HAVE YOU BOUGHT ENOUGH STUFF HAVE YOU BOUGHT ENOUGH STUFF HAVE YOU BOUGHT ENOUGH STUFF?
No, you haven’t, because it is impossible to ever buy enough stuff, because the flywheel needs to spin ever-faster and there is never a limit to the amount of money to be made or units to shift or VCs to satisfy.
Hi! How are you ‘enjoying’ this year’s extra-special edition of ‘whiplash inducing tonal shift: the COP26 to Black Friday edition!’? Anyone else feeling a small degree of cognitive dissonance in the move from ‘our failure to moderate our lifestyles and consumption is causing some not-insignificant environmental problems that we might want to take steps to deal with’ to ‘IT IS VITALLY IMPORTANT THAT WE SHIP AS MANY CONTAINERS OF PLASTICS AROUND THE WORLD AS IS HUMANLY POSSIBLE AND YOU ARE A TRAITOR TO ECONOMIC RECOVERY IF YOU DO NOT BUY SOME FCUKING TELEVISIONS YOU SCAB’?
Seemingly not. Hey ho!
Still, you’ll need something to do while you wait for the parcels to start showing up, so why not fill those empty hours with Web Curios? No, don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question and I don’t need your hurtful jokes.
I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and you still have time to empty your basket before you make a terrible mistake.
THE SECTION WHICH IS REALLY NOT ENJOYING THE JUXTAPOSITION OF ‘PEOPLE ARE DROWNING IN THE CHANNEL’ NEWS WITH ‘BUY MORE STUFF FROM MECHABEZOS!’ NEWS AND WHICH WONDERS WHETHER THIS INCONGRUITY IS PERHAPS WORTH THINKING ABOUT A LITTLE HARDER, PT.1:
- GauGAN2: NVIDIA’s AI image manipulation tool GauGAN has been out for a couple of years now, and this week the company unveiled its updated version of the software for us to play with. Great news for those of us who enjoy seeing how good the machines have gotten at imagining the world; less good news for anyone who sees their professional future as being in image creation and manipulation. This is, as per with these things, simultaneously absolutely amazing and not very good at all – I recommend you take a minute to watch the tutorial when the page loads, as it’s not super-intuitive, but within no time you’ll be churning out all sorts of weird AI-imagined visuals, based either on your text prompts or on line drawings which you can then ask the machine to ‘interpret’ for you based on a series of templates – so you can either ask it to imagine ‘an urban skyline’ or sketch one out for it to fill in based on what it thinks an urban skyline might look like. It’s very shonky in places – ask it to imagine a cat and see the sort of multi-eyed spider-Tribble that it throws out – but the way in which you can isolate and replace elements from individual created images hints at the imminent future in which you can frustrate a machine with your helpful ‘can you just make the sky pop a little more?’ feedback rather than a poor junior designer.
- EXPO Dubai: Several years ago when working for an agency which had a major shipping company as a client I was involved in writing a bunch of proposals for their planned pavilion at Expo Dubai – I had totally forgotten about it until this website cropped up and reminded me that Expo IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW! But what is Expo? Well, apparently it’s ‘a transformative global gathering that celebrates humanity’, although I appreciate that those words are so loose as to be almost-entirely meaningless. You won’t get much more of an idea from looking at the website, but it is very shiny – you get to zoom around a birds-eye view of the Expo site, looking at all the differently-themed areas being run by different nations and businesses to show how, er, ‘transformative’ they are, I presume, and how they ‘celebrate humanity’. I’m featuring this partly because it’s objectively a really nice piece of webwork – the graphics are nice, the interface works, the whole thing is really smooth – and partly because it’s a near-perfect example of the utter meaninglessness of modern business and communications language. BECAUSE WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? I mean, I appreciate that Expo is basically a giant shiny trade and investment fair, fine, but beyond that it’s almost impossible to tell why anyone is there or what they are trying to say. So much copy with lots of important-sounding words like ‘sustainability’ (nothing says ‘sustainable’ like a massive, temporary exhibition space built in the middle of a desert!) and ‘flow’ and ‘transformation’ and the like, but WHAT DOES ANY OF IT MEAN? Does it all mean…nothing? I think it might mean nothing (apart from an awful lot of money).
- The Museum of XBOX: The Microsoft XBOX is apparently 20 years old, and to celebrate the event the company has built this online museum to celebrate the console’s history and to let players explore the evolution of the machine and the brand over the past two decades. Whether or not you’ve any particular ‘brand affinity’ (sorry) to XBOX, this is a lovely site which lets you explore a virtual exhibition which takes you through the chronology of the device’s design and creation, the games that rendered it iconic, the tech that underpins it, etc etc – and, if you’re an XBOX user with a Microsoft Live ID, you can plug your details in and get a personalised lookback at your history with the console and the games you’ve played on it. Very slick and a lovely piece of fan service for the brand, but it still can’t gloss over the fact that Master Chief is literally the most embarrassingly-lame name for a videogame character I can imagine. Oh, and whilst this is really nicely made, can we also perhaps all not decide that ‘walk your virtual avatar around a virtual space to experience CONTENT’ is the way to build websites for the next year? Because, honestly, it’s not – park your metaverse fantasies for a little while longer yet, please, Head of Marketing.
- Kid-Mnesia: This isn’t really a Curio per se – after all, it was on the Today programme this week ffs – but it’s very webby and as such merits its place. Radiohead this week released Kid Amnesia which is a reissue of their albums Kid A and Amnesiac, with a bunch of extra material which was previously-unreleased. They have also built a quite remarkable webartgame…thing to accompany it, which you have to download to experience but which if you have any interest in webart you really should experience. I say this as someone who fell a bit out of love with Radiohead around this time – I like the albums but don’t have any sort of messianic devotion to them – but this is SUCH an interesting piece of work; the way the ‘game/experience/thing’ works fits perfectly with the odd idiosyncracy of the band’s worldview and the way they mix visual art with songcraft. Actual, proper digital art, this, whether or not that floats your boat.
