It’s fair to say that being back in England for the first time since December has provided its fair share of culture shocks – you’re all so pale! you show so much flesh! man, you eat a lot of potato products – but, generally, I can’t tell you how nice it is to be home. I have seen my girlfriend and her cat! I have been to the pub (more than perhaps is wise)! I have been out for dinner! I have spoken to people in English! Who aren’t carers! Honestly, I’m quite giddy with the excitement of it all.
Which is good really, because all this excitement is preventing me from thinking too hard about how I’m going to do things like ‘pay my mortgage’ and ‘not freeze to death’, or wondering why a cornershop run now seems to cost a minimum of a tenner and a kidney, or why everyone has a generally-pervasive look of looming dread threatening their countenance.
Still, it’s fine because LIZ WILL SORT IT. Oh, God, we’re so fcuked. Anyway, you probably don’t want to think about any of that either, so have some links and words by way of a temporary plaster on the gaping axewound that is ‘being made of flesh in the 21st century’.
I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and you’re looking lovely today.
By Avion Pearce
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- You Are Here: Noone ever asks me ‘So, Matt, what makes a perfect Web Curio?” (WHY DO YOU NOT ASK ME YOU INCURIOUS FCUKS??), but, if they did, this link is EXACTLY the sort of thing I would point them at. A dense, brilliantly-styled, evocative and apocalyptic artwork by (I think) Slovenian artist Sara Bezovšek, this is a dizzying rabbithole of graphics and layers and hidden links and weirdly-apocalyptic storytelling, effectively presenting a semi-dystopian (and, equally, perfectly-recognisable) picture of ‘WHERE WE ARE RIGHT NOW’ as a species, covering the climate crisis and social fears and technodoomerism and SO MUCH MORE in a series of hyper-heavy, ultradesigned collage webpages, each of which is its own incredible artwork. I appreciate that this is a frankly-risibly-bad description, but click the link and realise why I am struggling somewhat – this is partly apocalyptic treatise, partly post-Geocities design project, and wholly wonderful digital storytelling (if, er, you can cope with the central message which is basically ‘we are all utterly fcuked’). I cannot stress enough how wonderful this is and how much I love it – seriously, the collaging on the imagery alone is fcuking astonishing, let alone the way it simultaneously manages to tell a story. Imagine this laid out horizontally across videowalls in a gallery – wouldn’t it be amazing?
- Explore: So, have you all left Instagram now that they’ve fcuked it with the algocontent? No, you haven’t, because despite the fact you don’t actually enjoy using it anymore it’s become part of your daily digital rituals and you could no more abandon it than you could abandon, say, coffee. Still, it’s miserable and sh1t and you don’t enjoy it anymore, and it’s not even useful for keeping pace with the lives of people you used to like but no longer really have anything in common with but whose activities you have a social obligation to at least be vaguely across – so here’s an alternative! It’s not live yet, but you can sign up to beta access to Explore, which promises to be “a brand new platform for creatives. A place where you can share your work and meet the community without the distraction of ads or unwanted content” (you’re all ‘creatives’, aren’t you? YES YOU ARE!). Basically this is intended to be a place for all those people who feel algofcuked by Insta to the extent that they want to take their professional photography/design/CREATOR presence elsewhere – it plans to launch later this year, and you can sign up for beta access at the link. No idea whether it will take off or not – is anyone using Glass? – but it’s worth a look if you’re feeling all algofcuked by the ‘gram.
- Promptbase: One of the genuinely-interesting things about writing Curios is the view I get of trends and themes in content and webculture developing and growing and swelling and abating (this is not because I am special or clever, fyi, it’s simply a function of consuming a violent amount of internet on a consistent basis – you too could have this insight if you decided to sacrifice your personal happiness and free time to ‘STUFF ON THE WEB’!) – it very much feels like we’re in for a month or so of HUGELY FROTHY inventiveness when it comes to AI image creation, and that there are going to be a lot of interesting creative / commercial projects on the fringes of it as we all work out how this stuff works and what we can do with it and how we can use it to hedge against recessionary fuel poverty. Promptbase is one such thing – a service which offers you the chance to pay for EXTRA-EFFECTIVE Dall-E prompts, to enable you to create the very best-in-class AI imagery in the world. This is a really interesting idea that I am not sure we are quite ready for – after all, Dall-E is still just about cheap enough that playing around with it to see what works is half the fun – but I can totally see the potential for a marketplace for very specific wordstrings that let you (for example) easily spin out 3d fimo-like icons, or well-defined pixelart. Users can either browse prompts that others have uploaded or submit their own for eventual sale, and prompts retail for a couple of quid – this is a/the future, in some small way. BONUS DALL-E CONTENT: I may have to spin this stuff into its own section eventually (but I don’t want to, change is terrifying and jagged), but til then…here’s a tool which helps you create better prompts for Dall-E, here’s a subReddit dedicated to discussing prompts and descriptors and what works and what doesn’t, this person has been using Dall-E to make animations which works far better than you would expect, and this video is a quite incredible illustration of how you can use this stuff to make things that are FCUKING ASTONISHING. If you’re interested in keeping track of this stuff (and you should be, it’s fcuking magic) then you could do worse than sign up to Guy Parsons’ newsletter which is focused on AI image creation and how we poor, soon-to-be-obsolete sacks of meat and viscera can seek to attempt to bend the magical machines to our own ends.
