Well I go away for a fortnight and the world turns upside down! A scorching heatwave in the UK, Italian politics reverting very much to type, and not one but TWO significant departures to talk about.
The first, That Awful Man finally (seemingly) being removed from office, is briefly-pleasing until you stop to contemplate which of the novelty Pez-dispensers of hatred is being lined up by a cadre of frightened pensioners to oversee the next glorious iteration of Project Britain. Please please please God don’t let it be Truss.
The other departure, less significant to all of you but moreso to me, was my mother who died last week of the Motor Neurone Disease that has spent the past three years ruining her life (you don’t ‘battle’ or ‘fight’ MND when you’re old – it just beats the fcuk out of you til you die). I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anyone die of MND up-close but, well, let’s just say that it’s not the fun and glamorous condition Stephen Hawking occasionally painted it as (my mother neither mastered the unknowable mysteries of the cosmos nor took a zero-gravity flight with Richard Branson, for example), and, on balance, whilst ‘being dead’ isn’t necessarily an outcome any of us would ordinarily choose, when faced with the sole alternative of ‘being tetraplegic and unable to speak and fed by a tube into your stomach and in near-constant pain’ it perhaps becomes more appealing.
Sorry – that isn’t to elicit sympathy, promise (it really isn’t), more to explain that, as a result of this Minor Life Upheaval, the reason for my being in Rome no longer exists and so I will be packing my life up and coming back to the UK just as soon as I have ‘enjoyed’ the bureaucratic process of winding up a life here in Italy. As a result, Curios is likely to be somewhat more sporadic over the next couple of months – for which I apologise, but, well, equally it’s not like you’re paying for this.
I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and if you fancied you could make a donation to the MND charity of your choice (but obviously no obligation, and I will NEVER KNOW, so do as you please).
THE SECTION WHICH STRONGLY ADVISES ANY OF YOU IN THE UK TO PERHAPS NOT DO THE WHOLE ‘SUNBATHING’ THING SHOULD THE MERCURY TIP 40, PT.1:
- Space: I’ve personally found that one of the main things that the web has given me is a vastly-refined sense of perspective about my relative place in the world – it’s hard to be quite such a solipsist when confronted with the vast gamut of human existence at scale, grubby and damp and unpleasantly-lumpy (I mean, God knows I try, but). Another excellent way of reminding yourself that you’re nothing more than an insignificant speck in the great glorious infinity of everything is by looking at the frankly astonishing images that NASA released this week from the James Webb Telescope – you will have seen these floating across your feeds and in the news, but it’s worth taking a moment to look at them in big old hi-res on the NASA website and really just revel in how much STUFF there exists out there and how little we actually understand about the great, soupy ineffability that is ‘the entire cosmos’. If you really want to feel small (and, depending, if you want a properly dizzying sense of everything-vertigo) then click this link and watch as the video zooms out to show you how small the Telescope’s photos are relative to the infinite canvas of space – regular readers will know that I have a small obsession with the concept of the Total Perspective Vortex as imagined by Douglas Adams in ‘Hitchhikers’, and frankly the closest thing I’ve seen to that made flesh. I personally find there’s something bleakly-comforting about being reminded of one’s own utter insignificance at a cosmic scale, but Web Curios apologises for any existential crises that these links may prompt in you. BONUS SPACE LINKS: Rene Walter has compiled a bunch of interesting JWT-related links at his Good Internet newsletter here.
- Seances: NFB Canada return with another lovely piece of digital storytelling. Seances is a lovely concept – each visitor to the website (mobile-only I’m afraid) will get the opportunity to view an entirely-original short film, which stitches together a fixed quantity of clips and text to make videos that are one-of-a-kind and one-time-only. You can’t scrub through, you can’t pause, and you can’t share – your film is yours alone, viewable once-only, in realtime. The idea of a ‘unique’ piece of content for each viewer isn’t entirely new, but the execution here is rather lovely and the short I watched ‘worked’ in a way that much of this stuff tends not to, feeling like an actual piece of authored film rather than a bunch of disparate clips stitched together by software.
- Prompt Press: We’re not quite at the point whereby news organisations can forego the need to pay for press shots by farming the work of imagecreation to AI…but, as this project shows, we are at a point where you can make an interesting artproject out of getting a machine to dream up pictures based on news headlines. Prompt Press offers up a different headlines and illustration each week, letting you see what visuals an AI thinks should accompany ‘Prime Minister Boris Johnson Resigns’ or ‘Canada Bans Single-Use Plastics’. It’s not clear what they are using to make the images – could be Dall-E, could be Midjourney, could be some other non-standard code – but they are in the now-recognisable ‘AI-imagined digital art’ style and whilst there’s obviously a not-insignificant amount of human curation going on behind the scenes these also work quite a lot better than I had expected.
- How To Dall-E: This week OpenAI let a bunch of new people play around with Dall-E2, of whom I was one (this does not mean I am special, it just means that I’m the sort of saddo who signed up for access about 4 months ago and they have evidently reached the ‘random webmong’ stage of letting people in) – even for someone like me, whose visual imagination is roughly akin to that of spinach, it’s borderline magical. As you’ll have seen if you’ve spent any time looking at AI-generated imagery over the past few years, there are very clear limitations and there are certain areas where the machine works far better than others (highly-stylised things, cartoonish imagery, and, weirdly enough, plasticine models all seem to work quite well; anything you want to look photorealistic tends to get quite weird at the edges if you look to closely) – what’s truly borderline-magical, though, is the way in which small tweaks in input can radically alter the style and quality of output, with modifiers like ‘75mm’, ‘35mm’, ‘fisheye’, ‘render’ and ‘bokeh’ giving you a vast range of control over what the software spits out. I know I have been wanging on about this for a while now, but being good at wrangling stuff like this is going to be non-trivially useful (at least for a while, I think – but, er, don’t base any future career decisions on throwaway comments like this, will you?) – which is why this link, to a guide on how to achieve particular effects and results with different text cues, is so interesting and useful. Written by Guy Parsons, to whom infinite thanks.
