Locking words in

After reading recent articles about the state of the web, you could be forgiven for wanting to turn back to a more reliable and trustworthy method of communication, like letter writing. But have you heard of letterlocking?

Before envelopes, people protected messages with letterlocking
Around 2 A.M. on February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots penned a letter to her brother-in-law, King Henri III of France. It would be her last. Six hours later, she was beheaded for treason by order of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The letter has since become one of Scotland’s most beloved artifacts, the handwritten pages offering a poignant glimpse of a monarch grappling with her impending execution.

But it’s not the words that fascinate Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries. For more than a decade, Dambrogio has been studying “letterlocking,” the various systems of folds, slits, and wax seals that protected written communication before the invention of the mass-produced envelope. To guard her final missive from prying eyes, the queen used a “butterfly lock”—one of hundreds of techniques catalogued by Dambrogio, collaborator Daniel Starza Smith, and their research team in a fast-growing dictionary of letterlocking.

And here’s a demonstration of that locking method.

Letterlocking: Mary Queen of Scots last letter, a butterfly lock, England (1587)
Modelled after images of Mary Queen of Scots’ letter to her brother-in-law Henri III, King of France in the National Library of Scotland.

It looks very fiddly. I wonder if, the night before her execution, her hands would have been steady enough to do this herself. It’s a remarkable document, though.

The last letter of Mary Queen of Scots
Sire, my brother-in-law, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.

Online ‘truth decay’

Fake news is old news, but I came across a new phrase today — well, new to me, anyway.

You thought fake news was bad? Deep fakes are where truth goes to die
Citron, along with her colleague Bobby Chesney, began working on a report outlining the extent of the potential danger. As well as considering the threat to privacy and national security, both scholars became increasingly concerned that the proliferation of deep fakes could catastrophically erode trust between different factions of society in an already polarized political climate.

In particular, they could foresee deep fakes being exploited by purveyors of “fake news”. Anyone with access to this technology – from state-sanctioned propagandists to trolls – would be able to skew information, manipulate beliefs, and in so doing, push ideologically opposed online communities deeper into their own subjective realities.

“The marketplace of ideas already suffers from truth decay as our networked information environment interacts in toxic ways with our cognitive biases,” the report reads. “Deep fakes will exacerbate this problem significantly.”

Maybe I need to stop reading about fake news, it’s not good for my blood pressure. Just a couple more, then I’ll stop.

After murder and violence, here’s how WhatsApp will fight fake news
WhatsApp has announced it is giving 20 different research groups $50,000 to help it understand the ways that rumours and fake news spread on its platform. The groups are based around the world and will be responsible for producing reports on how the messaging app has impacted certain regions.

The range of areas that are being studied highlight the scale of misinformation that WhatsApp faces. One set of researchers from the UK and US are set to see how misinformation can lead to disease outbreaks in elderly people, one will look at how information was shared on WhatsApp in the 2018 Brazilian elections and another is examining how posts can go viral on the messaging service.

Inside the British Army’s secret information warfare machine
This new warfare poses a problem that neither the 77th Brigade, the military, or any democratic state has come close to answering yet. It is easy to work out how to deceive foreign publics, but far, far harder to know how to protect our own. Whether it is Russia’s involvement in the US elections, over Brexit, during the novichok poisoning or the dozens of other instances that we already know about, the cases are piling up. In information warfare, offence beats defence almost by design. It’s far easier to put out lies than convince everyone that they’re lies. Disinformation is cheap; debunking it is expensive and difficult.

Even worse, this kind of warfare benefits authoritarian states more than liberal democratic ones. For states and militaries, manipulating the internet is trivially cheap and easy to do. The limiting factor isn’t technical, it’s legal. And whatever the overreaches of Western intelligence, they still do operate in legal environments that tend to more greatly constrain where, and how widely, information warfare can be deployed. China and Russia have no such legal hindrances.

Tim’s hippie manifesto

Some less than positive reaction from The Register and others to Tim Berners-Lee’s latest campaign to save the web from itself. To describe it as a hippie manifesto sounds a little harsh but, as I said before, I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to give up power, money etc.

Web Foundation launches internet hippie manifesto: ‘We’ve lost control of our data, it is being used against us’
It identifies the same problems that everyone and their dog has been writing about for years: there is a digital divide; internet access can be expensive; an entire industry has grown up selling your personal data; governments abuse the internet sometimes; people use the internet to do unpleasant things like bully and harass people; net neutrality’s a thing.

It has some charts and stats. But basically it reads like a High School final project on the problems of the internet. Competent but not consequential. […]

But simply saying companies shouldn’t make money from personal data and governments shouldn’t turn off the internet is not going to achieve a single thing. There needs to be clear plan of attack, recognition of pain points for companies, a broad and well-organized campaign to engage and rally people.

Berners-Lee takes flak for ‘hippie manifesto’ that only Google and Facebook could love
Open-source advocate Rafael Laguna, co-founder of Open-Xchange, is suspicious that Google and Facebook – the companies most under fire for privacy and other human rights abuses – were first to voice their support for the Greatest Living Briton’s declaration. “They are the two outstanding creators of the problems proclaimed in Tim’s paper,” Laguna notes. […]

Laguna told us: “As we have seen before with ‘Privacy Shield’, I suspect this move will be used as ‘proof’ of their reputability – but I fail to see how Google and Facebook will genuinely adhere to the requirements laid out in the initiative. The only result I can see is that it gets watered down, that it remains a lip service and, worst case, the whole thing loses credibility.”

TV’s golden, black and white age

A TV Licensing report out recently revealed that there are still 7,000 households watching TV in black and white. You might wonder why. Stuart Jeffries from the Guardian has a theory.

Black and white TVs are a lo-fi rebuke to a world gone wrong
One champion of black and white, TV historian Jeffrey Borinsky, asked rhetorically yesterday: “Who wants all this new-fangled 4K ultra HD, satellite dishes or a screen that’s bigger than your room when you can have glorious black and white TV?” Viewed thus, black and white TV is like craft beer, lo-fi reproof to a world gone wrong.

It’s a good point. Technological “progress” often just gives us more of what we don’t want. Endless choice is misery-making rather than liberating. No wonder the 7,000 rebel against colour TV’s gimcrack lunacy of red buttons; endless channels screening nothing worth watching; the binge-based death-in-life of modern viewing, and the whole lie that having access all the time to everything will make us happy rather than confused and sad.

The report doesn’t break down the demographics of those 7,000 into lavishly bearded, vinyl-collecting, folk-loving, vegan hipster devotees of the slow movement; but it’s my guess that this group is well represented.

I doubt it. Perhaps the sets (or their owners?) are just simply dying off. As the Guardian says elsewhere,

7,000 UK households still watching TV in black and white
Regular colour broadcasts began on BBC Two in July 1967 with the Wimbledon tennis tournament. The number of black and white licences issued each year has since been in steady decline since. In 2000, there were 212,000 black and white TV licences but by 2003 that number had shrunk to 93,000. By 2015, the number had dipped below 10,000.

I did remind me, though, of the old black and white portable I had in my student days. And specifically, of watching a strange little art film about television, starring solely the voice and face of the newsreader Richard Baker. I can’t find anything about it on the web now, or really remember much about it at all. Just a close up of his face, in grainy, flickery black and white (to me, anyway), intoning, “This is my voice. This is not my voice, merely a recording of my voice. This is my face. This is not my face, merely a recording of my face.” Or something.

Watching it on a rickety black and white portable TV set really brought home the artificiality of the medium: the people on your screen are not really there, they don’t actually exist as we imagine them too – it’s all mediation. I wasn’t so much watching television as looking at a site-specific installation which included a TV screen and a recording of one of the most trusted voices in Britain.

Richard Baker: The birth of TV news
“All I did in that first programme, at 7.30pm on 5 July 1954, was to announce, behind a filmed view of Nelson’s Column: Here is an illustrated summary of the news. It will be followed by the latest film of happenings at home and abroad.”

“We were not to be seen reading the news because it was feared we might sully the pure stream of truth with inappropriate facial expressions, or (unthinkably) turn the news into a personality performance.”

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A little robot round-up

I don’t know about you, but I find things to do with AI, robots and automation quite confusing. Will the impact of these technologies really be as widespread as envisaged by the futurists? And what will the consequences and implications really be? Is humanity at stake, even?

Here are a number of articles I’m working through, that will hopefully shed some light on it all. Let’s start with the robot uprising.

