Start Up No.1845: inside Newport’s chip fab, FBI concern over Huawei kit, Musk and Brin split over wife, AI engineer fired, and more


You might think that chess isn’t a game where your opponent could break your finger. But that was before robots got involved. CC-licensed photo by Chris Brooks on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. J’adoube, tu frappes. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Without these chips, we are in big trouble – and Britain has no strategy • Sky News

Ed Conway on the row over the Newport chip foundry, which principally makes power semiconductors (dealing with power switching):

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before Nexperia took over, NWF was what’s known in the trade as a “foundry” – a fab which could be contracted to make chips for any designer.

Now it’s owned by Nexperia, it is going to be making chips solely for its parent company.

This, says Rockley Photonics’ founder and chief executive Andrew Rickman, is a disappointment. “We obviously had to move on,” he says. “And in the future as we look for additional capacity, if it was available to us to manufacture in the UK, that would be wonderful.

“As you analyse the UK, we have this incredible set of expertise around compound semiconductors, and a whole range of different process technologies associated with it, which do new and wonderful things. These are markets that are expanding very rapidly.

“So compared with traditional semiconductors, where perhaps the US or other parts of Europe are better places to build additional capacity and factories, in the UK, we’ve got this opportunity to actually own this particular area of compound semiconductors.”

This is the main objection among industry insiders to the takeover: it effectively means Newport goes from being a potential pioneer to being a workhorse.

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The big point being that the UK government struggles with the idea that power semis are important, and doesn’t have a strategy in place to deal with what happens when a company important to other parts of the sector is purchased.
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Exclusive: FBI investigation determined Chinese-made Huawei equipment could disrupt US nuclear arsenal communications • CNN Politics

Katie Bo Lillis:

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On paper, it looked like a fantastic deal. In 2017, the Chinese government was offering to spend $100m to build an ornate Chinese garden at the National Arboretum in Washington DC. Complete with temples, pavilions and a 70-foot white pagoda, the project thrilled local officials, who hoped it would attract thousands of tourists every year.

But when US counterintelligence officials began digging into the details, they found numerous red flags. The pagoda, they noted, would have been strategically placed on one of the highest points in Washington DC, just two miles from the US Capitol, a perfect spot for signals intelligence collection, multiple sources familiar with the episode told CNN.

Also alarming was that Chinese officials wanted to build the pagoda with materials shipped to the US in diplomatic pouches, which US Customs officials are barred from examining, the sources said.
Federal officials quietly killed the project before construction was underway.

The cancelled garden is part of a frenzy of counterintelligence activity by the FBI and other federal agencies focused on what career US security officials say has been a dramatic escalation of Chinese espionage on US soil over the past decade.

Since at least 2017, federal officials have investigated Chinese land purchases near critical infrastructure, shut down a high-profile regional consulate believed by the US government to be a hotbed of Chinese spies and stonewalled what they saw as clear efforts to plant listening devices near sensitive military and government facilities.

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The diplomatic pouches were a hell of a giveaway.
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Elon Musk’s friendship with Sergey Brin ruptured by alleged affair • WSJ

Kirsten Grind and Emily Glazer:

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Elon Musk engaged in a brief affair last fall with the wife of Sergey Brin, prompting the Google co-founder to file for divorce earlier this year and ending the tech billionaires’ long friendship, according to people familiar with the matter.

Their falling out is one of a string of personal issues Mr. Musk has faced even as he juggles business challenges, including manufacturing disruptions at Tesla and a court fight over his desire to withdraw his $44bn bid for Twitter Inc.

Mr. Musk is the richest person in the world, with an estimated fortune of $240bn, and Mr. Brin ranks eighth world-wide, with $95bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

…Mr. Brin provided Mr. Musk with about $500,000 for Tesla during the 2008 financial crisis, when the company was struggling to increase production. In 2015, Mr. Musk gave Mr. Brin one of Tesla’s first all-electric sport-utility vehicles.