- Artbreeder Collage: Artbreeder, you will of COURSE recall, was an AI image toy from a few years back that let you go down rabbitholes of machine-created imagery by ‘breeding’ different pictures with each other (it now has a bunch of other things it can do – worth checking out again if you’re interested in this stuff). Its ‘Collage’ toy basically works like those ‘GAN Inpainting’ tools that did the rounds a few years back, where you draw some basic shapes and then tell the machine what you want it to make them look like (trees, houses, a gigantic burning effigy, that sort of thing) – except this one has proper ‘text-to-image’ parsing, meaning you can draw any sort of rough scene you like and turn it into, I don’t know, ‘flourescent cows floating above the moon’s surface’. This isn’t anything more than a novelty toy at present, to be clear, but it’s quite obvious how an interface like this might be used by designers and art directors to create AI-generated imagery with a slightly-greater degree of control than that afforded by a simple ‘plug in a prompt, get what the machine gives you and fcuking like it’ interface. See, humans CAN still have useful agency! We WILL maintain control!
- G.U.C.C.I.: To be explicit and clear – this is not GUCCI the luxe fashion vampires. It has nothing to do with them whatsoever. Instead, this is the ‘Genuine Unauthorized Clothing Clone Institute’ – “Each Genuine Unauthorized garment starts with a life size digital print of a selfie taken by the artist in a luxury store dressing room. These dressing room selfies are used to develop the foundation for each garment in the project. Instead of recreating the item in the photograph, these new garments instead prioritize the flat photographic image, resulting in dresses that are sandwich-board-like in their construction, relying on simple pleats and the tromp l’oeil effect of the printed photograph for contouring. The project approaches legality through the lens of appropriation. Censorship pixelization in both the garments and website design “redact” the “original” to crate a parody. The censorship walks the line of originality within the eyes of the legal system while evoking desire for that which we cannot have…Users can select a size from the drop down menu shown on each “product” page and download a free file for personal use. All files are ready to be digitally printed onto fabric and contain the flat pattern for the selected Genuine Unauthorized garment with a chroma key (green screen) base and a transformed “censored” selfie photograph that the garment design is based on.” This is GREAT, and I do like to imagine that the Other GUCCI’s lawyers have been going mad attempting to work out how they can shut this down.
- Mapping Glastonbury: Slightly-annoyed that I didn’t find this when actual Glastonbury was actually happening, but hey ho. This is a brilliant piece of interactive by the V&A, letting you explore 50 years of the festival’s history through photography, interviews, audioclips and a really nice CG interface of the Worthy Farm site – inevitable horrible copyright reasons mean that, fine, you’re not going to be able to use this to re-experience the transcendent magic of coming up on your third pill while gurning uncontrollably to Underworld in 1999 (for example), but as a means of exploring the Festival’s history and some of the non-musical aspects of a truly one-of-a-kind cultural experience it’s pretty exceptional.
- Shadefinder: Yes, yes, it’s hot, fine, I get it – WELCOME TO MY SUMMERTIME LIFE YOU FCUKS. As seemingly everyone in the world struggles with some punchy Mercury readings – welcome, my friends, to the reality of our existences for the remainder of our lives! Sweaty, isn’t it? – you may find this rather excellent little website a useful aid to not dying of heatstroke. Click the link and you’ll find yourself on a map of Barcelona – click and zoom and drag to wherever you might find yourself, click any location on the map, and MARVEL as the view shifts to show you where the shadows will fall anywhere in the world at any time of day, based (I presume) on building data taken from OpenStreetMap. Perfect should you wish to plot a route across the fudgy tarmac that allows you to hide from the sun’s killer rays at all times – and let’s not dwell too long on the fact that the obviously-hyperbolic phrase ‘the sun’s killer rays’ is perhaps significantly-less-hyperbolic than we might wish it to be.
- Unblah: An excellent little plugin, this, and one that might lead to some perhaps-improving journeys of self-discovery amongst male users of it. Unblah is a very simple plugin for MacOS (sorry, no Windows version as-yet) which works with your videoconferencing software of choice to keep track of how much you’re talking compared to everyone else in a meeting, and offering you a neat visual summary of how much air you’re taking up with your INCESSANT FCUKING GASBAGGING. Ahem. Whilst obviously it’s an EGREGIOUS generalisation to presume that men are the people who most need this, it’s also true that all data points to the fact that it’s men who have a tendency to dominate meetings with ALL THE TALKING – even if you don’t think you’re guilty of this sort of behaviour it might be instructive to install this and see what the numbers say (NB – I am a Windows user and so therefore sadly-incapable of practising as I preach, for which omission I apologise to everyone whose meetings I derail with my own personal INCESSANT FCUKING GASBAGGING in future).
- Metroverse: Oh my word, this is quite remarkable. “What is the economic composition of my city? How does my city compare to cities around the globe?Which cities look most like mine? What are the technological capabilities that underpin my city’s current economy? Which growth and diversification paths does that suggest for the future? Built at the Growth Lab at Harvard University, Metroverse delivers new insights on these questions by placing a city’s technological capabilities and knowhow at the heart of its growth prospects, where the range and nature of existing capabilities strongly influences how future diversification unfolds. Metroverse makes visible what a city is good at today to help understand what it can become tomorrow.” Honestly, this is utterly compelling – SO much interesting urban data to explore about so many different cities (1000 globally, 52 within the UK), letting you analyse information about business and industry and employment within each…SUCH an incredible resource, and a really nice interface to boot. It even shows you which cities are most similar to each other based on the data available – although I confess to raising an eyebrow slightly at the suggestion that Rome and Birmingham have more in common than I had originally thought.
- Choo Choo World: On the one hand, I’m slightly aghast at the ongoing infantilisation of everything; on the other, I am a 42 year old man who still dresses like a teenager from 1998 and whose attitude to authority has remained similarly unchanged, and who counts ‘playing videogames’ as regular pastime so, well, I appreciate I may not have a huge number of legs to stand on. Still, you would have to be a true joyless curmudgeon to not enjoy this digital trainset – this is a small, colourful CG sandbox which lets you design your very own BRIO-style experience, with straights and curves and risers and hills and, inexplicably, the ability to make said trains to loop-the-loops. Build out the trainset of your dreams and then watch in awe as a small train follows the route you’ve created as though you were some sort of omnipotent ferrovial GOD (which is EXACTLY what you are!).