- Black-Owned Friday: An interesting initiative from Google in the US, using Black Friday as a way to promote black-owned businesses, and which created this site (and accompanying song, by Normani and T-Pain) to promote the idea and direct shoppers to online purchases from said black-owned retailers. This is the second year of this campaign, and, look, it’s a good idea, and anything that takes money away from MechaBezos is A Good Thing, and the song is far better than anything created as an advert for, fundamentally, buying more tat has any right to be, but I was also slightly disappointed with the execution here – they sell this as a ‘shoppable music video’, which, fine, it is in the sense that there are things you can click on and be taken to shopping pages for (in the US, at least), but, well, it’s not very slickly-done. I was expecting something a little smarter than ‘look, we’ll play the video and while it’s running you’ll be bombarded with a stream of clickable product icons flowing across the screen from right to left like some sort of slightly-desperate ticker of late-period capitalism’, which considering all the furore over the past year around livestream shopping, etc, feels like something of a missed opportunity, UX/UI-wise. Still, BUY MORE STUFF!
- Nikeland: My personal lack of professional success and renown is something that generally fails to perturb me, and there are occasions where I am positively grateful for the fact that I am in possession of neither a job title nor salary that suggests GREAT PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY. So it is right now when I imagine being a Head of Marketing or similar at a large organisation and having to field infinite questions from the C-Suite about ‘when are we going to get our metaverse strategy sorted out, then?’ – honestly, the number of companies that are going to spunk unconscionable amounts of money on creating ‘EXCITING DIGITAL WORLDS FOR BRAND FANS TO ENJOY RELATABLE CONTENT IN’ is larger than you can possibly imagine (and presents a not-insignificant consultancy opportunity for those of you who can cope with the psychological horror of that last all-caps phrase). The smarter solution, at this stage, is to work with an existing platform to build out experiences – which is exactly what Nike has done in Roblox. Even if your knowledge of Roblox extends no further than reading half a dozen thinkpieces in the past 18, this is worth a look – you’ll have to download the software, but it’s pretty quick and it’s fascinating to wander around the space Nike has created and see a surprisingly large number of people bouncing their avatars on branded trampolines, and scrabbling for coins to afford the oh-so-covetable digital Air Force Ones. Fine, it’s Nike and so this shouldn’t be a surprise, but this is very nicely-done (if, fundamentally, a marketing campaign aimed at ensuring that children are hooked on the sweatshop swoosh from the age of about 7 onwards).
- Sakharov: This is a beautiful site in tribute to Andrei Saharov, a Soviet nuclear physicist and campaigner for peace and disarmament, the centenary of whose death is celebrated this year. It’s basically an online museum of his life, taking you from his early years, through education, his work on the Russian nuclear programme and his personal journey towards pacifism and activism and his subsequent persecution by the state, until his death in 1989. This is a fascinating portrait of someone who I’d never heard of before, and the website is beautifully-made – there’s a lot in here, and it’s a bit dense in places, but the structure of the site makes it both manageable and interesting, and there’s a lot to like here from a design point of view.
- The Shfl: If you’d like to replace the algorithmic curation of your musical taste with something a little more human, you might enjoy this site – The Shfl, built by someone called Caleb, is “a random sampler that serves up recommendations from musicians, music critics, and lists of albums I thought were interesting. The population sampled from can be customized – tapping on a tag or the icons next to the date, label, or album recommender will restrict the sampler to albums that share that attribute. Filters can also be added manually using search, and they can be combined – you can filter on African music from the 70’s, for instance, or norwegian black metal, or jazz guitar.” What’s nice about this is that you can follow recommendation trails – albums come with notes about who recommended them, and users can click on the names of those recommenders to enable you to follow their taste rabbithole (er, so to speak – sorry, that was a horrible turn of phrase which I really should edit but which, having added this parenthetical apology, I can’t really be bothered to do so, apologies). There are, fine, other tools that let you use others’ tastes as a guide to finding new music, but there’s something particularly nice about the way you can click through the maze of links here and discover interesting, unusual musical gems – this is almost certainly a trick of psychology, but it feels like you’re exploring rather than simply lying back and being gifted recommendations, which in turn makes what you find feel moderately more special (to my mind, at least).
- The Searchable Museum: The website of the archive of the National Museum of African American Culture and History, which is not only a fascinating trove of information about Black American history but which is a really good example of how to present elements of a collection in digital form. It’s not overwhelming, it’s nicely-designed across desktop and mobile, and the selection of material it showcases is well-curated. Did you know that Jack Daniels was created based on the charcoal filtration process perfected by an African American called Nathan Nearest Green, who taught Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel everything he knew? I did not, but I do now. This is properly interesting stuff throughout.
- Random Gifts: Unfortunately, thanks to the 2000s, the word ‘random’ has become something akin to nails on a blackboard to me, but here it feels just about acceptable. Random Gifts is a website which was seemingly created to help people buy mother’s day presents (no, me neither) but which exists all year round and which is one of the more incredible visualisations I’ve yet seen of the sheer scale of the tat mountain we produce every day. “This site searches randomly across the web for products for you to buy from Amazon, eBay, Aliexpress, Etsy, Wayfair and more coming soon. I hope you will find inspiration in the vastness of humanity’s warehouse inventory”, runs the blurb, and whilst I can’t promise that you will find ‘inspiration’ I can guarantee that you can’t help but scroll down this seemingly-infinite page, through categories like ‘Random Prevarication products on Aliexpress’, and conclude that we have something of a stuff problem. I just lost a good 3 minutes to scrolling this – honestly, it’s darkly-hypnotic.
