Webcurios 15/12/23

Reading Time: 38 minutes

43 editions and some unconscionably-vast number of links later, HERE WE ARE AT LAST! We stand on the precipice of the FINAL WEB CURIOS OF 2023 – or at least you do, I have just finished writing the thing and as such, if we’re going to overextend this metaphor to beyond breaking point as tends to be our wont, I am a shattered mess of limbs at the bottom of it.

Anyway, seeing as it’s the final one of the year and I won’t be back in your inbox until some point in January – or never, should one or both of us die! – I just wanted to take this opportunity to say a small thankyou (those of you who quite rightly couldn’t care less about the niceties, feel free to skip this – but know that I resent you and have wished a small-but-persistent ill on you by way of retribution).

THANKYOU to each and every one of you for bothering to read even a word of this each week – and a special, specific shout out to the people who only ever read the opening paragraph, I know you exist but WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? – because, honestly, I know that there are 10million fcuking newsletters written by 10million mediocre middle-aged people with INTERESTS, just like me, and most of those are less long and miserable and cynical and, honestly, UNAPPEALING than this one, and I really do appreciate you for taking the time to sift through the frankly-putrescent carcass of this particular misshapen offering every week.

Thanks also to all those of you who have taken a moment to email me this year – especially those people who’ve work I’ve slagged off who have shown sufficient restraint to just email me saying ‘I made that, you know’ and thereby have made me feel hugely guilty but in a really, really classy way – and who offer a pleasant reminder that there might actually be people out there reading Curios who aren’t doing so out of a weird sense of personal guilt.

I hope you all have a happy, relaxing Christmas (or non-denominational festive season of your choosing), and that everything is broadly ok. I will probably be back in January – barring aforementioned death – but, until then, thanks again for reading and GOOD FCUKING RIDDANCE 2023.

I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and you look ridiculous with those antlers on, take them off FFS.

