Start Up No.1448: Facebook faces breakup threat, Pichai responds on AI firing, AirPods… in the shower!, the Lincoln Project’s failure, and more

Thinking of building a high-end gaming PC? You might have to wait a few months. CC-licensed photo by D%u0101vis Mos%u0101ns on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Unmerged. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook accused of breaking antitrust laws • The New York Times

Cecilia Kang and Mike Isaac:


The Federal Trade Commission and more than 40 states accused Facebook on Wednesday of buying up its rivals to illegally squash competition, and they called for the deals to be unwound, escalating regulators’ battle against the biggest tech companies in a way that could remake the social media industry.

Federal and state regulators of both parties, who have investigated the company for over 18 months, said in separate lawsuits that Facebook’s purchases, especially Instagram for $1bn in 2012 and WhatsApp for $19bn two years later, eliminated competition that could have one day challenged the company’s dominance.

Since those deals, Instagram and WhatsApp have skyrocketed in popularity, giving Facebook control over three of the world’s most popular social media and messaging apps. The applications have helped catapult Facebook from a company started in a college dorm room 16 years ago to an internet powerhouse valued at more than $800bn.

The prosecutors said Facebook should break off Instagram and WhatsApp, and that new restrictions should apply to the company on future deals, some of the most severe penalties regulators can demand.

…“The most important fact in this case, which the commission does not mention in its 53-page complaint, is that it cleared these acquisitions years ago,” Jennifer Newstead, Facebook’s general counsel, said in a statement. “The government now wants a do-over, sending a chilling warning to American business that no sale is ever final.”


It’s absolutely the weakest part of the suit that the FTC previously cleared the acquisition. Then again, AT&T was forced to disgorge the “Baby Bells” that it already owned in the 1982 antitrust decision. So there is a sort of precedent. Zuckerberg’s worried that this is an existential threat. And he might be right. Although, also, AT&T eventually survived the breakup… and gradually swallowed up what had been the Baby Bells.
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Google CEO Sundar Pichai pledges to investigate exit of top AI ethicist Timnit Gebru • Axios

Ina Fried:


Google CEO Sundar Pichai apologized Wednesday for the company’s handling of the departure of AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru and said he would investigate the events and work to restore trust, according to an internal memo sent companywide and obtained by Axios.

Gebru’s exit has provoked anger and consternation within Google as well as in academic circles, with thousands of people signing an open letter urging Google to reexamine its practices.

In the note, Pichai acknowledged the depth of the damage done by the company’s actions and said the company would look at all aspects of the situation, but stopped short of saying the company made a mistake in removing Gebru.

“I’ve heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru’s departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google,” Pichai said in the memo. ” I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust.”


Pichai clearly sees this as a huge PR problem both internally and externally; it was inevitable that the memo (which is reproduced in full in the story) would leak. However, he’s not making any commitment to re-hiring Gebru, or actually change anything at all. It’s all couched as “must continue to make progress” and “challenging questions”. There isn’t a single actionable statement in the whole thing, except about assessing the circumstances of Gebru’s departure.
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Brian Roemmele’s answer in September 2016 to ‘How well will Apple AirPods sell?’ • Quora

Roemmele is a sort of trendspotter and futurist:


I had 9 researchers at 9 lines formed at 7 a.m. PDT. The research concluded at 2 p.m. PDT. This is part of an ongoing study I am conducting for a group of private parties centered around my Voice First hypothesis [1].

The early results are:

• On average one out of three iPhone 7 purchasers would purchase AirPods today if available (700 person sample)• 80% of iPhone 7 purchasers at the Apple Store at The Grove near Beverly Hills would purchase AirPods if available today (131 person sample)

AirPods were not available for purchase or pre-order on the release date of the iPhone 7 and may become available in October. Based on this early sampling I think the trend line will point to a few conclusions:

• AirPods will likely sell out for the holiday season of 2016
• AirPods will likely become a most coveted consumer item
• AirPods will become available in a wide range of colors made from a wide range of materials including Jet Black, Matte Black, Gold, Rose Gold, Silver, Translucent, etc.


He was right about the first two, and there’s no reason the third shouldn’t come true in time. (Copycats already do that, I think.)

