Does the UK feel…weird to you right now (sorry, international readers, for the anglosolipsism on display here – feel free to skip this and get right into the links which I promise are good ones)? Having been back a couple of weeks, I can’t shake the overriding impression that everything is heading for some sort of moment – I don’t for a second imagine riots (we’re just not that sort of populace, more’s the pity), but I can very much envisage a few Morris troupes arming themselves and going rogue in the West (for example), or the emergence of some sort of vaguely-apocalyptic new sex-and-drugs cult.
It doesn’t, it’s fair to say, feel like things are in a fantastic place over here in Blighty – I think the best way to describe it is that everything is just a little bit skew, a little bit off-kilter, like those very particular sorts of 70s films in which everything carries a faint patina of menace and filth and imminent cancerous decay. You know the ones.
Which is why you’re all doubtless INCREDIBLY GRATEFUL for Web Curios, guiding you through the weirdness like some sort of tediously-digitally-obsessed Virgil to your increasingly weary Dante – don’t worry, though, this is very much Paradise, I promise you. Enjoy this week’s edition, savour it at length, because next week’s my girlfriend’s birthday and so I will be trying to spend more time with her than with the internet and as such am on leave (but will be back in a fortnight, so DON’T FORGET ME).
I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and if this is the long-trailed vibe shift then I don’t like it one bit.
By Yang Cao
THE SECTION WHICH PERSONALLY DOUBTS THAT THE UK CAN AFFORD THE EUROVISION ELECTRICITY BILL, PT.1:
- Paint With Music: The phrase ‘paint with music’ does, I concede, have something of the ‘dance with spoons’ or ‘compose with jelly’ about it, but this is A REAL THING and it REALLY WORKS (sort-of). Time was (about a decade ago) when Google would churn out fun little ‘experiments’ every few weeks or so – OH FOR THE FRIVOLOUS DAYS OF THE PAST! – but they seem a bit rarer now (or, er, I am just less good at paying attention) and they appear with less excitement and fanfare than they perhaps used to (so jaded!), and so I was genuinely pleased to see that they can still make fun, slightly-pointless little webtoys when they set their mind to it. Paint With Music is a pretty simple premise – you choose from a selection of themed ‘canvases’ (the sky, underwater, some sort of vaguely ‘urban’ wallspace, etc), each of which has a slightly-different underlying musical theme, and then use your mouse or your finger to paint on said canvas, which paint then translates to a musical loop which you can add to or build on to your heart’s content. Different ‘brushes’ correspond to different instruments, and there’s some machine learning under the hood to attempt to massage your cack-handed scrawlings into something halfway-melodic (or at the very least something less fundamentally tonally-offensive), and whilst I’m yet to compose anything that doesn’t make me wince slightly every time it loops, I’m convinced that you’ll be painting masterpieces that also happen to sound beautiful within mere minutes.
- Blender: Those of you outside the US will need a VPN to access this, but if you fancy having a play with Meta’s new chatbot then, well, here you go! It’s interesting that they’ve made this public and open-access, given previous chatbot horror stories (you all remember Tay, don’t you?), but from what I can tell they appear to have done a reasonable job of horror-proofing the software to prevent it from throwing up anything too offensive whilst it’s in beta. It’s interesting how poorly this compares to GPT-3 when it comes to ‘sounding like a reasonable simulacrum of a person’ – although I appreciate that they are quite different in terms of how they work – but I am moderately-impressed by how open Meta is being about the extent to which this is nothing more than a very early work-in-progress and how far it is from being commercially viable in any meaningful sense (the company blogpost about the project is unusually decent). Like all chatbot stuff, this is more a curiosity than anything and (if you’re me and if you’ve spent more time than you’re comfortable admitting messing about with this sort of stuff over the past few years) the novelty will probably wear off reasonably fast, but if you’d like to laugh at a Zuckerberg-owned bit of software expressing doubts about its lord and master’s competence then you might find something of interest here. More than anything, though, it strikes me as another piece of evidence to suggest that anything more sophisticated than ‘chat interface as basic nested menu system’ is still quite a long way from being viable.
- The Earth Species Project: If we could talk to the animals, what would they say? Some sort of variation on “what the fcuk are you doing, you morons?”, quite possibly, or in the case of your cat “I want to eat you”. Or, perhaps, there’s an as-yet untapped reservoir of wisdom which our animal chums are just waiting to impart to us, as soon as we can be bothered to learn how to speak to them – which is exactly what the Earth Species Project is all about. “We believe that an understanding of non-human languages will change our ecological impact on this planet. We are inspired by the incredible diversity of communication systems on Earth. From the mycelial networks that connect Earth’s forests like an Internet to the rainbow-rave richness of cuttlefish communication, we are surrounded by messages and meaning. We are motivated by the recent monumental milestone in machine learning: the invention of techniques that can translate languages without dictionaries.” So, basically (ok – very basically, and I apologise in advance to all the very smart people involved in this whose work I am about to simplify to an almost-offensive degree) this is about using AI to decode the language of animals – using the idea of latent space in terms of linguistics alongside computational power to seek to draw commonalities between two languages. They’re starting with whales and primates, but apparently will move onto corvids and other smart beasts in due course. On the one hand, this is immensely scifi and quite exciting; on the other, that scifi-ness makes me a bit scared that the AI will just end up talking to the animals directly and cutting us out of the conversation – I mean, you wouldn’t blame it, would you? Have you looked at us recently? – or that it will work and we’ll slowly come to the horrific realisation that the animals have been talking to us all along and what they have been saying is “we will rise up and have our revenge” (but I concede that perhaps I’m being a touch Cassandra-ish here).
