Start Up No.1957: AI photographer confesses, AI spam overwhelms SF magazine, SO2 to solve the climate?, queuing trouble, and more

Got an original iPhone? Probably not worth anything unless you’ve kept it in a sealed box. But if so… CC-licensed photo by Carl Berkeley on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Oh, my phone’s ringing inside the box. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. On Mastodon: Observations and links welcome.

Viral Instagram photographer has a confession: His photos are AI-generated • Ars Technica

Benj Edwards:


With over 26,000 followers and growing, Jos Avery’s Instagram account has a trick up its sleeve. While it may appear to showcase stunning photo portraits of people, they are not actually people at all. Avery has been posting AI-generated portraits for the past few months, and as more fans praise his apparently masterful photography skills, he has grown nervous about telling the truth.

“[My Instagram account] has blown up to nearly 12K followers since October, more than I expected,” wrote Avery when he first reached out to Ars Technica in January. “Because it is where I post AI-generated, human-finished portraits. Probably 95%+ of the followers don’t realize. I’d like to come clean.”

Avery emphasizes that while his images are not actual photographs (except two, he says), they still require a great deal of artistry and retouching on his part to pass as photorealistic. To create them, Avery initially uses Midjourney, an AI-powered image synthesis tool. He then combines and retouches the best images using Photoshop.

…Originally an AI skeptic, Avery has become a convert to the new art form. Such work attracts great controversy in the art world, partly due to ethical issues around scraping human-made artwork without consent. But thanks to that artistic knowledge built into the model, some of the most skilled AI-augmented practitioners can render imagery far more vividly than if a human were working alone.

“I am honestly conflicted,” Avery said when he approached Ars to tell his story. “My original aim was to fool people to showcase AI and then write an article about it. But now it has become an artistic outlet. My views have changed.”


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A concerning trend • Neil Clarke

Clarke is the editor of Clarkesworld, a science fiction magazine that takes submissions from anyone – if they’re good enough:


Anyone caught plagiarizing was banned from future submissions. Some even had the nerve to complain about it. “But I really need the money.”

Towards the end of 2022, there was another spike in plagiarism and then “AI” chatbots started gaining some attention, putting a new tool in [plagiarists’] arsenal and encouraging more to give this “side hustle” a try. It quickly got out of hand:

(Note: This is being published on the 15th of February. In 15 days, we’ve more than doubled the total [of AI-generated junk stories] for all of January.)

I’m not going to detail how I know these stories are “AI” spam or outline any of the data I have collected from these submissions. There are some very obvious patterns and I have no intention of helping those people become less likely to be caught. Furthermore, some of the patterns I’ve observed could be abused and paint legitimate authors with the same brush. Regional trends, for example.

What I can say is that the number of spam submissions resulting in bans has hit 38% this month. While rejecting and banning these submissions has been simple, it’s growing at a rate that will necessitate changes. To make matters worse, the technology is only going to get better, so detection will become more challenging. (I have no doubt that several rejected stories have already evaded detection or were cases where we simply erred on the side of caution.)

Yes, there are tools out there for detecting plagiarized and machine-written text, but they are prone to false negatives and positives. One of the companies selling these services is even playing both sides, offering a tool to help authors prevent detection. Even if used solely for preliminary scoring and later reviewed by staff, automating these third-party tools into a submissions process would be costly. I don’t think any of the short fiction markets can currently afford the expense.

I’ve reached out to several editors and the situation I’m experiencing is by no means unique. It does appear to be hitting higher-profile “always open” markets much harder than those with limited submission windows or lower pay rates. This isn’t terribly surprising since the websites and channels that promote “write for money” schemes tend to focus more attention on “always open” markets with higher per-word rates.


Clarke has since closed submissions. He’s got a problem. Or perhaps we all do. Related: ChatGPT launches boom in AI-written ebooks on Amazon. The tsunami is here, just not evenly distributed.
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Controversial startup tries to cool global climate from US soil • Time

Alejandro de la Garza:


Next is what Andrew Song, 37, [Luke] Iseman’s mustachioed, beanied business partner, insists on calling “the cook”—as in, “We have to cook,” from meth drama Breaking Bad. The hotel room is cluttered with hardware that Iseman and Song have recently purchased from Home Depot: plastic tubing, pressure cooker, a cooler filled with dry ice, and assorted one-pound jugs of sulfur-based fungicide. There’s a towel under the door, and the window is open. Song hands me an industrial respirator when I walk in. “You’re gonna need this,” he says solemnly.

