Gleanings from the past #54 A ludicrous story is told of a great naval function which took place during the reign of the last Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie. Several American vessels were present, and they were drawn up in line to salute the Empress’s yacht as it passed. The French sailors, of course, manned the yards of their ships, and shouted ‘Vive l’Impératrice!’ The American Admiral knew that it was impossible to teach these words to his men in the time left to him, so he ordered his crew to shout ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese!’ The imperial yacht came on, and as it passed the fleet there was a mighty roar of ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese.’ And the Empress said she had never received such an ovation before.
An interactive map shows just how many roads actually lead to Rome
No one can give you exact directions to Milliarium Aureum (aka the Golden Milestone). Just a few carved marble fragments of the gilded column’s base remain in the Roman Forum, where its original location is somewhat difficult to pinpoint. But as the image above, from interactive map Roads to Rome, shows, the motto Emperor Caesar Augustus’ mighty mile marker inspired still holds true.
Amazon’s Alexa recorded private conversation and sent it to random contact
Although Amazon maintains this was a malfunction rather than proof Alexa is always listening, the company has filed patent applications in the past for functionalities that involve always listening, such as an algorithm that would analyse when people say they “love” or “bought” something. The patent included a diagram where two people have a phone conversation and were served afterwards with separate targeted advertisements.
Computers, smartphones, and “smart” devices can nearly all be hacked or commandeered. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper reported as much last year, telling the U.S. Senate that intelligence agencies might make extended use of consumer devices for government surveillance. Webcams and “other internet-connected cameras,” writes Eric Limer at Popular Mechanics, “such as security cams and high-tech baby monitors, are… notoriously insecure.” James Comey and Mark Zuckerberg both cover the cameras on their computers with tape.
An interesting but ultimately depressing essay from the LA Review of Books about the uses classical music is being put to these days.
Whereas Japanese train stations are attempting to move on undesirables by playing ugly sounds only the young can hear, in other parts of the world it’s the wonderfully uplifting (to me, anyway) music of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart that’s being used instead.
Bach at the Burger King The inspiration for the Burger King plan, a CMCBD official commented, came from the London Underground. In 2005, the metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal, recruiting Officer Johann Sebastian as the newest member of the force. […]
It is crucial to remember that the tactic does not aim to stop or even necessarily reduce crime — but to relocate it. Moreover, such mercenary measures most often target minor infractions like vandalism and loitering — crimes that damage property, not people, and usually the property of the powerful. “[B]usiness and government leaders,” Lily Hirsch observes in Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, “are seizing on classical music not as a positive moralizing force, but as a marker of space.” In a strange mutation, classical music devolves from a “universal language of mankind” reminding all people of their common humanity into a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds, telling the plebes in auditory code that “you’re not welcome here.”
So our metaphor for music’s power must change from panacea to punishment, from unifying to separating force, as its purpose slips from aesthetic or spiritual ennoblement into economic relocation. Mozart has traded in a career as doctor for the soul to become an eviction agent for the poor.
And as if that’s not bad enough, the essay goes on to examine how classical music is being further reduced by advertising and our ‘sound-bite culture’.
Extended musical forms allow the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay of motif and movement — and it is exactly this nuanced appreciation that quote-clipping nullifies. There is a two-part mechanism to extract and transplant a tune: detach a 15-second theme from a 45-minute symphony (where it functioned as an integrated part in an organic whole) and attach it to an alien subject. Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza. In sum, in the remix media ecosystem, famous compositions degenerate from serious music into decorative sound, applied like wallpaper to lay a poignant surface over banal intentions.
A quite different take on Google’s AI demo from the other day. Rather than be impressed at how clever the bots appear, because they sound like us, we should be sad at how inefficient we’ve made them, because they sound like us.
