Start Up No.1569: Twitter plans easy newsletter signup, the right laws for algorithms, Apple plans no-password secure logon, and more


Under the hood, the layout of microprocessor elements is incredibly complex – but now Google is revolutionising it by using AI to do that task. CC-licensed photo by el frijole on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Do you like my tight layout? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Still a few days to preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book. After that you’ll have to buy it post-publication, like an animal.


AI system outperforms humans in designing floorplans for microchips • Nature

Andrew Kahng:

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Modern chips are a miracle of technology and economics, with billions of transistors laid out and interconnected on a piece of silicon the size of a fingernail. Each chip can contain tens of millions of logic gates, called standard cells, along with thousands of memory blocks, known as macro blocks, or macros. The cells and macro blocks are interconnected by tens of kilometres of wiring to achieve the designed functionality. Given this staggering complexity, the chip-design process itself is another miracle — in which the efforts of engineers, aided by specialized software tools, keep the complexity in check.

The locations of cells and macro blocks in the chip are crucial to the design outcome. Their placement determines the distances that wires must span, and thus affects whether the wiring can be successfully routed between components and how quickly signals can be transmitted between logic gates. Optimization of chip placement has been extensively studied for at least six decades. Seminal innovations in the mathematical field of applied optimization, such as a method known as simulated annealing, have been motivated by the challenge of chip placement.

Because macro blocks can be thousands or even millions of times larger than standard cells, placing cells and blocks simultaneously is extremely challenging. Modern chip-design methods therefore place the macro blocks first, in a step called floorplanning. Standard cells are then placed in the remaining layout area. Just placing the macro blocks is incredibly complicated: Mirhoseini et al. estimate that the number of possible configurations (the state space) of macro blocks in the floorplanning problems solved in their study is about 10^2,500. By comparison, the state space of the black and white stones used in the board game Go is just 10^360.

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And now a Google team has trained a “superhuman” system which is able to produce layouts much more quickly which are more effective. You can read the paper without needing a subscription.

Chip layout by humans v AI
Chip layout by humans, on left, and by Google AI, on right. Source: Nature. Bet the humans wouldn’t have thought of the latter.

This is epochal – Google is using this to build its AI chips. And remember how it went with Go: from beating the best player in Europe to beating the best in the world in an even match. I suspect a lot of chip designers will be suspicious about this for a long time (does the system know everything that it should about the criteria for each block? How is it optimised?) And can everyone make use of the code to use this, or does Google have an unbeatable advantage here?
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Twitter brings Revue newsletter subscriptions right into user profiles • Mashable

Jack Morse:

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Newsletters are coming to a Twitter profile near you. Or, at least the chance to sign up for them is.

Twitter is set to continue its ongoing reinvention of the most sacred of social-media spaces — the user profile — in the next few weeks with the addition of a newsletter subscription button. The goal, as the company explained to Mashable, is to help newsletter writers better leverage their existing Twitter followers in an effort to grow their subscriber bases. 

The “subscribe” button, which will live prominently on the profile pages of those who choose to turn on the feature, will be available to anyone with a Revue account (sorry, Substackers). The move shows the continued emphasis Twitter is placing on newsletters following its January acquisition of the subscription newsletter service.

Writers can use Revue to generate free or paid subscription newsletters. Twitter takes a 5% cut of the latter.  

According to a mockup, Twitter users will be able to both subscribe to newsletters and read a “sample issue” directly on a writer’s Twitter profile page. 

“Folks who have Revue newsletters will be able to enable this feature directly in Revue, and people who visit the writer’s profile on Twitter can subscribe directly,” explained a company spokesperson.

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I guess that a single Subscribe button means a lot less friction than clicking a link in a bio and then signing up. Newsletters feel like the thing that are having their moment, rather like blogging in the early 2000s. That didn’t last, of course.
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Identification of novel bat coronaviruses sheds light on the evolutionary origins of SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses • Cell

Hong Zhou et al:

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the spike protein sequences of three of the novel coronaviruses described here (RsYN04, RmYN05, and RmYN08) formed an independent lineage separated from known sarbecoviruses by a relatively long branch.

In this context, it is interesting that the recently identified bat coronavirus from Thailand carried a three-amino acid-insertion (PVA) at the S1/S2 cleavage site (Wacharapluesadee et al., 2021). Although this motif is different to that seen in SARS-CoV-2 (PRRA) and RmYN02 (PAA), this once again reveals the frequent occurrence of indel events in the spike proteins of naturally sampled betacoronaviruses (Garry et al., 2021; Holmes et al., 2021). Strikingly, RpYN06, RsYN04, RmYN05, and RmYN08 that only possessed one deletion in the RBD were able to bind to hACE2, albeit very weakly.

Accordingly, it is possible that there might be another lineage of naturally circulating coronaviruses with spike gene sequences that confer a greater potential to infect humans. Collectively, these results highlight the high and underestimated genetic diversity of sarbecovirus spike proteins, and which likely underpins their adaptive flexibility.

