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.

Crypto-curious

Curiosity has finally gotten the better of me. I’ve just signed up with Ziglu to buy a tiny fraction of an Ether and an absolutely miniscule fraction of a Bitcoin.

Money, done differentlyZiglu
Money doesn’t need to be confusing. Buy and sell digital currency within seconds at great rates. Send or gift both traditional and digital currency to anyone – instantly. Payments in any currency to family, friends or businesses – instantly and anywhere.

I’m not the only one a little curious.

Crypto by the county – how attitudes vary across the countryZiglu
When we commissioned a poll at the beginning of the year to get a view of attitudes towards cryptocurrency across the country, we weren’t expecting such a difference in attitudes between regions of the UK. Londoners are over four times more likely to have invested in crypto than the Scottish; the Northern Irish are 50% more curious about crypto than the East Anglians.

Brits curious yet baffled by cryptocurrencyFinextra
Of the three in ten people (31%) curious about investing in crypto, 62% have held back from buying any because they do not understand the market, while 43% say they do not know of a safe way to buy it. However, the nationally representative survey of 2,000 Brits, commissioned by money app Ziglu and conducted by OnePoll, also found that they would invest if they had a better understanding of cryptocurrencies (64%) and mainstream financial institutions start offering crypto to retail customers (36%).

CEO Mark Hipperson is the man behind Starling Bank, and is no stranger to tricky conversations with regulators and investors when starting things like this.

Ziglu wants to bring the challenger bank mindset to cryptoTech.eu
“So you’re launching a new bank that’s going to be an app only bank. Your website is not going to do any servicing, which was pretty unique at the time, it’s through this app only. You’re not going to deal with cash, you’ve got no branches, you’re not going to deal with cheques and you’ve not got billions of pounds in reserves like all the other big banks. And you think you’ve got a chance to compete in the marketplace?”

It was scepticism overcome as the app-only bank model has been normalised, he added, and people now expect that ease and usability in all their dealings with financial services.

Ok, so now what?

What can you buy with Bitcoin?The New York Times
Pornography, patio furniture and an at-home coronavirus test are among the odd assortment of goods and services people are purchasing with the cryptocurrency.

Starry bricks

Last month I shared a video of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in Second Life. Here’s news of another reimagining of that iconic painting.

A 25-year-old PhD student just convinced Lego to mass-produce Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ as an official toy kitArtnet News
The kit is the brainchild of Truman Cheng, a 25-year-old PhD student from Hong Kong, who submitted the idea to Lego Ideas, which allows fans of the colorful construction toys to share their suggestions for future Lego kits.

Vincent van Gogh: The Starry NightLEGO Ideas
Clips and brackets form the swirling cloud; plates stack to form the hillsides and bushes; curve parts build up to become the cypress tree. My favorite part is the inclined plate stack on the right, capturing the angled brush strokes within the moon-lit cloud. … I love putting the minifigure before the 3D scenery. It is like watching the artist work on the painting in real time.

Everything’s a game

Two simple but fiendish online puzzles.

Cookie Consent Speed.Run
Since GDPR came into our lives, we’ve all had to struggle with obtaining our basic privacy rights. With each cookie banner we have all been honing our skills, learning to navigate ambiguous options and distrust obvious buttons. Now is your chance to show what you have learnt.

Fontemon: World’s first video game in a font!codeRelay
You read that right! It’s a video game in a font! A font as in “Time New Roman”. The entire game is enclosed in fontemon.otf, no javascript, no html, all font.

So, farewell then, [o-O]

My knowledge of product design starts and stops with Dieter Rams. Up until recently, I had no idea who Lou Ottens was or the extent of his impact.

Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, dies aged 94The Guardian
As product development manager at Philips, Ottens twice revolutionised the world of music, but he remained modest to the end. “We were little boys who had fun playing,” he said. “We didn’t feel like we were doing anything big. It was a kind of sport.” […]

Following the war, Ottens obtained an engineering degree, and he started work at the Philips factory in Hasselt, Belgium, in 1952. Eight years later he was promoted to head of the company’s newly established product development department, and within a year he unveiled the EL 3585, Philips’s first portable tape recorder, which would go on to sell more than a million units.

This is what an EL 3585 looks like, perfect for its time.

But it was two years later that Ottens made the biggest breakthrough of his life – born out of annoyance with the clumsy and large reel-to-reel tape systems of the time. “The cassette tape was invented out of irritation about the existing tape recorder, it’s that simple,” he would later say.

I like the idea that it’s irritation and not necessity that’s the mother of invention. But as we’ve seen before, time is unstoppable, change is inevitable, people are fickle. As Things Magazine says, “How strange to have seen your invention lauded and adopted worldwide, before slowly and inexorably fading out of view, only to have a strange reemergence right at the end of your life.” At least he got to see 90.

Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, has diedNPR
The resurgence is driven by a mix of nostalgia and an appreciation for tapes’ unique status as a tangible but flexible format. For decades, music fans have used mixtapes to curate and share their favorite songs. Unsigned bands have also relied on them as a way to promote their music. Those who have used cassettes to quickly record music include the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who famously said he captured one of his band’s biggest songs in the middle of the night.

