JESUS IT’S FREEZING. Or at least it is in London – I have no idea if it’s balmy and tropical where you are, and frankly I don’t care. POOR MATTY’S COLD.
Which is why this intro’s going to be short and sweet – I want to get this done so I can go and sit under a hot shower for 30 minutes and see if I can restore some feeling to my extremities. I can’t promise that the following 8,000-odd words of the usual b0llocks will provide any protection against the arctic chill, but I suppose in a pinch you could always print this out and set fire to it for warmth.
I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and you are now officially allowed to eat your first dozen mince pies of the season.
THE SECTION WHICH HAS NO LOVE WHATSOEVER FOR THE ROYAL FAMILY BUT FIRMLY BELIEVES THAT THE MAN WHO WROTE THAT NEW BOOK ABOUT THEM HAS POSSIBLY THE MOST SMACKABLE FACE I HAVE SEEN IN MY LIFE, PT.1:
- Public Access Memories: Following on from last week’s link to online art festival The Wrong Biennale, comes Public Access Memories, which is a ‘digital pavilion’ from within the Biennale (yes, ok, ‘within’ is an entirely-nonsensical term to use for something that exists in digital space, but it’s early and I am tired and the least you could do is wait until the third or fourth link before kicking off with the kvetching, thankyouverymuch) – yes, that’s right kids, it’s a VIRTUAL ART GALLERY! “As part of The Wrong Biennale 2023-24, Public Access Memories presents Fields of View, a virtual “pavilion” of 12 digital artists exploring new modes of representing, constructing, and traversing online space…The artists in this exhibition approach the representation of space in ways that acknowledge the materiality of the screen. Whether through the presentation of alternative or extreme perspective projections, isometric diagrams, glitch landscapes, stereoscopic imagery, or simply the textual description of spatial experience, the work in this exhibition expands the space of the computer screen without attempting to erase our awareness of it.” I really enjoy this – the 2d gallery space is pleasingly-00s-ish in aesthetic feel, and the navigation feels oddly-reminiscent of those collaborative social spaces that we all (ok, *I*) thought might become A Thing in the time of Covid, and you can talk to other visitors who are online at the same time as you through a simple chat interface, and the works…well, the works, based on my relatively thin exploration of them, are an intriguing mishmash of digital collage and video and lightly-interactive work playing at the edges of digital visual culture and questions of space and screen. This is a lovely place to just wander round for 20 minutes – click and explore and see what you find.
- Stable Diffusion Turbo: When was the last time you were properly amazed by a bit of digital tech? Do you remember that first feeling of excitement when you first typed “sexy broccoli” into Dall-E and saw your wildest imaginings come to life before your eyes? Do you realise how quickly we’ve become jaded? Still, if you want to once again feel the momentary shock of the new, to feel the strange sense of the future rushing towards you at a pace which, frankly, isn’t wholly comfortable, then click this link and BOGGLE AT THE MAGIC! Stable Diffusion – the best-in-class open source text-to-image model, lest we forget – has this week launched its latest update, which you can play with at this link and which basically creates images in realtime as you type and, seriously, this is like witchcraft. Go on, click the link – start typing and watch in amazement as stuff appears and shifts and morphs and the images attempt to keep up with whatever’s currently being typed into the input box…Ok, fine, so there’s no specific *need* for this to be as quick as it is, but there’s something quite unsettling about watching The Machine ‘think’ like this (NB – The Machine is not, of course, ‘thinking’ in any meaningful sense). This is, as you’d expect, guardrail pretty extensively so you won’t be able to go crazy with your perverted demands, but I promise you that there is something honestly quite incredible about seeing it react and reimagine on the fly – it feels like there’s something really quite incredible you could hack together with a version of this, and voice-recognition software and a big screen, so if any of you would like to take that fragment of an idea and run with it then that would be lovely thanks.
- Drawfast: Via Lauren Epstein’s newsletter and in a vaguely-similar space to the last link comes this fun little toy – tell The Machine what it is that you want to draw and then sketch out a rough outline and watch as it appears before your eyes in (semi-)realtime! This is a strangely-nostalgic callback to early versions of Dall-E from about 2019/20, except now it works at blistering pace – it’s slightly unsettling to think that this is basically what MS Paint is going to be like in ~6 months time, as AI gets baked into everything and even the most entry-level software products achieve the ability to, I don’t know, paint the sistine chapel or decode the Voynich Manuscript. Can everything maybe stop speeding up just for a couple of months, please?
- The AI Garage Sale: This is a genuinely smart idea (found via Andy) and a really nice, fun use of an LLM as a ludic interface (ludic! Ffs! It’s 730am Matt, STOP IT), and if you work in advermarketingpr and can’t think of a client or project for whom you could pretty much rip this off wholesale as a clever bit of promo then, well, you should probably think about switching careers tbh. The premise of this site is simple – the site is offering a bunch of stuff for sale, and you can attempt to get a better deal on the price of the various bits of tat on offer by engaging in some light bartering with the AI doing the selling – can you get a good deal on (for example) a Big Mouth Billy Bass? The nice twist here is that all the goods are actually on sale (although I don’t imagine they’ll ship outside the US), so you can actually follow this all the way through to the point of purchase – if you’ve spent any time GPT-wrangling over the past year then you will probably have a few tricks up your sleeve to convince the AI that you’re worthy of some pretty special discounts (clue: sick kids tend to really pull at its cold, unfeeling binary heartstrings), and for any of you reading in North America this could be a decently-cost-effective way on stocking up on tat to gift to people you don’t really know or like. Seriously, though, this is SUCH a smart idea and such an obviously-repurposable one that I’d be slightly amazed (and, honestly, quite disappointed in you) if I don’t see it redone by a retailer as some sort of promo.
