Keep an eye on the time

A mesmerising, meditative film introducing us to Faramarz, a London-based Iranian watchmaker. The world may seem chaotic, but “everything is in exactly the right place.”

The Watchmaker: A philosohy of craft and life
Filled with the pulses of numerous ticking watch hands, this short documentary from the UK filmmaker Marie-Cécile Embleton profiles a London-based Iranian watchmaker as he muses on the delicate and temporal nature of his work. As Faramarz meticulously polishes wood, shapes metal and positions springs, his personal philosophy emerges – one that values the minutiae of moment-to-moment experiences, and finds craft in all things.

Mitka Engebretsen is another watchmaker working in the UK. Here’s his set-up, somewhat shinier, though no less hypnotic.

Mitka’s vintage watch service

He lets us follow along on his blog when he’s servicing his clients’ vintage watches. The intricacy and precision is wonderful to see, however out of my reach they may be. Not that there’s anything wrong with my current watch — I love it!

What would he make of this video from Watchfinder & Co on the level of expertise that goes into producing fake watches these days, fakes that will still set you back £1,000.

This fake Rolex is the most accurate yet
Two years ago, we investigated just how far fake watches have come when we compared a real Rolex Submariner with a fake one. For anyone thinking that fake watches were the easy-to-spot domain of the seaside tat shop, we demonstrated that it’s harder to spot a fake than you might think. Two years on, and it’s got even harder.

One way round that, of course, is to not have a watch at all.

A Norwegian city wants to abolish time
“You have to go to work, and even after work, the clock takes up your time,” Hveding told Gizmodo. “I have to do this, I have to do that. My experience is that [people] have forgotten how to be impulsive, to decide that the weather is good, the Sun is shining, I can just live.” Even if it’s 3 a.m.

AI Spy

It seems we’re not the only ones playing with that AI fake face website.

Experts: Spy used AI-generated face to connect with targets
“I’m convinced that it’s a fake face,” said Mario Klingemann, a German artist who has been experimenting for years with artificially generated portraits and says he has reviewed tens of thousands of such images. “It has all the hallmarks.”

Experts who reviewed the Jones profile’s LinkedIn activity say it’s typical of espionage efforts on the professional networking site, whose role as a global Rolodex has made it a powerful magnet for spies.

Yes, it’s obviously a fake. I mean, only a fool would fall for that, right?

“I’m probably the worst LinkedIn user in the history of LinkedIn,” said Winfree, the former deputy director of President Donald Trump’s domestic policy council, who confirmed connection with Jones on March 28.

Winfree, whose name came up last month in relation to one of the vacancies on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, said he rarely logs on to LinkedIn and tends to just approve all the piled-up invites when he does.

“I literally accept every friend request that I get,” he said.

Lionel Fatton, who teaches East Asian affairs at Webster University in Geneva, said the fact that he didn’t know Jones did prompt a brief pause when he connected with her back in March.

“I remember hesitating,” he said. “And then I thought, ‘What’s the harm?’”

<sigh> It might not be the technology we need, but it’s the technology we deserve.

But fear not, help is at hand!

Adobe’s new AI tool automatically spots Photoshopped faces
The world is becoming increasingly anxious about the spread of fake videos and pictures, and Adobe — a name synonymous with edited imagery — says it shares those concerns. Today, it’s sharing new research in collaboration with scientists from UC Berkeley that uses machine learning to automatically detect when images of faces have been manipulated.

But as Benedict Evans points out in a recent newsletter,

Potentially useful but one suspect this is just an arms race, and of course the people anyone would want to trick with such images won’t be using the tool.

Magnetic Chernobyl

Before 26 April 1986, Chernobyl was the name of a city in Ukraine. It was also the name of a nuclear power plant close by, near the city of Pripyat (population 49,000). I can’t imagine many people in the West would have heard of it. After 26 April 1986, that all changed, of course.

In 2014, Danny Cooke and a documentary crew spent some time there, and showed us around.

Eerie drone footage shows Chernobyl from above
“We spent the week together exploring Chernobyl and the nearby abandoned city of Pripyat. There was something serene, yet highly disturbing about this place. Time has stood still and there are memories of past happenings floating around us.”

Postcards from Pripyat, Chernobyl

Its radioactive magnetism keeps pulling us back.

Chernobyl’s horrifying realism merits its place as TV’s top show
It’s this combination of forensic attention to detail and chilling terror that has made Chernobyl, now IMDB’s highest-rated TV series of all time, so compelling. Creator Craig Mazin has captured why, 33 years after it occurred, Chernobyl continues to grip the public’s imagination, and why the event has become a metonym for grand-scale, human-induced suffering: the prospect of nuclear disaster still makes for the ultimate horror story.