“I wrote ‘Satisfaction’ in my sleep,” Richards wrote in Life, his 2010 autobiography. Adding that he had no memory of writing the song, Richards said he woke up one morning to find that his Philips cassette recorder was at the end of its tape — apparently, he concluded, he had written something during the night. When Richards rewound the tape, he heard the song’s now-iconic guitar riff and his voice saying, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

Here’s more from the man himself.

Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape – Documentary Film Trailer (2016)YouTube
Cassette inventor Lou Ottens digs through his past to figure out why the audiotape won’t die. Rock veterans like Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore, and Ian MacKaye join a legion of young bands releasing music on tape to push Lou along on his journey to remember.

Mixtapes are wonderful things, so evocative. Can clicking on a link to a Spotify playlist come anywhere near the feeling of being handed a mixtape?

‘Mixture of Jane’s trendy records!!!’: discover readers’ cherished mixtapesThe Guardian
Following the death of Lou Ottens, creator of the cassette tape, Guardian readers share the romances, friendships and discoveries his invention generated.

Rubbish mixtape: fan reunited with cassette 25 years after losing itThe Guardian
Stella Wedell was 12 when she took the tape on a Spanish holiday to listen to songs by the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Shaggy and Bob Marley on her Walkman. Wedell, from Berlin, lost the tape either on the Costa Brava or in Mallorca and was astounded when she spotted it a quarter of a century later in an exhibition by the British artist and photographer Mandy Barker, who specialises in creating pieces out of plastic marine debris.

Pattern recognition

I enjoyed the serendipity of hearing about Adam Curtis’s new documentary series on (amongst many other things) our fascination with conspiracy theories at the same time as being sent a Kindle discount voucher for Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. I haven’t re-read that in years, perhaps now would be a perfect time.

Can’t get Adam Curtis out of my head

Heads up! A new documentary series from the BBC by the often parodied but never bettered Adam Curtis. Here’s the synopsis and creepy teaser trailer.

New six-film series from Adam CurtisBBC Media Centre
We are living through strange days. Across Britain, Europe and America societies have become split and polarised not just in politics but across the whole culture. There is anger at the inequality and the ever growing corruption – and a widespread distrust of the elites. And into this has come the pandemic that has brutally dramatised those divisions. But despite the chaos there is a paralysis – a sense that no one knows how to escape from this. This new series of films by Adam Curtis tell the story of how we got to this place. And why both those in power – and we – find it so difficult to move on.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head review – Adam Curtis’s ‘emotional history’ is dazzlingThe Guardian
Carefully curated and obliquely but impeccably soundtracked archive footage is attended by a narrative that stops every few minutes to probe further an idea, a moment, a movement or perhaps a figure who habitually flies slightly under the radar of History-with-a-capital-H. Curtis swiftly anatomises the effects of said thing or person, before returning to the main thrust – the warp across which these many many wefts are skilfully woven – so we end up with a full, rich tapestry.

The reverse Marxism of Adam Curtis’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ArtReview
Adam Curtis, the poet of the Wikipedia binge: skimming over the surface of the superstructure, sparking sudden, otherwise hidden connections into perfect, blinding clarity. Sculpting the detritus of every news cycle he’s ever been subjected to, the whole of his adult life, into a sprawling rhizomatic narrative, endlessly exploding everywhere, of how and why It’s All Gone Wrong. […]

The narrative that Curtis presents spans the whole of the globe – although it is especially focused on America, the UK, China, and Russia. Its structure often feels like that of an epic postmodern novel: to tell his story, Curtis picks out certain strange, conflicted (anti-)heroes – individuals whose successes, failures, contradictions and ambiguities mirror the more general, global forces they exist within. Among the most prominent of these, whose stories run over several episodes, are Michael de Freitas, aka Michael X – slum landlord, gangster, radical black rights activist, and murderer; Jiang Qing – wife of Chairman Mao, architect of the Cultural Revolution, and fiercely ambitious radical individualist; and Eduard Limonov – trendy Soviet émigré novelist, punkish enemy of global financial capitalism, and fascist. Along the way, Curtis introduces us to a whole host of other histories and individuals – taking in everything from the rise of conspiratorialism, the collapse of the coal mining industry, the life story of Tupac Shakur’s mother Afeni, the West German student movement, the Voynich Manuscript, and trans rights.

The poet of the Wikipedia binge, indeed.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head (TV series)Wikipedia
Like many of Curtis’s previous documentaries, it explores and links together various topics such as individualism, collectivism, conspiracy theories, national myths, American imperialism, the history of China, artificial intelligence, and the failure of technology to liberate society in the way that technological utopians once hoped it might.

Adam Curtis knows why we all keep falling for conspiracy theoriesWIRED UK
“There’s a way of thinking that the internet has pushed in people’s minds,” Curtis says. “If you notice how people now think and behave, and you could also argue, how people like me make films, it’s through a great collage of patterns of images and stories, which is very much like the way what machine learning works. You’re not looking for meaning for logical meaning any longer. You’re looking for patterns, connections, which is how conspiracy theories work.” […]

While researching the film, Curtis interviewed conspiracy theorists in Birmingham, people who believed in “one of the great dream worlds of our time,” the idea that the CIA, Walt Disney and the Illuminati brainwash and control all the major stars. He soon learned that, when pressed, these people didn’t really believe the story. They just loved its epic magical dimensions – an alternative to this “dull, desiccated, grim, utilitarian world.”