In recent months, there has been growing tension between the two men and their teams, according to the people familiar with the matter. Mr. Brin has ordered his financial advisers to sell his personal investments in Mr. Musk’s companies, some of those people said. It couldn’t be learned how large those investments are, or whether there have been any sales.

Mr. Brin filed for divorce from Nicole Shanahan in January of this year, citing “irreconcilable differences,” according to records filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court. The divorce filing was made several weeks after Mr. Brin learned of the brief affair, those people said.

At the time of the alleged liaison in early December, Mr. Brin and his wife were separated but still living together, according to a person close to Ms. Shanahan. In the divorce filing, Mr. Brin cited Dec. 15, 2021, as the date of the couple’s separation.

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OK, so this isn’t standard fare. But Brin is no stranger to love triangles: in 2013 there was an almighty row at Google when he (then married to Anne Wojckiki, founder of 23andme) began an affair with Amanda Rosenberg, aged 27 to his 40, who had been seeing Hugo Barra of Google, who then left the company. Larry Page was so furious with Brin he stopped speaking to him for a while.

Musk, meanwhile, is no stranger either to flitting between connections. Maybe it all washes out in the end.
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BBC funding: Lords say tax a better model than advertising or subscriptions • Press Gazette

Bron Maher:

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Baroness Tina Stowell, who chaired the committee, told Press Gazette the most important recommendation in the report is that the BBC must outline a “bold new vision” before it can choose its next funding model.

The report, “Licence to change: BBC future funding”, caps off an inquiry that began in February 2022 and draws together written and oral evidence from sources including Netflix, Andrew Neil, GB News presenter Mercy Muroki and the chairman of Marks and Spencer.

In the face of competition from subscription streaming platforms – and claims the BBC does not cater to the whole country – some have argued the corporation should switch to an opt-in subscription-funded model to fund its £4bn budget.

But the committee said the model would deliver “inadequate revenues and face major technical hurdles”.

It likewise said that proposals to fund the broadcaster through advertising “would provide insufficient income whilst decimating the revenues of other public service broadcasters” – echoing the findings of the Thatcher-era Peacock  committee that the BBC is so big it would pull much of the television advertising spend away from its competitors.

The report laid out three alternatives to the current licence fee, all of which move away from the current model of a flat tax.

“A universal household levy linked to council tax bills is one option which could take greater account of people’s ability to pay,” it said. “A ring-fenced income tax is another. Reforming the existing licence fee to provide discounts for low-income households is a third.”

The report recommended moving away from a funding model linked to the existence of televisions in a home, and warned the BBC faces a challenge from viewers who do not feel represented by the corporation.

Its role, it said, “as a national glue will only become more important, and more complex, in the context of increasing social, cultural and demographic change.”

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Ah yes, a “bold new vision” is de rigeur these days. When people use this phrase it always conjures up Malcolm Tucker, the acerbic PM’s spokesman in the razor-sharp political satire The Thick Of It, saying of blue-sky thinker “Julius Nicholson” that “If he does stick his baldy head round your door and come up with some stupid idea about policemen’s helmets should be yellow, or let’s set up a department to count the moon, just treat him like someone with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Meanwhile, a levy on council tax sounds to me the most sensible scheme. Progressive and simple to administer.
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Blake Lemoine says he’s been fired from Google • The Register

Katyanna Quach:

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Google has reportedly fired Blake Lemoine, the engineer who was placed on administrative leave after insisting the web giant’s LaMDA chatbot was sentient.

Lemoine didn’t get in trouble for holding his controversial, eyebrow-raising opinion on the model. Instead, he was punished for violating Google’s confidentiality policies. He reportedly invited a lawyer to assess potential legal rights for LaMDA and spoke to a House Rep claiming Google was being unethical.

A Google spokesperson told the Big Technology newsletter it has decided to terminate his employment since Lemoine continued to violate “employment and data security policies” jeopardizing trade secrets.

“If an employee shares concerns about our work, as Blake did, we review them extensively. We found Blake’s claims that LaMDA is sentient to be wholly unfounded and worked to clarify that with him for many months. These discussions were part of the open culture that helps us innovate responsibly,” the spokesperson said.