HBO’s Chernobyl vs Reality – Footage Comparison

Pripyat may be a ghost town, but it’s not empty.

Meet the dogs of Chernobyl – the abandoned pets that formed their own canine community
After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Pripyat and the surrounding villages were abandoned, and residents were not allowed to take their pets to safety. Chernobyl Prayer, a devastating oral history of the period, tells of “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.” There was no mercy. Squads were sent in to shoot the animals. But some survived and it is mainly their descendants that populate the zone.

[…]

While the dogs get some food and play from the visitors, their health needs are met by Clean Futures Fund, a US non-profit organisation that helps communities affected by industrial accidents, which has set up three veterinary clinics in the area, including one inside the Chernobyl plant. The clinics treat emergencies and issue vaccinations against rabies, parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis. They are also neutering the dogs. Lucas Hixson, the fund’s co-founder, says: “I don’t think we’ll ever get zero dogs in the exclusion zone but we want to get the population down to a manageable size so we can feed and provide long-term care for them.” This makes Chernobyl safer for the dogs, but also for the workers and visitors.

‘Visitors’. They’re not to be called tourists, that would be too- … crass?

As seen on TV: Fans of HBO series flock to Chernobyl, Geiger counters in hand
Fallout zones don’t usually make popular tourism attractions, but tour agencies are reporting as much as a 40 percent jump in daytrip bookings to the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident since the debut of the hit HBO miniseries Chernobyl, according to Reuters. More than six million people watched the series finale last Monday, so there’s every reason to expect the tourism boomlet will continue.

[…]

Scientists have estimated that it will not be safe for humans to live in the 770-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for up to several hundred years, given that contamination levels are not consistent in the surrounding area. Still, the Ukrainian government opened Chernobyl to tourists in 2011 and about 60,000 tourists visited Chernobyl last year, noted local tourism official Anton Taranenko at a recent press conference.

Milka Ivanova, from Bulgaria, and Dorina-Maria Buda, from Romania, were five years old in 1986. They’re now academics at Leeds Beckett University. Here, they share their perspective.

Chernobyl: we lived through its consequences – holidays in the fallout zone shouldn’t be a picnic
As I write this – decompressing my memories and digging up those of my family back in Romania – there’s still a heaviness in my chest. Milka and I channel our anxieties over Chernobyl and life in communist eastern Europe into our research. To overcome the restraints of those days, I have travelled, worked and studied in eight countries on four continents. My published work deals with psychoanalytic theories of the death instinct, trauma and nuclear tourism – the industry that monetises a fascination to visit places where nuclear accidents have laid waste to people and their communities. The Fukushima disaster of March 2011 in Japan created the most recent entry in this list of tourist hotspots.

Interestingly, 2011 was also the year that Chernobyl was officially declared a tourist attraction. The HBO miniseries has generated interest in nuclear tourism, but this fascination with our communist history is nothing new among western tourists.

Along a bleak river

Expect more of these over the coming years; melancholic, soulful studies of our degrading environment.

Zhang Kechun documents the bleak reality of China’s Yellow River
Once a site of prosperity, the river is filled with a spiritual history in Chinese mythology. “I decided to take a walk along the Yellow River… so that I could find the root of my soul”, explains Kechun in his artist statement. “Along the way, the river from my mind was inundated by the stream of reality. Once full of legends, [the river] had gone and disappeared. That is kind of my profound pessimism”, he writes. Zhang spent four years documenting the river, the results of which reflect a bleak reality: industrial sabotage, pollution, and the long-term effects of floods are portrayed through grey and beige tones. The river has flooded many times and with such extreme consequences, that is has become known as the River of Sorrow.

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“Minimalist infantilization”

You don’t need a degree in visual identity to notice a certain amount of homogeneity amongst corporate branding these days. Graphic designer and writer Rachel Hawley investigates this  “creepy cheerfulness of a thousand smiling san serifs.”

The corporate logo singularity
By the time Facebook and Google got in on the fun, of course, this new style was well underway. Motorola, Spotify, Airbnb, PayPal, and Lenovo had all undergone similar redesigns; over the next few years, Dropbox, Mastercard, Pandora, Pinterest, and Uber followed suit, among others. The twenty-first century, it became clear, would be smooth, sleek, and simple.

What we’ve been left with is the unsettling omnipresence of a single corporate aesthetic, its reach rapidly expanding beyond its tech origins. Taken individually, any of these wordmarks might effectively communicate the intended qualities of friendliness and approachability; together, their cheerfulness is downright creepy, like the painted-on smile of a clown’s face.