- GPT Monkey Island: Ok, fine, so this is literally just a prompt, but it turns out that it does a really good job of turning GPT into a genuinely fun (if low-stakes) roleplaying game. The prompt basically instructs the LLM to act as a sort of Dungeon Master figure for a Monkey Island-esque tale of YOU – the HERO – arriving in a city of your choosing to seek fame and fortune; the prompt’s structured in such a way that you’re offered options in terms of where you take the story, choose your own adventure style, but I found when messing around with it that it will take a significant degree of improvisation, meaning you can basically take the story wherever you feel like pushing it. In the 20 minutes or so I spent messing with this this week I ended up owning a tavern and managing a network of spies and informants through the secret brothel I’d opened upstairs (all very vanilla, obvs, this is still GPT and, also, I’m not some sort of sweaty-palmed pervert) – the system seems to be able to keep track of what you’ve done, and what you’ve achieved, and your inventory and health and all sorts of other things, and in general this is the first one of these sorts of things that has felt like it *worked* in any meaningful sense – if you’ve ever fancied the idea of playing around with the whole ‘AI as DM’ idea then this might be a decent place to start. TBH the Monkey Island comparison doesn’t really stand up here (although the prompt’s coded to include insult swordfighting), but that’s pretty much my only quibble – this is a lot of fun.
- Anna Indiana: We delve deep into the musical uncanny valley now – Anna Indiana is an ‘AI singer-songwriter’, who this week went a bit viral when its first song was shared online and the world…well, the world reacted with predictable horror, but click the link and see what you think – go on, I’ll wait. *WAITS* Horrible, isn’t it? There are no details available, or at least none that my cursory research has been able to uncover, as to exactly what tech stack the people behind this are using to spin up the ‘melodies’, but the lyrics are a predictably-bland parade of bromides as you’d expect from an LLM, and the accompanying avatar is exactly the sort of cookie-cutter AI waifu you might expect, and, honestly, the whole thing is just a bit depressing – as is the insistence of whoever is running the whole project that ‘Anna’ is a sentient creature with thoughts and feelings and which sees her complain on Twitter that ‘many humans don’t seem to like me’. Still, to every single person who listens to this and thinks that it provides incontrovertible truth that The Machine will NEVER be able to replace human artists, I would like to point out that whilst the song is horrible and the ‘melody’ is garbage, the whole thing literally could not have existed as little as six months ago, and, as ever, THIS IS THE WORST IT IS EVER GOING TO BE. BONUS AI MUSIC LINK!: AI music toolbox Okio lets you effectively apply style transfer to music – as you can see in this clip of ‘remixes’ people have been making with their tech, which includes such bangers as ‘Wu Tang, but dubstep’ and ‘Old Macdonald, but death metal’.
- Visual Anagrams: This feels like something that you might be able to have some SEMI-VIRAL SUCCESS with if you get in early enough – the link takes you to Github page for the code, but you can see plenty of examples which will give you an idea of what’s going on here, which is good because I’ve been trying to work out how best to explain it to you via the medium of words for the past three minutes and, honestly, I’m fcuked if I know how. Basically this is a load examples of slightly brain melty visual illusions created by AI in which one image MAGICALLY becomes another via the medium of slight visual tweaking – I suppose the best description I can give you is ‘you know that old image of a rabbit which if you squint at it becomes a duck? Yeah, well that’. Seriously though, click the link – I reckon you’ve got a fortnight or so in which this stuff will continue to be genuinely jaw-dropping.
- Trash Baby: CAVEAT EMPTOR: this app is iOS-only and as such I haven’t been able to actually try it out, and as such Web Curios takes no responsibility for any weird sh1t it ends up doing to your phone should you decide to install it. Now that’s out of the way, Trash Baby is a fun-looking little app which basically does photo mashups – select two images from your phone’s camera roll and get the app to style-smoosh them together and see what happens. Literally just that,but from what I’ve seen online you can get some pretty fun visual styles out of it if you play around enough. Pleasingly, this app was just an idea that someone had which they got GPT-4 to code up and which now, six months later, is available in the app store – the future in action, right there.
- Operator: I haven’t featured anything NFT-ish for a while because, well, it’s all awful bullsh1t and the world has thankfully moved on – but I will make an exception for this, because I think it’s sort-of beautiful and I rather like the high concept. Operator is an art project in three parts – I missed the first, but the second is now ongoing – which is all about capturing human movement and translating it into data, and then visualising that data. Yes, fine, it involves MINTING and THE BLOCKCHAIN, but it’s worth bothering to read the spiel that accompanies the project because, honestly, I think it sort-of makes sense (insofar as anything involving web3 can ever be said to ‘make sense’).
- Palestine Online: This is a gorgeous project. “Palestine Online is a collection of webpages creates by Palestinians, primarily in the late 90s and early 00s, sourced from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Included here are personal webpages, news websites and online magazines, sites showcasing Palestinian art and culture, and homepages compiling and linking out to other relevant pages. Many of the pages here were created during or shortly after the Second Intefada, and demonstrate the rich history of Palestinian internet presence, showing the use of the web as a tool for resistance, connection, and expression under ongoing occupation. Palestine Online is a mirror to Palestinian internet presence and resistance today, highlighting the history of resilience and anger under occupation, as well as the immense pride, love, and joy for their ancestral land, no matter what the internet has looked like and has been technologically capable of.” I present this as a piece of internet history rather than as some sort of STATEMENT about anything, fyi.
