Stop, we want to get off

Shortly before he died in 2015, Oliver Sacks wrote this slightly melancholic article about his fears for the future of a society so obsessed with “peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces”, oblivious to their surroundings.

I’m not sure why the New Yorker has published this now, four years later, but I must admit to sharing some of his concerns.

The Machine Stops, by Oliver Sacks
In his novel “Exit Ghost,” from 2007, Philip Roth speaks of how radically changed New York City appears to a reclusive writer who has been away from it for a decade. He is forced to overhear cell-phone conversations all around him, and he wonders, “What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? . . . I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”

These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing. […]

I have only to venture into the streets of my own neighborhood, the West Village, to see such Humean casualties by the thousand: younger people, for the most part, who have grown up in our social-media era, have no personal memory of how things were before, and no immunity to the seductions of digital life. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.

Out of curiosity, I took the option on the New Yorker webpage of having this article read to me. I enjoyed the irony of listening, right at the end, to an advert for an iPhone app.

Fascinating and horrifying

Thirty years after it all started, the web is a very strange place indeed.

The Communal Mind: Patricia Lockwood travels through the internet
A few years ago, when it suddenly occurred to us that the internet was a place we could never leave, I began to keep a diary of what it felt like to be there in the days of its snowy white disintegration, which felt also like the disintegration of my own mind. My interest was not academic. I did not care about the Singularity, or the rise of the machines, or the afterlife of being uploaded into the cloud. I cared about the feeling that my thoughts were being dictated. I cared about the collective head, which seemed to be running a fever. But if we managed to escape, to break out of the great skull and into the fresh air, if Twitter was shut down for crimes against humanity, what would we be losing? The bloodstream of the news, the thrilled consensus, the dance to the tune of the time. The portal that told us, each time we opened it, exactly what was happening now. It seemed fitting to write it in the third person because I no longer felt like myself. Here’s how it began.

Some parts are much worse than others. Here’s a depressing look into the world of Facebook moderators; what they go through, what they have to put up with, how they are damaged as a result. I can’t help but wonder if the ends justify the means — do we really need all this?

The Trauma Floor: The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America
Over the past three months, I interviewed a dozen current and former employees of Cognizant in Phoenix. All had signed non-disclosure agreements with Cognizant in which they pledged not to discuss their work for Facebook — or even acknowledge that Facebook is Cognizant’s client. The shroud of secrecy is meant to protect employees from users who may be angry about a content moderation decision and seek to resolve it with a known Facebook contractor. The NDAs are also meant to prevent contractors from sharing Facebook users’ personal information with the outside world, at a time of intense scrutiny over data privacy issues.

But the secrecy also insulates Cognizant and Facebook from criticism about their working conditions, moderators told me.

It’s not just a problem with Facebook, of course.

Suicide instructions spliced into kids’ cartoons on YouTube and YouTube Kids
Suicide tips stashed in otherwise benign cartoons are just the latest ghastly twist in the corruption of kids’ content on YouTube and YouTube Kids. For years, the video-sharing company has struggled with a whack-a-mole-style effort to keep a variety of disturbing and potentially scarring content out of videos targeting children.

Chocolate, but not as we know it

So it seems those strange Japanese KitKats I mentioned a while ago are on their way here…

The matcha moment: why even KitKats now taste of green tea
The chocolate coating is an Instagrammable – if lurid – lime green, with the promise of a “sweet and fragrant” flavour. Fifteen years after it went on sale in Japan to squeals of acclaim, the matcha green tea KitKat will hit UK supermarket shelves from this month as its manufacturer, Nestlé, brings the cult snack to a wider European audience – albeit with its flavour modified for our less-refined tastebuds.

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Nestlé brings green tea-flavored KitKat to Europe
“Nestlé in Japan has taken KitKat to the next level in the last two decades, with innovative flavor combinations and inspiring special editions. We are excited to bring one of the most iconic Japanese KitKat back home to Europe this year,” von Maillot said.

“The launches of KitKat Ruby and KitKat Green Tea Matcha are further proof of our commitment to our leading international confectionery brand,” he added. “We have introduced other innovative flavors and premium products to KitKat, KitKat Chunky and KitKat Senses in recent years, and there is more to come.”

Er, I can’t wait?