Adam Curtis interviewed by Simon Mayo and Mark KermodeYouTube
Simon Mayo & Mark Kermode talk to director Adam Curtis about his new series of documentary films, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World.

As well as being on BBC iPlayer, this new series is also on YouTube, together with many of his other films, if you want to jump further down this rabbit hole.

What is cryptoart and should I care?

If you cross Simon Stålenhag’s digital painting style with Noah Kalina’s work ethic, you might end up with Mike Winkelmann, AKA Beeple. Here’s a mention of him from 2017.

“Do androids dream of electric sheep?”: A CGI master made a new artwork every day for 10 yearsDesign You Trust
Beeple is Mike Winkelmann, a graphic designer from Appleton, Wisconsin, USA. His short films have screened at onedotzero, Prix Ars Electronica, the Sydney Biennale, Ann Arbor Film Festival and many others. … For 10 years he’s been posting a new digital illustration—ranging from the abstract to representative, sci-fi to surreal, somber to sarcastic—every 24 hours.

All that effort has paid off, after Christie’s auctioned off a digital collage of the results.

Beeple’s opusChristie’s
Minted exclusively for Christie’s, the monumental digital collage was offered as a single lot sale concurrently with First Open, and realised $69,346,250. Marking two industry firsts, Christie’s is the first major auction house to offer a purely digital work with a unique NFT (Non-fungible token) — effectively a guarantee of its authenticity — and to accept cryptocurrency, in this case Ether, in addition to standard forms of payment for the singular lot.

That’s quite a lot of money, regardless of the currency.

JPG file sells for $69 million, as ‘NFT mania’ gathers paceThe New York Times
After a flurry of more than 180 bids in the final hour, a JPG file made by Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as Beeple, was sold on Thursday by Christie’s in an online auction for $69.3 million with fees. The price was a new high for an artwork that exists only digitally, beating auction records for physical paintings by museum-valorized greats like J.M.W. Turner, Georges Seurat and Francisco Goya. Bidding at the two-week Beeple sale, consisting of just one lot, began at $100.

With seconds remaining, the work was set to sell for less than $30 million, but a last-moment cascade of bids prompted a two-minute extension of the auction and pushed the final price over $60 million. Rebecca Riegelhaupt, a Christie’s spokeswoman, said 33 active bidders had contested the work, adding that the result was the third-highest auction price achieved for a living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney.

Beeple sold an NFT for $69 millionThe Verge
The record-smashing NFT sale comes after months of increasingly valuable auctions. In October, Winkelmann sold his first series of NFTs, with a pair going for $66,666.66 each. In December, he sold a series of works for $3.5 million total. And last month, one of the NFTs that originally sold for $66,666.66 was resold for $6.6 million.

But has anyone actually looked at this collection of images? All of them? Whilst the futuristic sci-fi imagery shown above is interesting, if a little derivative, there are some major issues with the rest of it, to say the least. Let’s just say leaving off the titles of the original images was a very wise move.

I looked through all 5,000 images in Beeple’s $69 million magnum opus. What I found isn’t so prettyArtnet News
We’ve passed through a racial uprising and a reckoning with sexism, and the cultural project of the moment is… innovating new ways to worship decade-old, BroBible-level brain farts? During a time of immiseration, investors are competing to throw tens of millions of dollars… at this?

Nevertheless, here we are.

Beeple’s USD 69M NFT enters art historyCryptonews
A non-fungible token (NFT) piece of art thirteen years in the making was just sold for a whopping USD 69.35m at famous British auction house Christie’s, becoming the most expensive NFT ever sold, and positioning the author among the top three most valuable living artists. … According to Bloomberg, prior to the sale, Christie’s Noah Davis said that “there have been a handful of really dogged, really serious clients pursuing it, and they are mostly people who are very steeped in crypto.”

Very steeped in crypto? Who are these people?

Rich millennials are splashing millions on crypto artBloomberg
The decline [in art market sales due to the pandemic] would have been much worse were it not for wealthy collectors who spent more time at home and wanted to beautify their surroundings with art. It was a similar picture with virtual works. More hours glued to a screen encouraged crypto investors — flush with Bitcoin gains — to explore the nascent medium of art attached to a non-fungible token (NFT), a digital certificate of authenticity that runs on blockchain technology.

Who spends millions on NFTs? Meet Beeple’s crypto-rich early collectorsARTnews.com
The digital artist Beeple’s first major collector was Tim Kang, founder of Cue Music and an investor in cryptocurrency. Well before Beeple’s $6.6 million sale at Christie’s, Kang had broken all previous records by buying Beeple’s “MF Collection” for $777,777.77 on the non-fungible token platform Nifty Gateway in December of 2020. This sale launched Beeple from a niche artist working on the digital fringe to a force to reckon with, as the auction made clear three months later. […]

“Crypto and blockchain is more than just a stock; the underlying application is a paradigm shift. Anyone can have an opportunity to participate in a global market,” Kang said. “I have been waiting for so long for the breakthrough, for this to really impact the world beyond just cryptocurrency. Digital art is the perfect medium to communicate the underlying implications of blockchain on self-sovereignty.” NFTs demonstrate how blockchain technology can offer decentralized forms of authority: secure ownership without a gallery or foundation.