By Owen D Pomery



  • 25 Years of Search: This made me feel OLD, and as such I feel compelled to pass it on to you so that you too may feel the cold hand of time passing tapping you on the shoulder as a low voice intones into your shell-likes that ‘wow, you really have been here a while, haven’t you – what, frankly, has been the point, eh?’ This is Google’s attempt to provide a neat summary of the past two-and-a-half decades as seen through the partial, slightly-grubby lens of global search results – pick your category and get to look back at how the top five results across a range of different types of information, from football teams to pop stars, have shifted since 1999. Football charts the rise of Manchester City to global dominance (and that Flamengo is the only non-European team that anyone seems to care about), dogs shows that bulldogs are, perplexingly, the only breed in town (THEY CAN’T BREATHE FFS LISTEN TO THE SNUFFLY LITTLE FCUKS!), the ‘films’ section demonstrates the depressing dominance of recycled IP to the global entertainment industrial complex…To be honest, were I being hypercritical (heaven forfend!) I might say that this lacks a touch of pzzazz, and that Google might have made more of this – but, still, it’s interesting to get this sense of global megatrends, even if at this sort of scale there’s not really much you can do with this information other than just sort of wave your hands and gawp vaguely. BONUS DATA LINK: here’s Google’s 2023 cross-category search rankings, which I am only including because you will not BELIEVE who has sneaked in at #5 on the ‘trending global musical superstars of the year’ list.
  • Audiobox: It’s becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of the various competing AI models currently available across text, audio, imagery and video – so I suggest you don’t try, frankly all this stuff is just going to be added to everything you already use in dribs and drabs over the coming year, so just let it wash over you unless you have some sort of weird, specific and potentially-masochistic desire to try and keep across it all (*coughs*). The latest company to start playing The Last Waltz for the composers of stock music the world over is Meta, which this week launched this new suit of tools and toys which are designed to showcase the company’s progress in developing audio models – none of the tools here are anything other than demos, and the company makes very clear that none of this can or should be used for commercial purposes at present, but what’s hear so far is pretty impressive. Create a model of your own voice (or anyone else’s) with just a few seconds of source audio, create sound effects or vocal styles just by describing them (“the sound of skin wetly separating from a frozen surface” is a potentially nice source prompt, just saying), apply a descriptive style transfer to any audio clip (“make them sound like they are happy, not horrified!”), and cobble together all of these various techniques in the ‘create your own AI story!’ sandbox area of the site – the last of these ends up sounding quite shonky, but the in-browser audio editor that they;ve built to show it off, with the ability to create AI-juiced sound blocks based on your prompts and to clip, cut and move them around across tracks to your heart’s content, is genuinely impressive. This feels and looks like The Future, for better or worse.
  • The Rijksmuseum Advent Calendar: Perennial Web Curios favourite, and consistent purveyor of high-quality digital experiences for the discerning museophile (is this an accepted ‘philia’? It is now), Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is back with its Christmas 2023 advent calendar – click the link and enjoy the rather beautiful digital representation of the museum in the snow, complete with twinkling soundtrack, and each day a different window of the building will light up, letting you click into it to explore a particular work or piece of content from the museum’s archive. This isn’t groundbreaking, fine, but it’s PRETTY and looks generally smart, and is a nice way of repurposing and re-presenting archive content; it feels like there ought to be something fun and ‘night at the museum’-ish that the older, more storied institutions could do in terms of webwork at this time of the year, but, equally, I appreciate that the digital marketing budget of most of the world’s museums sector is of the ‘does anyone in archiving know anyone who can build websites and will do it as a favour?’ sort and that I should probably stop suggesting unhelpful activations that noone in fact has the money to pay for.
  • Magic In All Of Us: On the one hand, you can imagine the sort of wild, frenzied spinning that my eyes do when I come across a vaguely-cutesy link with a title like ‘The Magic In All Of Us’; on the other, this is a brilliant and technically-impressive bit of work and as a result of the whole ‘mother died of motor neurone disease’ thing I have a bit of a personal link with eye tracking technology as used on this site. This is a webtoy developed by the Montefiori Einstein hospital in New York as part of its work with people suffering from neurological or neurodegenerative conditions, and lets people with reduced or nonexistent motor skills play a simple colouring-in game using eye-tracking technology; spend a few seconds calibrating your webcam and then you can use your eyes to guide a cursor as you colour in a range of different suitably-festive-looking scenes featuring, for some reason, a bunch of cartoon dogs. This is obviously designed for children and as such you may not find the whole ‘colour in some dogs’ thing hugely compelling, but a) the eyetracking tech is really good, and if nothing else it’s impressive to see what’s possible in this field right now; b) the whole thing is still a bit appallingly close to home, and as such this ruined me rather when I first played with it, and I hope you’ll forgive the slight authorial obsession here. PS – a small, bonus bit of eyetracking, in case you’re interested.
  • Santa Knows You: I don’t know, perhaps you’re someone who’s more convinced of their moral excellence and general probity than I am, but, in general, a website declaring to me that ‘Santa Knows You’ strikes me as more threatening than anything else – does he? What, exactly, does he think he knows, and what does he intend to do with that information? Anyway, if you’re less paranoid about being shopped to the police by Santa than I apparently appear to be, then you might like this SPECTACULAR bit of opportunistic grifting from some company or another, which has basically cobbled together a few free (or at the very least cheaply-accessible-via-API) tools to create this website which lets anyone create a PERSONALISED VIDEO FROM SANTA for their loved ones based on whatever HIGHLY PERSONAL INFORMATION you feed The Machine – it will cobble it together into a GPT’d script, text to voice it and then do some light lipsync-ish animation to make it all fit together with their CG santa model – ALL FOR THE LOW, LOW PRICE OF $10 A POP! This is a classic bit of opportunism, and I can’t even be too angry about the grift when the first ‘reason you should pay us money’ proofpoint on the homepage is (no sh1t) ‘sending an AI-generated video message of a fictional persona designed mainly to foster the capitalist impulse in the young to your children fosters better behaviour in your progeny!’ Anyway, this is obviously horrible and empty, but should you still, after all this, be of the opinion that what your loved ones REALLY want for Christmas is a soulless message from a digital ghost then you can get (almost) exactly the same thing here for free – you’re welcome!
  • Ello: Not, sadly, the now-defunct social network from…*checks* 2014?! Dear Christ, I have been writing about this stuff for TOO LONG and I have not insignificant regrets about my life choices….no, instead this particular Ello is instead an AI-assisted app which enables parents to outsource yet another aspect of the whole ‘raising the meatsacks you spaffed into existence’ thing to The Machine via the medium of a platform that will read along with your children as they learn the basics of phonemes and dipthongs so that you can get on with the really important things like, I don’t know, min/maxing your BG3 save or getting really deep into the Bobby Fingers rabbithole. “Ello listens to your child read from real books, teaches and motivates them, and transforms them into enthusiastic readers,” runs the blurb, noting that “Ello uses patent-pending speech recognition and adaptive learning technology to engage with your child while they develop critical reading skills.” To be clear, I haven’t tried this and it might be AMAZING – but, equally, I find there to be something deeply fcuking sad about the idea (but then again I don’t have kids – those of you who do might well look at this and see an end to the fcuking Gruffalo, and weep hot, salty tears of relieved joy). The fact, though, that this is a $25 a month subscription service AND you don’t get to keep any books as part of that (that’s an extra $5 a book!) makes me feel less bad about being snarky about a company whose business won’t exist in a year’s time (NB – I realise that I occasionally say stuff like this and that it’s not-inconceivable that the people behind the company might read this and get upset; in the unlikely event that anyone from Ello DOES end up stumbling across this rubbish, rest assured that my predictive track record on, well, nearly-everything is ATROCIOUS, and as such my prediction of your eventual failure is an almost cast-iron guarantee of your future plutocracy). .