Web beginnings and endings

It’s hard to believe the web’s thirty years old already. It seems like it’s been around forever in the way it underpins everything we do, from TV watching to banking. But we’re still grappling with the consequences its introduction has had on our societies, and probably will for another thirty years yet.

But let’s step back a little, to how it all began.

CERN 2019 WorldWideWeb rebuild
In December 1990, an application called WorldWideWeb was developed on a NeXT machine at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) just outside of Geneva. This program – WorldWideWeb — is the antecedent of most of what we consider or know of as “the web” today.

In February 2019, in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the development of WorldWideWeb, a group of developers and designers convened at CERN to rebuild the original browser within a contemporary browser, allowing users around the world to experience the rather humble origins of this transformative technology.

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Their timeline is very interesting, too: “thirty years of influences leading up to (and the thirty years of influence leading out from) the publication of the memo that lead to the development of the first web browser.”

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But all good things come to an end, and another one of the big players from back in the day is no more.

A eulogy for AltaVista, the Google of its time
You appeared on the search engine scene in December 1995. You made us go “woah” when you arrived. You did that by indexing around 20 million web pages, at a time when indexing 2 million web pages was considered to be big.

Today, of course, pages get indexed in the billions, the tens of billions or more. But in 1995, 20 million was huge. Existing search engines like Lycos, Excite & InfoSeek (to name only a few) didn’t quite know what hit them. With so many pages, you seemed to find stuff they and others didn’t.

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Who’s next, I wonder.

Having fun, Dave?

As Brexit continues to mess things up…

The fragmentation of the big parties
One reason Brexit has proved tricky is that the party divide does not map onto views about Europe. This week 11 moderate mps, eight Labour and three Conservative, decided that they had had enough—and more may join them. Given that Parliament seats 650 mps, their resignation to create a new Independent Group might seem a minor tremor. But it matters: as a verdict on Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn; as another complication in resolving Brexit; and as a warning of an earthquake that could yet reshape Britain’s two-party system.

… let’s not forget who got us into this hole.

David Cameron checks in from Nice

So what do you think, is Brexit making things better?

Is Britain great again?

Taking his camera for a walk

You can’t beat a bit of New York street photography.

“Foot Traffic” by photographer David Nelson-Hospers
A great series from American photographer David Nelson-Hospers. Originally from Western Massachusetts, and currently residing in Brooklyn, “Foot Traffic” focuses on the flow of everyday life in New York City. Documenting the city streets and the people that crowd them he manages to highlight the social landscape and moments that are often overlooked.

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Part of me thinks it must be easier to find such captivating images in an interesting, visual place like New York compared to where I live. But a larger part of me thinks that’s just an excuse I’m making up to mask my jealousy/laziness/cowardice.

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Here comes nobody

Yesterday there were millions of us, today there’s nobody here at all.

AI fake face website launched
A software developer has created a website that generates fake faces, using artificial intelligence (AI). Thispersondoesnotexist.com generates a new lifelike image each time the page is refreshed, using technology developed by chipmaker Nvidia. Some visitors to the website say they have been amazed by the convincing nature of some of the fakes, although others are more clearly artificial.

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They look like us, and now they can write like us too.

AI text writing technology too dangerous to release, creators claim
Researchers at OpenAI say they have created an AI writer which “generates coherent paragraphs of text, achieves state-of-the-art performance on many language modeling benchmarks and performs rudimentary reading comprehension, machine translation, question answering and summarisation — all without task-specific training.”

But they are withholding it from public use “due to our concerns about malicious applications of the technology”.

Of course, it’s not just AI that’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

How to catch a catfisher
Last year, I found out someone was using my photos to catfish women. He stole dozens of my online photos – including selfies, family photos, baby photos, photos with my ex – and, pretending to be me, he would then approach women and spew a torrent of abuse at them.

It took me months to track him down, and now I’m about to call him.

Machines pretending to be people, people pretending to be other people. At least we’re truthful with ourselves, right?

Be honest, how much do you edit YOUR selfies?
“It’s time to acknowledge the damaging effects that social media has on people’s self-image,” says Rankin of the project, which is part of a wider initiative to explore the impact of imagery on our mental health.

“Social media has made everyone into their own brand. People are creating a two-dimensional version of themselves at the perfect angle, with the most flattering lighting and with any apparent ‘flaws’ removed. Mix this readily-available technology with the celebrities and influencers flaunting impossible shapes with impossible faces and we’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

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Where is everybody?