- Good Morning Empire: I love this – Good Morning Empire is a short…essay? ‘meditation on our relationship with knowledge and the web’? ‘Investigation of the invisible digital walls that constrain our existences’? God knows. Anyway, it’s a thing by Aidan Quinlan – scroll right to experience it, but do so slowly as the scrolling text under each individual vignette set the tone for the whole thing rather wonderfully. Yes, look, I know that this description isn’t really giving you much but the uncertainty is part of the fun, no? No? FFS.
- Chicken Photos: Specifically, chicken selfies. “Whenever a chicken passes in front of the motion sensor, the Pi snaps a photo on the camera, which in turn fires the speed flash. Once the photo is taken, the Pi downloads the photo from the camera’s SD card and uploads it to our website. The photo is then tweeted and potentially minted as an NFT…Once a day the flock curates a selection of the best photos from the day. The chickens believe in a healthy and sustainable work environment, and because of that they refuse to set unrealistic expectations as to when the photos will be posted…The chickens live in the country, dislike capitalism and don’t really get the whole “crypto” thing. As a result, they will mint select photos as NFTs at totally random and unpredictable times. Set a twitter alert to be first to know about new uploads.” Superb. Also, these are some GOOD photos, I am impressed with the setup and the chickens’ posing/curatorial chops. Come for the chooks, stay for the occasional nighttime raccoon.
- Dimensional: Have you ever thought that the main thing missing from your interpersonal relationships is a long, searching conversation about exactly how similar or different your personalities are based on a series of third-party judgements and assessments? Do you basically want to spend a good, long evening with your mates going over your Myers Briggs? If the answer to these questions is a resounding ‘YES!’, then a) please never contact me; b) you may enjoy Dimensional, an app which professes to be ‘a social network based on your personality’ and which promises to assess all your personality flaws to six decimal places and by so doing give you a sense of who YOU are (according, to be clear, to some fcuking app), and allow you to relate everyone else to you based who THEY are (based, again, on some fcuking app). “Add friends on Dimensional to compare your personalities and unlock insights into your relationship,” burbles the copy, as though that doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the fcuking world.
- Flefixx: I can’t entirely claim to understand this, but I quite like it. Type, and see what happens – this is basically a prototypically visual language, with a small sample of visualised letters and pre-/suffixes which give a suggestion as to how the glyphish alphabet might develop. See, I told you I couldn’t claim to understand it.
- Ravel: Ooh, this is potentially really fun – this is by Curios favourite Everest Pipkin, gamemaker designer and prolific maker of Interesting Web Stuff, and it’s basically a tool to make nested narratives. It’s basically like being able to construct expandy bullet lists – you write whatever you want in the builder, which is flexible enough to allow for quite long and complex nestings of concepts, and can then export the resulting material as embeddable HTML to put wherever you like online. I find this sort of tool such a useful way of structuring thinking in general – there are obviously narrative opportunities here, but (in a really boring digression into professionalism for a second) it’s also a potentially-useful tool for setting out and exploring thinking around strategy and planning (sorry for sulllying the purity of your work by using it in the context of advermarketingpr, Everest).
- Is Or Was: “Is a particular famous dead or alive?” is the single, simple premise of this annoyingly-addictive quiz. You think it’s easy and then you’re forced to confront the fact that you’d totally forgotten that Chris Cornell was dead and your entire world is rocked.
- Ferris: This is an interesting idea, which might be useful for those of you who still have those loose, slightly-amorphous friendship groups that you maintain throughout your 20s, the ones immortalised in the fcuking ‘Friendchips’ campaigns and in all those ‘pass the Style supplement, Giles!’ ads of suspiciously unhungover-looking children enjoying Sunday together in an unrealistically-clean and naturally-lit shared house. Ferris is an app designed to help you plan activities with a friendship group – anyone who’s planning something they would be happy to have company doing can set up an event, to which other friends in the group can add themselves if they so choose, making for a nicely-low-friction way of offering opportunities to hang out (and, of course, the inevitable sense of rejection when noone EVER wants to come to the proctologist with you).
- The Featherbase: I appreciate that you may not have been aware of your overwhelming need for a website which contains an insane amount of information about feathers, but trust me when I say YOU NEED THIS IN YOUR LIFE. “Featherbase is a working group of German feather scientists and other collectors worldwide who came together with their personal collections and created the biggest and most comprehensive online feather library in the world. Using our website, it is possible to identify feathers from hundreds of different species, compare similarities between them, work out gender or age-specific characteristics and look at the statistics of countless feather measurements.” GERMAN FEATHER SCIENTISTS! What a sentence that is.
- The Pokemon Fossil Museum: I think that this is a particular wing of a particular museum in Tokyo, but, er, everything is in Japanese so I obviously have no clue. Still, if you’ve ever wanted the chance to explore a 3d scan of a series of exhibited ‘fossils’ of Pokemon, somewhat-bafflingly sitting alongside what look like actual dinosaur bones, then this will please you no end. Again, I can’t read Japanese and so have no idea what the framing is like here but I do sort-of hope that this is presented entirely straight and gives kids a bunch of FAKE DINOSAUR NEWS about how the T-Rex and Pidgeotto were in fact best of friends bitd.
- Absurd Trolley Problems: Another lovely, silly webproject from Neal Agarwal, which he sent me a couple of weeks ago and which has now been EVERYWHERE online and which you have almost certainly seen but which I am offering you anyway because completeness. Absurd Trolley Problems presents you with an escalating series of moral dilemmas based on the classic trolley problem (divert the trolley and kill x, or don’t divert the trolley and kill y) – what would YOU do given the choice between doing nothing and killing a kitten and flipping the switch and killing a puppy (NB none of the choices are this traumatic, I promise)? A useful way of finding out exactly what sort of terrible, unfeeling monster you are deep down inside.