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This article is still in preprint, but what they’re describing is that (1) they haven’t found SARS-Cov-2 in bats, yet (2) they’ve found other coronaviruses in bats in Yunnan that have different spike protein sequences. (“RBD” is “receptor binding domain” – what’s usually known as the spike.) Their conclusion is that the source is almost surely horseshoe bats, and that there’s a rich source of coronaviruses there.

Of course this won’t shift the discussion about “lab leaks” at all, even though it builds up the strength of the hypothesis that it’s a natural spillover.
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Amplification and its discontents • Knight First Amendment Institute

Daphne Keller on proposals to have some sort of legislation that holds companies responsible for the effects of the algorithmic manipulation they use:

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Some versions of amplification law would be flatly unconstitutional in the U.S., and face serious hurdles based on human or fundamental rights law in other countries. Others might have a narrow path to constitutionality, but would require a lot more work than anyone has put into them so far. Perhaps after doing that work, we will arrive at wise and nuanced laws regulating amplification. For now, I am largely a skeptic.

In this essay, I will lay out why “regulating amplification” to restrict distribution of harmful or illegal content is hard. My goal in doing so is to keep smart people from wasting their time devising bad laws, and speed the day when we can figure out good ones. I will draw in part on novel regulatory models that are more developed in Europe. My analysis, though, will primarily use U.S. First Amendment law. I will conclude that many models for regulating amplification face serious constitutional hurdles, but that a few—grounded in content-neutral goals, including privacy or competition—may offer paths forward.

This assessment draws in part on my own experiences with both manual and algorithmic management of content at Google, where I was associate general counsel until 2015. In that capacity, I advised on compliance with many content-restriction laws around the world, and spent a great deal of time with the engineers who build the company’s ranking algorithms.

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This is not, you should know, a short piece. Also, she seems to conflate “moderation” with “amplification”. They’re not quite opposite sides of a coin. You can moderate without amplifying – forums have done it for absolutely ages.
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Chia demand is driving HDD sales, keeping Seagate’s factories full • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

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The cryptocurrency Chia has had a significant impact on the [spinning] hard drive market. SSD demand doesn’t seem to have risen the same way, but both Western Digital and Seagate are reporting significantly higher demand. That’s according to executives from both companies, who spoke at a pair of separate events. Seagate CFO Gianluca Romano presented at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2021 Global Technology Conference, while Western Digital CFO Bob Eulau and VP Peter Andrew attended the Stifel 2021 Virtual Cross Sector Insight Conference (transcripts linked via SeekingAlpha).

According to Seagate, the boom in demand has helped it keep its factories full. Apparently, the hard drive industry added too much capacity in the last few years and the increased demand is filling manufacturing lines that would otherwise go idle.

Folks, we’ve finally done it. Nine months into the semiconductor shortage, we’ve managed to identify two top-tier hardware companies with manufacturing capacity to spare. According to Seagate, it is evaluating the likely long-term impact of Chia and planning additional CapEx spending to meet demand and fill product needs. The company expects overall hard drive prices to improve.

Eulau provided additional information on how WD sees these trends at the Stifel event. According to him, the Chia network was roughly 1EB (Exabyte) at launch. It’s currently 20EB. Both Western Digital and Seagate are seeing increased demand and revenue as a result; Seagate specifically mentions that this is an industry-wide uplift.

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Chia is bonkers, but I guess the delta between the cost of a spinning drive and the potential “profit” is a hell of a lot bigger than with SSDs. The waste of resources is ridiculous. I’m constantly reminded of the closing scene of episode 6 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, where the world’s forests are set on fire because leaves are now currency, and they don’t want inflation.
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Apple says its new logon tech is as easy as passwords but far more secure • CNET

Stephen Shankland:

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Apple has begun testing passkeys, a new authentication technology it says are as easy to use as passwords but vastly more secure. Part of iCloud Keychains, a test version of the technology will come with iPhones, iPads and Macs later this year.

To set up an account on a website or app using a passkey, you first choose a username for the new account, then use FaceID or Touch ID to confirm that it’s really you who’s using the device. You don’t ever pick a password. Your device handles generation and storage of the passkey, which iCloud Keychain synchronizes across all your Apple devices.

To use the passkey for authentication later, you’ll be prompted to confirm your username and verify yourself with FaceID or Touch ID. Developers must update their login procedures to support passkeys, but it’s an adaptation of the existing WebAuthn technology.

“Because it’s just a single tap to sign in, it’s simultaneously easier, faster and more secure than almost all common forms of authentication today,” Garrett Davidson, an Apple authentication experience engineer, said Wednesday at the company’s annual WWDC developer conference.

Passkeys are the latest example of growing interest in passwordless logon technology that’s designed to be more secure than the list of passwords you’ve taped to the side of your monitor. Conventional passwords are plagued with security shortcomings, chiefly our inability to create and remember unique ones. That’s why Apple, along with Microsoft, Google and other companies, are working to come up with alternatives.