Chatbots are saints
Pichai played a recording of Duplex calling a salon to schedule a haircut. This is an informational transaction that a couple of computers could accomplish in a trivial number of microseconds — bip! bap! done! — but with a human on one end of the messaging bus, it turned into a slow-motion train wreck. Completing the transaction required 17 separate data transmissions over the course of an entire minute — an eternity in the machine world. And the human in this case was operating at pretty much peak efficiency. I won’t even tell you what happened when Duplex called a restaurant to reserve a table. You could almost hear the steam coming out of the computer’s ears.
In our arrogance, we humans like to think of natural language processing as a technique aimed at raising the intelligence of machines to the point where they’re able to converse with us. Pichai’s demo suggests the reverse is true. Natural language processing is actually a technique aimed at dumbing down computers to the point where they’re able to converse with us. Google’s great breakthrough with Duplex came in its realization that by sprinkling a few monosyllabic grunts into computer-generated speech — um, ah, mmm — you could trick a human into feeling kinship with the machine. You ace the Turing test by getting machines to speak baby-talk.
An interesting look at some of the behavioural tricks and nudges that have been designed into Japan’s train stations. The millions of commuters that move through them aren’t just helped by things like reliable trains or better signage, but by their own unconscious actions triggered by light and sound.
The amazing psychology of Japanese train stations
Compounding the stressful nature of the commute in years past was the nerve-grating tone—a harsh buzzer used to signal a train’s imminent departure. The departing train buzzer was punctuated by sharp blasts of station attendants’ whistles, as harried salarymen raced down stairs and across platforms to beat the train’s closing doors.
To calm this stressful audio environment, in 1989 the major rail operator JR East commissioned Yamaha and composer Hiroaki Ide to create hassha melodies—short, ear-pleasing jingles to replace the traditional departure buzzer.
Not all of the aural additions are as melodic, though.
To address the Japanese fear of loitering and vandalism by young riders, some train stations deploy ultrasonic deterrents—small, unobtrusive devices that emit a high-frequency tone. The particular frequency used—17 kilohertz—can generally only be heard by those under the age of 25. (Older people can’t detect such frequencies, thanks to the age-related hearing loss known as presbycusis.) These devices—the brainchild of a Welsh inventor and also used to fend off loitering teens in the U.S. and Europe—have been enthusiastically adopted in Japan.
Standing outside one of Tokyo Station’s numerous exits on a recent summer day, it was easy to see the effectiveness of this deterrent in action. Weary salarymen and aged obaachan passed under the sonic deterrent without changing pace. Among uniform-clad students, however, the reactions were evident—a suddenly quickened pace, a look of confusion or discomfort, and often a cry of urusai! (Loud!) None appeared to connect the noise to the deterrents placed almost flush in the ceiling panels above.
Strange to contemplate a sound that I’ll never hear. The article links to a YouTube video of the hassha melodies, but there’s nothing about that 17 kilohertz one, unfortunately. (Or maybe there is and I just can’t hear it.)
But it’s not just the built environment that uses these behavioural tricks. The train conductors, drivers and platform attendants do too.
Why Japan’s rail workers can’t stop pointing at things
Known in Japanese as shisa kanko, pointing-and-calling works on the principle of associating one’s tasks with physical movements and vocalizations to prevent errors by “raising the consciousness levels of workers”—according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan. Rather than rely on a worker’s eyes or habit alone, each step in a given task is reinforced physically and audibly to ensure the step is both complete and accurate.
In support of Mental Health Awareness Week earlier this month, several freelance illustrators discussed their own experiences with anxiety, depression and a range of other mental health issues, with the aim of supporting and encouraging others that may be facing similar issues.
“This is, of course, nonsense. Though it’s an attitude that I see changing in the culture, it still bears repeating that developing healthy social habits is as important for a freelancer as their technique, professional practices or work ethic.”
There are links to a range of resources and suggestions, but I think the interviews with the dozen or so artists on their issues and successes is most inspiring.
