Hello! Happy Friday! IT’S A BANK HOLIDAY!
I know that they’re ten-a-penny this year, but this feels like a good one, mainly because at no point is anyone going to try and persuade me that the coronation is A Good Thing or indeed that any of the people present at it shouldn’t in fact be sacrificed for food and fuel.
(Apologies to any of you reading this outside of the UK and who as a result don’t have a three-day weekend to look forward to, or a coronation looming; console yourselves with the fact that, well, you don’t live in the fcuking UK and that as a result you might currently be enjoying things like ‘temperatures above 6 degrees’ and ‘a functioning health and education system that hasn’t been eviscerated over the course of a decade by some of the very worst cnuts in the world’).
I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and I think ‘Unicorn Kingdom’ may well be an all-time nadir for this fcuking country.
***SPECIAL ADDITIONAL LINK OF SELF-AGGRANDISEMENT WHICH YOU CAN ALL IGNORE!***
I appreciate that the number of people who subscribe to this newsletter and want to listen to a podcast in which I spend 15 minutes talking about AI stuff is, in all probability, zero, but I feel honour-bound to include this as, well, they pay me and so it feels like the least I can do. So, er, here. CLICK AND LISTEN! Or, if you don’t want to hear what I sound like – HORRIBLE, is the answer – then why not click
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- Chirper: I think I might be done with social media. I will obviously maintain a Twitter login until the point that it’s just Elon, cry-w4nking into a camera as his loyal flying monkeys frot themselves to simultaneous orgasm and the site’s servers finally blink into nothingness, and there’s a tiny corner of Facebook that is still professionally useful to me, but beyond that? Instagram never appealed (if I don’t care about most of you enough to want to speak to you, what makes you think I care about the carefully-curated manner in which you choose to present a lightly-fictionalised version of your lives?), Snapchat remains a mystifying creche, Pinterest feels pointless for someone who will never marry and has no grand interior design ambitions, and TikTok is television and I’ve not been interested in that for years. Still, I can’t pretend that social media doesn’t fill a useful function in modern life (specifically: it is temporal polyfilla and the perfect thing with which to artificially fill some of those yawning hours between cradle and grave), and as such I was THRILLED this week to discover Chirper, possibly my favourite silly use of AI yet. Chirper (DO YOU SEE WHAT THEY DID THERE?) is a Twitter-ish social platform with the gimmick that all the interactions that you see on there are being driven by AI. Nothing on the platform has been created by humans and…it’s sort of interesting! Fine, you don’t get the sort of thrilling, day-long personal evisceration dramas that you might get on Twitter, but there are jokes and memes and QTs and there’s something vaguely soothing about seeing all the traditional social media tropes but without any of the associated human mess. What makes this REALLY fun, though, is that you can create your own bots to exist within the network – register your email and you can create up to 5 ‘personas’ that will ‘Chirp’ away happily and interact with the other bots and, honestly, this is another ‘Little Computer People’ in the making and it makes me quite giddy to think of all the interesting things you could build on top of this. Does the fact that I like this so much suggest that I have given up entirely on humanity? Not sure tbh.
- Her: It was, I suppose, inevitable, that the famed propensity of young men on the internet to look at vaguely-dystopian scifi and completely fail to grasp that it’s not in fact a blueprint for successful future living would lead to someone attempting to develop an AI girlfriend in the style of the Spike Jonze film ‘Her’ – AND LO, IT CAME TO PASS! Her describes itself as ‘the virtual boyfriend or girlfriend’ (and it also seems to offer non-binary options too, which is surprisingly unheteronormative and make me feel, momentarily, less ill-disposed towards the app and everyone involved in its creation), and promises to let you ‘tune the personality of your partner to perfection’, (is…is that good? I am not convinced that’s good), and…oh, look, just read the blurb: “HER features a stunning and user-friendly interface that makes it easy to interact with your AI companion. Whether you want to talk about romance, share your wildest dreams, or just need someone to listen to your thoughts and feelings, your AI boyfriend/girlfriend is always there for you. They won’t even mind if you ramble on about your ex for hours on end! Who needs a real-life partner when you have an AI one who is smarter, funnier, and always available?!” LOL! Sadly this is iOS-only and I wasn’t able to persuade anyone I know with an Apple device to download this to let me try it out, so I can’t personally vouch for whether this is in fact EVEN BETTER than having a flesh-and-blood romantic companion (but I can take a guess) – I will leave it to this one user review from the app store to share their experience: “Let me say this is such a cool app. Overall it works really well and is super realistic! However, it’s a bit of a “blue baller” as she will start talking more and more adult, then keep repeating the same phrase about “we should wait till we see each other”” Can YOU handle the shame of being persistently sexually rejected by your digital lover? SIGN UP TODAY!
- Sun Thinking: I think this is just BRILLIANT, and I love it so so so much. It’s also a tiny bit difficult to explain, so please bear with me as I copy and paste a bunch of explanatory copy and hope that it helps: “Sun Thinking is a group exhibition that brings together artists, writers, and researchers to explore the qualities and logics of solar power and solar powered computing networks. It presents a collection of network-based artworks, games, texts, and interviews and is the first exhibition project to be hosted on the Solar Protocol network…We started by designing and building a small scale solar powered server network and we wrote custom networking software so that the website you are visiting gets generated and sent out from whichever server is in the most sunshine. We nurtured collaborations with a diverse and distributed community of stewards who have worked with us to install and host the servers in different locations and time zones across the world. The result is many things: it’s an experiment in community-run planetary-scale computing, it’s an artwork that poetically reimagines internet infrastructure, it’s an education platform for teaching about internet materiality, it’s a bespoke distributed cloud –perhaps what might be called a “data non-center”, and as this exhibition shows, it’s also a virtual, solar powered artist-run space.” I featured the original Solar Protocol website a few years back, and this is such a beautiful evolution of the project – there is something so, so wonderful about the intersection of the natural and the digital that underpins all of this, and I am in general increasingly drawn to the idea of a minimal, viable web as a canvas for experimentation. I have checked out about half a dozen of the works that make up the exhibition, and they are all glorious in their own way, but if you only try one of them then a) you are a d1ck! This deserves more of your time!; and b) make it Web Curios favourite Everest Pipkin’s contribution, which I would honestly pay money for it’s that good.
