How far have we come?

I loved the nostalgic/futuristic feel of these Wonders of the World Wide Web videos from Jo Luijten. They capture the look and feel of the technology of the time perfectly. Yes, it’s ludicrous to imagine these modern-day systems running this way, but if we jump ahead 30 years from now, what will we be laughing at then?

Siri in the ’80s

WhatsApp in the ’80s

Amazon in the ’80s

 

Book cover comparisons

Further to some previous posts about book cover design, here’s a birds-eye view of a whole load of them.

11 years of top-selling book covers, arranged by visual similarity
An interactive map of over 5,000 book covers, organized by machine learning.

It’s interesting to play around with the filters, to see how samey some of the genres are. It all reminded me of those photomosaic images from the 90s.

Cut-up cameras

They may be on their way out, but film cameras are nevertheless remarkable machines. This project from Fabian Oefner shows them off in a whole new way.

Vintage cameras dissected with a saw and suspended in resin by Fabian Oefner
For his latest series titled “CutUp,” artist Fabian Oefner used a band saw to slice film and still cameras into pieces, revealing their beautiful and complex inner workings. The pieces were rearranged, reassembled, and suspended in resin in interesting configurations. Each new sculpture transforms the tools for making art into new works of art designed to be viewed from multiple angles.

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There are more images of these familiar yet previously unseen objects on his website.

CutUp – Studio Oefner
Oefner deliberately selected still and video cameras to slice apart. This is an allusion to his earlier photographic work, where the image made with the camera is the “art” and the camera itself is merely a tool. For this series, the tool is transformed into a piece of art. It is at the same time a deconstruction of the technology of image capturing, revealing the beauty underneath the surface of these objects.

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And here’s how it’s done.

Fabian Oefner – CutUp
CutUp is a series of technical objects, that are sliced, rearranged and distorted into a new form. The objects are encapsulated in resin, captured in their current state forever.

Reminds me a little of Damien Hirst’s cows.

Everything is political, nothing is neutral

Remember last year I mentioned how the Design Museum’s exhibition on political graphic design had itself become political? Those kinds of debates are still ongoing. Should museums just be preserving cultural heritage, or using their collections to promote social justice and equality? (Is it not obviously the latter?)

Are art institutions becoming too ‘ideological’? A debate breaks out at the International Council of Museums Over Politics in the galleries
What is at stake at the Kyoto meeting on September 7 is more than a battle over terminology. It reflects a debate that has been taking place for the past four decades around whether museums can ever be ideologically neutral spaces. It also reflects a desire since at least the 1980s for museums to be meeting places where ideas can be discussed, turning the museum from a traditional “temple” to a more democratic “forum.” The debate has been given added urgency as institutions in the West face increasing pressure over their colonial-era collections, sources of funding, and historic under-representation of women’s history in particular.

Beautiful physics

Another great find from Brain Pickings, the French mathematician and journalist Amédée Guillemin and his 1868 physics textbook Les phénomènes de la physique.

How nature works, in stunning psychedelic illustrations of scientific processes and phenomena from a 19th-Century French physics textbook
In consonance with the pioneering 19th-century information designer Emma Willard’s conviction that knowledge is most readily received when “addressed to the eye,” Guillemin understood that the fundamental laws of nature appear too remote and slippery to the human mind. To make them comprehensible, he had to make their elegant abstract mathematics tangible and captivating for the eye.

He had to make physics beautiful.

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I’d say he succeeded, wouldn’t you?

All the music

You might think you have pretty eclectic musical tastes, but honestly, there’s just so much music out there. We can only scratch the surface. What we need is a map of it all.

Every noise at once
Every Noise at Once is an ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analyzed for 3,385 genre-shaped distinctions by Spotify as of 2019-08-30. The calibration is fuzzy, but in general down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.

3,385 genres? I only really listen to one now, but perhaps this will encourage me to broaden my horizons again.

Dive into Every Noise at Once, a musical map of genres you didn’t know existed
“I’m continually surprised to find that no matter how obscure some niche genre seems to me at first, there always turn out to be a hundred bands doing that and three more subgenres based on even subtler distinctions,” McDonald says. “The music just doesn’t stop! And some things I had never heard of turn out to make me as happy as things I’ve loved for decades. Australian hip-hop! German oi! Liquid funk, bachata, doomcore, jazz orchestra, warm drone!”

