HELLO EVERYONE HELLO!
In a departure from recent weeks I am not going to open by talking about how everything is terrible (HAPPY NOW ADAM?!) – instead, I am going to recommend a play to you, should you be in a position to be able to get to a theatre in London in the next month, and then I am going to fcuk off and have a shower and leave you with the links, of which there is a particularly fine selection this week (especially in the longreads, where there really is something for absolutely everyone) (unless you’re illiterate, in which case you may struggle) (and also won’t have been able to read this, rendering this whole, largely unfunny riff entirely otiose).
Is it…is it better when I say everything’s awful? Maybe it is.
I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and if you are still here despite that frankly appalling attempt at an intro then, well, I salute you.
WE BEGIN THIS WEEK WITH A PERFECTLY-POPPY AND STUPENDOUSLY-MIXED SELECTION BY DJ SABRINA THE TEENAGE DJ, WHICH VERY MUCH ISN’T MY USUAL SORT OF THING BUT WHICH I FOUND MYSELF ENJOYING TO A SURPRISING EXTENT THIS WEEK AND WHICH YOU MIGHT TOO!
THE SECTION WHICH IS SOMEWHAT CONCERNED THAT IT IS YET TO RECEIVE ITS INVITATION TO THE FORTHCOMING AI SAFETY SUMMIT BUT WHICH PRESUMES THAT IT’S JUST LOST IN THE POST OR SOMETHING, PT.1:
- 1337: Has the concept of ‘leetspeak’ (ask your parents, or someone who was terminally-virginal circa 2004) come full circle and become somehow socially acceptable? I am unsure, which makes me wonder whether the branding for this new…thing (yes, I know, but bear with me, this is genuinely a bit weird and hard to explain) is really going to work. Still, it is VERY futureweird, so perhaps none of the old rules (ie don’t name your business after a widely-derided concept of ‘cool’ created by the least-cool people ever to exist) apply any more. 1337 (hurts every time I type it) is, according to the homepage, ‘a diverse ecosystem of AI entities’ – or, more specifically, a new-ish business which has just received a bunch of additional funding to pursue its vision of a near future in which our social platforms and the rest of the web are increasingly populated by AI-enabled…what do we call them? Avatars? Infomorphs (thanks Marcus for the education on that particular term)? Anyway, digital, non-human actors, for want of a better description, which ‘actors’ will have full, autonomous ‘existences’ in digital social space, posting and commenting and generally giving all the impression of being a creature with interests and desires and motivations while under the hood being nothing but a collection of spicy autocomplete prompts and some light Midjourney wrangling. Why? I HAVE NO IDEA. Still, take a moment to go onto the website and have a scroll and a read – there’s some pretty special copy, as you might expect, including this beautiful few paras: “1337, or “leet”, is a nod to early gaming and hacking culture. Once used to refer to the elite [AUTHOR’S NOTE – LOL!] —those highly skilled and with access. Now, we’re democratizing that access [AUTHOR’S NOTE – ACCESS TO WHAT?!?!?!]. Inspired by open-source principles. Together with creators we co-create a diverse ecosystem of A1 Entities, living real virtual lives online—human soul, digital pulse. They connect, educate, and inspire niche communities.” Erm, what? The amount of work that’s already gone into this is pretty spectacular, though – there are about 50 individual character profiles, each with a reasonably-fleshed-out backstory and persona and ‘interests’, obviously vaguely designed to tick a specific demographic box or two; you have ‘edgy tattoo egirl’, for example, and ‘sensitive-but-sporty guy’, and there’s a suitably-2023 emphasis on diversity and inclusion and lots of references to the (to reiterate, entirely fictitious and made-up) characters’ DESIRES and WANTS and EMOTIONAL STATUS, and each character has its own social profiles which have already started populating the web with a bunch of AI-generated scurf (profile pictures and some lame captions, from what I can see, along with curated playlists on Spotify and possibly blogs as well…WHAT IS THIS FOR?!?! There’s a bit more detail on the business idea behind this in
this TechCrunch profile of the business – I *think* that the end play here is to effectively have these characters working as on-demand microinfluencers to the communities into which they ‘fit’, and monetise the whole thing through brands paying the avatars to shill their tat to actual, real people, but I am unconvinced that a semi-AI puppet is going to be able to persuade kids to part with real money for stuff, however cute and doe-eyed it is and however much it pretends to have feelings and plays the long game when it comes to community participation…There’s some interesting talk in the piece about the way in which the ‘community’ will be able to choose the direction of the characters’ narrative arcs and interests, and eventually be able to create their own characters and monetise them in some ill-defined way (monetising your own AI bots is very much the theme this week, it seems, with Quora’s Poe LLM platform announcing that very thing ), but this overall feels like something that is never, ever going to take off (but which I am intrigued to keep a vague eye on so that I am not totally surprised when I am proved wrong and we’re all chatting with our AI friends on Discord by August 2024).
- Internet Artefacts: It’s entirely possible you’ve seen this already as it’s been EVERYWHERE this week – rightly so, it’s a lovely bit of webby nostalgia by Neal Agarwal, who returns with a ‘MUSEUM OF THE HISTORY OF THE WEB’, presenting a selection of artefacts which are in some way significant to the development of the internet we know and have a painfully-complicated symbiotic relationship with today! This goes through some classics – the first photo on the web! The Space Jam website! Ishkur’s Guide To Electronic Music (Christ that was a good website)! – and is basically a wonderful, nostalgic trip back through time to an era when all of this stuff felt playful and fun and like we were making and discovering and just sort of messing around in pleasingly-creative ways, rather than, as it often does in the here and now, feeling like we’re worrying at scabs with the compulsive action of a caged and distressed animal (did I say that out loud?). This is not only a great bit of online history and storytelling, but there are SO MANY fun little games and websites preserved in here – the fact that you can play so many of the original games and animations inside the site is a really nice touch. It’s entirely possible that several of you will click this link and get stuck (it’s all I can do not to abandon you right now and just go and play the clicky-hovery helicopter game from 2002 for the next four hours, for example), but I can’t really blame you for that.
- The Protest in Roblox: I’m presenting this largely without comment, other than to say that this is the most future thing I’ve seen since that period of the Hong Kong protests when all those photos emerged of the protestors facing off against the police amongst drones and neon. 100% the most Gibsonian thing of the year so far (it feels a bit like that ought to be an award, doesn’t it? Someone forward this to Bill and see if he fancies judging it), and the first real example of something I could point at and go ‘see? The metaverse!’ (lol, jk, I would of course never say those words, but you get the vague point I hope).
