February is the worst month of the year. January gets all the attention and the opprobrium, true, but it’s February that’s the real cnut – all of the misery of January with none of the sympathy.
BUT I AM SYMPATHETIC! I FEEL YOUR PAIN!
Still, WE CAN GET THROUGH IT TOGETHER! Here’s the deal – I promise to provide you with four massive, jam-packed, link-filled newsletters over the course of the month, and you all promise not to throw yourselves off the nearest tall structure in protest at how incredibly fcuking sh1t this time of year is. Ok? OK!
I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and you are probably thinking ‘wow, he’s basically like The Samaritans but with better webspaff’ right about now, and you’d be right to do so.
By Vuk Palibrk
THE SECTION WHICH IS INCREASINGLY CONVINCED THAT WHEN PEOPLE WITH 6-FIGURE SALARIES TALK CONFIDENTLY ABOUT HOW AI IS NOT IN FACT A RISK TO JOBS WHAT THEY ACTUALLY MEAN IS, SPECIFICALLY, *THEIR* JOBS AND THOSE OF PEOPLE LIKE THEM, PT.1:
- The Forever Labyrinth: Our first link this week is a BRAND NEW CULTURAL TOY from Google’s Arts & Culture team, and I spent a good 15 minutes yesterday as I futzed around with this trying to work out exactly which particular memory itch it was scratching as I did so (I will reveal at the end of this section, as some sort of spectacularly-lame enticement to read the whole entry rather than just getting frustrated with my prose and clicking the link to get away from me – I SEE YOU). This is part ‘vaguely-didactic opportunity for you, the user, to get up close and personal with some of the very high-res scans of classical artworks which Google has been taking over the years in collaboration with the world’s cultural institutions’; and part ‘vaguely-Victorian-feeling mystery missing person hunt through space and possibly time’, and starts with you, the player/character, in a room, hunting for their professor. From there you’re led through a series of paintings, though different ‘rooms’, guided by various characters to make thematic links between the artworks in a series of (gentle) puzzles which basically amount to ‘work out which picture is going to act as an access point to the next scene, based on the clues you’ve been given – this isn’t exactly deep, though I have to guiltily confess to getting a bit stuck about 20m into this (I was quite stoned, leave me alone), but there’s something pleasingly-atmospheric about the audio and the contrast between the minimal, line-drawn backdrops and the vibrancy of the artworks themselves, and the audio is lovely, and I really did get significantly more into this than I thought I was going to (but, again, stoned, so your mileage may well vary here), possibly because it reminded me SO MUCH, vibewise at least, of The Box of Delights by John Masefield (no, it wasn’t worth waiting for, was it? Sorry about that). As an aside, I got a really strong ‘this would actually make an EXCELLENT VR experience’ impression from this which almost never happens – I think there’s something about the idea of moving from space to space, ‘through’ the paintings, that brought that to mind, but I think there’s possibly an ‘immersive’ (sorry) spin on this for someone to explore should they be so minded.
- AI Infinite TV: So I just checked and we are almost exactly a year on from “Nothing, Forever”, the AI-powered Seinfeld show that garnered international headlines and which is still running on Twitch (although it doesn’t really seem to have much to do with parodying Seinfeld anymore), and where is the ‘the entertainment revolution, powered by machines’ here in 2024? Well, we’ve moved on from ‘nonsensical, oddly-pixelated sitcom parody’ to ‘significantly-shinier infinite MTV-style programming in which everything is apparently spun up by The Machine’, but IS IT WORTH WATCHING? No, of course it isn’t, aside from the morbid curiosity of the almost-but-not-entirely-tuneless tunes and the short, melty videoclips, and the occasional, stilted AI VJ chat about how ‘AI Infinite TV is the future of media’ (although, given the present of media, perhaps that’s not such an insane prediction after all). I am curious as to all the different bits of tech that are being used here and how exactly they are being wrangled, and exactly what is automated workflow and what is ‘very human MachineWrangler desperately feeding prompts to Runway behind the scenes’ – according to the ‘About’ section, the people behind this have plans to add ‘short films’ ‘news’ and ‘interviews and Q&As’ to the broadcast schedule, things which I can’t for the life of me imagine anyone ever wanting (I know I often sound…less than positive about life and our species and THE GENERAL WAY THINGS ARE GOING, but I am not so bearish on humanity that I seriously believe a significant number of us are going to choose to watch AI-generated interviews with AI-generated avatars, however bad things get out here in meatspace. Please don’t probe me wrong, I am not sure I could bear the disillusionment) but which nonetheless I am curious to see in action…anyway, of all the various ‘media’ careers currently being threatened with differently-imminent degrees of extinction, I think the people in charge of making visual entertainments can probably rest safe for a little longer than the scribes and the wordsmiths can. Experiment for those of you working in shared spaces with TV screens – chuck this up on one of them and see how long it takes anyone to notice.
- The Cheap Web: A manifesto of sorts for the ‘cheap’ web, based around the idea that making and hosting things online, without relying on Big Internet for your support and hosting and infrastructure, shouldn’t be expensive or difficult or HARD – and that the proliferation of small, cheap, lightweight and personal places on the web will contribute to its growth and diversity and oh god I am about 100 words from digressing into some sort of godawful thought experiment about digital botany, aren’t I? Ahem. “Until we adopt simple and stable building materials, all websites will continue to look the same. Software has become too complicated to stay honest. Corporations can’t expose their brick-and-wood architecture because it’s actually Megablocks and sawdust underneath all that paint. Wirth’s Law threatens to make things even worse. As software rots, multinationals may become the only players capable of making websites. But people like Bartosz Ciechanowski are forging paths to elegant futures. The source code for his mechanical watch demo is proof that honest software is viable. Each guide is erected as a giant wall of WebGL. It’s beautiful, but definitely not sleek. The World Wide Web needn’t be all 3D WebGL wizardry. The websites of Patrick Colison, Edward Tufte, and Phil Gyford are thriving examples of cozy HTML cabins. The humans are still out there. We can speak sincerely with honest tools and materials. We can stay slippy and celebrate our warts and imperfections together.” I happened to read something from a Young Person this week suggesting that the company that manages to crack a product allowing simple, easy, personalisable and forever-ish web creation for the mobile-first, WYSIWYG-interface generation would clean up, because the appetite to build their own spaces is very much there.