- Bitkraft: Would you like to ENTER SYNTHETIC REALITY? No, I don’t know what it means either, but WOULD YOU LIKE TO????? That’s the question asked of you upon loading up this site for the first time, and I strongly suggest you grasp the opportunity with both hands because this really is a doozy of shiny, meaningless but VERY PRETTY webwork. I think the company behind this is something to do with videogames and web3 and THE BLOCKCHAIN, but, honestly, who cares? They’ve chosen to spunk a chunk of time and cash on this beautiful, silly website and we should all be grateful. “GAMES ARE A FOUNDATIONAL CORNERSTONE OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE!”, screams the copy, and “THE PAST IS A PROLOGUE!” and, honestly, who are we to argue? NO FCUKERS, etc! Baffling, but SUCH nice animations!
- The Open Source Munitions Portal: This is both sobering and also a quite astonishing example of the sort of information about conflict which can now be gathered and shared through open source means – launched by Kings College this week, “The Open Source Munitions Portal is a tool for researchers, journalists and practitioners trying to learn more about munitions and their use and impact in conflicts.” It contains hundreds of images of spent munitions in the field, mainly from the current war in Ukraine, as a record of what is being dropped on who and where – there’s nothing obviously distressing here, but it’s hard not to look at all these images of gunmetal casings and twisted metal and think about what these munitions do to people (your regular reminder, by the way, that if you work for an agency and your agency works for, say, BAE Systems, or Raytheon, that your agency is a collection of amoral cnuts and you should be ashamed).
- Spotify Visualised: DID YOU GET YOUR WRAPPED WAS IT WHAT YOU WANTED DOES IT ACCURATELY CONVEY THE NUANCES OF YOUR PERSONALITY VIA THE MEDIUM OF FIVE ARTISTS AND SONGS? Ahem. Sorry, it’s just that as a non-Spotify person I always get a slight ‘nose pressed up against the window of a party I’m not invited to’ vibes from the Spotify Wrapped stuff – this year’s celebration of individual taste (or, alternatively, demonstration of the crushing dominance of half-a-dozen artists and the impossibility of making a living from music for 99% of people working in the industry) has, as ever, been everywhere this year, but if you’d like to take a slightly more granular dive into your music and your tastes and what you listen to and WHAT IT MEANS then you might enjoy this webapptoy thing; plug in your account, let it crunch the numbers a bit and then enjoy your musical tastes presented as a galaxy of artists with CLUSTERS and CONSTELLATIONS and all sorts of nicely-visualised gubbins that will let you work out exactly where in musical latent space your tastes sit (by the way, my single TAKE on this year’s Wrapped numbers – noone seems to be talking about the fact that Beyonce is nowhere to be seen in the global top 10 artists list, which I think is super-interesting considering her insane sociocultural heft anbd footprint; anyone have any idea as to why this is?).
- Progressively More Intense: You will doubtless have seen the AI image trend this week of ‘X, but getting progressively more intense’ – the indefatigable Rene over at Good Internet has collected literally every single example of these spotted in the wild in one place, for your delectation and enjoyment. So many of these are joyous, but I don’t think I am going to see another sequence of AI-generated images this year that will make me as fundamentally happy as “Jesus is baptised by John but they get progressively more excited”.
THE SECTION WHICH HAS NO LOVE WHATSOEVER FOR THE ROYAL FAMILY BUT FIRMLY BELIEVES THAT THE MAN WHO WROTE THAT NEW BOOK ABOUT THEM HAS POSSIBLY THE MOST SMACKABLE FACE I HAVE SEEN IN MY LIFE, PT.2:
- Brarista: One of the odd side-effects of being brought up by a single woman is that I think I possibly heard more complaints about the irritation caused by ill-fitting bras than most young men (I can’t pretend that I was in any way happy about this), and as a result am a firm believer in the importance of getting properly measured and fitted (but I appreciate that this is now veering into slightly-weird territory, and I shan’t mention it again). Brarista (can we just pause to acknowledge the brilliance of the name, please?) is a new startup from the UK which aims to use machine vision to help people buy bras that fit them properly – they’re currently very early stage, and are looking for help testing and developing the tech, so should any of you be a) in the UK; and b) in possession of breasts then you might want to take a look.
- COP28 Adventures: What do we think – will THIS be the global conference that sorts everything out and secures our collective futures against the droughts and the rising seas and the shortages and the fires and the floods? Erm, look, it was a rhetorical question, don’t think too hard about what the answer is and instead enjoy the OFFICIAL GAME APP OF COP28! I have no idea if this is any good – although I have not-insignificant doubts – or indeed why an ostensibly-serious conference debating the steps we need to take to save our species from fcuking itself irrevocably via the medium of climate change requires an OFFICIAL GAME APP in the first place, but I am including it because I find the fact that the game is developed by the Dubai Police Force incredibly, darkly funny.
- Image Upscaling: You know the long-running joke about CSI and shows of that ilk and the MAGICAL TECH that they have which lets a forensic pathologist shout ‘ENHANCE!’ at a screen and watch as a previously-unreadable mess of pixels resolve themselves into the label on the perp’s underpants? Well this is that, but it actually works! Ok, fine, there’s no voice command (yet), but the rest is pretty much the same – upload an image, tell the software which bit you want it to ‘enhance’ and watch as it uses AI to basically imagine the detail. This is, I think, intended to allow for simple drawings and images to be rendered more complex, but I had quite a lot of fun using it to mess with random images I had sitting around on my phone – if nothing else, though, it might be interesting to scan and upload any old family pics you have into this to see what it can do with them (as long, obviously, as you don’t mind your loved ones being ingested into the maw of a future Machine – you don’t, do you? GOOD!).