THE SECTION WHICH STRONGLY ADVISES ANY OF YOU IN THE UK TO PERHAPS NOT DO THE WHOLE ‘SUNBATHING’ THING SHOULD THE MERCURY TIP 40, PT.2:
- Name a Hole: A site which offers you the opportunity to name a black hole after someone. The gag here is obviously ‘YOU SUCK LOL!’ but, honestly, I think this would be quite a cool thing – “The Web Curios Hole Of Infinite Attraction” has quite a ring to it, should anyone fancy getting me a present (NB – I am aware that you are not really naming a black hole in any meaningful sense, but this is just a bit of fun and at least these people aren’t attempting to sell you an NFT of anyfcukingthing).
- Very Famous: An ONLINE MAGAZINE! How deliciously-retro! Very Famous is a deliberately-ugly lifestylezinething, with quite strong ‘we all work in fashion and live in NYC DAHLING’ vibes (to my mind, at least), and a particular type of young-person writing style that I very much associate with ‘i type everything in lower-case with a sense of all-round general positivity use exclamation marks to indicate when I am being sincere!’-ness (if you know what I mean, and I would totally understand if you didn’t tbh), and short articles about ‘stuff you pretend to have conversations about on the phone whilst walking alone late at night past creepy men’ and ‘White Musk from The Body Shop’. I like this quite a lot – it’s got a certain ‘The Hairpin’-ish sense to it, despite ostensibly having little in common with it.
- Watches That Don’t Tell The Time: You might argue that a watch that doesn’t tell the time is not in fact a wathc in any meaningful sense of the word, but you would stop that argument in favour of staring in glassy-eyed covetousness as soon as you cast your eyes upon these beauties. Have you ever wanted to wear a miniature paddling pool filled with small rubber ducks on your wrist? Perhaps not, but one click of this link and I guarantee you will want nothing else. These are genuinely available for sale, and would be the perfect accessory if you also had a time machine to take you back to Michael Alig’s New York or Gatecrasher circa 1997.
- Wikivoyage: This is interesting, and worth a look next time you’re traveling somewhere – Wikivoyage is Wikpedia but for travel, a communuty-editable database of locations and associated tips for anyone visiting them. This is a relatively-small site, which means that there are some quite-interesting niche recommendations you can stumble across (or at least there are based on my limited exploration) – it’s also a BRILLIANT opportunity for you to share EVERYTHING you know about your local area with a collection of strangers on the internet. The ‘South London’ section, for example, appears to have been cobbled together by someone who only knows about Bromley and Croydon – WHERE IS THE SYDENHAM MAGNUM OPUS? If you’ve always wanted to share your intimate knowledge of ‘The Pubs and takeaways of Selly Oak’ with a grateful audience then Wikivoyage is your new favourite website in the world.
- Open Source Shakespeare: A site featuring all of Shakespeare’s published works as searchable texts – you can use this to check whether a particular quote is in fact from the Bard, or to find relevant Shakespearean material about whatever you like. I now have a toad-related quote from Troilus and Cressida which I can whip out whenever someone starts gassing themselves up too much, for example (“I do hate a proud man, as I hate the engendering of toads”), and I think we can all agree that that’s something worth celebrating.
- Pointless Celebrities Looking at the Number 69: A Twitter account which does nothing but share images of celebrities on the TV show pointless looking at the number ‘69’ onscreen. Which, fine, may not sound like it’s worth your time, but it’s the calibre of famous on show here which really elevates this to ‘art’ status – Wee Jimmy Crankie with a parrot on her shoulder staring grim-faced at the number 69, when you know what her and her husband are like, is pretty-much perfect (I concede that if you’re not from the UK then your mileage may well vary slightly here). A spiritual cousin to the peerless Daytime Snaps.
- After The Rapture Petcare: I…I don’t think that this is a joke. After The Rapture Petcare is a survice which purports to offer a network of non-Christians who are willing to commit to caring to the pets of Christians that will be left behind by their owners when said owners get swept up by the great Holy vacuum cleaner that is the Evangelical ‘Rapture’ (for those of you unfamiliar with the concept, the ‘Rapture’ is the term used for the moment that will come before the end of the world, whereby all God’s true believers will be swept up into heaven to spare them from the fiery apocalypse that is set to befall all the sinners left behind on Earth). Now I know what you’re thinking – you’re thinking ‘No, Matt, this is OBVIOUSLY a joke, you are a moron, where is the next link please?’ – but just wait a second and read this: “The idea came from seeing someone else’s joke. An atheist created a site in England that said she’d take care of Christian-owned pets after the Rapture, and asked for 70 pounds as a “donation.” She promoted it as a joke, and it virally made the rounds amongs non-believers who enjoy making fun of Christians. My husband saw it (he’s an Internet geek) and told me about it. Admittedly, it seemed funny. I told my friend, Carol, who is not a Christian, and she brought up a question: “Hey, if you get raptured, what happens to Petey?” It was an excellent question, and I didn’t have an answer. A couple weeks later Carol came back and suggested we start After The Rapture Pet Care together. She said she had asked several Christian friends the same question she’d asked me, and every one of them would pay for a service to ensure the care of their pets after the Rapture. I had also asked some fellow Christians their thoughts. In every case they wished there was a way to prepare for their pets’ survival.” I am AGOG, honestly. How you can hold the simultaneous belief that the Earth is going to be fcuked by the final reckoning between Good and Evil and that most people are going to be pitchforked for all eternity by the legions of the damned, but they might still find the time amongst all the death and brimstone and end of the world horror to FEED CAROL’S FCUKING SCHNAUZER is utterly beyond me – I mean, I know Evangelical Christians in the US are often some of the more venal and stupid of the religious obsessives, but this really takes the biscuit. Still, if you think that your experience of armageddon will be improved by being able to take care of the cats, dogs and tortoises of those believers now laughing at your poor sinners’ end from the right hand of the Father then, well, SIGN UP HERE!