- GPTGrooves: An AI music project which experiments with the interplay between GPT and the audio models – “These sounds are generated using Langchain and GPT4. GPT is prompted to create a song in a specific type of musical markup. This is parsed to be fed back into the model, first creating the data for bass, pad and drums, and then for filtering. All of this data is then combined to make a song and stored in a database. A new song is generated each day.” This project appears to have tane a pause in mid-December last year, but it’s interesting to listen to the tracks the process has thrown up and to see the evolution in the way that the people behind it have learned to prompt and prod to get outputs that are more coherent and ‘musical’ – the tracks that I have listened to (there are lots; the archive goes back over a month, possibly further) tend towards the minimal plinky electro-y sort of thing (this will mean nothing to any of you, I don’t think, but I get quite a strong David Shane Smith feel from them fwiw), and generally feel more…musical than the outputs I’ve heard from text-to-music models to date, which may say something about the ability of the different models at play here to interact usefully (or may say nothing of the sort! I have no idea about any of this!).
- Matt Webb’s AI Poetry Clock: Only a few days into its fundraising round and already on course to smash its goal, Matt Webb’s prototypical ‘it’s a clock, but each minute it delivers a small rhyming couplet generated by AI to tell you the time in verse!’ machine is now available to back – 60% done with a month to go suggests this will comfortably go into production, which is great news as this is SUCH a nice idea and exactly the sort of thing that I have been banging on about for about a year now (cf: combining AI stuff like this with the otherwise-mundane is an excellent way of delivering all that ‘surprise and delight’ sh1t). It’s literally as simple as muy description makes it sound – Matt admits that due to the nature of LLMs, the clock will OCCASIONALLY sacrifice temporal accuracy for linguistic convenience when making its rhymes, and that as such this probably isn’t suitable for people who REALLY need precision in their lives, but otherwise this looks SO LOVELY, e-ink display and nicely-robust wall-mountable design and all. You can get your hands on one for £120 here – which is obviously quite a lot of money, but, equally, this is whimsical and fun and feels like A Good Thing to support. My only note, Matt, should you happen to read this, is that I would like a dial on the back that would afford me the ability to dial the tone of the outputs up and down from ‘nihilistic bleakness’ to ‘smiling Pollyanna’, because I worry that otherwise this thing is going to end up Fotherington-Thomasing at me until I take to it with the meat tenderiser.
- The Lives of Literary Characters: Well THIS is an interesting project that leaves me just a *touch* conflicted. “The goal of this project is to generate knowledge about the behaviour of literary characters at large scale and make this data openly available to the public. Characters are the scaffolding of great storytelling. This Zooniverse project will allow us to crowdsource data to train AI models to better understand who characters are and what they do within diverse narrative worlds to answer one very big question: why do human beings tell stories? We need your help to build better, more transparent AI models to understand human storytelling. To be clear: our goal is not to build AI to generate stories or create smarter chatbots. Our aim is fundamentally academic: we want to develop models to help us understand stories and thus learn more about this essential human activity. Most AI development is happening inside of black boxes behind closed doors. Our models will be open to the public as will all of the annotations made by readers like you…Our first project focuses on the interactions between characters. How do they behave with each other? And what can these networks of interactions tell us about the meaning of fiction? We know from the real world that social networks tell us a great deal about human behaviour. So what can fictional networks tell us about storytelling?” So you, the user, are invited to participate in an exercise of classification, presented with a selection of short passages drawn from various forms of contemporary writing and asked to parse details about the relationships between featured characters from your understanding of the text – are they engaged with each other? Is this engagement mutual? What form is this engagement taking? – to build up a database of these relationships which can then be used to develop a model capable of inferring these details from a text. Which, to be clear, is SO INTERESTING and from the point of view of machine understanding strikes me as a genuinely-interesting and potentially-important line of enquiry…but, equally, if the team behind this project don’t think that an open training set of this sort of data would be immediately used by exactly the sort of people who DO want to automate the act of writing creative, narrative, character-led fictions? HM LET ME THINK. I could totally understand, therefore, if for many of you the idea of engaging with this feels like some sort of suicide/betrayal – MAN THE BARRICADES! THEY WILL NOT TAKE THE NOVELISTS! – but, well, c’mon Cnut, your ankles are getting damp and the night is drawing in. I jest, I jest – but only a bit.
- You Can Now Use GPT Store GPTs Within GPT4: Yes, I know, this is BORING AND PRACTICAL, and even worse the link’s to a video tutorial embedded in a Tweet – SORRY. Still, this is useful to know and, having played with the functionality a bit, useful to use – you can now call in functionality from other GPTs within your own prompt, so instead of having to articulate various steps for The Machine to take on a specific corpus of information, for example, you can instead just pull in various GPT tools to do the job directly in your own prompt using @-commands, like tagging people in an email. Which, I know, is a REALLY bad description, but it will make sense when you watch the video and I promise it is genuinely helpful (if you pay for GPT, obvs – if you don’t then this doesn’t apply, sorry).
- The For You Hotel: A beautiful bit of unintentional webculture, this, brought to me via Pietro Minto’s weekly newsletter (Pietro doesn’t have the common decency to write in English what with being Italian and all, but lots of his links are to interesting English language content and Google translate does an excellent job) – as he explains it, kids on TikTok have taken to adding ‘For You’ as a location as well as #fyp on their videos, in the mistaken belief that this will somehow juice the algorithm into making them go viral (briefly, an aside – it genuinely amazes me that we have arrived at 2024, after about 20 years of this, more or less, and we still have people who can conceive of ‘going viral’ as anything other than the contemporary equivalent of an embarrassing and socially-diminishing venereal infection) without realising that ‘For You’ is in fact the name of a hotel on the Eastern edge of Milan. Which, in turn, means that this nondescript business hotel has nearly a million videos from around the world tagged to its location, videos from EVERYWHERE, about everything – honestly, if you’ve ever wondered what PURE TIKTOK looks like, free of the algorithmic tailoring that makes it YOUR TIKTOK, then this is probably the closest you’ll get to the utterly kaleidoscopic randomness of the platform, and I think this is the most interested in it I have ever been. Seriously, click this – it is like PURE HUMAN ZOO, straight to your eyeballs.
