MY GOD IT IS SO FCUKING COLD. And yes, I know that there are few things more tedious than making banal, obvious observations about meteorological conditions, but I’m afraid the part of my brain that normally spaffs out the intro section has frozen solid and as such this is all you’re getting this week.
I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and if you’re cold as well then you could do worse than printing this newsletter out and setting fire to it.
THE SECTION WHICH IS SAD IT WILL NEVER RECEIVE A 10.0, PT.1:
- Project 2075: Or, as the appalling pun I just discovered in my one-word note for this put it, ‘FallOakley’. Is Oakley still a ‘cool’ brand (I appreciate you may never have thought of if it as one, but if you were me in 1995 there was literally NOTHING on Earth that you were more convinced would make girls fancy you than a pair of Oakley wraparounds; erroneously, it turns out)? And if not, or if it needs its cool ‘refreshing’ for a younger audience, is the best means by which to do that the creation of a very, very shiny, vaguely-post-apocalyptic (although of course to quote an old friend of mine, “the apocalypse is like Sunday; there is no ‘post’”) website in which YOU, the user/hero/consumer, get to wander through a series of vault-like rooms (hence my not-very-good Fallout reference) and, er, mess around with a time machine contraption which will send you to different eras throughout history to explore the history of the Oakley brand and, I don’t know, save the world or something (I confess to not having followed this particular rabbithole all the way down – I hope you’ll forgive me, but it turns out that my appetite for exploring (admittedly-nicely-rendered) rooms in what is basically a digital museum of sunglasses isn’t actually infinite). This is, honestly, really rather charming – there is obviously quite a lot of development money that sits behind it, and it shows in the shiny visuals and the fact that there’s ACTUAL VOICEWORK, and the fact that it works in first-person rather than being an off-the-shelf metaversal platform buy, and, perhaps best of all, it at no point uses the ‘M’ word at all. Will it make a single person think more positively of Oakley as a brand? Will it sell any sunglasses? I haven’t got the faintest idea, and thankfully it’s not my problem and I don’t have to care – this is pleasingly frivolous and it doesn’t at any point feel like it’s going start trying to sell me NFTs, and as such I think it’s worth a click.
- AI Music Comes to TikTok: The link here takes you to some kid called Daniel Duncan showing you how TikTok’s newly-minted ‘use generative AI to spin up a totally new song to soundtrack your videos!’ feature works, and it’s worth watching for several reasons: 1) the tech is, compared to other text-to-music platforms out there, reasonably fully-featured, generating not only the audio but also lyrics and a ‘vocal performance’ of said lyrics to accompany it; 2) the speed is very impressive; 3) also impressive is the style transfer feature which lets you pretty-much instantly reconfigure an AI-generated tune from, say, EDM to emo with a few swipes; 4) dear fcuking christ even by the generally low standards of current text-to-music tech there are some astonishing crimes against musicality that are going to be committed by this software – the examples shown in the clip are ear-bleedingly awful. Bearing in mind the obvious and ever-present caveat that, yes, this is the worst this is ever going to be and that it is going to get a lot better quite quickly, a few questions: 1) how far are we, do you think, from these tools being able to generate actual hooks? Because at that point I think it gets interesting; 2) obviously this sounds VERY BAD (and the lyrics are almost worse than the ‘music’), but despite this is ‘soundtracking my tiktok with the comedically-bad AI composition’ going to become a thing and, to an extent, normalise this sort of stuff? I obviously have no fcuking clue, and am trying to get out of the habit of predicting things because, well, I have a terrible track record of trying and it increasingly makes me feel even more old and out of touch than I generally do every time I open my eyes, but I am interested to see how it plays out. Anyway, there’s probably about a 48h period in which brands might be able to have fun with this, should any of you be in the invidious position of having to care about that sort of thing.
- Book & Bot: This is an interesting idea – Book & Bot is a website promoting a new kids’ book called ‘Maya Jam Invents a Pet’, which as far as I can tell is a standard-looking children’s tale of plucky kids and idiot parents but which comes with an additional gimmick in the shape of a custom chatbot, personifying, er, the titular Maya’s pet robot goat, which kids can subsequently access and chat with in order, per what I imagine the marketing conversations to have been like, ‘to deepen user engagement’ or ‘enhance the narrative’. Is the book any good? Is the bot any good? Look, I’m a middle-aged childless man, I haven’t got the faintest idea – but given that the webpage suggests that the bot is only available to ChatGPT Premium subscribers and as such is literally just a prompt then I am going to say that…no, the bot probably isn’t going to be a revelatory addition to the publishing game. But! It feels like there is SOMETHING here, although I am curious as to whether the…often somewhat two-dimensional nature of protagonists in kids’ books means you don’t really have a lot to work with in terms of creating parameters for an interesting or meaningful AI agent. Still, I think this is something we will see more of, and it wouldn’t shock me were we to start to see (off the top of my head) themed bots representing beloved characters from big ticket kids’ franchises appearing as part of the commercialisation of said franchises (if someone at Pottermore isn’t working on a ‘Potter in your Pocket’ AI companion app, for example, I would be fcuking astonished). Is that good? Doesn’t matter really.