Each six months Andy Kirk of Visualising Data highlights some of the significant developments in data visualisation. It’s a great collection, but this one in particular caught my eye.

10 significant visualisation developments: July to December 2018
2. ‘Human Terrain’: A genuinely captivating project from Matt Daniels of ThePudding, ‘Human Terrain’ is a staggeringly detailed, explorable prism map of the world’s population that can trap you into browsing for far longer than you can realistically afford. It evokes memories of a classic graphic from 2006, created by Joe Lertola for Time magazine. There is also a wonderful companion piece, ‘Population Mountains‘, where Matt walks through ‘a story about how to perceive the population of cities’.

When you fly from one part of the world to another, it becomes very quickly apparent just how crowded some places must be, compared to others.

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Human Terrain: visualizing the world’s population, in 3D
Kinshasa is now bigger than Paris. Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen are forming an epic, 40 million-person super city. Over the past 30 years, the scale of population change is hard to grasp. How do you even visualize 10 million people?

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It puts those incredibly dense housing schemes in Hong Kong I mentioned earlier into context, doesn’t it?

Population growth, like charity, starts in the home, so here’s an animated chart on family sizes in the US.

How many kids we have and when we have them
The chart above shows 1,000 timelines, based on data from the National Survey of Family Growth. Each moving dot is a mother. Age is on the horizontal, and with each live birth, the dot moves down a notch. The green bubbles represent the total counts for a given age.

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It’s interesting to watch the chart populate. You’ve got to wonder about the stories behind those outliers though.

Electronic embroidery

As if computers weren’t complicated enough already.

A programmable 8-bit computer created using traditional embroidery techniques and materials
The Embroidered Computer by Irene Posch and Ebru Kurbak doesn’t look like what you might expect when you think of a computer. Instead, the work looks like an elegantly embroidered textile, complete with glass and magnetic beads and a meandering pattern of copper wire. The materials have conductive properties which are arranged in specific patterns to create electronic functions. Gold pieces on top of the magnetic beads flip depending on the program, switching sides as different signals are channeled through the embroidered work.

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See also The 200 Year Old Computer for more connections between thread and computing.

Show and tell and tell and tell

Here’s a guy who has a lot of time on his hands a thirst for knowledge.

Meet the man behind a third of what’s on Wikipedia
Steven Pruitt has made nearly 3 million edits on Wikipedia and written 35,000 original articles. It’s earned him not only accolades but almost legendary status on the internet. […]

“I think for a long time there was an attitude of, ‘That’s nice, dear. The boy’s crazy. I don’t know why he wastes his time, the boy’s crazy,'” Pruitt said of what his parents think of his volunteer gig. That may have changed when Time magazine named him one of the top 25 most influential people on the internet, alongside President Trump, J.K. Rowling and Kim Kardashian West.

I took a leaf out of Steven’s book and tried research a little wider to look for some more articles about him. Here’s one from the alumni magazine of the William & Mary University in Virginia.

Steven Pruitt ’06: Wikipedia’s most prolific editor
He began dabbling in Wikipedia when he discovered the online encyclopedia while he was attending William & Mary as an art history major. The first article he wrote was about Peter Francisco, a Portuguese-born Revolutionary War hero known as the “Virginia Giant” who was also Pruitt’s great-great-great-great- great-great grandfather on his father’s side of the family. Since that first contribution, he’s written more than 31,000 other articles — some, he acknowledges, with the aid of a template.

“He cares so intensely about the spread of knowledge,” says Bethany Brookshire ’04, a friend from college who lives in the Washington area. “The instant he learns something, he has to tell you.”

I wonder if he’s been tempted to edit his own entry on Wikipedia. The page has certainly been quite busy this month, with this fresh set of articles about him doing the rounds.

Enough is enough

The shambles that is British politics continues.

Labour MPs quit over Brexit and anti-Semitism
The seven Members of Parliament, many of them longstanding figures in the party, said variously that Labour was racist, had betrayed its working-class roots and was a threat to national security. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was not fit to become Prime Minister, they said.

One of the seven, Luciana Berger, said she had become ashamed of the party she’d served as a Member of Parliament since 2010. It had become “hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left,” she said.

Good for them. It couldn’t have been an easy decision.

