It’s books all the way down

Here’s another bookish sculpture to go with the others I found a while back.

Idiom installationAtlas Obscura
For bibliophiles, an infinite tower of books is a nightmare disguised as a dream—a huge collection of literature that you can’t get at because pulling a book or two out will cause the collapse of the tower. But it does make for a wonderful sight.

A real-life iteration of this dream-nightmare is on display at the Prague Municipal Library. Artist Matej Kren’s “Idiom” is a long-term art installation where hundreds of books are stacked in a cylindrical tower. Mirrors placed at the bottom and the top give the exhibit the illusion of being infinite. A tear-shaped opening on one side of the tower allows visitors to peek in and experience what it would be like to drown in a book well.

You should definitely pop into the Prague Municipal Library if you’re passing by.

Matej Kren’s ‘Idiom’Awayn
Located quite centrally, it’s a fun five minute stop to get some fresh photos and look at the book tower. Though it’s a lovely way for people to step into the building, you don’t have to go too far into it, so you don’t disturb anyone who goes for the actual library. As you come in the main entrance, it is literally in front of you; need to walk upstairs.

Here are some more photos of this little/infinitely large landmark. (via)

Notion commotion

In an effort to avoid work/procrastinate/improve my workflow, I thought I’d take a look at Notion, the online productivity/life admin/project-management app/workspace/system. I’d spotted it a while ago, but took no real notice. Time for a revisit?

The productivity app that won the pandemicDebugger
In April 2020, as many businesses were shutting down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Notion was booming. Although the expansive note-taking app had been around since 2013, the company’s founders and investors apparently understood that the way we work would suddenly see a drastic change as the coronavirus spread across the country. Notion founder and CEO Ivan Zhao raised $50 million, pushing the company’s value to $2 billion. The gamble on the part of Zhao and his investors was a good one. Notion’s user base has more than quadrupled since 2019. In August, Zhao told Protocol that each week was its biggest ever in terms of growth.

As well as supporting teams grappling with remote working during our various lockdowns, it’s helping us manage our wellbeing, as Angela Lashbrook goes on to explain.

I’m one of these anxious, depressed, low-control people, which would help explain why I’m always looking for the next solution for transforming my thoughts from a frantic pile of garbage into something resembling coherence. A 2017 dissertation by Charlotte Massey, then a graduate student in cognitive psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that when people felt sad, they created more computer folders when organizing their files than those who were in a good mood. According to Massey, research shows that a negative mood can lead people to be more analytical and systematic in their behavior, such as becoming more intently organized and oriented toward problem-solving. Because when we feel bad, we naturally look for ways to identify and fix the problem.

I think this is why productivity apps, in particular Notion, have become so popular in the past year. (Even watching other people use productivity apps has become a popular pastime for some.) A lot of us are not doing great. We are in negative mood states because we are lonely, anxious, and depressed — for obvious reasons. A spreadsheet or a to-do list or a Notion page are not going to solve the pandemic, but if we use them correctly, they can help us feel more in control of our lives.

Their website has a ton of guides, support and customer stories, but you can spend hours and hours trawling through the million Notion tutorials on YouTube. It seems especially popular with university students.

Not just students, though.

And don’t think this is just for your studies or your business — like its analogue predecessor, the Bullet Journal, this is for your whole life!

There’s no such thing as the perfect solution, though.

And so on and so on, round and round. Let’s leave the last word to Angela again, in this piece about a more familiar tool.

The next wellness trend should be Google SpreadsheetsOneZero
What a green cell communicates to Hannah, and anyone who uses a similar method of spreadsheet design, is that she kicked ass that day. She got her word count. A red cell, conversely, shows that she didn’t fulfill her end of the bargain, didn’t complete her goal, and now that long beautiful row of green will be marred by a stressful little red box. And while list-making can be beneficial on its own, utilizing a grid that can be visually marred by empty space or the wrong color is a surprisingly effective motivator.

Couldn’t agree more.