- The Audubon Society TikTok: If were asked at gunpoint to name an actual, genuine trend I have observed over the past decade or so of doing this terrible, unreadable newsletterblogtypething I would probably say “look, just shoot me and get it over with, I am very tired”, but, were I feeling less nihilistic I might burble something about how the US bird enthusiasts’ club The Audubon Society has consistently demonstrated itself to be one of the least-expectedly talented digital content producers out there. Its TikTok is no exception – personally my interest in avian observation is…pretty small (unless they’re pigeons nesting in my windowbox – I miss you Casillero and Diablo), but that doesn’t stop me absolutely loving its TikTok output. Basically this is another example of ‘just give the keys to a talented and passionate (and fairly-paid) young person and let them play with it’ – perfectly-surreal and odd but also IT TEACHES YOU STUFF ABOUT BIRDS. Also lovely because the way they use cut-out eyes and mouths on the birds is perfectly-reminiscent of Joel Veitch’s Spongmonkeys, and it’s always nice when you can see the cultural genealogy of this sort of thing.
- Everyone Gets A Car: To be clear, and to temper any momentary excitement you might feel about this, the title of the site really ought to be ‘Everyone (In The US) Gets A Car’. Also, it’s not really ‘everyone’. FFS, TRADING STANDARDS! Still, let’s take a moment to enjoy the latest piece of attention-baiting webfoolery from MSCHF, who (and this feels like I am having a go, I appreciate, but honest I’m not) seem to have settled into something of a groove of late with their ‘it’s basically a lottery, but dressed up with some clever intellectual wrapping’ giveaways. This new drop (sorry) lets anyone (in the US) spend $35 to buy a car – the gimmick here is that that $35 will DEFINITELY get you a Lamborghini, but you don’t know what sort until your purchase arrives in the post. Some will be die-cast models, some will be RC toys, some the sort of sit-in-and-drive affairs that I remember occasionally seeing on tourist trips to Hamley’s and coveting like little else on earth, and ONE LUCKY WINNER will get an actual, proper Lamborghini car for their stake. So basically what’s happened here is that MSCHF have worked out exactly the same model that TV phone-in competitions have been running since the 70s (flat entry cost, wildly-variable reward range) and dressed it up with a trucker hat (yes, I know that that is a very dated reference but they are COMING BACK, ok?) – still, they thought of it and I didn’t, so I should just shut up and admire their smarts.
- Al’s Middle Brass Pages: This is in fact three websites in one (YOU LUCKE FUKERS!) – Al’s Tenor Horn Page (“This page will hopefully serve to promote, legitimize, bolster, support, celebrate and dispel any myths surrounding the Tenor Horn, Alto Horn and all other Eb/F alto brasses”), Al’s Mellophone Page (“This page will hopefully serve to promote, legitimize, bolster, support, celebrate and dispel any myths surrounding the Mellophone, Mellophonium and all other Eb/F alto brasses”), and Greg’s Brass History Page (“we are proud to present histories of all Brass Band instruments, written by Greg Monks!”). This pleased me immoderately, partly because of the defiantly old-school webdesign but also because of the idea that the Tenor Horn and Mellophone communities are riddled with FAKE NEWS and myths and misinformation, and it’s only thanks to brave souls such as Al (and Greg!) that the truth about brass can be known at all. Explain to me, please, how the purity of this website can possibly be improved OH NO IT CANNOT.
- How A Car Works: I have, I am sure, mentioned on repeated occasions that one of the many ways in which I am a terrible and useless adult is my inability to drive a car (it looks hard and boring, what can I say?), and said inability means that I personally have a limited degree of interest in the subject matter of this website, but I got very excited when I found it, thinking that perhaps I had uncovered a secret network of sites which exist to explain the mysteries of the world and which can all be found on pleasingly-Ronseal urls. Sadly that doesn’t appear to be the case – the address www.howdoesaplanestayintheairisitmagicorunderwingbirds.com doesn’t work, oddly – but I really like the fact that someone has bought the address and made this (actually quite useful) website, all to help sell a video course on car mechanics. WELL DONE, ALEX MUIR (no relation whatsoever, I don’t think)!
- The Theban Mapping Project: “The purpose of the Theban Mapping Project is to design and implement existing condition reports and management plans for the archaeological sites of the Theban Necropolis. The website makes available the TMP’s maps, drawings, images, and descriptions to provide an authoritative resource for scholars, students, teachers, on-site inspectors, and tourists. Its goals are to enhance visitors experience, support long-term preservation, facilitate study, and more effectively manage one of the world’s most valuable archaeological treasures.” Yes, ok, fine, that sounds VERY DRY, but I promise that this site is far more interesting than that description makes it sound, and contains some incredible photos of the inside of the various tombs of the various Rameses and the rest.
- Automa: This looks really quite useful. You know If This Then That? Of course you do. This is, er, that, but for web browsers – a Chrome plugin that lets you set all sorts of workflows to automate within your browser. So, for example, you can set it to do things like, I don’t know, do an automatic stack overflow search in a new tab for anything you right-click, or scrape all the copy from any webpage you open and dump it into a .txt file…that sort of thing. Properly, actually useful, this.
- Flagwaver: Who hasn’t wanted a tool that lets you create an animated graphic of a waving flag with whatever image you like on it? NO FCUKER, that’s who! If you’ve ever wanted to see your own crest – or, I don’t know, a photo of some cats, use your imagination here – fluttering on a proud flag against a blue sky, then WOW are you in luck!
- The Food Timeline: This is SO interesting (and pleasingly-ugly) – The Food Timeline is, er, a timeline of food through history! So it takes you from the cultivation of grain in prehistory, through sausages in 500BC, all the way to such modern inventions like root beer and ketchup (yes, it’s American), with each entry clickable so you can dig into the deeper history and context of each foodstuff. If you’re in any way interested in culinary or dietary history this is absolutely fascinating – and there are recipes too, should you wish to experiment (although tbh I would approach these – particularly the ones redolent of mid-20thC midwestern Thanksgiving dinners – with a degree of caution).