Social robots will become family members in the homes of the future
With fewer stay-at-home parents, social robots can serve as personalized practice partners to help with homework and reinforce what children have learned that day in school. Far beyond helping you find recipes and ordering groceries, they can be your personal sous-chef or even help you learn to cook. They can also act as personal health coaches to supplement nutrition and wellness programs recommended by doctors and specialists for an increasingly health-conscious population. As the number of aging-in-place boomers soars, social robots can provide a sense of companionship for retirees while also connecting seniors to the world and to their loved ones, as well as sending doctor-appointment and medication reminders.

Robots! A fantastic catalog of new species
IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo and colleagues have blown out their original Robots app into a fantastic catalog of 200 of today’s fantastic species of robots. They’re cleverly organized into fun categories like “Robots You Can Hug,” “Robots That Can Dance,” “Space Robots,” and “Factory Workers.” If they keep it updated, it’ll be very helpful for the robot uprising.

We need to have a very serious chat about Pepper’s pointless parliamentary pantomime
Had the Committee summoned a robotic arm, or a burger-flipping frame they would have wound up with a worse PR stunt but a better idea of the dangers and opportunities of the robot revolution.

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Robots can look very cute, but it’s the implications of those faceless boxes housing the AIs that will be more important, I think.

Computer says no: why making AIs fair, accountable and transparent is crucial
Most AIs are made by private companies who do not let outsiders see how they work. Moreover, many AIs employ such complex neural networks that even their designers cannot explain how they arrive at answers. The decisions are delivered from a “black box” and must essentially be taken on trust. That may not matter if the AI is recommending the next series of Game of Thrones. But the stakes are higher if the AI is driving a car, diagnosing illness, or holding sway over a person’s job or prison sentence.

Last month, the AI Now Institute at New York University, which researches the social impact of AI, urged public agencies responsible for criminal justice, healthcare, welfare and education, to ban black box AIs because their decisions cannot be explained.

Artificial intelligence has got some explaining to do
Most simply put, Explainable AI (also referred to as XAI) are artificial intelligence systems whose actions humans can understand. Historically, the most common approach to AI is the “black box” line of thinking: human input goes in, AI-made action comes out, and what happens in between can be studied, but never totally or accurately explained. Explainable AI might not be necessary for, say, understanding why Netflix or Amazon recommended that movie or that desk organizer for you (personally interesting, sure, but not necessary). But when it comes to deciphering answers about AI in fields like health care, personal finances, or the justice system, it becomes more important to understand an algorithm’s actions.

The only way is ethics.

Why teach drone pilots about ethics when it’s robots that will kill us?
For the most part, armies are keen to maintain that there will always be humans in charge when lethal decisions are taken. This is only partly window dressing. One automated system is dangerous only to its enemies; two are dangerous to each other, and out of anyone’s control. We have seen what happens on stock markets when automatic trading programs fall into a destructive pattern and cause “flash crashes”. In October 2016 the pound lost 6% of its value, with blame in part put down to algorithmic trading. If two hi-tech armies were in a standoff where hair-trigger algorithms faced each other on both sides, the potential for disaster might seem unlimited.

Nuclear war has been averted on at least one occasion by a heroic Russian officer overriding the judgment of computers that there was an incoming missile attack from the US. But he had 25 minutes to decide. Battlefield time is measured in seconds.

The Pentagon’s plans to program soldiers’ brains
DARPA has dreamed for decades of merging human beings and machines. Some years ago, when the prospect of mind-controlled weapons became a public-relations liability for the agency, officials resorted to characteristic ingenuity. They recast the stated purpose of their neurotechnology research to focus ostensibly on the narrow goal of healing injury and curing illness. The work wasn’t about weaponry or warfare, agency officials claimed. It was about therapy and health care. Who could object?

Let’s hope nothing goes wrong.

Machine learning confronts the elephant in the room
Then the researchers introduced something incongruous into the scene: an image of an elephant in semiprofile. The neural network started getting its pixels crossed. In some trials, the elephant led the neural network to misidentify the chair as a couch. In others, the system overlooked objects, like a row of books, that it had correctly detected in earlier trials. These errors occurred even when the elephant was far from the mistaken objects.

Snafus like those extrapolate in unsettling ways to autonomous driving. A computer can’t drive a car if it might go blind to a pedestrian just because a second earlier it passed a turkey on the side of the road.

So yes, things can go wrong. But AI and automation will all be good for jobs, right?

Artificial intelligence to create 58 million new jobs by 2022, says report
Machines and algorithms in the workplace are expected to create 133 million new roles, but cause 75 million jobs to be displaced by 2022 according to a new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) called “The Future of Jobs 2018.” This means that the growth of artificial intelligence could create 58 million net new jobs in the next few years.

With this net positive job growth, there is expected to be a major shift in quality, location and permanency for the new roles. And companies are expected to expand the use of contractors doing specialized work and utilize remote staffing.

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AI may not be bad news for workers
Some jobs could be made a lot easier by AI. One example is lorry-driving. Some fear that truck drivers will be replaced by autonomous vehicles. But manoeuvring a lorry around busy streets is far harder than driving down the motorway. So the driver could switch into automatic mode (and get some rest) when outside the big cities, and take over the wheel once again when nearing the destination. The obvious analogy is with jetliners, where the pilots handle take-off and landing but turn on the computer to cruise at 35,000 feet. Using AI may prevent tired drivers from causing accidents.

Ok, yes, I can see that. But then it goes on…

And the report argues that AI can produce better decision-making by offering a contrarian opinion so that teams can avoid the danger of groupthink. A program could analyse e-mails and meeting transcripts and issue alerts when potentially false assumptions are being made (rather like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen tale who notices that the Emperor has no clothes). Or it can warn a team when it is getting distracted from the task in hand.

Really? That’s quite a jump from automated driving. Having a system read everything a company’s employees write to look for poor assumptions? I cannot see that happening. More over-selling.

But what else could AI do?

AI lie detector tests to get trial run at EU airports
Fliers will be asked a series of travel-related questions by a virtual border guard avatar, and artificial intelligence will monitor their faces to assess whether they are lying. The avatar will become “more skeptical” and change its tone of voice if it believes a person has lied, before referring suspect passengers to a human guard and allowing those believed to be honest to pass through, said Keeley Crockett of Manchester Metropolitan University in England, who was involved in the project.

AI anchors: Xinhua debuts digital doppelgangers for their journalists
The AI-powered news anchors, according to the outlet, will improve television reporting and be used to generate videos, especially for breaking news on its digital and social media platforms.

“I’m an English artificial intelligence anchor,” Zhang’s digital doppelganger said in introduction during his first news telecast, blinking his eyes and raising his eyebrows throughout the video. “This is my very first day in Xinhua News Agency … I will work tirelessly to keep you informed, as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted.”

 

This is what the world’s first AI newsreader looks and sounds like [via the Guardian]

But let’s not get too carried away here. We’re talking about people’s jobs, their livelihoods.

The automation charade
Since the dawn of market society, owners and bosses have revelled in telling workers they were replaceable. Robots lend this centuries-old dynamic a troubling new twist: employers threaten employees with the specter of machine competition, shirking responsibility for their avaricious disposition through opportunistic appeals to tech determinism. A “jobless future” is inevitable, we are told, an irresistible outgrowth of innovation, the livelihood-devouring price of progress. …

Though automation is presented as a neutral process, the straightforward consequence of technological progress, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.

That article goes on to introduce a new term to describe the overselling the workplace dynamic and the casualisation of low-skilled service work, “fauxtomation.”

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But maybe we should all loosen up, and stop being so serious.

Love in the time of AI: meet the people falling for scripted robots
“Obviously as the technology gets better and the interactivity increases we’re going to be able to form closer connections to characters in games,” Reed said. “They will operate with greater flexibility and ultimately seem more lifelike and easier to connect to.”

But for Wild Rose and many of the other dating sims enthusiasts I spoke to, making the characters more “human” wasn’t particularly exciting or even desired. Saeran didn’t need to be real for her to care about him.

The HAL 9000 Christmas ornament
Fans of “2001: A Space Odyssey” will want to bring home this special Christmas ornament that celebrates 50 years of the science-fiction masterpiece. Press the button to see the ornament light up as HAL says several memorable phrases.

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NASA’s impossible images

You know those Golden Records NASA sent into space in the 70s, on the Voyager spacecrafts? They contained images, music and sounds from Earth, as well as greetings in 55 languages. If any alien were to come across these disks, accessing their contents is far from straightforward.