- Stories by Angris: This tool claims to let you spin up ‘choose your own adventure-style’ interactive stories, complete with illustrations, from a simple text prompt – it effectively delivers an experience not a million miles away from that ‘create your own text adventure inside GPT’ prompt from a few weeks back, but one with a far shinier front-end but, to my mind, less flexibility when it comes to imaginative play. You give it the rough outline of the scenario, protagonist and challenge you fancy exploring and it offers up…well, honestly, the sort of ‘adventure’ that you’d have expected to get free on the cover-mounted cassette you got with Spectrum World, but, hey, it’s early days. This might be fun if you have a kid who enjoys storytelling and worldbuilding, not least as a useful way to point out how THIN this machine-generated gruel actually is when you look at it with any focus.
- Not A Good Sign: An augmented reality project I heartily support and endorse. Not A Good Sign is a small art project that uses AR to let you, the user, place small signs in the world which you can then photograph and share with others – the signs say things like “ALL THE BIRDS LEFT AT ONCE” and “REMEMBER BEES” AND “THESE ARE NOT NATURAL EVENTS”, and are bleak and terrifying and I love them and would like them to be real and not virtual, please. Failing that, though, they will add a pleasing air of near-apocalypse tension to your Instagrammetry, and isn’t that what we all desperately hope for from 2024? No, I know it’s not, but we’re not going to get *that*, so just take what you’re given and fcuking shut up.
- The Faircamp Webring: For everyone saddened by the current state of the music business and wanting to find ways of giving back to the artists rather than to the venture capitalists, Faircamp is a nice idea – basically a simple way of spinning up a static site for your music from nothing but a few MP3s and some copy. This link takes you to The Faircamp Webring, a self-created and small-but-growing collection of musicians who are using the platform to share their music – honestly, just the concept of a ‘webring’ sent me into a nostalgic reverie (I appreciate that there are those of you for whom this archaic reference to The Old Web will mean nothing – here, learn), but more generally this is a nice initiative and a good way of discovering a bunch of independent artists making interesting music.
- Time Specific Websites: A collection hosted on Are.na, compiled by Marie Otsuka, of ‘time specific’ websites – that is, websites whose form or function changes depending on the time of day at which they are visited by an individual user. From sites that are powered by solar, meaning they’re only accessible when their panels are charged, to those that only come alive on specific days or months, this is a compendium of some gorgeous pieces of creative coding and, in general, I think all websites should have some sort of temporal element, even if just an Easter Egg, because, honestly, WHY NOT? No, fcuk off, that is a terrible reason.
- AI and Eroticism: Would you like to participate in a study? Would you like to advance the field of human knowledge? Would you like to engage with questions around human arousal and THE REAL????? Oh go on, you know you do. This is a study being conducted by the University of Sussex which is exploring the extent to which arousal caused by visual stimuli is dependent on the perceiver’s knowledge of the image’s veracity or otherwise – or, in slightly-less w4nky and convoluted language, are AI-generated images fundamentally less *sexy* than actual photos? Tell them your age, gender and sexuality and then answer a bunch of questions about how ‘appealing’ or ‘arousing’ you find a selection of pictures. This takes about 15-20m start to finish, and you will – BE WARNED – be looking at actual images of naked people, involving genitals and secondary sexual characteristics and all that sort of stuff – that said, if you can spare the time then I would strongly encourage you all to give this a go as a) I think it’s valuable work, personally; and b) it is more interesting than you think it is.
- Backstage With Bon Jovi: ‘Backstage With Bon Jovi’ does rather sound like one of Alan Partridge’s increasingly-desperate TV pitches – ‘Hanging In First Class With Hall & Oates’! ‘Pitching for Business with PinkPantheress’!, ‘Endoscopies with Eminem’! – but I suppose I should acknowledge that Jon ‘No Imagination And A Massive Ego’ Bongiovi and his bandmates are insanely famous and I imagine continue to be very, very popular, and so as such a website letting fans obsessively pore over the minutiae of tour photos and footage and reminiscences probably makes sense…the thing is, though, that Bon Jovi were ruined for me forever at the age of about 14 when my mate Phil Niewiadomski forced me to listen to ‘Never Say Goodbye’ off the Slippery When Wet album for TWO FCUKING HOURS on repeat, and while I know I should blame Phil for that…I don’t, I blame Jon (Phil lives in Swindon, he’s suffered enough – do you Google yourself, Phil? Hello if so! Also, stop Googling yourself! It’s not healthy!).
- ASCII Theatre: I’ve managed to go several months without mentioning MSCHF here, but the bstards have only gone and pulled me back in again with this excellent little gimmick – for…a time (I presume that this has a finite shelf life, but then again maybe they have the entirety of IMDB converted and queued up), you can watch ENTIRE HOLLYWOOD FILMS in your browser, seemingly-legally! How? Because they are rendered in ASCII, meaning that while they’re broadly sort-of comprehensible, they are also low enough res to fall outside of copyright law (I presume that that’s what’s happening here) – so that’s how yesterday they were able to show Barbie, and tomorrow they’re showing some Star Wars rubbish…look, if you are a brand wanting to make some DISRUPTIVE WAVES during Euro2024 you could do worse than look at the legals around doing something like this because you would CLEAN UP.