- Coastal World: There will inevitably come a time when I am bored of poorly-rendered 3d environments created by agencies for clients with more money than sense, but we aren’t quite there yet. Welcome, then, to Coastal World, a slightly-baffling digital playground created by Coastal Community Bank, a US lender who for some reason has seen fit to spend what I presume is a non-trivial amount of its marketing budget on…”an immersive 3D web platform that promotes, educates, and informs visitors about digital banking solutions that best fit their lifestyle, values, or specific financial situations through a fun and engaging online experience.” A quick question – if you wanted to learn more about a bank’s products or services, as a potential customer, would you prefer to A) look on a website and click ‘products and services’ and read about them; or B) clumsily navigate a strangely-potatoish avatar through some soft-play-styled CG hills desperately searching for the ‘character’ who when clicked can tell you all about the bank’s lending policy? LITERALLY NOONE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD CHOOSE B WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU??? Ok, so this is actually quite nicely-made, and feels pleasing to wander around, but, look, NO FCUKER WANTS TO HAVE TO WALK ACROSS A VIRTUAL TOWNSCAPE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT A CREDIT CARD’S APR.
- Lifeforms: For some reason I’ve been thinking a lot about tamagotchi recently, and the strange fact that we’ve not had any interesting developments in the ‘virtual pet or lifeform’ space for quite a while, despite the immense computational advances that the past few decades have seen. Lifeforms is perhaps a counter to that – although I regret to inform you that, yes, it’s a fcuking NFT project. “Lifeforms are NFT-based entities. Like any living thing, lifeforms need regular care in order to thrive. If not properly looked after, lifeforms die. A lifeform that has died will no longer appear in wallets, is not transferable, and cannot be brought back to life in any way. How do you care for a lifeform? Within 90 days of receiving it, you must give it away…Lifeforms are open for public creation. The amount of lifeforms that can be created is uncapped. After lifeforms has been open for some time, this page will include population and life expectancy data. For the moment, this information is unknown. Lifeforms run on polygon, a proof of stake network with a low ecological footprint. Currently, lifeform creation costs ~10 MATIC.” So at the time of writing that’s less than a tenner – which, fine, is still ten quid, but doesn’t feel like an insurmountable cost to mess around with blockchain-based VIRTUAL LIFE.
- Notable People: A brilliant little bit of dataviz, this. Notable People is a visualisation of where particularly significant humans were born – spin the globe, zoom and pan, and see where some of our species’ great achievers drew their first breaths. Such a smart use of open data, this – it takes data from Wikipedia and crunches it to decide which names should show up where (there’s a nice thread here talking about some of the anomalies that this throws up, including Natalie Portman being more notable than Jesus), using stuff like ‘average article length’ to determine relative noteworthiness. This has been everywhere in the past fortnight, so I imagine you’re probably seen it already, but in case not it really is quite a wonderful timesink and you can’t fail to learn things (such as that Camilla Parker Bowles was born near where I live in London, and that Hugh Grant was born exactly where you expect him to have been).
- The Kubrick Times: One of the (many) great things about the Big AI Boom of 2022 is all the interesting ways in which people are using the exciting new creative machine tools at their disposal for collaborative projects – so it is with this one, by Matt Round. The Kubrick Times takes as its starting point a fictional series of stories whose headlines were mocked up in 2001: A Space Odyssey as part of the worldbuilding effort. “For 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s team wrote 36 futuristic New York Times headlines to appear on iPad-like devices. HAL 9000 isn’t available, so we used OpenAI’s neural network tech to turn those headlines into full AI‑generated articles. GPT-3 wrote text from prompts based on the 36 original headlines, along with additional fact boxes from related phrases. DALL·E 2 produced images using a similar process. The fake ads use AI-generated photos and slogans. New York weather data for the year 2001 was sourced from Visual Crossing Weather.” This works SO well – Matt spent a lot of time curating and tweaking this to make it good, and you can read a thread of the process here should you be interested (you should be – it’s rare that someone takes the time to talk you through the process of taking something from concept-to-reality, and it’s always useful to see how people think and do) – and there really is something slightly-magical about this marriage of man and machine. I am sure that this stuff will all get old sooner rather than later – as previously mentioned, I already have a slight degree of AI-image fatigue – but it’s hard not to get slightly-excited by the possibilities afforded by Centauring with this stuff. You can see a similar project at The Daily Wrong, which posts GPT-3 articles and Dall-E created images to produce an entirely-fake news website – less interesting, imho, but there’s a whole space here which feels like it’s going to end up being 99% of the internet in approximately three years’ time.
- The Department: This is an interesting idea, though it’s yet to launch properly and so I can’t tell you whether it actually works or not. Still, the concept is a smart one – the gimmick here is that The Department will use AI natural language processing to help you find outfits. So, rather than searching for specifics like ‘that Galaxy dress from a few years ago’ (I AM SO FASHION!), you can instead feed the app inputs like ‘trousers than make my legs look marginally less like pipe cleaners than they might otherwise do’ or ‘jumpers than hide my massive gut’, or ‘a sexy-yet-formal outfit in burnt orange that works for the larger-chested person’ and it will, so it promises,find the PERFECT item. Now obviously I haven’t tried this, and I am a touch sceptical about how well the software will actually be able to parse your requests, but we’re very much on the cusp of something transformative here (I think – but, obvs, don’t quote me on this) when it comes to machines being able to interpret fuzzy requests in helpful ways, and I am hugely-curious to see how these sorts of things develop.