Iseman and Song intend to put a few grams of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into their helium weather balloons. In the upper atmosphere, SO2—a chemical found in airplane exhaust and ejected by volcanoes—bounces solar radiation back into space, part of the reason global temperatures can drop in the aftermath of some volcanic eruptions. Iseman and Song haven’t yet arranged for a chemicals company to supply them with SO2, so they are making it themselves. And today they’re trying out a new technique in the hotel room—a scaled-up version of something they had seen on YouTube—burning the sulfur-based fungicide, then sucking the resultant gas through tubing cooled with dry ice in order to precipitate liquid SO2 into the pressure cooker.

SO2 gas isn’t pleasant stuff. It forms sulfuric acid when it comes into contact with water, as it does in the eyes and the mucous membranes of the lungs. In sufficient concentrations, it’ll kill you. Earlier, Song had proposed burning popcorn in the hotel room to “mask the SO2 smell,” but the pair didn’t implement the idea. Iseman sits on the floor fitting tubing together with silicone tape. Song helps when Iseman asks, but otherwise stands around. He says they’re doing this indoors because the setup “doesn’t look great,” and because wind might blow away their sulfur smoke. There’s no risk of toxic exposure, though, he says—the acidity of the chemical is akin to orange juice, he claims. Iseman laughingly rejects the comparison. Song pushes on with another questionable analogy: “If you’ve ever done a massive bong hit, it’s less—a bong hit is worse than what you’re going to inhale, in terms of the pain.”

…[they have] a website offering customers a chance to buy “cooling credits” for $10. In exchange for each credit, Iseman and Song pledged to inject one gram of SO2 into the upper atmosphere, which they say is equivalent to canceling out one ton of CO2 emissions for one year (CO2 hangs around in the atmosphere 1,000 times longer than SO2, so fully offsetting that same ton of CO2 would require pumping more SO2 into the sky year after year).


A bad idea being done in a bad way; Pelion upon Ossa.
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How queuing leads to city centre violence and what our research says about preventing night-time brawls • The Conversation

James White, Thomas Woolley and Simon Moore are researchers at Cardiff University:


Crowding and noise are associated with increases in violence in city centres at night. And, in Australia, it has been shown that when trading hours are restricted there is a decrease in violence.

But our research shows the correlation between footfall and assault is not linear. In other words, if we double the footfall, we do not simply double the number of assaults. The relationship between these two factors is more complicated, so we decided to investigate what could account for that.

One particular aspect we considered was the role drunkenness has to play because it affects how people cooperate, for example when queuing. Queues are a social response to resource competition, whether that resource is nightclub entry, a pint of beer or a taxi.

However, since queuing is a social phenomenon, the people waiting in line have expectations about how others should behave, such as not skipping to the front.

When a violation of those unwritten rules occurs, people queuing in an orderly fashion will seek to defend the queue’s order, with the most vocal complaints stemming from those who are closest to where the person jumps into the line. Although even those ahead of the intrusion may also react to the injustice.

However, whether there’s a queue violation or not, waiting in line makes people stressed. This increases the longer they believe they have been waiting. In turn, such stress can lead to aggression.


It seems sort of obvious – drunk rowdy people barge in or get grumpy when made to wait, then things get bad – but of course it needs some research to make it totally certain.
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In Gonzalez v. Google, Supreme Court worries about undermining Congress • The Washington Post

Robert Barnes:


Supreme Court justices suggested Tuesday that they might move cautiously in their first examination of the federal law that protects internet companies from lawsuits concerning the platforms’ posting of content from third parties.

The justices heard more than two and a half hours of arguments regarding the claim by the family of an exchange student killed in an Islamic State attack that Google’s YouTube should be liable for promoting content from the group.

But justices across the ideological spectrum said they were confused by the arguments offered by the family’s lawyer and worried that the court could undermine an effort by Congress to provide immunity for the platforms decades ago, when lawmakers wanted to encourage the development of the internet.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said one could question why Congress provided such protections when passing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which has been interpreted by courts to provide wide immunity from lawsuits when the sites post content from outside parties.