By Jeff Wall
THE SECTION WHICH IS INCREASINGLY CONVINCED THAT WHEN PEOPLE WITH 6-FIGURE SALARIES TALK CONFIDENTLY ABOUT HOW AI IS NOT IN FACT A RISK TO JOBS WHAT THEY ACTUALLY MEAN IS, SPECIFICALLY, *THEIR* JOBS AND THOSE OF PEOPLE LIKE THEM, PT.2:
- Oil Spills: Among all the froth and cant and b0llock being spouted about AI at present – much of it by me, admittedly, I am nothing if not self-aware – it’s easy to forget the extent to which we’re starting to see its application in genuinely interesting and innovative and potentially-transformative fields; fields which can also on occasion be a *bit* depressing. So it is with Cerulean, a new system developed by a company with the RIDICULOUS (sorry, but it is) name of ‘SkyTruth’ – Cerulean uses AI combined with satellite imagery of the world’s oceans to identify the location, size and shape of oil slicks, and specifically designed for: “finding oil slicks in satellite imagery using deep learning models” and “identifying nearby vessels and offshore oil platforms that may have been responsible for those slicks.” Which, to be clear, is amazing and smart and brilliant and such a clever use of machine vision and pattern recognition and datasources…and then you click on the link and you see the world map and you see FCUKING HELL that is a lot of oil slicks, Jesus. Interestingly, the software also seems to make ‘best guess’ estimates as to the vessel most likely to have caused each slick, which seems…I don’t know, legally iffy? Still, I’m sure they’ve done their due diligence and aren’t about to get sued into oblivion by DP World.
- Project Tapestry: On the one hand, it’s undeniably true that The Now is rendered evermore complex as a result of the increasingly-fragmented nature of modern communications and information flows, and the need to be across a dozen or so sources (at best) if one wants to have even a vague and passing idea of What The Everliving Fcuk Is Going On (in one’s own friendship circle, never mind ‘the world’) is increasingly onerous and burdensome and, well, ANNOYING; on the other, it seems equally true that attempting to put the firehose of ALL YOUR FEEDS into one place would result in an infostream so dense, so thick, so clotted, so POWERFULLY DENSE that it’s reasonable to assume that looking at it would do something to your face akin to what the Ark of the Covenant does to the Nazi. AND YET! Project Tapestry is our second Kickstarter of the week, this one having matched its funding goal with over a month to go, and promising backers “a universal, chronological timeline for iOS for any data that’s publicly available on the Internet. A service-independent overview of your social media and information landscape. Point the app toward your services and feeds, then scroll through everything all in one place to keep up-to-date and to see where you want to dive deeper. When you find something that you want to engage with or reply to, Tapestry will let you automatically open that post in the app of your choice and reply to it there. Tapestry isn’t meant to replace your favorite Mastodon app or RSS reader, but rather to complement them and help you figure out where you want to focus your attention.” Does that like something that you’d want? Personally-speaking it sounds HORRIFIC (if nothing else, the already-ruinous problem of context-collapse is hardly going to be improved by the daily juxtaposition of in-feed genocide alerts and ‘funny cat videos from the girls’ and a girthy d1ckshot from the latest squeeze…no, sorry, this sounds like a horrible mess.
- The Fresh Loaf: Are any of you still conducting a one-side, potentially-abusive relationship with sourdough? No, of course you’re not, lockdown was YEARS ago and we’ve all lost those positive habits and new broom impulses and are back to PizzaMan and pubgak – still, for the seven of you who have managed to KEEP THE STARTER ALIVE and are who are still very much on that baking tip, you might enjoy The Fresh Loaf, an online community – a FORUM! Like in the old days! – for breadmaking enthusiasts, where you can share recipes and tips and, you know, just generally BOND over your shared love for gluten and proving and all that sort of thing. I appreciate that this is hardly a novel or earth-shattering link, but equally I believe that forums as a concept are due a comeback and as such let’s start with this one.
- Where Is Madeline?: V Buckenham announced that she was creating her own, simple game-making engine, called ‘Downpour’, a year or so ago, and while it’s still in development it’s slated to release ‘early’ this year, and you can now fool around with an example of something that its creator has made in it – Where Is Madeline is a sort of ‘Where’s Wally?’-ish game in which your task is to identify a specific cat (Madeline, since you ask) amongst all the others across a variety of screens. This is pretty much the antithesis of shiny webwork and is SO CHARMING (in part because of the writing and presentation rather than the mechanics), and I am genuinely interested to play with Downpour when it comes out to the public later. OH LOOK, THERE IS MADELINE!
- Migallo Submarines: I don’t, as a rule, ask to know anything about you – we’re never going to meet, and as such I don’t know why I ought to pretend to care who you are. That said, should any of you be INCREDIBLY RICH SUPERVILLAINS then this specific link is very much for you – Migaloo is a company whose website advertises them as being purveyors of ‘private submersible yachts’ but honestly the description doesn’t even begin to do justice to the insane, jaw-dropping Bond villain-style offerings that you can purchase via this website? Want a ‘private floating island’ anchored to a submersible? Yep, they can do that! This is…look, if you have $2bn spare then maybe you’re willing to overlook the fact that the website looks a *bit* shonky in places, or that the English is at best…creatively-translated, or that the company is based in famously-landlocked Austria, or that, if this is real, then it is almost certainly being monitored by Interpol or a similar international crimefighting body because I refuse to believe anyone interested in anything these lads are selling has come by their wealth entirely legitimately. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finer selection of floating (and submerging) cocaine palaces (and also, the graph on this page is one of the best examples of meaningless non-communication I have ever seen in my life)!
- Awqāt: Self-describing as ‘the most beautiful Islamic prayer app on the iPhone’, it’s hard to disagree – this is a gorgeous piece of minimal design, should any of you be in the market for a means of keeping track of prayer times on iOS.
- I Didn’t Have Eggs: I am slightly-astonished I’d not come across this before – I Didn’t Have Eggs is a subReddit dedicated to documenting all those instances when people found a recipe online, decided to amend it in certain very specific and creative ways, and then decided to share their displeasure at the resulting culinary car crash with the recipe’s original author. Sample reviews might include “substituted a can of cream of chicken soup for double cream – 1 star, will not eat again” (no, really), or “didn’t have whole milk, used tinned beans instead” (again, no, really), and you will never be more grateful that you don’t live in the American midwest than you will when reading these (because, honestly, you know that 80% of these come from the middle of the States).