[…]

Here, the truth is made plain: the childlike nature of corporate branding isn’t a random trend, but part of the mindset that consumers ought to be treated like children. Details are the sinister machinations of faceless authority figures; friendly colors and geometric letters like those on a toddler’s building blocks are comforting by contrast. That each brand looks more or less like the next is only for the better: the world is a little smaller that way, less likely to confuse or frighten. As Jesse Barron wrote for Real Life magazine in 2016, “We’re in the middle of a decade of post-dignity design, whose dogma is cuteness.” Cuteness, employed as these companies do, talks down to you without words.

In related news, Firefox is having a rebrand. And yes, this feels quite ‘cute’ too, after reading Rachel’s article.

Mozilla gives Firefox a new look that goes beyond the logo
Built around four distinct ideological pillars — a radical optimism about the internet, a desire to build better products, a drive towards openness, and a belief in the fundamental importance of being driven by strong convictions — the new look and feel isn’t the end of story, with Mozilla claiming that: “As a living brand, Firefox will never be done. It will continue to evolve as we change and the world changes around us.”

Firefox’s new logo has more fire, less fox
But before you say “What did they do to that poor fox!” know that the logo you see above actually isn’t the browser logo — that’s the brand-new overarching logo for Mozilla’s whole family of Firefox products, with each component (including the browser) having its own logo, too.

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Satire or harmful deception?

Fake videos — they’re just a bit of fun that we’re happy to spread around on social media, right? Whilst they play a part in the BBC dystopian future drama, Years and Years, helping to sway a general election, we’re not really fooled by them, are we?

Well, perhaps not yet, but they’ve got US politicians worried enough about their upcoming presidential election in 2020 to officially look into it all.

Congress grapples with how to regulate deepfakes
“Now is the time for social media companies to put in place policies to protect users from this kind of misinformation not in 2021 after viral deepfakes have polluted the 2020 elections,” Schiff said. “By then it will be too late.”

At the outset of the hearing, Schiff came out challenging the “immunity” given to platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, asking panelists if Congress should make changes to the law that doesn’t currently hold social media companies liable for the content on their platforms.

Another example.

Deepfakes: Imagine All the People
Of course this isn’t real. The video was done by a company called Canny AI, which offers services like “replace the dialogue in any footage” and “lip-sync your dubbed content in any language”. That’s cool and all — picture episodes of Game of Thrones or Fleabag where the actors automagically lip-sync along to dubbed French or Chinese — but this technique can also be used to easily create what are referred to as deepfakes, videos made using AI techniques in which people convincingly say and do things they actually did not do or say.

Accidentally empowering museum audiences

I’ve always believed that the central tenet of interactive art, borrowed from Quantum Theory, is that the act of observing affects that being observed. Perhaps we could see these two recent news stories as examples of that.

Safe sealed for 40 years until museum visitor spins the dial
“I said, ‘That’s quite the time capsule.’ I said, ‘I’m going to try this now for a laugh.'”

He leaned his ear close to the lock, began cranking the lock and listened intently for the telltale click, click, click.

“I put in 20-40-60, three times right, three times left, one time right. Tried it, it’s like, oh my God.”

The door creaked open. The room filled with a cloud of dust and a round of applause.

“When it opens, total surprise and amazement, right? I have a little bit of luck but hopefully I didn’t use it all up on this one.”

Solved: A case of mistaken identity in a Madrid art museum
Pastor, who is 39 years old and currently living in Luxembourg, was so sure he was looking at Rodin that he thought he had misread the caption. While still in the museum, he began googling Leopold—who is remembered primarily for presiding over a genocide in the Belgian Congo. While the two men clearly shared a resemblance, Pastor couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a case of mistaken identity, and he resolved to get to the bottom of it.

Pack your bags

The best laid plans, and so on.

This Vancouver market is handing out embarrassing plastic bags to customers
Currently, East West charges customers five cents per embarrassing plastic bag that they take. They plan to continue handing out the specialty bags for the foreseeable future, but note that they’d rather no one take them. Instead, they hope to start a conversation about single-use plastic bags, as well as influence shoppers to bring their own bags – whether they are shopping at East West or somewhere else.

But they were just too popular.

Problem in the bagging area: the plastic-shaming scheme that went very, very wrong
So perhaps the way to deal with the plastic crisis isn’t to daub single-use plastics with well-designed, slyly aspirational joke logos. Perhaps the bags should be printed with closeup pictures of dead seabirds and huge text reading: “I am pillaging planet Earth of its most precious resources.”