But she drew laughter when she wondered how far the Supreme Court should go in cutting back such protection. “You know, these are not like the nine greatest experts on the internet,” Kagan said.

Kagan and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh suggested a ruling on behalf of the Gonzalez family could unleash a wave of lawsuits. Kavanaugh did not seem persuaded when Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm L. Stewart, representing the Justice Department and siding in part with the plaintiffs, said few lawsuits “would have much likelihood of prevailing.”

“Isn’t it better … to keep it the way it is,” Kavanaugh replied. “For us … to put the burden on Congress to change that and they can consider the implications and make these predictive judgments?”


Interesting, though the verbal arguments aren’t always a guide to how the Court will decide.
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How Apple captured Gen Z in the US — and changed their social circles • Financial Times

Patrick McGee:


Gen Z users — those born after 1996 — make up 34%of all iPhone owners in the US, versus 10% for Samsung, according to new data from Attain, an adtech data platform.

The figure helps to explain how the iPhone grew its overall market share of actual phone usage from 35% in 2019 to 50% last year, according to Counterpoint, enabling Apple to grow its profits even as the broader market stagnates.

The tech giant’s hold on younger consumers marks a significant change as market research has shown that, for older generations of Americans, there is a relatively even split between owners of devices running Android, Google’s software for mobiles, and iOS.

Shannon Cross, analyst at Credit Suisse, said the ramifications of these shifting tastes extended well beyond smartphones, as iPhone users were more likely to purchase MacBooks, Apple Watches and AirPods.

“The strength of the Apple ecosystem creates a moat that is fairly impenetrable by the competition,” Cross said. “It really makes it hard to change the trajectory. Apple is just going to continue to gain share over time.”

As Gen Z is the most online of any age group — spending up to six hours a day on their smartphones — the iPhone’s dominance is shaping the social circles of young Americans, according to researchers who advise companies on the preference of Gen Z consumers.

…One oft-mentioned issue is that Android phones cannot send texts through Apple’s iMessage system, meaning that a single Android user participating in a group chat of iPhone owners turns the outbound messages of all users green, rather than blue.


Simply amazing that a country that is so, so deep into Facebook and Instagram hasn’t heard of Facebook’s cross-platform messaging service WhatsApp, where it doesn’t matter what phone you’re on. They’re more likely to use Signal or Telegram, but even then not much for messaging.

It’s a long piece, though, about how Apple essentially has a moat around Gen Z. And that’s not going away.
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Original iPhone fetches $63k – but there’s a catch • BBC News

Chloe Kim:


Karen Green got an iPhone in 2007, but did something most people don’t – she never opened it.

Her first-generation iPhone sold at auction for $63,356.40 (£51,900) on Sunday. That blew away expectations the phone would go for $50,000. It’s also more than 100 times the 8GB phone’s original cost of $599. But don’t expect as much for your old iPhone, unless it’s still in original packaging with the shrink wrap on.

“To discover an original, first-release model from 2007, still brand-new with its factory seal intact, is truly remarkable,” Mark Montero of LCG Auctions told BBC News. LCG Auctions handled the auction, which opened at $2,500 on 2 February and closed on Sunday after 27 bids.

Friends gave the 8GB phone as a gift to Ms Green back in 2007 when she got a new job, she said in a 2019 interview. Ms Green had just bought another phone, so she kept the gift without opening it.

“It’s an iPhone,” she thought, “so it’ll never go out of date”.

Fortunately for her, she was wrong. Her iPhone checks all the boxes high-end collectors look for, Mr Montero says: relevance, rarity, and replaceability. “Only brand-new, unopened, and first-generation, [iPhones] in mint condition are valuable,” he says. Ms Green’s story is “just icing on the cake”.


I don’t quite get what the “catch” is. That it’s unopened? I also don’t quite get the attraction of objects that just sit inside a box which you cannot open or you’ll destroy its value. Especially an object that was not unique.
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Four-day week: ‘major breakthrough’ as most UK firms in trial extend changes • The Guardian

Heather Stewart:


The vast majority of companies taking part in the world’s largest trial of a four-day week have opted to continue with the new working pattern, in a result hailed as evidence that it could work across the UK economy.

Of the 61 companies that entered the six-month trial, 56 have extended the four-day week, including 18 who have made it permanent.