- Brickelo: Have you ever wondered to yourself “of all the LEGO minifigs that have ever been released, which is the BEST EVER?” No, I can’t for a second imagine that you have – but SOMEONE has, and that person has created Brickelo, which is seeking to sever that Gordian knot once and for all. “Every LEGO minifigure is awesome, but have you ever wondered which is the best? If so, this website is for you. Brickelo takes a mathematical approach to determining the best LEGO minifigures, by using an ELO rating system. Each minifigure’s rating is calculated based on the outcome of comparing two minifigures against one another.” I got a bit sucked into this, mainly because I had no idea that LEGO had made so fcuking many tie-in figurines.
- The Fabulous Cartier Journey: What would induce YOU to drop several thousand pounds on some jewellery for Christmas (or, frankly, any other time – diamonds are, after all, forever, darling!)? Is the answer ‘a really, really nicely-designed and very soothing web-based clone of a decade-old videogame? NO OF COURSE IT ISN’T AND YET HERE WE ARE. Continuing the luxury world’s continued, baffling obsession with ‘making really simple reskins of old games as a marketing tactic I cannot even pretend to understand the ROI of’, Cartier brings us THE FABULOUS CARTIER JOURNEY – guide the lovely Cartier airship through the equally-lovely pastel-shaded skies, collecting gems and generally having a pleasant and soothing time, which is pretty much the antithesis of the original, intensely-enervating Flappy Bird experience. I really, really hope that the legendarily-plutocratic brand chucked the game’s original designer, Dong Nguyen, a few quid, but I bet they didn’t, the fcuks.
- The Royal Court Living Archive: I am a miserable joyless husk of a man, but one of the few things in life which give me genuine pleasure is going to the theatre and London’s Royal Court is somewhere I probably visit at least half-a-dozen times a year; despite its location in London’s somewhat-fancy Sloane Square, it’s a venue which over the years has showcased new writing by up-and-coming playwrights (Carol Churchill, Mark Ravenhill, etc) and which regularly puts on small experimental shows that wouldn’t ordinarily find space at ‘mainstream’ theatres – the theatre has recently created this WONDERFUL online archive which collects information about shows across the theatre’s history; you can search by work, or playwrite, and discover all sorts of wider information about works and their performances and their reception. The archive’s described as a ‘living work in progress’ and it’s still growing and being populated, but I love the ambition and the ethos behind it.
- Learn Morse Code: You may not THINK you need to learn Morse, but I promise you’ll be grateful for the knowledge when civilisation collapses – this is simple, but surprisingly fun and quite intuitive once you get into it. .. / -.-. .- -. .—-. – / -… . .-.. .. . …- . / -.– — ..- / -… — – …. . .-. . -.. / – — / – .-. .- -. … .-.. .- – . / – …. .. … .-.-.- / – .- -.- . / .- / .-.. — -. –. –..– / …. .- .-. -.. / .-.. — — -.- / .- – / -.– — ..- .-. … . .-.. ..-.
- Offscript: This is an interesting idea (whose actual, practical working I can’t quite figure out) – as far as I can tell, Offscript is a bit like Old Web darling Threadless, the tshirt company which let anyone submit designs and then ended up printing and selling the ones that the community decided it wanted to buy – except here, you don’t actually need to have any sort of design talent whatsoever, because you can COLLABORATE WITH AI to design things that will eventually get made! No word on exactly how the manufacturing process will work when The Machine starts imagining trousers with nine knees in the left leg or similarly-baroque design flourishes, or indeed how rights will work – but this is all very new, so I’m sure that it will all get ironed out sensibly (probably).
- Dioramas: Via Kris, I don’t really know what this is but I would probably (inadequately) describe it as ‘a series of digital postcards’ – regardless, these are lovely and there are 30 of them for you to click through and explore.
- Dot Meme: THERE IS A NEW DOMAIN NAME AVAILABLE! Yes, thanks to Google you can now, should you desire, register a web address at [yourURLhere].meme – ISN’T THAT EXCITING? Admittedly there is something almost painfully-Muskian about the idea of a ‘X.meme’ address – “Groimes, meems are hilleeriyas ind oi im king of the meems!” – but if you can think of a decent reason for getting one then, well, now you can.
- Rebookify: I haven’t actually tried this and so have no idea if it actually works, but, well, let’s take it at face value and assume it does exactly what it says on the homepage, and that all the endorsements are from actual, real people rather than the fevered imaginations of the dev team. Rebookify basically works to help you get the best deals on hotel rooms – you book a room, you tell the site which hotel it’s at and how much you paid for it, and it will alert you as soon as it finds the same room for the same dates at a cheaper price. You’ll have to handle the rebooking yourself, but this seems…useful? Also the fact that it doesn’t take any of your data is pleasing and non-nefarious, so double points to this site.
- Raindrop: I have long-since realised that I am never going ‘improve my workflows’ or ‘optimise my browsing’ or ‘take an extensive series of notes which I will network and connect and turn into some sort of semi-extension of my brain’ – I write Curios, that’s it, don’t try and improve me, it won’t work. I appreciate, though, that there will be some of you out there who want to do things like ‘get better and more efficient’ or ‘keep track of stuff’, and whilst I can’t pretend to understand this ameliorative impulse I can at least acknowledge it. Via Dave Briggs’ newsletter, Raindrop looks a bit Evernote-y and seems to be a really smart way of keeping track of and organising bookmarks – even better, it saves copies of every Page you visit which is a fcuking BOON for anyone attempting to keep track of fast-moving things. I think this is a paid product, but it looks like it could be quite powerful for those of you with a need for this sort of thing.
