus cases are in the red zone throughout much of the country, with more than 160,000 infections counted yesterday. By Thanksgiving, two weeks from now, that figure could conceivably rise to above 250,000 cases per day.

With so many people infected, and smaller gatherings propelling the pandemic, it’s easy to see how Thanksgiving could turn into a nationwide superspreading event that just makes things worse. And that creates an extra negative you may not have thought of.

If a very large number of people get infected with the virus on the exact same day, it means that by about a week later, a very large number of people will start feeling ill or seeking medical help, all at the same time. Think of a holiday traffic jam—except one that’s delayed and happens in hospital ERs rather than on the highway. Already, some hospitals, are feeling the burden of an influx of covid patients. The more stressed hospitals are, the higher the chance a serious case ends in death.

Let’s be honest: a Zoom Thanksgiving isn’t the Thanksgiving anyone wants. Masks and Lysol and computer screens have no place in the famous Norman Rockwell painting Freedom from Want, the classic portrayal of a American family feast in a sunlit dining room, with smiling faces leaning in way, way, closer than six feet. In fact, though, this is exactly the Thanksgiving to avoid: a lot of loud talk, in a closed room, with several generations around the table, including the family elders.

So I might still do Thanksgiving. But what I am planning looks a lot more like depictions of the original event—a scene imagined in The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, by the genre painter Jennie Augusta Brownscombe. The painting, of course, carries the historical burden of a meeting of civilizations that didn’t end well for Native Americans, who ended up decimated by European diseases like smallpox.

But the scene does get a couple of things right. First of all, it’s all outdoors. Second, each group keeps to its own pod. The Pilgrims gather around a harvest table while the members of the Wampanoag tribe largely sit to one side in their own group.

In other words, they’re sharing, but not getting close enough to exchange respiratory droplets. Amen to that.

Further reading: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice on “Holiday Celebrations and Small Gatherings.”

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YC-backed LemonBox raises $2.5M bringing vitamins to Chinese millennials



Like many overseas Chinese, Derek Weng gets shopping requests from his family and friends whenever he returns to China. Some of the most wanted imported products are maternity items, cosmetics, and vitamin supplements. Many in China still uphold the belief that “imported products are better.”

The demand gave Weng a business idea. In 2018, he founded LemonBox to sell American health supplements to Chinese millennials like himself via online channels. The company soon attracted seed funding from Y Combinator and just this week, it announced the completion of a pre-A round of $2.5 million led by Panda Capital and followed by Y Combinator .

LemonBox tries to differentiate itself from other import businesses on two levels — affordability and personalization. Weng, who previously worked at Walmart where he was involved in the retail giant’s China import business, told TechCrunch that he’s acquainted with a lot of American supplement manufacturers and is thus able to cut middleman costs.

“In China, most supplements are sold at a big markup through pharmacies or multi-level marketing companies like Amway,” Weng said. “But vitamins aren’t that expensive to produce. Amway and the likes spend a lot on marketing and sales.”

Inside LemonBox’s fulfillment center

LemonBox designed a WeChat-based lite app, where users receive product recommendations after taking a questionnaire about their health conditions. Instead of selling by the bottle, the company customizes user needs by offering daily packs of various supplements.

“If you are a vegetarian and travel a lot, and the other person smokes a lot, [your demands] are going to be very different. I wanted to customize user prescriptions using big data,” explained Weng, who studied artificial intelligence in business school.

A monthly basket of 30 B-complex tablets, for instance, costs 35 yuan ($5) on LemonBox. Amway’s counterpart product, a bottle of 120 tablets, asks for 229 yuan on That’s about 57 yuan ($9) for 30 tablets.

Selling cheaper vitamins is just a means for LemonBox to attract consumers and gather health insights into Chinese millennials, with which the company hopes to widen its product range. Weng declined to disclose the company’s customer size, but claimed that its user conversion rate is “higher than most e-commerce sites.”

With the new proceeds, LemonBox is opening a second fulfillment center in the Shenzhen free trade zone after its Silicon Valley-based one. That’s to provide more stability to its supply chain as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts international flights and cross-border trade. Moreover, the startup will spend the money on securing health-related certificates and adding Japan to its sourcing regions.

Returnees adapt

Screenshot of Lemonbox’s WeChat-based store

In the decade or so when Weng was living in the U.S., the Chinese internet saw drastic changes and gave rise to an industry largely in the grip of Alibaba and Tencent. Weng realized he couldn’t simply replicate America’s direct-to-customer playbook in China.

“In the U.S., you might build a website and maybe an app. You will embed your service into Google, Facebook, or Instagram to market your products. Every continent is connected with one other,” said Weng.

“In China, it’s pretty significantly different. First off, not a lot of people use web browsers, but everyone is on mobile phones. Baidu is not as popular as Google, but everybody is using WeChat, and WeChat is isolated from other major traffic platforms.”