- Ceremonial Ribbon-Cutting Scissors: The web has in many respects been an awful scrying glass into the hell that is other people, but it has also on occasion shone a light into some truly wonderful idiosyncracies of modern human existence. So it is with this website, for a New Hampshire company which proudly advertises itself as ‘the premier source for all your grand opening needs!’ – as long as those needs are contained within the broad category of ‘ceremonial ribboncutting (if you need a celebrity to wield said scissors, for example, you may want to look elsewhere). I had honestly never considered before where one might go to find a pair of those outsized golden scissors used for especially-fancy local fete openings, but now I know (and thanks to Web Curios, you do too! THIS IS WHY YOU READ THIS FCUKING THING, DO YOU SEE????).
- The Gif Gallery: 8 or so years ago I had a BIG IDEA about creating a ‘Museum of Gifs’ – I was slightly-obsessed with fitting out a gallery space with flatscreens and having a rolling, rotating showcase for the best and worst of ephemeral gif-y web culture, and was briefly-convinced that I would be able to get a tech company to back it and shell out for the costs. Obviously no fcuker cared, and the idea joined all the others in ‘Matt’s increasingly-dusty oubliette of stuff he briefly toyed with doing but which quite quickly lost its lustre in favour of instead getting drunk and stoned’, but I maintain that it’s quite a fun concept (which someone has almost certainly done in the intervening time). Anyway, that’s by way of overlong and unasked-for preamble to this link, which contains THOUSANDS of Gifs which you can click through page after page of – the effect is quite dizzying. You navigate by finding ‘doors’ on each page which take you to another ‘room’ of the gallery – “the gifs in this gallery are a selection from across all eras of the web. There are so many that some of the rooms have never been visited or will never be visited again.” I am pleased – if slightly incredulous – that this hasn’t been reinvented as an ultragrifty-NFT project.
By Malika Favre
THE SECTION WHICH IS REALLY NOT ENJOYING THE JUXTAPOSITION OF ‘PEOPLE ARE DROWNING IN THE CHANNEL’ NEWS WITH ‘BUY MORE STUFF FROM MECHABEZOS!’ NEWS AND WHICH WONDERS WHETHER THIS INCONGRUITY IS PERHAPS WORTH THINKING ABOUT A LITTLE HARDER, PT.2:
- AAP Photos of the Year: More photography! More excellence! This is the annual selection by All About Photo magazine of the best images submitted by its global readership, and whilst I know that the prospect of looking at yet another series of beautiful images must feel somewhat wearing (there’s an interesting question about the extent to which its still possible to be moved by beautiful imagery in what must be the most visually-oversaturated era in human history, but wevs) but let me assure you that these are worth your time – there’s obviously the now-inevitable of heavy post-production production about a lot of these, but there’s also slightly more of a design-y eye to lots of the pictures here, and I thought there was a more varied sense of composition, etc, than you often see in these selections. Also, it’s the only photo contest I’ve seen this year to have awarded recognition to a picture that’s been manipulated by burying the negative in vegetable residue for several days, so props for that too.
- The University of Technology in Sydney: Back in the distant past (1997, to be specific), when I arrived at University I did so with literally no knowledge whatsoever of the city I would be spending the next three years in, the institution I would be attending or indeed exactly what I was going to be doing (look, I’ve always taken a…somewhat lackadaisical approach to my existence, at least I’m consistent ffs) – had this sort of thing existed when I was young, perhaps I might have reconsidered my choice to spend my undergrauate years in the freezing Mancunian drizzle (but, honestly, who else would have taken me? This is the University of Technology in Sydney’s DIGITAL CAMPUS TOUR, and it’s surprisingly-fun – perhaps it’s to be expected that an institution making tech its ‘thing’ would have a shiny campus tour, but I was really impressed with how slick this is – combining 360-degree video with a surprisingly-not-awful CG avatar guide-type-thing, this site does a really good job of making the place look shiny and fun and welcoming and not at all like it would be populated exclusively by terrifyingly well-tanned and shiny-haired examples of antipodean excellence (I am slightly scared of Australians – they just seem so…so other). I know this is a small thing, but the fact that they have bothered to create a shadow for your digital friend really impressed me – THIS is what it takes to command my respect, apparently, in case you were curious.
- Click That Hood: Nice little geography guessing game which asks you to pick a city or country and then identify the districts, counties, states or cantons within it based on their location and shape. I immediately got incredibly angry with my inability to accurately identify Richmond-Upon-Thames, which suggests it’s doing something right – cities other than London are very much available, for those of you less pathetically obsessed with the UK’s capital than I am.
- Johnny Decimal: I once worked for a man – we’re friends now, and this is all meant with great affection, honest Hector – who was so obsessional about taxonomy and filing that he once had a vision of creating a website which would act as a visualisation of the entire cultural landscape of the UK and which would work as a combined research tool and media database and news source and which, honestly, was so insanely ambitious that had I and various other people working with him pursued the project rather than having various flavours of minor mental breakdown we would still be working on it today. He did, though, teach me of the importance of decent filing, which is what is at the heart of Johnny Decimal, a project which seemingly exists to impress upon ordinary people how INCREDIBLY FCUKING USEFUL it is to employ a sensible and ordered structure to the way you think about things at work and at home. Look, if you’re the sort of person whose unread emails count is into the thousands and who doesn’t understand why you need folders when filename search exists (ffs granddad!) then this is one you can skip – if, though, you get a small, almost erotic frisson from phrases like ‘near-instant document recovery’ then you might find something to like in here (honestly, even if you can’t be bothered to actually implement any of this stuff, I promise you that the initial thinking is sensible and worth following).