- Track AI Answers: This is an interesting idea – not the product (which isn’t really a product) so much as the question / problem it highlights. The idea here is that you type a brand or individual name into the platform and it will run regular checks on the major LLMs to see exactly what they throw up when you plug said terms in – the sense here is that this should be used as some sort of reputation monitoring and management tool…except, well, what are you meant to do, exactly, if this tells you that, for example, Claude has started associating the name “Matt Muir” with “excellent and renowned creator of bespoke Sentex products to the discerning terrorist community” (am I going to regret committing that sentence to the web? TIME WILL TELL!)? I genuinely hadn’t considered this as a possibility, but now I am half-interested in the idea of a fiction based around what would happen if The Machine decided certain things about you – how might you deal with it, and how the fcuk would you go about changing it? INTERESTING QUESTIONS.
- Pronouns: A well-meaning and entirely benign guide to pronouns and non-binariness, which also made me laugh A LOT when I scrolled down and I reached the bit about ‘Emojiself Pronouns’ because, well, lol. This is the sort of website which I can imagine would cause a Certain Type Of Person to dissolve in paroxysms of fury.
- Language Transfer: This is a genuinely odd website – you know how everyone in the world basically uses Duolingo to convince themselves that they are learning a new language whilst at the same time not in fact learning anything meaninful at all? Well other language courses are available – one of which is Language Transfer, which has apparently existed for about a decade, and is the work of ONE SINGLE PERSON. There are, understandably, a limited number of languages here – but Swahili is one of them, in case you were curious – but there are also courses on Introduction to Music Theory and ‘Methods of Thinking’, and while I can’t vouch for the content of any of these I am absolutely staggered by the endeavour here. There’s perhaps a *touch* of the ‘odd’ about this – I did raise a slight eyebrow at the assertion that there’s a film about the site’s founder and their ‘journey’ coming out next year, but I suppose you never know – but in general this is a pretty incredible (and, fine, odd) corner of the web.
- Neglected Books: “Welcome to the Neglected Books page, edited and mostly written by Brad Bigelow. Here you’ll find articles and lists with thousands of books that have been neglected, overlooked, forgotten, or stranded by changing tides in critical or popular taste.” THANKS, BRAD BIGELOW! This is genuinely fascinating – I could honestly just abandon you all here and just dive into the stacks here, because there are SO many interesting and curious and weird old novels discussed, and there’s a real sense that Brad (THANKS BRAD) absolutely knows his sh1t when it comes to the shifting literary tastes and mores of the 20thC. Bibliophiles will adore this.
- The Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards 2023: You will almost certainly have seen this year’s selection already, but, in case not, HERE YOU ARE! The best image in the 2023 selection, by the way, is of the small fox (he is called Keith – all foxes are called Keith, it is the law) who appears to be smoking a cigar.
- Drumhaus: Browser-based rum machines aren’t exactly new, but this one is a particularly-nicely-made example of the genre and it’s the work of but a few moments and clicks to create a track that’s genuinely pretty good, even if you’re me.
- NSFW History: “What’s a NSFW fact about history that most people don’t know?” asks the prompt at the top of this Reddit thread and WOW do people deliver in the comments. There are some wonderful anecdotes in here, although I didn’t spot my personal favourite which is that the reason that Macau belonged to the Dutch for so long was that it was traded by the Chinese for a metric-fucktonne of ambergis, very much the balene viagra of its day, so that the ageing Emperor of the day could have a better chance of ‘enjoying’ the 100 virgins he had been gifted by sycophantic regional governers. Ah, history!
- Perfect Pitch: I am a cloth-eared cnut and as such this is literally impossible for me to play without becoming upsettingly frustrated, but presuming that you’re less tone-deaf than I am you might have more luck – listen to the tune and try and recreate the note progression in six tries or fewer! Honestly, this made me feel SO INADEQUATE – but, er, that’s my problem, sorry.
- Draknek and Friends: A selection of small, pleasing browser games, all designed and made by one Alan Hazelden. THANKYOU, ALAN HAZELDEN! I haven’t tried all of them, but of the ones that have played I can highly recommend ‘You’re Pulleying My Leg’ (although frankly, Alan, that title is indefensible).
- Brickception: Finally this week, once again via Andy, comes this insane-but-brilliant game, which is basically ‘Breakout in two separate windows where one window is also the paddle’ – don’t worry, it will make significantly more sense when you click the link. I loved this, and there’s something just challenging enough about it, like rubbing your head and patting your belly simultaneously.
OUR FINAL MIX OF THE WEEK IS BY DJLMP FRANKLY BEYOND ME, GENRE-WISE, BUT I PROMISE YOU IT IS GREAT AND GENTLE AND LOVELY AND WILL TRANSPORT YOU SOMEWHERE SIGNIFICANTLY SUNNIER AND WARMER THAN LONDON WHICH LET ME ASSURE YOU IS ABSOLUTELY FCUKING BALTIC RIGHT NOW!
THE CIRCUS OF TUMBLRS!
- My Ad Journal: Not actually a Tumblr! Still, it’s a great project which I personally very much enjoy – one anonymous internetperson documents some of the ads they are served on a(n almost) daily basis. “the ads are tracking me, but i am also tracking the ads! Yeah! follow my ad journal and learn more about me and my desires. it’s a curated selection, because there is way too many ads for me to put them all here. i mostly post weird or very specific lo-fi ads and never big brands like H&M or HBO, because i guess their target group is everyone, so it’s not as fun.. and they recieve enough attention already… i also blur out or remove any text, because i don’t actually wanna advertise.” I think there’s a bigger project/exhibition in here, but it’s sort-of perfect as-is.