I can no longer support Corbyn becoming prime minister, which is why after 22 years I’m leaving Labour – I hope you’ll join me
The party’s collective failure to take a lead and provide sufficiently strong, coherent opposition to Tory government policy on the UK’s relationship with Europe, with all the adverse implications this poses for the working people of this constituency, is a betrayal of the Labour interest and Labour’s internationalist principles. This started with the leadership’s halfhearted effort to campaign for Remain in 2016, followed by its refusal even to commit to the UK staying part of the single market and now its offer to facilitate a Tory Brexit. So many families in my constituency, like me, have relatives from EU countries and feel grossly betrayed by the party.

I support the liberal, international rules-based order underpinned by Nato, which Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin were instrumental in establishing in the wake of the Second World War. This demands the UK plays an active role on the international stage. Through its lukewarm attitude towards Nato, reluctance to act where necessary, and willingness often to accept narratives promoted by states hostile to this country, the party’s leadership has turned its back on this history.

So what happens next? Will this make a difference?

Watson tells Corbyn he must change direction to stop Labour splitting
Watson’s emotional intervention came as a number of Labour MPs were poised to follow the founders of the new Independent Group – and after reports on Monday night that some Conservatives were also ready to defect.

Saying that he sometimes “no longer recognises” his own party, Watson urged Corbyn to ensure Labour remains a broad church and reshuffle his shadow cabinet to reflect a wider balance of MPs.

Update 20/02/2019

Wait, there’s more.

MP Joan Ryan quits Labour for Independent Group
Joan Ryan has become the eighth Labour MP to quit the party in the past 48 hours, citing its tolerance of a “culture of anti-Jewish racism”. The Enfield North MP said she was “horrified, appalled and angered” by Labour’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism, saying its leadership allowed “Jews to be abused with impunity”. Ms Ryan said she did not believe Jeremy Corbyn was fit to lead the country.

Three MPs quit Tory party to join breakaway group
In the letter, the former Tory MPs said the party was “in the grip” of the DUP and the pro-Leave European Research Group over Brexit, and said there had been a “dismal failure” to stand up to them. They wrote: “We find it unconscionable that a party, once trusted on the economy, more than any other, is now recklessly marching the country to the cliff edge of no deal.”

I wonder what the Lib Dems think of all this. As the BBC notes, “the group now has more MPs in Parliament than the Democratic Unionist Party and equals the number of Liberal Democrats.” If this group of eight previously Labour MPs and three ex-Conservative MPs are forming the new centre ground, are the Lib Dems even relevant anymore?

Statistically insignificant?

One of the dangers at just looking at the numbers.

Progress 8 scores for most schools aren’t that different
There were over 300 schools with P8 scores between -0.05 and +0.05 – a difference of over 300 rank places (10% of schools) between the highest and lowest scoring of them. But what do these numbers mean?

Let’s say the score for School A was +0.05 and School B was -0.05. Taking the numbers at face value, one interpretation is that if you picked two pupils with the same KS2 attainment, the two pupils would have the same grades in seven of the subjects included in Attainment 8 but the pupil from School A would have one grade higher in one and only one subject than the pupil in School B.

Is this an educationally important difference?

It depends?

And talking of Progress 8 confidence intervals…

statistically-insignificant

xkcd: Error bars

Images of Hong Kong

I felt that last post about China was a little negative, but perhaps this one about the amazing imagery of Hong Kong might redress the balance.

Fan Ho’s street photography of 50s & 60s Hong Kong
Dubbed the “Cartier-Bresson of the East”, Fan Ho patiently waited for ‘the decisive moment’; very often a collision of the unexpected, framed against a very clever composed background of geometrical construction, patterns and texture. He often created drama and atmosphere with backlit effects or through the combination of smoke and light. His favorite locations were the streets, alleys and markets around dusk or life on the sea.

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Housing there looks a little different now, especially in Kowloon. Here’s Toby Harriman’s take on that (via Laughing Squid).

The Block Tower // Hong Kong Aerial
For years I have seen pictures of these public housing/apartment tower blocks being built and knew that they were something I wanted to see and document for myself. Rather than just creating stills from these, I went with the goal of taking abstract videos and displaying them more like art, showing off their true scale.

