Start Up No.1,136: deepfake app goes viral, listen to a rock arch, delete your account (easily), enter your phone number (hardly), and more

Here’s how the UK’s big electricity blackout in August began: with a lightning strike. CC-licensed photo by Katy on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Ah, you’re back. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Chinese deepfake app Zao sparks privacy row after going viral • The Guardian



A Chinese app that lets users convincingly swap their faces with film or TV characters has rapidly become one of the country’s most downloaded apps, triggering a privacy row.

Released on Friday, the Zao app went viral as Chinese users seized on the chance to see themselves act out scenes from well-known movies using deepfake technology, which has already prompted concerns elsewhere over potential misuse.

Users provide a series of selfies in which they blink, move their mouths and make facial expressions, which the app uses to realistically morph the person’s animated likeness on to movies, TV shows or other content.

The company was forced to issue a statement on Sunday pledging changes after critics attacked the app’s privacy policy, which it had “free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicenseable” rights to all user-generated content.

There has been growing concern over deepfakes, which use artificial intelligence to appear genuine. Critics say the technology can be used to create bogus videos to manipulate elections, defame someone, or potentially cause unrest by spreading misinformation on a massive scale.


It’s remarkable stuff: this tweet has an example of a Chinese user’s face overlaid on Leonardo Di Caprio’s.

My first link to a “deep fake” was in December 2017, though it wasn’t called that; it involved the face of Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) being put onto someone else’s body for a porn video. 19 months later, it’s an app.
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This rock has a voice and you can listen to it • Outside Online

Samantha Yadron:


like other large rock formations, Castleton Tower [near Moab, Utah] hums. It vibrates from energy produced by earthquakes, ocean waves, cities, trains, and road traffic, or even from wind or aviation noise in the air. 

And thanks to a group of geologists at the University of Utah—and a couple of ambitious rock climbers—now you can hear it. 

The researchers, led by geologist Jeffrey R. Moore, published a study on Tuesday in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America that shared a recording of the tower’s vibrations. To make the recording, Moore’s team used seismometers, devices that pick up slight movements in the earth in three dimensions. They then amplified and sped up the nearly three-hour recording to a frequency audible to humans. 

You can listen to the rock here:

“It has ebbs and flows to it, but it’s largely a sort of droning sound, emphasizing how the tower is always vibrating as energy comes up through the earth,” says Paul R. Geimer, PhD, an author on the study. 


It’s pretty quiet. But it would make quiet a relaxing background if you put it onto a loop.
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What really happened in the UK blackouts? • Mitch O’Neill

Mitch O’Neill:


I’ll be focusing on the 76 seconds between 4:52:33PM when the intial event occured, through to 4:53:49 PM when the load shedding occured.

4:52:33 PM

The grid begins in a stable operating state. These next four events all happen within 1 second:

1) Lightning hits the Eaton Socon – Wymondley transmission circuit. A normal and unremarkable occurrence. The circuit disconnects and opens after 70ms [milliseconds!] to clear the fault. This circuit will re-energise and come back online in 20 seconds. This is good and normal!

2) The lightning strike created a transient voltage disturbance which caused the loss of 500MW of small embedded distributed generation (solar, small gas and diesel) on the transmission circuit. This is good and normal and meant to happen when lightning strikes a line!

3) “Hornsea started deloading”. Not good! Hornsea, a large offshore wind farm changes output from 799MW to 62MW, a 737MW reduction in output.

4) “Little Barford Steam Turbine trips 244MW instantaneously”. Doubly not good!

What begins as a lightning strike cascades to a 1481MW loss in generation.

Frequency begins to fall.


This is fascinating, based on the interim report from the UK National Grid. A glimpse of the incredible complexity that lies behind the socket on the wall.
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Tesla batteries are keeping Zimbabwe’s economy running • Bloomberg

Antony Sguazzin:


Amid power outages of as long as 18 hours a day, Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe’s biggest mobile-phone operator, is turning to the Palo Alto, California-based automaker and storable-energy company for batteries that can keep its base stations running. The southern African country faces chronic shortages of physical cash, so almost all transactions are done digitally, and many via mobile phones.

“Telecommunications have become the lifeblood of the economy,” said Norman Moyo, the chief executive officer of Distributed Power Africa, which installs the batteries for Econet. “If the telecom network is down in Zimbabwe, you can’t do any transactions.”

The installation of 520 Powerwall batteries, with two going into each base station, is the largest telecommunications project in which Tesla has participated to date, Moyo said. With Econet having about 1,300 base stations in the country and two other mobile-phone companies operating there, Distributed Power intends to install more batteries and could eventually roll the project out to other power-starved countries in Africa, such as Zambia, Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he said.


Solar panels power the base stations; excess energy charges the battery, which takes over when it’s dark or overcast. Diesel is too expensive (and runs out).
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Just Delete Me : A directory of direct links to delete your account from web services.



Many companies use dark pattern techniques to make it difficult to find how to delete your account. aims to be a directory of urls to enable you to easily delete your account from web services.