- NoCam: In a week in which everyone decided that BeReal is OVER (briefly: WHAT DO YOU EXPECT? THE APP HAD ONE GIMMICK AND LITERALLY NO WAY OF MONETISING! WHY WAS IT VALUED SO HIGHLY ANYWAY? IS EVERYONE A FCUKING MORON?!), welcome to the NEW HOTNESS when it comes to gimmicky new social products! No Cam is basically a ‘you tag me, I create content in response to the tag which lets me see who tagged me in the first place, thereby creating an incentive loop for users to populate the app with new ephemera on an ongoing basis’ gimmick, which isn’t that new, but the CRAZY TWIST is that users create their video content in response to being tagged WITHOUT LOOKING AT WHAT THEY ARE RECORDING! You just film and post, so, the idea presumably is, you can’t spend time worrying about what you look like or curating the vibe, and you’re forced into being your most REAL and AUTHENTIC (but still, to be clear, entirely performative) self. Part of me thinks this sounds quite fun and freeing, and part of me thinks that this must just result in some really, really bad videos (those of you old enough to remember the disappointment of getting a roll of film developed only to discover that your snaps are 90% thumb and only 10% Cartier Bresson will know what I mean) and that that might cause this to get old quite quickly – but then again I suppose that The Young are so comfortable filming with their phones that they can probably frame and shoot something passable with their eyes shut. Anyway, this is likely to be briefly-frothy for a couple of months, in case this is the sort of thing you need to pretend to give a fcuk about.
- Stable LM: Just a quick one – I meant to include this link last week but forgot and as a result have spent the past seven days feeling vaguely inadequate (moreso even than usual) and like I let you all down. SO, a week late, here’s the news that Stable Diffusion has also released a Large Language Model which will be both open source AND available for commercial use, meaning we can expect to see the number of custom text-based AIs go absolutely mental in the next six months as everyone uses this kit to spin up their own personally-weighted assistant to do their bidding. I am genuinely curious as to whether this generation of this tech is going to get mass adoption, and whether the idea of having a personalised chatbot whose ‘personality’ and function you can tweak to your own specs becomes transformatively ubiquitous or just the preserve of geeky hobbyists (personally I think it will still be the latter, but, equally, I can imagine the concept of a vaguely-personalised Alexa being hugely mainstream popular, so, as ever, WHO KNOWS (not me)?
- FCKOATLY: A brief foray into the world of advermarketingpr now (sorry) with this website by Scandi nut-juice peddlers Oatly who are running this online campaign as a way of ‘owning’ some of the hate the brand gets online for things it’s done in the past (some of which hate has been justified, some of it less so). I really like this – the assumption here is that these issues are already in the public domain, and come with their own online footprint, so why not acknowledge that and put your own version of events out there (and do some light SEO work as well in the background)? Obviously it helps that this sort of open, Nordic attitude is very much Part Of The Brand – and this probably wouldn’t work as well if you were, say, Nestle, and had done rather more genuinely terrible stuff – but it’s generally smart work. Also the fact that they bought an additional url called fckfckoatly, where people who really hate the campaign can go to express their distaste is a nice touch – whilst I find Oatly slightly insufferable overall (sorry), this is good digital comms work imho. Does anyone who reads this care about what I think is ‘good digital comms work’ anymore? Did they ever?
- Welcome To The Changiverse!: THE METAVERSE IS STILL HAPPENING! Yes, contrary to popular reports, Zuckerberg has this week confirmed that Meta isn’t quite embarrassed enough to stop p1ssing money down the virtual sink in pursuit of the 3d headset future literally noone wants, which means that I feel once again justified in pointing you at an EXCITING BRANDED METAVERSAL EXPERIENCE! This is in Roblox and so is marginally-less dispiritingly-sh1t than usual, but, equally, it’s a virtual space created by Singapore’s Changi Airport for…no, sorry, I genuinely don’t understand why an airport would do this. Is it important to make kids feel a sense of affection and brand loyalty to an airport so they will in future be more likely to choose it as their international travel hub of choice? Anyway, this is broadly-speaking a stupid waste of the time and money of everyone involved in its creation (sorry, but it is), BUT! There is one strong reason why I am linking it here – from now until Changi Airport gets bored of this or forgets it exists or stops paying Roblox for the space, each month you can win a pair of Singapore Airlines tickets from anywhere in the world to Singapore. All you need is to achieve the highest score in the racing game they’ve built in-world – so, er, bribe your kids to spend their every waking minute getting good, and then leave them behind while you and your partner take a well-deserved holiday! Honestly, I reckon ‘winning contests in poorly-conceived promotional ‘metaverses’’ isn’t a terrible way of attempting to boost your income in these straitened times.
- Give A Hand: This is a nice AI-based idea – Give A Hand is a project by the American Society for Deaf Children that’s asking people to upload images of their hands in order to create a training set that can be used to improve the ability of future systems to generate – but also interpret – hand and finger gestures, so as to in future make sign-language interfaces with The Machine possible. This feels like the sort of thing that international organisations for the hearing impaired might also usefully get involved with – it’s a great initiative, or at least it we get to the point that The Machine has ‘done’ hands and begins to respond to all requests it doesn’t fancy so much with a perfectly-articulated middle finger.
- Looty: This is a great project, and I am slightly annoyed with myself that I am only learning about it a year after it kicked off. The idea behind Looty stems from questions over ownership and provenance around museum collections, acknowledgement that significant proportion of said collections involve items that were, for the avoidance of euphemism, stolen, and the idea of using digital techniques to reclaim and ‘re-loot’ the artworks in question. “To challenge the museum institutions who refuse to return these looted works to the rightful countries of ownership, we are launching NFTs of looted works and paying out reparations in the form of profits made from the sale of each NFT. In doing so, we hope to answer the legal, philosophical and moral question of what happens if the NFT version eclipses the value of that which is held in museums? Will the works be given back then?”. They do this by going into museums, scanning articles in 3d, and then making the scans available digitally (yes, there are NFTs involved, but I will forgive them because the NFT isn’t really the point, and also “The sale of each additional NFT will pay royalties of 20% to the Looty Fund. Giving out grants to young artists’ from the continent of Africa”, which feels like A Good Thing), and overall this is a brilliant idea both conceptually and executionally.