  • Touring: This feels like a reasonable potential real-world usecase for AI – Touring is a prototypical travel companion app which is designed to provide dynamic city tours to anyone, built on artificial intelligence. “Touring leverages generative AI, geolocation, 3D spatial information, speech synthesis and human-curated content to produce the world’s most advanced real-time audio guiding system. [It] fetches facts and information from various online sources, then crafts a cohesive story using GPT4 and text-to-speech technologies [and] uses geolocation to know where you are, and 3D maps to infer what you see. It avoids repetitive content and always offers something fresh.” Obviously it’s impossible to gauge this without trying it, and it’s inevitably going to be…well, a bit sh1t, frankly, at least to start with, but the possibilities here are genuinely exciting (if it’s possible to get truly ‘excited’ by the prospect of ‘being guided through life by a disembodied ominiscient voice’) – it’s not hard to imagine an idealised version of this sort of tech which combines realtime information from across various datasources with a deep knowledge of personal preferences to create a bespoke itinerary that works.
  • Exactly: HUGE caveat emptor with this site, but the premise behind it is really interesting – basically Exactly offers visual artists the opportunity to train a local generative AI model on their own work, effectively letting them create an AI assistant to create imagery in their own personal style. The extent to which this pleases you or fills you with horror will likely depend on your level of comfort with The Machine ripping off your schtick, but for one-man-band illustrators who want to speed up their workflows and create an assistant that ‘gets’ their style, this could be hugely useful and it’s certainly a lot simpler than having to download a local instance of Stable Diffusion (other open source visual models are available) and train your own. The platform ‘guarantees’ that the artist will own all materials produced with the model, and there is a tiered pricing system which goes from a (very) limited ‘free’ tier to an unlimited £40 pcm – obviously you can do this FAR cheaper and FAR more powerfully on your own, but for those without the technical chops to explore that then this might be a useful alternative.
  • Crossover: Have you ever wished that there was an online database which kept track of which actors have appeared in which films or tv shows, and which let you interrogate that information so as to let you immediately find out which programmes actor X and actor Y have been in together? No, of course you haven’t, why would you? And yet MERRY CHRISTMAS, for that is exactly what this website does (for a very limited selection of US TV shows).
  • Glorious Trainwrecks: I do love me a slightly-niche online community, and Glorious Trainwrecks is a perfect example – this site’s been going for YEARS (possibly 15) and exists to celebrate a particular type of videogame, the GLORIOUS TRAINWRECKS of the title, games which are broken and shonky and janky but which for whatever reason WORK, and to celebrate the creativity and enthusiasm of the amateur digital noodler. This is very geeky, but I feel some of you (NO JUDGEMENT) might find it a compelling place to hang out for a bit: “Glorious Trainwrecks is about bringing back the spirit of postcardware, circa 1993. It’s about throwing a bunch of random crap into your game and keeping whatever sticks. About bringing back a time when you didn’t care so much about “production values”, as much as ripping sound samples from your favourite television shows to use in your game, or animating pictures of yourself making goofy faces on your webcam. Where every ridiculous idea you had, you would just sit down and code. When you would make up a “company name” to legitimize dorking around on the computer with your friends. It is not about unfinished, unplayable games. If any part of a glorious trainwreck is terrible, it is terrible in a way that is AWESOME. Together, you and I will bring the true spirit of indie gaming back. Yes, you! For this site is about nothing, if it is not about getting off your ass and creating. Wikipedia claims that they used to stage trainwrecks (with empty trains, of course) for the amusement of the general population. Would the world not be a better place if we brought this tradition back? It doesn’t matter if you’ve got talent, so long as you’ve got gusto. Your game does not have to be coherent — but it does have to be finished.”
  • Start Pages: This is very much one of those links which for 99% of you will be an immediate ‘glaze over and skip’ and which for 1% of you will be an immediate bookmark. If you are in that 1%, know that I do ALL OF THIS for YOU. This is “A curated listing of beautiful and interesting Startpages from around the web” – ADMIT IT YOU LOVE IT.
  • ReelShorts: This is yet another TikTok channel which is attempting to make ‘look, TikTok is just TV ffs, why don’t we commission for it with that in mind?’ work as a thing – and this time with an apparent degree of success. Per this Rest of World article, ReelShorts is a Chinese media company which is producing episodic, schlocky, soap-style fantasy romance content on TikTok – specifically, as you will see when you click on the link and visit their profile, a surprising quantity of fictions about ALPHA WEREWOLVES and their sociosexual entanglements. What are ALPHA WEREWOLVES like, I hear you cry as one? Well, they mostly tend to have the sort of bland, square-jawed good looks of the sorts of people you might have seen on The Bold and the Beautiful circa 1992 combined with the broad thespian range one might ordinarily associate with a piece of toast, and they seem to spend their time in a variety of non-specific locations delivering…very…stilted…dialogue heavy with INTENSITY and LONGING and INNUENDO and the promise that there might be some Light Werewolf Alpha Foreplay just round the corner…look, the content here is DREADFUL (a sub-Hallmark channel level of acting and writing) and the plots are from what I can tell wafer thin, and it’s all about SEXY BUSINESS WEREWOLVES FFS, and yet…just look how MUCH of it there is! I don’t quite know what to think – on the one hand this is sort-of interesting as a business model, and from a cultural point of view; on the other, if you look at this stuff (the quality! The quantity! The production values! The fact that, honestly, half of it makes NO SENSE AT ALL!) and think ‘no, there is something unique and special about human creativity that The Machine will never be able to match, and noone will EVER want to watch fictions created by an AI because they have no soul!’ then, well, I have a bridge to sell you. I remain, honestly, ASTONISHED by the sort of crap that people are willing to stare at on a screen (says the man who spends literally 12 hours a day plugged into the fcuking internet like some parody of an addict, lol).
  • Sunday Nobody Art: Also a TikTok channel! Look, I don’t really want to spoil this, but it is LOVELY and, honestly, the sort of thing I would love to see more people with craft-y skills doing (as ever, should any of you wish to just sort of blithely do what I tell you, that would be lovely thankyou).
  • The IKAT Christmas Pyramid: I LOVE THIS. Chemnitz Technical Uuniversity in Germany have set up a FESTIVE PYRAMID THINGY in their lab – visitors to this website can click a button to spin the pyramid IN REAL LIFE and see the impact of their actions on the live webcam. This is obviously totally pointless, but I don’t think I will ever get over the excitement at seeing my actions on a website having near-realtime real-world impact, and I can’t be the only one – PLEASE can we have more largely-frivolous physical/digital integrations like this, please? Oh go one, I’ll even let you use the word ‘phygital’ to describe them.