- VagonWeb: “This site is dedicated to european railway passenger cars, electric or diesel units, trail cars… in short to everything, what is usualy [sic] used to convey passengers. English translation is only partial.” A perfect website (if you’re really, really interested in rolling stock).
- League of the Lexicon: A fully-funded Kickstarter with (at the time of writing) three weeks still left to run, this looks like a GREAT boardgame for any of you with a particular thing for language. Thousands of questions on etymology, meaning, and general lexicography – if you, your friends or family are the sorts of people whose eyes light up at the thought of a game including questions such as ‘name six words invented by George Orwell’ or ‘Give me eight synonyms for ‘confused’’ then you will probably already have hammered the ‘donate’ button – this honestly looks GREAT (please invite me to play with you I have no friends).
- The Game Crafter: Sticking with boardgames, this is a wonderful site/service – basically these people will make any game you ask them to, if you give them the rules and the relevant designs, in editions of as small as ‘1’ – and you can make your own games availavle to buy (presumably on a ‘print-on-demand’ basis) to anyone who fancies the sounds of them. If YOU have ever thought ‘my radical interpretation of the basic concept of ‘Balderdash’ based on the Kama Sutra is a worldwide success waiting to happen, I just need to find someone prepared to produce the upsettingly-biological board and pieces!’ then these people maybe your gateway to fame and fortune (but, based on that idea, probably not).
- English2RegX: VERY geeky, this, but also an excellent example of ‘what you can do with AI that is practically-useful rather than just a clever parlour trick’. English2RegX is, as the name might suggest, a service which uses natural language AI to translate things you write in ‘normal’ prose into ‘regular expressions’ used to code in Python, Perl, etc – these are, apparently, famously annoying to code and parse due to their specifi syntax requirements, so the ability to spin them up from normal human language feels significant. We are not too far away from being able to do this for almost anything – type ‘a ham sandwich’ and select your output and the machine will variously spit out a photo of a ham sandwich, a recipe for one, code to render one in a 3d environment of your choosing…and yes, fine, this is a terrible and almost-miserably-banal example, but use your excellent imaginations and I am sure you will be able to think of something better.
- Closer to Van Eyck: This is a really interesting project by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Belgium, letting you explore various works by Ven Eyck via the medium of various webpages – the centrepiece here is the section which lets you get up close and personal with the Ghent Alterpiece throughout various points of its restoration, with high-resolution imagery which lets you see exactly how amazing the work has been to bring the painting back to its best. Art students, art historians or fans of Van Eyck (look, some of you might be fans of Van Eyck, I have no idea) will love this (even though it is…er…somewhat Belgian in its low-key presentation).
- Lyrical Garfield: “A bot doing its best to detect & replace Garfield text with lyrics.“ This is perhaps more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’, but occasionally you run into an interesting juxtaposition. By the same people who apparently made ‘Heathcliff Cartoons With Pr0nhub Comments’, which is, to my mind, significantly better.
- Jelly Gummies: The website of Sam Lyon, on which they present this selection of really quite unpleasant (but in a very good way) 3d rendered gifs – there’s something about this hypershiny aesthetic that I can’t help but find viscerally-disturbing, though I honestly couldn’t explain fully why that is.
- Seed: I’m going to make a confident prediction right off the bat that Seed, as it is here described, is never going to be a real thing. Still, it sounds fascinating and I sort-of hope I am proved wrong – “SEED is a life simulation that never sleeps. Your Seedlings live on the planet Avesta and their life goes on, even when you are not there to guide them…Seedlings have a mind of their own, but need your guidance for their life of adventure to grow, learn, work, cook, party, love, explore and more…Help your Seedlings to become happy when they are sad or excited when they are bored. Your Seedlings will meet other players’ Seedlings and will form bonds and relationships. Help them to make the right choices and at the same time make some new friends of your own…The society on Avesta will grow stronger through collaboration. As a city’s population grows, resources, research, and construction will increase, which can permanently impact the economy of the planet. You can freely construct and build structures to benefit your Seedlings and the city. Use this freedom to unleash your creativity and to build buildings and meaningful relationships with other players…From furniture to factories, all products, commodities, and structures are manufactured by the players, making the economy of the planet truly player-driven. Seedlings can construct and own factories that manufacture various products or resources, which will also need to be sustained by other members of a city. This creates employment and helps shape booming societies. All player-produced goods can be sold or purchased on the market, allowing you to procure, as well as sell, at the best possible price.” Oh, hang on, that sounds like it’s going to mean NF-fcuking-Ts, doesn’t it? And there’s a lot of talk about ‘community’ and there are Discords…oh. Still, to their credit it doesn’t seem that anyone here is trying to sell you any magic bean jpegs, so perhaps they’re just naive optimists rather than naked grifters. I can’t pretend that what they have described in rough outline – a massively-multiplayer experiment in digital worldbuilding and social creation from the ground up – doesn’t sound dizzyingly ambitious and fascinating, but equally it doesn’t actually sound possible, and there’s something of a dearth of meaningful detail about how all this stuff will be built. Still, let’s all cross our fingers.
- The Wood Database: “It all began back in April of 2007. I had recently checked out some wood identification books at the library…” Sorry, but that somewhat-portentous opening to the ‘About’ Page is too good not to quote. Anyway, if you want to know about WOOD – hardwood, softwood, wood turning, wood working, possibly even whittling (I confess to not having checked every single corner of the site) – then, er, enjoy!
- Sandwiches of History: A YouTube channel in which some guy posts videos of him making, and eating, sandwiches from historical recipe books. These run the gamut from the simple (onion sandwich), to the complex (the monte cristo), to the frankly-unhinged-sounding (fried dill pickle and peanut butter), and there’s something charming about the fact that none of these seem to have more than about 300 views but that the guy is committed to the endeavour regardless. This is a man who is, it seems, searching for some deep, universal, sandwich-based truth, and I kind of admire that.