- The Apple Store Time Machine: I confess to being somewhat confused by brand fetishism – you know, the people who love a brand or logo so much that they make it a cornerstone of their identity, like the Stone Island badge displayers – but if you’re one of those people who fetishises Apple and who has contemplated creating a small domestic shrine to Steve Jobs (HE WAS AN ARSEHOLE FFS STOP LAUDING BULLIES) then you probably need this in your life. “Travel back in time and revisit four iconic Apple Stores on grand opening day. The Apple Store Time Machine is a celebration of the places and products that have shaped our lives for more than twenty years. This interactive experience recreates memorable moments in Apple history with painstaking detail and historical accuracy.” Free to download, this is an opportunity to, er, visit some shops in VR – still, if you need something other than Beat Saber to put on your Oculus then this might provide a diverting distraction for 10 minutes or so. Snark aside, this is a fcuking astonishing labour of love (although, again, maybe…try loving something better?).
- Tiny Mining: As we stare down the barrel of 18 months of recessionary horror, I imagine we’re all thinking ‘how the fcuk am I going to pay the mortgage / feed the children / keep myself in skag?’. Should you be in the market for some…esoteric solutions, you could do worse than download a copy of this ebook, which promises to teach you how to extract rare earth metals from your own body (you don’t even need to die!). “Tiny Mining [TM] is the first open source mineral exploration co-operative and resource specialist committed to the potential exploitation of the interior of the living human body for rare earth and other mineral resources in the interests of human and planetary health.” This is less a how-to manual on mining your p1ss for copper and more an art project, fine, but it’s fascinating and so perfectly-future it almost hurts.
- The Comedy Pet Photography Awards 2022: LOOK AT THE DERPY ANIMALS! This year’s collection of silly-looking creatures is typically cute – my personal favourite is the cat wrestling with the camera tripod, but special mention should also go to the two images of comedy donkeys which, honestly, will not fail to make you feel marginally better about the fact that everything is fcuked and we are all going to die.
- Confusing Perspective: A subReddit featuring photos where tricks of perspective make for very WTF-ish initial reactions. There are a troubling number of these which I still really don’t understand, despite having stared at them for minutes on end.
- Language Please: A potentially-useful resource for writers and journalists, Language Please is a site which offers information and guidance on how to write about potentially-contentious or sensitive issues such as race and gender, describing itself as “a living resource for all journalists and storytellers seeking to thoughtfully cover evolving social, cultural and identity-related topics. With guidance, tools, and access to inclusivity readers, it offers necessary context to help newsrooms make informed decisions about the language we use.” Worth bookmarking if you’re in the business of ‘content’ (sorry, but).
- Illustration Chronicles: I LOVE THIS! “Illustration Chronicles explores a history of illustration through the images, illustrators and events of the past 175 years. Every few months the site picks a topic to explore. These topics inspire the types of work that get selected and once a piece has been chosen, the year it was made gets marked off the project timeline. Illustration is a fascinating subject and yet its history is rarely told. This project aims to champion the medium and bring some inspiration, insight and knowledge to readers everywhere.” Honestly, almost everything I have clicked on on this site is absolutely fascinating, from articles about the history of modern cartooning to a look at the career of Jamie Hewlett – this is an absolute goldmine of great imagery and interesting work.
- 5h Train Journies: Pick any city in Europe and see how far you can travel in 5 hours on the train – given the fact that we should all have gotten the memo about plane travel being bad (says someone who’s going to have to do a reasonable amount of it in the next few months and feels quite guilty about it), this is a potentially great resource to help you plan a holiday that won’t make you feel bad about how much you’re fcuking the planet.
- Emoji Kitchen: Having featured Jennifer Daniels’ blogpost about this app in the last Curios, here’s the web version – make your own emoji mashups! Deploy them everywhere! Create your own SIGNATURE EMOJI that defines your personality and vibe better than anything else! Get it tattooed! This is, slightly-shonky interface aside, rather a lot of fun (and I say this as someone who hates emoji).
- Better Streets: Fair play to these people for attempting to make a quick buck out of their Dall-E/Midjourney access – I do wonder how many of these sorts of things we’re likely to see in the coming months as people scramble to get first-mover market advantage. Better Streets is a service which offers renders of utopian urban environments, for a low low price: “From car-free paradises to protected bike lanes, we’ll create custom-tailored images for you to share—on social media, with politicians, at neighborhood meetings, on telephone poles—wherever it matters most. With the power of AI, combined with our 10+ years of urban planning experience, you’ll receive images that are guaranteed to excite, inspire, and change minds.” Thing is, anyone can do this if they have access to the software and I am not 100% convinced that any of the outputs here are better than what you or I would come up with after 20 mins fiddling – still, fair play to them for the grift here, which I slightly admire. What other variations on this can we imagine? Aesthetically-consistent art styles for deployment in your videogame/tv show house? Architectural renders? Start to think about this for a second or two and you begin to develop an appreciation for exactly how wildly-transformative all this is going to be for so, so many industries.