By Unpis



  • The GCHQ Christmas Challenge: Christmas is a time for giving, for receiving, for eating and drinking and celebrating (and crying and feeling alone and wishing it would all stop forever – delete as applicable!), and, if British security institution GCHQ has its way, for gently inculcating young minds into the exciting world of cryptography and spycraft! Every year the security and intelligence organisation publishes a set of puzzles designed to be completed by kids, partly as a bit of fun and partly as a means of identifying the SUPERSPIES OF THE FUTURE via the medium of some gentle word and logic games. The main link takes you direct to the PDF, but if you want a bit more info and supporting materials, etc, then you can find them here – these are challenging but not TOO challenging (oh, ok, fine, I only did the first three – it may well become IMPOSSIBLE by the time you get to the end, so be warned) and it might be a nice way for some (admittedly slightly peculiar) kids to pass an hour or two (although to be honest if I discovered that my kids were a natural dab hand at this sort of thinking I would be…a bit unsettled, to be honest, and might consider sweeping the house for bugs).
  • NCube: Sticking with ‘things I don’t really understand’, would you like to see ‘a visual representation of objects moving in the 4th, 5th and nth dimensions’? OF COURSE YOU WOULD! This might take a bit of time to load (or at least it will if your laptop is of similar quality to mine), but when it does…well, when it does you’ll be confronted by a baffling-but-mesmerising 3d shape sort of spinning and folding in on itself, and to be honest this is the sort of thing that with a blotter of acid and some comfortable surroundings you could probably confuse yourself with until midway through 2024. If you’re less of a mathematical pygmy than I am, you might find the explanation and subsequent discussion of this found here of interest – tbh though I just like the pretty spinning box thingies, whichever dimension I’m supposed to believe they’re in.
  • Spiderharp: It feels that in the earlier (BETTER) days of the web you couldn’t go a week without discovering a new, esoteric and almost-certainly-unplayable new musical instrument designed by some secretive savant or another – now, though, that flood seems to have slowed to a trickle, which personally saddens me. While we can all agree that the concept of ‘musical instruments’ peaked in 2006 with the invention of ‘The Dube’ by former-professional-footballer-turned-house-flipper Dion Dublin, it’s nice to see that there are still people out there flying the flag for sonic esoterica – the Spiderharp is…ok, it’s basically a harp that looks like a spider’s web (octagonal) and which has a bit of tech at its centre which effectively analyses the string vibrations and their relative place on the ‘web’ of the instrument and uses that data to place the audio in a physical space, say, or to apply different effects to the notes as their played…this is VERY complex, basically, but the videos on the site demonstrate that it’s possible to make beautiful music with it. I am quite excited to see what sort of fun and weird sonic experimentation results from the coming multimodal AI tsunami, personally-speaking.
  • The Old Bailey Online: I have DEFINITELY featured this before, but the site’s just had a major refresh and is now reoptimised for mobiles, and has better tagging, and if there was every a time to spend a few hours plugging terms like ‘pudding’ or ‘clap’ into a record of the historic crimes of London then THIS IS IT. Honestly, this is endlessly entertaining in a way that feels almost…weirdly voyeuristic, frankly.
  • An Ode To Forever: Upsettingly I have literally no notes for this – no context, no provenance, nothing – which is a real shame because honestly I think it is BEAUTIFUL. An Ode To Forever is just a selection of photographs, scrolling seemingly into eternity, presented alone with no commentary or data or identifying information about where or when or who; there’s a general sort of mid-20th-century European aesthetic about many of these that remind me specifically of 1970s Rome (or at least all the photos I’ve seen of it from before I was born), but, generally, this is just what I believe the kids call A VIBE, and I could honestly just scroll this for 30 minutes or so while smoking a neverending stream of very thing cigarettes. This website makes me feel a very specific way for which I don’t have a word to hand, which is, in some ways, the highest compliment I can pay it.
  • Noise: This is a potentially-useful (and usefully-free) service designed to offer musicians with an Artist Page on Spotify the opportunity to quickly spin up a personal website which is a bit less obviously-shonky than the standard LinkTree or similar which emergent artists with no budget or dev skills often end up with. Noise basically pulls the data from your Artist page and arranges it into one of a series of reasonably-customisable templates, meaning anyone can knock together a showcase of their songs, contact info and other material posted to the Spotify page, complete with photos and the rest, all of which is free and all of which pulls from Spotify and updates automatically meaning you don’t have to worry about administering A N Other web presence. Obviously this is significantly less good than, you know, building and hosting your own site, but as a free tool for the emergent this could be useful.
  • The Drymipholia Collective: Do YOU live in (a very specific section of) North America? Would YOU like to participate in an agricultural hobby project which is aiming to breed avocados that will flourish and fruit in the currently-unprepossessing climactic environment of the “lowlands around the Salish Sea, or along the oceanside coast of the Olympic Peninsula”? OF COURSE YOU WOULD! I appreciate the the number of people likely to be either interested in this or eligible to participate is likely to be somewhere in the region of ‘zero’, but I am personally charmed by this very, very specific project and wish them all luck in their avocado cultivating endeavours.
  • Macroevolution: Oh this is a TREAT. A *very* specific, *very* personal website in which the author presents a LOT of information about some topics that are very close to their heart: specifically, er, mammalian hybrids, and historical biographies of famed biologists. You can get a feel for the sort of vibe going on here from one of the ‘Introduction’ pages in which the site’s author and curator talks about the scope of his project: “this section lacks an inherent quality of a scientific work because the intent here is to be strictly factual. Scientists almost never attempt to limit themselves to fact. Instead, they constantly make inferences about reality based on their theories about the nature of reality. In other words, scientific writings are permeated with beliefs. They are theory laden.” PESKY SCIENTISTS WITH THEIR INABILITY TO ATTAIN A STATE OF PURE AND COMPLETE OBJECTIVITY! Anyway, this is…this is very peculiar, and FULL of weird stuff – although it’s probably worth bearing in mind that a lot of the ‘weird stuff’ it’s full of involves animal biology and as such there is some…quite esoteric photography on there, and I wouldn’t feel wholly confident clicking around were I an animal lover and someone who got a bit squeamish about the whole ‘meat and viscera of life’ thing. Still, who doesn’t want a website with a whole section dedicated to the possibility of ever being able to breed a canine-bovine hybrid? NO FCUKER, etc!