- The Longevity Prize: I’m not 100% sure who would look at the current state of everything and think “yep, sign me up for more of this!”, but then again I am but a peon without the long-term vision of the billionaire class – perhaps if you’re worth ten figures you’re a bit more optimistic about your chances of outpacing the coming apocalypse (or, more practically, buying half of New Zealand on which to build your heat-resistant forever-compound). It’s long been an open secret that there’s a certain section of the Silicon Valley-adjacent super rich who are obsessed with extending their lifespan well into the second century and beyond, and the Longevity Prize is a new initiative which seeks to incentivise research into ‘how to we keep the really, really wealthy from having to suffer the base indignity of death?’. Fine, there’s nothing in here that explicitly says ‘it’s only for the rich’, but it’s all tied up in crypto (it’s a DAO!) which does rather make me doubt its ‘we’re all in this together!’ credentials. Anyway, the general aim of the Prize is to encourage lots of small research teams to explore a wide range of angles of enquiry, and they’re inviting applications for initial small grants from basically anyone, so if you’ve always had a vague hunch that YOU could be the one to save us from the tedious process of ‘dying’ then apply here!
- Fishing and HipHop: If you work in advermarketingpr you will almost certainly have at some point received a brief which is all about ‘bringing a brand’s identity and values to life via the medium of unexpected and surprising creative expression’ and which, inevitably, ends with someone in the room saying “why don’t we get a series of artists to collaborate with the brand to create ART/MUSIC/FOOD/A NOVELTY DILDO (delete as applicable) inspired by the brand’s core principles of (for example) fiscal responsibility?”. This is why we get ‘the sounds of the Nissan Micra reinterpreted by Yo Yo Ma!’ or ‘A brand-new Manolo Blahnik shoe whose design is inspired by the 10-year performance of our ethical investment portfolio!’ and other such ‘creative’ outputs – and aren’t we all lucky that we do! Anyway, this was all by way of preamble to this site, which is possibly the best (most ridiculous) example of this sort of work I’ve ever seen. Apia is a Japanese company that makes fishing equipment – which is why it OBVIOUSLY makes perfect sense for them to have collaborated with a bunch of hiphop artists and dancers, because nothing says ‘the heritage of the boombox and the lino’ like ‘spearing some maggots and casting off’. This is all in Japanese, which, fine, may be a bit confusing, but if you scroll all the way to the end you get access to a genuinely-fun little beatmaking toy where you can create your own hiphop track using a bunch of sounds from fishing (the sound of a reel spinning, the ‘splosh’ of a lure, the opening and closing of a bait box, that sort of thing) and, honestly, I am very glad that this exists.
- CreatorDAO: THE CREATOR ECONOMY! This is a new project backed by Marc Andreesen (or at least A16Z) and a bunch of other people and, er, I don’t really understand what it is meant to offer. Maybe attempting to explain it to you will help explain it to me. You can “buy in” to the DAO to get access to other ‘creators’, with some big names already onboard to entice the mooks – so you could, in theory, for your tokens, get the chance to ask Paris Hilton what she thinks about your YouTube channel? That seems…worthwhile! – and there’s a community, and the idea is that you will all boost each other’s projects and everyone will somehow ‘win’…so, what, this is basically buy-in #FBPE Twitter for YouTubers? This sounds like an awful idea, and exactly as pyramid-schemeish as 99% of other crypto projects, but if any of you can explain to me why I am wrong about this I am all ears.
- CLIP Interrogator: Bit techy, this, but it’s a really interesting tool and an indication as to why the hot new future profession du jour (to whit, ‘prompt engineer’) may not in fact be a particularly long-term job option after all. CLIP Interrogator is a Google Workbook which basically lets you point it at any AI-generated image you choose (you just need an image url) and then tries to determine the most-likely prompts used to generate said image. I can’t pretend to understand how this works, and it’s obviously not a perfect ‘this is what you have to type to get something that looks exactly like this’, but as a way of exploring stylistic guidelines and how to ‘communicate’ with the machines then it’s potentially very useful indeed. Oh, and there’s also this hugely-useful set of links to everything you could ever need (this week, at least) in terms of AI imagine generation, from different tools to make pictures with to whole swathes of interesting and useful prompts to play with, which you can explore here should you so desire.
- Ore: When you’re staring down the barrel of a not-insignificant global recession (although depending on where you walk in London you wouldn’t necessarily know that – I appreciate that this is an intensely-banal observation, but having been away for a year or so it’s staggering the degree to which wealth inequality screams at you from every street in this city) it’s occasionally nice(!) to take a peek into the world of those who really won’t notice it in the slightest – so here for your delectation is Ore, a jewellery company that seemingly exists to make insane, massive-stoned and not-a-little-ostentatious accessories for the likes of Drake, and whose website is a marvel of lovely scrolling and MASSIVE, FCUK-OFF DIAMONDS. I love stuff like this – partly because it’s a window into a world I don’t really want to get any closer to than this, but also because it’s also just so deeply sinister. Everything on this website looks as though it’s been designed to appeal to cartoon supervillains (cf Drake), and the copy doesn’t seem to realise quite how…well, quite how evil some of it sounds. “WE OPEN THE DOOR IN GIVING OUR CLIENTS OPPORTUNITY TO PURCHASE UNATTAINABLE PRODUCT DISRUPTING TYPICAL DISTRIBUTION CHAINS” – YES THAT SOUNDS TOTALLY LEGIT. Anyway, in the unlikely event that any of you reading this are in a position to afford a diamond sourcing conversation with this lot, could you possibly lend me a few hundred grand please? Ta.