- The Lyttle Lytton Contest: Once again we get to celebrate the creativity and prose acrobaticcs of entrants to the annual Lyttle Lytton contest, seeking the best, worst, short opening line in imagined fiction. As ever, I encourage you to click through and enjoy the horror in full – but, to whet your appetite, let me give you my personal favourite: “We had just visited Auschwitz, and I was ovulating.”
- What VR Is Basically For: If anyone ever asks you ‘when was the point at which you got your first, real, terrifying understanding of the transformative potential of VR technology?’, I hope your answer involves this link.
- Stattogories: A brilliant selection of stat-themed guessing games for you to while away the hours with – choose from various games using data from IMDB, Spotify, Google, etc, and then lose countless hours trying to guess whether ‘cheese’ gets searched for more often on Google than ‘soapy hentai’.
- Klifur: Finally in this week’s miscellaneous links, this GREAT little game which sees you play the part of a rock climber seeking to navigate increasingly-treacherous routes around a climbing wall. You can move one limb at a time, and need to use a judicious combination of placement and momentum to inch yourself up from hold to hold and I am terrible at it, displaying all the coordination and strength I do in real life (ie none). This is a lot of fun, and vaguely-reminiscent of a less-impossible QWOP.
By Cliff Warner
THE CIRCUS OF TUMBLRS!
- Goatorama: Not actually a Tumblr! But feels like it perhaps should be one! Anyway, this is all about goats.
- The Heat Warps: Also not actually a Tumblr! But also feels like it should perhaps be one! This is great for any and all jazz fans – The Heat Warps is a project ‘Revisiting every Miles Davis live tape from 1969 to 1975 in chronological order’, so you can read reflections on each recording but also find links to every single one (as someone who’s spent a LOT of evenings of late feeling TOO HOT, I can highly recommend Miles as ‘good music to sweat to by night’).
- Hot Sand Cakes: This one IS a Tumblr! Huzzah! I don’t normally feature Tumblrs that mostly only post memes, but every single one of these made me laugh/wince/wonder when I clicked on it this week and so it passed some sort of snake-belly-low quality threshold for inclusion.
THE TROUGH OF (INSTA) FEEDS!
- Skateparks of New Zealand: Shot from above, these are great shots of urban architecture.
- His Name My Name: This is beautiful (and I like the fact it uses the grid as part of its aesthetic) – it’s a project exploring the history, fascism, family, memory and identity, and the stories that we tell about ourselves across generations. “An Instagram-native documentary, @hisnamemyname uses ten animated episodes to tell the story of Eline Jongsma’s great-grandfather, a Nazi-aligned mayor nicknamed “Crazy Gerrit” who was erased from her family’s memory after WWII. Our goal is to introduce WWII history—particularly the rise of fascism in the Netherlands—to younger viewers, and perhaps show them that following extremist ideologies can leave wounds that last for generations. At the same time, part of what makes this project so unique is its look and feel. Beautifully animated by Slovenian illustrator Jure Brglez and scored by analog synth wiz San Ré, its vividly-rendered, colorful world couldn’t deviate more from what we traditionally think of as WII aesthetics.” I couldn’t agree more with the artists’ blurb in this case, this is a really nice piece of work indeed. Also there is ‘amusing’ resonance with my personal life here, as I am currently dealing with the legal fallout from my embarrassingly unashamed fascist granddad’s secret gun and I occasionally wish we’d erased that fcuker from our family history too (sorry Nonno, I don’t really mean that. Though let’s talk again once I’ve worked out if I’m facing bird).
LONG THINGS WHICH ARE LONG!
- The Atlantic Archive: Storied magazine The Atlantic recently made its archive available online – this is a wonderful collection of writings from all sorts of fascinating people on all sorts of topics, and as a place to start if you’re looking for varied, interesting material to while away an afternoon with is pretty-much perfect. You can go back and read through editions of the magazine from as far back as 1857, which is some pretty astonishing time machining, and I lost a good hour this week by going back to the late-90s material and laughing at how optimistic everyone seemed to be about everything. LOL PAST US, YOU WERE SO NAIVE!!
- Musk and Twitter: Yes, I know, ugh. Much as it pains me to even acknowledge the man, though, it remains that his ‘will he, won’t he, oh ffs I don’t CARE’ pursuit of Twitter is significant for several reasons, not least as a window onto the increasingly-unhinged state of billionaire-led capitalism and What It All Means for business and, subsequently, society. I am unfortunately required to be across this story for Professional Reasons, as is Matt Levine at Bloomberg, whose weary account of ‘where this is all at’ is probably the best and least-painful way of getting your head round what Musk is doing and why (to the extent anyone, even he, knows) and what it might eventually mean for Twitter. BONUS AWFUL MAN CONTENT: Charlie Warzel writes well in the Atlantic about the ridiculousness of the ‘bots’ argument overall, and the inadequacy of the term ‘bots’ in 2022 to describe coordinated inauthentic activity on Twitter anymore (an issue I came into PAINFUL CONTACT WITH in February and let me say Dear God if you’re talking about this stuff can I just suggest you choose your terms…more carefully than I did).
- Democratic AI: While we’re all being distracted by the shiny public-facing toy elements of AI development – ooh look, it can imagine a pug in a dinner suit playing canasta! Clever machine! – the ineluctable march of the machine continues in far more significant and meaningful ways in the background. So it is with this Deep Mind research paper which offers an overview of its experiments in using AI to develop systems of distributive justice. “Here we developed a human-in-the-loop research pipeline called Democratic AI, in which reinforcement learning is used to design a social mechanism that humans prefer by majority. A large group of humans played an online investment game that involved deciding whether to keep a monetary endowment or to share it with others for collective benefit. Shared revenue was returned to players under two different redistribution mechanisms, one designed by the AI and the other by humans. The AI discovered a mechanism that redressed initial wealth imbalance, sanctioned free riders and successfully won the majority vote. By optimising for human preferences, Democratic AI offers a proof of concept for value-aligned policy innovation.” How do you feel about a future in which mechanisms of governance are developed by black-box systems designed (we think! We hope!) to ameliorate total ‘benefits’ whilst minimising ‘harms’? Can anyone say ‘paperclip maximiser’? I don’t mean to be a doomsayer here – this stuff is fascinating and important and I don’t doubt has all sorts of potential positive applications – but, also, this stuff never ends well in scifi, so.