- Parsnip: I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet (insert your own joke about rib removal here, I am tired and hungover and don’t want to), but I am a pretty decent cook – if, though, you are more McDonald’s than Michelin, you may find this app useful. Parsnip is a new app which is marketing itself as ‘like Duolingo, but for cooking’ – no idea whether it too has an inexplicably-horny owl mascot, but the principle of small, bite-sized daily exercises is broadly comparable. “On Parsnip, complex cooking expertise is broken down into quick, bite-size quizzes. All you have to do is play, learn the dishes that interest you, skip what doesn’t, and you’ll cook like a chef before you know it. From your morning coffee to waiting in line at the grocery store, Parsnip helps you level up your cooking skills. Inside, you’ll find more than 50 levels that challenge your cooking ability across 5 categories: ingredients, shopping, prepping, making, and techniques.” This feels like the sort of thing that might be genuinely useful for a young person living on their own for the first time, for example.
By Citlani Haro
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- Recommend Me A Book: The past year’s stint having a miserable time in Italy has at leats had the small side-benefit of meaning I have read a LOT of novels (please, hit me up for recommendations, I have MANY) – I really like this site as a means of potentially finding new material, though, It’s a super-simple premise – a series of first pages of novels, presented with no information about the title or author, so you can simply see whether the prose grabs you enough to want to read more. This works both as a means of discovering new works to enjoy and as a guide to how to craft the opening to a book – looking through all these first pages you quickly get a sense of the ones that really speak to the reader and grab attention from the first line, and I imagine for the aspirant novelist there’s quite a lot of useful intel to be gleaned.
- The Audubon Photo Awards 2022: LOVELY FEATHERY FRIENDS! The Audubon Society, as you will obviously all be aware, is the main American bird conservation organisation, and this is their annual selection of the best feathery photos of the past 12 months. LOOK AT THE LOVELY DINOSAURY FRIENDS! These are just beautiful.
- The Tornado Archive: Tornados were slightly ruined for me by 1990s tornado-chasing film ‘Twister’, which somehow managed to make giant killer wind towers deeply-tedious, but my interest was briefly-rekindled by this resource which is basically all the information you could ever want about tornados and where they are happening. “Tornado Archive is a dedicated to worldwide tornado history, climatology, “archeology” and media. We are a group of meteorologists, storm chasers, and weather enthusiasts who intend to preserve data, educate, and provide a hop off point for your weather related research and much much more.” This contains information about EVERY SINGLE TORNADO EVER RECORDED SINCE 1952, which, fine, I can’t actually imagine why you’d need it or what you’d do with it, but I am very glad it’s here and that it exists.
- Color Journey: This is deeply pointless but also rather lovely, and I think it would be an interesting experiential VR installation should anyone be minded to make it one. “This tool/toy/demo is a way to navigate all 16 777 216 colors in the RGB color space. You are navigating a 256x256x256 cube, and based on your position, the background color is calculated. You can navigate the space just like you would navigate any 3D space in a videogame. Move your mouse to look around and use wasd to walk. You can also press E to go up, and Q to go down, and hold shift to move 5 times faster. Essentially, the more west you are, the more red you add. The more south you are, the more green you have. And the higher you are, the more blue component is in the color.” Effectively you’re strolling through the entirety of chromatic experience, which is pretty fcuking cool when you think about it – seriously, this is totally a VR gallery installation waiting to happen.
- Early Web Memories: I’m sure I’ve mentioned this here before, but I have a very clear memory of the first ever time I used the web – it was 1996, and my college got its FIRST EVER internet-connected computer, and every pupil got to schedule a 30 minute session where they could EXPERIENCE THE WONDERS OF THE WEB. You were left to your own devices – such naivete! – but were given a book which was something like ‘The Usborne Guide To All Of The Websites’, which was literally a printed directory of urls that you could navigate to if you typed them in, arranged by theme. So, obviously, being 16, I flipped straight to ‘sex’ and decided to see what ‘Bianca’s Smut Shack’ was all about (I have definitely written about Bianca’s before, but there’s a nice writeup from 1995 here). Having never used a browser before, I was totally ignorant as to how hyperlinks worked – which meant that I was surprised and then terrified when I clicked on some blue underlined words and then found to my horror that a very pr0nographic image started loading line-by-line on the school computer (it involved a naked woman and a rubber glove, and it was…somewhat outside my comfort zone). Anyway, that’s basically how I ended up here (obviously a truncated version of the full story) – this has been a VERY long-winded intro to an excellent Reddit thread of people remembering the early days of the web, which I highly recommend if a) you’re old like me and want a bit of nostaglia; or b) if you’re young and want to do a bit of ‘what was it like in the analogue days, granddad?’ memoryspelunking.
- Media Facade Simulator: “Media Façade simulator is a demo website built on the SHIFT LINK system for billboard simulation. Users can change the contents of the virtual images and check the images from any viewpoint, as well as the sounds recorded in the real Shibuya area. In the future, we will build a system that connects this simulation with the real world.” This is only moderately-interesting, but I LOVE the idea of this tech being able to link to real-world displays and one being able to manipulate, say, the Piccadilly Circus LED boards from one’s desktop.