No shortage of hyperbole.

Beeple’s ‘5000 Days’ NFT sold for USD 69.35M at Christie’sDesign You Trust
“We must recognize the record-breaking sale of Beeple’s opus as what it is: a watershed moment for our industry. This sale will allow the public to see the capabilities of NFTs in the art space, however, it is just the beginning of the NFT revolution, which will ultimately change the way we live,” Justin Banon, CEO and Co-founder of Boson Protocol, the developer of a “capture resistant dCommerce ecosystem” using NFTs encoded with game theory, said in an emailed comment.

A “revolution which will ultimately change the way we live”? Goodness me. I looked up Boson Protocol, wanting to check if dCommerce was a typo. It seems not, though I’ve no idea what a decentralized, capture-resistant, autonomous commerce ecosystem that operates within a liquid digital market that unlocks two planetary-scale value pools actually is!

Decentralized forms of authority notwithstanding, theft is still theft.

Reports of stolen art on NFT marketplace raise issues for crypto collectorsHyperallergic
The blockchain has frequently been hailed as the future of art commerce, offering a way to ensure a work’s authenticity while creating an unalterable digital record of provenance on a public ledger. But recent reports of hacking on Nifty Gateway, a popular marketplace for non-fungible token (NFT) art, have raised questions about potential security flaws in the system. Several users have taken to social media in the last few days to claim they had NFTs stolen on the platform, with little recourse to get them back.

This isn’t limited to just slightly racist and homophobic digital collages, of course.

Quartz is selling the first-ever NFT news articleQuartz
Quartz is auctioning an article converted into a non-fungible token, or NFT, giving its eventual buyer unimpeachable, blockchain-verified proof of ownership. The process to do this, we found, was surprisingly easy.

Buy This NFT Column on the Blockchain!The New York Times
The first step in making my own NFT was setting up a digital “wallet” that would be used to hold my token, as well as any cryptocurrency I made from selling it. I used a browser extension called MetaMask and set up an empty wallet for Ethereum, the cryptocurrency network of choice for NFT collectors. Then I had to find a place to hold the auction. I chose an NFT marketplace called Foundation, which hosted the sale of the famous “Nyan Cat” graphic this year for nearly $600,000.

Crypto token of New York Times column sells for $560,000The New York Times
@3fmusic could not be reached as of Wednesday afternoon. The user appeared to be an avid collector of NFT artwork. In addition to the Times token, their collection on Foundation also includes such works as “The result of 2020,” an image of a sad-looking Kermit the Frog, and “Mushy’s Midafternoon Nap,” an image of a cartoon toadstool sitting on a log.

I tried getting my head around cryptocurrencies before, but I’m still none the wiser. Headlines like this don’t help.

Bitcoin’s record-breaking surge means one man ended up paying £440m for two pizzasSky News
Bitcoin’s volatility can also have consequences. Laszlo Hanyecz bought two pizzas for 10,000 BTC in 2010, back when the cryptocurrency was worth pennies. Fast forward to now, and this crypto stash is worth a staggering £440m.

One of the collectors above said that digital art is the perfect medium to communicate the underlying implications of blockchain on self-sovereignty. Everest Pipkin, digital artist and author of the following essay, would strongly disagree with that. It’s a long piece, and I’m including more than I would normally here, but I think its clarity is worth sharing. As he explains, it’s not cryptoart specifically that’s so environmentally damaging, it’s anything that’s “minted” on a cryptocurrency blockchain, be it Bitcoin, Ethereum or any other, because of a process called “proof of work”.

Here is the article you can send to people when they say “But the environmental issues with cryptoart will be solved soon, right?”Everest Pipkin
Proof of work, in essence, is a way to confirm that computational effort has been expended by “the prover” (the system doing a task). The idea was originally conceived in 1993 as a way to disincentivize things like spam or bots. Proof of work was supposed to be unnoticeable by normal human users, but would make things like the thousands of requests needed for a denial-of-service attack hard to run. It is like a little puzzle for your computer.

Fast forward to 2009, which saw proof of work (along with another technology called the blockchain, a kind of public ledger) used for a very different purpose; making the digital currency Bitcoin. This is a simplified explanation, but to make a bitcoin, Bitcoin “miners” task their specialized computers to solve those proof of work puzzles, competing with one another to validate blocks on the blockchain. A successful solution – which is somewhat rare – rewards the miner with the new coin. The more a computer “works” (the more energy is expended) the more competitive it is. You can think of it as a lottery, with every kilowatt-hour a ticket. This process is called mining.

This started innocuously enough – mining in 2009 was a background process that could run on a laptop as it idled. However, the difficultly of mining blocks in the blockchain is designed to increase over time. This is because as the network grows, the relative rate of new coins mined stays stable (for Bitcoin, about 1 block is mined every 10 minutes).