- Readalong With Google: Whilst on the one hand I am sure that reading books with one’s young children is one of those wonderful parental moments that all mums and dads hold special memories in their heart, I have also seen the dead-eyed resignation of those of my friends who know that they will never, ever be as intimate with a text as they will be with The Gruffalo, and who would cheerfully sacrifice a finger or minor organ if it meant never, ever having to go on a fcuking bear hunt ever again. For those parents who just can’t take it any more – or, perhaps more accurately, those parents who don’t have the time to spend reading with their kids every day – comes this Google tool, which uses voice recognition to ‘read along’ with a child, listening to their pronunciation and offering assistance, encouragement and light correction when they struggle or stumble. Fine, I appreciate ‘we need machines to read to our kids because we’re too busy doing the six jobs required to ensure that said kids don’t freeze or starve to death in the coming winter months’ isn’t necessarily the heartwarming usecase Google might have been thinking of when they launched this, but, well, we’ll take it anyway. The tool offers reading in English only, or English and a range of other languages including Spanish, Portuguese, and a range of others whose alphabets I am shamefully ignorant of and which I can’t therefore name (sorry) but which I think include Hindi and Urdu amongst others.
- Social Capital Analysis: Interesting data from Meta in the US here, looking at the extent to which social connections between different economic groups can act as a predictor / determinant of other economic and social factors. “Social capital – the strength of our relationships and communities – has been shown to play an important role in outcomes ranging from income to health. Using privacy-protected data on 21 billion friendships from Facebook, we measure three types of social capital in each neighborhood, high school, and college in the United States – Economic Connectedness (the degree to which low-income and high-income people are friends with each other); Cohesiveness (the degree to which social networks are fragmented into cliques); and Civic Engagement (rates of volunteering and participation in community organizations). Use this tool to find where these different forms of social capital are lacking or flourishing; explore their connection to children’s chances of rising out of poverty; and develop solutions to increase social capital in your community.” This is not only an interesting series of datasets looking at correlations I’ve not personally previously seen explored in this much detail, but it’s also presented in pleasingly-simple and interactive fashion, and you can download all the datasets to play with as you please – would be fascinating to see this information for non-US countries.
- Memory Leak: This is lovely (and comes via Kristoffer Tjalve’s excellent newsletter which I very much recommend) – letters fall from the top of the screen, and hovering over them sees poetry appear in a sort of vaguely-collagey, overlappy, 8-bit way, and I promise this is loads better than this slightly-underwhelming description makes it sound.
- Prism Auditions: Given the general swirling uncertainty of, well, pretty much everything right now, you may be forgiven for thinking that now isn’t the time to embark upon a radical new career direction. And yet! Have you ever considered donning a mocap rig and prancing in digital costume for an audience of potentially millions of unseen fans worldwide? Do you dream of being a cat-eared anime popstar? Do YOU want to potentially sign away your life to a subdivision of Sony while they monetise your every waking moment to a degree you didn’t even imagine possible? GREAT! “PRISM Project is a virtual talent management agency based in Tokyo, Japan, a part of the Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc. virtual talent management family. Backed by Sony Music’s industry-leading expertise in talent management, voice acting, music production, event production, and digital technology, PRISM Project will push the boundaries of the virtual talent space by providing growth and development opportunities unrivaled in the industry today. At PRISM Project, we aim “to create a world where all people on Earth can find something they love and feel happiness every single day.”” I mean, you can’t really argue with that, can you? Pleasingly the website goes on to reassuringly state that “Vtubers are people too”, so that should allay any fears you might have about how the meatsack powering the avatar will get treated. Anyway, if this sounds like your idea of fun, Prism is currently accepting applications for new VTubers up until the 9th September – I really look forward to reading about how this process works.
- Cinetimes: I’m guessing that the increasing cost burden of food and bills and the rest is going to see the definitive end of the ‘we pay £60 a month to subscription entertainment services’ boom, and that we’re all going to be cutting back on at least some of the streaming services which we used to cope with the pandemic – so in the spirit of providing you with some alternative content to stare at through the despairing tears, have Cinetimes! This is a hugely-useful service, offering a helpfully-Netflixesque interface to help you browse the treasuretrove of old, obscure and out-of-copyright materkial available across the major video platforms (YouTube, DailyMotion, etc). There is, obviously, a lot of rubbish here – but equally there’s a shedload of cartoons and documentaries and ACTUAL REAL FILMS from the past, including Spaceballs which is reason enough on its own to include the link. Bookmark this, it’s a genuinely Good Thing.
- Free Anime: I never really got into anime – it’s partly an age thing, due to the fact that, when I was of an age to potentially be enticed by ‘cartoons, but significantly more interesting than you’re used to’, the only anime that was seemingly available in the UK was very much of the ‘extreme tentacle bongo’ variety and, well, that’s not really my thing (so vanilla! But seriously, I saw around 15m of this when I was 13 and it very much left scars) – but it’s hugely popular and varied and, in the spirit of ‘everything is fcuked, let’s have some nice free stuff to take the edge off’, I figured quite a few of you might be interested in this (almost certainly very, very copyright-breaking) site which offers literally thousands of anime series and episodes to download (via torrent). Oh, and if you want more of this sort of thing then you might also want to bookmark this other site which has a similar quantity of content featuring impossibly-large-eyed protagonists having existential crises whilst also being VERY CUTE.
- CrystalRoof: Quite a useful little webtool, this, which lets you look at any individual street or postcode in London and pull demographic data for the area drawn from a range of public sources. It’s ostensibly to help people buying property get a more detailed impression of the area they might be looking at, but it’s equally useful as a planning or research tool, particularly in terms of getting quite granular data about ethnic makeup and income for a very closely-defined area. And yes, I know that those of you working for big fancy agencies have all this stuff on tap thanks to a variety of expensive subscriptions, but spare a thought for the poor pissants in PR for whom ‘TGI’ means nothing more than ‘oversweetened cocktails, chicken tenders and the dead-eyed stare of someone who never wants to hear the term ‘flair’ ever again in their lives’.