- Pillow Fighting Championship: The official website of the PFC – that’s the world pillowfighting championship, to the uninitiated. “Pillow Fighting Championship began with an idea to develop a real fighting sport that would appeal to the international family audience by combining the ancient weapon known as a “pillow” with experienced MMA competitors & boxers an strict rules. However, PFC isn’t just about hard-hitting pillow fighting, it’s also about pure entertainment and fun! PFC has quickly evolved into a very popular sport-based showcase complete with all the strength, stamina and strategic skills of the other more brutal combat sports but with a massive amount of fun!” I’m someone who can’t watch MMA at all – I don’t know why, but there’s something about two people desperately trying to move each others’ teeth into parts of their faces that said teeth were never intended to occupy that I find…distressing – but this feels a little more my speed, even if I confess to not finding the videos on display here hugely compelling. Maybe if they edged the pillows with razorblades or something?
- Historic Borders: Visualising the way in which national borders around the world have shifted over time. Fascinating for a whole host of reasons, not least the way it demonstrates that we’re living through a period of what, historically-speaking, is a very unusual degree of stability when it comes to the shape of nation states – and as a reminder of the frankly arbitrary nature of national borders, and how perhaps this might usefully make us think about the utility or otherwise of considering them to be impermeable and sacrosanct.
- Talk To A Director About Superhero Films: Ok, this is VERY SPECIFIC, but it’s also a really interesting look at the evolution of text AI. You’ll of course – OF COURSE! – remember AI Dungeon, the ‘game’ built on top of GPT-3 which let anyone play an AI-generated conversational choose your own adventure game – the software has evolved since I featured it in Curios a few years ago, and now lets users create their own scenarios and sandboxes for others to play in. Which is how we arrived at this – an AI Dungeon scenario which lets you insert the name of any film director you can think of and have a conversation with them about their opinion of superhero movies. Not hugely useful, fine, but a really interesting window into how superficially clever this stuff – it’s worth playing around with this and trying different directors, as it’s fascinating to observe the ways in which it pulls information and knowledge about the person’s output and style and back catalogue into conversation. We’re not that far away from this sort of thing being used by students as part of their history work, having ‘conversations’ with AI-imagined Caesars to ask them about what really went on in Gaul. Or something. Whether you think this is a good thing or otherwise is of course up to you – what’s interesting is the opacity of the software, as there’s limited explanation as to where this ‘knowledge’ and the ‘personalities’ being created are being drawn from. Properly interesting, this.
- Recidiviz: The name of this company really got my hackles up – we’re trying to make the post-incarceration care of ex-offenders a TRENDY STARTUP THING, is it? – but actually on further investigation this actually seems like a non-terrible use of machine learning, etc, in the justice field. Recidiviz is focused on analysing data about offenders’ post-release behaviour to make better and more accurate assessments as to what pathways work best for reducing reoffending. Many years ago I did quite a bit of work around prisons and the wider justice sector, and the lack of any sort of long-term consistent vision for what happens to people after they get spat out by the machine was stark – anything that works to address that it a meaningful way is probably A Good Thing, although despite the very evident good intentions evident from the company’s setup and structure, I can’t help but feel…uneasy about yet another attempt to flatten the messy reality of human experience into a series of easily-analysable datapoints. Still, this is The Future, so if you’re in any way interested in criminal justice and how to make it better you could do worse than check this out – because there’s going to be much, much more stuff like it coming down the line over the next few years.
- Physics: Yes, that’s right, ALL OF PHYSICS IN ONE PLACE. This might seem hyperbolic, fine, but click the link and then EAT YOUR SKEPTICISM and luxuriate in ALL THE PHYSICS. I know less-than-nothing about physics, if I’m honest – it’s always been one of those disciplines that has served only to demonstrate the limits of my brain to me, and which I can literally feel my mind sliding off of whenever I try and grasp even the most rudimentary elements of it – and as such my assessment of this site ought to be taken with the requisite skipload of salt, but, well, it’s quite mad. The combination of VERY DENSE web 1.0-style design and the equally-web1.0-style CG graphics which accompany the entries gives the whole thing a slightly TimeCube-ish feel – slightly terrifying, and very intense.
- The Fry Universe: A short, but beautifully-explained, guide to why different shapes of cut potato produce such radically-different eating experiences when turned into chips (or ‘fries’, if you really must). By Chris Williams, who I hope gets some work out of this because it’s a really lovely piece of webdesign.
- The Street Photography Awards 2021: MORE PHOTOS! Here’s an idea, brands – why not buck the trend and make your next engagement-bait contest painting-based rather than photo-based. It is official – there are TOO MANY PHOTO AWARDS. Still, at least this one has a proper theme (to whit, photos taken in urban spaces) – my personal favourite is ‘Dog With Wings’, but pick your own (YOU CAN’T HAVE MINE).
- A Musical Planet: Oh, this is fun! A lovely Spotify hack which challenges you to listen to songs from around the world and guess which country they’re from – not only really diverting (honestly, it’s a miracle this got written at all – I am getting SO GOOD at identifying Gabonese trap!), but a great way of subtly learning about how musical style and culture works across national boundaries, and how history and geography and politics is reflected in commonalities of melody and composition. So so so good, this, and a brilliant way of finding new and different sounds.
- Sylvanian Drama: A very silly TikTok account which offers up short, dramatic vignettes in the style of a slightly-trashy soap, all played out with toys from the Sylvanian Families range. So if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to watch a small, uncool beaver child attempt to gain kudos in the playground by turning to slinging prescription pills then, well, wonder no more! This is a bit “so random! So wacky!”, but it’s also on occasion very, very funny.
- Emoji Dingbats: Literally what it says on the url – two emoji which are meant to communicate a thing or a phrase, with your job being to guess exactly what. Simple but fun, and you can create and submit your own puzzles to be added to the game should you have a burning desire to share your emoji interpretation of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ with the world.
- ArseBishop: Are you being shown a picture of a bishop, or are you been shown a picture of a bottom? It’s harder than you might think.