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AirPods in the shower: accident or innovation? • WSJ

Kenny Wassus:


When the home becomes the gym, office and classroom, a kind of cognitive dissonance can occur, resulting in forgotten-in-the-ears AirPods, said Martin Wiener, an assistant professor of cognitive and behavioral neuroscience at George Mason University. “The transitions between those places,” he said, and the cues associated with them, such as taking off headphones when leaving the gym or office, “are effectively gone.”

Beata Stopka, 24, made the mistake one evening in March. She had been attending graduate school from home in Oak Lawn, Ill., and regularly listening to lectures and true-crime podcasts on her AirPods.

“When I started washing my hair, I felt it in my ear and was, like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” she recalls. She quickly pulled the forgotten AirPod out of her ear and flung it over the shower curtain, narrowly missing the toilet.

Now, when she listens to lectures, the audio in the left earbud occasionally cuts out.

Apple has two truly wireless earbud offerings. The entry-level model isn’t water resistant. The AirPods Pro are water and sweat resistant, meaning they should survive heavy perspiration or a splash, though Apple tells users not to place them “under running water, such as a shower or faucet.”

Jasmine Ali didn’t want that to stop her shower jam sessions. The 23-year-old student at Florida State University has two roommates whom she didn’t want to disturb by using a waterproof Bluetooth speaker.

“I didn’t want to play music loud,” she said. “Plus when I go home, my mom hates when I play music.”

Her solution: Cover her AirPods with a $1 shower cap from Walmart.


Apple really missed a trick there. The Apple Shower Cap. A case for your head. Imagine what it could charge for that.
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The hottest campaign ads on Twitter didn’t really work: study • Daily Beast

Sam Stein:


At various junctures during the 2020 campaign an attack ad would pop online that had observers on Twitter buzzing about how devastating for Donald Trump it would be. Except, more often than not, the ads weren’t effective, at least not for the nominal point of the election: persuading on-the-fence voters to back Joe Biden.

That’s the conclusion the Democratic Party’s top super PAC reached after doing analytical research into a handful of spots that went viral on Twitter.

The PAC, Priorities USA, spent a good chunk of the cycle testing the effectiveness of ads, some 500 in all. And, along the way, they decided to conduct an experiment that could have potentially saved them tons of money. They took five ads produced by a fellow occupant in the Super PAC domain—the Lincoln Project—and attempted to measure their persuasiveness among persuadable swing state voters; i.e. the ability of an ad to move Trump voters towards Joe Biden. A control group saw no ad at all. Five different treatment groups, each made up of 683 respondents, saw one of the five ads. Afterwards they were asked the same post-treatment questions measuring the likelihood that they would vote and who they would vote for.

The idea wasn’t to be petty or adversarial towards the Lincoln Project, which drew both fans and detractors for the scorched-earth spots it ran imploring fellow Republicans to abandon Trump. It was, instead, to see if Twitter virality could be used as a substitute for actual ad testing, which took funds and time. If it turned out that what the Lincoln Project was doing was proving persuasive, the thinking went, then Priorities USA could use Twitter as a quasi-barometer for seeing how strong their own ads were.


This will no doubt taste like ashes to the Lincoln Project people (a set of ex-Republicans furious with Trump), but I didn’t think at the time that the ads would have much impact beyond Twitter – and perhaps with Trump, who was the one they were really targeted at. A useful reminder that Twitter isn’t the real world, which Biden’s team was very careful to bear in mind.
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YouTube will now remove videos disputing Joe Biden’s election victory • The Verge

Makena Kelly:


On Wednesday, YouTube announced that it will begin removing any content alleging widespread voter fraud influenced the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election.

In the immediate aftermath of the November 3rd election, YouTube came under fire for allowing channels to publish videos making false claims about election results. In one instance, One America News Network, a verified YouTube channel, published a video declaring that “Trump won” the election. At the time, YouTube defended its decision to let the video stand, saying in a statement, “Like other companies, we’re allowing these videos because discussion of election results & the process of counting votes is allowed on YouTube.”

The company went on to say that content from “authoritative news organizations” were “the most popular videos about the election.”