Some genres make more of an impact than others, of course. And the same could be said of some of the albums within those genres. Like this one, for instance.

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue at 60: A new video essay celebrates the 60th anniversary of the iconic album
With the company of other legendary musicians, like John Coltrane and Bill Evans, Kind of Blue was recorded; the greatest selling jazz album of all time. Miles chose to take an interpretive dance approach to improvisation, developing ideas and using space to create his unique style. This new style of modal jazz pushed musicians to express themselves through melodic creativity.

Kind of Blue 60th anniversay

Or try this version.

Kind of Bloop
Kind of Bloop is a chiptune tribute to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, a track-by-track 8-bit reinterpretation of the bestselling jazz album of all time.

Piano guys

A couple of fun musical performances that caught my eye recently.

World piano playing record broken by 88 schoolchildren
The team created an enormous, multi-stringed instrument which allowed 88 children, aged six to 14 years old, to play at the same time. The record previously stood at 21 pianists.

The project began in 2018 when engineers from University of Cambridge decided to try and break that record, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci.

So much invention within each individual key. Here’s the fuller video.

88 pianists on one piano

And from the very large to the very small.

One of the world’s greatest pianists came to Classic FM, so we made him play our silly, pink toy piano
He’s one of the world’s finest keyboard virtuosos – and he composes, paints, writes and is brilliant on Twitter – a true Renaissance man. But can Stephen Hough master our pink piano? We wanted to find out.

A history of urban futures

How about this for an unsettling glimpse into the future?

Hyper-reality
Hyper-Reality presents a provocative and kaleidoscopic new vision of the future, where physical and virtual realities have merged, and the city is saturated in media.

It serves as the introduction to this fantastic overview of augmented reality in urban environments.

City Skins: Scenes from an augmented urban reality
In one scene, the film’s protagonist-user (“Juliana”), becomes confused, even anxious, by a technical glitch which forces a reboot of her device while shopping for food, showing the viewer a brief glimpse of a un-augmented and totally featureless supermarket, clearly designed for the express purpose of accommodating a digital overlay. Matsuda’s film ultimately suggests that augmented reality may become so commonplace as to be essential to making sense of the world.

However futuristic it may seem, location-based augmented reality (virtual reality’s more successful but less hyped cousin) has been around for a while.

Growing interest in location-based AR projects, beginning in the late 1990s, can be in part attributed to the confluence of art and networking technologies which emerged out of the gradual popularization of the Internet and the influence of “net art.” Net art, according to critic Josephine Bosma, has often concerned itself with “the public domain as a virtual, mediated space consisting of both material and immaterial matter,” indicating a conceptual and ethical foundation for augmented reality’s radical leap from the space of the screen to a “hybrid space” mixing real and virtual elements.

Near the tail end of the 20th century, pseudonymous author and technologist Ben Russell released The Headmap Manifesto — a utopian vision of augmented reality referencing Australian aboriginal songlines and occult tomes, while pulling heavily from cybernetic theory and the Temporary Autonomous Zones of Hakim Bey. At turns both wildly hypothetical and eerily prescient, Headmap explores in-depth the implications of “location-aware” augmented reality as a kind of “parasitic architecture” affording ordinary people the chance to annotate and re-interpret their environment.

That might sound too abstract and theoretical, but here’s an example of a very real-world, poignant use of AR.

Following the release of the first iPhone and advancements in mobile phone cameras and processing power, AR began to move toward the more visually-dominant experiences we are familiar with today — in the process also opening up possibilities for more explicitly political projects. The group 4 Gentlemen, for instance, embraced AR as a tool for criticizing oppressive government policies in China. A collective of exiled Chinese artists and one American artist, 4 Gentlemen (taking their name from a group of intellectual dissidents central to the Tiananmen Student Protest in 1989) developed a series of works that digitally recreated in situ both the famous “Tank Man” image and the “Goddess of Democracy” statue — two symbols of the Tiananmen protest which have defined the struggle for democracy and human rights in China since.