- Yesterland: Are you a Disney Adult? Do you feel…unfairly-maligned by the modern world’s decision that there is something wrong or freaky about your devotion to themeparks and the Mouse? Well, know that Web Curios DOES NOT JUDGE YOU (it does judge you), and in the spirit of support and allyship offers you this link to further feed your obsession. Yesterland is a wite dedicated to preserving memories of Disney themeparks past – old attractions, rides, bits of worldbuilding, etc, from Florida to California, are preserved here. So if you’ve ever wanted a deep and exhaustive dive into the history of Main Street in the Disney ecosystem, or a minute dissection of the flora of Epcot then, well, ENJOY!
- StruckDuck: An Etsy shop selling optical illusions and tricks, and, for those of you with access to a 3d printer (what do you mean “who the fcuk has a 3d printer, Matt?”? Did you not all buy one in the great post-scarcity imagineering boom of 2011?), you can even buy models to create at home for just a quid or so. Fine, you may not think you want to buy a trick that lets you create the illusion of a ballbearing rolling up a flight of stairs, but I promise you these are more appealing than you might initially expect.
- The Artist Averager: A fun little spotify tool which lets you put in two artists of your choosing and spits out a third artist which sits at a midpoint between your original selections based on Spotify’s tagging and analysis of musicians in vectorspace. There are limits to what it can achieve – it just got totally confused by my attempt to find the aural midpoint between Leonard Cohen and Pablo Gargano, for example – but it’s quite fun to play with and it’s a great way of finding new, different musicians.
- WikiEnigma: Given the fact that this is a project dedicated to listing and exploring known unknowns I am slightly-saddened that they didn’t call it ‘WikiRumsfeld’, but I suppose you can’t have everything. There’s not a whole load of actual info here – possibly because, er, we don’t know much about most of this stuff – but as a list of ‘baffling things that continue to be beyond our ken’ it’s pretty good.
- The Spriter’s Resource: Oh God, this is amazing – an incredible repository of videogame graphics files, sprites, backgrounds, models and textures, available to download and play with and create with. Fine, I appreciate that this might be a bit iffy, copyrightwise, but, look, it’s just individual graphics elements and everything is a remix anyway, so it’s probably fine. If you want to make anything vaguely-videogame-looking this is a truly wonderful resource (equally, if you’re a gamer of vintage standing then this is an incredible memorypalace of past glories, and even has a whole section devoted to graphics from really obscure old systems like the Turbografx-16). This is GREAT.
- Foreign Covers: An excellent Twitter feed sharing cover versions of songs which were originally in English covered by non-English artists. Have you ever wanted to hear ‘Especially For You’ by Kylie and Jason, but in Hungarian? No, of course you haven’t, but once you have done so you will realise that it’s been a significant lacuna in your life to date – the same applies to the Eurodance German take on ‘Come on Eileen’ which I promise you you need to listen to RIGHT NOW.
- Tindie: If you’re a more practical person than I am (not hard, admittedly) you may already be aware of this site, which is basically ‘Etsy, but for odd electronic gubbins’, but it was new to me and looks REALLY EXCITING. Obviously ‘exciting’ is a relative term, and your personal excitement will entirely depend on the extent to which you find things like ‘homemade robot dogs like the terrifying murderbots you see online’ or ‘tiny drones made by some bloke in their shed’ thrilling propositions. If you’re a real geek then you will have a field day browsing all the incredibly-specific electronic gubbins on display here – if, like me, you’re a bit more geek-adjacent you can just enjoy browsing some of the most amazing little homespun bits of fun kit made and sold by amateur enthusiasts the world over. People are incredible and inventive and brilliant (and awful and maddening, obviously).
- Weird AI Chef: I should have chucked this uptop really – SORRY! – but, well, noone really cares and it doesn’t matter. This Twitter account posts images of food as imagined by Dall-E, and the pictures are as horrifying and confusing as you would imagine.
- Can You Tell The AI?: This is really interesting – it’s a short quiz which asks you to see whether you can tell whether a fragment of text purporting to be by philosopher Daniel C Dennett is in fact by him, or whether it’s one of four fakes that were written by a GPT-3 instance trained on his corpus. It’s an excellent illustration of where GPT-3 really does feel like magic – so much of this is practically-indistinguishable from International Philosophy W4nk, and despite having not one by TWO utterly-pointless degrees in the subject I was still only able to get about 60% of these right. It’s not magic, it’s not sentient, but it feels and looks an awful lot like semi-sentient magic.
- I Want It All: Look, I think this is a promo for some PC hardware manufacturer, and there’s some competition attached to it where you can win a new graphics card or something, but this is included solely because it is a VERY fun and really surprisingly shiny and competent game of Breakout with which you can comfortably while away 15 minutes while you wait for something interesting to happen in the rest of your life.
- LikeWordle: Because I am a man of my word (ha! SO MANY PEOPLE WOULD DISAGREE!) I have maintained my promise not to include any more Wordle clones because, well, life’s too short and there is a seemingly-infinite number of them, but I will make a small concession to your desperate jonesing for MORE WORDLE CLONES by including this list of (at the time of writing) over 270 of the bastrd things. Although it has just taught me that there is a Harry Potter-themed one called ‘Myrtle’, which has induced in me something of a murderous rage, so that’s a shame.
- We Are Not All Alone Unhappy: I love this – a short piece of semi-interactive fiction gaming in which you’re asked to pair up various Shakespearean characters who in the Bard’s original works ended up with unhappy endings and seeing whether, by combining them in hitherto-unimagined romantic combinations, you might create better outcomes. This is lovely, and if you’ve even a passing knowledge of the Shakespearean canon is a really nice way to reconsider both the works and the characters within them.