- Data As Soil Not Oil: A slightly-rambling but always-interesting conversation between Micah Sifry and futurist Jerry Michalski about new ways to think about data and our stewardship of it, and the broader concept of ‘the betterverse’, a slightly-cringey term which in fact stands for the sensible principle of “some kind of layer or protocol that enables people sharing their knowledge with others in ways that accrete up to collective knowledge.” Loads of fascinating ideas in here, but I particularly enjoyed the stuff about data and the need to ensure its quality and purity in much the same way as you would protect the purity and health of any organic ecosystem from/in which you want to cultivate anything.
- Prejudice Rules: A collection of 32 (I think) essays in the London Review of Books by a selection of authors offering their reflections and feelings on the overturning of Roe vs Wade by the US Supreme Court, by writers such as Elif Batuman, Azadeh Moaveni and Emily Witt. I haven’t read every single one of these, but Batuman’s is excellent and there’s a piece by Lorna Finlayson on why those in the UK should perhaps not be quite as confident that ‘it could never happen here’ as they occasionally seem to be. From Lauren Oyler’s essay: “We should have said: the clump of cells on which you’ve pinned your hopes and fears is not a baby; the experience of difficulty and loss does not require a literal death to make sense. We should have said that life without choice is no life at all; a society in which consequences are not liveable, in which abortion is not free, legal and available on demand, is not one that is capable of appreciating, nurturing or protecting the thing you think you are fighting for.”
- The Perils of Audience Capture: Or, ‘how performing for the crowd fcuks you in the end’. Via Mat Morrison, this is a really interesting piece looking at the concept of ‘Audience Capture’, or how creators of any stripe tend towards a narrowing and calcifying of output (and often perspective) based on the reaction of their audience to their output – “Audience capture is an irresistible force in the world of influencing, because it’s not just a conscious process but also an unconscious one. While it may ostensibly appear to be a simple case of influencers making a business decision to create more of the content they believe audiences want, and then being incentivized by engagement numbers to remain in this niche forever, it’s actually deeper than that. It involves the gradual and unwitting replacement of a person’s identity with one custom-made for the audience.” This is seen through the prism of influencers, but can equally be applied to any form of media in 2022 – this is another article on a similar topic which explores exactly how and why notorious lobster enthusiast and increasingly-unhinged alt-right griftmachine Jordan Peterson has ended up basically becoming another of the web’s seemingly-infinite supply of ‘angry middle aged men shouting into a webcam about things they really have no need or reason to be so irritated and scared by’ (to be clear, Web Curios has always maintained a consistent opinion on Peterson, which opinion is that the man is a prick). This stuff is perhaps most-evident in the streamer ecosystem – there are a LOT of people on Twitch you you can very much see have painted themselves into a corner, persona and content wise, and who you can see in their eyes don’t quite understand who or what they are become (or indeed how).
- The Sh1tposting War: Or ‘how a meme of a Shiba Inu is basically a stand-in for support for the Ukrainian efforts against the Russian invasion’, or, more broadly, ‘how the lack of any real meaningful distinction between on- and offline now means that this sort of insane juxtaposition of concepts is now basically a day-to-day experience, and context collapse isn’t just something that happens in-feed anymore it’s just a facet of life’. But the VICE headline is probably snappier, to be fair. “An unofficial army of cartoon Shiba Inu dogs is making life hard for people who post Russian disinformation about the war in Ukraine online. They are known as NAFO, the North Atlantic Fellas Organization, a small but growing cadre of shitposters who’ve gathered to raise money for Ukraine and call out obvious propaganda when they see it. It’s getting hard to tow the Kremlin’s party line on Twitter without them showing up in the replies to mock and counter it.” It is, of course, entirely possible that within 48h this will have been milkshake ducked to all eternity and we will have to regretfully inform you that the Shiba Inu in question is a fash or something – so it inevitably goes.
- How To Pump A Sh1tcoin: Not actually a longread, this, but instead a short collection of Tweets explaining how the process of pumping and dumping sh1tcoin stocks works in practice. This is scarily simple and blasé about the whole process, and is worth remembering next time you see a billboard ad for some ridiculous-sounding $NONCECOIN pop up on that billboard under the railway bridge at Old Street.
- NGL Is A Lie: I’ve seen lots of people this week posting screenshots of their interactions with NGL, the latest in the seemingly-neverending slew of ‘anonymous Q&A apps’ which lets anyone sign up and then get their ‘fans’ to ask them anything they want anonymously. Except in the case of NGL it turns out that the questions are not from ‘fans’ at all, but are instead drawn from a random pool of generic asks which are fed to users to make them feel as though people care about their lives, and which are designed to sucker said users into paying a tenner a month for ‘premium’ access which gives you ‘clues’ to help you guess who asked what. This is interesting less because of the app and more because of the reinforcement it gives to the psychological ‘insight’ (lol NOT AN INSIGHT) that people will do really dumb things in exchange for feeling special and important and knowing more about what other people REALLY think about them. It’s amazing to me that this is literally ‘this app will let you know who’s looked at your Insta profile!’, but slightly-updated, and that people still fall for this stuff.
- The Data Centre Reckoning: Another shortish piece included more to make you think than because of its content per se, this article makes the not-unreasonable point that the current issues with heat and drought are…not wholly compatible with our growing parallel need to cool lots and lots of very hot computing equipment that is on all the time and which is often situated in quite warm parts of the world. Welcome to the dystopian future in which certain people have limited access to drinking water because Amazon has bought half the world’s water table to keep the lights on on each of the 300 Prime Days we’re going to be ‘celebrating’ in 2056.
