Start Up No.1435: a plethora of fakes, America’s stupid coup, Apple explains more about the M1, Twitter to pass @POTUS to Biden, and more


Could the Apple Watch be responsible for Apple’s slowly falling hardware margins? CC-licensed photo by Dave Winer on Flickr.

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

This X Does Not Exist

Kashish Hora:

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Using generative adversarial networks (GAN), we can learn how to create realistic-looking fake versions of almost anything, as shown by this collection of sites that have sprung up in the past month.

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Remember “This Face Does Not Exist”, with its GAN-generated human face of no human that had ever lived? This does it for cars, Stack Exchange questions, My Little Ponies, MPs, satire (?), words… and many more. These imagined worlds are well-populated. How soon before we can’t tell the difference?
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I lived through a stupid coup. America is having one now • Medium

Indi Samarajiva:

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As one recovering coup victim [in Sri Lanka] to another, let me tell you this. The first step is simply accepting that you’ve been coup’d. This is hard and your media or Wikipedia may never figure this out (WTF does constitutional crisis mean? Is murder a legal crisis?), but it’s nonetheless true. The US system is weird, but people voted for a change of power. One person is refusing to accept the people’s will. He’s taking power that doesn’t belong to him. That’s a coup.

Americans are so caught up with the idea that this can’t be happening to them that they’re missing the very obvious fact that it is.

What else do you call Donald Trump refusing to leave, consolidating control of the military, and spreading lies across the media? That, my friends, is just a coup. You take the power, you take the guns, and you lie about it. American commentators say “we’re like the third world now” as if our very existence is a pejorative. Ha ha, you assholes, stop calling us that. You’re no better than us. The third world from the Sun is Earth. You live here too.

America, in fact, is worse than us. America’s democracy is a lightly modified enslavement system that black people only wrested universal franchise from in 1965. It’s frankly a terrible democracy, built on voter suppression of 94% of the population, full of racist booby traps and prone to absurd randomness. For example, your dumbass founders left enough time [for the new President] to get to Washington by horse. Four months where a loser could hold power, later reduced to two. This is a built-in coup.

Think about it. Your system gives the loser all the power and guns for two whole months. Almost every modern democracy changes power the next day, to avoid the very situation you’re in.

America constitutionally coups itself every election and it only doesn’t go bad by custom. America is a shitty and immature democracy, saved only by the fact that they didn’t elect equally shitty and immature Presidents. Until now.

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Powerful piece, and he’s absolutely right: the US system is designed to fail, and it’s only good manners that has kept it from collapsing this long.
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Apple’s missing profits – the usual suspects • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Greenberg tries to figure out why Apple’s gross hardware margins have been declining since 2015:

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Apple launched Apple Watch in 2015 and Airpods in late 2016 (in Apple’s 2017 Fiscal Year). When Airpods first came out, it was hard to buy them, with multi-month wait times. At the time, many ascribed the delay to the popularity of the devices, and they were very popular. However, a more likely reason for the delay was that Apple was having a hard time manufacturing them. Something about production, maybe the perfectly rounded case or maybe the miniaturization of circuitry in the earbuds, was driving up defect rates. Another way to spell manufacturing problems is increased cost of goods sold. If 10% or 20% of devices are defective, that can often be enough to wreck the profitability of a device, and our guess is that Apple’s initial manufacturing rates were worse than that. Apple Watch seems to have less problems in manufacturing, but we suspect these also had poor gross margins to start out.

We believe these devices are now manufacturing at good yields. But there is the possibility that the margins on these products are poorer than the average iPhone or Mac. And as they have grown strongly, it is possible that they are weighing down margins. And this leads to our next suspect – mix shift.

Mix shift refers to the blended gross margin. If you are selling high margin products and then start selling lower margin devices, the average price of your devices falls . No discounts or price reductions involved, but prices, and thus gross margins, fall when everything is averaged out. As noted above, part of this is the growth of possibly lower-margin Wearables. But there is more to the story.

The graph below shows revenue growth by geography, again the base year is 2013. The standout feature of this chart is China. A combination of Trade War patriotism and resurgent strength among Chinese brands drove a reduction in Apple’s growth in China. This is important as we believe Apple’s iPhone sales in China skew heavily towards higher priced devices. So declines in China also likely brought down blended gross margins.

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All makes sense. Meanwhile, Services revenues (and especially profits) are moving things along nicely.
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“We are giddy”—interviewing Apple about its Mac silicon revolution • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:

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What Apple needed was a chip that took the lessons learned from years of refining mobile systems-on-a-chip for iPhones, iPads, and other products then added on all sorts of additional functionality in order to address the expanded needs of a laptop or desktop computer.

“During the pre-silicon, when we even designed the architecture or defined the features,” Srouji recalled, “Craig and I sit in the same room and we say, ‘OK, here’s what we want to design. Here are the things that matter.'”