- Untranslateable: “Untranslatable is an indie project that delves into the hidden aspects of languages by explaining words, idioms, and expressions contributed by native speakers. It goes beyond traditional translation, offering insights into usage, context, and cultural significance.” Beautifully this appears to be a personal passion project started by one person a few years ago and which has now grown into a properly-interesting database of linguistic tropes and idiomatic speech from across the world. I have just learned that there is a word in French for when one has been made to wait a long time which translates as ‘leeking’ – literally waiting around ‘like a leek in the ground’ – which has basically made my week, hopefully you will be similarly blessed with the gift of largely-untranslateable metaphor and simile.
- Unkee E: Occasionally you stumble across a really GOOD Flickr album, full of odd-but-interesting stuff with no obvious curatorial theme other than ‘things the curator has thought are worth putting together’ – muchlike Curios, frankly, but, er, visual and significantly-easier to digest – and this is JUST that sort .There are nearly 1000 images here and I couldn’t for the life of you tell you what they all have in common other than that they all sort of *feel* like they belong together.
- The Iceberg Database: When was it that ‘iceberg diagrams’ were everywhere – 2019?2020? Anyway, you know what I mean, right? Those images showing a tiny emerging part of an iceberg and the massive, hidden lump beneath the waterline, annotated to demonstrate to a normie audience the difference between what was visible and known to the masses and what is lurking out of site (you’d be amazed how often, according to these people, the answer to ‘what is lurking out of site?’ is so often ‘the jews’, by the way)? Of course you do! Anyway, this website collects a whole range of those so you can explore all sorts of different made theories about what everything is the way it is (NO IT IS NOT THE BILDERBERG GROUP).
- 100 Ballads: “Broadside ballads were single-sheet songs that sold for a penny a piece. This website concentrates on over 100 resoundingly successful examples that you can investigate through recordings, images and a wealth of other materials. Whether you are interested in music, art, love, gender, tragedy, politics, family life, crime, history, humour or death, you will find something to engage you here.” THEY HAVE ACTUAL RECORDINGS OF THESE BEING SUNG. Honestly, if you enjoyed the ‘sea shanties’ thing (what is wrong with you ffs) then you will LOVE this; I particularly enjoyed this one, in which a lovelorn suitor sings of his despair at having to leave Bristol for Italy because his beloved will have nothing to do with him – mate, trust me when I say you were making entirely the right decision and your descendents will all have thanked you.
- The World’s Best Villages: I have to say, given recent talk about the environmental impact of tourism and all the various ways in which millions of us going to gawp at pretty things in far-flung lands each year are fcuking the planet, I find it…curious that the UN has a specific section on its website promoting ‘the world’s prettiest villages’ – surely we shouldn’t be encouraging the world’s intrepid travellers to descend on these places en masse lest they all get Venice’d to oblivion? Anyway, if you can ignore the cognitive dissonance and if you’ve got ‘find somewhere to go on holiday this year which hopefully won’t be overrun by the locust that is the American tourist’ on your ‘to do’ list for 2024 then, well, HERE YOU ARE.
- Pong Wars: This is so upsettingly, hypnotically mesmerising that it’s almost like I can *feel* it tickling my dopamine receptors and I am not sure that I like it. Click the link and see how long you’re stuck staring for.
- Chime: A digital wind chime in your browser. I am including this for two reasons: 1) it is the only wind chime sound I have ever heard in my life which hasn’t made me want to plug my ears with concrete (possibly because I can make it stop whenever I want); and 2) I always (perhaps wrongly) associate the sound of wind chimes with superficial spirituality and profundity, and so I really like the idea of using this as a sort of audio sting every time someone in your life says something achingly-pretentious.
- Noted Or Not Noted: I had meant to include this last week and totally forgot – sorry Dave, whose creation it is. Still, if you want a fun game which riffs on Rishi Sunak’s habit of saying things on Twitter which turn out not to stand up to rigorous fact-checking then you will enjoy this – aside from anything else, this is a great example of how to spin up and churn out a quick, topical game in next-to-no-time, and the sort of thing which I personally think is a far better use of your ‘creative’ budget than another fcuking terrible piece of video that literally nooone in the world ever needs to see.
- Web Adventures: Classic text adventures! In your browser! THEY EVEN HAVE ZORK! Honestly, if you have any interest at all in interactive fiction and narrative y gameplay then this is sort of a must-click; there is SO MUCH in here, and it’s a wonderful series of examples of different styles of gameplay and design within an ostensibly-restrictive medium.
- Play Old Sierra Games: Gamers of a certain vintage – and a certain *type*, you’ll have had to have been the sort of person who had a domestic PC in the 80s and the wherewithal to know that there were games for it, which isn’t everyone – will be in paroxysms of joy at this site, where you can play the first three King’s Quest games, the first couple of Space Quest titles, the original Police Quest…all in their original EGA glory, and all with the peculiar design quirks that distinguished the Sierra titles from their contemporaries (you will die a LOT). These really are a lot of fun, and good rainy afternoon / slow day in the office fodder.
- Improbable Island: I am agog at this, honestly. Via Andy, Improbable Island is…it’s a text-based RPG, it’s an old-style MUD (Multi-User Dungeon, for the children), it’s a comic fantasy adventure whose writing is heavily-indebted to Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, it has been going for over 15 years, it is all written by seemingly one person, and it is…it is VAST. I spent about an hour playing around with this this week and only scratched the very surface, and I appreciate it won’t be for everyone, but the writing is consistently very, very funny and I find the scope and scale and the fact that it has obviously been built over time with love and affection for a community that very obviously love it back very hard indeed so appealing, and I am thrilled that this not only exists but that it is thriving. Interestingly it’s gotten attention this week because its creator recently updated the site’s community guidelines (behavioural code, basically, and it’s been held up – rightly, imho – as an ur-example of how to write these things and how to go about setting enforceable standards for digital communities. At heart, though, this is a VERY geeky and very oldschool digital RPG, and I think that there might be a few of you for whom this could be absolute catnip.
- Infinite Craft: The last miscellaneous link this week comes from the indefatigable Neal Agarwal, who’s basically made his own version of Little Alchemy (a longstanding browser toy which lets you play to combine various elements to create new ones) except this time it’s powered by AI – I presume there’s an LLM coming up with the resultant outputs of combining, say, mud with a helicopter – which means that you can sort of keep on going forever. This is surprisingly enjoyable, moreso than I might have imagined, and there’s something quite fun about the odd and oddly-poetic results that arise from smushing together seemingly-incompatible things. Give it a go, there’s something pleasingly ‘fridge magnet poetry’ about it (I promise you’ll see what I mean).