- The Ejection Tie Club: This is wonderful – I confess to never having given thought to ‘who exactly makes ejector seats for planes?’ (I know, a miserable failure of curiosity on my part, sorry), but it turns out that one major manufacturer is a company called Martin Baker, and they have a tradition whereby they give out special commemorative ties to pilots who successfully eject using their kit (‘successfully’ in this case very much means ‘are still alive by the time they hit the ground’). This is a page on Martin Baker’s website that tells you all about the club and shares some stories from its members – if you’re a nervous flyer then this perhaps isn’t one you should dwell on too closely, but for the rest of us there are some great Boy’s Own stories in here about miraculous escapes and what it feels like to press a button knowing that it’s the only thing standing between you and a mangled, fiery and unpleasantly-vertical demise.
- Reliquary Relics: I need to pop back to Rome at various points over the next year to continue the glorious process of death administration, but one of the positives of this is that at some point or another the temperature will probably drop below 30 degrees and it will be cool enough for me to do the small tour of gruesome religious artefacts of which Rome has more than its fair share – there’s one particular church that claims to have the ACTUAL HEAD of John the Baptist hanging out in its crypt, for example, and who doesn’t want to see that? NO FCUKER, etc! Anyway, if you don’t have cause to visit the eternal city anytime soon, or if you think ‘fcuk just looking, I want to OWN a piece of holy history!’ then perhaps this site will be up your street. “Since 1972 FLUMINALIS is worldwide the leading company in selling complete interiors from CHURCHES & MONASTERIES”, says the homepage, and I have no reason to doubt them (but the more suspicious-minded amongst you might wonder about the legitimacy of the provenance of some of this stuff) – the Page I’ve linked to is specifically the Reliquaries section, where you can browse such exemplary bits of religious paraphernalia as the mummified skull of a blessed nun, or even an altarpiece containing a fragment of the ONE TRUE CROSS (NB – Web Curios takes no responsibility should the fragment not in fact turn out to be from the ONE TRUE CROSS). Prices, sadly, are on application only – but anything would be a small price to pay to own one of St Peter’s phalanges.
- Harry Potter – The GenZ Rewrite: On a purely linguistic level, I think this might be one of the worst things I have ever seen (and I say this as someone who has little to no emotional connection to the Potter books) – this is the link to the Github page of a work-in-progress group project seeking to translate each of the Harry Potter books into modern idiom, chapter by chapter. They’re only 4 chapters into book one, but, MY GOD, this is hideous – scroll to the ‘Book Index’ subheading and click the chapter headings on the page to dive into each, but here’s a flavour of how screechingly-horrible this is: “Just then, the doorbell rang – “Oh, sweet baby Jesus, they’re here!” said Aunt Petunia frantically – and a moment later, Dudley’s bff, Piers Polkiss, walked in with his mom. Piers was a scrawny boi with a face like a rat. He was usually the one who held people’s arms behind their backs while Dudley threw hands.” I refuse to believe that there will be the collective stamina to finish the whole canon – but then again, people are WEIRD. Part of me does rather like the idea of this becoming the canonical version for future generations, though.
THE SECTION WHICH PERSONALLY DOUBTS THAT THE UK CAN AFFORD THE EUROVISION ELECTRICITY BILL, PT.2:
- The Myanmar Conflict Map: Myanmar continues to be one of the world’s slow-moving tragedies, and this is a superb resource, maintained by the INternational Institute for Strategic studies, for keeping track of how the conflict in the country is developing and where. “The Myanmar Conflict Map is a platform for tracking, visualising, and analysing reports of violence in Myanmar. By highlighting specific conflict dynamics and isolating a set of six separate warscapes, the map gives readers a framework for understanding the nature and direction of what may seem like indistinct violence from afar. In subsequent updates, the map will illustrate the conflict’s grave humanitarian consequences for Myanmar’s population of over 50 million people, and geopolitical implications given Myanmar’s position between China, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia.” – whether you’re politically interested or otherwise, this is a really smart and nicely-made piece of datavisualisation and mapping.
- Last Seen: Information Wanted: This is a fascinating historical project: “Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery aims to identify, digitize, transcribe, and publish ads placed in newspapers across the United States (and beyond) by formerly enslaved people searching for family members and loved ones after emancipation. These newspaper ads began appearing in the 1830s (our earliest ad appeared in The Liberator in 1832) and greatly increased in frequency in the years immediately following emancipation (1865) and continued well into the 20th century. (The collection includes an ad that appeared in The Richmond Planet in 1922.) These ads not only document the extensive separation of Black families through the domestic slave trade but also attest to the persistent efforts thousands of people made to reunite with those from whom they had been separated. In the ads, mothers search for children separated through sale, daughters and sons seek parents, men and women inquire about partners and spouses, and siblings search for one another—they include names, describe events, and recall last seen locations. All this information, crucial to genealogists and scholars alike, is published in this open-access collection.”
- Rail Photos: I think it’s reasonably statistically0likely that at least one of you will be REALLY into trains – this is for YOU, mystery ferroequinophile (this may not be a totally correct or indeed sensical term, but you should at least give me points for effort here)! This is the website for the Center for Railroad and Photography Art, a US institution “passionately committed to telling railroading’s stories through imagery: interpreting the past creatively, connecting it to the present while looking to the future.” What this basically means is that there are LOADS of excellent photos and images of trains cutting through the massive North American landscape, which, even if you’re not the sort of person to stand at the end of a platform with a notebook and HB and who’s spent the past year muttering darkly about ‘that fcuking arriviste Bourgeouis’, contains an awful lot of really quite wonderful images.
- Make My Drive Fun: This is a great little site (or it would have been were we living in a time when ‘taking a long drive’ didn’t also require ‘taking out an additional mortgage’) – give it any two places you choose and it will display the road route between them, flagging up interesting or notable places along the way which you can use as stopping off points. Admittedly the word ‘fun’ is doing a bit of heavy lifting here based on some of the suggestions – I’m not sure takin hour-long detour en-route to Manchester to check out Bromsgrove’s National Telephone Kiosk Collection is necessarily a definition of ‘fun’ that I or indeed anyone else might reasonably agree with – but as a way of discovering pleasingly-obscure visitor attractions this is almost unparalleled (and works worldwide).