NFT could almost stand for Not The Future

Most artists are not making money off NFTs and here are some graphs to prove itKimberly Parker
These numbers do not show the democratization of wealth thanks to a technological revolution. They show an acutely minuscule number of artists making a vast amount of wealth off a small number of sales while the majority of artists are being sold a dream of immense profit that is horrifically exaggerated. Hiding this information is manipulative, predatory, and harmful, and these NFT sites have a responsibility to surface all this information transparently. Not a single one has. […]

Truly the most shocking thing about these numbers is that they look ordinary. They look just like every other market. Everything about this is run-of-the-mill, banal, predictable capitalism. That is exactly the point. Despite the promises of revolution, equality, and “lifting artists up” this technology has changed nothing: the few people at the top continue to have the greatest amount of wealth.

The cost of a single tulip bulb surged to the same price as a mansion 400 years ago: are NFTs the ‘tulipmania’ of the 21st century?The Art Newspaper
The value of an NFT work, having no physical existence, is umbilically dependent on the price of Ethereum. If Ether is on a high, then Ether art is on a high. It’s all about the digital money. “Christie’s auction wouldn’t have been a success if it hadn’t accepted Ether,” Bourron says. “That was the key.” For the moment at least, with the price of Ether having more than doubled since the beginning of the year, it is onwards and upwards for NFT art. […]

To be sure, new technology has brought us enormous benefits, but certain aspects, such as speculation in cryptocurrencies, also bring risk. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, has called Bitcoin “a bubble wrapped in techno-mysticism inside a cocoon of libertarian ideology”.

When phones were fun

Do you remember the good ol’ days before almost every mobile phone designer converged on the now ubiquitous glossy, black rectangle? No? Perhaps this new TV series might help.

Rise and fall of cell phone company Nokia will be charted in new TV seriesVariety
Rabbit Films has begun production on “Mobile 1.0” (working title), a six-part scripted drama that explores the meteoric rise of Nokia to become the world’s leading manufacturer of mobile phones before a dramatic fall from grace. […]

“Mobile 1.0” is the first account of the Finnish electronics company’s expansion from a small business into a global player in the mobile phone industry, beating huge established brands. The first season will focus on the years 1988-1990, when technology for mobile phones was in its infancy.

It’s not the first time Nokia has traded in nostalgia. Remember the relaunch of their 3310?

Those who want to reminisce a little more might be interested in these videos from Michael Fisher, aka Mr Mobile.

When phones were funYouTube Playlist
In “When Phones Were Fun,” Michael Fisher re-reviews cellphones from the golden age of mobile, the decade-long span of experimentation from the turn of the century to approximately 2009. From one-of-a-kind relics like the Samsung Matrix Phone and Motorola AURA, to mainstream smash hits like the T-Mobile Sidekick, “When Phones Were Fun” is 50% retro review, 50% mobile-tech history lesson … and 100% nostalgia comfort-food goodness!

But perhaps I should be more optimistic about current phone designers. Not all of them make glossy, black rectangles. Some are designing glossy, black rectangles that bend and swivel.

That last one is interesting, but perhaps not interesting enough? Oh well.

Is there a vaccine for ‘meh’?

This article from The New York Times has been pointed out to me several times now, it must have resonated with a large number of people. It’s certainly captured a mood I’ve been in recently, as you can probably tell by the increasingly large intervals between posts here…

There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: it’s called languishingThe New York Times
Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

It’s not just down to you-know-what, though this feeling of life being held on pause for everyone is obviously a huge part of it.

Neither depressed nor flourishing? How languishing defines modern lifeThe Guardian
Sounds to me as if there’s nothing wrong with these languishing types that isn’t wrong with the rest of us. That’s the problem – languishing may well be a great undiagnosed epidemic. Long before Covid, Keyes’s studies suggested as much as 12% of the researched population fit the criteria for languishing.

Is it a mental illness, then? No, but while the symptoms may not be clinically significant, languishing is a potential risk factor for future mental illness.