In the UK, a 5p levy was introduced in 2015 to discourage shoppers from using plastic bags. The supermarkets are supposed to be donate that money to good causes that benefit the environment. Is that really happening?

Are retailers ‘bagging’ the 5p plastic carrier bag charge?
What we found when we dug into the plastic bag levy suggests it has been managed in a way that can confuse customers and leave them unaware of the levy’s purpose or their option to return used bags. If customers believe their 5p is going to good causes but discover it’s actually going into marketing spend for retailers, they may lose confidence in the scheme.

Meanwhile.

At the Newark Public Library, shopping bags carry local history
The Newark Public Library in Newark, New Jersey, has an unusual collection that can’t be found in its stacks. Stored in the library’s Special Collections department, in one filing cabinet and 61 archival Solander boxes—some of which are so full their latches barely close—are over 2,000 shopping bags. Meticulously cataloged by geographic location, size, and theme, the collection records the history of graphics, culture, and everyday life from the mid-20th century to the current day.

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A ‘fake’ arms race, for real

This essay from Cailin O’Connor, co-author of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, frames the issue of online misinformation as an arms race.

The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting
What makes this problem particularly thorny is that internet media changes at dizzying speed. When the radio was first invented, as a new form of media, it was subject to misinformation. But regulators quickly adapted, managing, for the most part, to subdue such attempts. Today, even as Facebook fights Russian meddling, WhatsApp has become host to rampant misinformation in India, leading to the deaths of 31 people in rumour-fuelled mob attacks over two years.

Participating in an informational arms race is exhausting, but sometimes there are no good alternatives. Public misinformation has serious consequences. For this reason, we should be devoting the same level of resources to fighting misinformation that interest groups are devoting to producing it. All social-media sites need dedicated teams of researchers whose full-time jobs are to hunt down and combat new kinds of misinformation attempts.

I know I’m a pretty pessimistic person generally, but this all sounds quite hopeless. Here’s how one group of people is responding to the challenge of misuse of information and fake videos — by producing their own.

This deepfake of Mark Zuckerberg tests Facebook’s fake video policies
The video, created by artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe in partnership with advertising company Canny, shows Mark Zuckerberg sitting at a desk, seemingly giving a sinister speech about Facebook’s power. The video is framed with broadcast chyrons that say “We’re increasing transparency on ads,” to make it look like it’s part of a news segment.

“We will treat this content the same way we treat all misinformation on Instagram,” a spokesperson for Instagram told Motherboard. “If third-party fact-checkers mark it as false, we will filter it from Instagram’s recommendation surfaces like Explore and hashtag pages.”

Video game nostalgia

It’s a big week for video games, with E3 2019 in full swing. But never mind all that, let’s look back to the good ol’ days with Sam Dyer, founder and book designer of Bitmap Books.

Bitmap Beauty: Exploring classic video game box art from the 80s and 90s
“Given the limitations the artists had, this pixel art is a real work of art and deserves to be treated as so. However, the box art also hugely influenced which games we purchased before the internet. It really was the cover art that would draw you in, when in a shop.”

The unsung design wonder that is classic video game packaging has been explored by Bitmap Books for five years now, with Sam founding the indie publisher following a decade as design head for brand agency The House. The first release was a visual compendium dedicated to the 1982 Commodore 64, and like all the vintage console-dedicated books on Bitmap, the tome is packed out with game screengrabs, creator interviews and lovingly annotated looks at box art from around the world.

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In a similar vein, here’s a link-filled piece from a pair of academics writing in The Conversation last year.

Finding nostalgia in the pixelated video games of decades past
Every day, it seems, new ultra-high-resolution video games are released, syncing with players’ social media accounts and ready for virtual reality headsets. Yet old games from the 1970s and 1980s are still in high demand. The Nintendo Corporation has moved recently to both quash and exploit that popularity, shutting down websites hosting old games’ code while planning to release its own back catalog on a new platform. […]

Playing old video games is not just a mindless trip down memory lane for lonely and isolated gamers. The average age of a U.S. gamer is 34, and many popular retro game titles have been around for 20 years or more. It seems Generation X-ers could be returning to their cherished childhood properties.

In fact, emerging media psychology research, including our own work, suggests that video game nostalgia can make people feel closer to their past, their friends and family, and even themselves.

Meanwhile.

MI5’s poor surveillance data handling

It’s not often a data protection or records management news story gets this much press attention.

MI5 accused of unlawful handling of surveillance data
MI5 has been accused of “extraordinary and persistent illegality” for holding on to data obtained from members of the public. The human rights organisation Liberty has taken the security service to court over the way that it gathers and stores information under the Investigatory Powers Act.