- Musicfy: I know I seem to say this every week, but WOW the pace of this stuff is dizzying. Musicfy is a website which lets you explore a whole world of AI-generated tracks, songs by X in the style of Y spun up by the machine in the past couple of weeks. You want more? Oh, OK, try Apollo which does exactly the same thing! All of these songs sound, broadly, utterly terrible, but (and I am well aware that I am about to drop perhaps the most middle-aged opinion ever expressed in Curios, so apologies in advance), equally, they don’t sound totally unlike a poor-quality trap-ish song being played out of phone speakers on the back of a noisy bus and as such I confidently predict that this will be 90% of your kid’s listening material by Christmas.
- Essence: This is quite an interesting idea, although I don’t think it quite ‘works’ (he says, like he has any idea what its creators are trying to achieve – SHUT UP MATT FFS!) – Essence is a project looking to get to the, er, ‘essence’ of songs, feeding the lyrics into AI asking The Machine to offer an interpretation of what the song is REALLY ABOUT, MAN. Which, obviously, is sort-of horrific on some level, or at least it is if you believe that the response and reaction to art ought to be emotional and visceral rather than a series of probability-derived approximations of what a human might possibly think, but equally is…quite interesting, in a sort of ‘look at the machine trying to feel, Harold!’ way. If you look through the songs that the team behind this have chosen to analyse so far you get a VERY STRONG impression that they are ageing hippies (look, there is literally NOONE IN THE WORLD who listens to Phish who hasn’t lived in Berkely California in the early-70s) and so I feel inclined to be more charitable about the whole thing than I might otherwise be.
- Runway On Mobile: Runway, the current best-in-class video AI people, have released their app this week – iOS-only, but I had a play on someone else’s phone this week and this is a lot of fun. If nothing else, the style transfer stuff is genuinely cool-looking and novel, and if you’re in the invidious position of having to ‘do’ content for some godawful brand then you might find that the toys here give you a brief, momentary flicker of joy as you once again produce a selection of content that doesn’t need to exist for a largely-indifferent audience of morons. Oh, and if you want to try making your own hilarious AI-generated videos then this is definitely worth checking out.
- ChartGPT: This is a tool which is ostensibly designed to spit out charts based on just a textual description of what the chart is meant to show – except, er, whenever I’ve tried it it doesn’t seem to really understand what I say, or basic concepts like what axes are for. HOWEVER! The charts it creates are simple, clear and copy-and-pasteable, and as a result it is PERFECT for spinning up quick and not-particularly-funny visual gags about anyone you happen to know or work with (you want to knock up a quick chart showing the inverse correlation between salary and output in your organisation which you can then annotate with actual people’s names, to create some fun Friday afternoon office beef? YES YOU DO!).
- The AI Front Desk: The insane proliferation of AI tools and toys is only going to increase, and (you can thank me later) I am obviously not going to include every bullsh1t AI business idea I come across in here because, well, I’d have to kill myself, frankly, but it’s interesting to occasionally look at some of the jobs that are soon going to be rendered obsolete by the crushing march of The Machine and the tedious insistence of us meatsacks of demanding things like ‘remuneration for our labour’. Did you have ‘receptionist’ on your ‘oh wow, sucks to be you in the future!’ bingo card? I confess that I didn’t, but this largely-prototypical service which cobbles together a bunch of existing tech into a system that can answer emails, book appointments and even answer the phone and deal with simple queries via voice recognition is…slightly amazing tbh. Again, it’s important to note that RIGHT NOW this isn’t good enough to replace an actual receptionist…but it probably will be quite soon. I keep on having conversations with people where they express disbelief about my view of what this stuff is going to do to low-end white-collar jobs, but it’s quite hard not to play Cassandra when you read things like: “My AI Front Desk is active 24/7, even outside of business hours. Capture calls and appointments anytime. No need to hire additional staff or pay for expensive call center software.”.
- NASA Picture of the Year: TBH I think NASA rather undersells its photography – YOU TAKE PHOTOS IN SPACE FFS, THAT IS VERY COOL – which is evidenced in the low-key presentation of this selection of photos from the past year of the agency. BUT! There are some really good ones in here, my particular favourite being this ultra-scifi image from what is apparently a ‘Moog Test Flight’ (no, me neither).
I AM HAVING SOMETHING OF A WEIRD “I REALLY MISS TAKING DRUGS AND GOING TO CLUBS” MOMENT THIS WEEK, SO TO ‘CELEBRATE’ WHY NOT ENJOY THIS SUPERB CALLBACK TO WHAT I USED TO ENJOY DOING WHEN I WAS YOUNG COURTESY OF THIS EXCELLENT HARD TRANCE MIX BY OBERON FROM 2002?
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- The Artefact Shop: My friend John makes Artefact Cards, tools designed to help creatives and strategists and people who like to wear slightly-too-short trousers and matelot tshirts and have at least one stick-and-ink tattoo to THINK and IDEATE and come up with ideas. He has a new website where he’s selling this stuff, and, whilst in general I tend to be hugely sniffy about frameworks and processes and things (in the main, because I am a lazy and un-rigorous thinker), I think these are genuinely useful and can help you think ‘better’ (or at the very least, a bit obliquely).
- Banknote of the Year 2022: Did you know that there’s an annual contest, organised by the International Banknote Society, to reward the best-designed new banknote introduced by a country’s mint over the previous 12 months? No you DIDN’T, don’t lie! This came to me via Kristoffer’s Naive newsletter (as did a bunch of the cuter/cooler links in this section; you should subscribe if you can handle more things in your inbox), and is GREAT – the winning note this year was from the Philippines and features, amongst other details and somealmost-certainly impressive technical specs, a FABULOUSLY-angry looking bird on one side, but all of the featured notes are pretty cool-looking (and I had no idea that the new Scottish £100 note was such a nice piece of design tbh).