- Gamesnacks: This is SUCH a nostalgia trip – Gamesnacks is not in any way a cool or particularly fancy site, but it is an almost-perfect recreation of the sort of NewGrounds-ish portal for Flash games which I used to spend years enjoying as a convenient antidote to ‘being a lobbyist’ back in the early-00s. You want a collection of literally hundreds of browser games, all playable for free? You want versions of Puzzle Bobble and Breakout and various driving games and and and and? YOU CAN HAVE THEM ALL! Some of them are even quite good, but the main draw here is the fact that they are all free, they are all browser-based and they are all things that you can do at work instead of preparing 20 slides about ‘why it’s important to LISTEN and then ENGAGE’ (see, I can still do social media!).
- Six Cats Under: Finally this week, a beautiful (honestly, the art style here is perfect and so wonderfully-reminiscent of the golden era of point-and-click adventures) and poignant little game which casts you as a recently-deceased old woman whose soul cannot find rest until she’s been able to ensure that the cats she’s left behind will be fed. Your job is to move her ghost around her apartment, attempting to fix things so as the precious moggies won’t starve – this takes a bit of time and concentration, but I promise that it’s worth it for the visual gags and the aforementioned art style, and the way in which the small story unfolds. This is a beautiful way to spend 30m or so on a dark, cold November afternoon.
By Jiayue Li
THE CIRCUS OF TUMBLRS!:
- The Hairs On The Back Of Your Neck: This is lovely. “Behind You is an ongoing series of illustrations made by me, Brian Coldrick (hello!) I’d call it a webcomic but there are no panels and each image is essentially a separate story so that might be a stretch. My naive intention is to upload one a week. The whole thing sprung out of my love of horror films and books, and particularly the reading of spooky internet stories. My favourite type of spooky internet story is the real life account. These barely function as narratives as much as scary scenarios. There are so many gaps in the stories there’s lots of room for the reader to fill them in with their own conclusions. This series is essentially my attempt to purposefully do the same. Each page is simply a character with someone, or something, behind them and one line of text.” There’s something pleasingly low-key creepy about all of these.
THE TROUGH OF (INSTA) FEEDS!
- Eliseo Zubiri: Zubiri is a digital designer and artist whose work is a weird combination of vaporwave-ish CG landscapes rendered in photorealistic style with dreamscape palettes – it’s very reminiscent of stuff you’ll have seen before, stylistically-speaking, but there’s a particular quality to the work which makes it stand out (to my eyes, at least).
- Docubyte: The Insta account of one James Ball, self-describes as ‘Photographer, retoucher, art director and ultimate nerd’ – these are lovely CG renderings of techy-type design things, from cars to mainframes and everything inbetween.
- Screengrab Them: Yesterday was the international day for the elimination of violence against women – it seems a timely moment to share this Insta account, which exists to share screencaps of messages received by girls of school age, from their male classmates and ‘friends’ and boyfriends and contemporaries. It’s appalling how unsurprising the contents of these messages are, but they present a useful reminder of how incredibly important it is to educate young people that violence can be verbal as well as physical, and that the physical often starts with the verbal, and that talking to people like this is not ok. Christ but I am so lucky to be a man.
LONG THINGS WHICH ARE LONG!:
- An Engineer’s Take on Web3: Look, I know that you’re probably sick of me linking to stuff about Web3 and NFTs and crypto and all the rest – I know you are, because God knows I am – but the reason I continue to do so is that it’s also properly interesting; not so much because of what it is now, but because of what it portends (PORTENDS! So loomy!) about the future of…*gestures* all this internet stuff. Whether it’s the future of how we organise and structure our online lives, or simply a future, it’s one of the most fascinating debates currently happening, and (to my mind) it’s worth reading about even if (like me) you can’t really pretend to understand much. This piece is a really good overview of what Web3 means (insofar as it can be said to ‘mean’ anything concrete at this stage), written by an engineer and which as a result does a good job of explaining all the technical gubbins in reasonably-comprehensible fashion and which sets out some of the reasons why it is interesting and what we might usefully do with it all. Clever, accessible and clear-eyed, this is the best primer I’ve read on the technical stuff which underpins much of the froth.
- Is Crypto Bullsh1t?: A sort-of companion piece to that last one, and another good read on why this stuff may be worth paying attention to rather more than you might have thought based on the seemingly-endless progression of novelty avatar peddlers currently silting up the web. You can get a feel for the tone of the piece by its strapline – “I regret to inform you that it’s totally legit and crypto/blockchain networks really might be technologically, economically, and politically transformative. Ugh.” – but, again, it’s a good read, and does a good job of explaining why my (and potentially your) distaste at much of the visible world of cryptoNFTblockchainweb3wank doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole thing is irredeemable garbage. What’s been interesting about reading and writing about this stuff over the past 9 months or so has been the extent to which even those whose initial reaction to all the hype and froth has been ‘ugh, no, please stop’ (myself included) have come to grudgingly accept that something interesting is happening here that sort-of needs to be taken seriously. I remain unconvinced that all this is going to be a net positive, to be clear, but am very much of the opinion that it is going to be something. Web Curios – making EXCELLENT PREDICTIONS since approximately 2011! Oh, and if you want a counter-argument that continues to plough the ‘no, this is actually all sh1t’ line, then this one’s rather good. Opinions, we got’em all!
- The Creator Economy: This is an interesting little essay, which touches on an aspect of the concept of the ‘creator economy’ which I haven’t seen discussed that much – specifically, what does the idea of a ‘creator economy’ do to the sort of creation that is being done? It’s worth reading the whole thing, but you can get a feel for the argument in this short excerpt: “I have a growing fear that maybe we’re all just a little too overresourced and understimulated, taking part in the constant onslaught of more content and degenerate internet pranks, whether it’s making a video or blog post, or an NFT or a DAO. While media is an important, influential part of culture, I’d hate to see “being a creator” become synonymous with entertainment, where people are never intrinsically motivated to explore any of its potential beyond that.”