- Maps and Traffic: A fascinating piece on how mapping technologies – specifically those like Google Maps or Waze, which incorporate live traffic data – materially ater urban environments through their funnelling of traffic down new and unexpected routes in pursuit of ULTIMATE JOURNEY OPTIMISATION. I am endlessly-interested in this stuff, and the parallel stories around how, say, Airbnb being big in a certain area of a city completely changes the sorts of shops you have in it and therefore the sorts of ordinary people who are able to live in them, and can’t WAIT for all the interesting ways in which we discover that we’ve unwittingly-shaped our physical environments via slavish algorithmic devotion over the past decade (and the really fun bit is that this is only the beginning).
- Is Monogamy Morally Wrong?: It’s important that I preface this writeup with the fact that I personally very much do not believe it to be so, lest my girlfriend think that I’m clumsily attempting to ‘go poly’ (dear God no) – nor indeed does the article conclude that its leading assertion is wholly correct (saved you a click!). That said, it’s a really interesting piece of thinking that explores the concept that to require a partner enter into a monogamous relationship with you is fundamentally an inexcusable curtailing of their freedom of action, feeling, association, etc, and it made me briefly misty-eyed and wistful for undergraduate philosophy.
- At Blair’s Gathering: Another LRB link, this time David Runciman reporting from the recent Future of Britain conference, organised by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Yes, I know, I don’t really want to be subject to another ‘rare intervention’ from the grinning Jackanapes (copyright: The Sun in the late-90s), but this is a good overview of the event and the overall problem with much of this ‘we need a new way of thinking about global organisation if we are to save ourselves’ cant you see so much of from the Old Centrist Guard. “It’s not impossible that XR-style protest and gilets jaunes-style resistance might join forces, even without a Lenin to bash their heads together. But it’s not easy to see how. They are such different kinds of politics: one has an intergenerational time horizon; the other is concerned with getting from this week to next. This gulf between the politics of the present – pinched, angry, insular – and the mooted politics of the future – collaborative, expansive, transformational – was barely discussed, never mind bridged. How do you get from here to there? Well, I wouldn’t start where we are now.”
- Resistance: Final LRB article of the week, now, with Malcolm Gaitskill writing about European resistance in the second world war, about what ‘resistance’ even means, and what it looks like, and how to identify it, and the complication of thinking of ‘resistance’ as something uniform and cohesive. It was interesting reading this after Trump and in the fag end of Johnson, two eras in which the centre left spoke a lot of ‘resistance’ whilst at the same time not being able to meaninfully muster much of anything that looked practically like it (and yes, I know that ‘war against the Nazis’ and ‘existing under Trump/Johnson’ are not the same, but read the piece and then come and tell me why I’m wrong to draw the association).
- Hair Transplants in Istanbul: Alex Hawkins writes in GQ about getting a hair transplant in Istanbul, apparently the world capital for men who’ve decided that they don’t in fact want to graduate to wearing the ‘it’s not a bald patch, it’s a solar panel for a sex machine!’ tshirt. This is a very good read, not least because Hawkins is remarkably honest about his motivations and the experience as a whole – it sounds, frankly, horrible, but I have no doubt I’ll be feverishly googling ‘cheap but not dodgy hair replacement’ as soon as my horribly misshapen skull starts poking out through the increasingly-sparse down tufts above my hideous face.
- The Mystery of the Diryah Night Sky: This is a CRACKING story which has basically everything you want in a tale about the international art market – AI art, NFTs, an artist who may or may not know more than they are letting on, and some VERY high-concept questions about where you find the ‘art’ in an artwork. Here’s the teaser – I promise this is worth it: “Dutch artist Jeroen van der Most got the shock of his life when he stumbled across a story about one of his paintings selling for £2.5 million. But as he hadn’t painted it, he needed to find out exactly what was going on…”
- The Death of the Clown: Finally in this week’s longreads, a virtuoso piece of writing by Edward Docx on Boris Johnson. It’s a long time since I’ve read something that takes a conceit like this and runs with it so successfully – the framing of his entire career as a piece of performance is so, so well-done, and has the useful effect of taking you from smiling at the prose quality, to marvelling at how it sustains, to realising quite how perfect it is as a framing for everything that this dreadful fcuk has done. I have no wish to speak of him, in general (see here), but it’s worth breaking my omertà for writing this good.
By Me and Dall-E and Egon Schiele
AND NOW, MOVING PICTURES AND SOUNDS!:
- Jonwayne is a super-talented hiphop producer (and rapper – I highly recommend checking out his Rap Album I&II), and this video takes you through his process of making a beat from start to finish. This was really interesting, even for someone as musically untalented as I am, so if you’re in anyway into music production this is probably going to be catnip for you.
- I had a real thing for Sublime as a teen – Manchester in the late-90s was almost EXACTLY the same as Longbeach, I imagine – and as such this dreamy cover of ‘Santeria’ by Microwave made me very happy indeed. Excellent hot weather music (and also they remove all the questionable lyrics, so you can listen without wincing).
- This is a quite incredible promo film made for the Royal Ontario Museum. I promise you that it really is worth all six minutes of its runtime – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything this directorially-impressive produced as institutional ‘content’, it’s honestly really really good. It’s called ‘Immortal’ and it’s about…well, it’s about everything, really.
- Curios reader Sean Canty emailed me a while back about this song, and I told him to come back when it had a video, and now it does, and, honestly, this is a cracking track which reminded me quite a lot of The Clientele when I first heard it and which works perfectly with the archive snippets that make up the video. This is called ‘1980s’ by Organised Scum.
- Last up this week, Curios favourite Loyle Carner is back after a long hiatus, with his new song ‘Hate’ – as per with Loyle it fcuking slaps and I hope you like it as much as I do because THAT’S IT THAT’S YOUR LOT I’M DONE HERE AND SO ARE YOU I LOVE YOU TAKE CARE AND PLEASE TRY NOT TO DIE BECAUSE I HAVE HAD QUITE ENOUGH OF THAT OVER THE PAST DECADE THANKYOU VERY MUCH I LOVE YOU AND I CARE ABOUT YOU AND I WILL SEE YOU SOON I LOVE YOU I NEED YOU TAKE CARE DON’T DIE BYE!