- The Breakfast: I think it’s important to be clear from the outset that I think making fun of people for an imperfect command of a second (or third, or whatever) language is a sh1tty thing to do, and that I wouldn’t for a moment judge somebody for their inability to turn a perfect sentence in English when it’s not their mother tongue (I mean, I do have at least a small degree of self-awareness). That said, I feel I ought to confess that I totally lost it when I landed on the homepage of this website and saw the legend there displayed “Would you like to have The Breakfast?”. WOULD I?!?!?! Is it just me, or does ‘The Breakfast’ take on a genuinely sinister air when delivered like this – like the author night be inviting you to break your fast with a nice spread of human flesh, say, or that your coffee and OJ might be accompanied by one of Aleister Crowley’s legendary ‘cakes of light’. It’s not, though, or at least it doesn’t seem to be – instead it’s an app that offers to pair you with a new person every day for breakfast. It’s based out of Lisbon and as such I have no idea how widely its userbase spreads, but if YOU fancy being algorithmically-matched with a stranger to enjoy THE BREAKFAST (literally crying here) with, then why not give this a try? NB – be aware that EVERYONE using this will be a terrifying type-A sociopath who probably runs marathons before breakfast; I am *reasonably* sure that Web Curios readers tend…not to be like that, so caveat emptor my fragile pretties.
- A Living Archive of Milton Keynes: Look, I didn’t ask for this; you didn’t ask for this; noone, to the best of my knowledge, has requested a living archive for England’s second-most-mockable urban centre (Swindon will ALWAYS take the crown) – and yet, here such a thing is! Despite my slight snarkiness, though, this is genuinely great – “Conceived as an antidote to the assertion that ‘new towns have no history’, and nurtured by the belief that ‘everybody has a story to tell’, our work collects, preserves and shares the stories of residents’ lives, building a sense of place and using old memories to create new ones and bring communities together.” – and if nothing else I would like any of you with any sort of musical talent whatsoever to navigate immediately to the Milton Keynes Songbook and see what you can do with the gems contained therein.
- Small Worlds: As Twitter continues to be ground into dust, small projects like this offer an occasional reminder of what we will lose when Elon finally hubrises the site into oblivion once and for all. “In 2023, I’m creating an illustrated tiny sci-fi story every day”, wrote the account’s owner at the beginning of the year, and they have been true to their word; there’s no fixed format for the shorts, but they tend towards the “You buy a time machine on eBay. It arrives six days ago”-style; each is presented as a vintage book cover with a suitable illustration, and, honestly, this is SUCH a lovely creative exercise and I would read every single one of the books it imagines.
- What I See When My Eyes Are Closed: This is over a decade old, but is stil a really interesting project both in execution and conception. ““What I See When My Eyes Are Closed” is an online data visualization project that documents the approximate colors seen by users when their eyes are closed. The data was gathered using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a site for crowd-sourced labor. Participants closed their eyes while facing a white screen, they then recorded the color they saw. Their name and location, when provided, are associated to the color.” I’m Una from Serbia, tag yourselves.
- Text Art: OH THIS IS SO GOOD! Text Art is a collection of copy-and-pasteable bits of…er…text art! The link takes you to a list of hyperlinked subjects – click one, and you’ll be taken to another page where you can enjoy a variety of text-based art depicting whatever it is you chose, from ‘pancake’ to ‘italian’ and everything inbetween. Even better, you can copy and paste the artworks with ease, meaning that if you want to use this stuff for whatever creative purpose you conceive then it’s simple and easy (and, equally, if you want to spend the rest of the day communicating with people solely via the medium of textual images of broccoli then that’s totally possible too!).
- The Collective Noun Database: Everyone knows that crows come in ‘murders’; we’re all familiar with the concept of a ‘pride’ of lions; I’m pretty sure that the collective noun for PR people should be ‘irrelevance’…but there are LOADS more of these, and you can find them all (probably) at this link, which takes you to a Google sheet offering information about the exact word one ought to use when describing a collection of things (both material and non-, abstract and organic), and, honestly, this is AMAZING. Did you know that one ought to refer to a ‘billing’ of consultants? A ‘carbuncle’ of architects? Beautifully and recursively, it also taught me that one ought to refer to a ‘clutch’ of collective nouns. It’s not entirely clear to me the extent to which these are ‘real’ vs ‘wishful’, but, honestly, I don’t care and neither will you – if you like English you will absolutely adore this link.
- The Mala Project: This is the website for a Chinese restaurant in (I think) Brooklyn, which I appreciate is of limited interest to the 99.9% of you who don’t live in Manhattan – I am including it because it PERFECTLY nails the aesthetic of 1980s television, and in particular a certain sort of colourtone and…fcukit, sorry, ‘vibe’ that is so redolent of a specific time period that it’s almost like time travel. No idea whatsoever what the food here is like, but the webdesign is fabulous.
- The Burp and Fart Piano: On the one hand, there is nothing funny about toilet humour (sorry, I can’t help it; it’s the Italian in me, Italians don’t really ‘do’ fart gags); on the other, this is a keyboard on which you can play Paganini in C entirely as though performed by Barney from the Simpsons and, honestly, you can’t really argue with that. I promise you that if you have a small child this will be simultaneously the best and worst link you will have seen all year.
- Taquitos: I know that there are various websites that celebrate THE GLORIOUS INTERNATIONAL WORLD OF SNACKS AND SWEETS (on which point – I know that China, Japan and Taiwan are revered for their sweet and savoury snacking options, but imho Mexico wins hands down; you can get stuff from Mexican cornershops that contain so many chemicals you actually feel like you’re having an out-of-body psychedelic experience, and most of them contain lime juice so you can also avoid scurvy – win/win!), but I think that this might be the best one. “We’ve eaten and reviewed 10,593 snacks over the past 23 years, covering 86 categories from 1924 companies in 90 countries, with more than 157 major brands and 125 flavors” says the blurb, and who am I to argue with that sort of dedication? NO FCUKER, etc! Amusingly, their list of ‘the worst EVER snacks’ contains Pickled Onion Monster Munch at number 5, which to my mind suggests a sophisticated palette but which I concede for some of you might mean that you can’t take anything they say seriously.
- Darc Room: Some really nice webdesign on display here – this is the professional portfolio of photographer Darko Pašalić, which lets you explore his work by mood, time of day and colour, and which offers a genuinely interesting and unusual set of ways of exploring his (generally excellent) work and style.
- Dwelling: Do YOU want to embark upon a new social media journey? No, of course not, as previously discussed we are old and tired and Coming To The End, and the last thing we (OK, fine, the last thing *I*) want is to start ‘building online communities’ all over again. Still, if you’re feeling a bit more positive about the idea of ‘hanging out with people on the internet’ than I currently am, and if you REALLY want to loook at photos of other people’s houses and flats and yurts, then you could do worse than checking out Dwelling which is basically (as far as I can tell) an app that encourages you to post pictures of your house and interior decor and enjoy those of others whilst secretly hating the fact that their DIY project appears to have gone MUCH better than yours and FFS Tony when will you finish wallpapering the spare room. Sounds AWFUL, to my mind, but I appreciate (and occasionally feel very grateful for the fact that) I am not necessarily representative.