A service, apparently, from Turns out that Facebook is only “medium” difficult to delete yourself from; some services (lookin’ at you, Animal Crossing) are “impossible”.
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Programmers imagine the most ridiculous ways to enter a phone number into a form • Quartz

Keith Collins:


What we have here is a dystopian vision of what the internet might look like if web developers suddenly stopped caring about user-friendliness. Usually, programmers write code to validate the information people enter into these forms. The validation code ensures that people have entered only letters for their names, and only numbers for their phone numbers. Because, believe it or not, sometimes people don’t.

Writing validation code can be a bit of a pain. So imagine a developer who’s new to making forms or otherwise very lazy, and decides to force users to enter letters and numbers in the right places. They might come up with something like the image above. It’d be difficult to enter the wrong kind of information into a dropdown list like that one, which contains all of the thousands of combinations of numbers between 0000 and 9999.

The image was originally posted last month to Reddit, and then to Twitter. We haven’t yet been able to verify whether it’s a joke or a screenshot of an actual website.


Oh, but it gets better: the Quartz article shows the many, many examples that programmers thought of which would be worse for entering your phone number. And some are truly fiendish. (The mouse movement one might be my, um, favourite.)
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Pre-register for the Samsung Galaxy Fold (again) • Android Authority

C. Scott Brown:


If you had your sights set on buying the Samsung Galaxy Fold, you probably pre-registered to buy the device back in April when the company opened up that system. However, all pre-registrations — and eventual pre-orders — were canceled when things took a turn.

Now, Samsung is re-opening pre-registrations for the Galaxy Fold in the United States.

To be clear, pre-registration is not pre-ordering. With a pre-reg, all you’re doing is letting Samsung know that you are interested in buying the Fold at some point in the future. By pre-registering, you’ll be notified by email as soon as Samsung opens the new pre-order system.

However, it is possible that Samsung could skip pre-orders. The sign-up page doesn’t make any mention about pre-orders at all, so it’s possible Samsung could simply notify people once the device is available for sale.

Unfortunately, there is still no word on the actual re-launch date of the company’s first foldable smartphone. Although the re-emergence of this pre-registration page likely means we’re only a few weeks out, or possibly a month at most.


Taking the temperature before shipping; makes sense. But registration isn’t ordering, as Brown points out; so will those who “pre-register” all go on to order? Or might some have second thoughts when they see the (still unknown) price?
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Revealed: how a secret Dutch mole aided the U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet cyberattack on Iran • Yahoo News

Kim Zetter and Huib Modderkolk:


For years, an enduring mystery has surrounded the Stuxnet virus attack that targeted Iran’s nuclear program: How did the US and Israel get their malware onto computer systems at the highly secured uranium-enrichment plant?

The first-of-its-kind virus, designed to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, effectively launched the era of digital warfare and was unleashed some time in 2007, after Iran began installing its first batch of centrifuges at a controversial enrichment plant near the village of Natanz.

The courier behind that intrusion, whose existence and role has not been previously reported, was an inside mole recruited by Dutch intelligence agents at the behest of the CIA and the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, according to sources who spoke with Yahoo News.

An Iranian engineer recruited by the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD provided critical data that helped the US developers target their code to the systems at Natanz, according to four intelligence sources. That mole then provided much-needed inside access when it came time to slip Stuxnet onto those systems using a USB flash drive.


Why the Dutch, you ask? Because:


the centrifuges at Natanz were based on designs stolen from a Dutch company in the 1970s by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan stole the designs to build Pakistan’s nuclear program, then proceeded to market them to other countries, including Iran and Libya.


I wonder if the Stuxnet story has been optioned for a film. It really should have been.
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iOS 13 code suggests Apple testing AR headset with ‘Starboard’ mode, ‘garta’ codename, and more • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:


documentation seen by MacRumors in an internal build of iOS 13 suggests development of a head-mounted augmented reality display has continued.

Namely, internal builds of iOS 13 include a “STARTester” app that can switch in and out of a head-mounted mode, presumably to replicate the functionality of an augmented reality headset on an iPhone for testing purposes. There are two head-mounted states for testing, including “worn” and “held.”

There is also an internal README file in iOS 13 that describes a “StarBoard” system shell for stereo AR-enabled apps, which implies a headset of some kind. The file also suggests Apple is developing an augmented reality device codenamed “Garta,” possibly as one of several prototypes under the “T288” umbrella.

Digging further into the internal iOS 13 code, we uncovered numerous strings related to a so-called “StarBoard mode” and various “views” and “scenes.” Many of the strings reference augmented reality, including “ARStarBoardViewController” and “ARStarBoardSceneManager.”