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A life in print

Last year, Facebook gave us the option to download all our data. Katie Day Good, an avid Facebook user since the early days, took them up on the offer and, perhaps because of her former interest in scrapbooking, decided to print it all out…

Why I printed my Facebook
Other files were less amusing. “Advertisers Who Uploaded a Contact List With Your Information” was a 116-page roster of companies, most of which I had never heard of, that have used my data to try to sell me things. The document called “Facial Recognition Code” was disturbingly brief and indecipherable, translating my face into a solid block of jumbled text—a code that only Facebook’s proprietary technology can unlock—about 15 rows deep. Some documents held secrets, too. “Search History” revealed an embarrassingly detailed record of my personal obsessions and preoccupations over the years. Crushes, phobias, people I have argued with and envied―this was the information I never wanted to post on Facebook, but instead had asked Facebook to help me find. This information, along with the facial recognition codes of my children (which were not included in the .zip file, but which I assume Facebook owns), is the data I most wish I could scrub from the servers of the world.

All told, my Facebook archive was 10,057 pages long.

What to do with helicopter parents?

I’ve worked in a number of universities and know that it’s not easy being a university student; lots to worry about. And I know it’s not easy being the parent of a university student; lots to worry about. I’ve been the former, and in a year’s time, if all goes well, I’ll be the latter.

In this article for WonkHE, Alan Sutherland from Surrey SU considers the problems universities and parents have with each other’s expectations, and a possible way forward.

Parents are at the sharp end of marketisation
The 2019 UCAS application cycle is almost complete, and at the time of writing almost half a million undergraduates will be starting at a UK university in a few weeks time.

What part, however, are parents allowed and expected to play in the next few years? After a harrowing experience with a gaggle of angry parents, I thought it wise to take a closer look at the parental experience.

Collapsing time, increasing order

What do you get if you cross the patient fastidiousness of Pelle Cass with the diligent meticulousness of Ursus Wehrli? This guy.

Cy Kuckenbaker’s time collapse videos let you see daily life as you’ve never seen it before
His “time collapse” videos stemmed from a desire to get to know the city in which he lives with the same vigor he brought to bear as a Peace Corps volunteer in his 20s, exploring Iraq, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

This impulse might lead others to join a club, take a class, or check out restaurants in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

For Kuckenbaker, it means setting up his camera for a fixed shot, uncertain if his experiment will even work, then spending hours and hours in the editing room, removing the time between events without altering the speed of his subjects.

Midday Traffic Time Collapsed and Reorganized by Color: San Diego Study #3

They’re doing their best

People are getting a little twitchy about GCSE results day tomorrow, I think.

Poorer pupils twice as likely to fail key GCSEs
Russell Hobby, the chief executive of the education charity Teach First, which carried out the research, said: “A child’s postcode should never determine how well they do at school, yet today we’ve found huge disparities based on just that. Low attainment at GCSE is a real cause for concern as it can shut doors to future success and holds young people back from meeting their aspirations.”

Pupils ‘refusing to sit GCSE exams in new tougher format’
“Making exams harder doesn’t make kids smarter or more employable. It does make them more stressed, anxious and depressed – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds,” one senior teacher told ASCL.

Another said it was “soul-destroying” to see well-prepared students struggle to cope: “The difficulty of reformed GCSEs places undue stresses upon students and staff. The sheer volume of examinations in such a short space of time leads to tired and weary students.”

GCSE results: further decline in arts and technical subjects
This is a story echoed elsewhere, in the decline in arts GCSE and A-levels and the steady but steep decline in BTEC vocationally related qualifications. And it seems to blame for these changes is the arrival of the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) – a set of subjects at GCSE that are said to keep “young people’s options open for further study and future careers” – but which appears to do the opposite.

A big hand

Remember Mario Irarrázabal? Well, he’s not the only one with big hands.

New Zealand’s giant hand sculpture is the stuff of nightmares
You’ve got to hand it to New Zealand artist Ronnie van Hout. His public sculpture Quasi is part self-portrait, part oversized Thing from The Addams Family, and completely terrifying. Perched atop City Gallery Wellington in the Kiwi capital, the 16-foot-tall hand-face statue looks like something out of Salvador Dalí’s nightmares.