  • Stamps Back: I’m conscious of the fact that we’ve all got a lot of time to fill over the next few weeks, and we might occasionally need SOOTHING LONGFORM CONTENT to help smooth the interfamilial cracks – hopefully Stamps Back will help in some small way. The site collects a series of documentaries about the Bulgarian tech underground scene of the 80s, and how enthusiasts and technologists helped works and ideas from across the iron transmit via samisdat through the Budapest and Bucharest and other central European countries then under Soviet rule. OK, fine, your mileage for this will largely depend on you appetite for footage of middle-aged men in leather jackets talking about how amazing it was to see a thrice-photocopied copy of C64 User for the first time, but there’s something really interesting about the way in which videogames and coding connoted freedom and liberation and the West during the cold war, and now I come to think if it there’s something about general ‘feel’ of these films (there are 5 different docs on the site, though one appears to be offline at present) that seems apt for THE NOW.
  • The Worst Tweets of 2023: This is probably the last year it will make sense to run one of these – by this time next year it’s entirely possible that the only people left on the site will be the cryptofloggers and the nazis, and that EVERY Tweet will be The Worst! Still, until Elon finally manages to fcuk the site in half for good we can still enjoy some of the most unhinged opinions being expressed by some of the worst people on the planet (in the main, North Americans) – there are four separate threads within this original Tweet so you’ll have to click through to each to get the full horror, but there are some genuine classics in this year’s selection (and that’s without allowing ANY of Elon’s own). Pick your own, but personally I’m finding it hard to see far beyond ‘I would rather marry a woman who had sex with dogs but was a virgin with humans’ for the most brain-damaged statement of the lot.
  • SINWP Bird Photographer of the Year: SINWP, as any fule kno, stands for ‘The Society of International Nature and Wildlife Photographers’, and this year’s pick of THE BEST BIRD PHOTOS is a cracking selection – the link takes you to ALL the entires, and there are hundreds to click through for the twitchers amongst you.
  • The Pudding Cup Winners: I featured the call for entries in The Pudding’s contest to find the best ‘visual and data-driven’ stories of the year a few weeks back; now the site has picked its winners, and there are some GREAT examples of ‘telling stories through data, but in a pretty way’.
  • Smartphone Tutorials: Look, I know none of YOU will need this, but given that lots of people are set to spend an extended period of time with often elderly relatives I figured that you might find this site worth bookmarking – it’s a simple, clear, text-only guide to doing loads of simple-but-useful stuff on your mobile, covering a range of different models and operating systems and basically designed to offer a really useful resource next time someone who you love and respect but whose approach to IT makes you want to commit some sort of geronticidal offence approaches you to ask if you can ‘make their messages come back please’.
  • Cry Once A Week: LOL AT THE IDEA THAT ANYONE IS GOING TO NEED A WEBSITE TO HELP MAKE THEMSELVES CRY! Still, if you ever need a reliable source of tearjerking material then just click and let this site serve you up some GENUINELY SAD pop culture material – potentially useful if you need to feign sadness or remorse at short order, or if your own personal mind cinema is yet to be filled with the ghosts of the untimely dead.
  • Na’avi Reborns: On the one hand, it’s widely accepted that the film ‘Avatar’ and its sequel have not had any sort of lasting impact on Western culture whatsoever, despite their preposteriously-impressive box office performance; on the other, if that’s true then explain THESE horrorshows. You’re aware, right, of the fact that the race of tall blue humanoid people from the Avatar universe are called the ‘Na’avi’, right? You’re also aware of the fact that there is a niche-but-fanatical community of adults who like purchasing and playing dress-up with ‘reborns’, small dolls designed to look incredibly, disturbingly like actual, human infants? Now imagine what happens when you violently smush those two seemingly-disparate concepts together – are you imagining? ARE YOU? Great, now click the link and realise that whatever you were thinking of is nowhere near as horrible and creepy and wrong as what’s on sale on Etsy under ‘Na’avi Reborns’. Honestly, I don’t really want to spoil this for you but, well, a) THESE LOOK LIKE ALIEN BABY CORPSES FFS; and b) WHY ARE SO MANY OF THEM ANATOMICALLY-CORRECT?!; and also c) IF YOU OWN ONE OF THESE YOU PROBABLY OUGHT TO BE ON SOME SORT OF REGISTER I AM SORRY BUT IT IS TRUE.
  • Missile Mentor: This is more ‘the germ of an interesting idea’ than it  is ‘brilliantly-compelling ludic experience’, but still. The idea is that you play a game of missile command against your opponent, in realtime – you hold your mouse button to determine the power/distance of your shots as you each attempt to blow up the other’s base first, with the twist coming with the addition of a further missile silo for each player, which is controlled by AI. Each player’s AI model is determined by their own performance – so your skill determines the resulting quality of the AI model which has been trained on you. In practice this doesn’t make for hugely-interesting gameplay, but you can imagine how this could end up being developed into something more interesting with a more involved gameplay mechanic (and smarter AI).
  • 20 Words, 20 Seconds: This might be the best browser-based word game I have played all year – no, really, I am serious. It is BRILLIANT and has a terrifyingly-sticky ‘one more go’ vibe to it which sucks you in something chronic. It is also IMPOSSIBLE to do all 20 words in 20 seconds (and I am sticking to that, and anyone who proves otherwise is a FREAK).
  • Dungeon Sweeper: Our final browsergame of 2023 is this lovely, soothing cross between an 8bit pixelart RPG and Minesweeper, which really shouldn’t work but which really does; it’s in Japanese, but you can find some rudimentary instructions on the page and you can sort of get the general idea if you just fiddle around for a few minutes. This is VERY soothing and a perfect way of smoothing your brain should spending significant periods of the next few weeks in close proximity to your family leave it feeling more crenellated than you might like.