- Haunted: It does rather feel like there’s enough real-world horror to be going on with right now so as to not to really need the whole Hallowe’en thing, but it appears to be coming round again regardless of my wishes (so selfish), and as such I suppose I ought to pay at least some sort of small degree of linky homage to the Great Pumpkin. Haunted is a neat little web experience thingy made by a Canadian digital agency called ‘The Digital Panda’, and it’s effectively a variant on those ‘how many scary movie titles can you guess from the clues on the webpage?’ games but with a whole bunch of nice little bells and whistles, from the 3d model of the haunted house which you poke around to find clues, to the lighting effects from the lantern, to the spooky sound effects…click around the house, find the ICONIC (sorry) props and clues from the various horror films, identify the correct movies, win…well, nothing (sorry!), but perhaps you can take a small sense of pride and accomplishment away with you.
- Five Radio Stations: I think I am slightly in love with this. This is a gorgeous little art project in which five different artists create their own personal interpretations of the idea of a radio station, playing with various idea of narrative and sound design and playing with tech to create a selection of what are basically self-contained audio art projects with a central unifying theme of a shared listening experience – the project self-describes as “a group show comprising five artworks that are also radio stations. Listen to them via this website by clicking ‘play’ on any of the five station pages, or seek out a dedicated listening location. The works can be enjoyed like any radio station, as a focus or in the background, and for a shorter or longer duration of time. Although they are automated, the stations are not on-demand but streamed as live, meaning each listener hears the same thing at the same time as an invisible community of other people.” The five stations are all of the mostly-gentle, a bit ambient variety, but I’ve been enjoying switching between them as I write this morning – currently I’m listening to 24h At The End Of The World, “A radio station by Benedikt H. Hermannsson taking us on a personal, 24-hour tour of his native Iceland. The listener almost forgets they are in his company, or rather, in his ear. They are with the musician-artist and those he meets. The audience hears the sound of his son’s footsteps in the snow, the rehearsals for his concerts, and certain conversations that take place, and so travel across the country in an intimate way”; earlier, though, I was very much enjoying the AI-enabled nonsense warblings of InfraordinaryFM, “A radio station by Daniel John Jones and Seb Emina delivering reliable, real-time information about commonplace and quotidian happenings around the world. Tides, aircraft movements, pinball scores, weather conditions, lost and found items, bird sightings and other ordinary events are gathered from over 150 countries and reported live in the form of spoken bulletins.” Honestly, I really do adore this – there’s something genuinely meditative about each piece in a way you don’t always get with digital art experiences.
- Just A Baby: I confess to being…unsure as to where I found this, but WOW did it open my eyes to a community and series of lifestyle choices that I wasn’t hitherto unaware of – as ever, I’m presenting this without comment because, well, I appreciate fertility is hard and everyone has the right to do things differently, but also CRIKEY. Just A Baby is a social network-slash-matchmaking-platform which exists to pair women who, well, just want a baby with men who, well, are willing to supply them with the raw materials to achieve that goal – ‘FIND PEOPLE, MAKE BABIES’ runs the strapline, which at the very least has the benefit of being unambiguously clear. You can basically search for donors or surrogates or whatever you think you need, all without the tedious complications of, I don’t know, officially-sanctioned fertility services – there’s a ‘testimonial’ on the homepage which excitedly exclaims ‘no gatekeeping!’ which raises SO MANY QUESTIONS FOR ME – and there’s obviously a bunch of monetisation stuff going on in terms of your ability to message potential donors, etc…I am SO INTRIGUED by this (not enough to download the app and use it, fine, but), specifically about whether or not you can get ‘super user’ designation if you, I don’t know, ‘give the gift of childbirth’ to a particular number of people (is there a ‘SuperSperm’ badge), and I would imagine that if you dig around there is probably some genuinely-eyebrow-raising lifestyle stuff going on at the edges of all this. I bet Musk’s on there under a pseudonym.
- The Analogue Foundation: Are you a sound person? Do you firmly believe that you CAN tell the difference between a £3,000 and a £30,000 B&O setup, that it really DOES matter if your connector cables are gold-tipped and titanium-corded, and that if someone touches your limited edition vinyl stash without gloves that they really do deserved to be slit from sternum to perineum and left to exsanguinate above a cold, polished concrete floor? If so then you might be EXACTLY the sort of person for whom the Analogue Society is intended – it’s “a creative collective, founded in 2016 by world-renowned engineer and producer Russell Elevado, the Soundwalk Collective, an advanced contemporary sonic arts platform, and Audio-Technica, a company dedicated to high-quality sound and music experiences. They’ve since been joined by Berlin-based recording engineer Erik Breuer, who built the listening bar and recording studios that make up Analogue Foundation Berlin”, and the website offers you a bunch of ways to ENJOY ANALOGUE, through details about international events (focused seemingly on the usual Western hipster capitals) and sanctioned LISTENING STATIONS, and even some mixtapes which you can – HERESY! – listen to online should you desire.
- Emoji Storm: This is utterly frivolous and pointless and won’t amuse you for more than about 30s or so, but WHAT a 30s – just let yourself go a bit limp and sink into your screen for a short while and let the emoji fountain just sort of wash across your field of vision. Feel better? See? You can even fiddle with the speed and composition of the emoji eruption by clicking the menu icon in the top right, should you want something more particularly tailored to your own specific needs and wants and desires.
- Doodloosh: Every now and again I stumble across some poor kid who’s being sold as some sort of arts prodigy, with their largely-abstract daubings being held up as masterpieces of form and composition and being sold at auction by wide-smiling and in-no-way-exploitative parents and agents, all of whom DEFINITELY have the child’s best interests at heart (I always wonder what happens to these kids when they age out of being cute, tow-haired art prodigies and the puberty hits and they enter the creature stage of adolescence and they feel the need to explore THE DARKNESS WITHIN THEM via the medium of collage or something – I feel there’s a documentary just waiting to be made about this, seriously)…anyway, if you’ve always thought ‘hang on, little Kaydn’s got real talent and frankly we could do with him paying his way in these straitened times’ then you might be interested in this website, which as far as I can tell exists solely to offer up a marketplace for kids to sell their terrible pictures on. It ‘empowers kids to take advantage of their creativity’, it says here, but offering them the chance to, er, attempt to auction off their pictures. I am going to tentatively say that this might not be around for long – it’s only launched recently, but it doesn’t seem to be a hive of signups at present and the current roster of ‘artists’ is, er, somewhat sparse – but if you’ve ever wanted to offer your progeny a real-life example of the cruel vicissitudes of the market and the painful realisation that noone actually wants to buy what you’re selling (important life lessons both, as I can testify!) then this could well be PERFECT. If nothing else, if anyone does actually end up selling through this I am 100% using it as a source of birthday gifts (really hope my girlfriend doesn’t read this bit).