It’s the strangest self-portrait I’ve seen in a while.

Ronnie van Hout: Quasi
His work explores the freak, the outsider, the reject. His public sculpture Quasi is a partial self-portrait. The giant hybrid face-hand is based on scans of the artist’s own body parts. It’s as if ‘the hand of the artist’ has developed a monstrous life of its own.

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Are we all under surveillance?

We’re used to seeing CCTV cameras absolutely everywhere in this country, but this creepy introduction of facial-recognition technology is something I thought only happens in places like authoritarian China.

‘Deeply concerned’ UK privacy watchdog thrusts probe into King’s Cross face-recognizing snoop cam brouhaha
It emerged earlier this week that hundreds of thousands of Britons passing through the 67-acre area were being secretly spied on by face-recognizing systems. King’s Cross includes Google’s UK HQ, Central Saint Martins college, shops and schools, as well as the bustling eponymous railway station.

“I remain deeply concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, not only by law enforcement agencies but also increasingly by the private sector,” said Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham in a statement on Thursday.

“We have launched an investigation following concerns reported in the media regarding the use of live facial recognition in the King’s Cross area of central London, which thousands of people pass through every day.”

So, not only is GDPR’s notion of consent being ignored in our online life, but we are being tracked without our consent outside in the real world, too.

It’s good to see some people are fighting back.

Adversarial fashion designed to trick automated license plate readers
When hacker and fashion designer Kate Rose learned – through a conversation with Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation – that the plate readers kind of suck at their jobs, she got an idea. Her new line “Adversarial Fashion” is the result. Unveiled at the DefCon cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas last week, the garments spell out the words of the fourth amendment of the US constitution, which protects Americans from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

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That dystopian future creeps nearer every day. And here’s more evidence that “Years and Years” will end up being a fact-based documentary rather than a far-fetched satire.

Robotic contact lens that allows users to zoom in by blinking eyes revealed by scientists
The lens is made from polymers that expand when electric current is applied. It is controlled using five electrodes surrounding the eye which act like muscles. When the polymer becomes more convex the lens effectively zooms in.

Scientists hope one day this could help create a prosthetic eye or a camera that can be controlled using eyes alone.

The thrill of seeing

We take so much for granted these days, screens are everywhere, moving images are all around us. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like before this deluge.

Our ideas about what early movies looked like are all wrong
During the first film screenings in the 1890s, viewers marvelled at moving images that had an unprecedented power to transport them to faraway places in an instant. At first, these shorts – which included glimpses of everything from Niagara Falls to elephants in India – had no narrative structure. Audiences flocked to theatres simply for the novel experience of seeing people and places, some familiar and others deeply strange, rendered lifelike and immediate before their eyes. And, as the film curator Dave Kehr explains in this video from New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the images were hardly the grainy and frantically paced footage that has become synonymous with ‘old film’ today. Rather, viewed in their original form on large screens and prior to decades of degradation, these movies were vivid and realistic. In particular, early 68mm film, which was less practical than 35mm film and thus used less frequently, delivered startlingly lifelike impressions of distant realities to early moviegoers.

The IMAX of the 1890s – how to see the first movies

It’s quite arrogant of us to dismiss those early films as merely a stepping stone to our superior technologies today. You could argue that, given the quality of these new versions and the freshness of those first audiences, these movies made more of an impact than what we see today.

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And perhaps the same can apply to television a few decades later.

I love the idea of fake aerials. Of course, you can take a love of television too far.

Someone left old TVs outside 50 homes in Virginia while wearing a TV on his head. No one knows why.
“Everyone started coming out of their houses, walking around the neighborhood looking at the TVs there on the doorstep,” said Jeanne Brooksbank, one of the recipients, who lives in the Hampshire neighborhood. “It was very ‘Twilight Zone.’ ”

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Not even banks are safe

How many more of these stories will we read? Is someone keeping a list?

PIN the blame on us, says Monzo in mondo security blunder: Bank card codes stored in log files as plain text
Trendy online-only Brit bank Monzo is telling hundreds of thousands of its customers to pick a new PIN – after it discovered it was storing their codes effectively as plain-text in log files. As a result, 480,000 folks, a fifth of the bank’s customers, now have to go to a cash machine, and reset their PINs.