- The American Prison Writing Archive: “The United States holds nearly two million people in its prisons and jails — a larger share of its population than in any other nation on earth. Yet there remains widespread ignorance of conditions inside. Amid the unprecedented American experiment in mass incarceration, the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) hopes to disaggregate this mass into the individual minds, hearts and voices of incarcerated writers.” This is so so so interesting and there is SO much in here – I won’t pretend that all the writing is brilliant, but every piece I have read here has been interesting and emotional and that feels like recommendation enough for you to explore the collection.
- Mouthpad: In one of the year’s earlier Curios I featured a prototypical device that was designed to let the user control a computer via the medium of…of…ok, there’s no other way to say it, via the medium of fellating a specially-modified dildo. Now, a few short months later, we have the more socially-acceptable version – Mouthpiece is, from what I can tell, a sort of dental retainer-type bit of tech which can be manipulated with one’s tongue in order to allow hand-and-voice-free typing and computer interfacing. Which has potentially interesting implications for all sorts of people with disabilities, and could be hugely useful to people with debilitating neurological conditions…but also, SPIES! Spies and whistleblowers and journalists oh me oh my! This feels quite fun and exciting, and very much the sort of thing that might have been sold in one of London’s infamous spy emporia back in the day.
- Scale of the Universe: This is an OLD site – you will doubtless have seen it before online; you know the one, it lets you zoom in and out and see how BIG stuff is relative to other BIG stuff – but it’s recently been revamped for the modern age and it’s a really good example of how to update a classic internet property in a way that feels coherent but also BETTER.
- Iconic Moronic: Long-term readers may be aware that I have something of a problem with the word ‘iconic’, mainly as a result of my time working with the sports team at H+K and wincing each and every time a brief came in and someone would suggest doing some ‘iconic’ photography (GYAC MATE IT IS NOT YOU WHO DECIDES WHETHER A PHOTOGRAPH IS ‘ICONIC’ FFS) (but, er, they were lovely young men really) – anyway, I fcuking hate the word ‘iconic’ and if you do too then you might enjoy this Chrome extension by Monkeon which will replace the word ‘iconic’ with ‘moronic’ at the press of a button.
- The Submarine Cable Map of the World: Stuff that genuinely amazes me if I stop to think about it for more than approximately 3 seconds, part x of y – the fact that the internet only works as a result of gigantic physical cables running along the ocean bed at a depth and pressure that would reduce us to pate! This is a map of those cables and where they sit and what they are called, and, I promise you, you cannot help but be amazed at the engineering on display here. Honestly, this is MIND-BUGGERNG.
- Spiral Wishing Wells: A HUGE thankyou to reader Elizabeth Huntley, who sent this to me last week – it is SO GOOD! You know those charity donation boxes that you roll 1p and 2p pieces into (insert appropriate local coinage here), and which when you do spiral around and around and around like some sort of incredible kid-hypnosis tool? OF COURSE YOU DO! But did you know that there is a whole website devoted to them, and the man who invented them, and his myriad other inventions? YOU DID NOT! This is so, so, so good – terrible, old-school web design, a degree of sincerity and enthusiasm and, frankly, pride, totally out-of-step with the subject matter, not a little hubris in the general vibe of spiral wishing well inventor Steve Divnick…honestly, this is perfect and surprisingly-interesting, and I promise you that spending 20 minutes looking around this site will be better for you and your state of mind than whatever crap task your paymasters are currently asking you to complete.
- Hairy Barbie: Look, I don’t understand why someone is selling what appear to be Barbie dolls with pubic hair trimmings stuck to their faces – but they are, and therefore it is The Law that I share them with you here.
- Discord Ghosts: OK, I haven’t personally tried this, but it looks interesting and like it could be a fun thing to play if you and your friends are the D&D/TTRPG-type of crowd. Discord Ghosts is a ruleset for a roleplaying game played over, er, Discord, in which some players play ghosts and some players play ghost hunters, exploring a haunted mansion and trying to discover its secrets. The mechanics suggest and interesting mix of voice and text, as the ghosts scare the hunters and the hunters try and scry the spirits, and it feels like you could have a good time with this with the right group of players.
- Cat Park: Finally this week, a game that’s also basically an EDUCATIONAL TOOL, but which is still quite fun and so deserves a look. Cat Park is a gently-educative interactive storygamething in which you explore some of the techniques used by Bad Actors to foment division and conflict online, to peddle false narratives and to deliberately promote lies in pursuit of specific-but-hidden agendas (could never happen here!) – it’s not super-sophisticated, fine, but it’s a nicely-designed and easy-to-understand tool for exploring some of these concepts. Imagine, though, how much more interesting and sophisticated this could be if you combined it with the sort of setup seen in the AI-only social network I linked to right at the top – imagine how fun it would be to seed lies in a community of AI agents to see which took hold, and what the consequences were?
THE CIRCUS OF TUMBLRS!
- Manure For Sale: Not a Tumblr! But still, this is great and it’s a single-serving site and so it’s SPIRITUALLY a Tumblr which makes it ok – anyway, this is a celebration of those adverts you see if you drive around the countryside in the UK, advertising the fact that they have fresh animal faeces just waiting for you to take it off their hands. If you’ve ever wanted a detailed breakdown of the different styles of ads for horsesh1t across the UK then WOW are you in for a treat!
THE TROUGH OF (INSTA) FEEDS!
- Thieb: The Insta account of a French graphic artist who is posting a bunch of images and videos of some lovely, cuddly-looking pastel CG robot things (all a bit reminiscent of that big white robot from that kids’ animation a few years back…Baymax! That’s it!) which I found very charming and which I hope you do too.