“So, it’s regrettable that despite lengthy engagement on this topic, Blake still chose to persistently violate clear employment and data security policies that include the need to safeguard product information. We will continue our careful development of language models, and we wish Blake well.”

Many experts at Google and in academia and industry have cast doubt on whether LaMDA or any existing AI chatbot is sentient.

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Useful clarity that it wasn’t having spent too much time in the sun, but breaking confidentiality that was the pretext. Though one suspects that Google’s lawyers were happy to have that one to hand. Otherwise they’d have had to find other work for Lemoine, such as investigating whether emails sent to Google’s support page show signs of intelligent life.
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Securing ongoing funding for the Meta Oversight Board • Meta Oversight Board

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Today the Oversight Board Trust announced that Meta has made a commitment that provides for ongoing financial support for the Oversight Board. As part of that commitment, the company will make a $150m contribution to the Trust.

Under the terms of the Trust, the funds contributed by the company are irrevocable and can only be used to fulfil the Trust’s purpose of funding, managing, and overseeing the operation of the Oversight Board. This $150m contribution to the Trust is in addition to the company’s prior contribution of $130m announced in 2019 when the Trust was first established.

“By making this ongoing financial commitment, Meta has issued a vote of confidence in the work of the Board and its efforts to apply Facebook and Instagram content standards in a manner that protects freedom of expression and pertinent human rights standards,” said Stephen Neal, chairperson of the Oversight Board Trust.

Since its formation, the Board has received more than one million user appeals from users challenging Meta’s content moderation decisions. In response, the Board has applied human rights standards on content issues ranging from hate speech to COVID-19 misinformation to evaluate Meta’s policies and enforcement. Through 25 binding case decisions, 118 policy recommendations, and hundreds of publicly reported questions, the Board is systematically improving Meta’s approach to content policy decisions on its platforms.

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There are 23 members on the board – all drawn from the Great And Good (including my former editor at The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger). A board that has funding of $280m to do.. what? Deliver a tiny number of decisions and recommendations? If Meta had originally put in, say, $2m and now added another $1m for running costs, one might have thought that was about reasonable. But these numbers are crazy: about $1m per decision/recommendation.

Meanwhile the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a 25-strong properly independent group not funded by Meta, has had its web page taken down over a copyright dispute (guess which well-funded Oversight Board objected!) and struggles to make itself heard.
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Chess robot grabs and breaks finger of seven-year-old opponent • The Guardian

Jon Henley:

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Video of the 19 July incident published by the Baza Telegram channel shows the boy’s finger being pinched by the robotic arm for several seconds before a woman followed by three men rush in, free him and usher him away.

Sergey Smagin, vice-president of the Russian Chess Federation, told Baza the robot appeared to pounce after it took one of the boy’s pieces. Rather than waiting for the machine to complete its move, the boy opted for a quick riposte, he said.

“There are certain safety rules and the child, apparently, violated them. When he made his move, he did not realise he first had to wait,” Smagin said. “This is an extremely rare case, the first I can recall,” he added.

Lazarev had a different account, saying the child had “made a move, and after that we need to give time for the robot to answer, but the boy hurried and the robot grabbed him”. Either way, he said, the robot’s suppliers were “going to have to think again”.

Baza named the boy as Christopher and said he was one of the 30 best chess players in the Russian capital in the under-nines category. “People rushed to help and pulled out the finger of the young player, but the fracture could not be avoided,” it said.

Lazarev told Tass that Christopher, whose finger was put in a plaster cast, did not seem overly traumatised by the attack. “The child played the very next day, finished the tournament, and volunteers helped to record the moves,” he said.

His parents, however, have reportedly contacted the public prosecutor’s office. “We will communicate, figure it out and try to help in any way we can,” he said. Smagin told RIA Novosti the incident was “a coincidence” and the robot was “absolutely safe”.