Multiple sources have claimed that Apple plans to release augmented reality glasses as early as 2020…


Internal build, eh? That’s quite a leak, since internal builds would also have details of forthcoming devices such as phones.
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Ten years on, Foursquare is now checking in to you • NY Mag

James D. Walsh on the “I’m the mayor of…” company’s pivot to a business-to-business model, which it made in 2014:


It projected iPhone sales in 2015 based on traffic to Apple stores and, in 2016, the huge drop in Chipotle’s sales figures (thanks to E. coli) two weeks before the burrito-maker announced its quarterly earnings. (It also used its data to show that foot traffic to Trump properties began declining after he announced his presidential campaign, and that traffic to Nike stores increased after the Colin Kaepernick ad.)

Co-founder and executive chairman Dennis Crowley says the human check-ins gave Foursquare engineers and data scientists the ability to verify and adjust location readings from other sources, like GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. As it turns out, the goofy badges for Uncle Tony that made Foursquare easy to dismiss as a late-2000s fad were an incredibly powerful tool. “Everyone was laughing at us, ‘Oh, what are you, just people checking in at coffee shops?’” Crowley says. “Yeah, and they checked in billions of times. So we had this corpus of data, an army of people, who every day were like, ‘I’m at Think Coffee.’ ‘I’m at Think Coffee.’ ‘I’m at Think Coffee.’” Because of the “corpus” of data generated by people like Uncle Tony, Foursquare knows when the dimensions of storefronts change and can tell the difference between an office on the eighth floor and one of the ninth floor.

In addition to all of those active check-ins, at some point Foursquare began collecting passive data using a “check-in button you never had to press.” It doesn’t track people 24/7 (in addition to creeping people out, doing so would burn through phones’ batteries), but instead, if users opt-in to allow the company to “always” track their locations, the app will register when someone stops and determine whether that person is at a red light or inside an Urban Outfitters. The Foursquare database now includes 105 million places and 14 billion check-ins. The result, experts say, is a map that is often more reliable and detailed than the ones generated by Google and Facebook.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,136: deepfake app goes viral, listen to a rock arch, delete your account (easily), enter your phone number (hardly), and more

  1. Usual useless proselytizing for the Xiaomi Redmi Note: the 8 is out. Interesting things about it:

    1- The 7 is getting deep discounts, down to $150 which is incredible value, especially with Redmi updating models at such a rate that difference between one model and the next are very small. I’ll probably be recommending the 7 for another 6 months, if past patterns hold true.

    2- There’s a Pro version which as the name clearly indicates is targeted at gamers, with a Mediatek gaming-oriented chipset, liquid cooling, and transparent switching between data and wifi (no more disconnections because the phone decided to switch)

    3- Yet more megapixels. The 48 on the 7 only improved things very patchily over the 5’s 12, because they needed more light and only got along with a so-so autofocus. Pending reviews, this one’s 64 are probably a silly boastful headliner, don’t buy the Note if you’re into photography. Very nice pics for non-photographers though.

    4- The rest is simply improved more-of-the-same. Still there: Nice design, good build quality, SD slot, audio jack, IR blaster, FM radio, Gorilla glass, huge battery, teardrop notch, touchID in the back. Still missing: NFC (the Pro has it). Still running MIUI with some great stuff (longish updates, gestures, app cloning and dual workspaces) and some iffy stuff (settings are all messed up),

    People I got to buy a Note (about 10 of them) are overwhelmingly “delighted”, especially about the price, battery, and lack of problems (I usually put in 2-3 hours of elbow grease to make sure things go smoothly, esp. if switching from iPhone). The 2 annoyances mentioned (aside from “no iMessage”) are an iffy microphone (OK for phone, not great for Skyping esp once combined with very average low-light pics, nor for shooting vids) and a rather reflective screen (not as bad as my Mi Max, but very noticeable when you come from a premium phone).

    In my experience, that’s the right phone for 80% of users: you can go cheaper but lose a lot; and you’ve got to pay a lot more to get something noticeably better (unless you’re a one-issue buyer – my fixation is size, other go for pictures, oled, brand…). Realme (3 and 3 Pro, 5 is announced) seems equivalent in reviews, but I haven’t dogfed it yet. Xiaomi’s on track to overtake Apple within a year, getting to 3rd by units globally, 4th if you lump together all the BBK brands.

  2. Aaaaand USB4 is out, now includes recently-gifted-away Thunderbolt 3 and doubles the bandwidth again, plus allows more concurrent I/O. Probably needs different cables, ‘coz crosstalk and tolerances.

    Not sure how many optional protocols this brings into the fold. Some display capabilities almost certainly (unless they peeled those of TB3 ?), hopefully we’ll know soon about Power Delivery, analog audio, and other xHCI stuff…

    Some smartphones support USB3, but usually in the barest way (a few even do USB2 over USB-C): USB2 speeds, no display, you’re lucky to get standard PD and not some proprietary charging tech; and audio support is a mess some do digital only, some both digital and analog, external DACs are sometimes only supported in a very limited way.

  3. Interesting twist, exploit chains for iOS are now cheaper than for Android., on the open market

    To add insult to injury, besides Android getting ever better at security (open vs closed, heh ?) and even at updates, a small part of the explanation is fragmentation, biodiversity really, always good against viruses ^^

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