Tobias Hall on how mindfulness helped with insomnia and anxiety What did you find helped your situation? “Mindfulness was and is the single biggest reason behind my recovery. It taught me a completely new way of looking at what happens in the mind. Over time I have learnt to identify the ‘my mind’ and ‘me’ as two separate things – I accept that I’m not always in control of the noise which goes on up there. I understand that behind all of that noise, my mind is only ever looking out for danger, as it’s evolved to do. And as such, it means I buy into thoughts and feelings a lot less than I did in the past. For sure, I still get caught up in negative thought and anxiety is still a part of my life, but my relationship with it has fundamentally changed and it’s no longer a big problem for me day-to-day.
Illustrator Sharmelan Murugiah on coping with depression How have these experiences stemmed from, or been tied to, the life of being a freelance illustrator? “I do feel the life of being an illustrator can be quite lonely. I am set up in a solitary home studio. I made my way into this profession via architecture and then design so I have not had those early connections with folks in the industry. The growing effect of social media on my work can also make you feel pressured. Seeing work pour out of other artists social accounts even though I know we use social media generally to present the best of ourselves online.”
“Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries,” it reads. “We are engaged on the issue and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to the EU market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism.”
The finger is pointed at the General Data Protection Regulation, which, although it is only just being enforced today, was adopted on 14 April 2016 – meaning organisations have had more than two years to prepare.
Help, my lightbulbs are dead! How GDPR became bigger than Beyonce But the potential of huge fines hasn’t been the only reason for GDPR mania. There’s also a growing market of people working in data protection and offering dubious services related to GDPR. In the UK there are more than 100 registered companies with the GDPR acronym in their titles – and the vast majority of these were formed after the regulation was approved in 2016. Their purpose? To offer advice on how companies can get their data in order and create products that can help organise information. […]
In a post on LinkedIn, George Parapadakis who formerly worked at IBM, wrote that technology wouldn’t solve GDPR issues. “The nonsense that I read on a daily basis, defies belief,” Parapadakis wrote. Turner adds: “Don’t get me wrong, we’re all in it to pay the mortgage but I think as the panic has increased, there is something of a feeding frenzy of, ‘Let’s see how much we can get before the momentum goes out of the market.’” This may have peaked when GDPR became more popular than Beyonce.
“In many cases the sender will be breaching another set of regulations, the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, which makes it an offence to email someone to ask them for consent to send them marketing by email.”
I wonder if we’ll still receive these emails after 25 May. If we do, are the companies that send them admitting they weren’t compliant initially? I’m sure the ICO won’t be too concerned, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens.
TechCrunch has news of an update to Blogger. Nothing newsworthy about the update, really. What’s catching our eye is that Blogger still exists at all.
Blogger gets a spring cleaning
It’s surprising that Blogger is still around. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Blogger site in my searches, and it sure doesn’t have a lot of mindshare. Google also has let the platform linger and hasn’t integrated it with any of its newer services. The same thing could be said for Google+, too, of course. Google cuts some services because they have no users and no traction. That could surely be said for Blogger and Google+, but here they are, still getting periodic updates.
I used to have a blog on Blogger, and prompted by this article I’ve just had a very strange stroll down memory lane to visit it, via the Internet Archive’s marvellous Wayback Machine.
I really liked the look of that old blog. Very mid-2000s. Are there no blogs that look like this anymore?
Data is such a funny word. It’s a plural, strictly. Part of me wants to use it that way, and show off, but a larger part of me always feels too self-conscious to do that. Thankfully, as Nathan Yau from FlowingData has discovered, the ‘rules’ around its use have been ‘officially’ relaxed.
Data is, sometimes If you read data as singular then write it as such. For example, we already allow singular for ‘big data’. And we should for personal data too. An easy rule would be that if it can be used as a synonym for information then it should probably be singular — and if we are using it as economic data and mean figures, then we should stick to plural.
I can’t imagine how difficult this must be to organise. Kazakhstan is changing its official alphabet — every written thing across all areas of life, work, education, commerce — from the Russian-based Cyrillic one to the Latin-based one of the West.