Decoding images from the Golden Record
You might think that the images were included in some printed or digital form, such as a .jpeg or .tiff. But back in 1977, there was no technology available to put images on analog disks. Voyager’s computer systems could only hold 69 kilobytes of information, barely enough for one image, let alone 115. So NASA invented a way to include image data on the LPs.

By projecting images onto a screen, recording them with a television camera, and then turning those video signals into audio waveforms, the images could be properly pressed onto the records. The reversal process — turning that image data back into images — is what any extraterrestrial (or curious human) would have to figure out how to do.

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Nevermind the contents of these records, the instructions alone will have the aliens scratching their heads. If they have heads, of course.

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Bon voyage

My son flies to Japan next week, on a school science trip, via Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Here are a couple of links to send him on his way.

Schiphol Clock
Time is important at an airport, with thousands of people running back and forth trying to get their plane on time. This is why most airports are full of clocks everywhere, helping to guide harried travelers. Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands is no exception, but it offers a twist: a giant clock that appears as if a man is busy painting it real time, minute by minute.

The painter is actually a 12-hour-long recording, that gives a convincing illusion that a human is standing inside the translucent clock, busy at work as the hands go around. This creative timepiece is the latest work of Maarten Baas, a well-known Dutch artist and designer that has a series of similar live clock recordings.

Schipol Clock

A 12 hour long recording! There’s more on this remarkable clock on Maarten Baas’s website. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s still there.

And then, when my boy gets to Japan:

Four weird unexpected things to love about Japan
Washlets are one of the unexpected delights of going to Japan. The Japanese washlet is a technological marvel in that it cleans and dries your flanks, underside and phalanges after you’ve taken a shit, without you having to step foot in a shower.

What happens after your experience with the washlet is a feeling of unparalleled freshness, cleanliness and wellness unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced before. In the West we have toilets that flush but that’s about it. It’s a toilet made for a Jurassic reptile not a highly evolved human being.

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Cyriak’s back from the dead

I didn’t spot this in time for Halloween, but a new animation from Cyriak has jumped out at us. I guess it’s his 2018 take on the Skeleton Dance from 1929 I mentioned earlier. Compare and contrast below!

RIP

Silly Symphony – the skeleton dance 1929 disney short

I wonder what will the next version of the scary skeleton dance video be like, in 2107.

Watching paint fly

In a manner reminiscent of Loving Vincent, Em Cooper has created a wonderful short animation for a Berghaus ad campaign.

Em Cooper is a live-action filmmaker working with oil paint
“I was actually on a walk in Cornwall when the detail of how I would make it came into my mind. I wanted every transformation to feel natural and effortless — the transitions working like silent slippages of paint with the brushstrokes loosening just a touch and then reforming quietly into the next moment. It is painstaking and labour-intensive work: I hand paint every single frame individually, but the results are magical, and I think viewers can sense the time and effort that has gone into it.”

Time to get out

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A plan to reduce (some) teacher workload

Following on from the Ofsted Chief Inspector’s comments about teachers being ‘reduced to data managers’, the Education Secretary has written to all schools this week, reiterating his commitment to “clamp down on teachers’ workload.” Here’s the DfE’s press release.

DfE: More support for school leaders to tackle workload
Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds said: “Many teachers are having to work way too many hours each week on unnecessary tasks, including excessive time spent on marking and data analysis. I want to make sure teachers are teaching, not putting data into spreadsheets. That’s why I am stopping my department asking for data other than in the school’s existing format.

“I am united with the unions and Ofsted in wanting teachers to do less admin. I have a straightforward message to head teachers who want their staff to cut right down on collecting data to be able to devote energies to teaching: I will support you. Frequent data drops and excessive monitoring of a child’s progress are not required either by Ofsted or by the DfE.”

Here’s a link to the Teacher Workload Advisory Group report and government response.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out and what, if anything, changes. Perhaps less data collection, rather than less data analysis: I can see schools making judgements about students’ progress two or three times a year, instead of three or four, but will they really stop analysing progress by pupil premium, SEN, ethnicity, gender and so on and so on? Perhaps this is aimed at classroom teachers, rather than subject leaders, data managers and SLT data leads.

Can Tim Berners-Lee fix what he started?

We’re growing increasingly disillusioned with the web, but the guy behind it has a plan — a “Contract for the Web” that he hopes will set out our rights and freedoms on the internet.

Tim Berners-Lee launches campaign to save the web from abuse
“Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken. This is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge and democracy,” he said.

For it to work, the big tech companies need to be behind it. No problem, right?

One of the early signatories to the contract, Facebook, has been fined by the Information Commissioner’s Office for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal; has faced threats from the EU for taking too long to remove extremist content; and has been sued for allowing advertisers to target housing ads only at white people. The firm, which has appointed the former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to lead its PR operation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Another early signatory, Google, is reportedly developing a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market. “If you sign up to the principles, you can’t do censorship,” said Berners-Lee. “Will this be enough to make search engines push back? Will it be persuasive enough for the Chinese government to be more open? I can’t predict whether that will happen,” he said. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Hmm. I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to– what, make less money?

“I was devastated”: Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web, has some regrets
“We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,” he told me. The increasing centralization of the Web, he says, has “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

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“Tim and Vint made the system so that there could be many players that didn’t have an advantage over each other.” Berners-Lee, too, remembers the quixotism of the era. “The spirit there was very decentralized. The individual was incredibly empowered. It was all based on there being no central authority that you had to go to to ask permission,” he said. “That feeling of individual control, that empowerment, is something we’ve lost.”

That’s it in a nutshell, for me. The web just isn’t the same as it was at the beginning.

The power of the Web wasn’t taken or stolen. We, collectively, by the billions, gave it away with every signed user agreement and intimate moment shared with technology. Facebook, Google, and Amazon now monopolize almost everything that happens online, from what we buy to the news we read to who we like. Along with a handful of powerful government agencies, they are able to monitor, manipulate, and spy in once unimaginable ways.

Tim Wu is a law professor and ‘influential tech thinker’. Here’s his take on what went wrong.

Tim Wu: ‘The internet is like the classic story of the party that went sour’
Looking back at the 00s, the great mistake of the web’s idealists was a near-total failure to create institutions designed to preserve that which was good about the web (its openness, its room for a diversity of voices and its earnest amateurism), and to ward off that which was bad (the trolling, the clickbait, the demands of excessive and intrusive advertising, the security breaches). There was too much faith that everything would take care of itself – that “netizens” were different, that the culture of the web was intrinsically better. Unfortunately, that excessive faith in web culture left a void, one that became filled by the lowest forms of human conduct and the basest norms of commerce. It really was just like the classic story of the party that went sour.

The Guardian certainly likes to report on versions of this story, but only in November and March, it seems.

Tech giants may have to be broken up, says Tim Berners-Lee
Web inventor says Silicon Valley firms have too much clout and ‘optimism has cracked’ [November 2018]

Tim Berners-Lee: we must regulate tech firms to prevent ‘weaponised’ web
The inventor of the world wide web warns over concentration of power among a few companies ‘controlling which ideas are shared’ [March 2018]

Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the web: ‘The system is failing’
The inventor of the world wide web remains an optimist but sees a ‘nasty wind’ blowing amid concerns over advertising, net neutrality and fake news [November 2017]

Tim Berners-Lee: I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it
It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone [March 2017]

Lines of flight

Spanish photographer Xavi Bou has created some incredible images of birds in flight, layering thousands of shots to capture their movements and patterns.

Unseen movements: multi-shot photography captures the complex trails of birds
Bou’s ‘Ornitographies’ series arises from his interest in “questioning the limits of human perception,” combining simple observation of bird behavior from the ground with photography to see what our eyes can’t show us. He takes inspiration from chronophotography, a Victorian technique capturing movement in a series of frames for the purpose of scientific study. Bou’s focus on the birds is less about science and more about the grace of their movements and their unintentional creativity.

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These are such wonderful pictures. It’s a shame, though, that we’ll never see anything like this with our own eyes. Mumurations might come close, I guess.

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There are many more on his project website.

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Are we doing the right thing?

As a parent of teenagers, I worry about this topic a lot.

What do we actually know about the risks of screen time and digital media?
The lumping of everything digital into a monolith is a framing that makes Oxford Internet Institute psychologist Andrew Przybylski groan. “We don’t talk about food time,” he points out. “We don’t talk about paper time. But we do talk about screen time.” […]

The new series of papers includes a look at childhood screen use and ADHD, the effects of media multitasking on attention, and the link between violent video games and aggression. The separate papers are a good reminder that these are really separate issues; even if screen time ends up being problematic in one area, it doesn’t mean it can’t have a positive effect in another.