- RobotOverloards: MORE AI-GENERATED IMAGES! This time it’s on TikTok, where this channel regularly posts videos showing the various outputs generated by a selection of different software when given the same prompt. So a recent video, for example, shows what the machines envision when you ask them to imagine ‘creates from the deepest part of the ocean’, or ‘the last people on earth singing the last song’. I quite like the idea of using these things to do small ‘prompt challenge’ competitions – you know, asking people to create AI-generated works with certain input constraints (specified terms you have to use, for example) and seeing how people manipulate the software to make oddities (there’s definitely a BRANDED CONTENT COMPETITION IDEA here, for example, but I am sure you have far better ones).
- Guess The Prompts, Win A Prize: More creative fiddling with use-cases for AI imagery, this is a fun new artprojectcompetitionthing by Damjanski, who has put a certain amount of crypto into a wallet and is asking users to see if they can guess what the seed phrase to access said wallet is based on a video of AI images which have been generated using the terms from said seed phrase. Damjanski told me that so far noone’s managed to guess the exact phrase, meaning the cash is still available – should you fancy spending the rest of the day banging your head against a metaphorical brick wall attempting to somehow work out the exact prompts they fed the machine in exchange for an unspecified number of magic beans then NOW’S YOUR CHANCE! This is a great idea and eminently-replicable by any number of brands, should you wish to embark upon some naked creative thievery.
- The Excel Open 2022: Whilst the BIG BOYS of the data-entry-and-pivot-tables world are currently engaged in LIVE TELEVISED BATTLE for the Excel World Championship, there’s another MASSIVE EVENT slated for 2022 and it’s one that we can all participate in! Anyone can enter this year’s Excel Open for a relatively small fee (entries are open til October, but the earlybird entry fee of $25 is only available til the end of the day so GET IN), so if you think you stand a chance of beating some of the world’s most competent cell-wranglers in open combat then put your money where your mouth is and show up. It’s unclear exactly what the eventual prize for victory is, but surely no material gain can compare to the adulation of one’s peers and the attainment of basically Godlike status (amongst a very small subset of people, fine, but beggers/choosers, etc).
- Save Slack: For those of you who use Slack but who see no point in forking out for the premium product, you may find it occasionally-irritating that you can no longer search the archive of all your messages – well, thanks to this tool you now can. “A lot of knowledge is locked up in Slack communities. Recently Slack announced a pricing change which meant that this knowlege would all disappear after 3 months (change effective 1 September – you can read the details on their blog.) In order to free this knowledge and make it searchable by your community, you can export a .zip file of all public Slack channels in your community, parse the json files, and create a nice, searchable, public website for your community. But that’s kind of a mission, so we built this tool to make it easy.” Unsexy but potentially-helpful.
- SubReddit Overlaps: Another unsexy-but-useful tool, this, which lets you plug in any subReddit you want and displays the other subReddits that users frequent most often – super-helpful for working out the Reddit ecosystem around a topic, which is something that I’ve personally found that most of the popular social analytics tools are fcuking terrible at, in the main.
- Ghost Signs: The official motherlode of imagery of ghost signs across the UK, compiled by the History of Advertising Trust and featuring brilliant examples of fading brand messagingf from around the country. I was trying to think about other forms of modern cultural archaeology that will develop over time, and kept getting stuck on what any survivors 500 years hence will make of that brief 3-year period in which significant proportions of London’s streets were covered in tiny metallic cannisters.
- iNaturalist: This is quite, quite wonderful. iNaturalist is a map, app and community which basically lets people share things they have seen with nature with other enthusiasts, and which acts as the most incredible guide to the natural world around you. I had literally no idea this existed til this week, but it is HUGE – click on the ‘Map’ and zoom in til it stops being horribly pixellated and you instead start to see the literally hundreds of thousands of markers that people have laid down to pinpoint the places where they saw, say, a pearl-throated warbler or a megastoat (neither of these are, to the best of my knowledge, real animals btw). If nothing else, this is a superb way of seeing what animal life exists in the immediate vicinity to you – seemingly everywhere in the world has had people uploading and tagging species and photographs, and there’s something genuinely wonderful about the fact that this community has obviously quietly existed for years. Wholly wonderful – but, it’s important to mention, this is NATURALISM (animals) rather than NATURISM (public nudity), and it’s probably important that you bear that in mind before clicking to avoid disappointment (and a fast ban when you upload the wrong sort of photography).
- Instagreen: A cute idea, this, by Oli Frost – Instagreen is a (spoof) service that offers you the opportunity to buy photos to glam up your Insta feed without needing to take any of the flights or do any of the conspicuous consumption necessary to actually get these shots – thereby allowing you to fake the influencer lifestyle whilst keeping a low carbon footprint. This rather feels like a campaign in search of a brand/sponsor, but it’s a nice little gag and the promo video made me laugh twice, which, honestly, is no mean feat right now.
- A Night At The Garden: This is fascinating and very creepy, and something I had never heard of before finding this site. “In 1939, 20,000 Americans rallied in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism – an event largely forgotten from American history. A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN, made entirely from archival footage filmed that night, transports audiences to this chilling gathering and shines a light on the power of demagoguery and anti-Semitism in the United States.” This site features the short film in question, along with a selection of companion materials offering deeper reflection on the rally itself and the way it’s been conveniently airbrushed from US history (or at least the version of US history that gets exported – I appreciate for the Americans amongst you this may be old news).