The cost of changing an entire country’s alphabet That the Kazakh language is currently written in Cyrillic – and the persistent use of Russian in elite circles – is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s rule, one that some of its neighbouring countries sought to shed right after the union’s collapse in 1991. Azerbaijan, for example, started introducing textbooks in Latin script the next year, while Turkmenistan followed suit in 1993. Kazakhstan is making the transition almost three decades on, in a different economic environment that makes the costs hard to predict. […]
So far, state media has reported that the government’s total budget for the seven-year transition – which has been divided into three stages – will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge ($664m). About 90% of that amount is going to education programmes the publication of textbooks for education programmes in the new Latin script, including for literature classes.
The government aims to complete the move by 2025. I’d love to revisit this story then, to see if they meet their deadline and budget.
I wonder if Kazakhstan’s new alphabet will be put to use with some of the new words this report discusses. A University of Birmingham researcher has analysed 900 million tweets from October 2013 to November 2014 from users in the USA, looking for terms that started off rare but became more popular.
Feeling litt? The five hotspots driving English forward The result was a list of 54 terms, which covered everything from sex and relationships (such as “baeless” – a synonym for single), people’s appearance (“gainz” to describe the increased muscle mass from bulking up at the gym), and technology (“celfie” – an alternative spelling of selfie). Others reflected the infiltration of Japanese culture (such as “senpai”, which means teacher or master). They also described general feelings, like “litt” (or “litty” – which means impressive or good – or affirmations such as “yaaaas” (as an alternative to yes.) Interestingly, some of these terms such as “candids” (a noun describing photos taken without the other person’s knowledge) have been around for years, but were extremely rare until seeing a sudden rise in popularity.
Because the messages were timestamped and geocoded, he could track five geographic hubs that were driving these changes and additions to the language; West Coast, Deep South, North East, Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast.
Gulf Coast The third (and final) southern region to feature in Grieve’s analysis, this hub centred around New Orleans, extending across Louisiana and into eastern and coastal Texas and along the Mississippi to Memphis. One of the region’s most noteworthy contributions – idgt (I don’t get tired) – became a catchphrase of the rapper Kevin Gates, who grew up in Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, and released a single of the same name in 2014.
Notable terms: bruuh (bro’): idgt (I don’t get tired); lordt (Oh Lord!)
A slightly tongue-in-cheek look at university parking facilities from Paul Greatrix at WonkHE.
Between the lines: the first UK HE car parking ranking There is much to get excited about in here, not just about which university has the most spaces and which is best able to meet the needs of staff and students (for car parking, not the other things Clark Kerr suggested) and how early do staff at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Guildhall School of Music and Drama have to get up to secure one of their two (2!) car parking spaces. There is much, much more to chew on.
I’m continually surprised how different HE institutions are across the land. The University of Manchester is not that much larger than the University of Leeds, yet has nearly twice as many car park spaces. Oxford has half as many as Cambridge, but a lower demand means it’s a lot easier to find a space. And I liked this comment from Mike Ratcliffe:
Of those who have both car and bike spaces, special mention needs to go to Guildhall who might only have 2 car parking spaces, but as they have 147 bike spaces their 1:73 ratio is the clear sector winner. Sadly, Bolton get to be last with 1:0.4 (526 car parking spaces, 24 bike spaces)
Zoe Williams at the Guardian tries to understand where all the anger is coming from these days. Does anger always have an economic basis? Is social media to blame? Can it be a force for good? There’s certainly a lot of it about.
Why are we living in an age of anger – is it because of the 50-year rage cycle?
There was the mean note left on the car of a disabled woman (“I witnessed you and your young able-bodied daughter … walk towards the precinct with no sign of disability”); the crazed dyspepsia of the woman whose driveway was blocked briefly by paramedics while they tried to save someone’s life. Last week, Highways England felt moved to launch a campaign against road rage, spurred by 3,446 recorded instances in a year of motorists driving straight through roadworks. Violent crime has not gone up – well, it has, but this is thought mainly to reflect better reporting practices – but violent fantasies are ablaze. Political discourse is drenched in rage. The things people want to do to Diane Abbott and Luciana Berger make my eyes pop out of my head.