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Already in use for Microsoft services, where there are 200 million accounts with it. My query: what if you’re using a device that isn’t part of your chosen ecosystem?
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Rep. Gohmert’s question about the Forest Service changing Earth’s orbit was dumb, but not for the reason you think • The Washington Post

Philip Bump:

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“I was informed by the immediate past director of NASA that they have found that the moon’s orbit is changing slightly and so is the Earth’s orbit around the sun,” he continued. “And we know there’s been significant solar flare activity. And so is there anything that the National Forest Service or BLM can do to change the course of the moon’s orbit or the Earth’s orbit around the sun? Obviously, that would have profound effects on our climate.”

It took Eberlien a moment to reply. “I would have to follow up with you on that one, Mr. Gohmert,” she said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, well, if you figure out a way that you in the Forest Service can make that change,” Gohmert replied, “I’d like to know.”

When it’s written out, as above, this appears to be a member of Congress earnestly asking a person in charge of the nation’s forests whether her agency could alter how the Earth rotates around the sun. It’s an obviously ludicrous idea for several reasons. One: It’s not clear how any agency might change the Earth’s orbit, much less one whose heaviest equipment includes big chain saws. Two: There’s an obvious risk posed by shifting how the Earth rotates around the sun. I, for one, would prefer not to cause that orbit to decay to the extent that our planet is pulled directly into the star. No wonder Eberlien could only marvel.

…In reality, though, Gohmert was embracing a different goofy theory. Gohmert was being ironic. He wasn’t actually suggesting that the Earth’s orbit be shifted but, instead, suggesting that, since climate change is a function of those orbits and solar flares, altering the orbit would be what those agencies need to do to combat climate change.

He wasn’t asking a dumb question. He was trying to suggest that it was the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service that was being dumb by thinking they could affect climate change in some way short of figuring out how to shift the moon around in the sky. And that’s how Gohmert was wrong.

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The best features of iOS, iPadOS, and macOS that Apple didn’t announce onstage • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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Apple had its WWDC keynote on Monday, where it showed off the big new features coming to its platforms, but it didn’t have time to show off everything coming to the new versions of iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. So we’ve combed through the preview pages, Twitter, and a good chunk of the internet to see what interesting features got left out of the presentation.

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Lots of tasty things (and it seems like a solid update). Plus it will be on hundreds of millions of devices come September/October, which makes it a little different from the Android 12 beta that was announced last month.
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iOS 4 has been lovingly recreated as an iPhone app • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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iOS 4 originally appeared nearly 10 years ago as Apple’s first mobile operating system to drop the iPhone OS naming convention. An 18-year-old developer has now lovingly recreated iOS 4 as an iPhone app, and it’s a beautiful blast from the past. If you never got the chance to use iOS 4, or you’re a fan of the iPhone 3G, OldOS almost flawlessly pulls off the experience of using an iPhone from a decade ago.

OldOS is “designed to be as close to pixel-perfect as possible,” says Zane, the developer behind the app. It’s all built using Apple’s SwiftUI, so it includes buttery smooth animations and even the old iPhone home button that vibrates with haptic feedback to make it feel like a real button.

Apple’s built-in iOS 4 apps have also been recreated here, and it’s a real flashback to the skeuomorphic days of the iPhone whenever they launch. Photos lets you view your existing camera roll as you would have 10 years ago, while Notes transports you back to the yellow post-it notes of yesteryear.

The only apps that don’t work as you might expect are Messages and YouTube. Apple used to bundle YouTube directly into its operating system, and the developer behind OldOS says there are “still some major issues with YouTube” and Messages that they’re working to fix.

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Only available on Testflight (the service for betas), and Apple might nuke it, but the code has been published so people with developer accounts can compile it. At least computers let you realise that oh, it actually wasn’t better before.
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Several macOS Monterey features unavailable on Intel-based Macs • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

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On the macOS Monterey features page, fine print indicates that the following features require a Mac with the M1 chip, including any MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and iMac model released since November 2020:

Portrait Mode blurred backgrounds in FaceTime videos
• Live Text for copying and pasting, looking up, or translating text within photos
• An interactive 3D globe of Earth in the Maps app
• More detailed maps in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and London in the Maps app
• Text-to-speech in more languages, including Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Finnish
• On-device keyboard dictation that performs all processing completely offline
• Unlimited keyboard dictation (previously limited to 60 seconds per instance)

…Google Earth has long offered an interactive 3D globe of the Earth on Intel-based Macs both on the web and in an app.

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I was puzzled by this, because having an M1 chip isn’t a necessity on an iPad – I’ve installed the iOS 15 iPad OS beta and Live Text works fine. Turns out, according to Rene Ritchie, that it’s because you need the “neural engine” that first came with Apple’s proprietary A11 chip in 2017. Intel’s chips, of course, don’t have that. So that’s how newer (but Intel-based) Macs won’t have those facilities, but older (A11+) iOS devices will.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

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