I really don’t feel that bad – just the usual sort of, you know, not good. Languishing may itself cause you to overlook the symptoms of languishing.

Don’t be misinformed

A worrying essay from Aeon on the dangers of misinformation. As we’ve seen before, it’s not just a case of finding and presenting the facts of the matter.

The misinformation virusAeon
Misinformation isn’t new, of course. … What’s different today is the speed, scope and scale of misinformation, enabled by technology. Online media has given voice to previously marginalised groups, including peddlers of untruth, and has supercharged the tools of deception at their disposal. The transmission of falsehoods now spans a viral cycle in which AI, professional trolls and our own content-sharing activities help to proliferate and amplify misleading claims. These new developments have come on the heels of rising inequality, falling civic engagement and fraying social cohesion – trends that render us more susceptible to demagoguery. Just as alarming, a growing body of research over the past decade is casting doubt on our ability – even our willingness – to resist misinformation in the face of corrective evidence. […]

I’ve wondered recently if, like school violence, misinformation is becoming part of the culture, if it persists because some of us actively partake in it, and some merely stand by and allow it to continue. If that’s the case, then perhaps we ought to worry less about fixing people’s false beliefs and focus more on shifting those social norms that make it OK to create, spread, share and tolerate misinformation.

How about this for a mad theory? Can you even imagine asking this question?

Is it true? Can COVID-19 vaccines connect me to the internet?Australian Government Department of Health
COVID-19 vaccines do not – and cannot – connect you to the internet. Some of the mRNA vaccines being developed include the use of a material called a hydrogel, which might help disperse the vaccine slowly into our cells. Bioengineers have used similar hydrogels for many years in different ways. For instance, they’ve used them to help stem cells survive after being put inside our bodies. Because of this, some people believe that hydrogels are needed for electronic implants, which can connect to the internet.

A new breed of robots?

Robots have fascinated us for years, but are we looking at them all wrong? Kate Darling, robot ethicist at MIT Media Lab, shows us a different way.

Robots are animals, not humansWIRED UK
Automation has, and will continue to have, huge impacts on labour markets – those in factories and farming are already feeling the after-shocks. There’s no question that we will continue to see industry disruptions as robotic technology develops, but in our mainstream narratives, we’re leaning too hard on the idea that robots are a one-to-one replacement for humans. Despite the AI pioneers’ original goal of recreating human intelligence, our current robots are fundamentally different. They’re not less-developed versions of us that will eventually catch up as we increase their computing power; like animals, they have a different type of intelligence entirely. […]

While there are many socioeconomic factors that influence how individual countries and societies view robots, the narrative is fluid, and our western view of robots versus humans isn’t the only one. Some of our western views can be directly attributed to our love of dystopian sci-fi. How much automation disrupts and shifts the labour market is an incredibly complicated question, but it’s striking how much of our conversations mirror speculative fiction rather than what’s currently happening on the ground, especially when our language places agency on the robots themselves, with pithy headlines like “No Jobs? Blame the Robots” instead of the more accurate “No Jobs? Blame Company Decisions Driven by Unbridled Corporate Capitalism”.

Comparing robots to animals helps us see that robots don’t necessarily replace jobs, but instead are helping us with specific tasks, like plowing fields, delivering packages by ground or air, cleaning pipes, and guarding the homestead. … [W]hen we broaden our thinking to consider what skills might complement our abilities instead of replacing them, we can better envision what’s possible with this new breed.

The New BreedPengiun
Kate Darling, a world-renowned expert in robot ethics, shows that in order to understand the new robot world, we must first move beyond the idea that this technology will be something like us. Instead, she argues, we should look to our relationship with animals. Just as we have harnessed the power of animals to aid us in war and work, so too will robots supplement – rather than replace – our own skills and abilities.

We’ve seen what happens when you add technology to animals, but this other way round sounds much more promising. One to add to the to read list.

Van Gogh, his sisters and the NFTs

I missed Van Gogh’s birthday last month, again. I meant to post these links earlier.