THE CIRCUS OF TUMBLRS!
- T-Mobile Sidekick: A Tumblr dedicated to photos of famous people (or at least I presume that they were famous at the time) holding, enjoying, ENGAGING WITH the T-Mobile Sidekick, one of the more oddly-designed attempts by non-Blackberry phonemakers to come up with a Blackberry competitor – this is interesting mainly as a sort of portal back to the aesthetics and design styles of a decade ago, although you can also have fun trying to work out who the fcuk all the emo-looking kids are in the photos.
THE TROUGH OF (INSTA) FEEDS!
- Vuk Palibrk: This is actually the second link to this artist/cartoonist’s Insta feed in the newsletter this week, but I didn’t want you to miss it – they did the comic strip featured above, which if you are yet to enlarge it to read the copy then, well, do that now please.
LONG THINGS WHICH ARE LONG!
- AI Is Better Than You: My Curios routine of a Friday morning (you have never asked, but I am fcuking telling you whether you like it or not) involves dragging myself out of my pit at 6am, running through the overnights and then starting to type the fcuker around 7am (in case you’re curious about the pace – no, of course you’re not fcuking curious, BUT I AM TELLING YOU ANYWAY – it’s currently 1022am), all the while listening to the Today programme and then the rest of Radio4’s morning programming, which means that I have now heard the Bank of England governor’s assertion that AI ‘will not be a mass destroyer of jobs’ several times now, and, not going to lie, it hasn’t become MORE convincing. This article is written from the perspective of the videogames industry but, honestly, it is one of the clearest articulations of why I have The Fear about the jobpocalypse and how fast it might be arriving – look, I am SO BAD AT PREDICTIONS, as I have proven oft and plentifully, and as such I am probably going to be totally wrong about this and I really hope I am because, well, otherwise I am quite fcuked, but it’s quite hard not to read stuff like this and think ‘if you don’t think that this applies to your industry too, white collar businessmong, then I doubt your judgement’ – honestly, read this and then think about how easy it would be to replace ‘writers’ with ‘whatever your knowledge economy job is’: “by focusing on things like an AI system writing stilted dialogue or failing to draw a dragon properly today, what you are doing is making a bet on the AI industry failing to fix these problems tomorrow. Even with all the countless credulous idiots and money-burning schemes out there in the industry, that’s not a bet I would take, personally. In many cases it’s a self-defeating argument anyway. We already know, for example, that writers in the games industry are underpaid and overworked, and that the quality of writing in games often suffers because of it. nVidia’s technology was often contrasted with Baldur’s Gate 3, a smash success last year at least partly because of the high quality of its writing1. But most games are not Baldur’s Gate 3, most games are not celebrated because of their writing, and indeed many games do not have particularly good writing. Is that because the writers are bad? No, it’s because writing is undervalued by the people funding games, in an industry that generally undervalues its employees anyway. Investors will accept putting higher pressure on writing teams because it saves money with an acceptable impact on sales.”
- The Coming AI Image Copyright Mess: I’ve touched on this already this year, but given that Google just launched ‘AI image generation’ within its Bard AI assistant (US-only at the time of writing, sorry EuroKids), and that people have obviously immediately got it to spit out a bunch of quite-obviously-copyrighted imagery, and the ability of Midjourney v6 to recreate exact frames from specific films…I don’t know, I feel like the studios and brands have a far stronger case than the publishers and the authors (and doesn’t that sentence read like a sad encapsulation of the shifting power dynamics enabled by the inexorable march of capitalism, RIGHT KIDS?!?!?!). Oh, and if you want a BONUS AI AND IMAGES story, here’s a decent one about how Google’s starting to struggle with the torrent of AI imagery and search result degradation has begun in earnest.
- The TayTay Bongo Story: We have by now all heard the story of Twitter being FLOODED WITH AI-GENERATED TAYLOR SWIFT BONGO last week and of the platform’s farcical attempts to stop its spread, and the fact that it was a Microsoft product apparently being used to generate the content in question (by the way – has anyone seen the bongo? I ask not because I have any desire to (I appreciate that that might sound ‘methinks he doth protest too much’-ish, but I really don’t) but more because I don’t know ANYONE who has laid eyes on any of this stuff) – here 404 Media does a good job of rounding up the story along with a decent dose of ‘WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?’ – the upshot of which is, basically, ‘it is genuinely insane that we don’t have proper legislation that at the very least outright bans the nonconsensual creation of sexualised imagery of any individual whether with AI or otherwise’. File under ‘yet more stuff that the Online Safety Bill totally failed to make a meaningful difference to’! BONUS TAYTAY – if you’re in the market for it, Ryan over at Garbage Day has a good breakdown of what exactly it is about the woman that causes the right wing to lose its mind. Oh, and seeing as I mentioned 404, this is a good article explaining why they are starting to require email addresses to access articles, and more broadly about why digital journalism is in quite such a staggeringly-bleak place (is it…is it money and AI? IT IS!!!!).
- AI & The Future of Work: This is quite an irritating document, not least because it’s presented as slides despite being all prose – WHY? WHY MUST EVERYTHING BE ON FCUKING SLIDES? WHAT THE FCUK IS WRONG WITH WORDS ON A PAGE DISPLAYED IN PORTRAIT FORMAT? – and also because it’s a Microsoft sales pitch all about why you need to integrate AI into your organisation now, actually, BUT! If you are in the invidious position of in fact ‘having to integrate AI into your organisation’, or even of ‘having to think about how to integrate AI into your organisation’, then it might be useful – it’s got a reasonable amount of detail about stuff that LLMs in particular can be usefully used for professionally and what they can’t, and despite the fact that, yes, the fundamental direction they suggest you go in is ‘pay Microsoft the enterprise CoPilot subscription!’ there’s a lot of helpful information which might be used to make a case for specific cases of deployment and implementation.