- Clay: This is REALLY interesting, if I’m allowed to say that about something which, if I’m honest, I only really understand about 6% of (lol at the idea that anyone ever understands more than about 6% of ANYTHING) – Clay is…well, it sort-of self-describes as ‘GPT for the planet’. “Clay harnesses AI, satellite images, and other spatial data to organize information about what’s happening in precise locations around the world. We give Clay millions of satellite data and use the latest AI tools so it can supervise itself learning about Earth through those images. As it learns, we benchmark how those skills improve its capacity to do important tasks like creating land cover maps, detecting crops or burn scars, or predicting carbon stock.” This is SUCH an interesting and smart idea – whatever one’s personal reservations about generative AI and its inexorable march, it’s clear that one of the things that it is very, very good at, and which it’s fair to say is Good and Useful, is ‘looking at vast swathes of data and inferring patterns from it (and then analysing those patterns and making goal-led recommendations as a result of them)’, and the idea of applying that theory to all the data we have about our planet and just sort of saying ‘go on then, parse THAT you fcuker’ sounds…well, smart, frankly, or at the very least something which you might as well do just to see what happens. This is VERY nascent, but there are already examples of how it can work, and I feel…cautiously optimistic about the possibility that this sort of work can achieve genuinely positive and useful outcomes. I mean, look: “Early development of this technology helped environmental journalists in Venezuela identify 3,718 illegal mining locations and their corresponding threats to the environment and Indigenous communities. As a result, the team won the highest honor from the Global Investigative Journalism Network. One juror wrote: “This story is taking us to where journalism is going — and it was a task so immense they used AI to crack the code of a story we would not otherwise have seen.” The team at Clay is now improving the usefulness of a global tree-level carbon map by recruiting a group of leading asset managers and working with them, using Clay, to deploy the map to de-risk, validate, and scale up forestry investments.” A GOOD NEWS STORY PROJECT! IN 2024! MAYBE IT’S ALL GOING TO BE OK!
- Subliminal Influence Via Hidden Imagery: Or, well, maybe it won’t! Ok, this isn’t a ‘fun’ link – in fact it takes you to a recent DeepMind paper which, obviously, is mostly Greek to me outside of the very simple overview, to whit ‘you know how you can effectively mess with digital images in such a way that despite looking like one thing to the human eye, the machine ‘eye’ sees something totally different? Well apparently that technique can subliminally influence what humans see too’. Which, fine, may not leap out at you as hugely significant, but I couldn’t help but think of all the fun-but-probably-evil things you could try and do with this in terms of messaging and advertising. I know that some of you work in advertising ffs, surely ONE of you has the balls to take this ‘insight’ and use it to create a nationwide series of Out-of-Home ads which purport to flog, I don’t know, margarine, but which also include the hidden phrase ‘READ WEB CURIOS’? Come on, you know you want to.
- CNDO: It feels like it’s been a while since we’ve had a good old ‘moral panic about a largely made-up trend or challenge on social media’ story, but perhaps CNDO can change that. CNDO is an app which is aimed at ‘Creators’ or ‘Influencers’ or whatever they are calling themselves these days, who are being encouraged to sign up (there seem to be a number of them on there already, suggesting the early seed investment is being spunked on paying them to get in early) and then get their ‘community’ (god I am so tired why must everything be a fcuking community no don’t answer that) to do ‘challenges’ to compete for, I don’t know, digital pennies or a brief moment of attention. Which is obviously fine when it’s PG-rated influencers who want their fans to, I don’t know, draw a cute picture of their pet ocelot, but perhaps less so when it’s some little cnut encouraging their army of pubescent morons to attach crocodile clips to an XL Bully’s testes (I am, I concede, not an expert on current content trends in this space, but I imagine it’s probably something like that). Anyway, in the unlikely event that any of you reading this are journalists looking for a story you can spin into 800 words of parent-scaring performative fear for the Daily Mail then, well, you’re welcome!
- Memento: ANOTHER NEW APP! Actually, as a parenthetical aside, what is the app landscape like these days? I have a vague anecdotal belief that the number of apps being released is on a downward trajectory, but also have literally nothing other than possibly-erroneous intuition on which to base that, and don’t care *quite* enough to dig into myself – er, any of you happen to know? Anyway, this one is called Memento and it’s attempting to get people interested in the general idea of ‘being able to tag content to a specific location, so that (for example) you can attach a particular image or song or video to a specific place, meaning that other users with the app are able to see and experience it (should they go to that specific place, and open the app). Over the past decade or so I have DEFINITELY seen this sort of thing attempted before and it’s never taken off and, sadly, I can’t for a second imagine that this attempt will be any different – BUT, that said, it does feel like there might be a resurgence of interest in the general concept as AR/XR and smart glasses become more mainstream, because the basic idea of ‘being able to leave notes and memories and that sort of thing in specific places so that others can see them too’ is a generally decent and halfway-useful sounding idea. Although now that I have actually stopped to think of it I can only think of the sort of awful content you’d find at popular dogging sites, which has honestly rather put me off.
- The Anomalist: Ooh, PROPER VINTAGE INTERNET, this! Apparently online in one incarnation or another since 1995 – literally before I was even aware the web existed ffs! – the Anomalist is an online magazine which exists to shine a light on WEIRD NEWS and, more generally, the anomalous. “What do they mean by ‘anomalous’?” I hear you cry in unison – this, apparently: “by the anomalous we mean simply that which “departs from the common; not conforming to what is usual; irregular.” This definition of the anomalous is intended to be as broad as possible by design. The definition is certainly not meant to be limited to “popular” anomalies such as UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, ESP, or Bigfoot, though it is hardly meant to eliminate them from consideration either. We will be dealing with a whole host of astronomical, biolgical, geological, psychological, physical, geophysical, linguistic, religious, and archeological phenomena.” So there! Anyway, this is your one-stop-shop for all news pertaining to cryptids, weird lights in the sky, the possibility of there ACTUALLY being fairies at the end of the garden, and all associated questions; beautifully the site is still very much alive, with the latest links to stories being posted within the past 24h (a ‘flying jellyfish UFO monster’, in case you’re interested) and basically if you want somewhere where you can get a daily dose of ‘BIGFOOT SPOTTED DOING WEEKLY SHOP IN KMART’ headlines then you might want to bookmark this one.