Nothing’s ever straightfoward, is it? Like its conclusion, for instance.

So, is digital media a concern for developing minds? There’s no simple answer, in part because the uses of media are too varied for the question to really be coherent. And, while some research results seem robust, the catalogue of open questions is dizzying. Answering some of those questions needs not just a leap in research quality, but, argues Przybylski, a reframing of the question away from the way we think about tobacco and toward the way we think about information: “What are the most effective strategies parents can employ to empower young people to be proactive and critical users of technology?”

Others have firmly made up their minds, however.

A dark consensus about screens and kids begins to emerge in Silicon Valley
For longtime tech leaders, watching how the tools they built affect their children has felt like a reckoning on their life and work. Among those is Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company. He is also the founder of GeekDad.com. “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Mr. Anderson said of screens.

Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Paintings, ridiculous and sublime

The art world is such a strange place.

Artist ‘astounded’ to see his Trump painting hung in the White House
Thomas knew Trump had received the painting as a gift – from a Republican congressman who was already a fan of the artist – because the president had recently called to congratulate him. But he only found out the painting had been hung in the White House – close to the Oval Office – when it popped up as a backdrop during a TV interview broadcast on Sunday evening.

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We’re ‘astounded’ too – why would anyone paint such a horrible thing, even with its incredibly subtle feminist message? Where are the Old Masters when you need them?

Ah, here’s one. I think. Remember that incredibly expensive Da Vinci painting I mentioned earlier, the one with its own instagram account? Well, it looks a little different now to when it was sold for nearly half a billion dollars.

The Da Vinci mystery: why is his $450m masterpiece really being kept under wraps?
It was Martin Clayton, curator of Leonardo’s drawings at the Royal Library in Windsor Castle, who suggested I check out Campbell’s post and drew my attention to the startling differences between the painting after it was cleaned and its appearance now. “Photographs seem to show that, before it was touched up, it was all Leonardo,” he says. “They show the painting mid-restoration – and it looks as if the subsequent retouching has obscured the quality of the face.” Clayton is not questioning the painting’s authenticity. He’s suggesting that a very pure Leonardo has been partly “obscured”.

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This is how it was described in 2011. Not too flatteringly.

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery – the greatest show of the year?
For a long time it was assumed that Leonardo had painted a Saviour of the World, or Salvator Mundi, but that the painting was lost, and all that survived were later engravings and dubious copies, including the newly restored head of Christ here. New research published this summer has now identified this as an authentic Leonardo. Or at least some of it. Maybe. What a difficult painting this is to like, let alone to be affected by. Jesus has the glazed look of someone stoned. You can imagine the raised fingers holding a spliff. Once imagined, the image won’t go away.

That Guardian article links to this one from the Mail.

Leonardo Da Vinci: Is long-lost £120m Salvator Mundi painting authentic?
A person close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York who asked not to be identified said: ‘The painting was forgotten for years. When it turned up at auction, Simon thought it was worth taking a gamble. It had been heavily overpainted, which makes it look like a copy. It was a wreck, dark and gloomy. It had been cleaned many times in the past by people who didn’t know better. Once a restorer put artificial resin on it, which had turned grey and had to be removed painstakingly. When they took off the overpaint, what was revealed was the original paint. You saw incredibly delicate painting. All agree it was painted by Leonardo.’

I hate linking to the Mail, but I felt I must because of these two images on that article. What a journey that painting’s been on.

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A modern take on spirit photography

Those spirit photographs I mentioned just after Halloween? It seems AI is having a go at those, too.

An artificial intelligence populated these photos with glitchy humanoid ghosts
Two of the MIT researchers behind the provocative Deep Angel project, an algorithm that digitally erases objects from photos, have now delivered a strange and beautiful system to “conjure phantasms into being.” According to the project developers Matt Groh and Ziv Epstein, the phantasmagoric AI Spirits manifested by their code are meant to “commemorate those missing via algorithmic omission.”

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A job for life, when you’re dead

Here’s an interesting (read, ghoulish) article to accompany the one about crash test dummies from earlier.

How dead bodies save lives every day on the road
But to get the really good data, they had to push past the limits of human endurance. And since it was illegal to kill a grad student—yes, even back then—that meant getting access to some dead bodies. […]

Bodies were slammed, smashed and thrown from deceleration sleds by grateful grad students who were no longer subjected to the same tests themselves. At testing’s height in 1966, cadavers were used once a month. The data they gathered was used to write the “Wayne State Tolerance Curve,” still used to this day to calculate the amount of force required to cause head injuries in a car crash. […]

These days, only a couple of cadavers a year are used in testing at Wayne State, but they are still needed to perfect the next generation of crash test dummy. A lot more industry-wide effort is now put into preventing crashes in the first place—think automatic braking and lane change warning lights—rather than keeping car occupants safe. But the need for human bodies still occasionally arises.

Should have posted this yesterday

A little late, but better late than never.

The spirit photographs of William Hope
Known as “spirit photographs”, they were taken by a controversial medium called William Hope. Born in 1863 in Crewe, Hope started his working life as a carpenter, but in 1905 became interested in spirit photography after capturing the supposed image of a ghost while photographing a friend. He went on to found and lead a group of six spirit photographers known as the Crewe Circle. Following World War I, support for the group, and demand for its services, grew as the grieving relatives of those lost to the war sought a means of contacting their loved ones.

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He was later exposed as a fraudster, but could count Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of his supporters, so there you go.

What can a linguist learn from a gravestone?
The key running theme of gravestone inscriptions is that they are for the living, and even for a more specific task: they reaffirm and reiterate membership in a group, and the beliefs that are part of the culture of that group. This does not necessarily mean that they are particularly informative about the life of the specific deceased, but they are full of useful, sometimes subtle cues about the community the deceased belonged to, and what they valued.

And what movies they liked?

The Mummy: the story of the world’s most expensive movie poster
Auction house Sotheby’s is currently accepting bids for one of three remaining original posters of 1932’s The Mummy. It is expected to sell for somewhere between $1-1.5m, making it the world’s most expensive movie poster. It’s a scary amount of money.

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I’m sure audiences at the time would have been terrified by that film, but could we say the same about this one, from Méliès? I don’t think so.

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)
Short film by Georges Méliès, released through his Star Film Company, featuring demons, flames, spectres, and a brilliant array of the film-maker’s usual arsenal of tricks. As Wikipdia sums up: “In a Renaissance chamber decorated with devilish faces and a warped coat of arms, a gleeful Satan throws three human victims into a cauldron, which spews out flames. The victims rise from the cauldron as nebulous ghosts, and then turn into fireballs. The fireballs multiply and pursue Satan around the chamber. Finally Satan himself leaps into the infernal cauldron, which gives off a final burst of flame.” Enjoy!

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And I can’t imagine this scaring anyone either. Sounds good, though.

Silly Symphony – the skeleton dance 1929 disney short

So let’s end with an exploration of that devil’s interval, and how it moved from the Classical and Romantic eras into the mainstream.

Spooky music
During the 19th century, composers like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner cracked the code of creepiness. The sonic dread they pioneered involved two key ingredients that horror movies and metal bands still use today: a forbidden sequence of notes known as “Satan in music,” and a spooky little ditty that Gregorian monks sang about the apocalypse.

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A new moon?

I can’t help but think this comes under the ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’ heading.

Chinese city to replace street lights with orbiting artificial moon by 2020
Within two years, the city of Chengdu aims to swap out its ground-based street lighting with the soft glow of an artificial moon, casting light across 50 square miles of the urban landscape. […]

Reflective panels on board the machine will pick up and redirect the sun’s rays. The satellite will actually glow multiple times brighter than the moon itself, creating a dusk-like atmosphere on demand. The precise illumination can be varied in different sections of the city as well.

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I’m sure it’s very technically impressive and will put Chengdu on the map, but…

A Chinese company has plans for an artificial moon to replace streetlights
Meanwhile, other groups are trying to make the world dark again. A 2016 study showed that more than 80% of the world, and 99% of people in the US and Europe, live in “light-polluted” areas, where the sky’s natural glow has been altered by artificial light from buildings and street lamps. Entire cities, like Flagstaff, Arizona and Ketchum, Idaho, are actively working to reduce light emissions at night. Both are certified “dark sky communities” by a group called the International Dark Sky Association, which offers dark sky designations to towns, parks, reserves, sanctuaries, and other places actively working towards a “more natural night sky.”

I remember first reading about dark sky initiatives when we went to the Kielder Observatory, within the Northumberland Dark Sky Park. This fake moon does seem to be a move in the wrong direction.