MI5 ‘unlawfully’ handled bulk surveillance data, lawsuit reveals
“The documents show extraordinary and persistent illegality in MI5’s operations, apparently for many years,” said civil liberties organisation Liberty, which is bringing the case. “The existence of what MI5 itself calls ‘ungoverned spaces’ in which it holds and uses large volumes of private data is a serious failure of governance and oversight, especially when mass collection of data of innocent citizens is concerned.”

MI5’s use of personal data was ‘unlawful’, says watchdog
The security service MI5 has handled large amounts of personal data in an “undoubtedly unlawful” way, a watchdog has said. The Investigatory Powers Commissioner said information gathered under warrants was kept too long and not stored safely. Civil rights group Liberty said the breaches involved the “mass collection of data of innocent citizens”. The high court heard MI5 knew about the issues in 2016 but kept them secret.

Liberty’s challenge to UK state surveillance powers reveals shocking failures
The challenge, by rights group Liberty, led last month to an initial finding that MI5 had systematically breached safeguards in the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) — breaches the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, euphemistically couched as “compliance risks” in a carefully worded written statement that was quietly released to parliament.

This was first reported last month …

MI5 slapped on the wrist for ‘serious’ surveillance data breach
Home Secretary Sajid Javid has confessed to Parliament that MI5 bungled the security of “certain technology environments used to store and analyse data,” including that of ordinary Britons spied on by the agency. In a lengthy Parliamentary statement made last week, Javid obliquely admitted that spies had allowed more people to help themselves to its treasure troves of data on British citizens than was legally allowed.

Sajid Javid admits MI5 committed serious safeguard breaches
In a written statement to parliament last week that was not widely noticed, Javid said he was notifying MPs of “compliance risks MI5 identified and reported within certain technology environments used to store and analyse data, including material obtained under the Investigatory Powers Act”.

… but now the story has been picked up by everyone, including the Middle East Eye

UK’s MI5 spy agency handled surveillance data unlawfully, court hears
An internal agency review warned more than three years ago that storage systems may have become “ungoverned spaces”, which would mean that they were operating in breach of both UK and European law. Despite this, MI5 continued to build new electronic storage systems which did not allow the agency to review its contents and decide what material should be deleted, as the law requires. The problems were withheld from the official watchdog, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, until earlier this year, the High Court was told.

… and even Russia Today and Sputnik News are getting in on it.

‘Extraordinary & persistent illegality’: UK’s MI5 accused of mishandling bulk surveillance data
MI5 has no control of its storage of vast volumes of people’s calls, messages, web browsing history, as well as other personal data that the agency has managed to obtain on the basis of surveillance warrants, which were often issued under false pretext, the High Court heard on Tuesday in a legal challenge brought by the human rights organization Liberty.

Outcry as High Court finds MI5 engaged in ‘unlawful’ storage, handling of bulk surveillance
Ten internal documents from senior MI5 officials, including an 11 March letter from director Sir Andrew Parker, revealed significant non-compliance issues in how citizens’ data had been kept and used, including a subsequent cover-up of internal failures and that “data might be being held in ungoverned spaces in contravention of our policies”.

Let’s hope some good comes from all this.

Setting precedents for privacy: the UK legal challenges bringing surveillance into the open
These debates highlight the importance of collective efforts to assert respect for privacy and other rights as a core part of public life. We are on the cusp of a positive shift in power towards open public debate and accountability about data and the way it is used against us.

Charting frustration

An interview with US artist, Christine Sun Kim.

An artist who channels her anger into pie charts
A series of her large-format charcoal drawings, which explore navigating the hearing world as a deaf person, are now on view at the 79th Whitney Biennial in New York. The six works pair depictions of varying mathematical angles with correlative, rage-inducing encounters that are both broadly applicable — “being given a Braille menu at a restaurant” or “offered a wheelchair at an airport” — and painfully specific to her experience — “curators who think it’s fair to split my fee with interpreters.”

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Channeling her experiences into images of geometric angles, musical notes and meme-like pie charts, Kim playfully combines different sign systems to create what she calls a “common language that all people can connect to.”

The crowded race to the top

Nominations officially open today for Theresa May’s replacement. The sprint is expected to reach the finish line towards the end of next month, and the press are frothing all over it.

But consider this look at the US presidential marathon race, with a year and a half still to go.

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More candidates and earlier
We’re 536 days out and 23 Democrats are in. In contrast, there were 8 around this time in 2008.

Eating lunch at your desk again?