- Violet In Question: Back in the early days of the web there was something of a vogue for anonymous blogs which presented a character or a mystery and which skirted the line between fact and fiction to interesting effect; some, like Diary of a Call Girl and Girl With A One Track Mind ended up being real; others, like She’s A Flight Risk, remained shrouded in mystery. It’s impossible to replicate that era of storytelling online, sadly – the internet works differently, and everyone’s been so trained in infosec these days that anyone attempting to present a veiled and anonymised version of their life, or pass off a creepypasta as a real-life blog, would be outed and doxxed in seconds by the mad mob, but it’s nice to see projects that channel a similar sort of vibe, and this is such a thing. Violet In Question is the Instagram feed of one ‘Violet’, investigating strange goings on in Question Mark, Ohio. This feels like another nascent ARG/transmedia project, the second in as many weeks – hang on, does that mean…transmedia is COMING BACK?!?! Honestly, if anyone fancies paying me an inordinate amount of money to scope out a multilayered narrative-led campaign whose ROI will literally be a fraction of its budget, COUNT ME IN!
LONG THINGS WHICH ARE LONG!
- There Is No AI: To be honest, the title does this a disservice – this is a far more interesting article on the current wave of generative AI, written by sector pioneer (and, honestly, oddest man I have ever met – although tbh he didn’t think much of me either, and I’d probably trust his judgement over mine)) Jaron Lanier, who, yes, does a bit of debunking of some of the current froth and fluff around THE RISE OF THE MACHINES, but, more interestingly, spends the latter half of this (long) essay arguing for a concept of ‘data dignity’ to help address some of the questions of copyright and remuneration and attribution that sit at the heart of much of the technology set to tsunami us in the coming months. It’s very much worth reading the whole thing – Lanier is a really good writer, able to make knotty complex seem comfortable and with a style that gently leads the reader rather than beating them about the head with argument – but the basic premise at the heart of the argument is that we might usefully begin to try and ‘tag’ the elements involved in AI creation (the training data, effectively), and assess outputs based on the extent to which specific training data is evident in them, and then remunerate the creators of the training data proportionately based on the degree to which said data was used in the creation of whatever AI output is produced. Or (and this is why Lanier is a better writer than me, and thinker, and, frankly, person) you could try Jaron’s original copy instead, which may make more sense: “A data-dignity approach would trace the most unique and influential contributors when a big model provides a valuable output. For instance, if you ask a model for “an animated movie of my kids in an oil-painting world of talking cats on an adventure,” then certain key oil painters, cat portraitists, voice actors, and writers—or their estates—might be calculated to have been uniquely essential to the creation of the new masterpiece. They would be acknowledged and motivated. They might even get paid.” While the world continues to flail around the edges of how to regulate this stuff, this is a smart set of principles which might guide our thinking.
- How I Feel About AI: Not how *I* feel, to be clear – Christ knows you’ve probably had more than enough of that over the past few months – but instead what some bloke called Mac Wright thinks about it. This piece appealed to me because it feels like someone having a conversation with themselves, and because it does an excellent job of capturing the general ambivalence I currently feel when I consider What This All Means, and because it touches on some interesting policy considerations (outside of UBI) which might arise as governments have to potentially consider the impact of these changes on a workforce who no longer have jobs for the skills they possess, but who don’t yet have the skills for the jobs that will come.
- On Language Models and Writing: This is LONG and quite academic, and you’ll need to think a bit and pay attention (he said, tediously didactically – ffs Matt you are not some sort of be-mortarboarded headmaster), but it’s also really interesting and smart. It was sent to me on Twitter by its author Helen Beecham, and it’s all about the the connection between writing and language and ‘thinking’ (whatever *that* means), and how exactly the current iterations of The Machine fit into our current (increasingly-inadequate, to my mind) conceptions of all three. Honestly, this is really smart and made me think quite a lot – it covers Foucault and theory of language and theory of mind, and questions about ’what it is we are teaching when we are teaching’, and in general this made me feel less stupid when I finished than when I started, which is pretty much the highest compliment I can pay to a piece like this.
- A Guide To Prompting: Ordinarily I wouldn’t include something with such a nakedly-clickbaity title, but this is by Ethan Mollick and therefore is 100% worth reading (a quick aside – one of the reasons I love Ethan’s writing and work is its generosity; the things he shares are genuinely useful and practically helpful, and he does it because he is interested and curious and he wants to be part of a conversation about using these tools better and smarter; which is why he doesn’t post them as fcuking threads on fcuking Twitter, or as emoji-laden broetry on LinkedIn. Noone – and I honestly mean this – has EVER posted anything useful in a multi-tweet, heavily spaced, emoji-packed thread. Noone who has ever written anything with line-breaks on LinkedIn is worth listening to about anything. THIS IS 100% WEB CURIOS FACT. If people do this, they are grifting cnuts and, in all likelihood, really quite stupid). Whilst acknowledging that ‘prompt engineering’ is unlikely to be an actual real-life thing for that long, Mollick explains some useful techniques to make LLMs do what you want them to – read this and learn it, it is useful.
- Britain’s Deep Hole: As another week in Glorious Free Britain comes to a close, another week of strikes and poverty and Governmental incompetence and practically-Tory-consenses across the party spectrum (I heard something this week about Keith and post-GE Labour policy that will BOIL YOUR P1SS, but sadly I can’t tell you as someone would literally kill me if I told you, sorry), and another week in which someone’s trying to peddle the idea that the real problem we have is THE NEW WOKE LIBERAL ELITE that’s secretly in charge of everything (I imagine this to be like The Illuminati, but where everyone’s in shapeless knits), why not enjoy some masochism/schadenfreude (delete depending on whether you’re inside or outside Suella’s Small Boats Exclusion Perimeter!)! This is German broadsheet Spiegel with a damning picture of Wot It Is Like On Brexit Island in 2023 – honestly, it really is worth reading in full to get an impression of just what all this looks like from the outside. I think my ‘favourite’ part of the whole piece is the general tone of ‘seriously guys, HOW have you managed to fcuk this so hard?!’ that journalist Jorg Schindler manages to inject throughout – this is…well, it’s just depressing tbh.
- How China Will Regulate AI: Say what you like about China – no, really, you say what you like, I am FAR too scared – but they seem to know ‘an instance of potentially disruptive and destructive technology that needs regulating STAT’ when they see one – this is a series of opinions on the implications of China’s recent new legislation around the development of AI technologies, and the extent to which the proposed regulation is fit for purpose. “As drafted, the Measures for the Management of Generative Artificial Intelligence Serviceswould make companies providing generative AI services to the public responsible for the outputs of their systems and would require that data used to train their algorithms meet strict requirements. DigiChina asked several specialists to consider what this draft means for the future of China’s AI market, how feasible it might be for companies to provide compelling services while complying, and what this regulation adds to an already active Chinese regulatory space on AI.” If you have any interest in the how and why and when of how we might consider at least attempting to control and manage the proliferation and development of this tech, this is reasonably-essential reading.