- Controlled Demolition: I appreciate that there are almost certainly very good insurance-related reasons as to why this doesn’t happen, but I’ve always thought that demolition companies could make an absolute killing by auctioning off the rights to press the Big Red Detonation Button next time a bunch of cooling towers are getting blown up – I am a pretty un-manly man with no particular penchant for destruction, and yet even someone as milquetoast as me can see the appeal of blowing up some massive buildings. Anyway, the link is to the website of a company called Controlled Demolition, which apparently exists to do JUST THAT – if you need something big blowing up, these are your lads. I am including this partly because I just fcuking love niche industries like this and the way they present themselves, and there’s something just sort of cool about selling ‘blowing stuff up’ as a service, and partly because there are a LOT of videos of buildings just sort of collapsing into themselves in billowing clouds of brick dust, and who doesn’t love those? NO FCUKER, etc!
- Quilt Bot: I imagine that those of you who are planning on undertaking an IMPROVING HOBBY in 2024 have probably already alighted on whatever it is that you’ll give up in May – still, if you’re still on the lookout for some sort of BIG PROJECT to keep you occupied through the winter months then you could maybe do worse than consider ‘making a massive quilt based on a design derived from an image you really like’. Coincidentally (not coincidentally) that is EXACTLY what this website will help you do – upload any image you like and it will generate a quilt pattern for you – per the site, “it takes an uploaded image as an input, and generates an abstracted version in the form of a patchwork design. The Quilt Bot gives you the pattern from which to create a meaningful patchwork quilt, which could commemorate, host memory or hide secret messages.” I really, really like the idea of taking a bunch of pictures of ABSOLUTE FILTH and using those as the seed images, making quilts that LOOK innocent but which are in fact a complicated mathematical allusion to “Johan’s Fisting Bonanza 7” which you then give as gifts to conservative friends and family who will have NO IDEA. In fact, honestly, I reckon there’s probably a small-but-profitable business in doing EXACTLY that and I am hereby gifting that BRILLIANT and TRANSFORMATIVE concept to you because I am nice like that.
- SaveLost: This is rather beautiful; a little tool that lets you create small digital…poems? Word expermiments? Not really sure how I would characterise the outputs here. Type in a sentence, any sentence you like, and press the button – “On each line, one character is removed. The removed character should be the one that least changes the meaning of the text. Change in meaning is here operationalized as the semantic distance of the newly generated sentence from the original text according to the sentence embeddding model listed below. Destruction mode reverses the selection criteria. This optimizes for, in Max’s words “minimal edits maximally destructive to meaning.” The resulting copy is…I don’t know, there’s something quite strangely poignant about the sentences just sort of erasing themselves, though I couldn’t entirely explain to you why. I really really like this.
- Text-To-Speech In-Browser: Not very ‘fun’, fine, but possibly useful to some of you; this Chrome extension lets you highlight any text on any webpage and get it read out loud, and apparently it will also do simultaneous translation of 30 languages. Which, honestly, is fcuking magic, and if you’re someone who prefers to listen than to read then this could be genuinely helpful.
- The Nature Photo Contest 2023: THE ENDLESS CYCLE OF PHOTOGRAPHY AWARDS BEGINS ANEW! I joke, obvs – we love photo contests! Look at the lovely critters! – but, equally, it does rather feel like we might be running out of photogenic fauna to capture. This is a typically-great selection which covers wildlife and landscape photography and which generally tends towards the ‘aesthetically pleasing’ rather than the ‘depiction of the natural world in all its savage and increasingly-evanescent beauty’ – as such it’s not (to my mind at least) a patch on the shots you get in NatGeo or Wildlife Photographer of the Year, but at the same time there are fewer images of dead animals so, well, swings/roundabouts.
- All Of The HipHop Mixtapes: You may think I am joking or exaggerating, but I am really not – this is a link to a recently-uploaded trove of vintage hiphop mixtapes, and there are LITERALLY OVER 300,000 OF THE FCUKING THINGS. You can read more about it here, but here’s a summary: “LEGENDARY MIXTAPE PLATFORM DatPiff has uploaded the entirety of its over 366,420-project catalog to the internet archive. Last March, the service which calls itself “The Authority In Mixtapes” experienced a server crash that put their canonical library of free music in peril. A month later, the site relaunched with a page announcing plans for “evolving beyond our website and app” to “continue to make the library accessible!” And now, almost a year later, their 50 TB cache of mixtapes and free albums from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, and more are streamable on The Internet Archive. Their massive file upload ensures that a valuable reserve of rap history won’t be lost to the 404 gods.” I know that the internet is rubbish and has in many respects made everything worse, but things like this almost make it all worthwhile (lol no they don’t). Your regular reminder, by the way, that you can donate cash to the Internet Archive should you be in a position to be able to do so – it really is a public good in a way that so few things online are any more, and deserves support.
WHY NOT SOUNDTRACK THE NEXT BIT WITH THIS FUN LITTLE ONE-MAN-ALBUM WHICH IS BY SOMEONE CALLED ‘LOCAL TEEN’ WHO I FOUND VIA LAST WEEK’S B3TA NEWSLETTER AND WHICH I REALLY RATHER ENJOYED IN A SORT OF ANGULAR LOFI SORT OF WAY!