To solve the problem of more computers mining, the proof of work puzzles get harder. Miners get more computers, better GPUs. The puzzles get harder. Miners move to places with cheap electricity. The puzzles get harder. Miners retrofit warehouses, air-condition shipping containers. The puzzles get harder. Monumentally harder.

After a decade+ of a growing cryptocurrency market, what we’ve been left with is a financial network that uses more energy than Argentina, with no regulatory structure or federal oversight whatsoever.

I get that scarcity can affect prices; the more rare something is, or the harder it is to find, the more value is has — in the real world.

However, in a digital context scarcity must be constructed – there is nothing that demands the next block in the blockchain be harder to make than the last. If anything, the opposite should be true – computers grow ever more efficient and powerful. This means any scarcity is artificial, a process that demands ever more energy, ever more resources lost to continue to operate and return, for no other reason than to insure that tomorrow it will be even more expensive – which makes the wastefulness of today a good investment.

This is why cryptocurrency is valuable. There is nothing high-tech about it. There is no miracle. It is simply futures speculation without the speculation – no guessing required, because we know it will be more wasteful tomorrow; it is baked into the tech.

The whole thing makes my head swim. Here are some other attempts at explaining why blockchains and cryptocurrencies are bad ideas.

Why Bitcoin is so bad for the planetThe Guardian
In a year, bitcoin uses around the same about of electricity as the entire country of Norway. The digital currency is one that allows people to bypass banks and traditional payment methods. It is the most prominent among thousands of so-called cryptocurrencies and has been repeatedly reaching new records – but is it sustainable?

As NFT sells for $69M, artists question environmental impact of blockchainHyperallergic
As crypto-art speculation rises, however, so do the planet’s temperature and questions about the carbon footprint of NFTs. These unique works are typically sold in “drops,” timed online sales held by NiftyGateway, OpenSea, SuperRare, and Foundation, to name just a few of the most popular marketplaces. NFTs exist on the energy costly Ethereum blockchain; in layman’s terms, they are created (“minted”) based on a process known as proof-of-work (PoW), which necessitates the use of large networks of processing machines that emit CO2.

NFTs are hot. So is their effect on the Earth’s climateWIRED
The works were placed for auction on a website called Nifty Gateway, where they sold out in 10 seconds for thousands of dollars. The sale also consumed 8.7 megawatt-hours of energy, as he later learned from a website called Cryptoart.WTF. That figure was equivalent to two years of energy use in Lemercier’s studio. Since then, the art has been resold, requiring another year’s worth of energy. The tally was still climbing. The problem, as Lemercier saw it, went well beyond himself. His fellow artists were becoming millionaires overnight as the cryptoart world exploded. But so was their role in emitting carbon. Artists didn’t seem to understand the scope of this problem—Lemercier himself hadn’t—and the platforms making the sales didn’t seem interested in clarifying.

I know other areas of our online life affect the health of our physical world…

We finally know how bad for the environment your Netflix habit isWired UK
Netflix claims that one hour of streaming on its platform in 2020 [produces less CO2] than driving an average car a quarter of a mile.

… but this whole cryptoart topic seems so wasteful and unnecessary. To summarise:

Power into artthings magazine
In short. Watch more Netflix. Don’t buy, encourage, promote or celebrate cryptoart.”

Royale with cheese

I’m not a fan of soap operas and schmaltzy dramas, but it’s been hard to escape reaction to The Crown’s latest spin-off.

‘I didn’t want to be alive anymore’: Meghan Markle-Prince Harry’s revelations during Oprah interview leave internet shockedThe Indian Express
Post the broadcast of the interview, social media is abuzz with netizens reacting to the various revelations made during the interview. The hashtag #OprahMeghanHarry soon began trending on Twitter with many drawing parallels between the situation and what Princess Diana went through during her time.

This write-up from across the Irish Sea really nailed it though.

Harry and Meghan: The union of two great houses, the Windsors and the Celebrities, is completeIrish Times
Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.

Shouldn’t really be too flippant about all this, institutional bigotry is no laughing matter, but this image of the Queen caught my eye shortly after reading that.

Artist brings everyday objects to life with smartphone and no editingDesign You Trust
“I think it’s a fun way to make an ordinary situation extraordinary, to make magic by combining two different things into a whole new story. A smartphone is something we all carry all day and it allows me to take this kind of photo spontaneously on the spot whenever an idea comes. I always carry two phones to do this.”

Quite a few are from the movies …

… including Pulp Fiction …

… which brings us back to where we started — Americans and royalty.

Royale with Cheese (dialogue)Genius
As Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) drive along they discuss trivial matters regarding the little differences between Europe and America.

Musical meanderings #2

Here’s a simple idea perfectly executed. Tracklib’s Sample Breakdown video series visualises for us the art of sampling — where they’re from, and how they’re combined.