As such, LemonBox is looking to diversify beyond its WeChat store by launching a web version as well as a store through Alibaba’s Tmall marketplace.

“There’s a lot of learning to be done. It’s a very humbling experience,” said Weng.

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Health tech venture firm OTV closes new $170 million fund and expands into Asia



OTV (formerly known as Olive Tree Ventures), an Israeli venture capital firm that focuses on digital health tech, announced it has closed a new fund totaling $170 million. The firm also launched a new office in Shanghai, China to spearhead its growth in the Asia Pacific region.

OTV currently has a total of 11 companies in its portfolio. This year, it led rounds in telehealth platforms TytoCare and Lemonaid Health, and its other investments include genomic machine learning platform Emedgene; microscopy imaging startup Scopio; and at-home cardiac and pulmonary monitor Donisi Health. OTV has begun investing in more B and C rounds, with the goal of helping companies that already have validated products deal with regulations and other issues as they grow.

OTV focuses on digital health products that have the potential to work in different countries, make healthcare more affordable, and fill gaps in overwhelmed healthcare systems.

Jose Antonio Urrutia Rivas will serve as OTV’s Head of Asia Pacific, managing its Shanghai office and helping its portfolio companies expand in China and other Asian countries. This brings OTV’s offices to a total of four, with other locations in New York, Tel Aviv and Montreal. Before joining OTV, Rivas worked at financial firm LarrainVial as its Asian market director.

OTV was founded in 2015 by general partners Mayer Gniwisch, Amir Lahat and Alejandro Weinstein. OTV partner Manor Zemer, who has worked in Asian markets for over 15 years and spent the last five living in Beijing, told TechCrunch that the firm decided it was the right time to expand into Asia because “digital health is already highly well-developed in many Asia-Pacific countries, where digital health products complement in-person healthcare providers, making that region a natural fit for a venture capital firm specializing in the field.”

He added that OTV “wanted to capitalize on how the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the internationalized and interconnected nature of the world’s healthcare infrastructures into the limelight, even though digital health was a growth area long before the pandemic.”

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WH’s AI EO is BS



An executive order was just issued from the White House regarding “the Use of Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence in Government.” Leaving aside the meritless presumption of the government’s own trustworthiness and that it is the software that has trust issues, the order is almost entirely hot air.

The EO is like others in that it is limited to what a president can peremptorily force federal agencies to do — and that really isn’t very much, practically speaking. This one “directs Federal agencies to be guided” by nine principles, which gives away the level of impact right there. Please, agencies — be guided!

And then, of course, all military and national security activities are excepted, which is where AI systems are at their most dangerous and oversight is most important. No one is worried about what NOAA is doing with AI — but they are very concerned with what three-letter agencies and the Pentagon are getting up to. (They have their own, self-imposed rules.)

The principles are something of a wish list. AI used by the feds must be:

lawful; purposeful and performance-driven; accurate, reliable, and effective; safe, secure, and resilient; understandable; responsible and traceable; regularly monitored; transparent; and accountable.

I would challenge anyone to find any significant deployment of AI that is all of these things, anywhere in the world. Any agency claims that an AI or machine learning system they use adheres to all these principles as they are detailed in the EO should be treated with extreme skepticism.

It’s not that the principles themselves are bad or pointless — it’s certainly important that an agency be able to quantify the risks when considering using AI for something, and that there is a process in place for monitoring their effects. But an executive order doesn’t accomplish this. Strong laws, likely starting at the city and state level, have already shown what it is to demand AI accountability, and though a federal law is unlikely to appear any time soon, this is not a replacement for a comprehensive bill. It’s just too hand-wavey on just about everything. Besides, many agencies already adopted “principles” like these years ago.

The one thing the EO does in fact do is compel each agency to produce a list of all the uses to which it is putting AI, however it may be defined. Of course, it’ll be more than a year before we see that.

Within 60 days of the order, the agencies will choose the format for this AI inventory; 180 days after that, the inventory must be completed; 120 days after that, the inventory must be completed and reviewed for consistency with the principles; plans to bring systems in line with them the agencies must “strive” to accomplish within 180 further days; meanwhile, within 60 days of the inventories having been completed they must be shared with other agencies; then, within 120 days of completion, they must be shared with the public (minus anything sensitive for law enforcement, national security, etc.).

In theory we might have those inventories in a month, but in practice we’re looking at about a year and a half, at which point we’ll have a snapshot of AI tools from the previous administration, with all the juicy bits taken out at their discretion. Still, it might make for interesting reading depending on what exactly goes into it.

This executive order is, like others of its ilk, an attempt by this White House to appear as an active leader on something that is almost entirely out of their hands. To develop and deploy AI should certainly be done according to common principles, but even if those principles could be established in a top-down fashion, this loose, lightly binding gesture that kind-of, sort-of makes some agencies have to pinky-swear to think real hard about them isn’t the way to do it.

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