In its Wednesday blog, YouTube said that its decision to begin removing misleading election videos follows the US’s safe harbor deadline and that “enough states have certified their election results to determine a President-elect.” Starting Wednesday, YouTube will begin removing any new content that misleads viewers about the outcome of the 2020 election.


Which raises the question: if OANN publishes a video disputing it (or reporting people disputing it, or with a news segment disputing it) will that be removed? Will that happen if Fox runs such a segment? Does “news” get a different treatment? When does a news organisation slip from (or into) being “authoritative”? Meanwhile, Google is going to allow political adverts in the US again, because all 50 states have certified their votes. (Which is why YouTube is doing this.)
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This is a bad time to build a high-end gaming PC • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:


the current GPU market makes building a gaming system much above lower-midrange to midrange a non-starter. Radeon 6000 GPUs and RTX 3000 GPUs are both almost impossible to find, and the older, slower, and less feature-rich cards that you can buy are almost all selling for more today than they were six months ago. Not every GPU has been kicked into the stratosphere, but between the cards you can’t buy and the cards you shouldn’t buy, there’s a limited number of deals currently on the market. Your best bet is to set up price alerts on specific SKUs you are watching with the vendor in question.

There is some limited good news, though: DRAM and SSDs are both still reasonably priced. DRAM and SSD prices are both expected to decline 10-15% through Q4 2020 compared with the previous quarter, and there are good deals to be had on both. DDR4-3600 is available for a fairly small premium over DDR4-3000, and 2TB M.2 NAND PCIe 3.0 SSDs are now under $200 for a lot of models. 1TB PCIe 4.0 SSDs are broadly around this price point as well — personally, I’d rather have PCIe 3.0 and 2TB than PCIe 4.0 and 1TB, but both are options right now. Power supply prices look reasonable, too, and motherboard availability looks solid.

If you don’t need to buy a GPU right now and you’re willing to or prefer to use Intel, there’s a more reasonable case to be made for building a system. But if you need a high-end GPU and/or want a high-end Ryzen chip to go with it, you may be better off shopping prebuilt systems or waiting a few more months.


You’d be pushing it trying to do that so close to Christmas in a year when there has been such disruption to supply chains. GPUs are in short supply – and so worth it that $330,000 worth were stolen from a factory.
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Apple and Google to stop X-Mode from collecting location data from users’ phones • WSJ

Byron Tau:


Apple and Alphabet’s Google will ban the data broker X-Mode Social from collecting any location information drawn from mobile devices running their operating systems in the wake of revelations about the company’s national-security work.

The two largest mobile-phone platforms told developers this week that they must remove X-Mode’s tracking software from any app present in their app stores or risk losing access to any phones running Apple’s or Google’s mobile operating systems.

Both Apple and Google disclosed their decision to ban X-Mode to investigators working for Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), who has been conducting an investigation into the sale of location data to government entities.

In a statement provided by a spokesman, Google said developers had seven days to remove X-Mode or face a ban from Google’s Play store, adding that some developers could ask for an extension of up to 30 days. Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment but told developers they had two weeks to remove the company’s trackers, according to one notice sent to a developer and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.


That’s going to make life interesting for X-Mode. Best guess is it will try to sneak its framework into apps under another name, or perhaps inveigle its framework into an open-source framework that everyone uses.
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The world smartphone market in Q3 • Counterpoint Research


Some quick observations from the smartphone market:
• Global smartphone market shipments declined 4% YoY but grew 32% QoQ to reach 366m units in Q3 2020.
• India smartphone market surpassed the pre-Covid levels growing at 9% YoY and 188% QoQ to reach 53m units, followed by MEA (2% YoY).
• Samsung regained the top spot, shipping 80.4m units with 48% QoQ and 3% YoY growth with highest-ever shipments in the last three years.
• Realme shipments grew 132% QoQ, becoming the world’s fastest brand to hit 50m shipments since inception.
• Xiaomi grew 75% QoQ, contributing 13% in the total smartphone shipments. Notably, this was the first time when Xiaomi surpassed Apple to capture the third spot in the global smartphone market.
• Apple iPhone shipments declined 7% YoY during Q3 2020 as the company delayed its annual iPhone launch from Q3 to Q4 in 2020


Apple’s fall in sales was because it didn’t release its new phones until October, ie Q4. Xiaomi’s rise is quite a thing, though, and its rise surely due to India growing so quickly.
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The next phase of social? Listen closely • Andreessen Horowitz

Andrew Chen:


there’s a lot more to audio than podcasts and smart assistants. In fact, we anticipate that the audio innovation of the next decade will rival what we’ve seen in video apps over the past few years.