- African Cities: This is an absolutely fascinating piece of digital journalism by the Washington Post, looking at the projected growth of urban centres in Africa over the coming 80-odd years, with specific focus on particular cities such as Mombasa, Abidjan and Khartoum (and, of course, Lagos). The numbers involved here are fcuking insane – Kinshasa is estimated to have a population of 60 million people by 2100, based on present growth, which is a truly mind-flaying number of people. Exactly how that works from the simple perspective of urban planning is a large enough question, let alone all the attendant issues around, you know, society and economics and stuff. There are individual profiles of around 10 individual cities in here, each of which gives a particular perspective on the ballooning population numbers in question – I am genuinely sad that I won’t get to see how some of these places develop over the coming century.
- Dreamvertising: Many years ago I went to a lecture at the Royal Society that was all about the concept of ‘neuromarketing’ – that is, the practice of gauging the effectiveness of advermarketingpr by attempting to scientifically determine the specific effects of various ads on consumers brain patterns, with a view to develop publicity materials SO EFFECTIVE that they change the way we think and feel in measurable, trackable fashion. The lecture was part sales pitch by someone working for one of the companies peddling this tech, and part weary debunking of all the cod science underpinning said company’s claims by a succession of weary-sounding neuroscientists (it may not surprise you to learn that ‘neuromarketing’ has not in fact transformed the world of ‘selling tat to morons’). I was reminded of that experience when reading this piece about the current vogue for research into ‘dreamhacking’ as an ad technique – basically (and I am simplifying a bit here) this is about effectively using sleep as an opportunity for subliminal messaging.This all sounds very scary, but I am skeptical about the extent to which this is more than a lot of snake oil from people who’ve realised that there’s no industry that loves pseudoscientific jargon more than advermarketingpr (there’s an INSIGHT for you). This article is very much of the ‘we cannot let this happen, will somebody think of the children!’ sort, but it’s interesting for all its slightly-apocalyptic pearl-clutching.
- How Netflix Actually Works: Or, ‘how do they manage to let me watch a decent enough stream of Peep Show despite the fact that my Wifi is too crap for video calls’? This is ostensibly-boring, but I am always thrilled to learn how services I take totally for granted work under the hood, and this particular explainer also neatly doubles up as a quick refresher on ‘how the whole internet works’, which is nice. Worth reading, if only because it should be a source of far greater shame to us than it currently seems to be that we are surrounded by goods, products and services whose genesis and function is basically witchcraft to us.
- The World’s Blandest Facebook Profile: There’s been a lot of interesting reporting recently about exactly what Facebook is at the moment (by which I mean Facebook-the-product/platform rather than Meta the company), not least by Ryan Broderick at Garbage Day who has been digging into how and why it is that so much of what Facebook confirms is its most popular content is so genuinely terrible (not even ‘terrible’ in a ‘this is ruining the world’-type Cadwalladr sense, just in a ‘this is all total crap with no discernible purpose or value’ sense). Partly in reaction to this, Kaitlyn Tiffany decided to experiment by making the blandest new FB profile she could imagine, to see what content the platform funneled her towards. What did she learn? That a platform which hosts nearly a third of the human race basically tends towards terrible, valueless, garbage ‘content’, content in its purest sense (material that exists to fill a void), content that doesn’t seem to have any purpose beyond its own existence and the search for ‘engagements’, content that blends into the odd camo–green uniformity of infinitely-mixed Play-Doh. Make of this what you will – I’m choosing to use this as a parable about the nefarious power of the median and the mean, but feel free to draw your own conclusions.
- Trying To Buy The Constitution: You may have seen over the past week or so that a bunch of people decided that they were going to form a DAO (Decentralised Autonomous Organisation, do keep up!) and attempt to buy a copy of the US Constitution which was being auctioned at Sotheby’s. The attempt failed – they were outbid by a hedge fund person, OF COURSE – but what’s more interesting is what this tells us about how these very hypey entities actually function in practice (seemingly, not very well), what they look like when they fail (surprisingly orderly), and what they might be useful for besides stunt projects like this (currently…unclear). There’s an interesting follow-up piece here about how the whole project has since shut down – seemingly noone here will have lost money, insofar as I can tell, so on balance no harm has been done and it’s been an interesting look at How Community Organisation Might Work In The Future. Oh, and now some other people are apparently trying to buy an NBA team through a similar sort of crowdfunding setup – er, good luck with that.
- Pictures for Sad Children: Whether or not you remember the webcomic that this piece refers to, this is a really interesting interview that offers (to my mind) a reasonably good set of cautionary indications about what an eventual creator economy might look like in practice. This is an interview with the creator of the once hugely popular webcomic series ‘Pictures for Sad Children’, which talks about the Kickstarter campaign that she launched at the height of its fame, how that went wrong, and what it’s like when your professional and personal existence is umbilically-linked to a fandom that thinks it knows you and that you owe it. Fascinating and not-a-little depressing.
- Ariana Grande’s Zoom Manipulation: I was not aware that Ariana Grande had released a new line of cosmetics (I don’t think her PR team should beat themselves up about their failure to reach me, though), but she has! Huzzah! This is a great article which looks at exactly how that launch was managed by the Grande PR machine, and what that says about the relationship between media and celebrity in 2021 – basically now that famouses can go direct to their fanbase without the need for journointermediaries, they need the media far less than the media needs them, which makes for the sort of uncritical media environment which will literally let the famous and their team dictate every single aspect of coverage in exchange for access. Nothing that should surprise you, but it’s a cogent articulation of how sort-of fcuked the whole deal is.