The findings will be presented to MPs on Tuesday as part of a push urging politicians to give all workers in Britain a 32-hour week.

Joe Ryle, the director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, called the trial a “major breakthrough moment”, adding: “Across a wide variety of sectors, wellbeing has improved dramatically for staff; and business productivity has either been maintained or improved in nearly every case.

“We’re really pleased with the results and hopefully it does show that the time to roll out a four-day week more widely has surely come.”

At Sheffield-based Rivelin Robotics, one of the participating firms that plans to continue with the new approach, the chief product officer, David Mason, said he hoped offering a shorter working week would help with future recruitment. “It’s certainly something that makes us a little bit different from the average.”

The UK pilot, which kicked off last June, has been promoted by 4 Day Week Global, a not-for-profit organisation founded in New Zealand, and overseen by the thinktank Autonomy and a team of academics.

Companies taking part were offered workshops and mentoring to help them rethink working practices. Staff were given the opportunity to remain on their existing salary, working across four days instead of five.


Well nobody invited ME to participate. Very interesting that productivity holds up. Wonder how long bosses will be able to resist the temptation to up it a bit, you know, 20%, by getting people in for another day. Interesting too that four-day weeks were part of the Labour 2019 manifesto. Nobody mentioned that in the reports I saw.
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A new class of antibiotics tackles ‘intractable’ bacteria with virtually no resistance • TittlePress


A team of UC Santa Barbara scientists said they had developed a new class of antibiotics that cured mice infected with bacteria classified as virtually incurable and did so without detectable resistance to treatment. This discovery paves the way to begin to address the growing challenge of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), a growing public health threat that disproportionately affects the health of people in low- and middle-income countries.

The study, published on Wednesday in the review eBioMedicine, indicates that the drug compound, COE2-2hexyl, acts via the simultaneous disruption of many bacterial functions. This explains why it killed all the pathogens it was tested on and the low levels of bacterial resistance were seen even after prolonged exposure.

“The key finding was that bacterial resistance to the drug was virtually undetectable,” said Douglas Heithoff, senior researcher at the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, UC Santa Barbara and lead author of the study. “Most drugs fail at this stage of development and never make it to clinical practice.”

The discovery of the compound came from an unlikely and unrelated project – a project funded by the US military and led by Guillermo Bazan of UC Santa Barbara to develop new methods for recharging cell phones in the field. Bazan’s group designed compounds that harnessed bacterial energy to create a “microbial” battery. After development, the team realized that perhaps the compounds they had created could be tested as potential antibiotics.


Very promising: no new antibiotics have been discovered for decades.
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Why does it feel like Amazon is making itself worse? • NY Mag

John Herrman:


Interacting with Amazon, for most of its customers, broadly produces the desired, expected, and generally unrivaled result: They order all sorts of things; the prices are usually reasonable, and they don’t have to think about shipping costs; the things they order show up pretty quickly; returns are no big deal. But, at the core of that experience, something has become unignorably worse. Late last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon’s customer satisfaction had fallen sharply in a range of recent surveys, which cited COVID-related delivery interruptions but also poor search results and “low-quality” items. More products are junk. The interface itself is full of junk. The various systems on which customers depend (reviews, search results, recommendations) feel like junk. This is the state of the art of American e-commerce, a dominant force in the future of buying things. Why does it feel like Amazon is making itself worse? Maybe it’s slipping, showing its age, and settling into complacency. Or maybe — hear me out — everything is going according to plan.

…Amazon’s cross-border commerce arrangements have led to the creation of a delightfully weird branding language almost unique to Amazon, whose marketplace affords special privileges to brands with registered American trademarks. Strings of unpronounceable letters are intended to move easily through the trademarking process; on Amazon, where star ratings and search placement are king, their uselessness as conventional brands doesn’t really matter, so “IOCBYHZ,” “BANKKY,” and “KLAQQED” work just fine.

The view of Amazon from China is worth considering everywhere. Amazon lets Chinese manufacturers and merchants sell directly to customers overseas and provides an infrastructure for Prime shipping, which is rare and enormously valuable. It also has unilateral power to change its policies or fees and to revoke access to these markets in an instant — as it has for thousands of Chinese sellers in recent years, with minimal process, because of alleged review fraud. It’s a lot of power for one firm to have.


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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

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