THE SECTION WHICH IS SAD IT WILL NEVER RECEIVE A 10.0, PT.2:
- Eastern European Animation: It feels a little bit…wrong recommending links to Twitter accounts here in 2024, like linking to articles in The Spectator or something. Still, the site continues to limp on and I continue to demonstrate myself utterly incapable of letting it go – in my defence, it is still professionally useful for me in a way that none of the alternatives are, with Bluesky continuing to feel like a largely pointless chore and Threads’ refusal to do ‘’search results, but chronological’ rendering it largely useless as a newstracking platform, and as such I will continue to log on and feed my addiction until there’s literally noone left but Elon and his awful fashy mates. Thankfully, despite the fact the site is very much a shadow of what it was even a year ago, there are still occasional gems to be found – such as this account, which does nothing but share clips of vintage Eastern European animation, mostly (as far as I can tell) from the 70s and 80s. This is SUCH a strong aesthetic – honestly, I really do adore the specific palette and general vibe of Euro animation houses in the mid-20th Century – but there’s also a pervasive sense of Soviet-era misery and resignation just sort of lurking in the background of all of these, like the ghosts of failed potato harvests past.
- Gatwick Gangsters: Ok, this is a bit niche and you’re only really likely to get much out of it if you’re aware of the very particular weird ‘celebrity’ landscape inhabited by people like Dave Courtney…but for the approximately three of you to whom that applies, ENJOY! Gatwick Gangsters is a film which was released in 2017 and whose existence I had been entirely ignorant of until this week when an image of its promo poster/DVD cover floated across my timeline, and I learned that there existed a film which apparently starred not only the aforementioned Dave Courtney (for those not familiar, a man who found fame in the permissive 00s as a ‘reformed’ gangster and notorious London hardman and who as a result starred in some genuinely atrocious sub-Lock, Stock films in which he chewed scenery and almost certainly did not have to act too hard when pretending to be on violent amounts of gak) but also FORMER SNOOKER PLAYER WILLIE THORNE and FORMER SUN TV CRITIC GARRY BUSHELL and, inexplicably, FORMER DARTS SUPERSTAR BARRY GEORGE (I appreciate that for any Americans or New Zealanders reading this my excitement may be confusing, but I can only encourage you to do a bit of light Googling because, honestly, you need this cultural education), alongside an ‘actress’ called ‘Shampayne’ (no, really), all of whom are involved in a tale of CRIME and DOUBLE-CROSSING and, er, GATWICK AIRPORT, and this is the website for said film and, well, just enjoy it because it is SPECIAL. The film is available to rent on Amazon, and I can honestly say that it may well be the worst ever made – and I say that as a man who once watched ‘Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell’. What I would really like is for someone to explain the specific and doubtless incredibly convoluted series of tax avoidance and money laundering schemes resulted in this getting made, because I refuse to believe that this is anything other than the result of some low-level criminality.
- Buy Betty Boothroyd’s Stuff: Sorry for another VERY anglocentric link hot on the heels of the last one – still, this is a slightly more highbrow representation of our sceptered isle than the last one. Betty Boothroyd, for those unaware, was a Labour MP and later Speaker of the House of Commons in the 90s, but generally had quite a remarkable life, seeing history up close and personal as a result of a rather remarkable career that started off in showbusiness as a dancer, took her to the US as an assistant to a Congressman in the early 60s, and eventually saw her enter Parliament in the early 70s – next week, a selection of her belongings are set to be sold at auction and the listing for the sale, which you can see at the link, is a remarkable selection of artifacts from the second half of the 20th Century (and a frankly INSANE diamond ring, well DONE Betty). This is a crazy collection of things, from the very personal (clothes and jewellery) to the institutional (official House of Commons briefcases) to the…weird, frankly (signed copies of DVDs of ‘Keeping Up Appearances’, anyone?), but if you dig through there are some pretty amazing items (the order of service from the Kennedy inauguration, that sort of thing) which might be of interest.
- Make Paper Fish: GIven that it’s too cold to leave the house and that it’s January and we’re all too poor to spend money on entertainments, perhaps you’re in the market for some GOOD, CLEAN, WHOLESOME, CHEAP FUN? Well GREAT – here’s a website which features what feels like hundreds of papercraft models of fish for you to print out and make. Yes, ok, fine, it’s only ‘cheap’ if you can go to an office and rinse their printers, but presuming that’s an option for you then you are in for HOURS of papery piscine entertainment (via Nag).
- 2023 In Graphics: This is Bloomberg’s roundup of all the dataviz-ish stories it ran in 2023, which is in part an interesting lookback at the year’s news through a slightly-different series of lenses, but also a really good source of inspiration for different dataviz styles and techniques, which is probably worth bookmarking somewhere next time someone asks you to make some incredibly boring numbers look halfway-visually-appealing. There is a LOT of work in here covering a wide range of data types and visualisation styles, a properly-useful (and interesting) selection (via Giuseppe).
- Common Product Features: One of those occasional, genuinely-useful Reddit threads which also make you feel INCREDIBLY stupid, this is a selection of people responding to the prompt ‘What common product has a feature you’re not sure everyone is aware of?’ and OH MY GOD THIS IS REVELATORY. You will all find a different example in here that makes you slap your forehead – for me it was things like ‘Swiss army knife, parcel hook. Most people don’t know what it’s for, but it lets you use the knife as a handle for carrying stuff’ (WHAT????) or the fact that you can SCHEDULE TEXT MESSAGES – but I can guarantee that there will be at least one thing in this thread which will improve your life (or at the very least stop that particular relative or colleague from asking you the same fcuking question every fcuking day).