Warrior artistDublin Review of Books
Anyone who dips into Van Gogh’s letters will be struck by how much and how widely he read. He devoured and used books up as he did the people around him, though he never used people in a malicious way. It was just that few could match or live up to his passionate intensity. As Mariella Guzzoni, an independent scholar and art curator, writes: “It should be said . . . that though Vincent cherished books, he was not a book collector. More precisely, he was a book-user. For him, it was not important to physically possess books, but to make them his own.”

There’s more to his story than just him, though.

The woman who made Vincent van GoghThe New York Times
Twenty-one months after her marriage, Jo was alone, stunned at the fecund dose of life she had just experienced, and at what was left to her from that life: approximately 400 paintings and several hundred drawings by her brother-in-law.

The brothers’ dying so young, Vincent at 37 and Theo at 33, and without the artist having achieved renown — Theo had managed to sell only a few of his paintings — would seem to have ensured that Vincent van Gogh’s work would subsist eternally in a netherworld of obscurity. Instead, his name, art and story merged to form the basis of an industry that stormed the globe, arguably surpassing the fame of any other artist in history. That happened in large part thanks to Jo van Gogh-Bonger. She was small in stature and riddled with self-doubt, had no background in art or business and faced an art world that was a thoroughly male preserve. Her full story has only recently been uncovered. It is only now that we know how van Gogh became van Gogh.

It’s a fascinating read, his sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger was remarkable. Here’s a photo of her from around 1909.

And there were other important women in his life too.

The fascinating lives of Vincent van Gogh’s three sistersHyperallergic
Vincent van Gogh’s three sisters — Willemien (Wil), Elisabeth (Lies), and Anna van Gogh — are highlighted in the historical biography The Van Gogh Sisters by Willem-Jan Verlinden (Thames & Hudson). The book was originally published in Dutch in 2016; the English version, translated by Yvette Rosenberg and Brendan Monaghan, includes previously unpublished letters, largely the result of research completed after the Dutch version was first released.

Through letters between the siblings, we read that Lies was frustrated that women didn’t have more professional options that were socially acceptable. We learn about how Wil often copied Vincent’s drawings and was his favorite model, and that the two wrote to each other about art and literature and inquired about one another’s mental health. The book draws you in with stories about the siblings’ pursuits of jobs, love, and artistic curiosities, as well as lush portrayals of each family home.

How Van Gogh paid for his mentally ill sister’s care decades after his deathThe Guardian
Vincent van Gogh remained penniless throughout his tragic life, which ended in suicide shortly after a stay in a mental asylum. Yet two decades later, paintings he had given to his sister were sold to pay for her stay in a psychiatric hospital, commanding such high prices that the proceeds funded years of treatment, according to letters published in a new book.

Willemien, the youngest of Van Gogh’s three sisters, shared his love of art and literature and, like him, struggled with her mental health. While Van Gogh was committed to an asylum after cutting off part of his ear and giving it to a prostitute in a fit of madness, his sister was institutionalised for almost 40 years until her death in 1941.

In 1909, the oldest sister, Anna, wrote of selling a picture that he had given Willemien, enabling her to pay for medical costs: “I remember when Wil got the painting from Vincent, but what a figure! Who would have thought that Vincent would contribute to Wil’s upkeep in this way?”

Speaking of selling Van Goghs, here’s a very realistic/utterly fake portrait of him by the ‘post photographer’ Bas Uterwijk that’s for sale.

I’ve shared a link to his AI-generated portraits before, but now several are for sale as—yes, you’ve guessed it—NFTs. (He’s not the only one, of course.)

I’m still struggling with all this, to be honest. Am I right in thinking that I can spend 20 Tezos (about £100) on something that’s exactly the same as the 1620×2048 .png file I can download if I right-click on the image on the webpage?