Trying not to crash out

Crash test dummies. We all know how they’re used, but where do they come from? (Not the Canadian ones.)

Here’s what purports to be a look at how society’s expanding girth is affecting model manufacture. But really it’s more an exploration of the strained economics within this singular industry.

Crash-test dummies are getting fatter because we are, too
The business of making and selling crash dummies is odd, and not only because it involves faceless mannequins acting as proxies for the mangled and the dead. Dummy makers spend years and millions of dollars developing products that customers profess to admire but decline to buy. Vehicles and drivers have changed dramatically, but the model of dummy used in many government-required crash tests has been around for four decades. The industry sells a mere 200 to 250 dummies in a decent year and generated $111 million in revenue globally in 2016, according to market-research company Technavio. 

[…]

There are good reasons to use dummies like this. Millions more elderly drivers are on the road now that the baby-boom generation has entered its 70s. They tend to have bigger waists and additional thigh fat, which can allow a seat belt to slide above the pelvis to the soft tissue covering organs. To create a dummy that addresses those issues, Humanetics has spent six years and more than $2 million. “This is our halo dummy, our Corvette,” Beebe says, gesturing to the grandma stand-in. But the company has yet to sell a single one. “We’ve seen some car companies say, ‘We like it,’ but nobody has said, ‘We want to buy one,’ ” O’Connor says.

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It’s getting crowded up there

The Economist has a very effective, scrolling infographic on the changing pattern of states and companies that are filling up our skies.

The space race is dominated by new contenders
Some 4,500 satellites circle Earth, providing communications services and navigational tools, monitoring weather, observing the universe, spying and doing more besides. Getting them there was once the business of the superpowers’ armed forces and space agencies. Now it is mostly done by companies and the governments of developing countries.

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In the past decade the West’s space-launch market has become more competitive thanks to an innovative new entrant, SpaceX. But state-run programmes still lead the way in emerging markets. In 2003 China became the third country to put a person into orbit; India plans to follow suit in 2022. Both sell launch services to private clients. China did legalise private space flight in 2014, but no companies based there have yet reached orbit on their own.

But looking at this, you wonder if there’s any space left up there.

A beehive of satellites
The launch of the first artificial satellite by the then Soviet Union in 1957 marked the beginning of the utilization of space for science and commercial activity. During the Cold War, space was a prime area of competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S.

In 1964 the first TV satellite was launched into a geostationary orbit to transmit the Olympic games from Tokyo. Later, Russian launch activities declined while other nations set up their own space programs. Thus, the number of objects in Earth orbit has increased steadily – by 200 per year on average.

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The debris objects shown in the images are an artist’s impression based on actual density data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown.

Thanks for clearing that up.

Art and AI #3

A very interesting follow-up to that story about the first artwork by an AI to be auctioned. It seems the humans behind the AI, Hugo Caselles-Dupré and the Obvious team, have had to face some considerable criticism.

The AI art at Christie’s is not what you think
Hugo Caselles-Dupré, the technical lead at Obvious, shared with me: “I’ve got to be honest with you, we have totally lost control of how the press talks about us. We are in the middle of a storm and lots of false information is released with our name on it. In fact, we are really depressed about it, because we saw that the whole community of AI art now hates us because of that. At the beginning, we just wanted to create this fun project because we love machine learning.” […]

Early on Obvious made the claim that “creativity isn’t only for humans,” implying that the machine is autonomously creating their artwork. While many articles have run with this storyline, one even crediting robots, it is not what most AI artists and AI experts in general believe to be true. Most would say that AI is augmenting artists at the moment and the description in the news is greatly exaggerated. […]

In fact, when pressed, Hugo admitted to me in our interview that this was just “clumsy communication” they made in the beginning when they didn’t think anyone was actually paying attention. […]

As we saw with Salvator Mundi last year and with the Banksy last week, the most prestigious auction houses, like museums, have the ability to elevate art and increase its value by putting it into the spotlight, shaping not only the narrative of the work, but also the narrative of art history.

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The times are a-changing … or not

Don’t forget to turn the clocks, er… wait a minuteback this weekend.

Europeans could be turning clock back for the last time
The commission has decided to act after a public survey, which drew a record 4.6 million respondents, showed overwhelming support among voters for ditching daylight saving time. European officials said the reaction from citizens was on a “massive, unprecedented scale” and that the consultation had sparked “the highest number of responses ever received.” […]

However, a report published this week from the UK’s House of Lords European Union Committee revealed that 84.6 percent of replies to the poll came from just three countries, with an overwhelming 70 percent from Germany alone, prompting accusations that the poll isn’t representative.

Politicians from northern countries, including Lithuania, Finland, Poland, and Sweden, among others, have voiced support for reform and want the clock change dropped, due to their long, dark winters. They point to evidence that altering the time can cause short-term sleeping disorders, reduced performance at work, and even serious health problems such as heart attacks.

Well, if it changes over there, it’s not likely to over here, post-Brexit and all that.

When do the clocks go back and could 2018 be the last time they change?
Changing the clocks seems set to stay in the UK. It is just over 100 years since the concept of changing the clocks was introduced by the 1916 Summer Time Act, and there doesn’t appear to be any great groundswell of opinion among British politicians about changing domestic arrangements for British summer time.

Vroom vroom

I’m sure I heard someone once describe riding one of those high-powered Japanese motorbikes as being like sitting on artillery, compared to Harley Davidson’s armchair feel. Well, with this electric bike from Germany, you can feel what it’s like to be ‘riding on top of a bazooka’.

SOL Motors Pocket Rocket Is a 50mph urban “Noped”
Making its official debut at the INTERMOT International Motorcycle Fair in Cologne, the SOL Motors Pocket Rocket’s unusual large aluminum tube design is functionally driven, encompassing the noped’s removable 220V battery power source and an internal computer compatible with both iOS and Android apps. Each end is capped by LED lights: a 6-bulb headlamp up front, and a circular array of rear brake lights and turn signals in the rear. The design is reminiscent of Vanmoof e-bicycles, sharing a similar large tubular top tube design, exaggerated even further into artillery-sized proportions.

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It’s certainly a distinctive take on the classic design. Reminds me a little of this crazy bike.

For more strange versions of this everyday object, check out this project from designer Gianluca Gimini, who asked friends and random passers by to draw a bicycle from memory. It’s harder than think.

Velocipedia, Gianluca Gimini’s bicycle, sketches and mockups
Some diversities are gender driven. Nearly 90% of drawings in which the chain is attached to the front wheel (or both to the front and the rear) were made by females. On the other hand, while men generally tend to place the chain correctly, they are more keen to over-complicate the frame when they realize they are not drawing it correctly. One of the most frequent issues for participants was not knowing exactly how to describe their job in short. The most unintelligible drawing has also the most unintelligible handwriting. It was made by a doctor.

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Medicinal museums

In a nice follow-up to those posts about art as therapy from Alain de Botton, here’s news from Canada about putting that into practice.

Doctors in Montreal will start prescribing visits to the art museum
“In the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century,” predicts Nathalie Bondil, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts director general, in the Montreal Gazette. … Now, it’s joining forces with Médecins Francophones du Canada, an association of French-speaking doctors, to allow member physicians to prescribe art. Hélène Boyer, vice president of the medical association, explained to the Gazette: “There’s more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health. It increases our level of cortisol and our level of serotonin. We secrete hormones when we visit a museum and these hormones are responsible for our well-being.”

What must they be thinking of us?

Here’s a continental perspective.

Brexit Talks: Watching a country make a fool of itself
The United Kingdom is currently demonstrating how a country can make a fool of itself before the eyes of the entire world. What was once the most powerful empire on earth is now a country that can’t even find its way to the door without tripping over its own feet. […]

Almost everyone who has a say in Brexit belongs to the British establishment, meaning they went to an outrageously expensive private school and completed their studies at Cambridge or Oxford. In this regard, too, we have been enlightened. What in the name of God do they learn there? It certainly can’t be skills that would prepare them for the real world. Or would you trust a lawyer who regularly shows up to negotiations so completely unprepared that they have to be broken off again after just a few minutes?

Mystery man

I love this little piece from the Futility Closet blog, on a character in James Joyce’s Ulysses that Bloom can’t quite place.

Mostly cloudy
He turns up again later: “In Lower Mount street a pedestrian in a brown macintosh, eating dry bread, passed swiftly and unscathed across the viceroy’s path.”

And still later: “A man in a brown macintosh springs up through a trapdoor.”