- Sim Central Bank: Lol terrifying inflation! Lol recession! LOL! Oh God, this is all a bit much, isn’t it? Still, if you’d like to experiment with the levers of the economy and see if YOU can keep everything on an even keel then this little sim might amuse you – it’s very simple, and based on a small economic model that works as follows: “You are the top banker in charge of the central bank. Your role is to maximize economic potential by putting the right amount of money in circulation, to increase the GDP of your village: the number of apples it produces. Your only lever changes the central bank interest rate.” Can YOU prevent everyone from starving to death? Will YOU be able to lead your citizens to the great, cider-y future to which they all aspire? I found this incredibly hard, which indicates that the two years I spent studying economics all those years ago were perhaps not the best use of my time (or, perhaps more accurately, that economic theory is largely guesswork and bunkum) (yes, it’s definitely economics that’s the problem here, not me).
- Car Boot Carnage: Thanks to reader Joel Stein, who sent this to me with the following description: “It’s basically “car boot Tetris”, minus the trademark infringement.” He’s not wrong – this is a lot more fun than you’d initially expect, and I lost a good 20m or so to it earlier in the week (but, Joel, WHO PUTS A DOG IN THE BOOT OF THEIR CAR YOU SICK FCUK?!).
- Timelooper: Finally this week, a genuinely great little browswer game. Get your character to the exit, working with the infinitely-spawning clones of you that appear at regular intervals to solve puzzles, raise gates and manipulate the environment. Really smart level and puzzle design that will have you smiling smugly at your own cleverness on level 2 and feeling like a two-digit-IQ-moron by stage 5.
THE CIRCUS OF TUMBLRS!
- The Tokyoiter: Not actually a Tumblr! But it very much feels like one, and as we all know vibes are everything around here. This is a wonderful collection of covers for an imaginary magazine, conceived as a Japanese version of the New Yorker: “The Tokyoiter is made by illustration and drawing freaks who are willing to present the talent of artists they like to a larger audience. Some of us are illustrators and some are just living in Tokyo a wonderful city full of stories and daily inspiration. We want to celebrate the passion for this city and its inhabitants’ story. We hope that each cover will be a testimony of what makes Tokyo such fascinating place to live and experience.” Gorgeous work – I imagine if you’re familiar with the city this is even better.
- Daft Bootlegs: AN ACTUAL TUMBLR! This is a collection of images of Daft Punk without their masks, collected from all over the place, If you ever wanted to gaze at the face of Thomas Bangalter and…er…the other one whose name I can never remember, then FILL YOUR BOOTS! You can also find bootlegs and playlists, should you desire them to fill the Daft Punk-shaped hole in your current existence.
THE TROUGH OF (INSTA) FEEDS!
- Vaskange: You’ve probably seen an insane zoomy animation doing the rounds on the socials over the past few weeks – it’s by this person, a French artist based in Lyon who goes by the name of Vaskanger and who I hope has managed to get some sort of kickback or benefit from his largely-uncredited work going massively viral.
- Emotional Heritage: Oh this is LOVELY! Emotional Heritage is a project by…oh, hang on, they don’t say who’s behind it. Anyway, it’s an art project which puts up small blue plaques in the English Heritage style to commemorate small events which have happened at certain locations – “Andy and Dan first kissed here – he can’t stop thinking about it, and tries to avoid walking home this way”, or “On this site, Sara Jones realised that even if her mother apologised it was too late and always had been”. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.
- Computer Nightmares: Fcuked-up AI imaginings. Except they’re not that fcuked up because all the off-the-shelf software has inbuilt guardrails to stop you making the machines imagine, say, “an army of suppurating child corpses”, which let me just say is a crying shame (I am genuinely excited / terrified to see the bootleg AI imaging software with all the constraints removed that will almost certainly already be doing the rounds on the darkweb).
- RoboMojo: Film posters, imagined by AI! Jesus, I really am going to have to give this sh1t its own section, aren’t I?
- Forbidden Airbnb: Weird imagined houses that you can’t stay in because they don’t exist (thankfully).
LONG THINGS WHICH ARE LONG!
- The Seductions of Declinism: As we stare down the barrel of an uncomfortable year or more of economic misery exacerbated by the prospect of a Truss premiership (I still can’t quite believe that this appears to actually be happening but, well, it is!), this piece by William Davies in the LRB offers a decent analysis of Where We Are and Why, and a (depressing but cogent) argument for why we always seem to turn to the Tories in times of economic hardship even when all this stuff is the result of them being in power for over a decade. Covering economics, the miserable tedium of the culture wars boll0cks and why this is not in fact like the 1970s (it’s worse!), this isn’t a cheery read, exactly, but it’s the best piece of writing I’ve read in the past fortnight about where we are and why. Still, at least that dreadful Corbyn man didn’t get in last time around, eh????!!!!!!