- Tennis Video Analysis: I have no idea if this is useful or if it even works (great link quality control Matt, ffs), but I figured there may be a couple of you who play tennis and could find this useful – this webapp lets you capture footage of someone playing tennis and using bodytracking tech and some rudimentary AI to offer analysis of your stance, style and technique based on what it ‘sees’ – there’s a free version with some limited functionality, but there’s also a few paid tier options which apparently will offer ‘coaching’ of sorts; it doesn’t, fine, LOOK super-professional, but this could be what you need to drag yourself from the bottom of the parents’ doubles league (if only your other half would put the effort in, etc etc).
- Daylyy: I know I am basically the very antonym of the concept of ‘entrepreneurialism’, and that I have all the drive and ambition of celery, but I refuse to believe that ANYONE can launch an Instagram alternative in 2023 and seriously think it has any meaningful chance of taking off (seriously, I have seen DOZENS in the past decade and the only ones still going are the ones like Vero which are backed by seemingly-infinite pools of not-entirely-undodgy money) – still, GOOD LUCK to the team behind the latest attempt to ‘make photo-based social media good again’! Daylyy (looking at that word upsets me) is yet another ‘we’re taking it back to basics!’ offering, aimed squarely at the people upset with the fact that noone sees the photographs they post on Insta anymore re Reels, Stories and the rest – “No filters. No uploads. A social platform for users to casually share pictures and videos like a daily content journal. Daylyy is the opposite of current social media. We are not interested in the edited and polished final product. Daylyy is the journey – all the moments in between” – and, look, maybe it will take off with a niche audience of photography enthusiasts who literally just want to share nice snaps of their life without turning every single moment of their waking day into a poorly-produced piece of reality TV content, but I wouldn’t hold my breath here (based on previous predictive track records of mine, you may want to therefore by stock in this as soon as you’re able).
- The Black Gold Tapestry: I LOVE THIS! It’s basically like the Bayeaux Tapestry if the Bayeaux Tapestry was about oil and energy and the environment instead of a bloke having his brains rearranged by an arrow through the eye. “Sandra M Sawatzky has made a 21st century work of art relating the saga of oil, global societal change, and energy transition through the power and beauty of 67 metres of hand embroidery” – the site presents it section-by-section, in pleasingly high-res, and it unexpectedly works really well as a means of presenting the work.
- Groundhop Map: If you’re the sort of person who LOVES FOOTBALL and who thinks that a trip to a new city or foreign country is basically just an excuse to visit an obscure local football team so that you can get drunk and leave YOUR obscure local football team’s club sticker proudly plastered to the cistern of one of the toilets (this is, as far as I can tell, what a significant proportion of lower-league football fandom revolves around), then this is going to change your life (in a good way, although that might not be the case for your long-suffering, football-hating travel companion). Groundhop Map maps football matches taking place on, er, a map – pick a day and you can magically see the games that are on, where they are, with the ability to filter by competition and level – honestly, if you’re travelling and want to find a game to watch nearby then this is GOLDEN. It’s very much a work-in-progress and they only have a limited selection of leagues represented at the moment, but it’s worth keeping bookmarked as it could be REALLY useful.
- Hospitalithings: I LOVE THIS IT IS SO SUPREMELY MUNDANE! Would you like a website whose sole purpose is to host a range of photographs of very banal objects, taken in hotel rooms over the course of the past 6 years? OF COURSE YOU WOULD YOU ARE NOT MADE OF STONE AFTER ALL! “Since that fateful trip in 2017, my ritual remains unchanged whenever I enter a hotel room. I meticulously photograph the same eleven objects: decoration, door handle, hairdryer, keys, lamp, light switch, personal hygiene toiletries, remote control, shower drain, shower tap and the toilet roll holder. I preserve these moments in the Instagram-friendly square format, embracing the authenticity of the scene, without any embellishments. Over the years, this collection has grown, encompassing hundreds of photos from seven different countries. Yet these images lay dormant on my computer, waiting for the right moment to be shared. Finally I found the inspiration to breathe life into my collection. As a web developer, it was only natural that I decided to create a website. I also christened my photographic pursuit with a fitting name: “Hospitalithings.” This name pays homage to these objects of hospitality.” Honestly, this is practically-perfect and I would like to pay a genuinely sincere thankyou to the nameless person who’s selflessly sharing their weird little obsessive hobby with the world.
- Pirr: After the ‘sexy AI ASMR’ from a few weeks back, now we have…AI adult fiction cowriting apps! Would you like to spend a significant chunk of time attempting to co-create erotic fiction with Sexy Clippy, tapping away at your phone as the prompts become more feverish and your breath more ragged? No, I can’t imagine that you do because that sounds frankly weird and about as sexy as mince – and yet, as ever, here we are. Pirr purports to let you use its ‘specially-trained sexy authorial AI technology’ (I am paraphrasing here) to spin up whatever textual grot you fancy, engaging in a ‘co-scripting’ process that sees you and the machine create textual bongo that you can then share with others on the platform – there’s a bunch of stuff in there about how you can make your ‘creative process’ visible to, and collaborative with, others, but I confess to not actually having tried this because, well a) I have literally no interest in penning ‘sexy’ stories whether with a chatbot or otherwise; and b) the last time I featured this sort of thing was the ASMR erotic audio thing, which I did in fact briefly have a play with in the spirit of ‘journalistic’ (lol) curiosity and which, despite repeated attempts to make it stop, has sent me approximately three VERY THIRSTY emails a day exhorting me to check back in and, frankly, I could do without being chased around the web by weird machine sexbots.