Altogether the mysterious man is mentioned 11 times in the novel. In the Cyclops episode we’re told, “The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead,” and in Ithaca, a catechism of questions and answers, we’re asked, “What selfinvolved enigma did Bloom risen, going, gathering multicoloured multiform multitudinous garments, voluntarily apprehending, not comprehend? Who was M’Intosh?”

Thankfully, Vladimir Nabokov puts us out of our misery. Possibly.

IRC is 30 years old

I was never really nerdy enough to properly join in with this at the time, but it’s an interesting stroll down memory lane nevertheless.

On its 30th anniversary, IRC evokes memories of the internet’s early days
I used IRC in the early 1990s, when there were all kinds of fun things to do. There was a server with a bot that played Boggle. I was the know-it-all music snob who got kicked out of a chat channel someone set up at Woodstock ’94. I created keyboard macros that spewed out ASCII art. I skipped Mike Tyson’s pay-per-view boxing match in 2006 to watch someone describe it on IRC.

<jon12345> lewis connects again
<jon12345> arg
<jon12345> on the ropes
<CaZtRo> HES GOIN DOWN
<CaZtRo> tyson is DOWN
<DaNNe_> no!
<CaZtRo> DOWN DOWN DOWN
<DaNNe_> why ..

Internet Relay Chat turns 30—and we remember how it changed our lives
There was a moment of silence, and then something odd happened. The channel went blank. The list of users disappeared, and NetCruiser politely played the Windows alert chime through the speakers. At the bottom of the IRC window, a new message now stood alone:

“You have been kicked from channel #descent for the following reason: fuck off newbie”

I guess the Internet of 1995 wasn’t that different from the Internet of 2018.

Amateur art thieves

I’m not really one for true crime stories, but this one’s too strange to pass by.

The great Rikers Island art heist
For forty years, an original Salvador Dalí painting went unnoticed inside New York City’s massive jail complex. Then a gang of thieves decided it might be worth something.

It’s a great story but I don’t think this one will get the Hollywood treatment. We’re not talking Ocean’s Eleven here.

After the drill began and the jail’s lobby was deserted, the thieves got to work. One stood watch. Another slipped off the painting case’s locks. The third kept tabs on the fire drill’s progress. Within a few minutes, a replica of the Dalí hung in its place. The substitute was far from a perfect match, and the thief standing guard wasn’t convinced. “That looks ridiculous,” he said.

A few hours later, in the early morning, two prison guards stationed next to the jail’s lobby noticed that something about the painting was off. It seemed markedly smaller, and in place of its carved mahogany wood frame, a brown frame had been painted around the edge of the canvas. A fake.

They painted the frame onto the canvas? Turned out to be an inside job.

No going back

As a photography student in the 1970s, Edward Burtynsky was told to find “evidence of man”. He’s still at it, creating what could be called quite a depressing collection of photographs, though this Wired journalist sees them more positively.

The devastating environmental impact of human progress like you’ve never seen it before
By and large, Burtynsky is still at work on that first-year assignment, only now he uses better cameras and criss-crosses the globe. His images are vast and uncanny landscapes of quarries, mines, solar plants, trash piles, deforestation and sprawl – pictures of depletion and desecration that are testament to the collective impact of humankind. Yet Burtynsky’s photos are not depressing. They are reverential and painterly, capturing gargantuan industrial processes in fine detail.

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There are many more of his extraordinary photos on this article from the BBC.

Striking photos of human scars on Earth
“Most people would walk by a dump pile and assume that there’s no picture there,” Burtynsky has said. “But there’s always a picture, you just have to go in there and find it.” One of his famous sequences depicts mountains of discarded tires in California. Another shows mountains of poached ivory being burnt. Waves of rock curve into an unsettling symmetry in his photo of Chuquicamata, one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. There is dark irony in his radically anti-idyllic view of the world.

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And on a similar theme, some more remarkable images of the impact we have on our environment, from a slightly higher perspective.

These stunning satellite images show how growing cities change the planet
In a satellite image of Las Vegas in 1976, the city still looks relatively small. By 2015, after the population had grown more than six times, another image shows the sprawl of streets, houses, and golf courses into the surrounding desert. In a new book of stunning images of cities shown from above, the picture of Vegas is cropped to include nearby Lake Mead, its primary water source. “You actually see Lake Mead retreat and the city grow,” says Meredith Reba.

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Strange moves

A couple of music videos that have caught my eye recently.

Little Big – Skibidi

No idea. Psy meets Begbie?

Loyle Carner – Ottolenghi

Here’s some more on the making of that.

Oscar Hudson reveals (some) of the secrets behind his video for Loyle Carner
Set on a train, which looks like a classic (unreliable) Southern or South Eastern network model from the seat pattern, Ottolenghi switches from VHS footage filmed by Ben (Loyle Carner) on a real train before switching to a set built in a studio. The beginnings of the video developed from a “super simple” idea of Ben’s: he would fall asleep on a real train journey, and then “start to dream a train journey,” Oscar explains. “I wanted to do something that ‘woozed’ back and forth between dream and reality where details from real life get amplified and warped in the dream.”

Understanding EAL students’ backgrounds

A teacher at the school I work at shared these news reports from the last couple of weeks, to give us an insight into the background of some of our EAL students; what they may have experienced in their countries and why they may have come here. I thought I’d share them here too.

Far right in Czech Republic: the politicians turning on Roma
Hostility towards Roma people is so ingrained in Czech political life, the country’s president recently called them “work shy”, and in this weekend’s Czech municipal elections some politicians are openly stirring up virulent anti-Roma sentiment.

I know one should never read YouTube comments, but the majority under that video make for difficult reading.

‘It’s just slavery’: Eritrean conscripts wait in vain for freedom
With their hopes dashed that peace with Ethiopia would bring an end to national service, young Eritreans must either accept a life of forced labour or flee.

A dark side

Stephen Shames’ best photograph: Robert Kennedy in his final days
There are clear parallels for me with what’s happening right now. Most 21 year olds are idealistic. Everyone grows up a patriot. You’re in school, you salute the flag, you read the sanitised history in your textbooks. Then there’s a polarising moment like this that shoves you into the real world.

In the US, beyond the election of Trump, which was a fluke, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the supreme court is one such moment. Young people here having their eyes opened. They are realising there’s a dark side to the United States. Their idealism is being shaved away.

Cutting out distractions

Do you get easily distracted?

Screen blocking glasses
IRL Glasses are the answer to screen overload and digital fatigue, putting people back in the driver’s seat to control when and how they interact with screens. Wearing IRL Glasses makes screens that are “on” look like they are “off.”

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Or perhaps you’re looking for something for the office?

Open offices have driven Panasonic to make horse blinders for humans
At what point do we just give up and admit we’re living in exactly the dystopian nightmare speculative fiction warned us about? It probably ought to be these horse blinders for people, which look like something straight out of a Terry Gilliam movie.

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Or how about something more … Halloweeny?

This vintage anti-distraction helmet looks like a creepy horror show prop
Distractions are all around us, whether it’s ambient noise or the colorful items around you, and it’s sometimes extremely difficult to concentrate on the task you need to finish. A 1920’s anti-distraction helmet, known as the Isolator, was invented to address this issue.

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Hard work being lazy

Two articles on some recently published books which I thought worked well together.

What we do: The evolution of work
Much of Komlosy’s writing about the evolving understanding of labor is illustrated with excellent examples of linguistic differences. Across European languages, she points out, there exists a structural distinction roughly equivalent to what we’d recognize in English as that between “labor” and “work”—the former traditionally more toilsome, the latter signifying not just effort but also the redemption of a realized product. German makes the split between arbeit and werk; French, between travail and oeuvre. In one telling etymology, she points out that travail (and its Spanish and Portuguese cousins, trabajo and trabalho) comes from the Latin tripalium, a three-pronged stake used to torture slaves in ancient Rome. Oeuvre, on the other hand, along with the Latin opus and the Italian opera, speaks for itself.

Idleness as flourishing
It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.” This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time.

Nothing positive about Brexit

The further we go with this, the more intractable and stupid it all seems.

The hole where the Brexit deal should be
The great sticking point—around the Irish border—has always been there. Since the Brexit negotiations began, in the summer of 2017, they have been vexed by the logical need to create a border between Ireland (a member of the E.U.) and Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom), and the political need not to have a border, in order to protect the island’s peace process. Squaring this circle would be hard enough under any circumstances, but, to pass legislation, May’s government relies on the ten members of Parliament who belong to the hard-line, pro-union Democratic Unionist Party. Any solution to “the Irish backstop,” as it is known, is likely to involve Northern Ireland staying more or less within the E.U.’s structures, while the rest of the U.K. takes a step away. This is a no-go for the D.U.P.