- The End of the Human Web?: When I wrote about Google adding ‘complete this form with AI’ functionality to Chrome last week I made paqssing reference to all the fun ways that was likely to ‘improve’ (lol) the quality of content across the web – this is a piece from New York Magazine which basically makes the case that we might be about to open some truly turdy floodgates. “We have the technology for a web that publishes itself,” the piece concludes, “will anyone want to read it?”. It’s machines all the way down, lads.
- Macro and Micro Culture: This surprised me by being really smart and feeling…accurate in a way that lots of other broad, big picture cultural analysis pieces don’t – W.David Marx coins the concept of Macro-taste Micro Culture, or ‘subcultures whose outputs aggressively ape mass culture’, or, in his words, “Now we can see the exact location of the coming war: between the Macro and the Macro-taste Micro. They both make similar outputs but have the thing the other one wants: Macro wants audience and revenue, Macro-taste Micro wants legitimacy. And Macro tastemakers don’t have much respect for Macro-taste Micro groups because they are direct competitors without being a clear source of innovations for refreshing taste.” Honestly, I really did find this eye-opening and a really useful lens through which to think about both ‘big’ and ‘small’ culture in 2024, and also the very real feeling of cultural stagnation so prevalent among much ‘creative’ work.
- The Bimbo Renaissance: Look, I confess to not having gotten this AT ALL – but I appreciate that I am very much not its target audience. If you want 70 slides on feminist consumer culture, brands, pop media and the Barbie Phenomenon – AND WHAT THIS MEANS FOR BRANDS WHO WANT TO FLOG MORE TAT TO WOMEN AND ADJACENT FEMME-Y AUDIENCES – then this is basically crack cocaine. I didn’t personally think that the thinking held up that well, but I am perfectly willing to admit that that’s because I don’t know the first thing about women or selling things to them.
- YouTube Is Infrastructure: There was something on the radio earlier this week which was AGAIN attempting to distinguish between online life and real life, specifically in terms of ‘X event online impacting Y factor in reality’, and it was all I could do not to scream “IT HAS BEEN 25 YEARS CAN WE STOP THIS ARBITRARY DISTINCTION NOW PLEASE IT MAKES NO FCUKING SENSE” – I think this piece does a good job of demonstrating exactly why applying a divide between digital and physical ‘life’ is so utterly meaningless, and how the former often supervenes on the latter in unexpected ways, detailing some of the ways in which the vastness of Google’s video archive has made it so much more than ‘a place to watch videos’.
- Welcome To The Age of Sh1tpost Modernism:. This might be the last ever Pitchfork piece I link to in Curios – SAD TIMES. Still, it’s a decent piece to go out on if that does end up being the case; Kieran Press-Reynolds writes about the current trend for what he terms ‘sh1tpost modernism’ and I term ‘does postmodernism now mean that we are no longer allowed to even make demarcations between ‘good’ and bad’ anymore? Oh’. “In a streaming world that prioritizes ephemeral dopamine hits and algorithm-piercing smashes, ideas like radio-readiness or conceptual heft can feel quaint. So instead of trying to appeal to the everyman or the critic, a mass of young musicians are fucking around. The result is a feast of freakiness that’s perfect for zoomer brains that have hatched to (im)maturity in a vat of digital absurdism.” There is at least one of who I am pretty sure can use this as the basis for an entire (admittedly bullsh1t) brand strategy if you’re so minded.
- PorkTok: But also MilkTok – I enjoyed this piece looking at a couple of non-traditional brands trying out TikTok campaigns in the US, specifically the National Pork Board and the milk peddlers, and I am including specifically so that those of you working in advemarktingpr for really dull corporate clients can have some useful ammunition when you try and persuade, I don’t know, BAE Systems to do some ‘kooky, video-first influencer engagement targeting the <24 demographic’.
- The Apple VR Headset: This is a VERY LONG but thorough, exhaustive and refreshingly-skeptical writeup by Nilay Patel in The Verge, who goes over what it is like wearing and using Apple’s latest violently-expensive but VERY SHINY toy, and asks “yes, ok, but do I actually need this and can I imagine really using it regularly?” – the answer, by the way, is “No, not really, and WOW does it make me appreciate how great it is experiencing life through my eyes as opposed to some cameras”, which is quite nice and not a little reassuring. Not that it will make a difference to the likely sales – I would imagine this will shift some 200k units this year, which is a LOT of money so well done Tim! – but everything I read about this convinces me that, as with all wearable tech at present, it continues to be a product in search of a use-case. Although should you want a slightly more thrilled perspective you can enjoy this lovely piece of client journalism from Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair, whose mesmerised, rapt astonishment at the device and the brave new world it presages (“I interacted with graphics in midair that were crisper than anything I’d ever seen before. And I touched them all with my fingers, not a mouse or keyboard. I saw spatial videos for the first time. To say this feature is astounding is an understatement. You actually feel like the person is in front of you and you can reach out and touch them. I saw clips of movies that were 100 feet wide, sharper and clearer than any IMAX. But most importantly, I saw the world around me. That very room. I didn’t feel closed off or claustrophobic. I was there. I was everywhere, all at once”) is I’m sure IN NO WAY linked to the access they got to Tim Cook for the cover interview.
- The Shapes of Stories: You know that famous Vonnegut thing where he outlines the eight archetypal ‘shapes’ of story? Yes you do, it’s become as annoyingly-ubiquitous as the DFW ‘This Is Water’ speech amongst a certain type of online dullard (sorry, but). Well, researchers have fed a whole load of novels to AI and got The Machine to attempt to analyse them for ‘shapes’ and commonalities, and it turns out that there are in fact six plot shapes and that they broadly match the rough plots done by Vonnegut (albeit two fewer) all those years ago. This struck me not only as broadly interesting, but also something which you could possibly use as an interesting hook or ‘insight’ (lol, sorry) on which to hang something fun (or at the very least to introduce a really unnecessary degree of academic rigour to your content).
