Start Up No.1313: the trouble with Google Classroom, Apple’s Austin hotel, no-reply Twitter, Dyson’s electric car goes flat, and more


It’s also a place with the most cost-effective health care system in the US. But how? CC-licensed photo by YARDEN5 on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The Amish health care system • Slate Star Codex

Scott Fitzgerald:

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the Amish are a German religious sect who immigrated to colonial America. Most of them live apart from ordinary Americans (who they call “the English”) in rural communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They’re famous for their low-tech way of life, generally avoiding anything invented after the 1700s. But this isn’t absolute; they are willing to accept technology they see as a net positive. Modern medicine is in this category. When the Amish get seriously ill, they will go to modern doctors and accept modern treatments.

The Muslims claim Mohammed was the last of the prophets, and that after his death God stopped advising earthly religions. But sometimes modern faiths will make a decision so inspired that it could only have come from divine revelation. This is how I feel about the Amish belief that health insurance companies are evil, and that good Christians must have no traffic with them.

…The Amish outperform the “English” [Americans] on every measured health outcome. 65% of Amish rate their health as excellent or very good, compared to 58% of English. Diabetes rates are 2% vs. 8%, heart attack rates are 1% vs. 6%, high blood pressure is 11% vs. 31%. Amish people go to the hospital about a quarter as often as English people, and this difference is consistent across various categories of illness (the big exception is pregnancy-related issues – most Amish women have five to ten children). This is noticeable enough that lots of health magazines have articles on The Health Secrets of the Amish and Amish Secrets That Will Add Years To Your Life. As far as I can tell, most of the secret is spending your whole life outside doing strenuous agricultural labor, plus being at a tech level two centuries too early for fast food…

…an SSC reader [contacted] his brother, a Mennonite deacon, for better numbers. He says that their church spends an average of $2000 per person (including out of pocket) [in a pooled payment system]

How does this compare to the US as a whole? The National Center For Health Statistics says that the average American spends $11,000 on health care. This suggests that the average American spends between five and ten times more on health care than the average Amish person.

How do the Amish keep costs so low?

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This is an amazing post (certainly will be to most American readers, I hope; and to others). It isn’t short, but there are segments which will have you gawping, and reading on eager to find the next gawp-worthy one. Also, nobody ever calls them “communists” or “socialists” for their medical payment system, do they?
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Google Classroom and how spaces value people • Subtraction.com

Khoi Vinh:

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When I saw Google Classroom for the first time, my immediate thought was, “This is clearly an under-funded product that ranks fairly low on the list of Google’s priorities.” Our kids use the iPad version and, setting aside the inconvenient fact that it’s at least a few steps behind Google Classroom in the browser, the product as a whole is slow, inelegant and unappealing. It works but just barely, and it lacks nearly every modern user experience affordance commonly found in most contemporary productivity software.

Upon reflection, I came to realize that this is no accident…

…There’s also no way for the work to be done directly in the app. Teachers can set up assignments so that each child has a “personal copy,” but that really only allows you to open up a linked document in Google Docs. Otherwise, assigned worksheets must be downloaded, printed, scanned or, more likely, photographed with a smartphone (thereby removing all semantic information) and uploaded. If the work consists of multiple pages, then students or parents need to take multiple snapshots and—this is one of the more egregious feature disparities between Classroom on an iPad and in the browser—each must be manually attached to the assignment, one by one, because even making multiple selections for uploading is beyond what the app is arable of. (In fairness, this is partially the fault of iPadOS’s file picker, but plenty of other products have found elegant workarounds.)

…The bigger context of this poverty of common user experience affordances, though, is Google Classroom’s utter lack of humanity. The app isn’t just spare, it’s barren; it’s task-oriented and optimized for assignments, not learning-oriented and optimized for people.

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But of course it’s the administrators who spend the money aren’t the ones who use the software. Exactly the same situation that pertained for years with PCs in corporations, and them phones in corporations.
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Apple checks in with 192-room hotel for billion-dollar Austin campus • CultureMap Austin

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Tech giant Apple Inc. has added a new amenity to its $1bn corporate campus under construction in Northwest Austin — a 192-room hotel.

A revised site plan approved April 29 by the City of Austin shows a 75,500-square-foot, six-story hotel, as well as previously envisioned office buildings and parking garages. The revised plan doesn’t cite a hotel brand. The original site plan for the project, filed in December 2018, didn’t include a hotel…

John Boyd Jr., principal of Princeton, New Jersey-based corporate location consulting firm The Boyd Co. [says] that “having a hotel connected at the hip with its corporate parent is not common now, but in the post-COVID-19 corporate travel world, I expect we will be seeing more of this concept, especially from deep-pocketed tech firms like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.”

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Also means that there’s no risk of visitors to campus from some distance away being spotted at local hotels and people getting hints about takeovers etc. Happens more than you might think.
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Twitter is testing a feature that limits who can reply to your tweets • TechCrunch

Brian Heater:

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Twitter today acknowledged that it’s begun testing a new setting that let users limit who can reply to tweets. The setting was first noted earlier this year. Similar to Facebook’s post view settings, the current implementation features a small glove icon in the corner. Tapping on it brings up a “Who Can Reply?” window.