- Euratlas: Want some maps? Want ALL THE MAPS? Great, here, enjoy! Maps of Europe, various historical maps, maps of the ancient world, custom maps…look, this is basically the cartographic motherlode, and I very nearly lost 10 minutes just now exploring the evolution of European geography between 100-500AD so I imagine that one or two of you might get something out of this.
- The CIA On Flickr: I always forget that Flickr exists and that there are institutions that have HUGE archives on there – thankfully I was reminded of the fact by Annie Rauwerda’s newsletter, which informed me that the CIA has LOADS of albums on the site, covering everything from old intelligence maps to LOVELY PHOTOS OF DRUG DOGS to albums full of old spy cameras…this is SO interesting, partly because of the content but also because I am always fascinated by the ways in which institutions which are, objectively, not exactly ‘cuddly’, attempt to humanise themselves in their external presentation. “We may have killed Martin Luther King but LOOK AT THE FUNNY OLD SPY TROUSERS!”, that sort of thing.
- All Of The Clocks: I would like this on a huge wall, please – honestly, I think it would make a fabulous triple-height installation at an airport, for example. This site is a selection of different timepieces, all monitoring a different unit of time – seconds, hours, days, years, decades, decaseconds, gigaseconds… – all presented on one page, which affords a pleasing and slightly-dizzing sense of time passing at different rates, and the relative nature of the whole ‘time’ concept overall, and basically this just scratched a very particular part of my brain and I would to be perfectly honest with you quite like to stop writing this right now and just sort of enjoy the sense of pure time passing for an hour or so (it’s 931, I’m having a slump, it will pass – MORE BREW).
- EuroSmell: Yes, ok, fine, this isn’t *technically* called EuroSmell, but it really should be and I hope that by calling it that I will somehow persuade the assorted EC functionaries involved in the creation and maintenance of the site to sort it the fcuk out. This is ACTUALLY called ‘The Odeuropa Smell Explorer’, which I think we can all agree is a significantly less evocative title, but which self-describes as “a brand-new web tool developed for the exploration of smell as a cultural phenomenon. This searchable website enables you to discover the smells the past and understand how they shaped European history and culture. The Smell Explorer is the result of three years of intensive research and development by an international team of computer scientists, AI experts and humanities scholars. Its target audiences are scholars, perfumers, heritage professionals, artists, and basically anyone with an interest in the world of scents, in olfactory language and imagery, and in the important role scents play in our daily lives.” This is a bit hard to get your head around, but basically you can search this VAST database of smell-related information, tagged in a quite remarkable set of ways – you can sort by smell source, the vessel from which a smell emerges, the emotion the smell evokes…so for example it would be possible to gather ALL THE RESOURCES pertaining to upsetting, dog-related smells emanating from clothing in the 19th Century. Why one would need or want to do this is a complete mystery to me, but I am genuinely thrilled that one can – the resulting materials range from literature to poetry to news reports to sculpture and painting and there’s something SO pleasing about the ability to take a wander through history guided by smells and our interpretation and relation to them. I think you could probably do something rather cool with this, with a bit of thought and the right sort of brief – so, er, go on, do it.
- Rocketsized: You perhaps didn’t realise that the only thing you required to make your life functionally complete was a website which collected information on the relative size of all the various rockets that have ever been launched from Earth but actually that is in fact the case and you should be grateful to me for bringing it to your attention (but you won’t be, will you? ffs).
- Twisted Draughts: The website calls it ‘checkers’, but it is not checkers it is DRAUGHTS. Ahem. Anyway, this site lets you play a game of draughts against the computer, on boards that range from ‘standard’ to ‘appear to have been through a mangle’ – playing on a twister board changes the game in some fairly fundamental ways, and it’s more fun than you’d expect trying to work out exactly how the modified topography affects tactics in each case. Or it might be – I got so appallingly-frustrated after approximately three minutes of having my arse handed to me by my digital opponent that I bounced off this quite quickly, but perhaps you are a smarter and more diligent strategist than I am (not, frankly, difficult).
- Freestyle: Ooh, this is a fun new daily word game – the premise is very simple, with a different seed word each day which you, the player, are tasked with finding rhymes for. There are two modes, ‘easy’, where you have a set number to find, and ‘hard’ where you just have to guess as many as you can within a time limit. I have occasionally been slightly annoyed by their insistence that something isn’t a rhyme, or poor vocabulary (the site is American, what do you expect? SORRY AMERICANS BUT IT’S TRUE), but generally this is a worth addition to your morning puzzle work avoidance routine.
- 53 Excellent Games: I don’t tend to link to magazine listicles, but I will make an exception for this, compiled by Craig Grannell at Stuff Magazine because it is SUCH A WONDERFUL LIST, Craig here compiles links to 53 of the best browser games available to play online RIGHT NOW – some of these you may have heard of, some have even been linked to in Curios over the years, but plenty more will be new to you and there are some absolute CORKERS. From personal favourite life simulator Alter Ego (a game which, by the way, I have spend about 15 years trying to convince various clients to rip off and recreate because, honestly, this is the PERFECT FCUKING SOFT PROMO VEHICLE FROM AN ATROCIOUSLY-DULL PERSONAL FINANCE OR INSURANCE BRAND FFS) to a fully-functional freeware ripoff of Civilisation that you can play online RIGHT NOW, this list of games is a genuine act of public service and each and every one of you should bookmark it now because each and every one of these is a better and more fun use of your time than whatever act of white collar busywork it is that you’re currently being paid to perform.
THE CIRCUS OF TUMBLRS!