THE TROUGH OF (INSTA) FEEDS!
- Nick Heer: To be honest I am not quite sure how I came across this feed, but I am very glad that I did – I have no clue who Nick Heer is, but they take really lovely photographs. God, an Insta account that’s just…photos? HOW QUAINT! Anyway, Nick has a great eye and I think his feed contains some beautiful images.
LONG THINGS WHICH ARE LONG!
- Website-As-Home: A short essay by Nico Chilla (you should check out the rest of their site while you’re there, by the way, it’s lovely) about the concept of the website as a ‘home’, of sorts, an owned, curated space that in some way houses and defines and reflects and individual and their shifting, evolving interests and tastes and general SELF-ness – I am finding myself thinking more and more about the ways in which the web acts as SPACE, and how we define the limits of it (and our own), and I found this a really interesting addition to ,my reading on the topic. A taste: “Still, a website and a home are importantly different in that the former is intended for public exposure, whereas the latter is grounded in private life. But maybe we can relate the public nature of websites to a public dimension of homes: hosting visitors. Typically we don’t show our house guests everything — we keep many things private and clean up before they arrive. Moreover, we’ve made prior decisions about our furniture and decor with future guests in mind. So homes can certainly be curated for the public eye; but crucially, they maintain their function as living spaces. I find it generative to consider websites as a similar conjunction of public and private activity: by thinking about how visitors will receive the things that I publish, I’m compelled to produce more and refine the things that I make. At the same time, the website remains my space and is subservient to no other end.”
- The Tyranny of Structurelessness: Ok, this is LONG and QUITE SERIOUS, but it’s also really, really interesting and a proper artefact of political organisational thinking from The Past – it’s an essay which started as a talk, first delivered in 1970 as part of the debate around second wave feminism and how to drive the movement forward – basically it’s a long meditation on the problems with structureless organisations, and the inherent limitations (and contradictions) that a ‘leaderless’ movement will necessarily face, and it’s interesting both as an historico-political curio and as a sort of manual for people looking to organise, whether politically or otherwise (but probably politically).
- The Nature of Bee-ing: Yes, ok, fine, the ACTUAL title of this piece is the far superior and far more descriptive ‘what is it like to be a bee?’, but I couldn’t possibly resist the tired, lazy wordplay (it’s what you come here for!) – this is an extract from a forthcoming book on ‘The Mind of the Bee’ by one Lance Chittka and it is SO INTERESTING; there’s a long and noble history of ‘try and imagine what it would be like to be an X’ in philosophical writing (starting with Thomas Nagel’s ‘what is it like to be a bat?’) and this is another GREAT example of the genre, what with bees being so, well, bee-zarre (I am really sorry, I don’t know what’s come over me – it’s a mid-morning slump, I’ll try and power on through). It is, obviously, impossible to imagine what it would be like to ‘see’ electricity like what bees can do, but I love writing that attempts to bridge that (uttterly unbridgeable) gap – “To start, imagine you have an exoskeleton—like a knight’s armor. However, there isn’t any skin underneath: your muscles are directly attached to the armor. You’re all hard shell, soft core. You also have an inbuilt chemical weapon, designed as an injection needle that can kill any animal your size and be extremely painful to animals a thousand times your size—but using it may be the last thing you do, since it can kill you, too. Now imagine what the world looks like from inside the cockpit of a bee.” Honestly, this is WONDERFUL.
- Effective Altruism vs Accelerationism: I have to say, I personally think that the PHILOSOPHICAL SCHISM which everyone has been claiming has been at the heart of the whole OpenAI thing has been somewhat mischaracterised, but if you want an overview of what people currently seem to think are the twin poles of ‘go slower!’ and ‘go faster!’ from within the AI development space then you could do worse than read Molly White’s account.
- Corporations Did More To Kill Us That AI Ever Will: I want to caveat this link with two things: 1) I think the website it’s hosted on is…a bit mental, frankly, and I don’t quite know who’s behind it, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading anything else on there; 2) the writing is…a bit overblown (yes, I know, pot/kettle, fcuk off why don’t you?). That said, I found the basic premise here – that we can probably stand to learn a few things about ‘the dangers of AI’ from the way in which corporations have behaved over the course of the post-industrial age, and that there are certain parallels in terms of the way in which companies already behave and the way in which we are currently being told to worry that AIs might one day behave which we possibly ought to pay a bit more attention to – reasonably-convincing. I am not *totally* convinced that the whole site this sits on isn’t some sort of AI project itself, mind.
- When AI Comes For The Elites: I don’t, to be clear, necessarily buy the central premise of the article, but I did find it both interesting and quite funny in a sort of weird way – basically the theory here is that we’re on the cusp of some sort of lawyerly uprising, as all of the paralegals and junior solicitors whose jobs are being replaced by The Machine at a rate of knots use all that spare brainpower to FOMENT REVOLUTION! I have my doubts, but if the revolution starts with the layoff of a bunch of trainees from Slaugter & May then, well, you heard it here first!
- Making God: Ok, this is VERY LONG, but it’s also super-interesting and discursive and covers a huge range of topics, linking mythology to faith to AI to the far-right to neoliberalism to NFTs to the metaverse, and as an overview of some of history’s mythologising (and weaponisation) of tech this is frankly superb by Emily Gorcenski. Honestly, if you only pick one non-fiction piece to read from this week’s edition I would totally pick this one, it’s DIZZYING in scope.