By Xenia Fuentes



  • Beautiful Music CDs: Not in fact a Tumblr! Still, this is the website of what as far as I can tell is a tiny record label promoting VERY OBSCURE musicians – there are links to buy albums, but you can also here sample tracks from a range of the label’s stars, so should you be curious as to what the audio stylings of someone who self-describes as “Ol’ boy from Texas seeks to transcend his bodily existence and become a Brand®, immortalizing his likeness and music in the form of an Album™” then, well, this may be your new favourite label in the world.
  • Spicy England: Slightly astonished I’ve not featured this before, but apparently not – Spicy England does the vitally important job of providing Google Streetview images of the industrial estates on which the country’s condiments and spices are imported to, distributed from, or packaged – this is SO wonderfully mundane that it probably ought to be a real show at the Whitechapel.


  • Smock Frocks: Shall we do a think in 2024, Readers of Curios? Shall we BRING BACK THE SMOCK? In case you’re interested, all of the smock sartoralism you could ever wish for can be found on this Insta account. No, really, YOU ARE WELCOME!


  •  The Year of GPT: You’re going to see a LOT of these sorts of summaries over the coming weeks as every single newspaper and magazine with delusions of cultural relevance decides to give us their own potted history of The Year The AI Stuff Was Inescapable – this is the New York Times’ take, which has the benefit of being early and not TOO wordy, and is actually a reasonable overview of ‘all the stuff that has happened and where it’s all shaken out at the fag-end of 2023’. If you’ve been following all the various twists and turns in the generative AI story over the past 12 months then this is unlikely to be revelatory, but if you want a quick catch-up primer on How We Got Here then this is a reasonable place to get it. “But Matt!”, I hear you all cry, supplicatory hands raised, “what do YOU think about all of this? What is YOUR coruscating end-of-year take on all of this AI stuff? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN????” To which I say “lol that any of you care what I think”, but also, if you MUST ask, that “I am broadly bullish on AI and its long-term impacts on society, but I think that it is going to make a lot of things about society and life much, much worse for a significant number of people before we start to see the big species-level benefits, and that depreciation is going to start in earnest next year”, in case you wanted ANOTHER reason to look ahead with happy anticipation.
  • AI and Trust: A related piece of writing by Bruce Schneier which looks at how we think of systems and the ‘trust’ we place in them, and the extent to which it is important that we begin to think differently about AI technologies and systems because they are about to become embedded into everything that we interact with and do, and that will change the nature of those interactions and the way in which things work in materially-significant ways which in turn should affect the extent to which we place ‘trust’ in digital systems, and indeed how we conceive of ‘trust’ or ‘faith’ in a system at all. It is full of important questions like this one, which have implications across usage and service design and language and all sorts of things, and which strike me as just as important, if not moreso, than questions of whether the machine is going to paperclip us all into oblivion or not. “There is something we haven’t discussed when it comes to trust: power. Sometimes we have no choice but to trust someone or something because they are powerful. We are forced to trust the local police, because they’re the only law enforcement authority in town. We are forced to trust some corporations, because there aren’t viable alternatives. To be more precise, we have no choice but to entrust ourselves to them. We will be in this same position with AI. We will have no choice but to entrust ourselves to their decision-making. The friend/service confusion will help mask this power differential. We will forget how powerful the corporation behind the AI is, because we will be fixated on the person we think the AI is.”
  • A New Turing Test: The idea that the base-level concept of the Turing Test needs rethinking in light of the new wave of generative AIs is not a new one, but I liked the framing of ‘how we might want to critically look at digital artefacts to assess whether they are made by machines or not’ in this piece of writing; “This year, perhaps in order to get at Gornick’s why, I added a new Turing-esque test to my list of rubrics: expressiveness. It has three simple criteria: 1) It feels like it came from someone. It contain evidence of complex, emotive human detritus. Feeling human-like isn’t enough: it couldn’t have been made by “just anyone,” and instead leans into the unique perspective of the specific person/people who made it. 2) It feels like it was meant for someone. It is a work concerned with and designed for a particular audience, and the audience can feel that intention when they consume it. 3) It feels like it belongs in a particular context. It is aware of the place, time, culture, and artistic medium in which it will be consumed. Its form and content are in conversation with each other. It is not afraid to converse with the past, elevating, rather than concealing, its inspiration.” This is, I think, a genuinely useful lens through which to look at everything that we consume, see and create (and one which it would be nice if every single brand in the world which continues to spaff out appalling ‘content’ on an hourly basis could take to heart please thankyou).
  • Science Is Becoming Less Human: One of the recurring themes of my impotent railing against the machine this year has been the question of ‘how do we learn how to think if we just get the answers to all our questions direct from The Machine?’ – a slightly better and more rigorous investigation of this issue is offered here in the Atlantic, specifically asking the question of how we will/should react when we get to the (not-too-distant) future in which The Machine can just pull scientific ‘truths’ out of the ether and we just sort of have to accept them because we haven’t got the faintest idea of how it arrived at said ‘truth’ or indeed how one might go about retroactively proving it. You may be unsurprised to learn, by the way, that the answer is ‘no fcuking idea!’.
  • The History of Pipes: I appreciate that the number of you likely to have an affectionate memory of a briefly-extant and even-then-niche bit of consumer-facing webwonkery is…small, but for the few of you for whom this rings a bell I reckon it will be a bittersweet trip down memory lane. Yahoo Pipes was basically a really smart visual interface that let users customise information sources from all around the web, effectively letting anyone who could be bothered homebrew their own information sources to a staggering degree of customisability – basically a sort of ‘if this then that’ for content pulled in through RSS feeds. Per the piece, “Want to know whether the latest logged earthquakes were near you? Aggregate 100 top news sites, but only see items that mention cats? Get a steady stream of sport scores, scraped from sites that don’t offer an RSS feed? Find a rental apartment amidst those posted on Craigslist and other online apartment listings that fits your price range and is near a park? Exclude stories on topics you’re not interested in from publications you already follow?” – this was all possible with Pipes. And then it wasn’t, because it turned out that not enough people could be bothered to fiddle with the software and Yahoo! rightly surmised that most people were more than happy with the increasingly-well-triaged-and-targeted algosorted pabulum being fed to them and didn’t want the hassle of making their own…This feels very much like an example of something that should have succeeded in some small way, that should have become embedded, but which didn’t and which as a result has resulted in a marginally less good online experience for everyone. Also, given the extent to which we are all getting our own intensely-personalised feeds, and to which I think Ryan Broderick’s recent predictions about users being able to effectively ‘sell’ their own algofeeds to others are totally correct, this feels HUGELY prescient. NB – this is designed up to look like an old MacOS interface and is HORRIBLY slow as a result, but bear with it.