Sample Breakdowns of Kanye West, DJ Premier, Nujabes, J.Dilla, 9th Wonder & moreTracklib Blog
For his biggest hit to date, Moby reversed the order of four chords of the epic battle cry “Fight For Survival” from the 1960 film Exodus. At first, the producer/singer didn’t really think the outcome of ‘Porcelain’ was quite, well, epic, at all… “I actually had to be talked into including it,” he told Rolling Stone 10 years after its release. “When I first recorded it, I thought it was average. I didn’t like the way I produced it, I thought it sounded mushy, I thought my vocals sounded really weak. I couldn’t imagine anyone else wanting to listen to it. When the tour for Play started, ‘Porcelain’ was the song during the set where most people would get a drink.”

Years ago (ten?!) I found an online recreation of an iPod, complete with click wheel. But let’s go back further with this, an interactive turntable interface for playing music on YouTube. A Radiohead album is cued up initially, but use the link to point it wherever you like.

Needledrop: A turntable interface for music playbackThomas Park
With Needledrop, I went for the Dieter Rams school of design. It’s inspired by unapologetically skeuomorphic interfaces like Apple’s original Podcasts app, which featured a reel-to-reel tape machine. While I preferred the digitally native approach of Overcast for day-to-day use, Apple’s approach was visually striking. Podcast’s interface wasn’t just veneer; the reels would progress as the podcast did, providing a subtle visual cue alongside the progress bar. Likewise in Needledrop, the tone arm travels across the record. But Needledrop takes the interactivity one step further. Drop the needle and find your favorite track, more or less. It’s fuzzy and inexact, and emphasizes the continuous listening experience an album can be.

Here’s another way of visualising music, reminiscent of those synchronised Line Rider videos.

That’s pretty cool. But do you know what’s cooler? This.

Playing it cool: these artists make music with iceNational Geographic
Brittle bursts that mimic cymbals. Deep hollowed notes reminiscent of metal drums. These are some of the surprising sounds that Siberian percussion group Ethnobeat created from Russia’s frozen Lake Baikal in a 2012 viral video that introduced millions around the globe to ice music.

But similarly haunting melodies had been filling dark Arctic nights across Norway and Sweden for several years. In 2000 Norwegian composer and percussionist Terje Isungset performed the world’s first ice music concert inside a frozen waterfall in Lillehammer.

Six years later Isungset founded the annual Ice Music Festival Norway, drawing curious adventurers willing to brave subzero temperatures in order to experience this unique way of bonding with nature through music.

Speaking of cool …

Back to school #5

Here we are again, then. Let’s see how long it lasts this time.

Millions of children back to school in first step of ‘road map’Evening Standard
Although some scientists have raised concerns the increased levels of interaction could push the reproduction number – the R value – above 1, Mr Johnson said that more damage was being done to children by keeping them at home. He also said he believed pupils, parents and teachers were “ready” to go back, with more than 20,000 schools set to open their gates.

Jubilation and fear as English schools reopen amid continuing confusionThe Guardian
Headteachers earlier appealed to the government for greater clarity on masks to avoid conflict in school and ensure greater safety, but the children and families minister, Vicky Ford, maintained that while secondary students should be “strongly encouraged” to wear masks, their use was not mandatory.

School rapid test cannot be overruled, says ministerBBC News
It will mean a pupil who tests positive at home with a rapid on-the-spot test – known as a lateral flow test – will have to isolate on the basis of that test, but will be told to get a PCR test which is processed in a lab. If that PCR test is negative they will be released from isolation. But for those done in schools – pupils are being offered three tests in the next two weeks – it will be assumed the lateral flow test is right. A PCR test cannot overrule the lateral flow test.

Can you be fined for not sending your child to school?Gazette
Yes, the guidance states that it is now mandatory for all children and students in primary, secondary school and college from today. It means that when your school gives the go-ahead for your child to return, you have a “legal duty” to ensure this takes place unless your child has tested positive for Covid, or has to self-isolate.

When everyone else goes back, will we then be at the ‘new normal’?

What will it be like when we go back to the office?Reuters Graphics
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, what will a pandemic sabbatical do to your feelings about the office? You may miss the way you set up your cubicle, recall fondly the water cooler conversations, or can’t wait to use the office printer again. But for as long as COVID-19 remains a threat, and possibly even after most people are vaccinated, office life will be very different from what it was before the global pandemic.

To understand what that might feel like, we spoke to some experts on work and workspaces who predicted that social distancing measures and hybrid work models are here to stay. Walk through our simulations below to experience what going back to the old/new office might be like.

Take five

I think I’ve mentioned the Morning Briefing (Europe edition) newsletters from The New York Times before, but they’re a great way to start the day, I think — a wider, less inward-looking summary of current affairs. As well as the usual news roundup, a recent email included links to this marvellous series.

Hooking readers on classical music, five minutes at a timeThe New York Times
Now two and a half years and a dozen segments into the project, Mr. Woolfe said he had been surprised at readers’ appetite for the series, regardless of the theme. “It’s like, ‘OK, ‘5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Mozart’ is super appealing,’” he said. “But ‘5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Baroque Music’? Or ‘5 Minutes That Will Make You Love 21st-Century Composers’? But those both did terrifically as well.”