The draw of audio apps over other traditional formats is obvious to any podcast (and music) devotee: the ease. That lean-back, hands-free experience means that audio apps generally don’t compete with a vast competitive library of other startups. Instead, they compete with washing dishes, working out, driving. This dynamic is akin to the competitive landscape for mobile apps 10 years ago. Early entrants were competing with waiting in line, sitting in bed, and staring at the ceiling while riding a bus—and achieved hypergrowth, as a result. Easy competition! Today, traditional apps are just one notification or swipe away from losing users to Instagram, iMessage, or thousands of other engaging apps. In contrast, audio startups face a less crowded and less competitive landscape.

Unlike much of social media, which just shows the highlights—the amazing travel adventures, the huge mansions and cars, fitness influencers, or people with amazing dance skills—audio hits different. Listening to someone’s voice is personal, and hearing unedited audio is the opposite of seeing the highlights. It’s about ideas, not the visuals, so it emphasizes a different kind of content that can often feel deeper and more intellectually stimulating. When you listen to Elon Musk get interviewed by Joe Rogan for two hours, you may begin to develop a deeper understanding of how he thinks—beyond the headlines. When you listen to a comedian like Tina Fey read her autobiographical audiobook over multiple hours, you start to feel an emotional bond with the person. When you listen to a live conversation on Clubhouse and hear people talk over each other, all the “ums,” and sometimes awkward silences, it reminds you—in a shelter-in-place era—what a lively dinner conversation is supposed to feel like.


I faintly get the idea of a “Twitter for voice”, which is what Clubhouse seems to be, but not why you’d want that rather than something (semi-)professional.
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Apple shifts leadership of self-driving car unit to AI chief • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:


Apple Inc. has moved its self-driving car unit under the leadership of top artificial intelligence executive John Giannandrea, who will oversee the company’s continued work on an autonomous system that could eventually be used in its own car.

The project, known as Titan, is run day-to-day by Doug Field. His team of hundreds of engineers have moved to Giannandrea’s artificial intelligence and machine-learning group, according to people familiar with the change. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

Previously, Field reported to Bob Mansfield, Apple’s former senior vice president of hardware engineering. Mansfield has now fully retired from Apple, leading to Giannandrea taking over.

Giannandrea joined Apple in 2018 as its vice president of AI Strategy and Machine Learning before being promoted to Apple’s executive team as a senior vice president later that year. He ran Google’s machine-learning and search teams before that. At Apple, in addition to the car project, he is in charge of Siri and machine-learning technologies across Apple’s products.


I wonder if Giannandrea had this in mind all the time from when he joined Apple. His skills and knowledge are such a fit with the problem that self-driving vehicles pose. Siri, maybe, is harder.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1448: Facebook faces breakup threat, Pichai responds on AI firing, AirPods… in the shower!, the Lincoln Project’s failure, and more

  1. Eh, I don’t think Biden Denial Syndrome is really a “He said Jehovah!” type of problem. It’s generally always been acceptable to report in a framework like “A bunch of nutty Biden-deniers filed another ridiculous court case today in further manifestation of their mental illness. The last such motion got laughed out of court in a few days, and there’s every indication this one will get the same treatment. Would that they got treatment.”. If someone starts trying to get cute along the lines of “This is a video about Kraken appearances. In the court filing, it is alleged there are 10,000 Krakens, and they have been sighted in these states. We read the testimony of Don Aldt Rump, who discusses having personally danced with a Kraken” – well, they’ll figure it out. Remember, there’s nobody who can override their determinations. In fact, stepping hard on a few right-wing toes might even be a net benefit to Google, given the overall politics now (meaning the pressures Google and others face to be “responsible” – and how that is defined).

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