- The End of Social Media: There have been several pieces ploughing this furrow over the past week or so following the less-than-positive reaction to Insta going FULL TIKTOK – you can read another here should you be in the market for it – which basically posit that the era of the social graph is now basically done for and we’re instead moving towards an era where platforms will be characterised by (and live/die based on the success of) their recommendation engines and the ability of their algorithms to predict with uncanny accuracy what we want to consume at any given moment. This is a smart and interesting piece of writing by Michael Mignano which looks at the implications of this shift for how platforms will operate, how creators will be forced to adapt, and what this means for media. One thing it doesn’t allude to which I’m curious to see is the degree to which it’s going to fcuk with people’s heads being forced to make content in service of an unknowable algorithm – we;ve touched on this a bit in previous weeks, and you can obviously see it in the YouTube and Twitch communities, but I don’t think we’re giving quite enough thought to what it’s going to look and feel like when we’re all dancing to the tune of an invisible, unknowable AI piper whose playing a constantly-changing tune using scales we don’t understand.
- The Age of Algorithmic Anxiety: Although this piece does in fact sort-of touch on exactly that – the oddly-modern feeling of being guided and manipulated and steered through life by software whose innards we simply cannot conceive of. This takes as its starting point the idea that fashion and trends are now as shaped by maths as they are by human creation and curation, but goes on to talk more broadly about the strange, specific sense of un-control that one occasionally feels when navigating the web. “Why am I seeing this? Why is this being shown to me? Who does the machine think I am, and what ‘shape’ am I in its non-mind’s non-eye?” are all questions that this piece rightly concludes we no longer have any hope of getting good answers to, which in itself is a moderately-anxiety-inducing realisation.
- Prompt Engineering: Charlie Warzel writes about playing with AI art and the oddity of the concept of ‘prompt engineering’ and coaxing images from the ‘mind’ of the AI, and raises interesting questions about agency and choice when it comes to resulting works: “Last week Sam Altman, one of the company’s founders—alongside Elon Musk—tweeted that “AI creative tools are going to be the biggest impact on creative work flows since the computer itself. We are all going to get amazing visual art, music, games, etc.” Personally, I find the phrasing a little ominous. We are all going to get. That doesn’t sound very empowering. Altman isn’t suggesting we’ll be the ones making the art or even having much of a say in it—we will simply get what we are given.”
- Private Language: Shardcore offers a brief disquisition about the Wittgenstinian conundra around language and meaning that are at the heart of all questions about generative AI models and questions of perceived machine ‘sentience’ – this is a really accessible introduction to some HORRIBLY KNOTTY questions, and I highly recommend it if you fancy having some HARD THOUGHTS about what it means to think / know / reason / create.
- Borrowed or Stolen?: An interesting essay exploring the nascent-but-soon-to-be-violently-lucrative world of AI image generation and copyright – seriously, if I were a lawyer I would be absolutely pivoting to this as a specialism as there’s a good few years of SERIOUSLY complicated litigation about to kick off around ‘who owns the IP to a Dall-E-generated image of ‘Snoopy in the style of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog sculptures’. Want a cheery quote from the piece? Here!: “Artists are also able to upload their own work to DALL-E and then generate recreations in their own style. I spoke to one artist, who asked not to be named or otherwise described for fear of being identified and suffering reprisals. They showed me examples of their work alongside recreations made by DALLl-E, which while crude, were still close enough to look like the real thing. They said that, on this evidence alone, their livelihood as a working artist is at risk, and that the creative industries writ large are “doomed.””
- Diminishing TikTok Returns: Or “Why I continue to be proved broadly right about the fact that the whole concept of the ‘creator economy’ is a massive lie” – this piece looks at the extent to which the promise of TikTok as a haven for ‘content creators’ to make bank is increasingly being shown up for the fiction it is, as more users flock to the platform and more STUFF is made and advertisers and brands have an ever-growing pool of willing contentmonkeys to make crap for them for pennies. A companion piece to the ‘social media is dead’ articles from earlier, in a way.
- The Real Labour of the Virtual Influencer: File this under ‘news stories that would have been utterly incomprehensible as recently as five years ago’. Rest of World looks at the working lives of people who act as the meatpuppets for popular virtual stars in China, mocapped and gurning beneath a digital skin for the delectation and amusement of millions – an intensely strange and almost-perfectly-modern form of celebrity combined with an equally-perfectly-modern inability for any of us to think properly about how our favourite sausages are in fact made.
- Stewards of the Cloud: Repeat after me – The Cloud Is A Very Physical Thing, Whatever Marketing May Tell Us. This is a really interesting article looking at the practical realities of keeping the world’s internet online at all times, and the people whose job it is to make sure that, say, Amazon doesn’t fall over at 3am on a Tuesday morning. Not only a fascinating portrait of a world that I doubt many of us ever consider, but also far-better written than you’d expect: “In Boston, a man hunts for heat with his ears. In Iceland, a man puts out fires so that the youth of his community may have a chance at something besides bus tours. Amid the storm of the century, a man in Puerto Rico opens the doors of his fortress to the public, granting sanctuary like a pastor in a parish. In the Arizona desert, a man teaches his young pupil how to lift a server and, by extension, how to be a man. From the tropics to the Arctic, the cloud thrums. Heat blooms in the wake of computation. And it is men, not refrigeration alone, that can purge it, so that data can flow, and digital capitalism can proceed, uninterrupted.”