THE SECTION WHICH IS SOMEWHAT CONCERNED THAT IT IS YET TO RECEIVE ITS INVITATION TO THE FORTHCOMING AI SAFETY SUMMIT BUT WHICH PRESUMES THAT IT’S JUST LOST IN THE POST OR SOMETHING, PT.2:
- Recursive Recipes: I like this a lot – it’s very silly, fine, but also it works far better than it needs to given it’s basically just a one-note gag taken to an extreme. “A recursive recipe is one where ingredients in the recipe can be replaced by another recipe. The more ingredients you replace, the more that the recipe is made truly from scratch.” So pick from one of the recipes on the site, select how many you want to make and then start clicking to see exactly how ‘from scratch’ you want to get and how long it will take you and how much it would cost if you were to try and do EVERYTHING. This feels vaguely orthogonally related to the old ‘making a toaster from scratch’ project from what feels like DECADES ago –oh God it was 2010 I am SO OLD – but just a bit sillier. Via Giuseppe, whose newsletter is always excellent.
- Tertulia: This is an interesting idea: “Inspired by the informal salons (“tertulias”) of Spanish cafes and bars, Tertulia is a new way to discover books through all the lively and enriching conversations they inspire. Tertulia serves up book recommendations and book talk from across social media, podcasts, and the web — all in one app which incorporates seamless book purchasing. If a book has moved someone enough to get them talking, you can find it, buy it, and share it on Tertulia.” There’s an interesting co-ownership element to the project, in which members who pay a fee to get cheap books, free shipping, etc, also have an ownership stake in the company which allows for a say in governance decisions and an eventual share of any profits it might one day make – while it’s unlikely anyone’s ever going to get rich through this, it’s a really nice example of collective organisation and practical community-building without reference to DAOs or NFTs or crypto of any sort (see, it IS possible!).
- Maps.fm: This comes to me via my friend Ben and is SUCH A GOOD IDEA (and another example of ‘mapping stuff is just a generally good and useful thing to do from a UX/UI point of view, turns out’) – Maps.fm’s simple gimmick is to let you look at a map of the world and then select podcast episodes that are about or related to a specific location on said map. Want to instantly be able to access every single podcast ever recorded about Swindon? No, of course you don’t, but should you ever find yourself gripped by such a mad compulsion then WOW are you going to be well-catered-for. Podcast discovery is famously terrible, and while this doesn’t fix that it does offer a really helpful way of, for example, researching somewhere you’re going on holiday, or a specific area of historic interest, or of finding some genuinely obscure shows in which people talk very, very seriously about some intensely-local concerns (“Episode 23 of ‘Malmesbury Matters, and we’re delving deep into the one-way traffic plans for the village and talking to Tony about his divorce and subsequent custody battle”).
- Notes: I rather love this – the website of Nicolas Soleriou (a lovely name, fwiw) contains a page which is devoted solely to quotes that he has found and thought worth keeping, along with a small line or two of context explaining why he thought it worth noting down, and, honestly, there is something so interesting about this, the chosen quotes and Nicolas’ reasoning for finding them meaningful, like (per all my favourite things) getting someone else’s internal monologue delivered directly to one’s inner ear. To quote Nicolas, “I like a good quote — As shallow as some can be, I’ve often enjoyed the invitation to think that they extend. I’ve been grossed out by how some people abuse famous words. Quotes are everywhere. Most of the time used as marketing tools or worse, twisted to bring a feeling of wisdom to a piece of content. Simplification is necessary and I’ve come to appreciate the imperfection of language, as a mere mirror of our own imperfections. Famous words, stuff heard on the streets, friends, family, graffitis… Rather than just hoarding them in a pinterest board, google doc or some other terrible place on the internet, I’ll have them live here. I can’t write. I tried. So I’ll just add a short note to each post. It all goes somewhere, hopefully.” I really adore this.
- 2 Girls 1 Comp: This is, I promise, TOTALLY SFW despite the iffy name – nothing to do with scatplay (NO COME BACK) this is instead the wrapper page for a series of little tech/art projects which hack GTAV in various interesting ways to MAKE WORK; so there’s SanAndreas.TXT, which basically adds a Souls-like ‘memories’ mechanic to the game, allowing anyone with a specific mod installed to leave messages to other players (anyone with the mod can both write and read messages in-game), or there’s Every Thing, “A mod that sequentially spawns every object from the GTA V prop database until the game ultimately crashes under the weight of every thing.”I have said this before, I know (but, well, you try writing about stuff on the web for over a decade without repeating yourself every now and again! It’s hard!), but there’s something really interesting about artists using gameworlds as canvases like this and it’s something I genuinely feel has a lot of untapped potential from the point of view of Interesting Communications Techniques.
- Latecomer Magazine: I’m always interested to see a new online publication, particularly one which launches with a website as pleasingly-shiny and nicely-made as this one – that said, I appreciate that not everyone will be hugely here for a publication which looks set to explore and espouse ideas around longtermism, the previously-fashionable but now hopelessly-outmoded progenitor of the currently-zeitgeisty Effective Altruism (and now Accelerationist) movements. Still, presuming that Latecomer isn’t going to start publishing too much mad, borderline-fashy stuff about how it’s ok to let poor people starve actually because by focusing all the world’s money and attention and resources on hyper-future tech we’ll be saving the lives of TRILLIONS of future people, it might be worth keeping an eye on; the initial slate of articles is interesting and (from an admittedly-slightly-cursory-reading) not overtly insane or evil – from the editor’s synopsis, “Allison Deuttman writes on how close we are to a future of molecular manufacturing, and what’s holding us back. In my interview with Steve Hsu we talk about the future of machinic and biological intelligence, and how they intersect. Casey Handmer makes the case that abundant green energy is not only going to beat climate change, but also unleash our technological potential. We also have articles that explore the history of the future—how historical contingencies become permanent values. Almost fifty years ago James Yorke named the field of “Chaos Theory”—in his retrospective, he considers what chaos means for our prediction abilities. Jonathan Ratcliffe compares Russian Cosmism with contemporary Longtermism and illuminates their shared ideological ancestor. Finally, Xander Balwit interrogates the pricing of nature, and how we’ll value it when it ceases being productive.” Worth a look (but Web Curios accepts no responsibility if it ends up going full mask-off nutter in ~6m time).