When Apple first announced its plans to launch the first Apple Silicon Mac this year, onlookers speculated that the iPad Pro’s A12X or A12Z chips were a blueprint and that the new Mac chip would be something like an A14X—a beefed-up variant of the chips that shipped in the iPhone 12 this year.

Not exactly so, said Federighi: “The M1 is essentially a superset, if you want to think of it relative to A14. Because as we set out to build a Mac chip, there were many differences from what we otherwise would have had in a corresponding, say, A14X or something.

“We had done lots of analysis of Mac application workloads, the kinds of graphic/GPU capabilities that were required to run a typical Mac workload, the kinds of texture formats that were required, support for different kinds of GPU compute and things that were available on the Mac… just even the number of cores, the ability to drive Mac-sized displays, support for virtualization and Thunderbolt.

“There are many, many capabilities we engineered into M1 that were requirements for the Mac, but those are all superset capabilities relative to what an app that was compiled for the iPhone would expect.”

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There’s also a terrific explanation of why the Unified Memory Architecture (UMA), which lumps all the RAM for the CPU and the GPU in one place on the SoC, is more effective than the split form you get with discrete components. This may be partly responsible for the huge leap in performance even with what spec-hungry people think is small amounts of RAM.

Oh, and on The Windows Question, Federighi says: “that’s really up to Microsoft. We have the core technologies for them to do that, to run their ARM version of Windows, which in turn of course supports x86 user mode applications. But that’s a decision Microsoft has to make, to bring to license that technology for users to run on these Macs. But the Macs are certainly very capable of it.”
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Post-lockdown SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid screening in nearly ten million residents of Wuhan, China • Nature Communications

Chuanzhu Lv, Fujian Song, Xiaoxv Yin, Zuxun Lu and others:

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Here, we describe a city-wide SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid screening programme between May 14 and June 1, 2020 in Wuhan. All city residents aged six years or older were eligible and 9,899,828 (92.9%) participated.

No new symptomatic cases and 300 asymptomatic cases (detection rate 0.303/10,000, 95% CI 0.270–0.339/10,000) were identified.

There were no positive tests amongst 1,174 close contacts of asymptomatic cases. 107 of 34,424 previously recovered COVID-19 patients tested positive again (re-positive rate 0.31%, 95% CI 0.423–0.574%). The prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in Wuhan was therefore very low five to eight weeks after the end of lockdown.

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First: that’s an amazing testing program: nearly 10 million tests in two weeks, or more than 700,000 per day. The UK at that time was managing about 150,000 tests, though there was substantial double-counting (fewer than 150,000 people were tested).

Second: nobody tested positive from asymptomatic cases.

Third: the reinfection rate is tiny – 3 in a thousand.
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Are you a seal? • Benedict Evans

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There is a theory that when a shark bites a surfer, this is because they look like a seal, especially from 50 feet underwater. The shark circles, comes close, and sometimes it takes a bite out of a leg, and sometimes it takes a bite out of the surfboard and gets a mouthful of fibreglass. Generally, it realises the mistake and leaves, though this may or may not be any consolation to the surfer. 

I think about this theory a fair bit when I talk to big companies worried that Amazon or Google seem to circling around them, getting closer, and bumping into their legs. Maybe you look like a seal. And of course, maybe you are a seal. 

What does it mean to look like a ‘seal’, in this analogy, or indeed to be one? Well, a trillion dollar company with tens of thousands of engineers runs lots of projects and experiments, and there are lots of things that theoretically they could do, and that they might explore. But you have to ask not ‘would it be a problem for me if they got into my industry?’ but rather ‘would it make any sense for them to get into my industry?’ 

How do you tell if it would make sense for them? I’d suggest a few overlapping questions.

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His thesis is that just because big companies *could* do all the things that some small companies do, that doesn’t mean they *will*:

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if Google can turn your business into a trivial part of Google, it will try. If it would have to recreate your entire company inside Google, it probably won’t.

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A useful way to think about how and whether startups might get acquired, or not.
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Is Apple Silicon ready ?

A list of apps people use, and whether they’ve been updated to run ARM-native. Long list, and updated frequently.

Also useful: Does it ARM? which does the same thing, but a bit less elegantly.
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Twitter to give @POTUS account to Biden on Inauguration Day whether or not Trump concedes • National Review

Brittany Bernstein:

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President-elect Joe Biden will receive the @POTUS Twitter account on Inauguration Day, even if President Trump refuses to concede, the social-media platform announced Friday.

“Twitter is actively preparing to support the transition of White House institutional Twitter accounts on Jan. 20, 2021,” a spokesman for the company said.

Those accounts include @POTUS, which has more than 32 million followers, as well as @whitehouse, @VP, @FLOTUS, and other official handles.

“As we did for the presidential transition in 2017, this process is being done in close consultation with the National Archives and Records Administration,” the spokesman added.

The agency will archive existing tweets from the Trump administration and the account will be reset to zero tweets. However, Trump has relied much more upon his personal Twitter account, which has 89 million followers, during his time in the White House.