The name for the series came to him in the shower in 2018 as he was pondering ways he could make The Times’s classical music coverage accessible to a broader audience. “I was thinking about being at a concert or listening to a recording, and being like, ‘OMG, that note she hit!’” Mr. Woolfe said. “Then I had the idea of asking different people to pick their favorite little five-minute nuggets and presenting them like a playlist.” […]

Mr. Woolfe also credited the appeal to the series’s vibrant, eye-catching animations, like pulsating cello strings or a silhouette of Mozart caught in a colorful confetti storm. “They enhance the playfulness and accessibility of the series,” he said. Angie Wang, the freelance illustrator who creates them, said she watched videos of the musicians and noted their characteristic movements, paying particularly close attention to wrist and elbow articulation. “I wanted to render them with delicacy,” she said. “The animations are a kind of visualization for the music.”

5 minutes that will make you love MozartThe New York Times
Mark Hamill, actor I was in the first national tour of “Amadeus,” then I finished my run on Broadway. I did it for 11 months, the longest run I’ve ever had in a play. Beforehand, my wife and I went to Salzburg. You can tour Mozart’s house, and they even had a lock of his hair; it was a sort of reddish brown. That was chilling, hundreds of years later, to be so physically close to him. So much of the play is underscored with his music, which is more common to do in film. I never got tired of the sound; I could use it to inform my performance. And to underplay, because the music was doing a lot of the work. Particularly at the end, when he’s on his knees, wondering whether he’s really been so wicked. He’s so vulnerable, and his Requiem is playing.

5 minutes that will make you love the celloThe New York Times
Yo-Yo Ma, cellist Dvorak’s Cello Concerto is perhaps the most beloved work for cello and orchestra. It is an astounding piece. But as a performer, I am always looking for the preconditions of a composer’s creativity, the genealogy of a work. A very short story: In March 1894, Dvorak heard the New York Philharmonic perform his friend Victor Herbert’s new E-minor cello concerto. Afterward, Dvorak is said to have rushed backstage, telling Herbert it was “splendid, absolutely splendid.” Almost exactly a year later, Dvorak finished writing the concerto that we know so well. […]

Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer I love the cello. My brother was a concert cellist, and I wrote my “Paganini Variations” for him. Although my favorite work for the instrument is Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, the most moving musical experience I have ever had was at the BBC Proms. It was the night Mstislav Rostropovich played the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Soviet State Symphony Orchestra on the day Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. While demonstrators chanted outside the hall, Rostropovich’s tears poured down as he played this most deeply nationalistic of Dvorak’s works. The closing minutes will forever remain with me.

More creepy corporate cuteness

I didn’t realise this blandly cute, aggressively friendly, dumbed down graphic design style we see absolutely everywhere on the web has a name.

Why does every advert look the same? Blame Corporate MemphisWired UK
It’s an aesthetic that’s often referred to as ‘Corporate Memphis’, and it’s become the definitive style for big tech and small startups, relentlessly imitated and increasingly parodied. It involves the use of simple, well-bounded scenes of flat cartoon figures in action, often with a slight distortion in proportions (the most common of which being long, bendy arms) to signal that a company is fun and creative. Corporate Memphis is inoffensive and easy to pull off, and while its roots remain in tech marketing and user interface design, the trend has started to consume the visual world at large. It’s also drawing intense criticisms from those within the design world.

“It really boils my piss to be honest,” says Jack Hurley, a Leeds-based illustrator who says his main output is “daft seaside posters.” Hurley was familiar with the style from Facebook’s login page, but had started to see the illustrations, with their sensible, slightly strange characters, while walking around his neighbourhood as well. “I live in a student area and there are some real scumbag letting agents,” he says. “Suddenly they’ve got all this marketing with the bendy-arm-people.”

There’s just so much of it, as this collection curated by tech writer Claire L Evans shows.

Corporate MemphisAre.na
Tracking the illustration style of choice in our tech dystopia.

But perhaps a better name for this style is Alegria.

Facebook AlegriaBUCK
A new style guide, illustration and animation system for the entire Facebook ecosystem. There’s many imitators, but there’s only one Alegria.

This video from Solar Sands explains more.

It starts with a critique of a ludicrous food delivery advert before going into more detail about this style and where it’s come from. But stick around for examples from the 1920s of this flat geometric style done right.

The past, present and future of data analysis

Some interesting reads, courtesy of The Economist’s data analysis newsletter, Off The Charts. Let’s start with this question — are glasses-wearers really less conscientiousness than those who wear a headscarf?

Objective or Biased: On the questionable use of Artificial Intelligence for job applicationsBR24
Software programs promise to identify the personality traits of job candidates based on short videos. With the help of Artificial Intelligence (AI) they are supposed to make the selection process of candidates more objective and faster. An exclusive data analysis shows that an AI scrutinized by BR (Bavarian Broadcasting) journalists can be swayed by appearances. This might perpetuate stereotypes while potentially costing candidates the job.

Here, Stephanie Evergreen makes a solid, essential case for broadening our view of data visualisation and its history. I’ve mentioned khipus here before, but not within this context.