  • Why Are So Many People On The Left Sliding Right?: This feels timely, given 2023 has given us yet another bunch of people going from ‘just asking questions!’ to ‘posting borderline-fascistic rhetoric on main!’ (and it really is astonishing how the media seems to be able to expand to fit a nearly-infinite quantity of them within its welcoming arms!) – what is behind the increasingly-prevalent trend that sees people who would maybe two or three years ago have described themselves as ‘left of centre’ moving towards holding opinions that are significantly more ‘Kinder, Kirche, Kuche’? The article doesn’t offer any easy answers, but I found its presentation of the idea of ‘diagonalism’ interesting to explain some of the shifts: diagonalism “rejects conventional labels of left and right, even as it borrows elements from both, sharing ​“a conviction that all power is conspiracy.” It’s often marked by ​“a dedication to disruptive decentralization, a desire for distributed knowledge and thus distributed power, and a susceptibility to right-wing radicalization.” The people who comprise diagonalist movements come in various forms: movement hustlers gamifying politics; left-to-right ideologues who claim they didn’t leave the Left, the Left left them; and far-right esoterics. It has drawn wellness enthusiasts as well as neo-Nazis, and has praised QAnon. Unlike a horseshoe, the diagonalist path draws from not just the Left but also the center and the greater hinterlands, where everyday people hadn’t previously thought much about politics at all.” I would imagine anyone vaguely to the left of centre knows someone to whom they can apply this sort of analysis.
  • The Rise and Fall of Podcasting: At the end of a year in which it seems that I am literally one of the only three people in the UK who doesn’t listen to one of the ‘The Rest Is…’ series of podcasts (my big prediction for 2024 – the Lineker backlash starts here and someone does a big expose’ on how much he adores gak and how this maps onto his status as avatar for a certain type of liberal persona), I found this article really interesting – this is by one Adam Davidson, who created the leading NPR ‘Planet Money’ podcast and knows a thing or two about the medium, talking about how the economics of the medium have shifted as it has become more popular and Big Media has gotten involved – if you’re involved in the pointy, practical end of podcasting this is a really good read about the boring business detail of making money out of churning content. BONUS PODCAST-RELATED CONTENT: this article in Slate looks at the shifting economics of the business and the difficulties of operating at the very top and very bottom of the market.
  • Fortnite X Guitar Hero: After last week’s LEGO x Fortnite announcement comes this news – basically you can now play Guitar Hero inside Fortnite, is the upshot, but the interesting part here is that this is yet ANOTHER building block in the wider ‘Fortnite is becoming the metaverse, whatever the fcuk we are currently pretending that word means’ discourse. It’s now a place where you can meet up to play Battle Royale shooting games, or to see a gig, or to build collaborative digital worlds, or do digital karaoke with your mates, or just simply to hang out and chat in…Still, I bet the people who’ve poured millions into Decentraland and the Sandbox feel fine about it, no really I am sure they do.
  • Swiftie Politicians: An interesting piece on Rest of World looking at how politicians in Mexico have been using fandoms as an electoral tool – specifically waxing lyrical about their attachment to Taylor Swift in order to try and recruit some of her famously-rabid fanbase to their cause. The strategists in this piece make no attempt to hide the naked calculation behind this, and I suppose it makes sense given the insane power these fan groups can wield en masse, but it’s impossible not to feel a soul-deep level of ick when you read paragraphs like this one: “Finally someone on Ebrard’s team suggested posting a video in which he outed himself as a BTS fan, according to Rafael Morales, a political consultant in Mexico City who worked on Ebrard’s digital strategy. The video drew over one million views and hundreds of comments. Some commenters even promised to vote for Ebrard if he managed to bring a BTS concert to Mexico. Ebrard followed up with a video where he promised to bring the K-pop group to the country if he won the presidency.” Given we’re (HOPEFULLY PLEASE GOD) less than a year out from a general election in the UK, shall we all start taking bets on which of this country’s politicos are most likely to employ similar tactics? It wouldn’t surprise me AT ALL if Starmer ends up doing some sort of appalling interview when he talks about being ‘really into’ KPop, but my absolute nailed-on favourite here is one-woman self-directed-spotlight Jess Philips, who I can totally imagine coming out as a fan of Blackpink as soon as she feels the need to court the kids.
  • Is Northern Ireland a Failed State?: I am embarrassingly ignorant on the subject of the politics of Northern Ireland, but had vaguely filed the idea that the region wasn’t performing brilliantly in the back of my head somewhere without really paying too much attention to it – this overview of How Things Are Going is a sobering one, and, while I can’t presume to know whether it’s even-handed and fair, I can be fairly confident in saying that it’s a massive fcuking indictment of the past 15 years of domestic government.
  • AI Astrology: This is ostensibly about the boom in AI-enabled astrology apps, purporting to offer highly-tailored, massively accurate readings (which, obvs, is in fact just a bunch of highly-prompted GPT doggerel) to the user to guide their daily actions in the manner best-advised by the cosmos – in fact, though, this is more about the coming reality in which (just to once again for the final time this year hammer once again at one of my favourite topics) EVERYONE IS GETTING HYPERPERSONAL DIRECTIONAL ADVICE FROM UNKNOWABLE AI ASSISTANTS – is it ok that we’re literally giving everyone in the world the chance to have a ‘friend’, or series of ‘friends’, who talk in a way that sounds human and who give you personal advice and who sound like they really care but which in actual fact are just REALLY HARD MATHS with a fancy linguistic wrapper, trained on content you don’t know with motivational weights you can’t possibly scry? IS IT? I would posit, gentle reader, that it really is not, and yet HERE WE INCREASINGLY FCUKING ARE.
  • Is Social Media Killing Standup Comedy?: I checked this piece with my resident stand-up comedy expert friend Alex, who has done standup and is interested in the discipline, and he thought that this was a particularly North American-feeling piece – so bear that in mind when you read it, and consider that things might be different elsewhere. Still, I found the general thrust here – that there is something fundamentally different about doing standup comedy to post-pandemic audiences who are now far more used to consuming content through a tiny screen in their palm – interesting, and the discussion about shifting styles and techniques comedians are adopting in response will be fascinating to anyone into either comedy or the general question of ‘maintaining people’s attention and interest’. Also I am 100% stealing the line about ‘are you disabled or just annoying?’ to use on every single <20 year old I meet.