- The Digital Election: This was picked up in Private Eye this week, but it’s worth reading about in full – recent changes to UK electoral legislation have seen the upper limits for spending on political advertising revised upwards, which means a LOT more advertising, specifically digital advertising. “Since buying digital ads became commonplace in British political campaigns in 2015, spending on them has increased at each election. Electoral Commission records show that the main party campaigns have, in that time, spent around £13m on Facebook, Google, Snapchat and Twitter ads. Given the extra headroom the new spending limits offer, we wouldn’t be *that* surprised if one of the big parties spent more than £10m on digital ads at the next election. If they do, their opponent will want to try and do the same. Such is the logic of political campaigns (and it’s going to be a great couple of months for the political ad sales folks at Facebook and Google.) If that happens, voters in marginal seats will notice a big difference. In the space of a few weeks, roughly 5 million voters, in around 100 seats, will see approximately 2 billion political ads (a very back of the envelope calculation, but of those orders of magnitude).” I don’t mean to keep on banging the same (tired, threadbare) drum but when you add AI-powered content creation to that it starts to look…potentially quite mad.
- Rebuilding Organisations for AI: I’ve become slightly bored of telling you all to go and sub to Ethan Mollick’s newsletter this year, and of constantly linking to it, but it continues to be one of the best resources for anyone interested in the practical side of ‘making AI do useful things for you in the professional space’. Here Mollick discusses how AI tools, specifically LLMs, can be integrated into working practices, and the sorts of tasks they can usefully be asked to perform, and how to build this into workflows on a day-to-day basis – if any of you are in the invidious position of being in charge of ‘using AI to save us money and, eventually, sack half of the workforce’ then this will be useful (but, you know, your soul will never know peace).
- Generative AI Comes To Search: Specifically, visual search – this is actually a really interesting use case for it, and something that hadn’t occurred to me at all. Those of you with access to Google’s experimental ‘Search Generative Experience’ trial (so only those in the US at present) will now be able to ask The Machine to imagine something you might want to buy, and then use that generated image as the starting point for a search for real-life products; the idea being that you might have an image of your ideal purchase in your head but no idea of how or where to find it on search, which image you can now bring to life via the medium of AI. I appreciate that this might feel like something of a banal or uninspired use case, but I found this REALLY exciting – not in terms of what’s happening here or the AUGMENTED RETAIL EXPERIENCE, but in the sense of The Machine acting as a sort of bridge between our desires and our ability to articulate them.
- The Product Model at Spotify: Yes, ok, I can’t imagine that any of you read that headline and thought ‘wow, thanks Matt, that sounds FASCINATING’ – but I promise that this account of how the people who built it went about designing, developing and rolling-out the Spotify Discover Weekly discovery playlists is genuinely interesting (or at least it is if you’re interested in the practical aspects of how people go about doing and making things, which I personally am; your mileage, as ever, may vary).
- Don’t Keep ‘Em Crossed: Or, perhaps more helpfully, “A really good takedown of a recent campaign in the UK aimed at encouraging more women to have cervical screenings and why it’s depressing, reductive, sexist claptrap” – this, by Debbie Cameron, is both a good dissection of why the campaign doesn’t work, and more generally of an advermarketingpr environment in which it’s still possible for work like this to get signed off.
- Driverless Cars Stress Cities: The past month or so’s news from the US, where various driverless car firms have seen their licenses to operate cabs been either removed entirely or seriously curtailed, has suggested that the age of the self-driving car is still a little way away. This piece is a really interesting look at all the other, unexpected ways in which cars without drivers mess with the functioning of urban environments as they are currently designed, and is a generally useful reminder that it’s rarely, if ever, possible to fully predict and model the impact of new products or systems on behaviours. The point about not being able to communicate with the cars, for example, in the same way one driver might signal to another with hand gestures or nods, had literally never occurred to me (which, fine, is probably a side-effect of my being a non-driver and a moron, but).
- China’s Mosque Crackdown: An excellent bit of reporting by the FT, which used satellite imagery of China and image analysis software to determine that a significant number of mosques across the country have ceased to exist over the past decade or so as part of the country’s quiet policy of attempting to ‘sinify’ Islam (and, one might argue, effectively persecute the country’s Muslim population) – this is a really good article which uses dataviz and scrollytelling (sorry) to powerful effect.
- Summer England’s TikTok Romcom: Another one for the ‘every platform eventually gets the same content and ‘innovations’ as all the platforms that preceded it’ file, this – Summer England is a character on TikTok who over the course of the year has been telling a long, first person, scripted-but-designed-to-look-real story of her romantic entanglement with her hot neighbour, using all the now-traditional TikTok tricks and tells, but doing so in a way that’s reminiscent of old school early YouTube fictions like LonelyGirl15; I am slightly surprised that there’s not more of this sort of stuff, but I imagine that, in much the same way that literally EVERYONE working in TV for about 6 years in the mid-2010s had by law to reference Skam in every single conversation about new formats ever, we are about to enter an era in which every single production company will be thinking ‘so what’s our fictional diary TikTok show, then?’.
- Cookie Monster’s Cookies: I did not know until this week that I wanted to read a thousand-odd words about exactly how the cookies that Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster devours are made, and yet it turns out that I really, really did. I think it’s impossible to write ANYTHING about Sesame Street without it being basically entirely charming and adorable, and this is no exception.