Major breach found in biometrics system used by banks, UK police and defence firms
The fingerprints of over 1 million people, as well as facial recognition information, unencrypted usernames and passwords, and personal information of employees, was discovered on a publicly accessible database for a company used by the likes of the UK Metropolitan police, defence contractors and banks.

Mechanical, musical marvels

I’m not sure how I’ve failed to share Wintergatan’s Marble Machine video before now. It’s from a few years ago, but I still come back to it and am just as blown away as I was the first time I saw it.

Wintergatan – Marble Machine

It’s just (just??) a large music box, really, but it made quite an impression, to say the least. And as technically astounding as that is, a new-and-improved version is being built, and musician/designer/engineer Martin Molin has been sharing the journey in some detail. It looks and sounds incredible.

Marble Machine X plays drums

As well as showing us his own work, Martin has filmed his favourite music machines from the Speelklok Museum in Utrecht, in the Netherlands. They’re just as bizarre.

100 year old self-playing violin – “The Eighth Wonder of the World”
This amazing instrument is The Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina – an Orchestrion with self-playing Violins, Enjoy!

Domtoren Clock Tower plays the Marble Machine song
Malgosia Fiebig surprised me completely by playing the Marble Machine song on the Carillion of the Domtoren clock tower for the whole city of Utrecht!

It’s crazy to think that that 900 year old tower, all 112.5 metres of it, is one instrument.

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Have you heard the one about… ?

So today was national Tell A Joke Day, apparently.

I’m Sorry I’ve Written A Joke
What’s the difference between USA and USB? One has a white lead and never seems to be the correct way round, the other is an industry standard for cables.

What do you call a big reptile that gets someone else to bite you? A deligator.

Although a transvestite friend of mine lives in Greater Manchester, he also has a Wigan address.

My scouse uncle does greengrocery deliveries in Shoreditch. He doesn’t have a van. He does avocado.

Groan!

A dazzling early-morning commute

Certainly more vibrant and kaleidoscopic than my sleepy 98 bus.

D A Pennebaker transformed documentary filmmaking. This is his first film
With its frenetic pace, early morning hues, avant-garde touches, and playful use of shapes and patterns, Pennebaker’s first short, Daybreak Express (1953), made for a precocious debut. The sounds of an eponymous Duke Ellington composition form the film’s clattering backbone, as Pennebaker crafts an urban mosaic from Manhattan’s soon-to-be demolished Third Avenue elevated train line. While more experimental than much of the work he would be celebrated for later, Pennebaker’s career-long knack for kinetic editing, adventurous storytelling and skilfully marrying music and images still permeates nearly every frame.

Daybreak Express

The result you were after?

Another year, another A-level results day, another set of the usual stories in the media. This one caught my eye, though, about Labour’s plans to change the university application process timeline, removing the need for predicted grades.

A-level results: a minority of students achieve predicted marks, so yes the system should be reformed
It’s generally accepted that going to university plays a significant part in shaping lives, and the skills gained there help to sustain a thriving society. So it seems odd that at the heart of this process is guesswork – with the bulk of university offers based on predicted grades.

Indeed, Labour has announced plans to replace offers based on predicted grades with a new “fairer” system of post-qualification admissions. Under Labour’s plans, students would apply for their higher education place after receiving their results instead of the current system of predicted grades – which the party says penalises disadvantaged students and those from minority backgrounds.

My first reaction with these kinds of plans is to almost faint at the thought of the upheaval everyone would have to go through. Hundreds of universities, thousands of schools, millions of students. Would there have to be a pilot implementation with just a few schools? Or just a few universities? How would that work? Would that create a two-tier system? Could it really all be turned around in such a short timeframe? What if it all went wrong?

But then, if other countries can do it, why can’t we?

All of which makes Labour’s most recent suggestions of reforming the system a step in the right direction. Indeed, a 2019 report from The University and College Union revealed that post-qualification admissions were the global norm, and that countries the UK often benchmarks against – such as Germany, Singapore, Australia and the US – all use this system.

The OECD’s top five countries with the highest performing graduates also use post-qualification admissions – so it’s possible that students in those countries are being better matched to institutions and thriving accordingly.