- Citroens: Do you LOVE slightly-idiosyncratic French car design of the 20th century? OH GOOD! This site is a personal labour of love created by someone in the Netherlands who clearly really, really likes Citroens – there’s a wonderful collection of old brochure ads for the A Class and other models here which is a great trip back into BRANDING OF THE PAST, and I can’t help but fall hard for personal websites which feature stuff like ‘a photographic collection of all the vehicles I have ever owned’ because, honestly, what could be purer than this?
- Art But Sports: Sports photography that in some way replicates or mimics fine art – so shots of the basketball court with the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio, say, or a screen-scrambled view of an NFL game that’s eerily-reminiscent of Gerhardt Richter. Yes, I know, but these are really good, promise.
- The Horror Movie Noise Generator: You may not think you want a machine that can make the sort of noises that accompany scenes like ‘the creeping approach of the vampyr’ in old films, or that can generate terrifyingly-accurate creaking door or nails-on-blackboard sounds, but take a second to watch this video and then tell me that you don’t want to order one RIGHT NOW and spend the rest of the year enacting a low-key campaign of aural terror against your flatmates/neighbours (delete as applicable).
- SumTwo: The last of the miscellaneous links this weeks is this simple-but-addictive game which asks you to do nothing more complicated than some simple addition. Easy, right? NO IT IS NOT EASY. Like a cross between 2048 and Tetris, this is infuriatingly one-more-go-ish.
THE CIRCUS OF TUMBLRS!
- Not Pulp Covers: “Pin-up, Illustrations, Advertisments, and Other Things that are Not Pulp Covers” (but which are very much aestheticlly-adjacent to pulp covers).
THE TROUGH OF (INSTA) FEEDS!
- The Synthetic Party: FASCINATING. A Danish art project which presents itself as a political party seeking to use artificial intelligence to create policies that will appeal to the 20% of the Danish electorate that doesn’t vote (lol at the idea that an 80% turnout is anything to be ashamed of!). SUCH an interesting idea, and the Insta feed is a wonderful and unsettling collection of imagery that merges the traditional sort of aesthetic of a political movement with the otherwordly visual style of the current crop of AI imagemakers. You can read more about the project here if you’re interested (it’s all in Danish, but Google does a pretty good job with the translation afaict).
- Katherine Castle: An Insta feed recommended to me by Adam, Katherine Castle is a games journalist who uses her Instagram to recommend books – to quote him, “No idea how she finds them all, but @Byrneinator‘s IG account is my go-to source for outside-mainstream books and thoughtful, digestible reviews that help you gauge if you’d like them.” A quick skim back through the TL suggests he’s absolutely right – there are some wonderful, unusual titles here.
- Shahin Sepehrri: Beautiful, cinematic rotoscoped animations here, (I think) taken from or inspired by cinema. These are really rather lovely, and there’s something inherently soothing about rotoscoping (to my mind, at least).
- Found In A Library Book: I think I have mentioned this project before, but it now has an Insta feed and I am an absolute sucker for projects documenting found materials – this feed shares things that have been left in books belonging to the library of Oakland, and it’s only 13 posts in but I love it already. How can you not go weak for stuff like this?
LONG THINGS WHICH ARE LONG!
- Growth: I confess to not being much of an economist – but, then again, judging by the singular success that various economic brains have made of ‘working out how money and society interact and how we can ameliorate the latter through judicious control of the former’, it’s not entirely clear to me that anyone else is much of an economist either tbqhwy (is…is it all just lies or at best massive conjecture? It does rather feel like it might be) – but I found this piece in the LRB, collating impressions on a selection of books addressing the question of growth and its continued desirability in the face of The Current State of Everything, to be a rather useful overview of main theories around whether or not we should continue to use it as a measure of ‘success’ or whether we perhaps ought to start prioritising ‘degrowth’ (or, at the very least, abandoning the ceaseless pursuit of ‘increased GDP’ above all else). This is a clear and instructive guide to quite a lot of (to me at least) chunkily-difficult economic questions – I find it hard to imagine how you might read this and not conclude ‘we probably need to ease up on the growth, eh?’, but as ever your mileage may vary.
- Inflationary Vice: Seeing as we’re ‘doing’ economics, this piece by Theodore Dalrymple on inflation and what it means for individuals (and societies) is an excellent short(ish) explainer on what we can expect from the next 12 months of soaring rates. I found this particular section interesting/troubling from the position of thinking about crypto, NFTs and stockmarket speculation a la GameStonk, for example: “even less catastrophic levels of inflation have profound psychological, or perhaps I should say characterological, consequences. For one thing, inflation destroys the very idea of enough, because no one can have any confidence that a monetary income that at present is adequate will not be whittled down to very little in a matter of a few years. Not everyone desires to be rich, but most people desire not to be poor, especially in old age. Unfortunately, when there is inflation, the only way to insure against poverty in old age is either to be in possession of a government-guaranteed index-linked pension (which, however, is a social injustice in itself, and may one day be undermined by statistical manipulation by a government under force of economic circumstances, partly brought about by the very existence of such pensions), or to become much richer than one would otherwise aim or desire to be. And the latter turns financial speculation from a minority into a mass pursuit, either directly or, more usually, by proxy: for not to speculate, but rather to place one’s trust in the value of money at a given modest return, is to risk impoverishment.”
- A Pessmistic Reading of Current Machine Learning: In the midsy of all the frothy excitement around OpenAI and Google’s efforts in developing ML models (and all the others), it was interesting to read this somewhat-more-pessimistic take from, er, some anon on Reddit. The tl;dr here is ‘if we continue training machines in the way we are currently doing we are likely to end up in some rather miserable creative cul-de-sacs and it’s not entirely certain we will be able to escape whatever corners we have managed to paint ourselves into at that juncture’ (unpleasantly-mixed-metaphors here are entirely my own work, thankyouverymuchindeed). As the author writes, “I’ve yet to set anyone discuss the train – generate – train – generate feedback loop that long-term application of AI-generation systems imply. The first generations of these models were trained on wide swaths of web data generated by humans, but if these systems are permitted to continually spit out content without restriction or verification, especially to the extent that it reduces or eliminates development and investment in human talent over the long term, then what happens to the 4th or 5th generation of models? Eventually we encounter this situation where the AI is being trained almost exclusively on AI-generated content, and therefore with each generation, it settles more and more into the mean and mediocrity with no way out using current methods. By the time that happens, what will we have lost in terms of the creative capacity of people, and will we be able to get it back?”