- The Mangrove Photography Awards: I know I tend to be a bit sniffy about photo competitions, in the main because THERE ARE SO FCUKING MANY OF THEM DEAR GOD IS THERE ANY PHOTOGRAPHER IN THE FCUKING WORLD WHO HASN’T WON ONE OF THESE FCUKING PRIZES ahem, but this one pleased me no end, mainly because of its specific focus and its aim to raise awareness of the need to protect mangrove swamps as a particular category of ecosystem but also because it features photography and photographers from places that don’t always tend to feature in these sorts of competitions. There are thousands of entries on the site, but you can see the winners here
– my personal favourite is the one from Colombia featuring what is by a long, long way the most Muppet-looking bird I have ever seen (you will know it when you see it), but, as ever, PICK YOUR OWN!
- Music-to-Image: Fun little toy hosted on HuggingFace which lets you feed it any audio you like and receive an image ‘derived’ from that audio in return. When I tried it earlier this week you were able to use a YT link, but that appears to have been killed so you’ll need to upload an MP3 or similar, but I can highly recommend just recording yourself singing along to something on your phone and just using that because WOW will you be upset at how ugly the visual interpretation of your warbling is. Your ‘vaguely-subversive but ultimately futile act of corporate rebellion’ task for this afternoon is to surreptitiously get audio recordings of all of the senior management in your company, use this to get a visual interpretation of their voices and then upload said visual interpretations to the company website to show the world what these people are really like inside. GO ON DO IT WHAT ELSE DO YOU HAVE TO ACHIEVE TODAY?
- Biscuit Shells: Via the surprisingly-personable stationery retailer Present & Correct on Twitter comes this link to a Japanese retailer who, as far as I can tell, exists only to stock those wafery biscuit shells into which companies like Kinder stuff chocolate-flavoured paste, in a frankly dizzying array of shapes and sizes and designs and flavours and, look, I can’t make head not tail of the pricing and shipping details given my ability to speak Japanese is literally zero but I like to think that there will be at least one of you who will see this link and be compelled to spend the next month ordering, filling and then distributing tiny wafer christmas trees, so it feels worth including.
- The Genrerator: On the one hand, this is a silly, simple little gag website which uses (I presume) Markov Chains to generate a seemingly-infinite array of made-up music genres inspired by legendary (and legendarily niche) music magazine The Quietus – it just gave me “50s Kyrgyzstani Downtempo–Lofi Disco Folk”, for example, which sounds great; on the other, though, thanks to the MAGICAL AGE OF GENERATIVE AI through which we’re now living/limping (delete per your degree of optimism) it’s also a fun way of seeing if The Machine is able to imagine what these invented genres might in fact sound like. Why not try spinning up a few of these and then feeding them to the Google music lab generator thing, or Riffusion from last week? Who knows, you might discover some HITHERTO UNIMAGINED new form of music that will for the first time bridge the aural gap between man and machine – although judging by Riffusion’s attempt at the aforementioned Kyrgysztani grooves, that seems unlikely.
- Bionicle Media: I am vaguely aware of the fact that Bionicles were a toy range that were VERY POPULAR with kids perhaps 10 or so years younger than me – if YOU are a millennial who feels nostalgic about this particular brand of aggressively-marketed plastic tat then will THIS be the memoryhole for you! “In 2005, a BIONICLE fan named Auron began collating official BIONICLE content and offering it for download via links in forum threads on BZPower. As the task grew and more people joined the effort, Auron’s Downloads evolved into a new independent website, BioMedia Project. The contributions and work of dozens of fans over the ensuing years have made it the largest repository of official BIONICLE media in existence.” Music! Fonts! Old comics! All the Bionicle media you could POSSIBLY want! Cancel Christmas, it’s impossible to top this.
- ANHVN: A genuinely charming personal website by Anh, a designer and artist – this is where they keep their various personal projects, and while there’s a bunch of interesting work in here (and their blog is lovely), the thing that really struck me about this was the GORGEOUS little four-panel projects that introduce each individual project with a small origin story as to how and why it came to be; it’s such an unexpected and novel way of introducing work that really brings it to life, in part through Anh’s art style but also because there’s something that just works about the four-panel narrative as a setup. A really beautiful tiny project, this.
- Another AI Video: This one’s a short using Midjourney and Pika Labs to create and animate – again, it’s…limited, but again I am seeing genuine progress in terms of the quality of the visuals and animation, and I encourage you to keep an eye on this stuff because the pace of improvement around the edges of AI animation is really quite dizzying at the moment.
- Tory Or Not Tory: On the one hand, it’s total rubbish to presume that you can tell someone’s politics by the way they look; on the other, this little game that asks you to identify which of the two MPs you’re presented with is in fact the HORRID CONSERVATIVE based on their faces alone is surprisingly easy to win, suggesting that there perhaps IS a specific cast of the eye or mouth that’s common to all of those of A CERTAIN TYPE (personally I tend to find the flesh-coloured lips the biggest giveaway, but see what you think).
- Dropy Blocky: Horrible name aside (really, SUCH a horrible name; try saying out loud under your breath and you can’t help but inadvertently grimace as you do), this is quite a fun little timewaster that basically asks you to play a simple version of Tetris across various levels against the clock.
- Which Way Round?: A game designed to separate the shape rotators from the wordcels, I did surprisingly well at this for a few levels before suddenly hitting quite a hard spatial awareness wall and feeling very embarrassed at my complete inability to manipulate a three-dimensional object in my imaginary headspace. See whether YOU are better equipped to manage the whole ‘existing in meatspace’ thing with this little game, which asks you to keep track of what direction a specific object will be facing in after a series of rotations around an axis – like one of those ‘shell/marble’ games that gullible kids (ie me in Florence when I was 15) get fleeced by on bridges, except here there’s no cheating going on and so if you get the answer wrong there’s noone to blame but yourself.
- Halfsies: The last of the ‘nicked off B3ta’ game links this week comes in the shape of this simple-seeming but deceptively difficult ludic diversion in which your sole task is to seek to divide the shapes exactly in half. “Easy!”, I hear you cry – come back and say that around level 12.
- The London Tube Station Memory Game: I think every single Londoner must have seen this one by now, but in case not – HOW MANY TUBE STATIONS CAN YOU GUESS FROM MEMORY?!?!? This is GREAT – difficult, frustrating and the sort of thing that you can use to start REALLY bitter arguments between you and your friends and your family and your partner as to who is the REALEST MOST AUTHENTIC GORBLIMEY LONDONER (blood will be spilt).