- The Depths She’ll Reach: Free-diving is obviously having something of a moment, seeing as this is the second longread about the sport that I’ve seen in as many months. Still, it’s a compelling subject, and rendered all the moreso by the presentation of this piece (published by Longlead, ‘a story studio focused on finding, funding, producing, and publishing original, in-depth journalism’), all about diver Alenka Artnik and her struggles with depression and how being alone, underwater, very deep indeed, helped her cope with the inside of her head. This is so, so nicely-made – there are lots of beautiful touches, but I particularly enjoyed the way certain letters in section headings communicate chapter themes (you’ll see what I mean), and the whole thing is just a beautiful bit of webwork.
- Justin Timberlake: A reappraisal of the career of Justin Timberlake, in the wake of the Britney stuff, which points out exactly how much the man got away with and how incredibly differently he was treated by the media in the aftermath of the demise of…hang on, did they never have a portmanteau couple name? No ‘Justney’? No ‘Britstin’? MADNESS. Anyway, Timberlake is someone whose music, despite being fcuking ubiquitous during a certain period of time, has left almost no cultural trace whatsoever (the ‘Avatar’ of modern pop music) but who equally seems to have basically gotten away with acting like a massive w4nker to the People’s Pop Princess with little by way of reckoning or reprisal. If you’re young, this will be another example of how things really did used to be even worse for women in popular culture; if you’re old, this will cause you to remember a time when it was apparently totally normal for the UK tabloids to refer to this man as ‘Trousersnake’ and we all just sort-of shrugged. Different times, man.
- The Britishisms That Saved Me: I love this – Amelia Granger tells the story of her pregnancy and the birth of her child and its early years through a series of idiomatic phrases she learned to use as an expat American in the UK. Granger is a great writer, and I am a sucker for storytelling that plays with form like this; it’s very funny, too.
- The Luxury of Getting Lost: Dispatches from the frontiers of luxury travel, where apparently it’s now a ‘thing’ to pay tens of thousands of pounds to be dropped in a remote location and told ‘walk that way, we’ll pick you up in two days, try not to die’. Wonderfully-written by Ed Caesar, this particular trip took him to Morocco and the Atlas mountains, but apparently you can go all over the world if you can afford it – I can’t pretend that there wasn’t something intensely romantic about the picture Caesar paints of striding into the desert with only a map, a compass (and a GPS device, and rations, and portable shelter, and a crack team of survivalists monitoring your every move and making sure you don’t die), but, equally, there’s something very, very silly about the idea of paying someone 5 figures to ‘go camping’. Still, if you’re incredibly rich and looking for the next thrill, then a) why not try giving me ten grand? It’s QUITE THE KICK!; and b) here’s an idea for you.
- Song of Snogs: A wonderful review of a new contemporary translation of the poetry of infamous Roman dirtbag Catullus, a man who convinced entire generations of students of the merits of learning Latin, just so they could read lines like “Liberation from your taste police / Gives my words a musky allure that can stir / Not just boys but the prick-memory / Of shaggy old ex-shaggers”. This is not only a wonderful introduction to who Catullus was and what he wrote, but a disquisition on how to create modern readings of ancient classics – super-interesting throughout.
- Slime: An extract from a forthcoming book all about slime – what it is, why it’s important, what ‘primordial slime’ was and why it’s not actually a real thing, etc – which I promise you is far more engaging than you’d expect. I particularly like the note in here about the aforementioned primordial slime, and how it’s discovery was basically a drunken error that ended up conditioning (wrongly) decades of thinking about evolution and biology. Oh, booze!
- The Friends You Make Online: Saeed Jones writes about the different qualities on online friendship and what they mean: “You don’t need me to tell you that life online has been a mess, if not straight-up catastrophic, lately. What’s also true is that, even amidst the chaos, we keep coming back. Why? Oh…if only I knew. For me, I know it has a lot to do with the friendships I’ve made online, often with people I know entirely through social platforms. I mean, hell, I’ve been on Twitter since July 2008 and I’m a Sagittarius! These online relationships are often just as meaningful and rich and strange as my “real-life” friendships, but they’re more difficult to define. Maybe we’re still a little embarrassed? Or maybe we just need to stop waiting for definitions and do the work ourselves. I care too much about my online friends to just coast along in relationship limbo. This is an ode to digital friendships, a taxonomy of connections and disconnections.” I found this utterly charming, and I think you will too.
- The Professor: Irina Dumitrescu has been responsible for some of my favourite things that I’ve read online this year, and this is another belter – the professor is about her relationship with her father, and her teacher, and the blurring of boundaries between teacher and lover, and how the shifting nature of these relationships changes us, and she is SO GOOD, I could honestly read her shopping lists. Superb prose.
- The Odor of Things: Finally this week, a piece about the science of scent, how perfumes are made, and how AI is coming for this along with everything else. I adored this – interesting, but also far better-written than it needed to be, it made me want to go and play at being a perfumer. Make a cup of (aromatic) tea and settle in to enjoy this one, it’s superb.
By Katie Horan
AND NOW, MOVING PICTURES AND SOUNDS!:
- Last up in this week’s slightly-truncated selection of videos is this absolute banger by Ideye feat. Pa Salieu – it’s called ‘Made of Gold’, and the bassline is the first thing in months that’s made me want to go and stick my head in a bassbin (I say that figuratively – obviously I can think of nothing I would actually like less than that), and I think you will like it a lot and OH HELLO THAT’S US ALL DONE FOR THE WEEK SO THANKS FOR READING AND CLICKING AND FOR NOT SENDING ME HATEMAIL AND I WISH YOU ALL THE BEST FOR THE WEEKEND AND THE WEEK THAT IS TO COME AND I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT I LOVE EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU AND THAT I AM ROOTING FOR YOU IN ALL YOUR ENDEAVOURS AND THAT ACTUALLY IT TURNS OUT THAT READING WEB CURIOS IS BASICALLY AN ACT OF SELF-CARE AND SO YOU SHOULD DO SO WITH REGULARITY ANYWAY I NEED TO BE OFF SO TAKE CARE BYE TAKE CARE BYE I LOVE YOU BYE!