- ‘Spicy Takes’ on AI Policy: A Twitter thread (here presented in threadreader format because I’m not a total sadist) in which Jack Clark, who works in AI, offers a selection of what he terms ‘spicy takes’ on AI policy development. Whether or not you agree with all of these is less important than the fact that Clark raises a bunch of hugely-interesting and important general points about the way in which government currently thinks about AI, and the way in which this thinking might potentially be storing up some future diffiiculties when we come up hard against poorly-thought-through policy measures scribbled out as much as a box-ticking exercise as anything else. Smart and interesting throughout – as Clark says, “AI really is going to change the world. Things are going to get 100-1000X cheaper and more efficient. This is mostly great. However, historically, when you make stuff 100X-1000X cheaper, you upend the geopolitical order. This time probably won’t be different.” We probably ought to start thinking about how that upheaval might play out, and how we might want to protect people against the resulting vicissitudes (but we probably won’t, will we?).
- An Interview With Midjourney’s Founder: Midjourney (as I am sure you all know) is basically Dall-E but with a different prevailing aesthetic and an interface that only works through Discord (which explains why I have used it less than Dall-E – sorry, but I can’t stand Discord, and yes I know that this is entirely a factor of middle-aged platform reticence – and why it’s generally less famous) – here its founder opines on the future of AI generated imagery and human creativity and THE FCUKING METAVERSE. There’s loads of interesting stuff here, from the fantastical-but-eyecatching “in 10 years, you’ll be able to buy an Xbox with a giant AI processor, and all the games are dreams”, to the more banal-sounding but in some respects more fundamental “and personally, I don’t think the world needs more deepfakes, but it does need more beautiful things, so we’re focused toward making everything beautiful and artistic looking” (yes David, but whose definition of ‘beauty’ are we working to here? And why? And where did that definition come from in the first place, and does it make sense to calcify this in the machine mind?). Really interesting (if a bit handwaveywanky, and certainly a very soft interview).
- Growing Monzo: This is not exactly a sparkling piece of prose, but if you’re the sort of person whose response to ‘would you like to read an exhaustive account of how they launched Monzo and made it ubiquitous amongst the under-25s during the 2010s’ is ‘YES YES YES’ then, well, you’ll enjoy this. This covers everything – product, PR and marketing, UX and UI design – and is (in a very specific and I appreciate not-exactly-mainstream way) kind-of fascinating.
- The Sex Lives of Gen-Z: The topline takeaway here is ‘you know that trope about how the kids aren’t boning anymore? Yeah, it’s not true’ – but there’s loads more interesting stuff in this Vogue UK piece about how young people relate to sex and relationships in 2022. You may be unsurprised to learn that The Apps don’t exactly enjoy a lot of BRAND LOVE amongst a generation that has grown up with the; I would be amazed if someone didn’t successfully bring back speed dating later this year (perhaps with a revamped recessionary twist, like you hug a different stranger for warmth every 3 minutes, or squeeze into an outsize woolen jumper together for the duration of your date). Special mention to Zehra, who says she has casual sex “10-15 times a month” which is a truly HEROIC bodycount (I can tell I am getting old because my first thought on reading that was “I do hope she’s being safe” – I am evidently at the ‘gently avuncular’ phase of my slow trudge towards death) (also, important to note that she in the next breath mentions being part of a circle of ‘models’, which perhaps explains the success rate here for any of those of you feeling slightly-inadequate by comparison).
- That Story About The Academic Paper About W4nking: This is very much one of those articles where I feel compelled to say that if this headline means nothing to you then, frankly, move on! Revel in your ignorance! If, however, you are even a bit online you will have seen the furore this week over the Manchester University Phd who got funding for, and published, a paper exploring their experiences w4nking to drawings of pubescent boys, and might be wondering ‘er, wtaf?’. This is a sober overview of the whole mess, which makes the sensible point that we are (oh, ok, fine ‘those of us who spend significant amounts of time on Twitter are’) so utterly broken by constant culture war sniping and left/right performative sniping that you had the very weird spectacle of a bunch of people on the left reflexively defeinding something…pretty indefensible just because a Tory MP complained about it. The precis here is basically “read things before publicly stating an opinion, please God” (but also, “autoethnography is a deepy weird field”, and also “do people in academia really pay no attention to stuff that they sign off for publication?”).
- The BeReal Security Risk: This is a bit of a thin story, fine, but I very much enjoyed this in a general ‘everything is an infosec vector’ sort of way – the basic takeaway here is that ‘in the moment’ photosharing app BeReal is causing untold difficulties for businesses as people take snaps in the office and fail to obscure potentially sensitive documents visible on screens or desks, like some sort of low-key GenZ equivalent to ‘paps trying to get photos of MP’s notes as they emerge from Number 10’.
- The Automated Videos Business Pipeline: It feels like a basic truth of human nature that there is no ‘get rich quick’ scheme so transparently ludicrous that it can’t somehow attract enough people to keep a not-insignificant number of grifters in coin – so it seems to be with the current vogue for automated videos on YouTube. You’ll have seen these pieces of drek if you’ve ever spent any time searching YT for information – low-quality, information-light slideshow content which crops up with infuriating regularity should you search for anything even vaguely-zeitgeisty. Whilst there are definitely some people making money out of this via monetisation and advertising, that pales into insignificance when compared to the number of people making money out of selling ‘how to’ courses to gullible mooks.