Brexit: a cry from the Irish border
‘Jacob Rees-Mogg you’re right. You don’t need to visit the border… you need to have lived here.’ Belfast-born actor Stephen Rea explores the real impact of Brexit and the uncertainty of the future of the Irish border in a short film written by Clare Dwyer Hogg.

John Major: I have made no false promises on Brexit – I’m free to tell you the truth
I understand the motives of those who voted to leave the European Union: it can – as I well know – be very frustrating. Nonetheless, after weighing its frustrations and opportunities, there is no doubt in my own mind that our decision is a colossal misjudgment that will diminish both the UK and the EU. It will damage our national and personal wealth, and may seriously hamper our future security. It may even, over time, break up our United Kingdom. It will most definitely limit the prospects of our young.

And – once this becomes clear – I believe those who promised what will never be delivered will have much to answer for. They persuaded a deceived population to vote to be weaker and poorer. That will never be forgotten – nor forgiven. […]

None of the mainstream political parties is in a healthy condition. Both the Conservatives and Labour face pressure from fringe opinion within their own membership. My fear is that the extremes of right and left will widen divisions and refuse to compromise, whereas more moderate opinion will often seek common ground. The risk of intransigence – “my way or no way” – is that the mainstream parties will be dragged further right and further left.

Our nation should not tolerate the unreasoning antipathy of the extremes – to the EU, to foreigners or to minority groups. Such antipathy is repellent, and diminishes us as a nation. Softer, more reasonable voices should not be drowned out by the raucous din of the loudest.

Straightforward data science intro

This looks to be an interesting response to the call to be more data literate. Via Flowing Data, a straightforward and potentially free way to get skilled up with R, without needing to install any software, it seems.

Chromebook Data Science – a free online data science program for anyone with a web browser
The reason they are called Chromebook Data Science is because philosophically our goal was that anyone with a Chromebook could do the courses. All you need is a web browser and an internet connection. The courses all take advantage of RStudio Cloud so that all course work can be completed entirely in a web browser. No need to install software or have the latest MacBook Computer.

Here’s some info on what the courses cover, including introductions to R and GitHub. Worth a look?

Is Instagram doing enough to stop bullying?

Instagram are rolling out some new mechanisms to reduce bullying, including comment filters and a new camera effect to promote kindness.

New tools to limit bullying and spread kindness on Instagram
While the majority of photos shared on Instagram are positive and bring people joy, occasionally a photo is shared that is unkind or unwelcome. We are now using machine learning technology to proactively detect bullying in photos and their captions and send them to our Community Operations team to review.

But is it enough? As a parent of teenagers (or for anyone really), this article from The Atlantic makes for depressing reading.

Teens are being bullied ‘constantly’ on Instagram
Teenagers have always been cruel to one another. But Instagram provides a uniquely powerful set of tools to do so. The velocity and size of the distribution mechanism allow rude comments or harassing images to go viral within hours. Like Twitter, Instagram makes it easy to set up new, anonymous profiles, which can be used specifically for trolling. Most importantly, many interactions on the app are hidden from the watchful eyes of parents and teachers, many of whom don’t understand the platform’s intricacies. […]

Sometimes teens, many of whom run several Instagram accounts, will take an old page with a high amount of followers and transform it into a hate page to turn it against someone they don’t like. “One girl took a former meme page that was over 15,000 followers, took screencaps from my Story, and Photoshopped my nose bigger and posted it, tagging me being like, ‘Hey guys, this is my new account,’” Annie said. “I had to send a formal cease and desist. I went to one of those lawyer websites and just filled it out. Then she did the same thing to my friend.” […]

Aside from hate pages, teens say most bullying takes place over direct message, Instagram Stories, or in the comments section of friends’ photos. “Instagram won’t delete a person’s account unless it’s clear bullying on their main feed,” said Hadley, a 14-year-old, “and, like, no one is going to do that. It’s over DM and in comment sections.”

Pages from the Book of Life

Have you read anything of the Book of Life yet? You should, it’s the nearest we humans get to a user guide. Here’s a little of what was in the newsletter this week.

How to be comfortable on your own in public
Eating alone in public can be one of the great hurdles of psychological life. It can be an exceptional trial because it forces us to wrestle with a set of thoughts that, for most of our lives, we successfully push to the back of consciousness: that we are in essence an unacceptable being, tainted from birth, an object of quiet ridicule or open mockery.

How to stop worrying whether or not they like you
One of the most acute questions we ask ourselves in relation to new friends and acquaintances is whether or not they like us. The question feels so significant because, depending on how we answer it in our minds, we will either take steps to deepen the friendship or, as is often the case, immediately make moves to withdraw from it so as to spare ourselves humiliation and embarrassment.

What to do at parties if you hate small talk
A lot of discomfort about going to social engagements is rooted in what can sound like a rather high-minded concern: a hatred of small talk. We can develop a dread of parties because we know how likely we are to end up wedged into conversations about the weather, parking, traffic or the way we plan to spend the forthcoming holidays – when there would be so many deeper and more dignified topics to address.

It’s from the School of Life, an organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence by applying psychology, philosophy, and culture to everyday life.

It was founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now, after having read books like The Consolations of Philosophy (which became Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness), How Proust Can Change Your Life (which he discusses here), and Status Anxiety (which was made into a documentary).

I’ve finally got round to reading his Art as Therapy book, after having linked to that before on here, some years back.

Alain de Botton on Art as Therapy

Not to be confused with art therapy, of course. Here’s a piece about that, if you’re interested.

Art therapy gives patients a voice when there are no words
Always in any kind of therapy I think we are looking for a an act of communication, the smallest act of connection. There is a wonderful book by Martina Thomson, an art therapist, called On Art and Therapy: An Exploration and she talks about art therapy being like ‘feeding birds’ you want to be very quiet and allow the client to feel able to come towards you in some way. It is a delicate thing. You are not firing questions and needing answers. You are being together. Therapy is often seen as something for psychologically-minded people, or those of a certain class. For those with complex trauma for example, there might not be words to express the depth of what they have been through. Art can give them a voice.

Excel’s getting interesting. No, really

News that Excel will soon be expanding its range of data types, enabling a much richer and more dynamic experience.

Excel Data Types
AI powered Excel Data Types will transform the way we work with Excel by enabling a cell to contain much more than text, numbers or formulas.

There are currently two Excel data types available to Office 365 users; Stocks and Geography. Let’s start with the Geography Data Type that can take a table of countries and return rich data that can be referenced in Excel formulas and expand into further columns.

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Mynda takes us through many other examples of how these new data types can be used and referenced in our spreadsheets. And it seems like this is just the beginning.

The Excel team have big plans for Data Types with more coming, including the ability to create your own data types unique to your organisation. Imagine data types for Employees, Products, Stores, Regions… the list is endless.

Beautiful libraries, inside and out

Libraries are remarkable buildings.

Experience the beauty of libraries around the world through this instagram series
Over the past two years, Savoie has traveled from his home city of Montréal, to Berlin, Amsterdam, Budapest, Rome, Riga, Paris, Moscow, and several other cities photographing the stunning architecture of libraries. Encountering language barriers and even intense security, Savoie’s dedication to taking the perfect photo has resulted in a stunning collection of images.

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The world’s most beautiful libraries
In a new Taschen book, the Italian photographer Massimo Listri travels around the world to some of the oldest libraries, revealing a treasure trove of unique and imaginative architecture.

But, of course, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Every library has a story to tell
But whatever form a library takes, someone had to have chosen the books in it, which reveal the secrets of heart and mind—their cares, their greeds, their enthusiasms, their obsessions.

‘Spectacular’ ancient public library discovered in Germany
It is not clear how many scrolls the library would have held, but it would have been “quite huge – maybe 20,000”, said Schmitz. The building would have been slightly smaller than the famed library at Ephesus, which was built in 117 AD. He described the discovery as “really incredible – a spectacular find”.

The secret libraries of history
“The new technique is amazing in that it shows us fragments – medieval text – that we could otherwise never see because they are hidden behind a layer of parchment or paper,” wrote Kwakkel in a blog post about his Hidden Library project. While the technology needs to be improved, it hints at a process that could reveal a secret library within a library. “We might be able to access a hidden medieval ‘library’ if we were able to gain access to the thousands of manuscript fragments hidden in bindings.”