Some fun videos from YouTuber omozoc, in the style of PES.

Stop motion cooking tutorials by Omozoc transform sporting goods and electronics into unconventional meals
A baseball glove becomes the bun of a strangely enticing hot dog, while a cracked-open computer mouse makes an unusual batch of scrambled eggs on the top of an open copy machine.

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A week to remember

Two significant anniversaries last week. Let’s start in northern France, with some staggering numbers.

13 memorable facts about D-Day
D-Day was the opening chapter in a long campaign. The Normandy invasion was not a one-day affair; it raged on until Allied forces crossed the River Seine in August. Altogether, the Allies took about 200,000 casualties over the course of the campaign—including 4413 deaths on D-Day alone. According to the D-Day Center, “No reliable figures exist for the German losses, but it is estimated that around 200,000 were killed or wounded with approximately 200,000 more taken prisoner.” On May 7, 1945—less than a year after D-Day—Germany surrendered, ending the war in its European Theater.

Some of these images really get across the scale of that operation.

Photos: Take a look at D-Day, then and now
The 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings will fall on June 6. Here, we take a look back at iconic images of the day and at modern photos related to the day’s events.

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It all looks very different now.

11 incredible D-Day Landing pictures that show the beaches then and now
The following pictures combine original photos taken on and around D-Day with others taken in 2014 and show holidaymakers in the sun, largely oblivious to the horror that took place where they stood over 70 years ago.

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And for a different, but very direct, perspective of events that day, you must take a look at these scanned documents.

Bletchley Park and D-Day
A rare collection of Enigma messages sent on D-Day by the German navy, and broken at Bletchley Park, gives a blow-by-blow account of the action. As events unfold, confusion gives way to a realisation of the scale and importance of the invasion. Intelligence from Bletchley Park played a crucial part in the operation’s planning and execution.

The D-Day commemoration coincided with Trump’s state visit. I loved the language in this view of that from across the Atlantic.

We are being embarrassed by ugly-American grifters on an ego trip to London
Referring to “the red-carpet treatment” accorded to Donald Trump and the ignominious confederacy of unindicted co-conspirators that accompanied him to London, the city’s mayor remarked, “In years to come, I suspect this state visit will be one we look back on with profound regret and acknowledge that we were on the wrong side of history.” Why wait? As an American, I’m already regretting the spectacle of the Trumps tweeting pictures of themselves stumbling around Buckingham Palace. It’s not just that, as a republican, I have no taste for the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the British royal family. It is not even that Trumps are so obviously enthralled by imperial excess.

What I have a problem with is the notion that the United States of America is being “represented” on the global stage by an ugly-American cabal of black hats in ill-fitting tuxedos. Mehdi Hasan got it brilliantly right when he said of the president’s decampment to the United Kingdom: “He’s taken four of his five kids with him, his four grifter kids with him to Buckingham Palace. They’ve been posting pictures all night on Twitter of themselves. They’re all loving it. It’s a great day for the whole grifter family.”

The other anniversary, of course, was in China.

Beijing falls silent as tight security surrounds Tiananmen Square anniversary
Thirty years after bloody crackdown in China, visitors have IDs checked and journalists are warned against taking pictures.

In the UK and elsewhere, reminders of what happened, like this one from The Guardian ten years ago, are so easy to find.

20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square: how events unfolded
Revisiting the protests, from the beginning of the student uprising to the brutal crushing of dissent by the Chinese regime.

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That’s obviously not the case in China.

A look at the many ways China suppresses online discourse about the Tiananmen Square protests
Suppression of information means that an entire generation of people know little about the events, even as the activists involved continue to suffer repercussions, including long prison sentences. In recent years, the government’s censorship apparatus has become even more powerful, with voice and image recognition and machine learning making it easier to block or remove posts at scale.

Jiayang Fan, writing in The New Yorker, was four in 1989.

Memories of Tiananmen Square
I had left China when I was too young to know about censorship, when I was just being introduced to the written word and to the stories that written words told. It would never have occurred to me, or, perhaps, to any child, to question the history books, because that would have seemed like an interrogation of reality itself. In China, the past is never past, but it is frequently purged. The story is rewritten, the narrative reframed, the villains and the heroes recast. There is a hallucinatory quality to such a society, as if you are living a life that does not and never can fully belong to you. China’s vertiginous economic growth during the last three decades, for example, has given people permission to pursue prosperity without ever granting them political autonomy, reducing them to children at the mercy of an irascible, paternalistic government.

Ilaria Maria Sala was an exchange student in Beijing at the time, just a couple of years older than me then.