The Block Tower, by Toby Harriman

Interestingly, he says that “Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with an overall density of an estimated 6,300 people per square kilometer”, but there are no people to be found anywhere in the images he captures, just the occasional glimpses of laundry drying on balconies. I think the photos feel a little unreal as a result, simply too immense to get your head round.

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Crazy colour schemes, though.

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Whilst the drone footage is impressive, I think I prefer Michael Wolf’s more atmospheric interpretation, Architecture of Density, from a while back. Looks like glitch art.

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Michael Wolf photographs the architecture of density
The structural urban fabric of the city of Hong Kong is one of the most astonishingly condensed, populated and vertical in the world, propelling its edifices soaring into the sky to contend with the lack of lateral space. German photographer Michael Wolf — and current resident of the Chinese metropolis — has captured a series of images that acutely acknowledge the landscape’s overwhelming concentration of soaring buildings and skyscrapers. ‘Architecture of Density’ is a collection of large scale works, which focuses on repetition of pattern and form to cause an infinitely complex visual reaction and rediscovers the city scenes by highlighting its forest-like expanse of high rises.

It’s not just the grand scale that interests him, though.

Michael Wolf captures abstract, accidental sculptures in Hong Kong alleyways
For over 20 years Michael Wolf has been photographing Hong Kong. During that time he has captured the towering pastel facades of its high rise architecture in a vein similar to Thomas Struth or Andreas Gursky, but perhaps more interestingly he has delved into the hidden maze of the city’s back alleys. What he found and has faithfully documented, are the innumerable abstract urban still lifes seen throughout. All the city’s flotsam and jetsam, from clusters of gloves and clothes hangers, to networks of pipes and a full colour spectrum of plastic bags, are photographed in strange, but entirely happenstance arrangements.

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And check this out for an unusual point of view.

Chan Dick’s aerial photos of a Hong Kong fire station taken from a toilet window
“One day I was busy in my workshop when I heard a noise coming from the bathroom. Curious, I opened the window and looked down and saw firefighters playing volleyball,” explains Chan. “For the next month, I dedicated myself to observation and bit by bit discovered the routine of this small unusual space.”

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Better off without it?

It seems every day there’s a new delete-your-Facebook-account article doing the rounds, but what happens if you did? Would the effects on your wellbeing really be as positive as people suggest? New research would suggest the answer is yes.

What would happen if Facebook were turned off?
Those booted off enjoyed an additional hour of free time on average. They tended not to redistribute their liberated minutes to other websites and social networks, but chose instead to watch more television and spend time with friends and family. They consumed much less news, and were thus less aware of events but also less polarised in their views about them than those still on the network. Leaving Facebook boosted self-reported happiness and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.

Switched on

Here’s a poetic exploration of the humble light switch, highlighting what may be lost if everything becomes smart.

Let there be light switches – from dark living rooms to dark ecology
It means the resilient light switch, like the door handle, reveals the accumulated touch of all those gone before, a patina of presence. Juhani Pallasmaa said that the doorhandle is the handshake of the building; is the light switch the equivalent for the room? […]

Pallasmaa, in his The Eyes of the Skin, noted that touch is a key part of remembering and understanding, that “tactile sense connects us with time and tradition: through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations”. Is this reach for the switch merely functional, then? A light switch can stick around for decades, as with the doorhandle. When you touch the switch, you are subconsciously sensing the presence of others who have done so before you, and all those yet to do so. You are also directly touching infrastructure, the network of cables twisting out from our houses, from the writhing wires under our fingertips to the thicker fibres of cables, like limbs wrapped around each other, out into the countryside, into the National Grid.

If we always replace touch with voice activation, or simply by our presence entering a room, we are barely thinking or understanding, placing things out of mind. While data about those interactions exist, it is elsewhere, perceptible only to the eyes of the algorithm. We lose another element of our physicality, leaving no mark, literally. No sense of patina develops, except in invisible lines of code, datapoints feeding imperceptible learning systems of unknown provenance. As is often the case with unthinking smart systems, it is a highly individualising interface, revealing no trace of others.

I think I now need to re-read Bret Victor’s take on the future of interaction design, that I mentioned earlier.

So, farewell then, Opportunity

15 years. That’s not bad at all.

NASA’s record-setting Opportunity Rover mission on Mars comes to end
Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars – Perseverance Valley.