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Watch Umberto Eco walk through his immense private library: it goes on, and on, and on!
We can only imagine how many such citadels of knowledge Eco visited in his travels all over the world, but we don’t have to imagine the one he built himself, since we can see it in the video above. Though not infinite like the library of all possible books imagined by Borges, Eco’s private home library looks, from certain angles, nearly as big. The camera follows Eco as he passes shelf after packed shelf, some lining the walls and others standing free, eventually finding his way to one volume in particular — despite the fact that he apparently shelved very few of his books with their spines facing outward.

(That last line about his books not facing outwards? Reminded me of this post from a couple of months back.)

“Reduced”?

Have I just been insulted by the head of Ofsted?

Spielman: Teachers ‘reduced to data managers’
Teachers have been reduced to “data managers” instead of “experts in their field”, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman will argue today. “I don’t know a single teacher who went into teaching to get the perfect Progress 8 score (a measure of pupil progress),” she will tell a schools conference in Newcastle this morning.

I see her point, though that’s unfortunate paraphrasing from TES. The Guardian’s version, after the speech actually took place, also has the line ‘reduced teachers to the status of “data managers”.’

Here’s the full, less patronising, quote, with no reduction to be seen.

Amanda Spielman speech to the SCHOOLS NorthEast summit
The bottom line is that we must make sure that we, as an inspectorate, complement rather than intensify performance data, because our curriculum research and a vast amount of sector feedback have told us that a focus on performance data is coming at the expense of what is taught in schools.

A new focus on substance should change that, bringing the inspection conversation back to the substance of young people’s learning and treating teachers like the experts in their field, not just data managers. I don’t know a single teacher who went into teaching to get the perfect progress 8 score. They go into it because they love what they teach and want children to love it too. That is where the inspection conversation should start and with the new framework, we have an opportunity to do just that.

And here’s another write-up, that doesn’t mention us data managers at all.

Spielman: Focus on substance over outcomes will help tackle workload
The chief inspector said she did not think there was an “appetite to revive the inspection model of 20 years ago”, but that the new framework, which will come into effect next September, will build on some of the “strengths” of the current system, “especially letting leaders tell their own story”.

“I also want to rebalance inspector time usage so that more time is spent on site, having those professional conversations with leaders and teachers, with less time away from schools and colleges in pre and post-inspection activity.”

Google+, we hardly knew ye

I admit, I did use this for a while, but I’m as surprised as others to learn that Google+ made it this far. ( I still miss Google Reader.)

The death of Google+ is imminent, says Google
Google’s decision follows the Wall Street Journal’s revelation. also published on Oct. 8, that the company exposed hundreds of thousands of Google+ users’ data earlier this year, and opted to keep it a secret:

A software glitch in the social site gave outside developers potential access to private Google+ profile data between 2015 and March 2018, when internal investigators discovered and fixed the issue, according to the documents and people briefed on the incident. A memo reviewed by the Journal prepared by Google’s legal and policy staff and shared with senior executives warned that disclosing the incident would likely trigger “immediate regulatory interest” and invite comparisons to Facebook’s leak of user information to data firm Cambridge Analytica.

That doesn’t make them look good, does it? But then, should we be surprised anymore?

Maps for who we are, not just where we are

Here’s an interesting short documentary, via Aeon, on a project to make maps that bring an indigenous voice and perspective back to the land.

Native cartography: a bold mapmaking project that challenges Western notions of place
Maps have been used not only to encroach on Native Americans lands, but to diminish their cultures as well. With every Spanish, French or English placename that eclipses a Native one, a European narrative of place and space becomes further entrenched. In an effort to help reclaim his region for his people, Jim Enote, a Zuni farmer and the director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in New Mexico, has organised a unique project intended to help bring indigenous narratives back to the land.

Counter Mapping

Maps remind us who we are, not just where we are. As he says in the documentary, “More lands have been lost to Native peoples probably through mapping than through physical conflict.”

Here are some other things I’ve found that show how important maps and names are. And if you’re wanting more idiosyncratic local history, there’s this from Atlas Obscura.

The cowboy cartographer who loved California
In final form, the maps are flamboyant and dense, giving an impression of near-limitless detail. “They’re almost like books,” says Hiller. “You look at a part of them and set it aside, and then come back the next day and look at a different part.” When he’s done exhibitions of Mora’s work, he adds, the maps in particular are “like magnets … People just get totally absorbed in looking at them.”

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Banksy backfires?

At first glance it looks like our plucky artist-as-vigilante-hero puts one over on the avaricious art world.

Banksy auction stunt leaves art world in shreds
Banksy has played what could be one of the most audacious stunts in art history, arranging for one of his best-known works to self-destruct after being sold at auction for just over £1m. […] Shortly after the hammer came down on the item, however, the canvas began to pass through a shredder installed in the frame.

Banksy publishes video detailing auction stunt plan

But this comment further down the article from the founder of MyArtBroker.com puts a different spin on it.

“The auction result will only propel this further and given the media attention this stunt has received, the lucky buyer would see a great return on the £1.02m they paid last night.

“This is now part of art history in its shredded state and we’d estimate Banksy has added at a minimum 50% to its value, possibly as high as being worth £2m plus.”

The house always wins.

Update 12/10/2018: I enjoyed reading this exploration into what Banksy and Sotherby’s were up to.

Myth busting Banksy
I believe that while Sotheby’s was likely not fully aware of what was going to happen, they had a suspicion that something was up and played along for the sake of theater. To minimize the disruption, they put the Banksy work last, but until the shredded work scrolled out the bottom of the frame, the exact nature of the prank was not clear to them. I suspect that Sotheby’s knowledge was limited to knowing something harmless was up that potentially could benefit them as a PR stunt.

It would be analogous to Banksy holding a giant sign with tape on it and Sotheby’s noticing this and graciously winking and turning around so it could be placed on their back. Sotheby’s then acted surprised when others pointed out that the sign read “kick me” and claimed to have been “Banksy’d” and then soaked up the press.

And this raised a smile too.

Please don’t shred your own Banksy print unless you want it to be worth £1
Unfortunately, this is a warning that has already been given but apparently ignored. On October 6th, online art auction platform MyArtBroker tweeted it had “a number of #Banksy print owners contact us today asking if they shred their artwork will it be worth more.” Two days later MyArtBroker claimed someone did just that — shredded a limited edition “Girl with Balloon” print in order to try and raise the value of the work.

Time for a drink?

We’re used to the idea of pairing the right wine with the right meal. But with the right watch?

Analog Watch Co. designs a watch with wine-dyed cork bands
When you think of wristwatches, your mind probably doesn’t go to wine, but that will change after taking a look at The Somm Collection. Designed by Analog Watch Co., the same brand that created watches out of wood, marble, and plants, the collection of watches feature real cork bands that were dyed with actual wine – cabernet and blueberry wine to be exact.

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Wanting something even more unique?

The Sony FES Watch U’s main function is fashion
Although Apple and Android watches permit a degree of customization, the Sony FES Watch U raises the stakes to a notable degree by allowing wearers to upload and convert nearly any image from their smartphone via a compatible Sony Closet App to crop and position into a monochromatic design that stretches from watch face all the way across the length of the straps. This bit of customization magic is all made possible thanks to the same display technology found inside the Amazon Kindle e-reader.

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Check out the accompanying video. We’re used to ridiculous watch faces, but it’s so strange seeing the strap change too.

Vision of Fashion Entertainments

Reading just isn’t a boyish habit?

An article from the Atlantic on a possible contributor to the educational gender gap in schools across the world.

Boys don’t read enough
In two of the largest studies ever conducted into the reading habits of children in the United Kingdom, Keith Topping—a professor of educational and social research at Scotland’s University of Dundee—found that boys dedicate less time than girls to processing words, that they’re more prone to skipping passages or entire sections, and that they frequently choose books that are beneath their reading levels.

But there’s nothing to say this can’t be turned around, though.

David Reilly, a psychologist and Ph.D. candidate at Australia’s Griffith University who co-authored a recent analysis on gender disparities in reading in the U.S., echoed these arguments, pointing to the stereotype that liking and excelling at reading is a feminine trait. He suggested that psychological factors—like girls’ tendency to develop self-awareness and relationship skills earlier in life than boys—could play a role in the disparity, too, while also explaining why boys often struggle to cultivate a love of reading. “Give boys the right literature, that appeals to their tastes and interests, and you can quickly see changes in reading attitudes,” he says, citing comic books as an example.

Topping suggests that schools ought to make a more concerted effort to equip their libraries with the kinds of books—like nonfiction and comic books—that boys say they’re drawn to. “The ability to read a variety of kinds of text for a variety of purposes is important for life after school,” he says.