- Suika: Our final cute timewasting distraction of the week comes in the form of Suika, a simple-but-surprisingly-addictive little number where you basically just have to smush fruits together in pairs – think of it as that 2048 game, but with grapes and melons instead of numbers and you’ll be fine. This is REALLY satisfying, and will suck you in surprisingly fast, so possibly finish that spreadsheet before you click this one.
THE CIRCUS OF TUMBLRS!
- This Isn’t Happiness: So for years I have basically been lifting 90% of the images for Curios from this excellent Tumblr, and its owner got in touch this week to point out that, well, the least I could do is credit him every now and again – which is totally fair, and not unreasonable, and as such let me present this EXCELLENT and eclectic and stylishly-curated artblogthing, which is not only right up my street in terms of aesthetics but which also sells really really nicely-designed tshirts in limited edition ranges, which I can highly recommend.
- Maps On The Web: Via the wonderful Things Magazine comes this EXCELLENT tumblr celebrating cartography. Who doesn’t like maps? NO FCUKER, ETC! Why not enjoy some BONUS MAP CONTENT while we’re here – this is the David Ramsey Map Collection which frankly contains so much map-related content that if you want more you almost certainly have some sort of obsessional issue which you ought to get seen to.
THE TROUGH OF (INSTA) FEEDS!
- Mosher Mags: An account whose sole purpose is to post photos of articles and photoshoots from old emo/metal/rock magazines from the 90s and 00s. Presuming that they remember to excise all the laudatory LostProphets interviews, this seems like good, clean retro run.
LONG THINGS WHICH ARE LONG!
- The 2023 State of the Climate Report: It’s fair to say that there have been one or two other things going on this week that have rather dominated the news agenda, meaning it’s not wholly surprising that this piece of work’s release rather got buried – and, look, I get the fact that you might not be particularly in the market for yet another piece of academic literature that basically feels like the climate news equivalent of a mechanic rubbing greasy hands on overalls and saying “nah, sorry guv, big end’s gone, nothing we can do about it, you’ll need parts shipping in from Poland and GOD knows how long that’s going to take”, but, well, it’s probably important. On the one hand if you’ve paid any attention to Stuff In The News over the past year you’ll have noticed one or two ‘hot, isn’t it?’ reports and so the fact that ‘it’s still getting warmer’ oughtn’t really be a surprise – on the other, there’s something quite troubling about the general sense of resignation in this paragraph from the report’s opening: “The trends reveal new all-time climate-related records and deeply concerning patterns of climate-related disasters. At the same time, we report minimal progress by humanity in combating climate change.” If you (understandably) don’t have the appetite to wade through the whole thing, I can recommend jumping to the conclusions which offer a few practical (if unlikely) steps that might still be taken to mitigate this stuff – note, though, that the first is basically ‘lose the obsession with economic growth at all costs’, which doesn’t feel like an argument that’s going to get much traction with any of the current or future crop of Western governments anytime soon.
- Managing AI Risks: ANOTHER OPEN LETTER! This one, though, is significantly better-thought-through than the ‘AI Pause’ effort from earlier in the year, and sets out what look like being some genuinely sensible principles around which businesses and governments and regulators might look to coalesce when it comes to mitigating the real or imagined risks of AI. This is practical and sober and non-scifi, as much as it can be when talking about stuff that still does basically feel like scifi, and feels like something of a useful counterpoint to both
the unfettered madness of the Andreessen vision and the honestly
weirdly-unbalanced set of talking points announced for the AI Safety Summit in the UK next week – on which point, seriously, take a moment to click the link and have a read of the briefing that’s being used to frame the conversation, and take a look at the relative amount of words and weighting given to ‘stuff that might actually have a practical negative impact in the real world in the next year’ vs ‘the mad scifi stuff that Altman et al will have us all focus on so that we don’t worry too much about curtailing their earning power right now’.
- The Digital Fog of War: The only war-related link in here this week because, well, I presume you’re all getting your fix of rage and fear and bellicosity elsewhere and could do with a rest, frankly – still, it’s an interesting one and sees Kara Swisher (yes, I know, but she’s on decent form here) discussing all the interesting ways in which it is harder than ever to get anything resembling an accurate picture of, well, anything on social media these days. I honestly do find it incredible that you can have a company like Meta which has basically been forced to tacitly accept that its failures in content moderation and algorithmic promotion have been in-part responsible for an actual genocide and yet is STILL not capable, despite the decade’s experience and the billions, of working out sensible policies around content and conflict. I know that this stuff is hard, but, equally, the lack of meaningful progress at a platform level over the past 15 or so years when it comes to ‘how we deal with information and how we share it online’ is shameful.
- The BBC Foresight Report: THE FIRST TREND REPORT OF THE YEAR! And, honestly, the last I’m likely to include in here unless I find something particularly brilliant or especially-moronic – I’m fortunate enough that I don’t really have to pretend to care about TRENDS IN COMMUNICATIONS any more and so, well, I won’t. I will, though, make an exception for this bit of work by the BBC’s R&D Department which is SO interesting and pleasingly wide-ranging in scope (covering everything from geopolitics to climate change to AI to interaction and social systems) and gives you the sort of fizzily-wonky perspectives that you simply don’t tend to get when these things are written by advermarketingprdrones (sorry, but it’s true). Really, really interesting, and an excellent source of ideas.
- The Best Inventions of 2023: Always a treat, this, by Time Magazine, and 2023 is no exception – this year’s list of the ‘best’ inventions and innovations across a wide range of categories is as ever a brilliant and inspirational selection of smart pieces of design and innovation, as well as being a reliably-excellent source of…er…’inspiration’ (honestly, if you don’t find at least one thing here that you can riff off or replicate or reuse in some way then, well, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?).
- Working With Dall-E 3: A super-useful post from Simon Willison who takes you through some useful ways you can use the new Dall-E’s more LLM-like conversational interface for fun and profit – the details at the end about finding a specific area in latent space and playing around within it is particularly useful for anyone wanting to create consistent image styles or generate recurring characters. BONUS WILLISON: this is another excellent blogpost from earlier this week
, which is significantly crunchier in terms of the concepts being discussed but which, if you can force yourself to stick with it (and I am saying this from my point of view as someone for whom the more conceptual bits of ‘how AI works’ start to get VERY challenging quite quickly), offers a genuinely helpful way to think about where The Machine ‘finds’ concepts, and how things cluster in latent space, and about the way in which much of the magic is just taking a set of coordinates and reinterpreting them as different media…oh, look, just click the link and read it, Simon’s a much better explainer than I am (possibly because he understands this stuff and I very much don’t).