- Necessary Disorder: “I make gifs”, reads the Tumblr bio, and they do! Specifically, they make black and white, maths-y visualisation gifs which are hypnotic in the extreme.
THE TROUGH OF (INSTA) FEEDS!
- Quantum Cover Art: Have any of you ever thought “You know what would render the long-term aesthetic project that is ‘filling my house with weird tat’ complete? Yes, that’s right, a lamp made out of an old VHS box whose cover art features a cult movie from yesteryear!”? No, I don’t expect you have – still, on the offchance, this Insta feed shares images of exactly that – there’s an accompanying Etsy shop should any of you decide that you MUST own a nightlight which is also the original video case for The Lost Boys.
- Aheneah: The best way to describe this is ‘street art that basically looks like 8/16-bit graphics’, so that’s probably what I am going to stick with. This is an excellent look which feels oddly fresh.
- Bizarre Doctor: An Insta feed collecting odd images – yes, I know, but the vibes on this one are genuinely impeccable (also there is some GREAT weirdness here collated).
LONG THINGS WHICH ARE LONG!
- John Gray vs Peter Thiel: First, an apology for the continued Thiel obsession – I promise I will try and keep a lid on it this year lest I come across as a total fcuking crank. Still, that said, this is a genuinely fascinating conversation between philosopher John Gray and the tech vampire himself, covering a range of topics from the inevitable question of ‘woke’ to the perceived slowing of scientific progress to the pursuit of longevity…what I found most fascinating here is the extent to which much of what Thiel says in the conversation appears to be directly contradicted by *what he is actually doing in real life* – I find, for example, his dismissal of culture war stuff interesting and not a little disingenuous considering how much time Thiel himself has spent promoting and funding ideologies that are very much at the vanguard of exactly that (tradwives? The whole dimes square borderline fash thing?), and given Thiel was one of the first Silicon Valley plutes to popularise the pursuit of insane longevity via creative medical means (THE TRANSFUSIONS FFS!) it seems equally disingenuous to hear him dismiss the pursuit of eternal life…basically I thought this was an important conversation as much for what it masks as what it reveals, though you can also take it at face value as a conversation between two people having a smart conversation about intelligent topics should you so desire.
- GPT As An Engine Of Cultural Transmission: As the slew of ‘yes, ok, but what is all of this stuff practically FOR?’ thinkpieces continue to proliferate, this is an interesting essay by Henry Farrell which basically takes as its central premise the idea that LLMs are set to effect a genuinely transformative change in the manner in which we interpret and parse human culture, based on Alison Gopnik’s writings, and that “culture – under this particular account – is collective human knowledge, which is preserved, communicated and organized through a variety of means. It is passed on most straightforwardly when humans can directly observe each other, but over the millennia, we have also come up with more complex technologies of transmission. Languages, stories, libraries and such all allow information to be transmitted and organized. Now, we have a new technology for cultural transmission – LLMs. The vast corpus of text and data that they ingest is a series of imperfect snapshots of human culture. Gopnikism emphasizes that we ought pay attention to how LLMs are likely to transmit, recombine and re-organize this cultural information, and what consequences this will have for human society.” This is neither good nor bad per se, but I don’t think we’re quite taking this as seriously as perhaps we ought to – you know how the web and the fact we are now all connected has led to all sorts of unexpected emergent beliefs and behaviours, none of which were predicted? Well that’s going to happen again, but faster and weirder because it will be driven by The Machine.
- Circle-To-Search: Speaking of ‘things are going to change in interesting ways that we can’t really quite get our heads around yet’, I thought this announcement from Google this week was both interesting and wildly underreported. It’s a feature update for Android, which means that you can now use simple gestures to move straight into AI-augmented search – so for example one might circle a pair of shoes in a photo and Google will interpret that as ‘find me shoes that look like this that I can buy’; similarly, highlight text on any webpage or in an image and Google will pull information pertaining to it, offering you an AI summary…it’s really worth clicking through and watching the demo video – while it’s obviously an idealised representation of how this will work in practice, it should also be immediately clear that this is going to do some very weird things to search, discovery, traffic, ad revenue, sourcing, ‘trust’…again, I don’t think we quite realise how much things are going to change and how quickly, and how we really don’t have the faintest idea of what that will make us do.
- Why Pitchfork Died: I hope that you can access this and it’s not paywalled, as Casey Newton has written a really good overview of exactly why Pitchfork went under this week – the short answer is ‘advertising doesn’t fund content anymore’, but there’s a lot more complicated nuance in Newton’s writeup which is worth reading, touching on AI curation and the role of the critic and the way in which Spotify has basically obviated the need for a 9.7 from some bearded tw4t in a beanie. If you’re after more on this, Ted Gioia has a few thoughts here – I found his additional arguments about the deindividualisation of music brought about by passive, lean-back consumption particularly interesting (if for whatever reason that link is paywalled – which it might be, sorry – then Gioia’s basic argument is that it is very much in Spotify’s interest to engender a mode of consumption in which you don’t even know who an artist is, you just get fed a stream of tunes that please you…because eventually that just leads to entirely-AI-generated streams which are PURE PROFIT! Cynical but, well, it’s hard to imagine he’s entirely wrong on that score).