- Banal Utopias: A brilliant article in Vittles, exploring the history and evolution of the food available at the UK’s motorway services – which, I concede, doesn’t necessarily sound promising but really is properly interesting. No, really, look!: “The source of the very British fascination with MSAs is, according to Randall a feeling of anonymity that can be experienced when driving: ‘[At the service station] you can walk around tired and hungry and that’s all OK, because you’re surrounded by strangers on the outskirts of an obscure village that you’ve otherwise never heard of. It might as well be a different planet,’ he says. This sense of dislocation has been described by the anthropologist Marc Augé as ‘the emptying of the consciousness [and an] ordeal of solitude’ in his theory of ‘non-places’ – transitory yet somehow alluring spaces, like motorways and airports, where people move en masse through a series of efficient transactions, optimised by turbo-capitalism. In our collective experience, the separate province of the motorway is distinct from real places, and provokes the widely held fascination that comes with being in a ‘banal utopia’, as Augé suggests.”
- London’s Mansion Blocks: Specifically, the design of London’s mansion blocks, how they came to exist and the social history behind them – I’ve personally always found there to be something intensely, weirdly, almost-frighteningly miserable about these buildings whenever I’ve stayed in them (something to do with the near-total absence of natural light in certain designs), but anyone who’s lived in the city and who’s walked around, say, Marylebone or Edgware Road will recognise the designs and the aesthetic at play here.
- The Frog That Couldn’t Jump: This is a fascinating account of the author’s stint living in North Korea and working as state-approved writer and creator of party-sanctioned cultural materials – honestly, this is SO interesting: “Since its founding, North Korea has always had an elaborate bureaucracy for artistic production organized within the Korean Workers Party’s Agitation and Propaganda Department. This framework was set up in emulation of the Soviet system of artistic production under Stalin. Over time, this artistic bureaucracy has been increasingly adapted to promote the cult of personality surrounding the first leader Kim Il Sung and his descendants. Among the many cultural products designed to promote the regime, one of the most important is literature. Aspiring writers in North Korea must register with the Korean Writers’ Union and participate in annual writing workshops. The KWU has offices in every province in the country. KWU editors evaluate each work on its ideological merits before allowing its publication in one of the Party’s own literary journals. There are particularly strict rules regarding how the leaders and the Party may be depicted in literature. A writer’s life is highly competitive. Literary success means becoming a “professional revolutionary” with lots of perks: a three-month “creativity leave” every year, permission to travel freely around the country, and special housing privileges. Kim Ju-sŏng was one such aspiring writer. A zainichi (Japan-born ethnic Korean), he “returned” to North Korea in 1976 at age 16 as part of a wave of emigration encouraged by pro-North Korean groups in Japan and lived in the country for 28 years before defecting to South Korea. The zainichi returnees were an important propaganda tool as well as a source of income and foreign technology for the North Korean regime. Due to their foreign connections they enjoyed a relatively higher standard of living, but they also faced suspicion from the regime and prejudice from ordinary North Koreans.” This feels like a film waiting to be made.
- Vegetation: Another week, another essay from the increasingly-essential Dirt Magazine; this is by Evan Grillon and it’s all about his heart operation and what it feels like being confronted VERY HARD by your own mortality, and being sick, and contemplating death, and helplines and grief and trauma and, I promise, it is SUPERB and nowhere near as miserable or horrid as the selection of terms I’ve chosen to pull out as descriptors might make it sound. ““Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” wrote Emerson. What can a person do about their fear but turn to face it and praise the mystery at the bottom of every fear? I say what I am afraid of so I may, if not move past it, live beside the fear: I am afraid of hemorrhages, hematomas, heart infections. I am afraid of sudden death, of slumping over in the supermarket line while holding a bouquet of vegetables, I am afraid of a humiliating death: an aneurysm dissecting while on top of a lover, slipping on wet stairs and hitting my head. I am afraid of flossing too aggressively. I am afraid that I will die without telling the people who I love what is really on my mind. I wake up sometimes, late at night, to the wailing of sirens, only to find that familiar ticking prevails when the sirens subside.”
- Last Week at Marienbad: I confess to really not having enjoyed Lauren Oyler’s novel, but this essay in Granta, in which she and her partner take a visit to Marienbad, partly in homage to the 60s arthouse film ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ and partly to take the waters – it is very sharply observed, and very funny, and not-entirely-unreminiscent of Patricia Lockwood which is pretty much the highest recommendation I can give it tbh.
- Ice Cream, Alone And With Others: Our final longread of the week is this beautiful series of vignettes from a life, whose unifying theme is icecream. I think this is lovely, and I hope you do too.
By Maria Siorba
AND NOW, MOVING PICTURES AND SOUNDS!:
- Ok, I am puzzled by this and would like someone to explain it to me if at all possible. This video is called ‘The Amazing Digital Circus’, and it’s billed as a pilot episode for a potential future series, and it’s been apparently created by an independent studio in search of BIG FUNDING… the animation is decent, and while I am about 30 years too old for the humour and general ‘vibe’ of the whole thing, it seems like it’s well-made and not obviously nefarious. But that doesn’t explain to me how the fcuk it has clocked up 153m views in a month despite seemingly not bleeding across into any other media ecosystems I’m aware of (with the caveat, obviously, that I am old). Is this a thing? Is this just the nth example of how culture is so irredeemably fractured now that it’s impossible to get any sort of comprehensive view of it, or is there something else going on here? Anyone?
- How do you fancy some EXPERIMENTAL JAZZ TRUMPETRY??? No, wait, come back! This is reminiscent of John Zorn’s Naked City but with less terrifying black metal guitars and screaming – but still something of a ‘challenging bop’, as I believe the kids have never in fact said. The track’s called ‘ATM’ and it’s by O The Band.