I’m not really convinced by the theories that suggest these things are cyclical. The dates of these suggested 40 to 60 year ‘Kondratiev waves’ of high and low economic growth, that tie in to periods of stagnation, unrest and anger, feel a little forced. I’m going to continue to blame Trump. And social media.
Social media has given us a way to transmute that anger from the workplace – which often we do not have the power to change – to every other area of life. You can go on Mumsnet to get angry with other people’s lazy husbands and interfering mother-in-laws; Twitter to find comradeship in fury about politics and punctuation; Facebook for rage-offs about people who shouted at a baby on a train or left their dog in a hot car. These social forums “enable hysterical contagion”, says Balick, but that does not mean it is always unproductive. The example he uses of a groundswell of infectious anger that became a movement is the Arab spring, but you could point to petitions websites such as 38 Degrees and Avaaz or crowdfunded justice projects. Most broad, collaborative calls for change begin with a story that enrages people.
Valuable lessons from pointless machines Though the Cake Server relies on precision execution and basic physics and engineering principles, it’s clear from watching the behind-the-scenes video below that there is a real artistry at work, too. In comments that will sound familiar to any designer, Herscher talks about the importance of the viewer’s experience and how certain components of a Rube Goldberg help create a sense of expectation and narrative for the audience.
These machines are ingenious but, as Khoi points out, and as reiterated by Joseph in his behind-the-scenes video, a lot of the joy and humour comes from our own expectations and reactions. Like that off-screen sound at 1:15!
The Cake Server – Joseph’s Most Complex Machine Ever I hate waiting for dessert, so here’s a Rube Goldberg machine to streamline dinnertime. It lets me keep eating, with no break before cake. It’s my most complex yet and took 3 months to make so I hope you enjoy it!
In the 1970s, Dermisache invented an array of graphic languages, each with a distinct syntactic texture and a visual rhythm that inclines toward meaning, or the longing for meaning. The lines she composed in them — so purposeful, so fluid, evocative of a script in a foreign tongue or a cardiograph or birdsong notation — become a Rorschach test, beckoning the mind to wrest from them a message, a meaning, a representation of some private reality of thought and feeling.
Her work, which she created while living under the junta in Argentina, is lasting and subversive even though she barely penned a legible word…In our current environment, it is difficult to look at her work and not think about the impossibility of discourse, the primacy of self-expression, and the fallacy of a shared objective language, not to think of this art as both radically political and necessary today.–Will Fenstermaker “The Paris Review “
A great piece by Craig Mod about kottke.org, a website I’ve been following for many years now.
If kottke.org were a book
There are so few websites that have been around for twenty years. Certainly so few that are not explicitly commercial in intent, built on a singular voice and point of view. Because of that, sites like kottke.org have a special emotional resonance not often found online. For those of us who have not just used the web but built on the web for decades, a place like kottke.org becomes almost physical in its emotional resonance.
They say elephants never forget, and it seems neither do photocopiers.
In light of all the attention currently on GDPR and data protection generally, here’s an interesting article from 2010 about the dangers hiding within our photocopiers. For some time now, our digital copiers contain hard drives that store an image of everything it copies, scans or emails. That’s potentially a lot of valuable personal data that can stay on the machine long after you’ve thrown it away.
Digital photocopiers loaded with secrets It took Juntunen just 30 minutes to pull the hard drives out of the copiers. Then, using a forensic software program available for free on the Internet, he ran a scan – downloading tens of thousands of documents in less than 12 hours.
The results were stunning: from the sex crimes unit there were detailed domestic violence complaints and a list of wanted sex offenders. On a second machine from the Buffalo Police Narcotics Unit we found a list of targets in a major drug raid.
The third machine, from a New York construction company, spit out design plans for a building near Ground Zero in Manhattan; 95 pages of pay stubs with names, addresses and social security numbers; and $40,000 in copied checks.