- Making Music With AI Music: I am well aware of the fact that 99% of all of you reading this quite rightly put up with my writing as the necessary cost of getting all the good links, but occasionally I get emails that demonstrate that at least a couple of you ACTUALLY READ THE WORDS and, honestly, it’s enough to make me a bit tearful. Reader Dan Stowell got in touch after I asked last week whether anyone was using text-to-AI software to make actual music…it turns out that his colleague has in fact been playing around with making proper tracks using bits of sound generated by AI, and has written up the experience here. This is super-interesting from a creative point of view, and the resulting track is…I mean, it’s a mess, but it’s a fascinating one: “To create this piece I use sound material from 22 audio files generated by suno.ai, most of which come from prompting the system with a short text by German composer Ernst Toch (used for his Geographical Fugue). The piece took a considerable amount of composition, but I didn’t write a single note — which is kind of maddening because I simply couldn’t have composed this by hand (lack of patience, vision, ability, etc.). However, aspects of my voice that I feel I have preserved in the finished piece are the use of layering and juxtaposition, episodic structure (e.g., miniatures), a sense of space, and humor.”
- ByeBye Ello: We all obviously remember Ello, one of the seemingly-infinite attempts to create a new, better type of social network, one that wasn’t in fact an exploitative dataharvesting nightmare of advertising and terrible social side effects (I certainly do – I somehow mentioned it on three separate occasions in Curios in 2023) which finally failed last year – but why exactly did it fail to persist, despite having seemingly found a niche audience to serve? Andy Baio does some digging and discovers that…it was the venture capitalists all along! This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever actually paid attention to what VC does and how it works, but it’s a nice step-by-step account of why this sort of investment doesn’t in fact tend to result in us all having nice things. I know I have said this before (on multiple occasions, and you are doubtless all bored of hearing it, but, well, LET ME HAVE MY HOBBY HORSE), but I firmly believe that we will look back on venture capitalists as one of the single groups which has had the biggest negative impact on the past three decades of human civilisation.
- The Unhealthy Features of Snap Premium: It’s been a long time since I’ve bothered thinking about the Snap featureset (IKR? Madness! When normally that’s ALL I think about!) but I had no idea that if you sign up for the Premium subscription service (which, by all accounts, a surprising number of people actually do) you get access to a feature which basically shows you EXACTLY how popular you are with all your different friends, compared to all their other friends based on your interactions on Snap. Which, if you’re able to remember the unique social horror of Being A Teenager, you will realise is a powerful, unique and dangerous combination, like an awful digital hybrid of crack and self-harm, and feels like exactly the sort of feature that, two decades into our wonderful social media adventure and with a decent corpus of data to suggest that this sort of feature is ACTIVELY BAD for people, one might have thought a responsible business might not in fact have implemented. Still, as you might imagine it keeps the kids coming back, which keeps the investors happy – you can’t have a hockeystick growth chart without breaking some children’s hearts, after all!
- The Substack Nazis: You may have been following this story, but in case not – for the past few months people have been noticing that there is a LOT of nazi stuff on Substack, and that the company is making money out of it; Substack has repeatedly failed to do anything meaningful about it, per their long-standing commitment to ‘free speech’ (or, to put it another way, to being able to monetise hatred); various high-profile newsletters have departed the platform while others maintain the whole thing is a WOKE STORM IN A TEACUP…this is a post by Josh Drummond, who spent a bit of time trying to find the nazis and who discovered that, oh yes, there are an awful lot of them. On which, should there be any of you who have newsletters on Substack and who are thinking of moving to a less fash-friendly platform, I can highly recommend the small, homebrew mailing platform run by Kris at ListGoat.
- Drone Horses: I LOVE THIS STORY – a proper ‘unexpected criminal application of tech’ tale, this, which is always a treat. Did you know that unscrupulous individuals attempting to get marginal advantage over the bookies in live betting markets are using drones to capture low-latency footage to get a 1-2s jump on punters watching on TV? No, I didn’t either, but it makes me sort-of happy that it’s happening.
- The Game of Gastrodiplomacy: I do love a good gastrodiplomacy article – I’ve featured a few over the years – and this is a lovely example of the genre; Dan Hong writes for Vittles about the various schemes that have been implemented by Governments worldwide since the Thai administration first invented the concept a few decades back, and the ways in which the confected national identities created through food offer a partial and skewed picture of both a nation and its cuisine.
- The Hidden Horror of the Sims: I had literally no idea that the first couple of Sims games contained quite a lot of genuinely weird and borderline-creepy incidental content and Easter Eggs, but it turns out that ‘putting your sims in the pool and then deleting the ladder’ isn’t the only nightmare scenario it’s possible to engender. I think that more ostensibly-U-rated content should have incredibly unpleasant things buried just below the surface – I want lore about the Peppa Pig family ossuary, that sort of thing.
- The History of Margarine: Yes, I know, but I promise you it really is interesting – this is a post from the SUPERB and always-fascinating Scope of Work newsletter, and thanks to it I now know that margarine is in fact a French invention, which I guarantee will really, really annoy French people if you casually mention it in a conversation about perceived Gallic culinary superiority.
- Britain’s Nastiest Novelist: I thought this analysis of JK Rowling’s crime novels was genuinely brilliant, and that despite the clickbaity headline it was actually remarkably complimentary about Rowling’s writing – but obviously because of the utter madness around ‘tHe TrAnS dEbAtE!!11111eleven’ it became a culture war talking point for several days this week. Still, ignore that and enjoy a really well-written dissection of the specific ‘nastiness’ of Rowling’s writing and how such ‘nastiness’ is a very effective authorial tool (and one which leaves the reader just enough room to reflect on this nastiness and where it might come from and at whom it might be directed and why without at any point directing them, which I thought was particularly well done).