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Certain amount of victim-blaming going on there. If it had been a human opponent breaking the kid’s finger, would they be saying “well, he shouldn’t have had his finger so near the pieces”?
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South Carolina bill outlaws websites that tell how to get an abortion • The Washington Post

Cat Zakrzewski:

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Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the right to abortion in June, South Carolina state senators introduced legislation that would make it illegal to “aid, abet or conspire with someone” to obtain an abortion.

The bill aims to block more than abortion: provisions would outlaw providing information over the internet or phone about how to obtain an abortion. It would also make it illegal to host a website or “[provide] an internet service” with information that is “reasonably likely to be used for an abortion” and directed at pregnant people in the state.

Legal scholars say the proposal is likely a harbinger of other state measures, which may restrict communication and speech as they seek to curtail abortion. The June proposal, S. 1373, is modeled off a blueprint created by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), an antiabortion group, and designed to be replicated by lawmakers across the country.

As the fall of Roe v. Wade triggers a flood of new legislation, an adjacent battleground is emerging over the future of internet freedoms and privacy in states across the country — one, experts say, that could have a chilling impact on First Amendment-protected speech.

“These are not going to be one-offs,” said Michele Goodwin, the director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at the University of California at Irvine Law School. “These are going to be laws that spread like wildfire through states that have shown hostility to abortion.”

Goodwin called the South Carolina bill “unconstitutional.” But she warned it’s unclear how courts might respond after “turning a blind eye” to antiabortion laws even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe.

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This stumps me. This can’t possibly be legal under the 1st Amendment, which (lest we forget) says “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. It’s clearly abridging freedom of speech; it’s censorship by the state. So drafting this bill means ignoring a fundamental part of the US Constitution that is drummed into Americans.

So what’s left? Virtue signalling. But the idea that any court might nod this through is bizarre.
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Maybe Peloton should worry about Apple Fitness+ after all • Medium

I wrote about how this particular data-driven service yields up its secrets, once you realise they’re in the open:

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I’m an Apple Fitness+ subscriber: I’ve got a rowing machine (Concept 2, if that means anything to you) and the Fitness+ classes are a far more enjoyable way to spend the time than setting yourself a target (distance, time) and grinding along. In rowing, they come in 10, 20 and 30-minute classes, and I began doing them as they arrived. Personally, I found the 10-minute segments too short, and the 30-minute ones usually too long. So I did the 20-minute ones, working from the earliest available, not repeating.

Recently, I noticed that I was running out of new 20-minute workouts. Was the shortage because one of the rowing coaches, Anya, was pregnant — perhaps on maternity leave? — and unavailable to make them? But they replaced her with someone else. Also, I reflected, if the demand was there, Apple would make sure the supply was there. And then I thought to myself: since Apple knows exactly how many people do each activity, it must produce content in line with that perceived demand.

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What do you think is the most popular activity, based on the number of sessions available, out of Rowing/ Treadmill/ Cycling/ Dance/ Yoga/ Pilates/ Core/ Strength/ High Intensity Interval Training/ Mindful Cooldown? And what do you think is the most popular duration? Turns out the answer is a puzzle – there in front of us, to be discovered. (A mystery is something only one or a handful of people know the answer to, a puzzle is something anyone can solve: think murder v jigsaw.)

There’s also a database of all the Fitness+ sessions, though it’s less accessible than the beautiful graphs in my piece.
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Analysis: UK’s ‘jet-zero’ plan would allow demand for flying to soar 70% • Carbon Brief

Daisy Dunne and Josh Gabbatiss:

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International and domestic aviation only accounts for 3% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, but flights have an outsized role in some – normally relatively wealthy – people’s carbon footprints. Therefore, this is one of the areas where individual actions can have a considerable impact.

The sector has been repeatedly highlighted by government advisers the Climate Change Committee (CCC) as a gap in the government’s climate strategy, which the “jet zero” plan is supposed to fill.

The strategy, whose “jet zero” tagline states it will “deliver net-zero aviation” by 2050, has gone through a couple of rounds of consultations and drafts.