Nasa confirms Mars rover Opportunity is dead
“We had expected that dust falling out of the air would accumulate on the solar rays and eventually choke off power,” Callas said. “What we didn’t expect was that wind would come along periodically and blow the dust off the arrays. It allowed us to survive not just the first winter, but all the winters we experienced on Mars.”

A dust storm has killed NASA’s longest-lived Mars rover
In 2005, Opportunity overcame a sand trap and the loss of one wheel to arrive at the Victoria crater, a 2,400-foot hole that it explored for two years, finding features at its bottom again shaped by ancient water. It next explored the Endeavor crater, 13 miles away, starting in 2011. Most recently it had traversed a narrow valley leading down into the larger Endurance crater.

As this video from NASA shows, the Rover had been on an incredible trek these last 15 years.

Opportunity: NASA Rover completes Mars mission

Here’s xkcd’s surprisingly moving take on it.

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xkcd: Opportunity Rover
Thanks for bringing us along.

Absolutely.

No change

Another great find from Futility Closet.

Unquote
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” — Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, Jan. 21, 1980

I wonder why that quote, from 1980, made me think of this news item from just the other day, in 2019.

Why the attack on our cameraman was no surprise
President Trump interrupted his speech and checked that Ron was OK. But there was no condemnation. No statement that this was unacceptable. The Trump campaign issued a two-line statement on the incident, but equally did not condemn what happened. What conclusion should we draw from that? What message does it send to people who feel hostile towards the media?

That’s better

The next Marvel film is set in 1990s, and so is its promotional website.

Marvel launched a delightful, retro website to promote Captain Marvel
The result is absolutely delightful. The website taps into the nostalgia for the 1990s that we’ve seen in the film’s trailers, and features a ton of components that were mainstays of the web almost a quarter of a century ago: random animations, zany photo editing, HTML frames, brightly-colored fonts, and of course, a guestbook and hit counter.

Perfect! Now, all we need to do is switch the rest of the web back.

Selfie portraits

There’s no escaping the selfie, they’re everywhere. But have we really stopped to consider them as an art form? Here’s a critique of this new genre, with some famous and infamous examples.

Art at arm’s length: A history of the selfie
In some way, selfies reach back to the Greek theatrical idea of methexis—a group sharing wherein the speaker addresses the audience directly, much like when comic actors look at the TV camera and make a face. Finally, fascinatingly, the genre wasn’t created by artists. Selfies come from all of us; they are a folk art that is already expanding the language and lexicon of photography. Selfies are a photography of modern life—not that academics or curators are paying much attention to them. They will, though: In a hundred years, the mass of selfies will be an incredible record of the fine details of everyday life. Imagine what we could see if we had millions of these from the streets of imperial Rome.

And here’s Jason Bailey from Artnome suggesting we could see Rembrandt as the Paris Hilton of his day…

How Rembrandt and Van Gogh mastered the art of the selfie
Next time someone gives you a hard time for spending 15 minutes fussing with filters on your selfie, remind them that Rembrandt spent a full 10% of his career perfecting selfies.

Lend a hand?

I’m lucky enough to live relatively close to the wonderful Yorkshire Sculpture Park, but here’s an outdoor sculpture that’s a little further afield; in the middle of the desert in Chile, more than 45 miles from the nearest town.

Hand of the Desert rises from Chile’s Atacama desert
The lunar-esque landscape has been used by NASA for testing martian rovers, while its smooth sandy dunes draw surfers looking for a different kind of wave. By night, the sky is a kaleidoscopic wonder of constellations and attracts many a stargazer.

Driving through the desert can be disorienting, and, at first, weary travelers may mistake its most unusual monument for a mirage. It rears up from the ground as if a giant is drowning in quicksand, reaching an outstretched hand in a desperate last plea for help.

But on closer inspection, visitors will see that the “Mano del Desierto” — “Hand of the Desert” — is, in fact, very real.

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It’s not the only one Mario Irarrázabal has created.

The hand may strike a solitary figure in the desert, but actually it’s part of a pair. It’s right counterpart sits in Uruguay. Built a decade earlier, in Punta del Este near the Atlantic Sea, an identical four fingers and thumb stretch for the skies, this time rising from the beach.

That hand seems not to have climbed out as far.

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Here’s the Google map of the left hand in Chile, if you want to track it down for yourself.

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Hand of the Desert, Antofagasta Region