The very last spring all things seemed possible in Beijing
People handed me spent bullets and bloodied items, wanting me to go back home and tell the world what the army had done. I told them that people knew, every journalist was in Beijing. I was evacuated by the British Embassy to Hong Kong in the early hours of June 7, and returned home to Italy. As soon as I could, at the end of August, I went back to Beijing again, to study, to look for friends, to try to understand what had happened.

Her story continues.

Beijing Autumn: My return to China three months after Tiananmen
Beishida felt too desolate, so I transferred to Peking University, where all the few returning foreign students seemed to have congregated. But as the students there were those most involved in the demonstrations, the authorities decided to suspend the first year, and send all the freshmen to the army instead. The notice-boards at Sanjiaodi, where the political posters had been hoisted just a few months before, where the international TV crews had filmed the students keeping up-to-date with the strike and its developments, where impromptu speeches had been given, was now a deserted triangle dotted with forlorn little posters advertising English classes, chess tournaments, and qigong demonstrations.

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Libraries of the past and the future

I’ve always thought of libraries as places that have existed forever, like cemeteries, or shoe shops — they’re just a necessary part of a normal society, right? (It’s thought the Library of Alexandria was founded as long ago as 285 BC, though its current incarnation is only 16 years old and closes at 4 pm today.)

But libraries haven’t always been around for everybody.

A history of the American public library
CityLab’s visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger shares the story of how America’s public libraries came to be, and their uneven history of serving all who need them.

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That’s all a world away from the history of libraries over here, in our grand stately piles.

What was the real purpose of the English country house library?
In Mark Purcell’s all-encompassing study, The Country House Library, every aspect of this topic is researched and addressed on an epic, Girouardian scale. Whereas architectural and art historians are often uninterested in the actual books found in historic architect-designed libraries, Purcell argues it is impossible to separate them from a consideration of situation, appearance and design. Demolishing the commonplace belief that volumes were “bought by the yard”, he offers an opportunity for historians to think afresh about the way collections were read and valued within the elusive confines of the country house library.

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A gripping chapter covers the early 19th-century bibliomania that culminated in the great sale of the Third Duke of Roxburghe’s library in June 1812, described as a chivalric tournament between Earl Spencer, the Marquess of Blandford and the Sixth Duke of Devonshire. Purcell gives an excellent account of the arc of sales reflecting the decline in the fortunes of the landowning classes after the late 1880s. In 1966, Shane Leslie wrote in his memoirs, Long Shadows: “The empty shelves at Blenheim, Sledmere and Althorp gave me the ghastly gasp as coffins and vaults ravaged by body-snatchers.”

Here’s an idea of how to make more use of our present-day libraries.

How to be a library archive tourist
When I’m traveling and am at a loss for how to spend my time, I look up as many libraries I can in the area I’ll be traveling to, and I check to see if they have special collections. Then I make an appointment with the library to visit those special collections, and usually it means I get to spend a day in a quiet, climate-controlled room with cool old documents. It’s like a museum but with no people, and where you have to do all the work, which is honestly my idea of a perfect vacation.

But what of the future? As this high-tech university library shows (designed, coincidentally, by Snøhetta, the Norwegian architecture firm behind the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt), those old values of accessibility are still key.

A robot-filled, architectural marvel in North Carolina is the library of the future
Public libraries remain a critical public resource, but as budgets have been slashed and information digitized over the last several decades, many have been forced to adapt from book-storage rooms to high-tech public spaces. Indeed, libraries in urban areas remain an important space for those residents with limited incomes, education, and access to resources. By reimagining the relationship between information and technology and how humans interact with both, Hunt’s designers created a unique space in which the community can learn, create, or simply gather.

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“Whether or not you’re talking about a library focused on digital technology or on books or papyri, as the ancient libraries were, the most important thing is to make a library open and accessible,” he adds, noting that books weren’t invented until centuries after the first libraries came about. “[Libraries] had museums, they had lounges, they were interactive and in a very vibrant way,” he says, “more like libraries of the future.”

And yes, I know this is a bookshop and not a library, but you must check it out.

Mirrored Chinese bookstore offers readers a maze of discovery
The newest of China’s surreal mirrored bookstores is now open in Chongqing, offering a disorienting, Escher-like experience to all who enter. Designed by X+Living, the Chongqing Zhongshuge Bookstore leads visitors through an unassuming glass facade on the third floor of Zodi Plaza and into a reflective maze full of reading materials waiting to be discovered.

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Anyone else seeing Daleks there?

More fun with fakes

More videos — from the sublime to the ridiculous.