It plans for flight demand to increase by 70%, which would see aviation emissions rising from 38MtCO2e in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, to 52MtCO2e by 2050.

The strategy goes on to suggest that a series of interventions – chiefly based on untested technology – could then reduce the impact of demand growth, bringing the sector’s emissions total down to 19MtCO2e in 2050.

This is shown in the chart below, which highlights that, even in the government’s targeted “high-ambition” scenario, residual emissions from aviation would remain higher in 2050 than they were in 1990 – and a long way from the pledged “net-zero”.

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There seems to be an embedded determination inside Whitehall to just go on with business as usual, and hope, Micawber-like, that something will come along and solve the climate “problem” (in their minds, an inconvenience) so everything continues undisturbed. Melting runways suggest otherwise.
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The perils of audience capture • The Prism

Gurwinder Bhogal:

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In 2016, 24 year old Nicholas Perry wanted to be big online. He started uploading videos to his YouTube channel in which he pursued his passion—playing the violin—and extolled the virtues of veganism. He went largely unnoticed.

A year later, he abandoned veganism, citing health concerns. Now free to eat whatever he wanted, he began uploading mukbang videos of himself consuming various dishes while talking to the camera, as if having dinner with a friend.

These new videos quickly found a sizable audience, but as the audience grew, so did their demands. The comments sections of the videos soon became filled with people challenging Perry to eat as much as he physically could. Eager to please, he began to set himself torturous eating challenges, each bigger than the last. His audience applauded, but always demanded more. Soon, he was filming himself eating entire menus of fast food restaurants in one sitting.

In some respects, all his eating paid off; Nikocado Avocado, as Perry is now better known, has amassed over six million subscribers across six channels on YouTube. By satisfying the escalating demands of his audience, he got his wish of blowing up and being big online. But the cost was that he blew up and became big in ways he hadn’t anticipated.

Nikocado, moulded by his audience’s desires into a cartoonish extreme, is now a wholly different character from Nicholas Perry, the vegan violinist who first started making videos. Where Perry was mild-mannered and health conscious, Nikocado is loud, abrasive, and spectacularly grotesque. Where Perry was a picky eater, Nikocado devoured everything he could, including finally Perry himself. The rampant appetite for attention caused the person to be subsumed by the persona.

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The photos accompanying this are truly shocking. Bhogal’s point is that influencers are themselves influenced by their audience, inevitably towards extremes. (See also: Jordan Peterson.) A sort of social warming, if you will. (Via Helen Lewis’s excellent The Bluestocking.)
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1845: inside Newport’s chip fab, FBI concern over Huawei kit, Musk and Brin split over wife, AI engineer fired, and more

  1. The Facebook Oversight Board isn’t paid to render decisions. It’s paid to be the political heat-taker for controversial decisions. It’s basically pundit “protection” money. That’s very different. You say – “guess which well-funded Oversight Board objected!” – see, value already!

    Regarding the abortion website law, I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve read quite a bit of First Amendment law. The key issue here is that the prohibition is under “aiding and abetting”, which is basically helping in a crime. There’s several legal cases on this, and some of them do come down on the side of the speech at issue not being First Amendment protected. The most relevant ones I know are about “Hitman”, a literal murder manual:

    https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/814/hit-man-manual

    “The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision in Rice v. Paladin Enterprises, Inc. (4th Cir. 1997), stating that the district court had misinterpreted Brandenburg, a seminal decision in which the Supreme Court held that “the mere abstract teaching … of the moral propriety or even moral necessity for a resort to force and violence” is protected under the First Amendment, while actually “preparing” people for “imminent lawless action” is not protected speech.”

    And on this topic in specific, I’d be very cautious about predicting the future based on precedent now. We just saw that fail spectacularly, with _Roe v. Wade_ being overturned. I can readily see some legal punditry confidently proclaiming “This is obviously un-Constitutional!”, and eventually a Supreme Court decision coming down basically saying “We think those previous First Amendments protections were too broad, so we’re overturning them here.”

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