- Another Artistic Fightback: I am rather enjoying the increasingly-guerilla moves being made by the artistic community to guard against the ingestion and reappropriation of their work by The Machine – this latest is a tool called Nightshade, which basically (if I am reading this right) ‘infects’ images with code which will render them utterly confusing to The Machine when ingested, meaning that it will fcuk up the link between where the image ‘sits’ in latent space and what it looks like (effectively, if I’m understanding it correctly, it basically works by altering pixels in such a way that the image is unaltered to the human eye but to a machine presents an entirely different subject – so an image which to us looks like a dog is instead seen by the machine as a cat, screwing with its dataset in all sorts of ways). This feels VERY ‘scrappy collective fighting back against big business and the forces of capitalism and THE MAN’ in a 90s adaptation of a Neal Stephenson film, if you know what I mean.
- Explore With Alexa: I have no love for Amazon as a company and their creepy digital surveillance devices fill me with fear, but I will give them rare credit where it’s due – this is an article about how the company is starting to experiment with the introduction of LLMs to its Alexa Kids product, and, from what’s outlined in this piece at least, it seems like they are taking a genuinely-sensible and measured approach to rolling out the tech in such a way that minimises the likely risk of, I don’t know, little Noah being given detailed instructions on how to make mittens from the guinea pigs. Worth reading if you’re in any way exploring how you might start bolting on natural language conversational gubbins to your existing products or services (sometimes I read things back and laugh to myself – pretty confident that noone reading this is involved in doing anything that serious, bless you all).
- AI and the Military: A timely writeup in the Washington Post of some of the fledgling companies currently seeking to make their founders violently, plutocratically wealthy by flogging their ‘war, but with added AI!’ solutions to the Pentagon – I’m including this not because it contains anything necessarily surprising, but because I think it’s a useful reminder of the sort of practical, right-now considerations that it might be worth focusing on instead of the ‘killer robots take control’ stuff. BONUS AI-RELATED LINK: here’s a piece in the WSJ about smart kids dropping out of elite colleges so as to pursue their dreams of making a quick buck in the AI bear market, which, again, isn’t per se interesting but is useful in terms of what it tells us about what the people who are likely to be running this VERY HOT market are thinking- note the quote in here from the guy who basically says ‘all the jobs are going to be automated away – do I want to be the guy whose job gets automated, or the guy who invents and owns the machines that do the automating?’. Tell me again how it’s the autonomous AI we need to worry about, why don’t you?
- The Internet of the Future: As Ryan pointed out in Garbage Day this week, by the point you notice a movement on the web these days it’s probably already over – meaning that the current spate of vaguely-nostalgic-optimistic pieces about ‘remember the good old web, how can we get it back?’ are already set to be replaced with The Next Cultural Zeitgeisty Bubble; still, I rather liked this article espousing the virtues of POSTING ON YOUR OWN WEBSITE, and I can generally highly recommend the DIY ethos when it comes to web publishing (I mean, I say ‘Y’ – the website was built by a friend, the mail software’s another person’s creation, I literally just commissioned some stuff like a useless, non-making arriviste, but you get the idea).
- Running In A Body That’s My Own: This is a devastating essay by Caster Semanya about wanting to run – I defy anyone not to feel their heart break a bit at this opening paragraph: “I know I look like a man. I know I sound like a man and maybe even walk like a man and dress like one, too. But I’m not a man; I’m a woman. Playing sports and having muscles and a deep voice make me less feminine, yes. I’m a different kind of woman, I know, but I’m still a woman.” Honestly, this floored me, and is a regular, useful reminder about the mad multiplicity of human experience and identity and how unhelpful binary distinctions are when talking about anything as complex as biology.
- Taiwan’s Ageing Population: A really nice piece of dataviz looking at the way in which Taiwan’s population has aged over the past few decades, and the likely impact on the country, and how it compares to other nations around the world whose populations are also ageing at pace. Lovely graphs (I know that might not sound appealing, but these are particularly nicely-done).
- Learn English With Google: Ok, this is less ‘interesting article’ and more ‘useful thing to know’, but still: “We are excited to announce a new feature of Google Search that helps people practice speaking and improve their language skills. Within the next few days, Android users in Argentina, Colombia, India (Hindi), Indonesia, Mexico, and Venezuela can get even more language support from Google through interactive speaking practice in English — expanding to more countries and languages in the future. Google Search is already a valuable tool for language learners, providing translations, definitions, and other resources to improve vocabulary. Now, learners translating to or from English on their Android phones will find a new English speaking practice experience with personalized feedback.” This is HUGELY useful and a really significant development imho.
- China’s Age of Malaise: Thanks to Alex for sending this my way; this is a VERY long but very readable look at the current Xi era in China, set against a backdrop of economic stagnation an evaporation of the promise of seemingly infinite-growth seen in the 00s; the piece looks at what this change in economic perspective might mean for international and domestic policy, and how it will likely impact US-China relations (it’s a New Yorker piece and as such Americentric, but still), and the return of ideology, and the increasing feeling amongst swathes of the population that the good times, such as they were, are over…I am far from being an expert on China (lol! As if!) and those more in-the-know than me might find this simplistic, but personally it struck me as well-written, well-researched and well-argued.
- Addicted To FUT: I’ve long been of the (tedious, sniffy) opinion that FIFA’s – sorry FC24’s – Ultimate Team gameplay mode (the one in which you have to play games to get points to unlock cards that unlock better players – or you can just pay actual cashmoney to unlock the players instead, which is how EA makes BILLIONS off the franchise) is basically a fixed odds betting terminal with a fancy interface, and this incredibly-dispiriting article in superb PC games magazine Rock, Paper, Shotgun does nothing to disabuse me of that notion – the stories here of grown men hiding their spending from their family, pursuing a hobby that they no longer even seem to enjoy, feels miserably familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time with addicts of any description, and reading this it’s hard to escape the feeling that this probably ought to have been regulated out of existence years ago. And yet here we are.