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The wheels grind slow but they grind very fine.
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Apple lobbies against Uighur forced labor bill • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:

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Apple lobbyists are trying to weaken a bill aimed at preventing forced labor in China, according to two congressional staffers familiar with the matter, highlighting the clash between its business imperatives and its official stance on human rights.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would require US companies to guarantee they do not use imprisoned or coerced workers from the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang, where academic researchers estimate the Chinese government has placed more than 1 million people into internment camps. Apple is heavily dependent on Chinese manufacturing, and human rights reports have identified instances in which alleged forced Uighur labor has been used in Apple’s supply chain.

The staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks with the company took place in private meetings, said Apple was one of many US companies that oppose the bill as it’s written. They declined to disclose details on the specific provisions Apple was trying to knock down or change because they feared providing that knowledge would identify them to Apple. But they both characterized Apple’s effort as an attempt to water down the bill.

“What Apple would like is we all just sit and talk and not have any real consequences,” said Cathy Feingold, director of the international department for the AFL-CIO, which has supported the bill. “They’re shocked because it’s the first time where there could be some actual effective enforceability.”

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The proposed Act sounds like a good idea. I just wonder slightly about the framing of this story. Apple was one of “many” US companies which oppose it? Others seem to include Patagonia (surprisingly), Coca-Cola and Costco, all named in the Act, while Apple isn’t. Apple said “We abhor forced labor and support the goals of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. We share the committee’s goal of eradicating forced labor and strengthening US law”.

As to “human rights reports have identified instances”, the only reference I can find is a July story about a company called O-Film, which was accused by Washington of using forced labour; Apple says it checked it and found nothing. Strange how it’s popped up in this story.
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Why the DOJ has a strong case against Google • The Federalist Society

Rachel Bovard:

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While consumers can change their search functions from the default, Google observed in a 2018 strategy document that once the default setting is in place, particularly on their phones, “people are much less likely” to swap out Google for something else.

Every major antitrust investigation into Google, from the United Kingdom, to Australia, to the European Union, has emphasized the importance of defaults in creating monopolies. In Russia, of all places, the search market is finally becoming competitive after the country’s Federal Antimonopoly Service removed Google’s ability to prevent Android phone manufacturers from changing the default search engine to anything but Google.

Google has secured its exclusivity as a default setting in the computer-browser market. As the complaint notes, “with the exception of Microsoft, most browser developers have agreed with Google to preset its search engine as the default search provider.”

The company has a dominant grip on licensing and distribution agreements with manufacturers and carriers of mobile devices that have search functionality. According to the complaint, “roughly 60% of all search queries are covered by Google’s exclusionary agreements.”

On mobile devices, it’s more than 80%. This is due to Google’s exclusive deal with Apple to be the default search option on its mobile devices, and a deal with other mobile distributors which offered its Android operating system for “free”—but with a series of interlocking agreements ensuring Google remains dominant in the massive Android ecosystem.

…[to claim] that it’s not Google’s fault that its search product is everywhere—that it’s merely the device manufacturers and web browsers choosing, without incentive, to do it—is counterfactual. Google has negotiated exclusionary agreements to ensure it is the default setting on the majority of devices and browsers sold in the United States, and in a manner that precludes competitors from challenging Google, or even developing in the first place.

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I’m still dubious about the merits – as argued – of this case. Google developed Android; it gets to reap the benefits. On Apple’s platform, others could bid to be the default. (On Firefox, Yahoo did, successfully, under Marissa Mayer.) Which other search providers are actually trying to challenge Google? This case is about 15 years too late.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: the writer Dominic Brown got in touch about the proposal on solar power stations in space, and my comment that you wouldn’t want to get in the way of the down-power beam. He emailed to say: “Back in the 1970s, when this was originally proposed, the suggestion was to float the receiving antenna offshore, or on a lake. Aircraft can fly through it safely, for the same reason lightning strikes are not terribly dangerous—an aluminum tube is an excellent Faraday cage. With a little care it should be possible to keep boats, swimmers, etc. out of the beam landing zone. Then you have the orbital transmitter cut out if it ceases to receive feedback from the rectenna—if the beam wanders for some reason, it turns off. What you then do with the energy being generated by your solar cells, I’m not too sure, but you can probably just turn it into heat resistively—net heating can’t be any greater just having the panels sitting in space absorbing sunlight.

“I imagine the remaining problem would be birds flying into the beam. You don’t need a ton of those receivers, though, and you want them in geostationary orbits, which means equatorial—and there’s no shortage of substantially bird-free deserts quite near the equator.

“To be honest, though, I think the big problem here is getting the cost of launch down far enough. Ultimately it has to be cheaper than just building nuclear power plants to do the same job—those may be costly, especially if you want to site them far from the users of the power in uninhabited places, but at the moment they’re not as costly as putting everything in orbit.”

Many thanks for that

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