Another new world: NFTs aren’t just for cats anymore. What do they mean for digital art?Rhizome
The NFT boom has been a kind of revelation. It should always be the case that artists can keep the wolves from the door and have their creative labors validated, even when the result is a digital file, but the market has never really supported this; the idea that it’s even possible feels revolutionary.

At the same time, the NFT backlash has been furious. Highly visible NFT evangelists make unrealistic claims to be freeing artists from the problems of institutional gatekeepers, but there are clearly still problematic dynamics of race, class, power, and gender that shape these markets too, and artists still find themselves partly reliant on social media platforms and traditional institutions to build audiences and accrue value for their work.

As we’ve already seen, none of this is straightforward.

NFTs are shaking up the art world. They may be warming the planet, tooThe New York Times
“The numbers are just crushing,” he said from his studio in Pfarrwerfen, Austria, announcing that he was canceling his plans, one of a growing number of artists who are swearing off NFTs, despite the sky-high sums some have fetched at auctions. “As much as it hurts financially and mentally, I can’t.”

It wasn’t meant to be like this, obviously. Here’s Anil Dash, the man behind the technology.

NFTs weren’t supposed to end like thisThe Atlantic
The idea behind NFTs was, and is, profound. Technology should be enabling artists to exercise control over their work, to more easily sell it, to more strongly protect against others appropriating it without permission. By devising the technology specifically for artistic use, McCoy and I hoped we might prevent it from becoming yet another method of exploiting creative professionals. But nothing went the way it was supposed to. Our dream of empowering artists hasn’t yet come true, but it has yielded a lot of commercially exploitable hype.

It seems to me that the broken art market is still far from being fixed. I wonder what the folks at Sedition make of all this.

Nothing lasts forever #2

After 25 years, the original Space Jam website has been replacedEsquire Middle East
The original website, launched in 1996, became a viral phenomenon in the early 2010s, as an internet that had evolved far past the 56k dial up modem found the site completely untouched from what it had once been. In an online world in which it often seems nothing is preserved, visiting the website felt genuinely like discovering the Tomb of Tutankhamun.

Web designer Max Böck compares the resources and loading times of the two versions. Progress?

Space JamMax Böck
Although connection speeds and devices keep getting better and better, the web is actually getting slower. We see the increasing bandwidth as an invitation to use more and more stuff in our websites. More images, more videos, more JavaScript. We just keep filling the available space, jamming up the pipes in the process so nothing actually gets faster. Well, at least the dial-up sound is gone now.

Here’s something from the Web Design Museum for those in the mood for more movie reminiscences.

Flash websites of Hollywood moviesYouTube Playlist
Via B3TA – “The Web Design museum are collecting flash intros to film websites, should you want to remember what the Memento site looked like in order to tattoo it on your leg so you never forget again.”

What’s in a name? #11

I was trying to find out His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s real surname, the one he presumably had before he got married.

Prince Philip, Duke of EdinburghWikipedia
Prince Philip (Greek: Φίλιππος, romanized: Fílippos) of Greece and Denmark was born on the dining room table in Mon Repos, a villa on the Greek island of Corfu on 10 June 1921, the only son and fifth and final child of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg. A member of the House of Glücksburg, the ruling house of Denmark, he was a prince of both Greece and Denmark by virtue of his patrilineal descent from George I of Greece and Christian IX of Denmark, and he was from birth in the line of succession to both thrones.

So he never had one, unless we call ‘of Greece and Denmark’ a surname?

Big bird’s back

Carla Rhodes takes beautiful photos of strange-looking birds in an ugly situation.

A biologist, an outlandish stork and the army of women trying to save itThe New York Times
After returning from India, I realized that my encounter with the greater adjutants had irrevocably changed me. Until then, I’d doggedly chased a career in New York City as a comedic ventriloquist while juggling mundane day jobs. Wildlife photography was relatively new to me; I had only considered it an enjoyable hobby. But suddenly I wanted to pursue conservation photography with every fiber of my being.

More Skeksis than stork, I think. But how they look is only half the story.