From there, users can pick from one of three options: Everyone, People You Follow and Only People You Mention. If you opt for either of the latter, the reply function will greyed out for all who don’t fit the description. They can view, like and retweet the thing, but they won’t be able to reply directly to the sender. The thread itself will also acknowledge that replies are limited. 

Only a “limited group” can use the test feature right now, though anyone with a Twitter account can view the conversations. Since it’s in testing mode, there’s no guarantee that this will become a universal feature, but Twitter says the roll out is designed to “give people more opportunities to weigh in while still giving people control over the conversations they start.”

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I’ve generally been wrong about changes to Twitter (I think I thought 280 characters would ruin it, was sure that hiding @replies from everyone else was bad). Bearing that in mind, the benefits of this are obvious: women don’t need to be hassled by “reply guys”. But you can still screenshot or just quote-tweet the original, so there’s not a lot of improvement.

Disinformation/misinformation researchers aren’t impressed either as it prevents debunking in replies; quote-tweets aren’t shown in the same thread. And the UI is poor: the reply icon is slightly grayer, rather than struck out or differently coloured.

Given those objections, it will probably mean it turns out to be the best thing ever.
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Vaccine experts say Moderna’s Covid-19 data leave big questions • Stat News

Helen Branswell:

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was there good reason for so much enthusiasm? Several vaccine experts asked by STAT concluded that, based on the information made available by the Cambridge, Mass.-based company, there’s really no way to know how impressive — or not — the vaccine may be.

While Moderna blitzed the media, it revealed very little information — and most of what it did disclose were words, not data. That’s important: If you ask scientists to read a journal article, they will scour data tables, not corporate statements. With science, numbers speak much louder than words.

Even the figures the company did release don’t mean much on their own, because critical information — effectively the key to interpreting them — was withheld.

Experts suggest we ought to take the early readout with a big grain of salt. Here are a few reasons why.

The National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases has partnered with Moderna on this vaccine. Scientists at NIAID made the vaccine’s construct, or prototype, and the agency is running the Phase 1 trial. This week’s Moderna readout came from the earliest of data from the NIAID-led Phase 1.

NIAID doesn’t hide its light under a bushel. The institute generally trumpets its findings, often offering director Anthony Fauci — who, fair enough, is pretty busy these days — or other senior personnel for interviews.

But NIAID did not put out a press release Monday and declined to provide comment on Moderna’s announcement.

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Moderna’s value skyrocketed, because Wall Street is far more interested in press releases than medical data. Lots of doubts about this in the medical community, who are very much in the “prove it” category. Getting a vaccine right is not a one-month process. For Ebola, it took four years.
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James Dyson interview: how I blew £500m on electric car to rival Tesla • The Sunday Times

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the car is a failure of epic proportions. Not only has he axed it before going into production, it has cost him £500m of his own money. Dyson is a private company. It is a salutary reminder that in a world where billionaires tend to get richer in their sleep, they can still screw up royally.

It’s a shame because the car is — was — special, all right, largely because of Dyson’s battery engineers, who have spent decades developing high-power, quiet, quick-charging cells for everything from cordless vacuums to hair straighteners. “This is the lithium ion pack that would have delivered 600 miles on a single charge,” Dyson says, proudly running his fingers over its 8,500 copper cylinders. Even on a freezing February night, on the naughty side of 70mph on the motorway, with the heater on and the radio at full blast? “Yes, yes.”

That range was not achieved by making a light, small car. The Dyson is huge — five metres long, two metres wide and 1.7 metres tall. It weighs 2.6 tons, even though the body is made of aluminium. But it still looks sporty. “The windscreen rakes back more steeply than on a Ferrari,” Dyson says smiling. The wheels are bigger than on any production car on the market — almost one metre in diameter if you include the quiet-running tyres that “give low rolling resistance for economy yet excellent ride”. (He’s such a product geek, he actually talks like this)…

…Money killed the car. “Electric cars are very expensive to make. The battery, battery management, electronics and cooling are much more expensive than an internal combustion engine,” he explains. It turned out that each Dyson would have had to fetch £150,000 to break even, far more than electric models from the big car makers, which subsidise costs with sales of traditional petrol and diesel cars.

BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Jaguar Land Rover “are making huge losses on every electric car they sell”, he explains. “They’re doing it because it lowers their average CO2 and NO2 emissions overall, helping them to comply with EU legislation. I don’t have a fleet. I’ve got to make a profit on each car or I’d jeopardise the whole company. In the end it was too risky.”