- The Greatest Stereo: This has been linked to everywhere this week, and rightly so – this is a beautiful and very sad (to my mind, at least) pen portrait of Ken Fritz, one of those peculiar men who becomes obsessed with audio quality and fidelity, and who spent over a million dollars over the course of his life to create the ultimate sound system in his home. As you might imagine, that obsession had a less-than-positive impact on other aspects of his life, and his family, and the whole piece is less about ‘building a really fcuking good stereo’ (although there’s a lot of that) and more ‘a disquisition on the ruinous power of obsession’.
- How To Buy A Sports Team: This is a brilliant piece in GQ looking at the current trend for the super rich to add ‘sports team owner’ to their CV, why it is they do it, what they get out of it and how it all happens when a purchase is made – the access Tom Lamont gets to the plutes and their people is what really makes this article, and the final section in which he accompanies AC Milan owner Gerry Cardinale to the San Siro is a superb bit of writing from start to finish.
- Group Chats:This essay exploring the significance and semiotics of the group chat starts weakly, but stick with it – I found it a really interesting examination of the reconfiguration of ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’, of power and networks and gossip, and the first semi-serious attempt to analyse and interpret a proper global cultural phenomenon that feels underscrutinised in pop culture.
- Making A Knife: On the one hand, this account of making knives feels VERY macho and a bit like it was designed by committee to appeal to A Certain Type of Man, or at least to connote A Certain Type of Masculinity, a bit like those YouTube channels which seemingly feature nothing but incredibly muscular men cooking lumps of meat on pieces of metal over an open fire in the woods (seriously – I mean, look: “The fire again. He’d had his taste of fire when he was a child. And now it was in his blood.”); on the other, it’s really well-written and if you can get past the slightly-breathless fetishisation of THE FIRE AND THE STEEL it’s also a really in-depth account of the amount of work it takes to make a high-quality blade.
- The Man Who Collected Lost Pet Posters: This is a really lovely story, written up by Amelia Tate for her newsletter – the story of the “one-of-a-kind collection of Don Bolles, born Jimmy Michael Giorsetti, also known professionally as Kitten Sparkles. Don is an LA-based musician who rose to fame as the drummer of the iconic 70s punk band Germs – he is also possibly the world’s only collector of lost pets. Well, lost pet posters. In 1978, Don moved from Hollywood Boulevard to a more suburban area in West Hollywood and he started noticing the flyers littering the lampposts and trees. He was touched by the “folk art” of missing posters – the hand-drawn dogs and the poetic pleas meticulously crafted in a time before computers and printers were household goods. Although he admits it’s “morally questionable”, he began taking the posters, collecting them and storing them in milk crates around his home. The oldest posters in his collection were drawn almost half a century ago.” This is absolutely charming.
- All The Types of Science Fiction: A list, by McSweeney’s – to be honest I barely read scifi, but this was still a VERY FUNNY selection of genre burns. A small sample: “38. A thought experiment, taken literally; 39. Multiversal polycule; 40. An obvious yet powerful allegory.” See? If you have friends or family who are really into scifi or a specific franchise you can rest assured that there will be at least one of these which will REALLY p1ss them off should you apply it to their show/series of choice.
- Camden: Clive Martin writes about Camden, part of London which once connoted PUNK and ENERGY and COUNTERCULTURE and now is a weird sort of sad nostalgia Disneyland – I spent a few years working and hanging out in Camden circa 2006-7 and this brought it all flooding back, from seeing Amy WInehouse tottering, blitzed and skeletal, down the highstreet at 10am, to my continued amazement that Alex Proud, the worst man in London, continues to somehow escape legal sanction, to that very weird time I had to spend 10 minutes podium dancing at Cyberdog as part of a one-person immersive theatre performance. Martin is SUCH a good writer when it comes to culture and subcultures, and this will be beautiful for anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time getting wasted in London over the past thirty years or so.
- Commencement: On being a ‘wayward girl’ in the mid-20th Century. This is wonderful: “A month or so before graduation, my mother was on to me. At dinner, I’d eat more than my dad and both of my brothers. Before we’d finish cleaning up the kitchen, I’d have hurled lamb chops, asparagus, mashed potatoes in the bathroom nearest the kitchen. Afterward, as I foraged in the pantry, considering marshmallows, Triscuits, and canned tuna, my mother said to a sink full of dishes, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were pregnant, but I know that’s not possible.” “It’s possible,” I say to the pantry.”
- Molly Sussman: A short story about teenage girls and all the ways in which they are awful to themselves and each other, by Alexandra Tanner.
- Coming of Age: Our last longread is the second link of the week from The Fence (which really is worth a subscription, by the way – it is consistently excellent), this a piece by John Banville remembering his first love, which will remind you of yours.
By Sophie Yerly
AND NOW, MOVING PICTURES AND SOUNDS!:
- This is a short animation about how cats make things better – the story is, honestly, nothing special, but there’s something SO charming about the character models and the animation, in particular the central character and how her physicality is rendered – I think that the animator, Sam Southward, is very talented indeed.
- This is either a song about coping with suddently growing breasts as a teenager girl, or about having top surgery, or about breast reductions (or, of course, it’s possible that it’s about none of those things – possible, but I think unlikely), and it’s by Allie X, and it’s called, wonderfully, ‘Off With Her Tits’. This is smart and funny and, honestly, it bangs.
- We close with some more hiphop and another SUPERB animated video – this is ‘Too Late’, by the oddly-named Chinese Man, and I promise you that it’s impossible not to watch this video without finding yourself smiling and OH LOOK THAT’S IT I AM DONE AND OFF TO GO AND STAND UNDER SOME HOT WATER TO ATTEMPT TO UNFREEZE MY EXTREMITIES BYE!