- The Hairpin and the Zombie Internet: Many years ago, The Hairpin was on my daily rotation of ‘good sites with good writing to check daily’, and I was genuinely sad when it shut down in 2018 – this piece in WIRED looks at how and why it has started publishing again, and the broader concept of ‘zombie media’ that’s emerging as defunct properties from the second digital media boom let their domains expire and get taken over by linkscammers and content farms. I can’t stress enough how devastating I find it that it’s entirely possible that we will never, ever be able to piece together this history of all of this stuff – that in the future all we’ll be able to scry are occasional layers of compacted digital trash from eras past, but that we’ll never have a complete chronology of who and how and why it was built and died because we didn’t realise that what we were making was built on digital sand.
- The Ludic Century: In about 2006 I had a real bee in my bonnet about the idea of ‘homo ludens’, or gameplaying man, and the idea that there was something in this (human of leisure, human of arrested development, human who can’t stand the roughage of life without the sweetener of play, etc etc) and it was a useful lens through which to see much of modern culture at the time. I was, of course, a pretentious w4nker talking out of my ar£e – I was also right, just a few years early, as this article, unpacking the work and theories of Eric Zimmerman, asserts. I’ll leave you with its conclusion, but it’s worth reading the leadup to see how it gets there: “As the world continues to evolve new and frighteningly complex problems, perhaps those kinds of contradictory, dissociative experiences have only grown more appealing, rewarding people for presuming a silenced problem is a solved one. In that light, it makes more sense to think of games not as some enlightened form of pragmatism that can save us from the world’s problems, but a kind of mass intoxicant, a communal vice that is most potent when we treat it as a virtue.”
- Big PDF: How big do you think you can make a PDF? No, you are wrong, you can make it FCUKING ENORMOUS. This is very silly, very funny, immensely-pleasing, and 100% the sort of thing you could totally rip off for a PR thing if you have a suitable client and move fast enough.
- Launching Nollywood: I’ve read countless articles over the years about Nigerian cinema, but none which have given me the background story as to how it came to dominate the African cinematic scene – it turns out that it all stems from Pentecostal churches effectively making Jesus propaganda, one example of which became a legitimate home-grown cinematic sensation, passed from copied VHS to copied VHS and sparking the growth of a now-international industry. Truly, God works in mysterious ways.
- Skateboarding Video Soundtracks: I was never able to skateboard as a kid – turns out having literally no physical coordination to speak of whatsoever and a very healthy fear of physical pain are pretty much the greatest barriers to skateboarding success that there are, outside of quadriplegia – but I did basically find myself adopting the wardrobe of the skater in my teens and as such spent a LOT of time hanging out in skateshops and making risible attempts to chirpse girls significantly cooler than me by demonstrating my appreciation for the skating videos that played on a loop (C2KY2K ftw) while actually being significantly more interested in the music accompanying the action. This is a lovely piece of writing in The Quietus, by Will Burns, about the memories of watching grainy VHS footage and the way the right song gives timeless dignity to watching a man eat his own teeth as he falls face-first down some concrete steps.
- Finding Midwich: The novels of John Wyndham are genuine 20th Century classics, and The Midwich Cuckoos is probably his most famous thanks to its various cinematic adaptations and bastardisations (to my mind, though, The Chrysalids is his best book and if you’ve not read it then GO NOW) – I absolutely loved this article in the Birmingham Dispatch in which Sophie Atkinson visits the place where John Wyndham grew up to see if she can find some sort of formative clues in the suburban gloom. This is so, so evocative of a particular type of Englishness, and of the slow, cabbage-scented misery of the middle part of the 20th Century in the UK.
- At The Britney Spears House Museum: This is another very good piece about small, odd places, but being American it feels almost like the negative imprint of the previous piece. In it, Emmeline Kline writes for the Paris Review about visiting the Britney Spears House Museum in the small town where Ms Spears grew up, and it’s about the people and the place and the people who visit and why, and even as someone who would find it hard to give any less of a fcuk about Britney Spears (sorry, but, well, there’s a lot going on) this was a gorgeous read.
- Stillwaters: This is one of the most furious pieces I have read in a long time – honestly, it’s almost aggressive in places, justifiably so as Magogodi oaMphela Makhene reflects on her upbringing in South Africa, her private education, her relationship with whiteness and the anger she feels at a system and people for whom she has never felt she mattered; think of it as a companion piece to last week’s about being an Arab. It is well-written and lyrical in places, but, mostly, it’s fcuking angry.
- 500 Days In A Cave: Finally this week, a story about a woman who spent 500 days alone in a cave to see what it was like. This is a BRILLIANT piece of writing, honestly, both in terms of the prose but also the structure, and the very real creeping horror you feel in the latter half of the piece as you read about what it is actually like to be entirely alone, without speaking to anyone at all, for 500 days, and I really, really want to read the inevitable self-penned account of this by the woman who underwent it.
By Malika Favre
AND NOW, MOVING PICTURES AND SOUNDS (ALL OF WHICH ARE VIA THE EXCELLENT GOOD MUSIC NEWSLETTER THIS WEEK!:
- I am *slightly* annoyed at being introduced to a new Italian artist by a German’s newsletter, but my annoyance is mitigated by how much I enjoyed this – a sort of noodly, parpy, jazz-y (yes, I know, but it really is!), with a spoken word freeform poem skittering over the top of it…ok, it’s a BIT experimentalwanky, but it’s also really fun and as I type this I am listening to it again and doing a sort of headbobbing thing, involuntarily, so do give it a go. It’s by Cmon Tigre and it’s called ‘Sento Un Morso Dolce’, and in case you’re curious the spoken word stuff is a stream of consciousness riff that starts out with a guy talking to a shrink and then basically devolves into a surrealistic meditation on creativity. So there.
- Finally this week, a song which I can’t say I particularly enjoyed listening to but which has an accompanying video so effectively horrible that I couldn’t possibly not finish with it – be warned, though, this really is horrible and is quite a lot like watching a horror film in parts, and there is blood and cutting and some unpleasant bits that are quite a lot like what I remember Gunther Von Hagens’ Bodyworlds’ exhibition to have been like…oh, and there’s a lot of screaming too. This is called ‘More Want’ and it’s by Banks Arcade and THAT’S IT I’M SORRY DON’T HATE ME I LOVE YOU BYE!