I quickly discovered the work of Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist who has dedicated her life to protecting greater adjutants. The founder of the Hargila Army, a local all-female, grass-roots volunteer conservation effort, Dr. Barman led her corps of women in protecting nesting sites, saving fallen baby birds and educating the Assamese community on the importance of these rare and endangered scavengers.

Needless to say, I’ve never seen anything like that round my way. Maybe I just need to keep looking.

Bird cams: A virtual window into the natural world of birdsThe Cornell Lab
Our viewers tell us that watching the cams is a life changing experience: an unprecedented learning experience that they liken to virtual field trips or field biology in their living room. We’re excited to continue sharing and learning with the community as we watch the world of birds together.

Being an artist these days

It’s a shame to see series 2 of Grayson’s Art Club over so soon. The shows are in response to our being in these lockdowns so, however much we may enjoy them, let’s hope there’s not a third series.

Grayson’s Art ClubWikipedia
I believe that art can help get us through this crisis. It can help us explore our creativity, inspire and console us, and tell us some truths about who we really are. […] Our Art Club exhibition will be a lasting artistic record of how we’ve all felt about these strange times we’ve been through together.

He’s an interesting guy, to be sure. (An alternate universe’s Tony Hart?)

Defying the norm: An interview with Grayson Perry on what it means to be an artistIt’s Nice That
That’s great that there are people using [Instagram] in that way but there was something about the blessed ignorance when I was younger. I can remember, quite a long time ago now, when the internet was first really taking off, a student came up to me and asked how I decide what to make work about. And I said, well I didn’t have one of those, pointing at her iPhone. You’ve got every image in the world in your hand, I had a tiny library and three television channels! So we made choices much more easily because the choices were limited, it forced you to get on and make your own. There’s something about the bewildering choice and the fact is that, if you have an idea now, you can Google it and someone’s done it already.

But what if?

The world seems to be full of fakes – from film stars and presidents, to academic sources and recipes. Here’s a fascinating essay from The New York Times about some manuscript pieces found near the Dead Sea in 1883, written in ancient Hebrew, that might or might not be an alternative version of the Book of Deuteronomy. They might even have belonged to Moses himself. More fakes, surely?

Is a long-dismissed forgery actually the oldest known biblical manuscript?The New York Times
“I felt like it couldn’t be a forgery,” he said. “It’s hard to put my finger on it. It just didn’t match with something I thought could be possible” for the 19th century. For starters, there were too many features that eerily lined up with discoveries and hypotheses about the Bible’s evolution that scholars would only arrive at decades later, after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” […]

Still, claiming that a notorious forgery was the only known surviving source text for the Bible is not the kind of thing a young (and, at the time, untenured) scholar stakes his career on. When Dershowitz outlined his theory to Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School and chairman of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, where he was about to begin a fellowship, the older scholar warned him off. “I said, ‘You’re crazy, I don’t want to hear it, you’re going to destroy your career, go away,’” Feldman recalled. “He would keep emailing me details, and I would reply TGTBT — too good to be true.” […]

Knowledge of the past, especially the ancient past, always rests on fragments, shaped powerfully by contingency. We are dependent not just on what happened to survive, but on who finds those traces, and when, and what happens next. The Shapira story is trailed by a tantalizing swirl of what-ifs. What if someone with a less checkered reputation had found the fragments? What if Shapira hadn’t committed suicide? What if they hadn’t been lost — or had first surfaced 80 years later, after the Dead Sea Scrolls, when scholars might have viewed them differently?

Here’s a little more background on this remarkable tale.

A biblical mystery and reporting odysseyThe New York Times
While reporting the story, I talked with a number of scholars who had previewed Mr. Dershowitz’s research at a confidential seminar two years ago, including some who were intensely skeptical (to put it mildly). But I also became intrigued by another layer of the tale. As it turned out, the mysterious Shapira had made a number of fleeting appearances in The Times over the years, starting even before the Deuteronomy affair.

I need to remind myself to revisit this when they know more — could something that claims to be so old really be genuine? I hope so.