There’s a scarily good ‘deepfakes’ YouTube channel that’s quietly growing – and it’s freaking everyone out
Russian researchers hit the headlines last week by reanimating oil-painted portraits and photos into talking heads using AI. Now, here’s another reminder that the tools to craft deepfakes are widely available for just about anyone with the right skills to use: the manipulated videos posted on YouTuber Ctrl Shift Face are particularly creepy.

Club Fight – Episode 2 [DeepFake]

The transitions are especially smooth in another clip, with a comedian dipping in and out of impressions of Al Pacino and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and there are now clips from Terminator with Stallone which look very peculiar.

Here’s that earlier article and video mentioned above, about reanimating oil paintings.

AI can now animate the Mona Lisa’s face or any other portrait you give it. We’re not sure we’re happy with this reality
There have been lots of similar projects so the idea isn’t particularly novel. But what’s intriguing in this paper, hosted by arXiv, is that the system doesn’t require tons of training examples and seems to work after seeing an image just once. That’s why it works with paintings like the Mona Lisa.

Few-Shot Adversarial Learning of Realistic Neural Talking Head Models

Jump to 4:18 to see their work with famous faces such as Marilyn Monroe and Salvador Dalí (who’s already no stranger to AI), and to 5:08 to see the Mona Lisa as you’ve never seen her before.

Excel timesavers

I sit and stare at Excel for a significant proportion of my day. I can’t believe I’ve not been aware of this simple trick with copying formulas without messing up cell references. It’s saving me an immense amount of time.

Copy Excel formula without changing cell references (or without file references)
It’s quite simple actually!

  1. Highlight the are you’d like to copy
  2. Go to Home / Find & Select / Replace (or press Ctrl + H)
  3. Search for = and replace with a text that’s not in your file – in this example I chose “notinfile” (note as mentioned in the comments in YouTube, you can also replace with ” =”, i.e. a space before the equal sign)
  4. Go back to Home / Find & Select / Replace (or press Ctrl + H) – search for your text – in my example “notinfile” and replace with =.
  5. That’s it!

Here are a few more tips and tricks.

10 easy Excel timesavers you might have forgotten
Microsoft has packed Excel with all kinds of different ways to get things done quicker. However, you can’t take advantage of these features if you don’t know about them. These ten techniques may only save you a few seconds every time you use them. That might not sound like much, but if you can integrate them into your workflow, you’re sure to reap the benefits over time.

So, farewell then, iTunes

Technology, software, media — none of it stands still. Here’s something that’s been getting a lot of attention from the latest Apple updates.

The rise and fall of iTunes, Apple’s most hated app
The success of iTunes cannot be overstated; it outlived pretty much every other consumer-focused piece of software from its time (here’s to you, Winamp). Windows 10 users would search for iTunes so much in the Windows Store that Microsoft eventually convinced Apple to bring it to the store last year. Over the years, however, Apple’s original philosophy of providing a one-stop shop for all your media became iTunes’ greatest undoing by saddling the app with more and more baggage that’s eaten away at its usability. The world has moved on as ubiquitous connectivity, cloud storage, and streaming media became the norm. iTunes is still around as a legacy app for those who need it. But for everyone else, iTunes is now officially a thing of the past.

I’ve moved away from Apple things now, but back in the day iTunes was such a large part of it all for me, so it was nice to see a screenshot of the old version alongside its less familiar new look.

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Winamp gets a mention there, which reminded me of this bookmark I’d kept from last year.

Winamp is coming back as an all-in-one music player
First released in 1997, Winamp was a popular freeware media player famous for its utilitarian music playback and its wealth of incredible community-made skins. It was acquired by AOL in 2002, then sold to Radionomy in 2014. The last time Winamp was updated was in 2013, so news that a revival is coming should be welcomed by longtime fans of the app.

Those were the days. We shouldn’t live in the past, though, should we? But before we say goodbye to all that, let me point you to this again.

In the shadows

Some remarkably simple and effective sculptural installations from Kumi Yamashita.

Light & Shadow
I sculpt using both light and shadow. I construct single or multiple objects and place them in relation to a single light source. The complete artwork is therefore comprised of both the material (the solid objects) and the immaterial (the light or shadow).

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Before photography, the silhouette helped leave an impression
The four contemporary artists represented in the exhibition amplify the dualistic sense of technology and the occult seen in the 19th-century work. The most stunning of the works are by Kumi Yamashita, who conjures convincing shadow images using light and gently folded pieces of origami paper, or the carefully carved edge of a chair, or letter and number forms glued on the wall. The shadows give the uncanny suggestion of a living being, while they in fact are ensorcelled from inanimate material.

(Via)