- GenZ Films: An article looking at three films coming out this summer, bundling them together in a vague fashion as ‘a new wave of GenZ focused cinema’, characterised particularly by the way in which characters lives reflect the boundaryless nature of the new ‘there is no distinction between on and offline’ reality. I’m interested in this in a general sense – the idea that one’s lived experience is increasingly constructed of a series of platform layers sitting atop meatspace, and each of these interact with each other and the physical world in multiple ways, and indeed when we interact with each other all these layers also interact, is something that I think is yet to be adequately explored in cinema or theatre (and, I would argue, literature too – personally whilst I think Patricia Lockwood is a genius I also don’t think this is quite what she’s doing).
- A Drink At The Lighterman: A lovely piece of writing by Jimmy McIntosh in The Fence, detailing a visit he and some friends took to the Lighterman, apparently London’s ‘most isolated’ pub. If you’ve ever had a night out at a pub where you didn’t belong but where noone seemed to mind and welcomed you anyway this will resonate immensely – the portrait of the place and the punters is lovely, and reminded me of a night spent at an old flat-roofed pub on a North London estate about 15 years ago which featured a meat raffle, an hour-long Bontempi Organ concerto, and the best insult I have ever been subjected to (from some kid crossing the estate with his mates: “Oi! Silly hair! Fcuk off!” – there really is no coming back from that, turns out).
- The History of Guinness: Those of you who are EXPERTS IN BRAND and all that jazz probably knew all this already – I hate brands, though, and so this was all entirely new information and I found it fascinating. It’s not the best writing you’ll read all week, fine, but if you want a neat overview of the history of Guinness and some of the key points from the brand’s heritage – which, no doubt, you can use for INSIGHTS should you be that particular flavour of awful cnut – then this will be right up your street. If nothing else the sheer number of serious scientists involved in the development of the various kegs and cans used to preserve the pint’s integrity was slightly-startling to me.
- How Magicians Won Facebook: It feels very much like this piece (in the Economist, of all places) should begin with quite a big ‘thanks to Ryan Broderick who first noticed this’, but it doesn’t. Such is journalist, I suppose. Anyway, this is a very entertaining piece by Ashley Mears (who you may recall had a lot of press a few years back around her memoir about the sociology of ‘elite’ nightclubs (particularly the sociology of the men who buy bottle service to tempt women who they would never otherwise get to touch into letting them touch them) about the network of magicians-turned-content-creators who are the most-recent group to have ‘;beaten’ the Facebook algorithm and who as a result have seemingly managed to flood the platform with incredibly-viral but utterly-nonsensical content (“woman dumps saucepan of spaghetti onto marble counter, mixes it with her hands, eats some with no cutlery”, that sort of jazz) and monetised it to the tune of seven-plus figures. I know I have banged this drum a lot recently, but can I once again say ‘turning us into content monkeys slavishly making stuff that we don’t understand the appeal of for an unknowable algorithmic God’ is perhaps not a great vision for the future. Still, CREATORS!!!!
- Looking For Clarence Thomas: I appreciate that a profile of US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is perhaps on the face of it a bit niche for a mostly-non-US audience, but this is an astonishingly good piece of writing which stands on its own merits regardless of your personal interest in exactly how a Black man from the poor South has ended up being one of the most important conservative forces in modern America. This covers history, politics, race, poverty…it’s a proper virtuoso piece of work and I can’t recommend it highly enough, even if you (not unreasonably) think that politics in your own country is enough of a sh1tshow without you having to familiarise yourself with the US’s nightmare thankyou very much.
- August And Everything After: Finally this week, an opportunity for me to express what is almost certainly the uncoolest opinion I have ever committed to Curios (and be aware that I know full well that this is not a ‘cool’ publication) – to whit, that ‘August and Everything After’ by Counting Crows is a perfect album. Helena Fitzgerald agrees, and this essay (less about the album than the ur-concept of ‘a perfect album’) is lovely, and spoke to me in the way that only writing about stuff that your teenage self adored can do. “A perfect album is different from a great album, and lots of great albums are better than lots of perfect albums. It’s not just that it’s all bangers and no skips, although it is that. It’s a vibe, but a perfect album is always a vibe. Perfect is a particular flavor, like sad or divorced or extremely online. A perfect album completes a single uninterrupted gesture from its first track to its last track. It cuts one straight line through the forest. It’s a cold shower on a hot day, an open window in a stuffy room, a cup of coffee after the first good night’s sleep in weeks. It’s a statue carved whole from a single block of marble, complete in itself, requiring neither context nor biography.” YES YES YES.
By Adrian Mato
AND NOW, MOVING PICTURES AND SOUNDS!:
- Last up in the videos this week is this, by Hudson Mohawke, which I can best describe as ‘the sound of the start of your speed comedown when you’re still inexplicably at the old school and hardcore rave that you really should have left about half an hour ago’, or perhaps ‘the sound of anxiety and hangovers’. It’s horrible, but also brilliant, which I like to think is basically how one might describe Web Curios if one were feeling generous and OH LOOK AT THAT LOOK AT THE TIME IT’S DONE WE’RE OVER WE ARE OUT OF HERE AND I AM ONCE AGAIN SORRY TO LEAVE YOU AND SORRY NOT TO BE AROUND NEXT WEEK AND GENERALLY SORRY FOR EVERYTHING AND I WISH YOU NOTHING BUT THE VERY BEST IN THESE TRYING TIMES AND HOPE THAT YOU WILL BE ABLE TO JOIN ME HERE AGAIN IN A COUPLE OF WEEKS BECAUSE AS I NEVER TIRE OF TELLING YOU I LOVE YOU AND I MISS YOU AND I LOVE YOU AND I CARE AND ALWAYS WILL BYE!