Decolonizing Data VizEvergreen Data
When we talked about these khipu and other forms of indigenous data visualization in a recent panel (with January O’Connor (Tlingit, Kake, Alaska), Mark Parman (Cherokee), & Nicky Bowman (Lunaape/Mohican)), someone in the audience commented, “It made me reflect on traditional Hmong clothing and how my ancestors have embroidered certain motifs on traditional clothing to communicate one’s clanship, what dialect of Hmong one spoke, marital status, everyday life, etc.” And this is one reason why it is so critically important to decolonize data visualization. When white men decide what counts (and doesn’t count) in terms of data, and what counts (and doesn’t count) as data visualization, and what counts (and doesn’t count) as data visualization history, they are actively gaslighting Black and Brown people about their legacy as data visualizers. When we shine a light on indigenous data visualization, we are intentionally saying the circle is much much wider and, as Nicky Bowman said, “There’s room for everyone in the lodge.”

After reconciling the past, let’s look to the future.

Who will shape the future of data visualization? Today’s kids!Nightingale
Graphs are everywhere. So, with the proper instruction, I’d expect today’s kids to become adults that are more proficient at visualizing and interpreting data than today’s adults. Besides parents, teachers, or friends, news organizations also play a role in shaping today’s kids. As Jon pointed out, news organizations can do a great job explaining to us how to read more advanced graphs.

On the other hand, as Sharon and Michael mentioned, because graphs are everywhere, there’s a danger for kids to start thinking that graphs are objective. So it is important for adults to start teaching kids how to think critically, to not necessarily accept the graph and the data at face value. In other words, it’s essential for kids to develop a toolbox. This is good for them and good for democracy — eventually, today’s kids will become more informed citizens.

Something I’m sure Jonathan Schwabish would agree with.

Off their rockers

The latest batch of Public Domain Review postcards arrived the other day. Mad and fab, as always.

PostcardsThe Public Domain Review
Twice a year we send out our special postcard packs — eight postcards, with a textual insert, curated around a different theme each time.

The ‘textual insert’ this time was especially loopy.

The prezent sistem, baist on the prinsipl ov yuezing no nyu caracterz or acsented leterz, iz surtinly not so elegant or so sientific az a sistem bi which sum fifteen nyu caracterz shood be aded tu the egzisting alfabet. But such an alfabet wood meen the scraping ov aul our egzisting founts ov tiep, tiep-rieterz, ets., ets., besiedz being dificult ov acwizishon for the adult jeneraishon. Thairfor such a reform iz unliecly tu cum for meny a dai, if it ever cumz at aul; and we se no reezon whi th children ov the neer fyuetyur shood not, bi a practical mezher ov simplificaishon, be releeved ov the sensles laibor which nou absorbz tu no purpos a hoel yeer ov thair short scuul lief.

From “Tu the Reeder” in the inaugaral issue of The Pioneer ov Simplified Speling (March, 1912) the flagship journal of the Simplified Speling Soesiety.

Goodness me. A bold move to change an alphabet like that (I wonder how Kazakhstan is getting on), they sound off their rocker.

Speaking of which, here’s something else from The Public Domain Review.

Postures of Transport: Sex, God, and Rocking ChairsThe Public Domain Review
What if chairs had the ability to shift our state of consciousness, transporting the imagination into distant landscapes and ecstatic experiences, both religious and erotic? In an essay about the British and American fascination with rocking chairs and upholstery springs in the 19th century, Hunter Dukes discovers how simple furniture technologies allowed armchair travelers to explore worlds beyond their own.

Rocking chairs (and seats that rocked) carried an erotic charge in the nineteenth century. For a certain type of Victorian mind, easy chairs made easy women. Polite society sat erect.

Chairs are weird, though, aren’t they?

Just a little déjà vu?

Hot on the heels of that Second Life/digital identity documentary I shared earlier is news of another documentary exploring virtual themes, but of a very different kind. Have you heard of simulation theory? It’s like Second Life, but instead of being outside looking in, we’re on the inside wanting to look out.

Are we all living in the Matrix? Behind a documentary on simulation theoryThe Guardian
Coincidences we accept as quirks of chance are just imperfections in the system we’ve been plugged in to, whatever shape it might take. We could be brains in a vat, receiving electrical stimuli through wires manipulated by scientists, or perhaps we’re nothing more than bytes of data on some intelligent being’s hard drive. Plato posited that we could be shackled in a cave, mistaking the shadows on the wall for the things casting them. From VR video games to pop culture, any number of metaphors speak to the core concept of a dimension that can be seen through by those who know how to look. In the case of the more adventurous psychonauts accepting these figurative ideas as literal fact, some even attempt to control the illusion.

What is Simulation Theory? Do we live in a simulation?Built In
New York University philosophy professor David Chalmers has described the being responsible for this hyper-realistic simulation we may or may not be in as a “programmer in the next universe up,” perhaps one we mortals might consider a god of some sort — though not necessarily in the traditional sense. “[H]e or she may just be a teenager,” Chalmers said, “hacking on a computer and running five universes in the background… But it might be someone who is nonetheless omniscient, all-knowing and all-powerful about our world.”

Yes, as conspiracy theories go, it’s pretty out there. But think of it as just another whacky creation myth. I mean, do you really understand superstring theory and quantum entanglement? Nah, me neither.