- Parental Responsibility: This is a sad-but-fascinating read. In November 2021, Ethan Crumbley became another footnote in the Wikipedia entry for ‘US School Shootings’, killing several of his classmates and injuring others at his high school in Michigan. What’s unusual about this case is that Ethan’s parents are being charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, based on prosecutor’s beliefs that they materially failed to act in their son’s interests, to the extent that their neglect was a necessary factor in his actions. This is SO hard, and equally SO interesting (from, to be clear, a coldly-analytical, moral/philosophical standpoint – it’s also obviously really fcuking sad), and I would imagine that there will be an equal split between those of you who feel that this is an unfair and cruel additional burden on parents who’ve already had to deal with…a lot, and those of you who feel that there was a meaningful abnegation of care.
- Salesmen: A gorgeous piece of writing in the New Yorker, profiling superstar door-to-door salesman Sam Taggart and the whole industry of professional salespeople who it seems are still very much a Thing in the US. I once sold double glazing door-to-door and found myself to be surprisingly (worryingly, in some respects) good at it, but I can honestly say that the people I worked with were literally the worst human beings I have ever met (their idea of ‘fun’ was going to the Burger King drive through at 8am and playing Ice Cube at earbleed volume at all the parents getting an unhealthy breakfast) – this is a fascinating portrait of a very particular type of human psychology at play (also, there is a fascinating degree to which the pseudopsychology of sales is SO VISIBLE across almost every facet of social media, should you care to think about it).
- Sao Paolo: Sao Paolo is, it turns out, mid-flayingly big – 22million people!! – and this article in Spiegel is a wonderful, maddening and occasionally very funny portrait of some of the people who exemplify its insane inequalities. You will, I promise you, lose your sh1t at the quite spectacular lack of self-awareness displayed by plutocratically-wealthy lawyer Nelson Wiliams and his wife Ann, perhaps best demonstrated in this small excerpt: “At the end of our meeting, Nelson Wilians presents a parting gift bag containing a small statue of himself along with a comic about the history of law, in which significant roles are reserved for Ramses II., Moses, Voltaire and – Nelson Wilians. He had both printed in the largest newspapers in the country. Anne Wilians, for her part, asks not to be described as an “it girl.”” You will very much want to kill and eat the rich after reading this (and also, perhaps, to visit Sao Paolo).
- Deadheaded Sentences: A truly beautiful evisceration of the writing of James Patterson, who I learned from this LRB piece is one of the world’s bestselling authors and who has just collaborated with Dolly Parton on a novel. This is a delicious hatchet-job – “No sentence, in the Patterson universe, is equal to the suggestions and nuances of life itself; his galaxy is a constant flow of words that drift towards nullity. ‘Stephen King once called me a terrible writer,’ he says in his memoir, which is quite unjust. He’s not merely a terrible writer, he’s the terrible writer’s terrible writer, a distinction he should enjoy.”
- A Decade on the Apps: Specifically Tinder, but you could swap out any of them in this piece and it would probably work as well. Funny, sad, and another to add to the growing corpus of journalism that explores what life mediated by mathematics that we don’t understand looks and feels like.
- Meetings with Mark E Smith: Very readable and very funny account by Ted Kessler of his three meetings with Mark E Smith, the famously irascible and speed-addled Fall frontman. You really don’t need to be a fan of the man or his music to enjoy this, I promise.
- The Maintenance Race: VERY long but also SUPERB, this is an account of the Sunday Times round the world yacht race of 1968, and the people who participated in it. Properly great adventuring, this, with tales of intrigue, near-death, possible actual death and incredible resourcefulness – honestly, I read the opening section and had to stop and have a long moment of self-reflection as I reckoned with what an utterly-useless milksop I am compared to people who can recaulk a boat’s hull when adrift in the literal middle of the ocean. There’s a line in here – casually thrown away amidst some general nautical mishap and terror – about ‘pausing to shoot a shark in the face’, just to give you an idea of the levels of derring-do on display here. A truly great series of stores, and stylishly-written to boot.
- The Pain-Writing-Money Trifecta: Finally this week, a beautiful piece of writing by Ella Risbridger about writing itself, and death and mourning and literature and the stories we keep of those we loved and the ones we tell. Gorgeous – a bit said, but mainly gorgeous.
AND NOW, MOVING PICTURES AND SOUNDS!:
- This is basically an advert for the concept of ‘clothes as NFTs’, and I am including solely to point at it and go ‘WHO WANTS THIS? NO FCUKER, THAT’S WHO!’. Honestly, this is just so…uninspiring. I buy a tshirt, scan a QR code, and then I get to (after jumping through a bunch of hoops) wear a digital version of that tshirt on my avatar which can…hang out in empty virtual shopping malls whilst wearing said shirt? I can still vaguely-understand the eventual idea of what this stuff aspires to be, but the distance between where we are now and that shiny fututre is vast – there is literally noone I can imagine being interested in this stuff in the actual, real, non-cryptopilled world.
- Finally in this week’s musical selections, I LOVE this track – it’s called Embryo, it’s by Vial, and I promise you’ll be singing along by the end of it just like I am now as I type this and OH WHAT OH NO THAT’S IT FOR ANOTHER WEEK I HAVE BEEN MATT AND THIS HAS BEEN WEB CURIOS AND I LOVE YOU AND I WANT YOU TO KNOW I APPRECIATE EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU AND YOUR TIME BECAUSE I KNOW THAT THIS IS ALL QUITE A BIG COMMITMENT AND I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT I AM GRATEFUL FOR EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU SO PLEASE COME BACK NEXT WEEK PLEASE PLEASE I LOVE YOU DON’T LEAVE ME PLEASE!