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Don’t weep for him – the Times reckons he’s worth £12.6bn. Terrific range as well – if you made the car lighter you’d get even further. Even so, this reminds me of Benedict Evans’s post about “not even wrong”. The challenge here is the structure of the car business, which militates against electric cars.
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The story of Worldometer, the quick project that became one of the most popular sites on the internet • New Statesman

Henry Dyer:

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In 2004, before he reached the age of 20, Andrey Alimetov created what has become one of the most viewed websites of the coronavirus pandemic, Worldometer. The site has shot into the top 100 Alexa rankings. Coronavirus data collated by Worldometer has gone on to be cited by the Government, politicians, media outlets, and commentators – Peter Hitchens has taken to tweeting out a “Daily Worldometer check” comparing the UK and Sweden’s statistics. Wikipedia editors have debated whether or not it should be used as a source. Conspiracy theorists and a right-wing American think tank have speculated that a Chinese company is behind Worldometer. So, can the site be trusted, and who’s behind it? 

…The curiosity about the possible Chinese ownership of Worldometer [it’s actually owned by an American company, Dadax] is not just a consequence of suspicion as to the veracity of Chinese coronavirus data, but also of problems with Worldometer’s process of data collation. There were perhaps inevitable incidents of hacking in March which suggested the Vatican City had had 892,045 deaths. A remarkable figure, let alone that those deaths were from 568,000 cases in a country with a population of around 800. But the site has other problems apart from hackers.

Max Roser, a researcher at Oxford University and founder of Our World In Data, has expressed frustration at the site. He tweeted: “I’m annoyed by Worldometer because it wastes so much of my and my team’s time. For weeks we get messages of people asking why do we not show this or that – ‘Worldometer has the data’. And too often when you look into it, they provide no source or it is wrong.” He says the site has made mistakes in reporting test numbers, in its labelling of metrics, and confusion of case fatality rate with infection fatality rate.

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But politicians quote it when they like the numbers it shows more than other ones.
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Solving “The Miracle Sudoku” • Kottke

Jason Kottke:

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Every once in a while during my internet travels, I run across something like this video: something impossibly mundane and niche (a ~26-minute video of someone solving a sudoku puzzle) that turns out to be ludicrously entertaining. I cannot improve upon Ben Orlin’s description:

“You’re about to spend the next 25 minutes watching a guy solve a Sudoku. Not only that, but it’s going to be the highlight of your day.”

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It’s true. I’m going to embed it here. You can try to solve it yourself. I got three numbers before going wrong.

Oh, you probably think you’re good at solving sudokus. This uses the normal board. But it starts with just two squares filled. And the solution is unique under the rules that are used, which are normal sudoku plus a couple of chess-like ones (not hard). Do allow yourself the time to watch it.


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Mark Zuckerberg on “Facebook Shops” (a challenge to Amazon?); Presidents Xi and Trump and CCP disinformation; FB’s Oversight board, and Joe Biden’s dislike of him • The Hugh Hewitt Show

Hugh Hewitt is a right-wing lawyer with a big radio show, so Zuck dialled in to talk about Shops and more:

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HH: The most piercing criticism I’ve heard [of the Oversight Board], and I’m not really much on content moderation, I’m much more libertarian than most, is that of the 20 members, 15 are not Americans. Of the five, only one is an originalist. I know Judge McConnell, but he’ll get rolled by 19 people. And do we really want 15 foreigners moderating content about American political discourse? In other words, how in the world did we end up, it’s almost like a new Coke moment. How did you with your commitment at Georgetown, and even on Monday at the European speech, how did you end up with a group that most sort of free speech absolutists like me say oh, my gosh, that’s not a free speech group, that’s a bureaucracy like the EU?

MZ: Well, I think we’re going to have to see how it, and I think it’ll build its credibility over time through the decisions it makes. But look, I would encourage folks to not oversimplify this to the point of saying that someone who isn’t American can’t care about free expression. I think that that is…

HH: Well, that would be stupid.

MZ: Yeah.

HH: But because, but the American standard is the most rigorous in terms of allowing speech

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Remind us again, Hugh, what proportion of Facebook’s three billion users live in the US, population ~250 million. Also notable for Zuckerberg’s remark that “I don’t think we’re living in a world where the algorithm is controlling what you see on Facebook.” 👀 (His point is that you choose who you follow. But I think he significantly – dangerously? overconfidently? – underplays the algorithm’s role.)
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Viruses in both worlds • Scripting News

Dave Winer:

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Back in the 00s when viruses were running wild on Windows machines, I was a Windows user. Over time you learned how to defend against them. For example, when they offer you an ad-free version of an app, you say no. That was just the beginning. We were always trying to keep our computers virus-free, but eventually the viruses would figure out a way around our defenses, and we’d be spending all our time fighting it, until we got our machine uninfected, or at least without symptoms.

So, the way we’re dealing with the new coronavirus is the way computer newbies deal with computer viruses. I know because I have supported a virus neophyte, my mom. The current US govt is behaving pretty much the way she would. She didn’t want to learn the rules, and she wanted to pretend it was okay, get back to business as usual (checking her email, writing a blog post). All the while she’s got something watching and recording her every move and looking for a chance to infect some other computer.

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Brilliant. (Via John Naughton.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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