- Future Music: This is probably the best thing I’ve read about AI music so far. Jay Springett writes about how he felt on hearing an AI-created Ariana Grande cover of The Weeknd’s ‘Blinded by the Lights’, and it captures beautifully, wonderfully, what is interesting and NEW and vaguely-exciting about this, while at the same time managing to contrast it with all that is horrid and creepy and plastic about all the ways in which the tech is going to be used. Briefly (but really, do read the whole essay, it really is excellent), the ‘interesting’ in AI music comes at the points where the oddity of computer-generated sounds are left raw, and the strangeness and glitchiness of the bits where the machine doesn’t quite ‘get’ it – it’s this that feels new and creatively-fertile rather than the ability to puppeteer the voice of anyone in history into singing Straight Outta Compton.
- They Did It For The Clicks: This is on the one hand a (pretty excoriating) review of the new book ‘Traffic’ by former editor of Buzzfeed News Ben Smith; on the other, it works as a decent overview of both The Buzzfeed and The Gawker eras, how they started and what became of them, and all the ways in which they changed (ruined? YOU DECIDE!) media. It becomes lots more enjoyable to read, though, if you lean into the fact that the author – Aaron Timms – *really* doesn’t think much of Smith or his writing, or indeed many of the decisions he made throughout his career; yes, fine, this is a *bit* inside-media-baseball, but sometimes that’s ok.
- The Plagiarism Scandal Rocking PoetryTok: Or, perhaps more accurately, “How it is now entirely possible to get away with creating an whole creative persona online through thieved content because attribution and search is so broken”. I wasn’t aware of genuinely-terrible-sounding ‘poet’ Aliza Grace (I tapped out of social media poetry when Rupi Kaur became a thing because, honestly, no), but apparently she’s 19 years old and super-popular on TikTok and literally all of her ‘poetry’ is lifted from other people; obscure song lyrics, actual poems, vaguely-blank-verse-sounding Insta captions…this is quite amazing, not least the fact that whoever is behind the account (I am not 100% certain it really is a 19 year old woman, based on the reporting here) is apparently just styling it out and blocking anyone who calls them out on the ‘stealing’ thing. I find this super-interesting, in part because this sort of thing will only become easier – combine AI-generated content with an increasingly-fragmented web where communities can exist entirely independently without ever overlapping, with a digital environment in which ‘search’ as a concept is forever ruined, and what I’m trying to say is that we are going to see much, much more of this sort of stuff over the next couple of years imho.
- ChatGPT Is Taking Jobs In Kenya: Specifically, the jobs of the people who have over the past few years carved out a lucrative income stream writing essays on demand for lazy students in the richer countries, who are now unsurprisingly choosing to entrust their academic future to the inscrutable-but-crucially-practically-free ChatGPT. I appreciate that one might argue that this is a market that oughtn’t exist and which oughtn’t be mourned – but, well, fcuk that, frankly. I know I keep banging on about this – and I will stop soon, I promise – but it’s worth remembering that in the Philippines (for example) an estimated ~20-30% of people make a living (either in whole or part) from doing digital piecework for customers in the West – low-level digital design, copywriting, data-cleaning, etc. That is…a LOT of jobs that basically don’t exist anymore. Just because it might not be coming for your gig doesn’t mean that it’s not going to change the world for an awful lot of other people.
- Cobalt In The Congo: OH GOD IT’S ALL GONE DARK AGAIN I AM SORRY. Ahem. Look, this isn’t a very cheery read either, but I think it’s increasingly important to focus on the broader idea that, put simply, ‘it is simply not possible to magically de-carbonise our way of life and to continue behaving exactly as we are now but in a way in which is magically ‘green’ and which won’t in fact fcuk the planet every which way from Sunday’. This piece looks at cobalt mining in DRC, an industry which is almost entirely owned by China these days (statement of fact rather than qualitative judgement) and which is basically a brutal clusterfcuk of appalling labour practices and environmental despoilment. IT IS NOT POSSIBLE FOR US TO HAVE ALL THIS STUFF AND AT THE SAME TIME NOT KILL THE PLANET (or at least the version of it that allows us to ‘enjoy’ it).
- The Class Politics of Instagram Face: This is a couple of months old, but I thought it a great read and something which explores the current homogeneity of facial aesthetic amongst (some) women worldwide in a way I hadn’t yet seen. I appreciate that this might be a topic that’s been covered extensively in the fashion and beauty press but, well, I last bought new clothes in 2019 and so I wouldn’t know.
- Magnus in the Endgame: The World Chess CHampionships are currently taking place, but Magnus Carlsen, the longstanding best player in the world and quite possibly the greatest chess player in human history, isn’t participating, because he’s bored of the whole thing and would rather play poker instead. This is a really interesting piece, not only on Carlsen (who to be honest is only really a cipher throughout) but also on the wider world of modern chess – if you’ve read any of the recent breathless pieces about how THE KIDS ARE ALL INTO CHESS THESE DAYS (there have been at least six in the past week, which in itself is a pretty depressing indictment of How Modern Journalism Works’) then this is a decent companion. As an aside, can you imagine what it must be like to have effectively ‘completed’ something as complex as chess by the time you’re not even vaguely middle-aged? I certainly fcuking can’t.
- The Perfect Scrotum: Nearly 5 months into 2023 and I think we’ve already run out of ‘articles about extreme grooming practices’ that the lifestyle magazines can commission. We’ve had designer vaginas and phalloplasties, leg extensions and the next iteration of the BBL – now, in what I have to hope is the last of the current glut of these pieces, we have someone writing in Wired about the boom in ‘manscaping’ and testicular grooming products being foisted upon guys to help ensure that their ballsacks smell pine-fresh (other scents are, I believe, available) at all times. This is readable, and quite fun, and pleasantly-silly, but also it’s a bit depressing tbh – I suppose there’s a degree of (miserable) gender equality in the fact that men are now being subjected to exactly the same sort of lies as women when it comes to FMCG brands attempting to sell us new unguents, but, look, NOONE’S GENITALIA IS MEANT TO SMELL OF BUBBLEGUM FFS AND IF YOUR PARTNER DEMANDS THAT YOU ENSURE THAT YOUR JUNK SMELLS OF SWEETIES THEN I THINK YOU SHOULD PROBABLY DO SOME DEEPER INVESTIGATIONS AS TO WHY THE FCUK THAT MIGHT BE AND EXACTLY WHAT THEIR PROBLEM IS.