- The Bitcoin Wallet Mystery: If you had a crypto wallet containing just over 7,000 bitcoin, currently worth several hundred million dollars, and you had lost the password, and someone told you that they could hack the wallet and get you access to the aforementioned millions…you’d say yes, right? And yet, for reasons that are not immediately discernible to this particular layman, Stefan Thomas (who finds himself in this odd position) doesn’t seem too keen…This is FASCINATING – I’m personally convinced that this whole thing has been an attention-seeking grift that got out of hand and now Thomas is just stuck with the story, but I am intrigued to see how it ends up playing out.
- The Bad Art Review: I think that this might be the most ‘online culture and fandom in 2023’ story of the year so far – there’s a painter who’s achieved a degree of TikTok fame for doing pictures of people as they ride the subway in New York; said fame parlayed itself into an actual gallery show, which in turn led to said show being reviewed by an actual art critic; the review was…not bad, considering the lumpen quality of the works in question, but the reactions of the artist’s fandom were…somewhat unhinged, it’s fair to say. This is SO INTERESTING, and I very much enjoyed the writeup here by the critic in question who raises interesting points about the extent to which criticism is even meaningfully possible in a post-stan, direct-artist-to-fandom-link world – as a companion piece, I recommend this article in Dirt in which 10 different music critics opine on the current state of their medium, and includes this observation which is SO TRUE and can basically be applied to frankly any sort of journalism at all in 2023: “when publications offer to pay someone $150 to write 2,000 words, and those words can put a writer at risk of an artist with millions of followers deciding to send their fan armies after someone for an opinion you’re not going to get the best and smartest people.”
- The Ethics of Sedaris: This is very funny, but also sort of suggests that David Sedaris is a massive d1ck, which is both a shame and not entirely unexpected. The author recounts their experience of going to a Sedaris book reading and meeting him afterwards, during which meeting an embarrassing anecdote was shared…which eventually found itself in to later Sedaris stage shows. This is SO interesting, about the extent to which stuff like that is expected, or ok, the etiquette around lifting others’ experiences as material…Sedaris might reasonably argue that EVERYTHING IS MATERIAL, especially to an arch anecdotalist like him, but it does rather feel like his interactions here are a touch ungracious…still, this is funny and interesting, although part of me does want to email the author and ask him why, exactly, he felt the need to share the fact that he once bummed himself with a frozen hotdog with ANYONE.
- David’s Presence: Yes, ok, it’s ANOTHER piece in Curios about David Foster Wallace (well, ish) – YES I KNOW I AM A TEDIOUS CLICHE OF A CERTAIN TYPE OF MIDDLE-AGED MAN OF A CERTAIN GENERATION, STOP BULLYING ME. Long-term readers will know that I have a long-standing love of the man’s writing and interest in his life, notwithstanding all the Bad Stuff, and this is a beautiful essay written by Gale Walden, a former fiancee and partner of Wallace’s who (to my mind) was rather minimised in the postmortem analysis of his live and work, but who writes movingly about their relationship and grieving and the weirdness of her memories of the man coming up hard against the revised picture of him created by posthumous revelations…look, fine, you’ll get more out of this if you’re a Wallace completist like I am, but as a meditation on death and grieving, and the way you can only really come to terms with some aspects of some people when they no longer exist, this is wonderful.
- Lanchester on SBF: I didn’t think I’d end up including anything else on the FTX trial, but I will make an exception for this – John Lanchester writes SO WELL about finance and markets and the madness of crypto, and his portrait of SBF (and of the book about him by Lewis) is nuanced and sad and offers a lot of really interesting perspectives and analysis of the misery of the hard utilitarianism of the effective altruists, and, generally, this is a properly great read even if you think you never, ever want to see the words ‘Sam Bankman Fried’, ‘Alameda’ or ‘polycule’ ever again.
- Being Naked: Ostensibly a piece about going to a nudist beach with her husband, Jeanette Cooperman instead turns this essay into a really interesting history of our relationship with our bodies, the history of clothing, the male gaze and the concept of ‘nakedness’ – this is far, far more wide-ranging than I was expecting it to be,
- 30 Years of Online Writing: I loved this – a wonderful disquisition on why it is that we distinguish the writing done online from ‘proper’ writing, and whether there are solid formal reasons for this, and how form relates to meaning in terms of the digital written word…seriously, if you’ve spent any time over the past few years enjoying Patricia Lockwood’s writing about/on the web, or the HTML review, or any sort of digital poetry that plays with the mechanics of the web to interesting effect, then you will adore this essay by Megan Marz.
- Gods & Influencers: Clive Martin is, to my mind, one of the best people writing about mid-culture in the UK today – this is another superb piece for the Face in which Clive attends the insane-sounding KSI vs Fury massive megabout in Manchester the other weekend and paints a picture of the weirdness of the cultural hinterland that is the Influencer Beef Industrial Complex. You will laugh, you will wince, you will Google an awful lot of names and then wish you really, really hadn’t – THIS IS BRITAIN!
- The Protagonist Is Never In Control: Finally this week, a short story by Emily Fox Kaplan about childhood and lies and memories and and and. Sharp and jagged, and I am always a total sucker for anything written in the second person; this is very good indeed.
By Kelly Lu
AND NOW, MOVING PICTURES AND SOUNDS!:
- I rather enjoyed this – it’s by the mysterious ‘Jacques’, it’s filmed in the Louvre, and I rather like the way it integrates some AI image fcukery into the video in relatively low-key ways; I also really enjoy the fact that Jacques reminds me an awful lot of (sorry Jacques, but it’s true) Michael Bolton.
- I’ve been following Poppy’s career since…what, about 2011? What commenced with genuinely-unsettling arty videos with glitching and blood and the promise of some sort of weird ARG-ish backstory never really quite lived up to what I’d hoped for, I think there’s something quite interesting in the way the Poppy ‘character’ is now presented and the way she integrates a lot of very non-pop styles and productions into what is still very much a pop sound. Anyway, this is called ‘Hard’ and I think it sounds pleasingly-weird.
- Finally this week it’s Pete & Bas, back again with another absolute banger – this one’s a bit more low-octane than some previous efforts but it fcuking SLAPS as ever, and there is some cracking wordplay on display, so turn this up loud and sing along to the bars of ‘Longthorne Shotgun’. Oh and BYE SEE YOU NEXT WEEK I LOVE YOU BYE!