But it wasn’t until hitting “print” on the fourth machine – from Affinity Health Plan, a New York insurance company, that we obtained the most disturbing documents: 300 pages of individual medical records. They included everything from drug prescriptions, to blood test results, to a cancer diagnosis. A potentially serious breach of federal privacy law.
Surely everyone can agree the success of the UK’s Creative Industries is something we can all be proud of. The government themselves published figures in 2016 that show they are worth £84.1 billion per year to the UK economy. And yet the foundation of that success is being put at risk.
This open letter in the Guardian from a wide range of artists — including Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Mona Hatoum and Anish Kapoor — is just the latest in a long line of complaints people have about the narrowness of the Ebacc curriculum.
British artists: Ebacc will damage creativity and self-expression We are writing to express our grave concern about the exclusion of arts and creative subjects from the new English baccalaureate, or Ebacc, for secondary school children, which we believe will seriously damage the future of many young people in this country. There is compelling evidence that the study of creative subjects is in decline in state schools and that entries to arts and creative subjects have fallen to their lowest level in a decade. Young people are being deprived of opportunities for personal development in the fields of self-expression, sociability, imagination and creativity.
The introduction of these performance measures and targets that concentrate on core subjects is having an undeniable effect on the range of subjects across our schools.
The disappearing subjects The change for non-EBacc subjects is clear, depressing and substantial. Whilst some ministers have been in denial about the impact of the EBacc the old, gnarled ex-Deputy Heads with responsibility for the curriculum, options or timetables, of which I am one, knew this data was coming.
Here, the presumptions around some subjects being easier than others are challenged.
There are concerns at primary school level, too. In another Guardian open letter, past winners of the BBC Young Musician competition are seeking improvements in music education.
Letters: restore music to our children’s lives However, despite some brilliant schemes, we are all deeply concerned that instrumental music learning is being left to decay in many British schools to the point that it could seriously damage the future of music here and jeopardise British music’s hard won worldwide reputation.
Today, we are launching a campaign for every primary school child to be taught to play an instrument, at no cost to them or their families. It is crucial to restore music’s rightful place in children’s lives, not only with all the clear social and educational benefits, but showing them the joy of making and sharing music. We are especially concerned that this should be a universal right. This is an opportunity to show the world that we care about music’s future and its beneficial impact on our children.
And here’s a call for a focus on creativity at university level.
The UK’s #1 skill should be creativity If the review is serious about the skills the country needs then a focus on creativity is essential. Skills developed in art, design, the performing arts, and humanities courses should be given the same value as those found in other disciplines – with creativity the boundary spanning concept for all subjects and disciplines.
Serious unintended consequences may result in the failure to recognise the value of the arts and humanities, and their promotion of creativity as the core skill the country needs. This goes beyond just purely monetary returns, as this number one skill will also lead to a more engaged, joyful and sustainable society.
This debate around the Ebacc’s effects on the subjects schools should be offering has been going on for years. Here is the former Conservative Education Secretary Kenneth Baker, from 2016.
Former Tory education secretary Lord Baker attacks government’s EBacc target “With hindsight, I now wish I had ended the national curriculum at 14,” Lord Baker said. “This narrow-minded view persists that ‘technical’ and ‘vocational’ forms of education are for those who fail to achieve academically; in reality, the countries with the lowest youth unemployment and the most highly skilled workforce are those where technical subjects are studied side-by-side with academic subjects.”
Meanwhile, from works of art that shouldn’t be in galleries, to those which were but are no longer.
Bad week for art world as Jeff Koons piece is smashed and imitation Happy Meal thrown away
May evidently did too much of a good job, as a cleaning crew working at the Marco Polo HongKong Hotel which hosted the Harbour Art Fair, mistook it for the real thing and threw it away. “A lot of my pieces involve very small alterations to familiar items: changes that aren’t maybe obvious at first glance,” the artist explains, adding that “initially, I didn’t find it funny at all. But later I realised it meant my imitation had been a success.”