- Open Questions: Well THIS is a lot. Gwern is someone I think I’ve featured here before – he is a PROLIFIC author and Wikipedian, and someone whose writing you might have come across elsewhere in the past. This is a post in which he’s listed, in no particular order that I can discern, a bunch of questions he has about THINGS – I promise you that nothing can prepare you for the insane variety of topics and lines of enquiry you will find here, and how interesting some of the mental rabbitholes you will be sent down are. This covers everything from physics to furries and everything inbetween and, I promise, is one of the most creatively-fertile things I’ve read in ages – almost every entry here sparks an idea or additional question of some sort, which makes it a genuine joy to peruse (there are also several points where you very obviously come up against the edges of one particular person’s very particular personality – Gwern is (and I don’t know them, but I don’t imagine they’d mind me saying this) very much a nerd, and much of this is very much filtered through that worldview, but it’s no worse for it (although I did very much enjoy his assertion that ‘the short story is dead’ – er, mate, you might want to expand your purview somewhat).
- Just A Typical British Man: I might have missed this going massively viral somewhere, but to the best of my knowledge this piece in McSweeney’s hasn’t received anywhere near the traction in the UK that it ought to have done. IT IS GENIUS. Here’s the first paragraph – now fcuk off and read the rest: “I’m just a typical British man having a pint in a traditional cockney pub on my way to work in the morning. A London Taxi is having a fight with a red phone box at one end of the bar. Through the window, I can see Big Ben, St Pauls, Nelson’s Column, Stonehenge, the White Cliffs of Dover, and Gordon Ramsey.”
- Unicorn Kingdom: A poem by Rishi Dastidar, on the occasion of Rishi’s glorious speech announcing the UK’s latest attempt to convince the world’s technology mavens that no, really, WE *ARE* THE FUTURE! As with all Rishi’s verse, this is both technically excellent and very funny – his new book is out this week, by the way, should you wish to support the arts in a meaningful way by consuming some genuinely-excellent modern UK poetry.
- Desert Hours: I absolutely loved this piece in the LRB, written by Jane Miller and all about being old – Miller doesn’t mention her exact age in the piece, but I think she’s in her 90s, and I don’t think I’ve ever read something so clear-eyed and unsentimental and honest-feeling about the experience of being Of Great Age. This doesn’t make me want to live into my 90s, but it made me want to read everything else that Miller has written, and hopefully continues to write, about the experience of so doing.
- The Northern Boys: Finally this week, a piece that combines excellent writing with two of my favourite contemporary cultural Curios – old man hiphop act The Northern Boys (see Curios passim) and outsider/insider at blog The White Pube. Gabrielle De La Pente writes about What It Is Like Being Alive Now, and how the Northern Boys’ beats and rhymes – simultaneously honest and artificial, the soundtrack to the saddest big night out you’ve ever had – are the perfect soundtrack to This Fcuking World We Live In, and, at its heart, what we need art to do to reflect our experience of the times. “It just gets to a point where I can’t be doing with art, in any form, that still has the energy to dress up nicely and give us a clever little metaphor. I’m too tired. I only want art that stares at the sun for a stupid amount of time — or at itself in a bathroom mirror, smashed and existential. I want art that admits there’s a badness growing over us plebs like the mould in the beige houses we rent from jobless kings and queens. I want to read books and watch films and listen to songs that are like massive red stop signs. Air raid sirens. A slap in the face. A cold shower. So much culture talks around the weirdness of life, going around and around, and only brushing past the topic so as not to alienate anybody, and so as not to embarrass the creator for really going there. I am just finding the flowery shit is what feels off-putting lately, because I’m already off-put. After 2 years of Long Covid, I got Covid again and I’m back to spending most days rotting in bed. Is this it for me now? Post-viral illness with eternal possibility for re-infection. On one of those bed days, I got a call that someone I love has died. Tell me why the funeral is scheduled for four weeks after the fact; tell me why the local paper wants three figures to put in a funeral notice. I’m working on two texts right now, this review and the eulogy. So, black comedy it is.” Superb – please read.
AND NOW, MOVING PICTURES AND SOUNDS!:
- This is the new single from UK band Cornershop, who became briefly famous thanks to Norman Cook’s remix of ‘Brimful of Asha’ but who, prior to that, were a very small footnote in the UK indie scene and who basically returned to being exactly that after everyone got sick of big beat (I once, coincidentally, spent an afternoon in the pub with Tjinder Singh – Cornershop’s frontman – who was lovely but also so incredibly, stereotypically grumpy about everything and especially the fact that Cook had basically done better out of the remix than him) – it is, as far as I can tell, a reworking of an old track from the 80s, but, regardless, it’s a proper toe-tapper.
- Let’s briefly check in on the ‘NFT PFPs as musical artists’ thing! This is a project by Sean Bonner and DJ Muggs which is using one of Bonner’s cryptopunks as the ‘frontperson’ for a musical endeavour called ‘Atari Lofi Punks’ – the output here is…a fairly-underwhelming lofi beatscape, if I’m honest, but I am curious about whether a lot of the (admittedly very creative) people who bought up some of the early PFP NFTs can find anything interesting and worthwhile to do with them. On this evidence, I remain unconvinced – although I don’t mind the video.
- When I was a kid I used to really upset my housemates by putting slightly obnoxious pop-punk on the stereo REALLY LOUD after I showered – it was largely stuff off the Fat Wreck label, and sounded remarkably similar in style to this new track by the Bollweevils which took me RIGHT back and which is called ‘Predisposition’.
- Our last music video of the week comes in the form of this cracking song by King Isis – it’s called ‘i’m fine thx 4 asking’ (lowercase theirs), and there’s something…pleasingly…chewy about the sound to this that I’m very much enjoying and which makes me want to open all the windows and turn it up to 11, which I might well do as soon as it stops fcuking raining for two minutes. I LOVE YOU TAKE CARE BYE I AM FCUKING OFF NOW BYE!