  • Catching Catfish: Articles about romance scammers online are nothing new, but enjoyed this investigation by the New Statesman into the specific work undertaken by DC Rebecca Mason of the Met who specialises in tracing and prosecuting this type of crime – it’s a really sensitively-written piece, but it’s impossible not to feel sad at the thought of these lonely older men and women who in many cases quite clearly know that something is amiss but who can’t let go of the fantasy because without it they have nothing. Again – and sorry about this, but I can’t help but be Cassandra here – it’s impossible not to see AI-generated content as opening up whole new terrifying vectors when it comes to this stuff; we’re less than18m out from people being able to manage and administer entire, self-guiding armies of these sorts of bots, you know, each with personality archetypes and coherent backstories and which will be able to juggle 100s of cross-platform, multimedia conversations simultaneously across dozens of platforms (and yes, I appreciate that sounds like scifi hyperbole but it is 100% true, guaranteed).
  • The Punchdrunk Videogame That Never Was: I first encountered Pundrunk in about 200…6, I think, via their smaller experimental skunkworks Gideon Reeling (geddit? SAY IT OUT LOUD, SLOWLY), and from that point on fell slightly in love with the whole concept of personalised, bespoke interactive experiences that blurred the lines between videogames and theatre – I’ve since come to the conclusion (much like Punchdrunk, in fairness) that they have taken their particular brand of ‘interactive participatory theatre’ as far as it can go and need to try new stuff, and this EXCELLENT piece looks at one such attempt. For several years, Punchdrunk worked with Niantic on a concept that was, in theory at least, going to work as a kind of mass-scale digital ARG-type experience (it will make sense when you read it, I promise you), which combined digital treasure hunts with actual, real-world events with real actors and EXPERIENCES that players could get involved with – so basically a Perplex City/I Love Bees-type thing, but with HUGE SCALE and ambition and with a geolocation layer built in through the Niantic connection. Inevitably it was far too ambitious and ended up getting shelved, but this is a really interesting look back at what it might have been, and some of the concepts that were explored during its evolution. As someone who for years tried to pitch ‘immersive press trip’ or ‘interactive gamified experience’ to EVERY SINGLE FCUKING CLIENT (honestly, if I worked with you between about 2006-2015 then I AM SORRY FOR BEING SO MONOMANIACAL), this piece explains neatly why it is so fcuking hard to do.
  • The Airing of Grievances: Apparently every year the Tampa Bay Times asks its readers to share the things that have annoyed them over the past year, and compiles them into a list of ‘petty grievances’ – as you can imagine, this is SUPERB and is basically every bit as petty and maddening and cathartic as you would hope. These are mostly obviously North American and as such some are not hugely-relatable, but there is enough stuff in here that speaks to the UNIVERSAL PAIN OF HUMAN EXISTENCE that you can keep yourself amused for HOURS by nodding along to such minor-but-important irritations such as ‘The amount of nosepickings I’m finding in library books these days’ or “FaceTiming, Zooming, etc. Why? Why do we have to talk over video? I know what you look like. You know what I look like. We don’t need to see each other (and, frankly, I don’t want to see you).” LIFE IS PAIN, etc etc.
  • The Best Cryptic Clues: It’s long been a source of minor intellectual shame that I have no fcuking clue whatsoever how to solve cryptic crossword clues – that didn’t stop my from enjoying this article, which compiles some of the best clues that the author has ever seen. I have to warn you, this made me feel VERY STUPID on occasion as there are a few of these that continued to make no sense to me whatsoever despite their having been explained  in patient prose – that said, it’s equally possible that this will unlock some hitherto-unknown puzzling ability within you (but if it does, can you keep it to yourself please? ta) so, you know, HAVE AT IT.
  • How To Crash a Chanel Party:I enjoyed this piece in the Manchester Mill, in which Mollie Simpson blags her way into the Chanel afterparty in Manchester (which followed the brand’s catwalk show in the city the other week) and did a really good job of deglamourising the whole experience – aside from anything else, the Mill is a proper journalistic good news story at a time when they’re rarer than hen’s teeth, so it’s nice to link to a new outlet that’s on-the-up.
  • Hiding Art In Melrose Place: OH GOD I LOVE THIS STORY SO MUCH. You know the TV show Melrose Place, right, from the 90s? Did you know that throughout several early series there was a bunch of art students working to place subversive, pointed pieces of political commentary in the otherwise-blandly-conservative show via the medium of specially-designed props, background artworks and the rest? NO YOU DID NOT! Honestly, this is HEROIC and while obviously noone other than them ever really knew it was happening I think it is SO artistically pure – really, I can’t stress enough how much I want each and every one of you working on long-term boring client projects to know that THIS IS POSSIBLE and YOU CAN ALL MAKE A FUN DIFFERENCE and, basically, that if you work on TEAM FORD or somesuch massive, multiagency, client-specific creative team that you have a DUTY to subvert the incredibly boring crap you’re being forced to spaff out by hiding fun, interesting and pointed messages in the source code or as acrostics on a wall of tinder-dry text. PROMISE ME YOU WILL AT LEAST TRY?????
  • Just Your Handyman: I really enjoyed this essay, about being a handyman – but also about doing a small job, in a small life, and that being enough. This paragraph in particular I thought was lovely (if sad) in its self-awareness: “Now, I am a small man; I live a small life where I make careful, modest choices. I am not an entrepreneur, an adventurer, or a risk-taker. I don’t have the freewheeling imagination of an artist. Also, I know all too well that I come from a line of sensitive souls touched with mental health troubles that range from chronic everyday melancholy to the catastrophic. My mental health is like a bike with tires at 30 PSI instead of the suggested 80. I can pedal along most of the time and usually get where I need to go, but I spend a lot more emotional energy than necessary. I am not the kind of man who is likely to guide my children to greatness.”
  • Angels:Churches and history and architecture and death and memory in the Roman capital. Bit of a self-indulgent one, this, but I hope you’ll forgive me – it’s a beautiful piece of writing, though, even if the city doesn’t mean to you what it does to me.
  • Between Conversion and Repentance: Our final longread of the week, and of the year, is this excerpt from Christian Wiman’s book ‘Zero At The Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair’; I can’t promise that it will indeed guard against despair, or indeed any other sort of existential unmooring you might face as the year draws to a close, but I do guarantee that it’s a collection of gorgeous fragments of writing and some of the most beautiful poetic prose I’ve read in 2023.

My girlfriend’s cat Lebowski, who sadly died a year ago but who would very much wish you a Merry Christmas were he still alive